Cries of the Planet

Volume 1

INTO THE METROPOLIS

Part 1

A FLOATING CITY

Just as he reached the door, Tifa whispered, "You forgot the promise, too."

He slowly turned around, a puzzled look on his tired face. "Promise?"

"So you did forget. . ."

1. The Opening Bombing Mission

1

It was a dark and starless night in Midgar, the largest city on the Planet. The eight reactors that surrounded the city coughed out large clouds of smoke that erratically swirled up towards the obsidian-black sky above. Beyond the sky of the Planet there was the even greater darkness of space, a mysterious and unexplored dimension that housed powers that could doom as well as save the Planet and its inhabitants.

But who would want to save a doomed species like humans anyways?

Shaking these morbid thoughts from his throbbing head, Cloud Strife looked around the dim, obscure train car at his company. He was the only outsider of the group, a lone mercenary ready to do anything that would guarantee him the steep price he had demanded while signing up for the perilous mission ahead of him.

Cloud sat still and observed the others, deciphering everything he needed to know by the posture, expressions, and other such nuances of the rebel team.

They were motionless, yet calm. Quiet, yet determined. Anxious – prepared – stoic - and didn't appear to be the least bit frightened about the overwhelming mission that was only minutes away from them.

This was the team known as AVALANCHE. Loved by some, hated by many, many more. They were the 'Protectors of the Planet', as Cloud quickly learned from their hulking leader. Cloud might not have been able to count on his fingers how many times this awe-inspiring concept had been vigorously explained to him.

The blistering sun was way beyond the murky Cardian Mountains that Cloud could see every time that the train trudged through the southeastern section of the spherical metropolis.

He knew what was beyond those mountains; in fact, he knew many of the places spread out across the colossal - although certainly not measureless - Planet that he lived on. He also knew that many of those towns and cities were better places to be than this immoral city.

Everything started to shatter . . . right . . . here . . . he thought, looking at the towering structures, remembering the beginning of what had almost led to his inevitable end.

He turned away and closed his eyes, trying to will the pain in his head to subside for just a moment or two.

After a shallow breath he glanced down at the bruises and cuts on his arms, no longer fresh, but still at that painfully irritating stage of the healing process.

He couldn't quite remember how he had gotten these newest of injuries, but with the life he lived it didn't surprise him that they were there. In his twenty one short years of life he had done a lot of fighting, in a lot of different places.

Currently he was on the easternmost continent of the Planet, on a train that was going fast enough to produce that unfunny feeling in his stomach. The spiraling motion was doing a superb job of aggravating the ache within his head as well.

Focus . . . focus, Cloud thought when he realized he had been letting his weary mind drift for too long. This was a life or death sort of mission he was on. He needed to be alert.

The train circled around the vast city, climbing higher and higher by the second, taking the team up to the floor of the city, known to the Midgar citizens as the 'plate'.

The mercenary felt the intense warmth of the slums beneath the plate slowly fading away as they climbed. This wasn't an enjoyably tropical warmth, like the weather you'd find down south in a place like Mideel. It was a hazardous, pollution-filled heat. A heat that grabbed a vice-like hold onto your lungs.

As the piles of garbage disappeared and the giant towers and buildings of the city came into view he thought again about why he was here with this rebel group.

The main reason was that he was broke. Easy enough to figure out.

He allowed himself a soundless chuckle at the thought. Growing up in the upper-middle class town of Nibelheim he had always had money.

Yet now . . . broke.

And not the kind of broke that leaves you with some or even a little gil, but the kind of broke that leaves you with none at all.

From riches to rags, he thought, again allowing a silent snigger to escape. It sounded like the tagline of some cheesy play that would be shown in the seedier parts of the towering city he was about to enter.

So yes, money, that was the main reason he was here. He had no gil and the leader of AVALANCHE agreed that he would pay him if they succeeded in the mission. Cloud had asked for a fair sum of money too, but then again it wasn't your typical walk-in-the-park sort of mission.

He cursed himself for having to depend on someone other than himself for the time period. But that was the hardship of living the life of a mercenary.

Besides . . . he was doing this for her as well, because she had asked him and he had always found it so hard to say 'no' to her.

Tifa.

When he pictured her face inside of his head the constant throb he'd been enduring ceased. This reprieve was short-lived however, as the pulse came galloping back as the train took a sharp turn.

Cloud covered his hand to his mouth and coughed. He had forgotten what it felt like to breathe in Midgar, although the air up here was preferable to the air below.

And it wasn't just the air that you were forced to endure; it was every factor of existence. It was the pollution rapidly making its way into your lungs, the smog and dust of the Mako reactors stinging your eyes, tickling your nose, the sound of the crowds and the traffic filling your ears with such an intense volume of noise that you felt you would go deaf before your body adjusted. It was madness, structure and chaos meeting at the same intersection.

He hadn't been here since he was fourteen. Now, seven years later, he was fully grown at a slightly above-average height, a head taller than the Cloud of the past. He was skinny, but in a well-built sort of way. His dirty blonde hair was untamable and usually ended up looking rather spiky, which was okay, for it looked good on him. His complexion as of now was fair, but he seemed to remember himself getting tan during the warmer summer months.

Trying to think of a time when he'd been out in the sun just for the hell of it sent his head spinning in different directions.

Shaking his head he looked down at himself. He wore his old SOLDIER uniform and a pair of black boots, for they were the only items of clothing that he had. On his back he carried a massive Buster sword, a weapon he was well-trained with. The blade was extra wide, perfect for maximum damage.

Cloud's eyes were his most enigmatic yet stunning feature. He captured everyone's attention with those blue-green eyes, which glowed endlessly whenever they were uncovered by his eyelids.

The train's speed started to give away, indicating to everyone that it was almost time for action.

Although vaguely clued in about what his part would be, Cloud knew that the mission must have been vitally important to this rebel group. Anyone to go against the Shinra nowadays was either an extremist with a really precise, triple-checked plan, or the exact opposite: a fool with a death wish.

Having once worked for Shinra, Cloud knew that this mission wasn't going to be clear-cut. Going up against the largest company - in fact, the only major company - on the Planet would not be an effortless task.

The reasons why did not concern him though. This was for gil. This was for her.

As the train came to a complete stop at the station, smoke billowing out from the brakes, the leader of the group silently started directing the members to the door. He did this with a simple waving of his large, brown finger.

A streetlight outside of the window blazed noticeably brighter than the broken down streetlights Cloud had seen below in the slums. Its yellowish shine tore a circle of light into the shadowy ground outside of the train.

Cloud took a quick look at the team that he was going to be working with, perhaps dying with. He hadn't bothered taking time to learn their names; he hadn't really even talked to any of them except for their fearless leader, Barret Wallace.

This was a man to be reckoned with. Barret had dark skin, which Cloud had seen before but mostly back on the western continent, and looked to be in his mid-thirties. He still had the body and muscle structure of a young body-builder, his veins always showing, his tight shirts always on the verge of ripping open. If anyone was going to put up a good fight against the dominating force that was Shinra Inc., it was going to be him. His dark hair and even darker eyes, along with his snarled, black beard gave him a mean and gritty look.

But this was not the main reason Cloud believed that Barret would put up a good fight against the Shinra. It also was not even the fact that Barret was an immense six foot six inches in height.

His massiveness sure will help though.

What convinced Cloud that this huge, brown man could fight the Shinra and have a realistic chance at surviving was the dedication his team showed him - along with the strange and peculiar fact that this man did not have a right arm. What replaced the arm was a large machine gun with ample space for storing ammunition.

This gun was not just sitting over his missing appendage; it was replacing it, completely grafted into what was left of Barret's muscular upper arm.

Cloud didn't ask the AVALANCHE leader how he had lost his arm; it didn't seem like the sort of thing you asked someone like Barret. As beneficial as the gunarm was he supposed he truly didn't care anyways. He wasn't here to make friends or to swap stories.

The other three looked to be in their early twenties, around the same age as Cloud. They were also not as tall or as strong as Barret, but they each looked like they had a fighting edge to them.

They were lined up exactly how Barret had instructed them, and in a tense time like the situation that they were now in, that showed loyalty to their leader. None looked the least bit panicked or even distraught over the fact that a five-piece rebel group was going to be assaulting a twenty thousand man army.

Perhaps it was because of the strategic planning Barret had done that they weren't as scared as they should have been. Or maybe it was because they knew about the new recruit, Cloud Strife. Barret may have informed them that Cloud was a former employee of Shinra, and that he was formerly a First Class fighter in Shinra's elite military force known as SOLDIER, something that only the best-of-the-best could achieve.

But perhaps not, perhaps they were all just foolish and death would be greeting each of them in mere seconds. Either way, the time was now.

2

Barret Wallace could see how badly he scared the puny newcomer when the train stopped and he hollered, "MOVE!"

Soon he was watching Biggs break down the door while Wedge jumped through it. Jessie quickly followed, although she appeared to have a split second of regret before she jumped as well.

Barret made a mental note of this, and then grabbed Cloud and threw him out before Biggs and himself jumped out as well.

The only light was the hazy, yellow glow coming from the streetlight. It was colder here in the city than it was in the slums but certainly not chilly. The silence they had sat through on the train was now long gone, perhaps never to return if everything tonight went as planned.

He watched Cloud get to his feet and then looked to his right just in time to see Jessie take down a security guard in one hit, crushing his face with her fist. To his left another guard approached him but was also quickly taken down by Wedge.

Then the fun began.

A foolish Shinra guard tried to tackle him from behind. Barret would have pitied him, but decided it was more appropriate to just shatter the man's arm. After all, he was associated with Shinra.

After he had disposed of the guard he looked up and saw another blue-clad guard running towards Cloud.

For a moment he considered shouting a warning to the mercenary, but thought twice about it. Perhaps he'd wait and see how Cloud, who seemed to just oh-so-proudly announce himself as a former member of SOLDIER, acted towards his old colleagues.

3

For a second or two, Cloud found himself lost in the sights all around him. He hadn't been in a serious fight in a long time.

This thought didn't make sense however, looking down at his injured arms.

He closed his eyes and slowly shook his head again, an action he was quickly turning into a habit. The ache subsided some, but not enough to his liking.

Reality hit him hard when he felt a blow to his lower back. Morphing immediately into fight-mode he placed his left foot down hard to pivot, and while in turning motion took out his giant Buster sword and drove it directly into the neck of the attacking guard.

Another guard came running to his right, and seeing him in his peripherals, Cloud quickly spun and chopped the man down before he knew it was coming.

The area was warm and the adrenaline was flowing. It almost felt surreal how chaotic everything had gotten within the seconds they had been off of the train.

Hell, milliseconds.

While wiping the blood from his sword onto the blue uniform of one of the downed guards Cloud glanced around at the bleak surroundings of Midgar. He remembered a time when he used to admire the city and marveled at its amazing structures and buildings, it's well-planned out design of the Mako reactors on its circular border, and the fact that the whole thing was built on top of the 'plate'. He remembered how excited he was to first enter the city looking for work as a kid.

Now as he looked around all he saw was filth.

Shinra filth.

Smoke rose from the top of almost every building providing a cloudy sky every night of the year for the inhabitants. The streets were filled with garbage and beggars. If you were not employed by Shinra you did not live within the city, you lived down below in the slums.

Ninety seven percent of the Planet's economy flowed in and out of Midgar, yet more than seventy five percent of the people in the city were homeless and lived below the plate.

This same plate never allowed the citizens in the sectored slums below to see the open sky. It was a permanent dull-gray roof that didn't allow the satisfaction of a beautiful sunrise.

When the designers set to work to build the city of Midgar one thousand feet above the ground they never bothered to consider what it was going to be like living underneath the plate, to never see sky unless you came up top to the city, where you would be forced to endure everything Shinra.

The headquarters of the Shinra, an astonishing seventy story building that sat in the exact middle of the city, was in clear sight from Cloud.

From the seventieth floor I bet you could determine every person who does and doesn't work for the Shinra, he thought.

He wiped the blood from the other end of his sword onto the dead man in front of him.

His company, excluding Barret Wallace, was silently grinning, realizing that they had made a good choice bringing him along.

Still showing no emotion or concern for any of them Cloud quickly put his sword away and turned toward Barret, waiting for their next move.

4

"Let's move to the entrance," Barret yelled as he loaded his gunarm. The others ran down a narrow sidewalk and quickly entered the area where the guards had run out from. Cloud followed, with Barret close behind him.

When they turned the corner, Barret saw Cloud looking at the streets with disgust. The observation couldn't last long however, for they had already caught up with Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie. They were decoding the password to a giant steel door that sat between them and the Mako reactor.

Without a password the door looked impenetrable, unless you happened to have a decent sized bomb or perhaps a rocket launcher handy.

Barret glanced down at his gunarm and smiled at the thought of it being able to fire rockets.

They all felt like they were being watched, and they probably were. But the AVALANCHE members knew that everything had to be risked in order to save their slowly but surely dying Planet. They were willing to risk everything, including their lives.

I'm more willin' than most . . . considerin' the damage they've inflicted on my past, he thought, staring once again at the mechanism grafted into his arm.

It had been four years since the initial incident, but the memory hadn't softened in time.

It had solidified.

Barret suddenly snapped out of his momentary daze, recognizing now what he was observing. "Biggs, Wedge! I thought I told you two to split up and keep an eye out for more of those Shinra punks. Only Jessie needs to open the goddamn door!" He furiously stomped the ground, looked up at the sky, and then ran back to check for more guards.

5

Wedge looked curiously at Cloud, not with dissatisfaction but with a peculiar approval. "What's your name?" He didn't look straight at Cloud but after a few seconds of silence he looked at him and again asked, "What's your name?"

Cloud sternly looked at him and flatly said, "I'm Cloud, ex-SOLDIER, First Class." He wasn't quite sure why he had added this. Perhaps it was just the surroundings that had brought it out in him. Besides, he didn't really want to be talking to this guy anyways.

Jessie glanced up from the door for a second and asked, "SOLDIER, aren't they the enemy?" She quickly went back to work decoding the door, assuming someone would respond to her inquiry.

Biggs, a much larger and rounder man then Wedge, quickly responded, "Whoa . . . Whoa! Ex-SOLDIER, Jessie. Cloud works for AVALANCHE now." He smiled at Cloud, his face looking quite jolly. "Anyway, my name is . . ."

"I don't care about your names," Cloud interrupted. "Once the mission is over I'm collecting my gil and I'm leaving." He turned his back to the three, anxiously waiting for the door to open.

Biggs, not normally an instigator, said, "Gil, huh?" He looked over Cloud again, wondering if bringing someone who didn't care about the Planet would help the team in the end. "What's with the attitude? You signed up, didn't you?"

Cloud only stared back at the large man.

When Biggs looked like he was about to open his mouth again, Wedge quickly grabbed his arm. When Biggs turned to him, Wedge merely shook his head.

Watching this exchange, Cloud could've restarted the quarrel if he had wanted to, but decided that they weren't worth it.

He had been hired because these lackeys were one step down from good-for-nothings.

"Jessie Bugle strikes again!"

Cloud looked away from the men and saw that a bright green light was now radiating off of the small gray box the woman, Jessie, had been furiously typing into. Soon the massive door slid open with a grumbling squeal of metal on metal.

The woman gave him a glance that he couldn't puzzle out, and then said, "I'm sure after all the training you've been through you probably think we're worthless. But it won't take long for you to figure out just how wrong you are."

Cloud yet again refrained from speaking. He didn't care what these people were good or bad at. He just didn't want to associate himself with them.

Is that so hard to understand?

Going against his better judgment he said, "It doesn't matter what I do or don't think about you lot. My only priority is to make sure this mission goes underway as smoothly as possible. Then I'll be taking my reward and splitting."

"Yeah . . ." Wedge said. "We heard it all before."

"If you understand than why are you still talking to me?" Cloud mumbled, turning away from them.

Biggs turned to Wedge. "I can't believe Barret actually thought this punk was going to be of any help to AVALANCHE."

Cloud winced, feeling the throb in his head strengthen, and wondered if perhaps he was being a little harsh. Maybe for the mission to go as smoothly as possible it meant that he had to get along with these lackeys . . . for the meantime.

"He's just an arrogant son of a . . ." Wedge was saying.

Cloud cut him off. "Listen . . . I'm sorry. I don't feel well and haven't talked with anyone outside of the Shinra in a long time."

Biggs, his face transitioning speedily from a grimace to a smirk, said, "You're sorry, are you?" He paused and took a breath. "That's okay. I guess . . ."

Before he could continue, Cloud said, "I still don't want to be friends, okay? I just want to get on with the mission." Once again he turned away from the group, leaving them perplexed.

6

Barret came rushing back, having heard the sound of the door grinding open.

"Move! Move!" he yelled, not wasting any time for more guards to come. The first three started running but as Cloud started to move forward Barret grabbed his shoulder. "This is it, no turning back now." Cloud, barely acknowledging him, nodded his head and then ran towards the others.

Barret felt warm fury already building up inside of him. He wouldn't be certain that hiring Cloud Strife had been a good idea until the mission was over and they were all safely back in their Sector 7 hideout.

Before he went through the door after his team he looked up at the huge Mako reactor that he was about to enter. It looked to be about thirty stories high and a few city blocks long. Seeing this made him realize just how big the explosion was going to be.

The reactor itself was more or less a huge cylinder made of metal with a giant painting of a number '1' on it. The outside looked plain and simple. It was the inside that Cloud said was going to be the eye-opener.

As he watched Cloud disappear into the reactor he whispered to himself, "Ex-SOLDIER, huh . . . still don't trust ya." He ran on ahead into the reactor, which in his mind had about thirty minutes left until its destruction.

7

When Cloud ran into the reactor, although it certainly wasn't his first time in one, he was just as amazed as he had been that first time so long ago.

From the entrance, the hall led you to a narrow walkway. This walkway was also a T-shaped bridge that took you from one side of the parameter of the reactor to the other, as well as straight into the reactor itself. What amazed Cloud every time was the fact that under the bridge there was nothing for about a thousand feet until you reached the ground of the slums. Nowhere else in Midgar, save for the unfinished ending of the highway that led to the edge of the city, was there such a direct drop to the Planet's floor.

While he ran to catch up with the group he couldn't help but look over the edge from time to time to view the houses, which looked quite similar to the banged-up toy-houses he used to play with as a child in Nibelheim.

"I'll secure the exit," Biggs informed as he veered off course from the rest of the team. As Biggs ran on straight to the exit, Wedge and Jessie took a sharp right onto a connecting bridge. From there they ran straight into the heart of the reactor.

As Cloud ran further and further into the reactor he could feel the air around him warming up. And not only that, but like all of the other times he'd been in a reactor, he could somehow feel the Mako energy within the reactor.

As he passed through into the next room he saw Wedge and Jessie hard at work again decoding the password to a door that was similar to the one that they had come upon at the entrance.

He would've liked to have taken this moment to dwell a bit on his headache, but Barret arrived huffing and puffing, and then turned to face Cloud. "Yo! This your first time in this reactor?" he asked while still catching his breath, his large hands placed firmly on his knees.

"Yeah . . . but they all look the same on the inside anyways," Cloud quickly shot at him before attempting to turn his back on the gunarmed man.

Barret glared at him and Cloud could tell that the man was convinced that he needed to explain the situation. "The Planet's full of Mako energy. People here use it every day." Cloud showed no movement and made no remark so Barret continued. "It's the life blood of the Planet. But Shinra keeps suckin' the blood out with these goddamn machines."

"I'm not here for a lecture, so let's just get going."

Barret glared even harder at him until he turned away.

"Don't be such a stuck-up bastard," Barret yelled. "You wouldn't be acting all tough if Tifa was here with us."

Before Cloud could respond they all heard the door open. Wedge, although pleased that the decoder worked, also seemed somewhat saddened by it, as if a terrible memory had just been recollected.

As they ran through the doors, Barret now pacing along the side of Cloud, Wedge explained his sudden sadness. "It's amazing to think about how much went into getting these simple codes. Just think about how many people seriously risked their lives or died just to get them for AVALANCHE." They then reached the elevator that they had been searching for. "I'll secure this area. You guys just make sure that you come back safe." He nodded at Barret and Jessie and they both returned the nod. Wedge glanced at Cloud with uncertainty and then gave him a slight nod as well.

Cloud, Barret, and Jessie then got onto the elevator and watched the metal doors close, cutting off their view of Wedge. He already appeared to be anxious for their return.

8

Jessie pushed the red 'down' button and stood by while Barret and Cloud shared some words.

She didn't know how she felt about the newcomer. He had been an asshole so far. But he had tried to explain himself with a strange little apology. She didn't know too many men who apologized for their actions.

He seemed cold but there was something strange about the whole ordeal. Sure, they needed his help . . . but what was the situation between him and Tifa?

And he was acting rather odd, wasn't he?

Except for the few moments he was fighting, she thought.

She had stolen a few casual glances in his direction ever since Tifa had introduced him to the group a week ago. Jessie had stolen those glances because Cloud was very cute, there was no way around it. What with his spiky hair, chiseled body, and those piercing eyes.

But the glances had also been made because she realized that there was definitely something wrong with Cloud. He seemed to almost always be holding his head. And from what Tifa had said, he couldn't remember where he had gotten all those cuts and bruises on his arms.

Hearing that he was an ex-member of SOLDIER had been a shock, but he couldn't be the only one on the Planet to have been treated poorly by the Shinra.

Even now, as she watched Barret try to force eye contact with the mercenary, she realized that under the harsh outer shell that Cloud wore there was something crumbling underneath.

Maybe that's why she hadn't let Cloud's actions bother her so much.

And besides, if Barret trusted Tifa's judgment enough to hire him for that substantial amount of gil, he had to at least know what he was doing reactor-wise.

Jessie looked from Cloud to Barret and knew that the short-lived silence in the elevator car was about to be broken.

9

Barret, still convinced he should be explaining the situation to Cloud, said, "Little by little the reactors'll drain out all the life . . . the Planet's life. And that'll be that. Goodbye. It's been fun. Have a nice day."

Still showing no concern or emotion, Cloud said, "It's not my problem."

Barret shook his head. "Of course it's your problem, ya jackass! When the Planet dies . . . we all die."

Holding his head, Cloud responded, "I don't care about the Planet . . ."

"The Planet's dyin', Cloud!" Barret thundered, the sound bouncing off of the metal walls.

Cloud finally let go of his head and replied, "The only thing I care about is finishin' the damn job before security gets here." He again turned away from Barret to avoid more of the seemingly agonizing conversation.

Barret clenched his fist so tight he could feel his fingernails about to break through the skin on his palm. He wanted nothing more than to slam this spiky, white boy's head into the elevator wall.

No, he thought, and took a quick breath. No matter how much of a punk he is, we need him. And Tifa trusts him . . . that counts for something.

10

After descending down a few hundred feet the elevator door slowly slid open. Warm air rushed in on them and took any chill out of their bodies that might still have been there.

As they stepped out of the elevator two Shinra guards positioned nearby immediately knew that these outsiders were not welcome and charged them. Without making the slightest effort Barret raised his gunarm and fired a good second or two of carnage at them.

Cloud knew then that his assumptions about Barret had been correct.

Watching the lifeless bodies accumulate their own blood pools he could see that Barret felt no remorse or pity whatsoever.

"Shinra scum!" the hulking man yelled as he walked by the soldiers' remains.

Surprised that these were the only guards, the group continued on cautiously. They rushed down two flights of stairs before Jessie said, "Almost there, right?"

Cloud looked around and nodded. "Yeah . . . almost there."

The intense sound of the machines sucking up Mako filled the reactor, echoing back and forth off of the walls.

Being that this wasn't an area that was normally occupied by staff there was minimal lighting. The soft lights along with the pool of Mako down at the bottom of this section of the reactor gave the room an eerie jade tint that seemed even to turn their shadows into dark green hues.

As they passed through yet another door the air again felt warmer. Cloud felt dizzy for a moment. He blinked his eyes a few times and took a deep breath, shaking off the woozy feeling that was slowly overcoming him.

11

Biggs was beginning to get antsy.

He really hadn't been waiting that long he supposed, but he was worried about the others.

That newcomer, Cloud . . . he was a piece of work.

Biggs wouldn't have been surprised if he found out later that Barret had shot Cloud by now, ridding them of the uncaring and arrogant bastard.

"I know he's a good fighter, and he knows his way around," Biggs said aloud, "but he's got a real personality problem."

And perhaps a mental problem as well. Maybe that's why he's always clutching his head.

Before he could dwell on those thoughts even further he heard footsteps approaching behind him.

Biggs turned around and found he was face-to-face with three Shinra guards.

12

The trio had soon reached a ladder. Looking down they noticed that from where they were standing they could see their destination, the very heart of the reactor.

Looking past their destination Cloud could see down to the emerald abyss, where the reactor sucked out the Mako substance.

Jessie stood next to the ladder but did not use it. She stepped aside and said, "Alright, this is it. I'll secure the ladder. Good luck."

Cloud and Barret carefully climbed down the ladder and made their way to the reactor's core. The titanic machine looked like a huge mechanical ventricle, except that it was not blood that this was storing, it was Mako. The 'life blood' of the Planet as he'd heard Barret say over and over again.

Cloud gazed up at the amazing charcoal-colored tubes that carried the Mako out of the core. These worm-like hoses stretched out high towards the distant ceiling and then disappeared into other chambers that were located inside other areas of the reactor. There the poisonous Mako material was treated, making it as proficient as possible.

Technology this sophisticated could be used for so many better things than this, Cloud thought, knowing that despite his feigned ignorance, he knew the dangers of the extraction of Mako as well.

"There's gonna be nothing left when we blow this up. Nothin' at all but a hunk of junk," Barret blissfully shouted.

Cloud gazed around. "It's going to have to be a pretty big explosion," he said as he watched Barret take out a smaller-than-expected device from his pack.

"Don't you worry a damn 'bout the explosion," Barret said. "If Jessie knows what she's talking about - and she does, she learned it from her old man - then this explosion will be plenty big."

Still looking at the brick-sized bomb, Cloud shrugged. "If you say so . . ."

"I do say so . . ." Barret said, more firmly. "Now Cloud, you set the bomb."

Confused, Cloud looked at him. "Shouldn't you do it?"

"Just do it! I've gotta watch and make sure you don't pull nothin' to jeopardize AVALANCHE!"

"Fine." Cloud moved with the bomb toward the giant ventricle-like mechanism. He suddenly froze, the dizziness he had felt earlier suddenly became overwhelming, and not his sight, but his mind went blank, blacking out the scenery around him while simultaneously turning everything a bright and overpowering white.

Not realizing what was happening he suddenly heard a voice inside of his head. "Careful! You know that this isn't just a reactor." The voice was foreign yet familiar.

He blinked and shook his head, looking around at the reactor as it focused back into view.

What the hell was that about?

After the few words had been said the invasion of his mind had ended abruptly and everything was normal again.

Barret was not pleased. ". . . What's wrong!?" he shouted, having not noticed that something had happened to Cloud.

"Huh?"

"What's wrong, Cloud? Hurry up and set the damn bomb!" Barret yelled, physically tensing up.

"Yeah, sorry," Cloud said as he began to set the explosive device. It was a simple process of connecting a few wires (green into black, blue into yellow, white into red) and in a few seconds he was done.

It had gone smoothly enough, and it seemed that even his headache had dissolved into a low pulse.

He was slowly backing away from the bomb when he heard an alarm sound. The wail of the alarm made him forget all about the strange voice inside of his head.

The only thing he could think about now was the trepidation rising up inside of his body. He knew that they only had ten minutes until the bomb went off and that the reactor's security would be on its way. The guards that would be coming would do their best to slow Barret and him down, most certainly risking their own lives in the process.

He looked over at Barret and shouted, "They're coming!"

"No shit!" But as much as Barret would've liked to yell and scream at Cloud, he was smart enough to realize the danger they were in and started to load his gunarm.

Within seconds a giant machine came charging at them. It was approximately thirteen feet in height, a massive emotionless fighter, built and designed with one objective: Eliminating intruders.

13

Biggs had done well against the first guard, ducking under a blow and tackling the man to the floor of the bridge, but when the other two guards grabbed him by his arms he began to panic.

He thrashed hard to his left, almost loosening his shoulder from its socket.

The guard on his left drove a bulky fist into Biggs' stomach.

Feeling the air flood out of him he wheezed, "Get off!"

"Shut your fat mouth!" one of the guards yelled before sucker-punching him in the back of the head.

The one he had tackled slowly stood up from the floor. He spat in Biggs' face. "What are you and those other rebels doing inside the reactor?"

Biggs smiled. "We're here to redecorate. We heard that you guys had finally started considering the aesthetic value of things. And it's about time . . ."

The guard allowed Biggs to smile a moment longer, and then sent his foot into the extensive gut that hung just below Biggs' wine-red belt.

Biggs coughed, feeling nauseous and in significant pain. His stomach had always been sensitive.

The guard grabbed him by the chin. "What are you bastards up to?"

"Screw you . . ." Biggs whispered.

The guard clenched his face. But in the moment he took to wind his arm Biggs slammed his large foot down onto the guard's smaller foot.

Feeling one of his arms freed he threw his weight sideways, the momentum sending the second guard over the railing.

Turning quick he slammed a forearm into the head of the guard that was slowly getting to his feet.

He then heard the recognizable sound of a sword being unsheathed.

Faster than he thought he could move he reached into his boot, pulled out the spare knife he kept strapped there, and side-armed the blade at the guard, hitting him in the stomach.

As the guard shouted and reached for the blade Biggs ran over and kicked the blade deeper into the guard's stomach, before slamming his considerably large fist into the masked face.

"Alright, Barret," Biggs said aloud, "it's time to haul ass . . ." He then began to move the two bodies out of the main path of the bridge.

14

It was one of Shinra's many weapons that they used against their enemies. This one was designed to resemble a giant red scorpion, the metallic body painted a deep red, it's hazardous and multiple appendages painted black.

While still pulling his sword out, the machine charged Cloud and threw him against the warm, glowing wall with ease.

The headache might have been gone but now a physical pain was ringing through his head.

Barret opened fire on the machine, screaming a wide variety of profanities that only someone like Barret Wallace could pull off.

"Goddamn shitty bug-rusting bitch!"

The giant scorpion caught him by surprise when it blew fire out of its mouth and scorched him. He stopped firing and ran for cover from the flames and quickly began to load his gunarm with more heavy duty artillery.

By now Cloud was up, sword in hand. He could hear Barret shouting to himself.

"Bug gonna die! Shitty-ass bug gonna die!"

Cloud ignored this, and knew the plan that had suddenly come to him had to be done immediately. There was no time to let Barret know what he was doing.

He raced at the machine and quickly dove between its legs. Using his sword he powerfully swung at one of the hind legs. The swing completely took off the leg and brought the machine down to its back, sparks shooting out from where the leg had recently been attached.

Barret heard the huge crash and reluctantly came out to make sure that Cloud was okay.

"Cloud, what in the goddamn hell are you doing?"

Cloud was dodging the machine's swinging arms now, trying to make his way to the thrashing head. The scorpion's right arm knocked Cloud off his feet and onto the ground.

Barret, seeing his chance, opened fire again. Cloud quickly crawled like a snake to the robotic head, avoiding the machine and the gunfire on his way. He cursed Barret's incompetence. Couldn't he see that he had a plan?

Still firing away, Barret screamed, "Take that you giant bitch of a bug!"

Cloud finally yelled, "Barret! Stop firing! Barret, you psycho, you're gonna kill me!"

Barret, not sure why Cloud wanted him to stop, reluctantly did. "You best know what you doin', white boy!"

Knowing that he was now out of harm's way, Cloud stood up, raised the sword high over his head, and took a mighty swing at the writhing machine's neck. The force of the blow decapitated the head from the body and quickly retarded all of the other functions of the scorpion machine.

Not wasting any of the precious time that they had left, Barret shouted, "Let's get out of here, we've only got about five minutes until the bang of the century happens!"

He would never admit it, but the decapitation of the scorpion machine had truly impressed him.

This thought evaporated quickly as the machine's mainframe exploded, almost sending Barret over the edge of the walkway.

It pained him to see that Cloud had grabbed his arm, saving him from a fall into the Mako below.

"Goddamn . . ." Barret murmured. "Cloud, you . . ."

"No time!" Cloud said.

Nodding, Barret hopped over the scorpion carcass and joined Cloud in a frantic run to the ladder.

15

Jessie couldn't believe what she was seeing. Not only had a giant machine resembling a scorpion come out of nowhere, she had seen Cloud efficiently take care of it, and to top it off, save Barret from certain death after the machine had exploded.

She would definitely have to rethink her opinion of Cloud now.

The time for thinking was not available to her now however, for now she saw that guards had come out of a hidden entrance below and were chasing Barret and the newcomer.

Her only thought now was to scream.

16

Wiping the sweat from their hands onto their pants they called up to Jessie to get out.

But as Cloud looked up to see if the woman had heard he saw her pointing behind them.

"More guards!" she screamed. "Behind you!"

Flying up the ladder without looking back they heard the heavy footsteps of the approaching guards behind them and knew that they were now running for a number of reasons.

Barret reached the top of the ladder, faced down, and fired his gunarm at the guards who were climbing after them. Although perhaps only hitting one, the rest were then hit with the immobile, lifeless body of the dead guard. The other guards fell down the ladder, giving Cloud and Barret plenty of time to get away from them and make their way to the stairs.

With Jessie in sight they ran through the door and up the two flights of stairs with remarkable swiftness.

They saw Jessie struggling with a guard near the elevator when they reached the top. Barret yelled, "Get the hell down!" When Jessie dropped he opened fire on the guard, soaking the surrounding area with human remains.

They hopped into the elevator. While it was slowly going up they caught their breaths. Wanting badly to ask what Barret had thought about Cloud's prompt rescue, Jessie looked at Barret. But before she could say anything the doors opened and they were greeted by Wedge.

Not spending time to ask them about what had happened or if they were hurt, he started running towards the exit.

Out of breath, and lacking the energy to run any faster, Cloud stopped for a second. Jessie also stopped and quickly asked, "You alright?"

Cloud, actually appreciating the question, knew that this was not the time for answers. "Let's go!" he shouted as he grabbed her arm and ran.

He couldn't understand why he felt the way he did right now. He never used to get so tired so quickly.

Maybe I really was in some sort of fight recently. I feel so damn weak . . .

With about a minute left before the bomb would detonate they quickly raced through the doors and down the numerous hallways until they finally saw Biggs still standing at the exit. A few bodies were lying in the area.

He must have been attacked too, Cloud quickly thought.

Just as they took the sharp right on the bridge to head towards the exit the bomb detonated. The explosion rocked the area and the team made a death defying sprint towards safety, finding it harder and harder to keep their footing.

Cloud suddenly noticed that Jessie wasn't beside him anymore. She had fallen a few feet back when the bomb exploded. He turned quick and speedily ran to her. He picked her up without checking to see if she was still alive and ran all-out towards the exit.

In the corner of his eye he could see structures of the reactor falling apart and burning.

A huge ball of flame exploded out of the top of the reactor just as he jumped through the exit door with Jessie. His body ached and his skin felt like it was on fire having been so close to the heat. From within the long hallway he could see that the rest of the team was crouched behind a huge steel wall.

He raced to them, threw Jessie to Barret, and dove just as the main explosion went off, illuminating the dark night sky of Midgar.