Chapter Fifteen: Second Threshold
Nine months of boot camp later, Cloud had been shipped out.
The ship, bound for Wutai, was a repurposed passenger liner. There were still a number of civilian personnel on board. But a vast amount of the ship had been put aside for the use of soldiers.
Cloud was one of them, though he hadn't quite gotten used to wearing blue armor.
"Did you hear about the guns, Strife?" asked Snow Villiers, a friend from boot camp.
"What guns, Snow?" asked Cloud, looking up. "What are you talking about?"
"The ones Heidegger lost nine months ago," said Snow. "See, there was this village that ambushed an entire convoy of our people and wiped it out. There were a lot of artillery guns with them, but the search teams never turned anything up."
"I remember that," said Cloud. "I told you about it in the first place."
"Right, sure," said Snow, brushing a strand of his long, blonde hair behind him. "Yeah, someone had buried and hidden some real heavy stuff in there, then moved it later—no idea who, but those savages at Fort Convoy couldn't be the ones.
"You were a prisoner of Barret Wallace, any idea where he put it?"
"I don't know, Snow," said Cloud, who'd recited the tales of his adventures behind that point a thousand times. He'd proved his ability to have performed those deeds during the fiend hunts they'd been taken on. "I mean, I did see the ambush, and I saw them drag the guns away. But I have no idea where he put them. I figured Shinra would have found them by now."
Snow lifted himself up by one arm on an exercise bar. "Yeah, turns out a whole lot of little revolutions popped up after that. Heidegger had to spend so much time putting em down that it took weeks to send anyone to get the guns."
"What do you think he did with it?" asked Cloud.
"Well, if it were me, I'd probably put the guns on Fort Condor, set up defenses," said Snow. "We're gonna attack it eventually. Course, that's no match for heroes like us, huh?"
Snow was very dead set on referring to everyone as heroes. This was when people were looking at him. But now and then, Cloud noticed Snow looking with empty eyes at a wall. Still, Snow's idea didn't fit. "That doesn't seem like Barret."
"What do you mean?" asked Cloud.
"Barret hates Shinra; they destroyed his hometown of Corel," said Cloud. "He doesn't just want to stop us; he wants to hurt us. If he had a lot of guns and the ability to move them, he'd want to do something big with them.
"Maybe use smugglers in Junon to set up the guns in Wutai."
"Seriously?" asked Snow, continuing to pull himself up. "Geeze, if we end up fighting our own guns, that's gonna be a real bitch."
"I'll tell you if we see any graffiti," said Cloud, remembering Barret spraypainting it. He wondered how Barret was doing and how Jessie and Marlene were. He hoped none of them had gotten hurt.
Though then he remembered he might have to fight them. The hope didn't go away.
"You told anyone about this?" asked Snow.
"Yeah, my Father, and also the Turks," said Cloud. "They had me write a full report. It was around the time President Shinra ordered those new rules removed.
"What was it he said;
"'A little extra profit isn't worth the alienation of my loyal workforce.'"
"Real benevolent sounding, huh?" asked Snow, dropping down and putting on his shirt. "Well, if Shinra's the good king, I guess that makes us knights in Shining Armor. Just with blue instead of white.
"So why didn't you make it into SOLDIER, anyway?"
Cloud looked up, surprised at the question. "What?"
"I mean, you were way ahead of most on the field; you learned sword fighting better than anyone," said Snow. "I figured you'd be a shoo-in for sure."
"They said my psychological profile didn't match their specifications," said Cloud.
"What does that mean?" asked Snow, who had not bothered to apply and had refused the offer when it came.
"It means I have a history of mental illness, okay," said Cloud. "They recommended medication to me, but I can't afford the stuff. They said they'd make an exception for me in the infantry but...
"They didn't want me.
"None of them wrote back. None of them." Cloud remembered the messages he'd sent to Tifa and Mom, several of them. And he'd gotten no reply.
"Why would they?" asked Snow.
Right, Snow thought he meant the military. "Nothing I...
"I was spaced out there a bit. Anyway, from what I hear, the SOLDIER process exaggerates all your personality traits. So someone who has mental issues will have them be made much worse."
"You mean like Genesis?" asked Snow. "The nutjob always quoting that stupid poem?"
"It's a play," said Cloud. "And what about you, Snow? Why didn't you apply? Didn't they literally request you join?"
"Let's just say I'm not interested in meeting a certain someone and leave it at that," said Snow with a shrug. He buttoned up his shirt and began to don his uniform. "Besides, since when have heroes needed superhuman enhancements?"
"Never, but I'll bet they help," said Cloud.
Snow laughed and grabbed him around the neck before giving him a noogie. "That's the spirit."
"Hey, hey, get off!" said Cloud, shoving him away.
"Attention passengers. We are now coming up on Wutai," said the Captain's voice over the speaker. "If any of you wish to watch our arrival, you may head up to deck now."
"Alright, I was looking forward to this," said Snow. "Come on, let's see what the shore looks like from deck."
Cloud quickly got together his gear, and Snow did the same. Making their way up to the deck, they came out to find a large crowd there. Wutai lay before them; it was a strange land with weird-looking trees. He saw ahead of them a cove and a full-scale military base set up there. Beyond it, he saw a river and beyond they a great forest.
Hills were on either side of the cover, and he could see a village past one side. Yet it seemed a bit empty.
"Wow, Cloud man, come on, you've got to see this," said Snow.
Then Cloud's eyes turned upward to the rocky cliffs overlooking the cover. Just in front of the trees were a series of strange, camouflaged structures—very familiar structures with many people around them. Suddenly, the cover was removed from them, and he saw that they were artillery.
"GET DOWN!" cried Cloud.
And then the guns opened fire. Cloud felt the wind of the first shot whizz over him to land among the crowd behind him. In an instant, the whole middle of the ship was blown apart as blood-spattered around him. His hearing went out as he stared around, seeing the guns do their work.
A little beyond, he saw a ship have holes blasted in the side. Men fled, falling overboard or trying to turn the vessel. And soon, Cloud's own vessel began to capsize, and he was thrown backward into the water.
The chilly wetness woke him from the stupor, and he fought his way back above the waves. Yet his pack was weighing him down, and he was falling, hardly able to stay afloat. Then, suddenly, strong arms grasped him and cut the pack. It fell away, and he was hauled out of the water with a gasp.
"Cloud!" said Snow. "Cloud, are you alright?!"
"What's going on?" asked Cloud, in a daze as he saw men trying to swim to shore. A cannonball splashed into the water near him, and he saw blood in the water.
"Someone's firing on us from the cliffs," said Snow. "Kick off your shoes; we've got to swim for it."
Cloud nodded, and they began to swim.
It seemed that what had happened had taken them completely off guard. No boats were coming out from the harbor to aid them. How had they not noticed the artillery on the cliffs? Wasn't this area under the direction of Director Lazard of SOLDIER?
"Where are the rescue boats," said Cloud. It was like they didn't want them to survive.
Turning up, he saw a fleet of them coming around the bend. Men swam toward them, but Cloud saw the machineguns on the boats. Gripping Snow by the shoulder, he knew they couldn't come ashore here. He motioned toward the village, and Snow nodded.
Together they swam, and moments later, the sound of machinegun fire resounded. Looking up, Cloud saw the beginnings of a response. Shinra must have been taken off-guard, or someone in it.
Together they swam and swam and finally came ashore by the pier.
Scrambling up the village, Cloud looked around. It was completely empty. Glancing around, he saw signs that there had, very recently, been a lot of supplies piled high. Whatever it had been, however, they were gone. A track led away, and there were several vehicles at least. And there was a Shinra barracks here as well.
There has been a garrison and supply depot here. But there was no sign of a struggle.
"Cloud, are you alright?" asked Snow.
"Yes, I'm..." Cloud paused. He looked to Snow and saw the hopeless gaze for a moment.
"You were right," said Snow. "Looks like Barret moved his guns like you thought. Come on, we can pay him back!"
"Now hang on, we don't know what's up there," said Cloud, turning over all this in his mind. Where had Barret gotten the ammunition? He couldn't have hidden his guns up there for very long. And transporting ammunition that far would have been difficult. Not to mention expensive. "We need a plan."
"Since when have heroes needed plans?" asked Snow confidently.
"Since forever," said Cloud. "We'll go up quietly and see what we find. Maybe we can do some sabotage, but we're just charging in."
"Sure, whatever you say," said Snow.
The two of them crept up through the trees from the empty village. As they did, Cloud remembered the find hunts they'd gone on before. Recruits in training were often assigned to hunt them in the slums. Other times they'd be sent into the wastes for wilderness training.
Creeping through the trees, Cloud and Snow heard gunfire from above. It got louder and louder, and soon they reached the top. Peering out, they saw a vision of hell. The ships which had been coming, filled with thousands of soldiers, were sinking. Men were fleeing in the water, being gunned down or drowned. Gunboats were battling it out, as Wutai and Shinra did battle with stolen equipment.
And then Cloud saw the guns that were being.
'Barret was here,' said the graffiti on one.
Those manning it were Wutai soldiers, clad in green with spears and guns.
And then Barret marched into sight. With him was a beautiful, pink-haired woman clad in white. She wore armor like that of a Valkyrie, and her long legs were bare above her boots.
"Keep firing, now!" said Barret. "Remember, as soon as the minutes are up, we're blowing em and moving out." He drew up a walkie-talkie. "Jessie, what's the status on your end?"
"We've got everything set, Barret," said Jessie in a chipper tone. "You know, I don't usually go in for explosives powders, but these Wutai's bombs aren't actually all that bad.
"I mean, it's no chemical mix. But they've got a real punch to them."
"Just blow it, Jessie, and get back to Marlene!" said Barret. "We ain't got no time for chit-chat!"
"Bridges? What are they doing?" asked Snow.
"I'd read some maps; there's a river that separates our territory from Wutai," said Cloud. "We'd managed to cross it, but if he's blown it up..." There was a massive explosion, and Cloud looked up to see the bridges. They were collapsing into the water even now. "Our forces are probably cut off. And our reinforcements just got wiped out."
Reinforcements? Was that what he was calling them?
Cloud had trained with a lot of those guys in basic. They'd signed up for all kinds of reasons. Money for marriage, adventure, wanting to be a hero. And now all of them were dead.
Barret had killed them.
"Ships are done," said Barret. "Alright, people, we've got four minutes on the clock. Turn the guns on the base and open fire!"
"I guess you like killing people," said the pink-haired woman, looking down at something. Peering closer, Cloud saw the corpses of several Shinra soldiers. "Not like these scout. He was hesitant to shoot, got shot instead."
"Am I supposed to care?" snapped Barret. "Just stick to hurting people I point you at."
"Well, he's got her pegged," said Snow. "Just what we need. It's Lightning."
"Who?" asked Cloud.
"Lightning, the strongest 2nd Class SOLDIER in the program," said Snow. "he made the news before. I heard she was guarding that village we saw.
"How do you not know who Lightning is? They keep trying to prop her up as the next Sephiroth. It's kind of annoying."
"I don't read magazines or watch the news," whispered Cloud. "Also, if she were as good as Sephiroth, she wouldn't need Barret.
"Barret couldn't have gotten those guns far on his own. He'd need transportation on the shore waiting." Then Cloud turned to where he saw a number of trucks filled with ammunition. "Those are Shinra vehicles over there, too. Lightning must have gotten them for him. It's probably where he got his ammunition."
"Well, where are her soldiers?" asked Snow. "She had a garrison with her."
"Dead, maybe?" theorized Cloud. Or defected. Someone sold them out; it was the only way this kind of operation could have been done.
"Do you think we can take them?" asked Snow.
"No way," said Cloud. "Let's just stay here; we can tell people what happened after they leave."
"Where the hell are the reinforcements? What's taking them so long to respond.
"It's done; the ships are destroyed," said Lightning.
"Reload the guns and turn them on the port. Fire into the base," said Barret.
"Yes, sir," said a Wutai Soldier.
Lightning looked up incredulously. "That wasn't part of the operations, Barret."
"Operations over! I'm making my own!" said Barret. "I ain't letting a single Shinra SOLDIER live if I can help it! Fire! Aim for the ammunition crates!"
The guns were turned on the fort and opened fire. Several massive explosions ripped through the area below. Barret must have hit some ammunition depots or something. Meanwhile, Lightning looked annoyed.
If her goal was to kill Shinra, she'd be rejoicing at getting to do more of it. If she was a traitor who didn't want the area shelled, she ought to be upset. So... was Barret killing her boss? Causing her a minor inconvenience? The emotions just didn't match up.
But it would make sense for a Commander to be responsible for the betrayal.
"These Shinra are invading this place and burning the land," said Barret, pacing back and forth. "Now, they're gonna pay the price!"
"Yeah, some hero you are," scoffed Lightning.
"You ain't got the right to judge me, SOLDIER girl," said Barret. "Not after what you did to your garrison. I just shot them. And if I'm shelling your friends, it's cause you helped me get this far.
"What's your angle here, anyway? What do you get out of this?"
"My angle?" asked Lightning. "I'm after the Planet."
Barret seemed about to say something but seemed to decide he didn't care after a moment and just shrugged. "You got a funny way of going after it."
"Cloud, look, the ammunition truck," said Snow. "We could get some weapons there. Turn the tables."
"It's not going to do you any good," said Cloud, before getting an idea as he saw men carrying ammo. "You got any grenades?"
"No, had to ditch my kit," said Snow.
"Fine, then I'll use this," said Cloud, drawing his sword.
Sneaking along the forest edge, Cloud came within sight of the ammo truck. Raising his sword, he channeled lightning and unleashed it. The ammunition truck lit up and exploded. Cloud was thrown back by it and hit the ground hard.
Scrambling back up, he saw Lightning moving forward, looking amused. "It looks like Shinra hasn't been doing nothing while you shelled them."
"Fire your shots, blow your guns, and move out! Let's move!" snapped Barret. Then he turned to where Cloud was. "...Been a while, Cloud."
Cloud stepped forward. "Yeah, I'd say so."
"You don't belong in that uniform," said Barret, voice cold.
"You've just finished machinegunning drowning soldiers," said Cloud. "And you're talking down to me?"
"They all made their choices to join Shinra," said Barret. He motioned, and the Wutai soldiers began to move out; the guns exploded with preset charges.
"So did he!" said Lightning, snapping her fingers and surging forward with a sword. Cloud parried her initial thrust, only for gravity to seemingly reverse beneath her. She flowed into the air, spinning, then snapped her fingers again.
Descending, she tried to stab at Cloud, but he turned the blade and was driven back by a flurry of blows. Her speed was immense, and he could hardly keep up. Suddenly, Snow caught Lightning by the hand from behind. Shoving a foot forward, he knocked her off balance and flung her away.
Lightning spun around in midair and landed.
"Not so fast," said Snow.
"Snow..." hissed Lightning. "Why aren't you dead?"
"Don't you get it, the heroes never die," said Snow with the usual false bravado.
"That doesn't answer my question at all," noted Lightning.
And then she rolled away as Genesis landed behind her. His blade came around, and Lightning was forced to parry a series of effortless thrusts. Several cuts appeared on her before a bolt of flame caught her in the chest. Flung back, she landed hard.
"My friend, the fates are cruel," said Genesis, reading from his book in one hand while not looking at her. "There are no dreams, no honor remains.
"The arrow has left the bow of the goddess."
Lightning stood up, healing herself. "Another time, Snow."
And she surged off.
Genesis made no attempt to pursue, which meant he was probably involved in this. "Legend shall speak.
"Of sacrifice at world's end
"The wind sails over the water's surface
"Quietly, but surely."
"Sir, we've got a positive ID on the two behind this," said Snow. "Cloud knows one, I know the other."
Genesis shut the book. "Is that so?
"Who are they."
"Barret Wallace and Lightning... I don't know her last name," said Cloud. Why would Genesis be interested in massacring his own forces?
"Clair Farron," said Snow. "We grew up together."
"Did you?" said Genesis, wiping the blood off his blade. "Well, you can make your report now to Lazard." Then he sheathed his sword. "My soul, corrupted by vengeance.
"Hath endured torment, to find the end of the journey.
"In my own salvation
"And your eternal slumber
As Cloud and Snow were led into the base, he saw it had been turned into a warzone. A lot of buildings had been obliterated, several planes were wrecked. At the same time, there were a lot of wounded. And plenty of dead as well.
More importantly, they were all SOLDIER.
Mostly 3rd class, of course, with a few 2nd class. SOLDIER was an organization that operated independently of the military. Whoever had set this up, they'd wanted the ordinary soldiers massacred. Just not SOLDIERs. So the SOLDIERs were probably loyal or useful to them.
So Lazard, Genesis, and any other high-ranking SOLDIER officials were suspect.
They entered a fortified compound that had resisted the barrage. Within, they found Lazard. He was a slim, blonde man and was speaking with a huge, black-haired man. "Treat the wounded, Angeal. Once they're stable, I want them transported to Hollander's Mako lab for treatment." He looked up. "Genesis, I take it you've dealt with our problem."
"Director Lazard, I found some stowaways in the destined ruins," said Genesis.
"What do you have to report, Genesis?" asked Angeal.
"Ask them, by all means," said Genesis.
Lazard looked to Genesis, then Angeal, and finally to Cloud. So, they were all in it together then. Depending on what they said, Cloud might not walk out of here alive.
"Troops from the ocean, then?" asked Lazard. "I'm Lazard, Director of Soldier. I take it you have a report for me."
Cloud and Snow both made their reports. Snow focused mostly on the action, without thinking about why things were happening. This seemed to relieve Lazard. Cloud made sure to give himself a spacey, faraway look and make it appear like he didn't know much. He said what Snow did, but with different words.
In the end, Lazard learned the surface elements, but none of Cloud's suspicions.
"I see," said Lazard, clasping his hands together. "This is highly unfortunate. I never expected Lightning would allow us to be compromised in this fashion.
"Well, gentlemen, you've had a difficult day. I'll arrange a change of closing and quarters for you. Given what happened, well, at least you'll have plenty of room."
"Thank you, sir," said Snow.
Cloud tried to speculate as to a motive for this butchery. Were they planning to defect over to Wutai? Or was there some other element here?
"How many other people got out, do you think?" asked Snow.
"I don't know," said Cloud. "Still, at least we're in one piece." Then he paused. "...It wasn't supposed to be like this."
One thing was for certain.
Someone had ordered Cloud's entire battalion massacred and worked with Wutai to do it. And Cloud was going to hunt them down, one way or another.