Book 2: Crisis of Conscience
Chapter One: Reassignment
The transport landed.
Cloud Strife stepped off the edge of it alongside Lightning. That was moments before the helicopter rose into the sky. Looking up after it, Cloud watched it fly over the trees and into the distance. The wind of the propellers sent the leaves flowing around them like some wind god was at work. Looking forward, he saw the path leading to their destination lined by arches of apple trees. But with apples of a strange shape.
Lightning moved forward by herself, hand on her gunblade, and Cloud walked after. The pink-haired woman seemed strange lately. Less aggressive, more contemplative.
"Banora Village," mused Cloud. "Why do you think they sent us to Genesis' hometown anyway? Do they think he's going to be stupid enough to come for a visit?"
"It gets you out of the way, obviously," said Lightning, walking below the arches. "You're lucky Tseng pulled some strings for you; otherwise, you'd have a lead retirement plan."
"So I noticed," said Cloud.
In the aftermath of their return to Shinra, a committee to investigate events was formed. It promptly found virtually nothing. Tseng opted to reassign Cloud and Lightning somewhere out of the way. In private, he told them that President Shinra disbelieved that Lazard was a traitor.
So the whole thing was pinned on Angeal and Genesis instead. With Hollander being in the background.
"I can't believe Lazard is still running SOLDIER," said Cloud. "Even if the bastard wasn't behind the Genesis army, which he is, all these screwups happened on his watch."
"Nepotism?" suggested Lightning.
"I'm President Shinra's son too, and my career is headed nowhere," said Cloud.
"Yeah, but you tell him things he doesn't want to hear," said Lightning. "If you wanted to advance in rank, you shouldn't have been the bearer of bad news."
"Somebody has to tell people the bad news, or no one will be prepared for it," said Cloud. "Bad things don't go away because you refuse to acknowledge them."
"Tell that to the Shinra High Command," said Lightning.
"I did," said Cloud, remembering his debriefing. "Or, Tseng did because I told him the bad news. I didn't even warrant a meeting."
"Get used to disappointment," said Lightning.
"Been there, done that," said Cloud.
Privately he thought back to his hopes. Then his expectations and finally the reality he had been dealt with. His hopes had been that he'd be congratulated by Sephirot. He'd be put into SOLDIER and end up being a student to him. Maybe going on an adventure across the land or something to stop a world-saving threat. Not that he'd put stock in these.
His expectations were that an investigation would be called on Lazard. He'd be found guilty and shot, the Genesis army would collapse. Then someone would congratulate him on his work. And he might impress Sephiroth by his quick thinking if things went really well.
The reality, however, was...
Shinra had waved his findings off without so much as a glance from their tax paperwork. His success had put him in a social ice age, as he'd interfered with short-term profits. And Cloud, in his darker moments, suspected he might have been disappeared. If he wasn't reporting to Tseng and a war hero, he'd probably have been shot dead. His biological father would certainly not have cared.
And to top it off, no one was responding to his letters.
Glancing up toward the trees, he looked again at the white apples. "So, these fruits are odd."
"Banora White," said Lightning, who had been in SOLDIER. "Angeal and Genesis used to live here, and both of them used to steal these all the time. Angeal was poor, and Genesis was rich-"
"I don't care about Angeal and Genesis' tragic backstories," said Cloud suddenly. "They are complete monsters, and nothing I see here will change that.
"I'll kill them, bury them, and forget them. Just because Mommy didn't love Genesis enough or something doesn't justify what he did." He still remembered watching people being slowly assimilated. Transformed into mere clones of Genesis, bound to his will.
"I wouldn't know; I'm the crazy psychopath of this team being held in check by your purity of spirit," said Lightning.
"So, not being held in check?" asked Cloud.
Both of them laughed at that. "More or less," said Lightning.
Cloud remembered the mission as they passed out from under the apple trees and neared the town. It was a pretty nice, if humble, place with wooden buildings and shingled roofs. No Mako Reactors around, but a very nice view of nature. "Right, so...
"To-do list. Interview Genesis and Angel's parents and verify if either of them has had contact with him. Examine facilities for any signs of suspicious activity and report them.
"Do not engage the enemy unless absolutely necessary."
"I guess we're just here to call in the cavalry," said Lightning.
Cloud and she walked. As they did, Cloud remembered Lightning's tendency for violence. On a good day, she could go from homicidal to suicidal in moments. He'd had to stop her several times by now. And she insisted he be present for any and all conditioning with Hojo. "Right, right.
"Listen, Lightning, I'm not as social as Snow was. And I know that you're technically the superior officer here. But I think I'd better do the talking here."
"I should just put a gun to their head and demand they talk," mused Lightning.
Cloud looked as they neared the people and saw them being eyed with some suspicion. "We're trying to be neighborly here, Lightning. Alienating the people of Banora could get us killed and cause Shinra problems."
"Right, because we care so much about Shinra," said Lightning.
"They are signing our paychecks," said Cloud.
"Your paychecks, maybe," said Lightning. "I checked my bank balance; I've got enough to retire once my term of service expires. Being in SOLDIER pays well."
"Right, well, it's our job, and we gotta do it properly," said Cloud. "Let's just find them first."
Entering the town, Cloud approached a passerby and nodded to him. He considered smiling but couldn't force it. So he just tried to look non-threatening instead. "Excuse me?"
"Are you Shinra?" asked the man.
Cloud looked to his uniform and then up. Violet for a higher-level infantryman, complete with a very large sword. "Yes, sorry for the interruption. We're just here to check things out and get a bit of information. We're not planning on causing any trouble here if we can avoid it."
"So what do you want?" asked the man.
"Well, two things actually," said Cloud. "One, we need a proper place to stay for the foreseeable future. Banora doesn't have a garrison, so we'll need a hotel or inn. Second, uh, no doubt you've heard about Genesis and Angeal?"
"Yes, they betrayed the company and massacred a legion of their own soldiers," said the man. "Some of our boys are in the Shinra military."
"My battalion was one of the ones that got destroyed by what they did," said Cloud. He remembered Snow dead on the ground bitterly. "I have an idea of where you're coming from. I'm not here to arrest anybody; I'm sure none of you had anything to do with what they did.
"But I've been asked to speak to those who knew them. In particular their parents."
"Why?" asked the man.
"Well... neither Genesis or Angeal is exactly stable," said Cloud. "We think that they may have suffered a psychotic break as a result of Mako exposure. They may not be acting in their right mind.
"We're hoping that if he's had contact with his parents, they might be able to convince them to stand down. It could spare a lot of lives if they do, and, well, I'd say the war has claimed enough people, wouldn't you?"
The man looked at them. "...Alright, I'll take you to their house. But don't hurt them, please."
"They won't come to any harm, I promise you," said Cloud. "We're here for your protection as well as our own."
Cloud had come to learn that Shinra was more or less hated in many of the areas it had expanded into. Having assimilated the ruling government in all but name, they were often brutal. It maintained its power by virtue of being a ruthless meritocracy. At least in lower ranks, and being willing to hire anyone.
Cloud wondered what he'd have done if he'd known all of this before he set out from Nibelheim years ago? It didn't really matter.
Cloud knocked on the door, and it opened. A woman looked out, middle-aged and brown-haired.
"Hello, are you Gillian Hewley?" asked Cloud.
"Yes, can I help you?" she asked, looking at them with apparent dread.
"My name is Cloud Strife; I'm from Shinra," said Cloud. "With me is Lightning, a member of SOLDIER. We need to speak to you about your son, Angeal. May we come in?"
"Yes, of course. Let me get you some tea," said Gillian.
"That's not necessary; I don't want to cause you trouble," said Cloud. "Lightning-"
"I'll wait out here," said Lightning. "Special orders and all of that."
Cloud was allowed in and sat down across from her, feeling like he was reporting her son's death. Only much worse. "Do you know what Angeal has done?"
"Yes, he..." Gillian halted. "He betrayed his comrades and killed many people. And he helped to defend those horrible things in that lab...
"How could Hollander do such a thing?"
"I do not know," said Cloud. Privately he suspected Hojo would do just the same. "However, Angeal is one of the most powerful men in the world. If things go on like this, the Genesis army could cause horrible atrocities."
"What do you want from me?" asked Gillian.
Straight to the point? Fine. "Has Angeal made contact with you at all?"
Gillian halted. "...No. He used to write all the time, talking about events in SOLDIER and the campaigns he was on. However, over time his letters have stopped coming. We always used to respond to one another, but not anymore."
"Do you have any means to contact him?" asked Cloud.
"Are you asking me to lead my son into a trap?" asked Gillian.
Cloud stood up. "No.
"But if you can contact him, convincing him to stand down would be in everyone's interests. The Genesis army may not be acting alone; we think it has backing from unknown figures. Angeal might be able to gain some leniency if he reveals who funded things.
"I won't lie to you.
"It's very likely that Angeal will lose his life. But he may at least be able to limit the damage that the Genesis army is causing."
Gillian nodded, looking away to hide tears. "I...
"I understand. This is... this is my fault, and it is my responsibility to do what I can."
"You can't blame yourself for his actions," said Cloud.
"No, I..." Gillian turned away. "I was part of an experiment with Hollander. My child, Angeal, he got his enhancements from me. I was injected with the SOLDIER serum, and he inherited his traits from me. And my cells... my cells were also transferred to Genesis."
What? What was this... Cloud had the feeling he wasn't supposed to hear this. Better to play it cool. "Your cells do not determine your actions."
"But my actions may have affected theirs," said Gillian. "I knew even then that the serum was unstable, but I... the money was too good to pass up."
"Is there any way you can contact Genesis or Angeal?" asked Cloud.
"No. I have not seen either of them in years," said Gillian. "They were... such friendly boys. Angeal used to steal, now and then, but it was a game. And he never did it from his friends."
"I see," said Cloud. "Do you know where I can find Genesis' parents?"
Gillian nodded. "They are wealthy landowners and live outside town. But they are not here at present.
"It was they who approached me about the experiment."
Cloud nodded. "Thank you for your time. I won't trouble you any further."
Moving out, he found Lightning leaning up against a wall, hair falling over her shoulders. He wondered what she'd been doing. "Anything?"
"Nothing," said Cloud. "She says she hasn't had contact with Angeal for years but has directed us to Genesis' parents. She also said that she was experimented on."
"Tseng's already tapped her phone," said Lightning.
"Come on, let's keep going," said Cloud.
Getting some directions to Genesis' house. They made their way along the path through the country. Their road led uphill until they were walking past a series of paths. And then, abruptly, a lion leaped out of the brush. Only it was not the kind of lion that Cloud had strangled with his bare hands.
It was huge and pulsed with magic, and on its brow was the symbol of a face. It surged toward him as he drew his sword. Slashing down, he caught it on the face, and it leaped back in pain, bleeding. Lightning was attacked from behind by another while Cloud's leaped at him. Raising his sword, the yellow gem within flared, and a wave of lightning shot forward to hit it. There was a flash, and it fell dead to the ground.
At the same time, Lightning shot hers dead and cut another down.
Cloud examined the face more and knew the chiseled features well. They belonged to a hypocritical, honorless monster. "...These things. They have Angeal's face on them."
"A copy?" asked Lightning.
"Possibly," said Cloud. "But these look like animals instead of people." If Genesis and Angeal came from the same experiment, it explained a lot.
"Guess Angeal might have some morality left, huh?" asked Lightning.
Cloud thought about going into a dog's mind and ripping it up until it became an extension of yourself. What a sicko. "Not really.
"Turning animals into copies is just as disgusting as doing it to people. Animals can feel pain too. And they aren't capable of the same level of evil as humans, so you can't even find one that deserves it."
"It wasn't fighting very well at all," noted Lightning.
"Maybe controlling a copy is a skill that takes a lot of work. Like using a new limb," said Cloud. Though he hadn't noticed. "It took a long time to set up the Genesis army."
They moved on until eventually, they came to a great mansion. It was very nice, with painted doors and a garden. Cloud looked up at it in surprise. "...This should be the place."
Knocking, he waited until a woman with red hair answered the door. "Hello, are you Ms. Rhapsodes?"
"Yes, I am. May I help you?" said the woman.
"We're here to talk to you about your son. My name is Cloud Strife," said Cloud.
The woman nodded. "Right, yes, of course, come in. We'll cooperate with Shinra."
"Thank you," said Cloud.
And he was led to a living room with a very nice mahogany table. The chairs were well-carved, and there were expensive pictures on the wall. This was the kind of place Cloud would have loved to live in when he was a kid. So he was even less impressed with Genesis' tragic backstory if indeed he did have one.
"...We don't know what it was that led to this," said Mr. Rhapsodes, who had blonde hair. "Genesis, he was always such a nice boy. Creative, outgoing, friendly, he admired Sephiroth so much. I remember Shinra assured us the experiments would be harmless. That they could increase his power."
"He was a bit eccentric, granted," said Ms. Rhapsodes. "He loved poetry, and I often took him to plays. Loveless was a movie he always liked, and he constantly trained to join SOLDIER. More than anything, he wanted to become friends with Sephiroth.
"Have you ever had a dream, young man?"
"Yes," said Cloud, liking the comparison less by the moment. "The same one."
And Cloud hadn't gotten to experience any of it.
"...What can we do to help?" asked Mr. Rhapsodes.
"Have you had any contact with Genesis since his meeting?" asked Cloud.
"No. Nothing," said Mr. Rhapsodes.
"Alright," said Cloud, remembering his instructions and drawing out a card. "We have reason to believe that Genesis may have been suffering mental degeneration. It may be a side effect of the Mako treatment. Someone else has manipulated him into this. If he approaches you, I need you to contact this number. Don't take any risks, but see if you can talk him into turning himself in.
"It probably won't save his life.
"However, it could help us to track down the people who were backing him. And it will stop him from causing any more harm."
"Is there any hope for him?" asked Ms. Rhapsodes.
Cloud sighed. "...Genesis and Angeal were both close friends with Sephiroth. He is one of the most valuable employees in Shinra. He was also popular in SOLDIER.
"It is conceivable that he could be pardoned or let off with a lighter sentence. Perhaps even given community service hunting monsters. Especially given his power.
"But that is out of my hands, and I can't promise anything."
Cloud, of course, would be absolutely disgusted if Genesis didn't die at the end of this. But that was not the sort of thing you said to heartbroken parents.
"Thank you," said Mr. Rhapsodes. "I... I must ask you to leave. I'm sure you understand why, Mr. Strife."
"I'll see myself out," said Cloud.
And he did just that. Once again, Lightning was waiting for him, looking impatient. "Are we done?"
"No contact," said Cloud. "We should radio Tseng, tell him what we've found. Once we've reported in, we'll find ourselves some lodging and start hunting fiends. Report the Angeal copies while you're at it."
"Aren't you worried?" asked Lightning.
"Unless Angeal and Genesis have decided I am their archenemy? No. We're beneath notice," said Cloud. "We'll probably just spend the rest of the war hunting monsters. Appearances have been on the rise anyway, with all the Mako Reactors being built."
"Fine, I'll make the call," said Lightning, before seeming to remember something. "...Actually, one sec, I have something for you."
And she drew out a light blue orb of materia. Tossing it to him, Cloud caught it and looked at it in surprise. "What's this?"
"An Ice Materia," said Lightning. "I figured it would go well with your Lightning one."
"Thanks," said Cloud. "So is this one fully developed or just-"
"It's level one. Work for it," said Lightning, before drawing out a phone and making a call. "Tseng?"
"Yes, we've done as you asked," said Lightning. "It's a no-go. None of them have been contacted. Nobody else seems to have seen them either, so I doubt their hiding. Genesis isn't the kind of guy to go anywhere by stealth."
"Yes, I'm sure. I checked their caller history while Cloud was talking to them. Nothing" said Lightning in response to something. "But we did run into some new copies. They were pretty weak, but they seemed to be made by Angeal, not Genesis.
"Animals from the looks of things. Their movements were jerky, and we killed them pretty easily. But Angeal was probably just testing them.
"He might have posted them here to ambush whoever they sent to check up on his family. What we're doing is standard procedure.
"Fine." She hung up. "Tseng is on his way personally with Zack Fair. Apparently, Lazard is dispatching that part of the mission."
"Then why are we even here?" asked Cloud. If Lazard was sending him out here, it probably meant nothing useful would come of it.
"My guess?" asked Lightning. "Tseng doesn't have faith in anyone in Lazard. Everyone knows how much you hate Lazard. So if you and he said the same thing, Tseng will know it's true."
"But why bring Zack out here? The guy is a psychopathic monster," said Cloud.
"Zack the Puppy?" asked Lightning, raising an eyebrow.
"Look, he's nice and all, and he did give me my Lightning Materia. But puppies don't carve bloody swaths through an entire fort," said Cloud. "The fact that he has that kind of body count with a cheerful smile just makes it more terrifying."
"Right, right," said Lightning. "Everyone in SOLDIER is a complete psycho, so what you see as an axe crazy monster, we see as a cheerful, nice guy. Makes sense."
She looked away, troubled.
Cloud eyed her. "...Are you alright?"
"I'm fine, I just..." Lightning paused. "I've spent the past few years killing people in swaths. I've done horrible things and felt nothing about it. I didn't see anything I did as wrong, and Lazard wasn't in a hurry to tell me otherwise. Now I know, sort of, right from wrong, and I still feel nothing.
"It's like there is a hole where the Clair Farron used to be. I don't even recognize what fills that void."
Had her name been Clair Farron? "Well, at least you know you have a problem." And then he heard an ungodly buzzing noise.
"Troops transports and lot of them," said Lightning, drawing out binoculars. She was looking out to the distance. Cloud saw planes flying toward them even now. "Wait, the pilot..." She lowered the binoculars. "It's Genesis.
"...The Genesis army is here."
Okay, quick thing. Light of the Soul has officially been discontinued. I painted myself into a corner, and there was nowhere to go with it. It also got completely derailed from my original plan for it.
I also noticed a lot of people who read Light of the Soul didn't read Shadows of the Mind.
So I've just decided to post the next installment as part of Shadows of the Mind, so no one has trouble with organization.