Chapter Three: Bloody Awakening
Cloud woke up and felt a lot of pain in his chest.
Even so, he wasn't dead. Shifting, he managed to pick himself up and immediately bumped heads with Lightning. She had been sitting over him, and her surprised reaction was cute. His armor was torn up, and he ached all over. Still his proximity to Lightning was... nice.
"Cloud, are you alright?" asked Lightning.
"Lightning? I figured we'd both be dead," said Cloud.
"Thanks to Genesis' play, yes," said Lightning. "I think he thought you might have been a possible candidate to be the prisoner. So he left me beaten and just alive enough to heal you.
"...Don't scare me like that. I thought you were dead and I tried to avenge you but Genesis he... he was too powerful. I know the PR puts me on Sephiroth's level, but I'm nowhere near Genesis or Angeal. Let alone Sephiroth."
"What about Mr. and Ms. Rhapsodes?" asked Cloud. He remembered their deaths, though his memory was a bit fuzzy. How was he supposed to fight against someone like that?
Looking around, he saw that the house was abandoned. Someone had kicked in the door, and the windows were broken. The stench of death, however, was everywhere.
"Gone," said Lightning. "Genesis' machines and copies went all over the island, killing everyone. There wasn't anything I could do. He rooted out a number of caves where a lot of them were hiding and took them out into the square to carve up."
"No survivors?" asked Cloud, feeling sick.
"Genesis might have missed a few. But he was angry," said Lightning. "He started throwing around accusations at no one. I think he was feeling a bit guilty, but he didn't want to admit it.
"Angeal's mother wasn't killed, at least. I checked on her, but... I don't think anything I said could help her."
Cloud sighed and stood up. Feeling around, he found his sword and sheathed it on his back. "...We should bury their bodies. It's... it's the least we can do."
"I already did," said Lightning. "There's a tool shed outback. I dug them a grave. It seemed like the right thing to do."
"Are there still Genesis copies around?" asked Cloud.
"Yes. But they've mostly left this area alone," said Lightning. "They're all focused down in town."
Cloud got to his knees and crawled forward to peer down the path. The bodies of all the Genesis copies looked to have been moved to a heap. They were now among huge mounds of charred corpses while their weapons lay planted in the ground. It was a mournful sight, and the Genesis copies were wandering around.
Looking back to the house, Cloud saw Mr. Rhapsodes rifle lying on a freshly dug grave. Moving forward, he noted it was the same as his. Entering the house, he checked it and went up to the perch from which Mr. Rhapsodes had been shooting. It was a last stand worth a story or two, though Cloud doubted anyone would tell it.
To his surprise, he found a number of unused clips. Loading them into his rifle, he peered down the sites toward the Genesis copies.
"What now?" asked Lightning behind him.
"Now?" asked Cloud. "Well, Genesis isn't about. So we continue the war. I'll see if I can snipe a few of them from here. You keep them off me."
"You sure you want to pick a fight?" asked Lightning. "Tseng and Zack should be here soon."
"I mean to pay Genesis back in blood," said Cloud before aiming downrange.
"Actually," said Lightning. "I'm not sure Genesis is all that happy about his status. He seems like he has been deliberately trying to kill off his copies."
"So?" asked Cloud.
"Well," said Lightning. "He never used to be this obsessed with Loveless. You used to be able to hold a conversation with him. Maybe having all those copies is screwing with his head."
"Well, I'm about to shoot the insanity out of it," said Cloud.
Taking aim, he fired and blew the brains out of a Genesis copy. Reloading, he aimed and fired again. Then again. Soon the Genesis copies came out of the buildings and began to move up the path again. Cloud continued to fire, and Lightning went to another window and did the same.
They had no real plan for victory. On some level, Cloud knew what he was doing was contrary to the mission. But he could not bear to let the bastard come away from this unscathed. Genesis was connected to his clones, so killing them was dealing him indirect injury. With each one he gunned down, more took their place.
In the end, however, there were only a few.
Soon all the Genesis copies here were dead, and Cloud was left alone staring out over a mountain of corpses. Many of them had been made by him. Loading his last clip, he nodded to Lightning, and they made their way down.
As they got out, however, a large contingent of Genesis copies came around. They moved quickly but walked right past the path. At the same time, a huge two-legged machined marched with them. Turning to them, it opened up missile tubes.
Lightning and Cloud ducked for cover.
As they did, missiles landed in the dirt behind them. Rocks and dirt were thrown up as the heat of the explosions singed his cheek. A fence splintered, sending pieces of wood everywhere. Grass was blasted and thrown into the air.
None of the missiles hit the house or the grave. When Cloud's ears stopped ringing, he realized the bombardment had stopped. Risking a glance, he saw that it was walking with the Genesis copies down the hill further. In the distance, he saw a helicopter landing.
"...Where are they running to?" asked Cloud.
"My guess, Zack and Tseng are in that helicopter," said Lightning. "Let's go take a look."
They moved forward together down into the charred battleground. Genesis seemed to have taken steps to avoid damaging the buildings. As if they were more important than the people. Walking together after the Genesis copies, they came to the southern reaches of the town.
And then Cloud saw Zack and Tseng at work again.
Zack fought like the devil himself. He rushed forward, slashing and hacking everyone in sight. He was paying no heed to shattered limbs or smashed faces. Vast crowds of Genesis copies went against him, only to be slaved down easily. But there was no smile on his face while doing it.
If anything, his expression was more concerned.
As he carved a bloody swath through the copies, Cloud raised his rifle and thought about helping. But, as Tseng gunned down several more, he thought better of it. The chances of him accidentally shooting one of them were higher than his shots being needed. So as they tore through everything in sight, Cloud just watched.
Zack was by now soaked in blood and gore and still killing.
Genesis was basically feeding his own clones into a meatgrinder for all the effect he was having. And behind lingered the heavy machine, doing nothing and waiting. Why was it waiting?
"Look at that. This is pure butchery," said Cloud, feeling sick. "We'd better get somewhere down there and introduce ourselves. I don't want to be mistaken for a Genesis copy."
"Wait," said Lightning.
"What is it?" asked Cloud.
"Let's keep our distance. See what they say," said Lightning. "Tseng might be here to kill us."
"What?" said Cloud.
"Sure. Gun us down and say Genesis did it," said Lightning. "Maybe President Shinra pressured him into it."
Cloud thought about it and decided Tseng would be willing to do that. And President Shinra might decide to give the order if he was annoyed about Cloud blowing the lid on Lazard. "Right."
Zack rushed forward toward the machine and killed several more copies. The machine launched a barrage of missiles at him. However, Zack passed it by, and as he did, the missiles fell to the ground in pieces before exploding. Then the machine exploded.
Zack looked at one of the bodies and took off the helmet. "A Genesis copy."
"Where did you hear that?" asked Tseng.
"Sephiroth said it," said Zack.
"The technology was stolen from our scientists," said Tseng.
"Huh?" asked Zack, sounding for all the world innocent and confused.
"It allows Genesis' abilities and traits to be translated to SOLDIER members. As well as monsters," said Tseng.
Zack halted. "SOLDIER and monsters? We're the same?" And he sounded trying, disturbed and confused.
"I don't see what he's so upset about," muttered Lightning. "People eat animals all the time. Both animals and humans come from the Planet. It doesn't make me the same as a cow."
Cloud said nothing. Instead, he focused on shadowing the two as they walked past the corpses. He stepped right over a corpse without a sideways glance. Tseng did the same, but it was different.
Tseng stepped over the corpses because he'd checked them for life. He saw no reason to give any more attention to the dead. But Zack did it because he did not see the corpses at all. It was like, to him, they weren't even real. Eventually, they came all the way up to Genesis' old home.
Looking to the window of Angel's home, he saw Ms. Hewley looking through it. Her eyes were stained with tears, and Cloud could not meet her gaze. This was his village to protect. He'd been the only one able to take responsibility, the one to rally the defense. And he'd been the one to fail them.
Walking up after Tseng and Zack, they observed from afar.
"This was Genesis' home. His parents are wealthy landowners," said Tseng.
But Zack was looking at a tree that grew near the house with Banora White hanging from it.
"Why is he looking at the tree?" wondered Cloud.
"They weren't mere acquaintances," said Tseng. "They grew up together and were best friends."
"So Genesis deserts and gets his best friend Angeal to join him? Is that it?" asked Zack.
"Sephiroth believes that's the case," said Tseng. And he moved over to the grave, checking it. "A gravestone. Still very new.
"Zack, go find Angeal's house. I'll check the grave."
Zack nodded. "So Turk always does this stuff?"
"Someone has to do it," said Tseng.
"Must be rough," said Zack.
"Don't worry. We're paid much better than you are," said Tseng with a twinge of amusement.
"No way!" said Zack.
And he ran off.
"...Cloud, Lightning, you've kept your distance until now?" said Tseng. "Afraid I'm going to gun you down?"
"We figured President Shinra might have leaned on you to get rid of one or both of us," said Lightning, moving forward. "So we decided to talk with you when Zack wasn't nearby."
"It's probably a good precaution to make," admitted Tseng. "I've conducted a lot of assassinations in the past. The best kind is done when your opponent trusts you. It makes a surprise attack easy.
"Lazard received your report and dismissed it, naturally. He thinks you're KIA."
"I'm guessing we're not getting sent back to Midgar," noted Cloud.
"You guess correctly," said Tseng. "You're both very talented. But your presence in Midgar is causing problems. Shinra High Command doesn't like the idea that a member of their poker club might be gunning for them.
"Some of them think you're jealous of Lazard.
"You're both good agents, though. You know how to think on your feet and keep a low profile. But you're also good when the shooting starts. So I decided to use this operation to get you off the map."
"Why the operation in the first place?" asked Cloud. "Those planes had to come from somewhere—someone committed to a military operation out here.
"But there's nothing valuable out here."
"It was recruitment or threat elimination," said Tseng. "Sephiroth was supposed to do the job, but he flatly refused to accept it. My theory is that he was supposed to meet Genesis and Angeal here. They'd then recruit him or eliminate him as was doable.
"Sephiroth may have guessed as much and refused. Either because he didn't want to kill his friends, or he didn't like his chances. He's on our side.
"Who's in the grave?"
"Genesis' parents. They tried to talk him down, and he murdered both of them," said Cloud.
"I see," said Tseng, voice level. "I didn't think he'd ever stoop that low. Why are you alive?"
"I have no idea," admitted Cloud. "He was rambling about how in Loveless, one of the friends is injured and nursed back to health by a former enemy. I think he is trying to recreate the play, somehow."
"And Angeal's Mother?" asked Tseng.
"She refused to leave. I don't know what happened to her; I spent a long time unconsciously," said Cloud. "If she's lucky, Genesis doesn't think she's important."
Tseng nodded. "...Cloud, answer me this. How coherent do you think Genesis is?"
"Coherent?" asked Cloud.
"You've made it plain to you he's a monster," said Tseng. "I won't dispute that. But how sane is he? How much does he comprehend about his situation?"
"He has no grip on reality," said Cloud. "The man is trying to turn his life into a poem. Or maybe turn his poem into life. But his idea of who the protagonist and villains are keeps swapping. The only consistent thing about him is his ego and narcissism.
"Which doesn't excuse him at all.
"Even an insane person can understand right and wrong enough. No amount of madness can justify what Genesis is doing here."
"Is that your assessment as well?" asked Tseng, looking to Lightning.
"He's nuts," said Lightning. "And I mean that by SOLDIER standards."
Tseng nodded. "Spreading his consciousness across other people may have led to mental duress. Different aspects of his personality would appear differently in different copies. If his psyche became disturbed enough, Loveless might be able to form an identity. A sort of common ground that the Genesis copies all agree on.
"When I meet him, I'll report that I found you buried with his parents. It will help me assess his mental state.
"Either way, it doesn't matter. Our planes have confirmed that the building Lightning described is a factory. I'm going to scout it out.
"Both of you remain here and observe.
"If Genesis or Angeal show up, don't bother picking a fight. They'd kill you. Anyone else, feel free to engage. Don't show yourself to Zack; he'll blab."
"Right," said Cloud.
And so observations continued. Tseng left, walking away with clear composure, and Cloud reflected he was coldblooded. He had the feeling that if Tseng hadn't been impressed, he and Lightning would have been added to the grave. Whether Zack was here or not wouldn't matter at all.
Soon enough, Zack came by, and they hid.
Cloud hoped that Ms. Hewley hadn't told Zack about them. He thought about going down to confirm. However, it wasn't long before another figure came. Peering down at the village, Cloud saw Angeal and Genesis walking in. Angeal looked at the corpses and averted his gaze.
Then Angeal walked into his old home. Genesis scoffed and walked away. Cloud went for his gun, but Lightning stopped him. And they waited.
"Cloud, Lightning," said Tseng. "An airstrike is incoming. Get to your LZ immediately."
For a moment, Cloud wondered whether to go and get Ms. Hewley or stay and hope the airstrike killed Angeal.
And then Zack came sprinting back into the village. He entered the house, and moments later, Angeal was thrown out. "What the hell did you do, Angeal?!
"Is that... is that your idea of honor?!"
"My mother... could not continue to live. And neither can the son," said Angeal, voice grief-stricken.
He'd murdered her.
Angeal had murdered his own Mother. That he felt grief or that she might have been better off was irrelevant. Angeal had put her in this position. What if Angeal had stood with his hometown and fended off the army with them?
Instead, he had taken the side of Genesis.
"What are you talking about?! What's gotten into you?!" said Zack.
Zack spoke as if Angeal had ruined someone's painting. Or hurt someone in a brawl with no long-term consequences. And then Genesis appeared and trapped Zack as he walked.
"I told you. You can't live on that side anymore," said Genesis, enjoying what was happening.
Cloud raised his gun.
"Angeal!" cried Zack.
But Angeal walked away, his sword in hand.
"My friend, do you fly away now?" asked Genesis. "To a world that abhors you and I? All that awaits you is a somber morrow?"
"Shut up! Shut up! I'm warning you!" said Zack.
"No matter where the winds may blow," said Genesis, raising a hand. "I don't see Sephiroth today, but are you game?" Then, in an instant, Zack was gone. An instant later, Cloud shot Genesis in the head.
Unfortunately, it didn't take.
The bullet deflected off a shield and then vanished. Genesis glanced up and then continued to wait.
"Where is Zack?" asked Cloud.
"Transported to a summon dimension. Genesis uses that trick to trap his enemies and force them to fight for his amusement. The only way out is to kill the summon," said Lightning. "Let's go."
And they ran, moving past Genesis, who simply ignored them. Cloud was not offended at his refusal to acknowledge them. It meant that he did not take Cloud seriously, and Cloud could use that to his advantage. The next time they met, he would be stronger.
Mr. and Ms. Rhapsodes, Mr. Hewley... the villagers... Snow.
All of them would be avenged.
Quickly enough, they came to a helicoptor. There they found Tseng waiting beneath the still spinning motors. Cloud halted. "Tseng, you're here."
"Yes, where is Zack," said Tseng.
"Fighting Genesis, the two vanished into a summon arena," said Lightning. "Apparently, Genesis didn't want to interrupt, seeing as he let us go."
"I see," said Tseng. "We should be able to delay the airstrike for a time. I've already done it one before."
"If we let it go through, it could kill Angeal and Genesis at the same time," said Cloud. Nothing personal against Zack, but the guy was better off dead before he figured out what he'd become. You euthanized a rabid dog, after all. Though it seemed vicious to say that in regards to a human.
"Company policy at the moment is to see if Genesis and Angeal can be salvaged," said Tseng. "We're contractually obligated to follow through. Zack seems quite determined to do just that, and he is quite insistent on trying."
Cloud stared. "Salvaged?
"Did you see what they did?"
"The company crunches numbers with soldiers as assets," said Tseng. "It is up to their commanders to deal with personal issues. For my part, I will recommend an assassination.
"...We'll wait for Zack." And he drew out Shinra Infantry uniforms. "Put this one. I want Zack to not notice you. I've got a very important mission for you coming up, which may double as leave."
"Well, that's always nice to hear," said Cloud. "Do I get a raise?"
"Let's leave that for a time when we aren't trying to keep you off the map," said Tseng. "We'll go over the details later."
"...Why are we burning down that village?" asked Cloud. "If not to kill Genesis, why?"
"We're tying up loose ends," said Tseng. "Shinra doesn't want evidence of the Genesis copies getting out. And if Genesis' actions here were to become common knowledge it would render SOLDIER useless as an asset. There would be calls for investigation and it would tarnish Sephiroth by association.
"Sephiroth has been put on something of a pedastal by the company. And that pedastal needs protecting. To otherwise could decrease profits."
Cloud said nothing. There was nothing he dared to say. He looked to Lightning, whose gaze shifted to Tseng, then back. "That's why they were trying to prop me up to replace him. Sephiroth is a goldmine for good PR, but you don't want to bank everything on one operation."
"More or less true," said Tseng. "I think I have a great deal of work for you."
Was he interviewing him to join the Turks? The organization that murdered a bunch of mystics who preached against reducing the world to a lifeless wasteland? Cloud supposed he should be flattered, but he only felt bitter. He'd wanted to be in SOLDIER, but SOLDIER was even worse than the Turks?
The professional murderers were far better people than the 'heroes' of justice. And all of them had oceans of blood on their hands. And Cloud had to cooperate and do whatever Tseng said. Because if he didn't, Tseng might find it more convenient to hand him over to his enemies. Or he might just tie up loose ends.
As they got in and donned their outfits, Cloud and Lightning looked down and saw Zack coming up the field. He was sporting many wounds and covered in the blood and entrails of his enemies. His hair was ragged and soaked.
"Are they dead?" asked from the door of the helicoptor.
"No, Angeal and Genesis both got away," said Zack, standing at the threshold.
"Well done," said Tseng.
The bombers arrived.
All of them saw the inferno. Explosives descended to blow a place that was once of light and beauty to ashes. Infernos raged, consuming crops and burning the town to ashes. Cloud felt a certain humility as he looked on. It was amazing how quickly what had once been a good place could become a hell.
But all Tseng saw were numbers. Once he confirmed the explosions were successful, he did not look up again.
And all Zack could focus on was a Banora white apple being burned to a cinder. Did it symbolize something? Refer back to some conversation between him and Angeal, the mentor who had turned him into an attack dog? Cloud did not know.
But an apple burning seemed insufficient symbolism for genocide. A genocide Shinra would have happily done themselves. Genesis hadn't become evil by turning on Shinra, he'd just applied everything he'd learned in Shinra against them.
This is what Snow and so many batallions had died for. This inferno to cover up loose ends.
Lazard and Shinra were equally terrible and neither one deserved the win.
Fuck Shinra. Fuck Genesis. And fuck this war. As soon as Cloud got honorable discharge he was going home. Hero or not.