Chapter Three: Message Received
Cloud Strife woke up a few days later in a house in the slums. Getting up, he pulled off his blankets and found Lightning cooking breakfast. She looked odd with an apron over herself like that. Oddly enough, she hadn't burned anything.
"I didn't know you knew how to cook," said Cloud.
Lightning shrugged. "I learned it years ago. Remembered how to do it a little while back. I've been... remembering things a lot since I met you."
"Well, I'm sure we'll be getting asked to forget we ever saw a lot of things," said Cloud. "So that balances out."
Breakfast ended up being informal. Cloud ended up reading from some mythological stories. Meanwhile, he ate eggs and bacon between slices of toast. Lightning looked up in interest.
"What are you reading?" asked Lightning.
"Oh, this," said Cloud. "I got it from a library. It's a history of the Yu Yevon conflicts. Well, as much as we were able to gather. Apparently, 'Tidus' is actually a placeholder name.'
"What do you mean by that?" asked Lightning.
"Well, a lot of different historical texts refer to him by different names," said Cloud. "And there are other historical figures very similar to him in other times. Some speculate that he's entirely mythological.
"Especially since he just mysteriously disappeared from the world without a trace. All the stories agree on that."
"Didn't they have an airship?" asked Lightning.
"Yeah, supposedly," said Cloud. "The tech does exist these days. But with the Al Bhed home destroyed, there wasn't anywhere equipped to maintain it. So chances are they had to scrap it."
"Serah used to love that story," mused Lightning. "Funny you should mention Tidus being a placeholder name. 'Squall.'"
"Squall yourself, 'Claire,'" said Cloud. "Tseng gave us the names to go by. It's not my fault if the name isn't very good."
"It's historical," said Claire. "It's the name of the leader of a prominent anti-Shinra faction called SeeD. They were Wutai's attempt at creating an eco-friendly equivalent to SOLDIER."
"I've never heard of it," said Cloud.
"That's because the junction system made no sense," said Lightning. "Nobody could figure out how to use it."
"And what happened to them?" asked Cloud.
"Sephiroth wasted them," said Lightning.
There was a knock on the door. Cloud quickly wolfed down his food, stood up, and made his way over to the door. Opening it, he looked out. Beyond, he saw Elena, looking bright and chipper. "Yes?"
"Hi, Cloud, how are you holding up?" asked Elena.
"Code name," said Cloud simply.
"Oh, right, 'Hi, Squall, how are you holding up,'" said Elena.
"Whatever," said Cloud.
"Ah, good to hear it! I got those letters you wanted!" said Elena.
Cloud blinked. "Letters?"
"Yeah, you asked that someone check the letters for you. So I did, and you got letters," said Elena, raising them.
"Seriously?" asked Cloud, surprised. He'd only asked out of principle; he hadn't expected to get anything. "I haven't gotten anything in years."
"Oh yeah, it turns out there were some screwups in the postal service," said Elena. She brushed aside a strand of blonde hair and smiled. "The guy in charge of it has been embezzling funds for years. We didn't notice because of the war.
"Now, though, we found out and got him arrested, tried, and sentenced."
Cloud stared at her in surprise. "...You gave him a trial?"
"Uh-huh," said Elena. "Reno and I kicked down his door, dragged him out into the street, then Reno beat him up with a crowbar. Then I said said 'guilty.' then we blew his brains out. That last part was the sentence."
Cloud nodded; this was more familiar ground. "That sounds about right.
"Pass me the letters."
"Just two," said Elena. "Sorry."
Cloud found the one from his Mother on top. He considered whether to open the one from Tifa or her first. Eventually, he decided the worst was likely to come from Tifa and opened that.
"Sorry, it took so long for me to give you a response. I've been reading about you in the papers for years now, and I kind of thought you'd forgotten about me. It's kind of surreal, knowing that someone I grew up with has become such a huge war hero.
"Anyway, I only just got your letters a few days before writing this. Your Mom and I combined these in one package. Some of what you wrote about was pretty amazing, others kind of disturbing.
"Are you planning to come back to Nibelheim any time soon?
"You're the talk of the town at the moment.
"I should probably finish this up before I run out of paper. When you come back to Nibelheim, everyone is waiting for you.
"-Your Promise Girl,
It was better news than Cloud had ever hoped for. But he didn't really know how to feel about it at the moment, so he shifted to the next one. It was from Mom.
"I'm glad you're alright. Until I started reading about you in the papers, I was afraid you'd never made it to Midgar at all. And then I was afraid you'd never thought to write to me.
"Is your Father doing well? You always got on well with him before, and with your achievements, he must have given you a meeting.
"Are you keeping safe? I'd hate to think you weren't brushing and keeping yourself groomed.
"Nibelheim has been feeling very empty without you and so many others. All the boys have left town, and most of the girls have left to seek marriage. A few have come back.
"All the papers talk about how you fought alongside Angeal.
"If you don't mind, I think some people here were hoping for an autograph.
"I wish I had more to say here.
How to tell Mom that Cloud had come to loath his Father for the heartless monster he was. The best was probably 'not at all.'
"Something wrong?" asked Elena.
Cloud shook his head. "Nothing just...
"Have you ever had something happen to you that you always wanted? But when you get there, it's just anticlimactic."
"Oh yeah, definitely," said Elena. "I mean, when I made my bones, I was told to whack this mobster in the Midgar slums. I just sort of walked up to him while he was eating dinner and blew his brains out. Then I walked out. He didn't even put up a fight.
"Of course, these days, it's Don Corneo running things."
"Don Corneo?" asked Cloud. "I haven't heard of him."
"Yeah, he used to handle information for Wutai ninja," said Elena. "He was a spymaster for King Godo before he moved here. He set himself up in the slums of Midgar, near Wall Market."
"And you haven't whacked him because..." began Cloud in a leading question.
"He's got protection from Heidegger in Shinra," said Elena. "We let him operate in exchange for offering information on what goes on in the slums.
"We had one or two strikes at the factories, and he used his enforcers to break them up. Saved us the trouble of sending in the military.
"Oh, and also some up and coming competitors to Shinra got their windows broken and had to sell. If you get where I'm coming from."
"Heidegger is the head of the Peace and Preservation Department," noted Cloud.
"Uh-huh," said Elena. "It was formed while the war was winding down. See, President Shinra is concerned about some labor unions. Seems like no matter how many labor union leaders hang, the workers still cause trouble.
"Anyway, I hear he shut down Tseng's attempts to investigate Lazard pretty hard. Dismissed it without even reading the report. I guess he's technically our boss now, but Tseng takes orders from President Shinra.
"I should go. I need to get coffee for Reno and Rude."
"What about my request? To get an assignment to Nibelheim?" asked Cloud.
"Um, I haven't heard anything on it," said Elena. "But, Tseng seems to want you for some other operation. You're an outsider, and that's useful sometimes."
Cloud nodded. "Right, thank you."
Cloud went back into the house and thought about what he had learned. Looking over to Lightning, he met her gaze.
"You're back," said Lightning.
"Yes, yes I am," said Cloud, letting a smile come to his face. "Tifa and Mom finally got in contact."
"Congratulations," said Lightning, turning on the sink and washing dishes.
"Is that sarcastic?" asked Cloud, picking up a broom and dustpan and beginning to sweep.
"Do you take it as sarcastic?" asked Lightning.
"Nevermind," said Cloud. "Let's clean up here and get to the train graveyard. These fiends aren't going to hurt themselves."
And they did that.
Fiend hunting had never been a business in the Slums until now. Traditionally everyone carried a gun and took care of themselves. But that had changed, and Cloud and Lightning had made a living for themselves out here.
"Count yourself lucky," said Lightning. "Last time I was here, there weren't any bounties on fiends."
"I know," said Cloud. "The monsters have been increasing in number. There have been hundreds of killings in the past two weeks. Shinra can't afford to have their wage slaves killed off too quickly. Otherwise, the survivors might be able to use their limited supply as leverage."
"Now you're learning," said Lightning.
"When have I not been?" asked Cloud.
And they walked past the station and into the train graveyard, named for the obvious. In this place, many unfinished tracks lay smoldering. Numerous trains of all ages lay here and there. Some were overturned and broken, while others were new and nearly functional. If you fixed some of them up, you could even imagine them working for years and years.
But all of them had been thrown away as soon as they were obsolete. Shinra treated machines just like they treated people. It was mournful and made worse as a light dribble of rain began to pour through the vents in the plat above.
"So... where do you think these monsters are?" asked Lightning.
"Walk around the dangerous areas a bit. They'll show up," said Cloud. "Because wandering around a train graveyard is what I wanted to do with my life."
"At least your getting your letters," said Lightning.
"Or lack thereof," said Cloud. "If I'd gotten those letters a year ago, I'd be overjoyed. Now I just feel empty."
"...What happened here anyway?" asked Lightning. "This train graveyard. How did it get wrecked like this?"
"I think it was during one of the earlier wars," said Cloud, remembering something Aerith had told him. "A covert series of explosions shut down this entire area. Everyone either fled or died. When Shinra was fighting to gain control, they used a lot of trains. Back then, it was the fastest way to move material. These days, though, we've got airships and convoy trucks.
"So trains aren't as important."
Suddenly Lightning tensed, and Cloud drew his sword at once. "Wait...
"Here they come."
The monsters came at them at last. He was crawling out of broken windows and scuttling from beneath holes in the streets. They rushed forward, maws gaping, heedless of gunfire. Lightning gunned them down repeatedly, even as Cloud hurled thunderbolts that burned many. But more was always coming.
Soon they were fighting back to back, slashing the horrific creatures down as they went. No matter how many they killed, more was always coming. It was as if some force was sending these creatures to attack just them.
The more they killed, the more the air seemed to change.
Little by little, the drizzling ceased as the blood of monsters soaked the ground. Lightning and Cloud halted and realized that stood among the bodies. The corrupted energies of the creatures faded away. The malice they felt was extinguished.
"That's the monsters purged in this area," said Lightning. "Let's keep moving and see if we can find the others."
They stopped only to cut off bits of each monster that marked their win. These they put into a pack and kept going. As was usual for their days, they made their way far and wide. Periodically, a feeling of rage would wash over them. Eventually, they'd be attacked by numerous monsters. Sometimes they were shapeless, ghostly things that vanished and attacked from unseen places. Others were machines, reanimated by the malice of the Planet.
The more they killed, the greater their profits became.
But Cloud had a sinking feeling that the Planet was losing patience. How long could they continue to hunt them before it outright tried to exterminate them. There had been extinction-level events before. It was usually leaving only a few survivors to repopulate the world. Archeology had uncovered ancient civilizations even more ancient than Spira. Though almost nothing was known.
Was that why Genesis had killed all those people? Had Lazard ordered those massacres simply to reduce the surplus population? Certainly, slaughtering vast numbers of people would reduce the burden on the Planet. But there had to be a better way than that.
Either way, Cloud liked to imagine that the monsters the Planet created were part of the problem. Manifestations of impurities that had to be destroyed. By wiping them out, he was cleansing the world a little bit at a time.
But there were so many.
Suddenly Lighting and Cloud came across an open pit in the middle of the street, beyond the train cars. Road work had been done to move the top, and the stench of the sewers came from below. Looking down, Cloud saw a huge river of muck in a room large enough to walk in.
"Who opened up the street?" asked Lightning.
"No one with good intentions," said Cloud. "Sewer workers usually don't come this way, except to manage pipes. You only open the street to do a major overhaul. You might even have to specially hire them to come by."
Lightning halted. "Do you hear that?"
Cloud looked up, and then they saw a carried drawn by Chocobos moving toward them. As one, they went into hiding and took place outside view. As they did, the carriage arrived and came to a halt. Stepping down, Cloud saw they were wearing modified Wutai uniforms. And at the moment, they were uncovering the front of the carriage. Within a cage, Cloud saw a hunched, blue monstrosity sleeping.
"What are we holding this thing for?" asked one.
"Oh, Don Corneo wants it moved to the sewer," said another, lowering it down. "Now hurry up; we're paying plenty of bribes to get the street opened up like this, hurry up."
"Why is he even doing this anyway?" asked one, as they opened the cage and dropped the creature into it.
"I hear the Don's gotten some real recognition," said one as the monster landed. "He's been making some special modifications to some rooms. Maybe he wants to send the thing some snacks."
"I'll bet he does," said Cloud, not liking the sound of this.
"Want to kill them?" asked Lightning.
"Not yet," said Cloud. "Circle around here and flank them. As soon as I give the signal, we wipe them out." They were dressed as Wutai soldiers and working for an associate of Lazard. Time to fix a few problems.
"What now?" asked one as Cloud moved out.
"Now the sewer crews are going to come by and shut the thing down," said the other. "We're not supposed to be around for that."
"I'd hate to be the sewer crew," laughed the first.
"Not our problem if they get turned into a snack," said the second. "Come on."
They turned, and the men turned to face Cloud. "Good morning."
"What the..." said one of the guards. "Who the hell are you?"
"I work for Shinra. What are you doing here?" asked Cloud.
"Buzz off, infantryman. This doesn't concern you," said another.
"I think it does," said one of the guards. "That's Cloud Strife; I read about him helping take Fort Tamblin in the paper."
"You're from Wutai," said Cloud, noting the facial features. "So is your uniform."
"And what if we are?" asked one of them, drawing their guns.
"How many of there are you working for Don Corneo?" asked Cloud.
"You'll never know," said a Wutai soldier.
Cloud rushed forward and rolled forward under their barrage. Lightning came from the side, and then things got bloody. Shurikens were hurled as Cloud cut a man in half. Someone opened fire with an assault rifle, and he hit the ground before sending a lightning bolt to fry him. Lightning spun over another and cut him down.
All of the men were dead.
They'd never drink water, or use fuel, or breathe air or hurt anyone ever again. And they'd had exactly the same plan for Cloud. He wasn't sure why he killed them, but he'd better make the best of it. Looking down, he saw the shambling monster lying almost drugged on the ground.
"I'm guessing that concludes negotiations," said Lightning. "Why did we kill these people?"
"They were working for someone who was working for Lazard. And they were criminals from Wutai anyway," said Cloud. "More air for the rest of us.
"Throw the bodies down there in the sewers."
They did just that, though they had to pick up one or two severed limbs in the process. Once done, something occurred. If Don Corneo wanted to get rid of a monster, he needed only to have it killed. He must have some use for finding it here.
Which meant Don Corneo probably had some sort of doorway to another area of operations. They weren't that far from Wall Market. Moving on to the chocobos, he whacked one, so they sped off wildly. Then Cloud found a manhole, pulled it away, and began to scale down. Lightning leaped down ahead of him and was waiting as he hit the ground.
"What are you planning?" asked Lightning.
"In a minute," said Cloud. "Keep an eye on that drugged monster. I need to look around. "If Don Corneo wants to feed people to this thing, he'll need a way of getting them down here."
"There's a chute up there," said Lightning, motioning to one wall.
"I see it," said Cloud. "Lightning, give me a boost."
Lightning nodded and got down on one knee. Stepping onto her shoulders, he was able to get to the chute. Once he clambered into it, Lightning looked up. "What are you doing?"
"I'm seeing where this goes," said Cloud. "If someone comes by, don't wait for me."
"Whatever you say," said Lightning.
Cloud began scaling up the chute as quickly as he could. It scaled at an angle but soon went straight up. He had to go further by pressing his back against the wall and walking up. As he did, he heard a voice. It was an effeminate, lilting voice.
"So, what is the word on Princess Yuffie?" asked the voice. Coming to a halt, Cloud hit the top of the wall.
"Nothing yet, Don Corneo," said another. "With respect, I would not hold out hope. Shinra is using her as a pawn to keep King Godo in line."
"Oh, but hope springs eternal," said Don Corneo. "Such a beautiful young thing she is; I desired her since I saw her in the streets. And Shinra won't need Yuffie for much longer, now that I've come over to their side. My contacts will be far more valuable than one spoiled Princess."
"Might I suggest seeking less ambitious fair," said Don Corneo's minions.
"Yes, I suppose I will need a lay for the night," said Corneo. "Send out agents and send out the word that Don Corneo seeks a bride for the night."
"As you wish," said the man. "Do you wish them willing? Or will resistant ones do?"
"The resistant kind are so fun to break," said Don Corneo thoughtfully. "But, the willing kind are so innocent and nice to corrupt. Or scandalous and seductive. Any will do, bring them all.
"For now, bring me that girl I used yesterday. I think I'll give her another go before I give her to the men."
Cloud drew out a flashlight and saw a trapdoor. That was enough for now. Putting it away, he slid back down the chute and landed. "...A new plan, Lightning.
"We're going to murder Don Corneo and everybody who works for him."
And he began to scale up the steps. Lightning went after him.
"So, what's the plan?" asked Lightning.
"I'm going to make my own mission," said Cloud. "For now, we need a meeting with Tseng."
He was going to make a plan.
And then he was getting back to Nibelheim.