Chapter Six: Trials and Tribulations
As they got nearer to Fort Condor, things began to get worse.
At first, there were regular groups of Shinra soldiers on patrol. Now and then, they'd stop by villages for more supplies. Barret would often hunt for food, and Cloud would invariably end up doing the cooking.
Barret tended to get eyed with suspicious glances as they walked. Though Marlene and Jessie made for good company. The little girl, however, seemed a bit afraid of Cloud.
It was some weeks into their journey that they came into a village.
There were no women or children about, and in the square of the village were dozens of men. They seemed to be training with staffs and spears in a unified formation. Jessie eyed it strangely as they neared. "Looks like they're preparing for battle."
Even as they neared the gates, however, a number of men moved a cart into place, pushing it up as a barricade. "Get those barricades up, quick! We've got to be ready for when the Shinra come!" One of the men looked to them; he was an older man with a short goatee. "You stop! Who are you?"
"I'm Barret Wallace, and we ain't got no love for Shinra," said Barret. "What's your beef with them?"
"We were under Shinra's protection until recently," said the man. "We paid our taxes, of course. "But then we came across some rare metals we could mine. Shinra came and asked to purchase the land's rights so they could develop it, but... we said no.
"Now they're sending a whole task force our way.
"But, we're not going be driven off our land!"
Barret nodded, and the gatling cannon on his arm spun in approval. "Well then, we'll lend ya a hand. We ain't letting those bastards do to you what they did to us."
"I'm grateful, and your gun could probably be of help," said the old man. "But what good will these children do? We've already had our women and children sent to Fort Condor."
"Excuse me," said Jessie, coming forward. "I'm an explosives expert. If you have some everyday materials, Cloud and I should be able to make you lots of bombs."
"Wait, me?" said Cloud, brain catching up with what was happening. Was he being volunteered to help resist Shinra? He hadn't signed up for this!
"Sure, you can be my assistant, Cloud," said Jessie. "I'm going to need some help. I told you about my recipes before. Please?"
"Um, right, okay," said Cloud. "Hang on, maybe we should negotiate with Shinra? I mean, they've got a huge army. What are you hoping to gain here?"
"We're going to make them regret trying to take our land," said the man. "We won't give it up without a fight."
"But they could wipe you out!" said Cloud.
"We're not giving up our home," said the man. "We'll get you the materials you need."
"Great," said Jessie, drawing out a list. "This has everything I need for a single explosive. Can you get it for me?"
The man looked at the list. "These are all everyday ingredients. We'll get you them and a place to assemble them."
And that was how Cloud and Jessie ended up moving into a shed to one side. Cloud rapidly found himself acting as an assistant. He'd hand chemicals to her and materials as she put them together. Jessie seemed to be in her element, grinning ear to ear as she assembled explosives.
With each one sealed, she'd put it in a case. When a case was filled, Cloud would be told to bring it out to the men. While walking out to meet them, he saw Barret talking with various people. He'd seen a Shinra attack before and seemed to think the barricades were a waste of time.
"The Shinra will crash right through this," he was saying as Cloud set down the boxes. "Ya gotta count on that when making the strategy. We'll wait for them-"
Cloud didn't want to hear anymore. Jessie had left instructions on how to use the explosives on every crate. So everyone should know how to use it. Meanwhile, he hurried back to the workbench. "So uh... are we sure this is going to help against Shinra? They have guns, Jessie."
"Yeah, but I'll bet the Shinra will be expecting an easy target," said Jessie. As she spoke, she finished another homemade weapon. "These villagers don't even have guns, and they know that. So I'll bet Shinra will be really overconfident and we'll be able to wipe them out and then..."
"And then Shinra will send an even bigger army after you, and that one will be careful," said Cloud flatly.
Jessie frowned and paused while pouring a chemical. "Well, I mean, it sounds hopeless when you say it like that. But if every village puts up this kind of fight, Shinra will lose a lot of money. Maybe they won't be so eager to fight?
"Or maybe we'll draw off troops that are being used in Wutai. It could win the whole war!
"Hey, how about you take a turn making these."
"I um," Cloud paused. "I'm not sure I should-"
"Come on, it's easy," said Jessie. "See, you pour this in..."
Cloud was beginning to think that all of this was going to look very, very bad on his resume. Even so, he knew these people were defending their lands, and he didn't have a choice. He'd already tried to talk them out of it, and Jessie was uh... persuasive.
Soon enough, they'd run through a lot of materials and needed to get more. Eventually, Barret came in. "Jessie, Cloud, you got the bombs ready yet?"
"Yes, we've got a bunch of them here," said Jessie. "Don't rush us, this stuff is dangerous, Barret."
"Good," said Barret. "I need you to rig up a trigger bomb, Jessie. The way I see it, the Shinra was gonna blaze right through that barricade in trucks. So if we set up explosives on it..."
"It might kill them all right away!" said Jessie. "Wow, I haven't made trigger bombs in forever! Come on, Cloud, let's do this!"
Making and setting up the trigger bombs was a lot of trouble. Cloud remembered setting things up just right was touch and go. He was afraid that if he messed one thing up, they'd all die.
When they finally got there, they found that Barret had changed strategies. He'd had the villages set up several lesser barricades. They were surrounding the two main entrances. They encircled the entrance, and they were supposed to set the explosives on the front gate.
"Alright, people, listen up," said Barret. "These things have a range as far as you can throw them. When you throw them, you first pull off this tab. That starts the countdown, and if it's still in your hand when it ends, you're dead.
"So remember to toss them quickly and far."
"Barret," said Cloud. "Why aren't we trying to stop them at the gate?"
"I've seen Shinra vehicles; they'll smash right through them," said Barret. "And if we try keeping em at bay by tossing explosives, they'll run away.
"We gotta crush em now.
"So we let em smash right in, that triggers the bombs, so the front rank gets blown up. Then the rest of em are between us. So we all throw the bombs and kill the bastards." Then he looked at them. "Jessie, Cloud, stay with Marlene in the house over there and watch the fireworks. We're gonna teach the Shinra they can't push people around."
Cloud was only too happy to obey.
The house, as is turned out, had a perfect view of the town square. It also had a back door that led straight to the wall. Barret had set up a rope leading up it and down it as an escape route. But Cloud had the feeling they'd be offering terms of surrender at best.
How had he gotten into this?
"So do you think they'll win?" asked Jessie, peering out the window. Marlene was sleeping in a chair behind them.
"...Um, well, no," said Cloud.
"What, seriously?" asked Jessie. "After all the work we put in."
"Jessie, Shinra have guns," said Cloud. "And SOLDIERs too. A bunch of explosives isn't going stop them. What if Sephiroth shows up. Who could stop him?
"Although I don't think Sephiroth would ever do something like this."
Jessie frowned. "Yeah, but aren't SOLDIER an elite group. They can't be everywhere at once, can they? We might just be dealing with ordinary Shinra military."
And then they heard the sound of trucks, and Jessie peered out. "Here come the Shinra."
They came in the waning light, a convoy of trucks carrying soldiers with assault rifles. They were armed to the teeth and shone floodlights over the walls as they neared the barricades. "Attention villagers! You are illegally squatting on Shinra property. Your forty-eight hours have expired! If you do not immediately disperse, we will be forced to do by force. Your barricade is broken, and any further resistance is futile!
"Surrender now, and you will not be harmed!"
No response. Barret and the villages were crouching behind the barricades, waiting. Explosives were set. Cloud hoped they came to their senses and surrendered, but he knew it wouldn't happen.
Finally, the engines were gunned.
The trucks surged forward, just like Barret had guessed. They crashed into the barricade and shattered it. And as they did, the explosives went off. The frontmost truck was thrown into the air, carried by momentum to crash in the plaza beyond. The trucks that came after it surged through the flames and slowed to a halt, troops leaping off it.
Even as they did, Barret stood up and started shooting. Two men fell, blood spattering their blue uniforms. They raised their guns as men scrambled out of trucks, and then the bombs started flying.
Explosions rocked the entire plaza. Men were flung into the air, screaming. One landed inside a truck before everyone was out, killing all within. Shinra men ducked for cover behind their fallen vehicles. Yet even more rushed into the plaza behind them. It was now a killing ground, with more and more people crowding in to be blown apart.
Corpses were littering the ground. At the same time, Barret was firing nonstop, killing one man after another. The Shinra were hardly able to organize, and many were panicking.
And then Cloud realized that Barret was going to win.
"None of you Shinra bastards are walking out of here!" roared Barret as a truck exploded from a bomb near the engine. "BURN IN HELL, YOU FUCKERS!"
The few remaining soldiers then started running. But the way out was blocked by their own destroyed trucks. Even as they tried to get free, villages rushed out at them with axes and staffs, saving their explosives. Disorganized, terrified, the soldiers cowered and begged for mercy.
None of them got it.
"Yes!" said Jessie. "I told you that the explosives would work, Cloud. We totally won."
"Yay! Daddy killed the Shinra!" said Marlene, who had started watching.
What had happened to these people that made them celebrate so many people getting killed! If Cloud didn't pass his SOLDIER exams, HE could be one of those men. And they didn't even know it.
Shinra was pure evil to them. The idea that he might still go to Midgar hadn't even occurred to them. "Get down, Marlene. Bullets might fly this way," said Cloud quickly. Looking out over the wreckage, he saw Barret making his way among the bodies. A wounded Shinra soldier scrambled away from Barret, throwing down his gun.
"No, please, I'm a-"
Barret shot him in the head. "Tell it to Corel, you Shinra bastard." Then he looked to the others. "Pick up their guns and hang their corpses where the rest of these sons of bitches can see!"
"Barret is uh..." Cloud looked for the words as cheers came from the men.
"He really hates Shinra," said Jessie. "We um... we saw everyone we knew shot dead. Murdered by people just like those men."
And then Cloud saw Marlene running out the front door. In a panic, he scrambled out after her. How was it possible that Marlene thought nothing of the corpses? Didn't she understand what they were? Or was she just used to it?
"Daddy, you did it!" said Marlene, hugging Barret.
"Yeah, yeah, we did, Marlene," said Barret, hugging her.
"We've driven Shinra off, for now, but..." said the man from before. "They will come again. I know it."
"Well, ain't it nice that we got plenty of new weapons to use," said Barret. "Get their guns, and I'll show you how to use em.
"Jessie, Cloud, get making more explosives! The Shinra ain't taking this town! We'll kill em all!"
Cloud looked to the corpse of a nameless soldier whose helmet had fallen off. He wondered who he'd been before he joined up. Had he been poor and in need of money? Or rich and idealistic? Was he a nationalist, or had he believed in Shinra?
It didn't matter, in the end.
He was dead, and so were all his friends. And Cloud couldn't bring himself to care who the good guys were in this mess.