Chapter Seven: The Approach
For the next three days, Barret and the villagers worked to rebuild defenses. Barret also gave the villagers training in using the guns. Scouts were posted on the road in hiding to watch for any more signs of Shinra troops. Others were sent out further afield and came back, bringing back news.
Apparently, Shinra had been taken off guard by the sudden victory. Commander Heidegger had dispatched his entire force at once. His goal was to seize control of the villages in the region all at once. The annihilation of the Shinra company had thrown his lines into disarray. He'd had to pull back his force from other assaults to repel an imagined assault.
By the time Heidegger had learned it was only one village, days had been wasted.
Barret hadn't been idle during this time, either. He'd sent messengers to other villages, inviting them to bolster their forces. Many took them up on the offer, and before long, Cloud and Jessie were hard at work, making more explosives.
Unfortunately, there was no way they'd be able to keep this up.
"Shinra is moving several whole columns toward us," said a villager. "They have heavy weaponry with them. There are at least four hundred."
Men whispered uneasily among themselves. They were only a little below a hundred. But Barret just nodded. "Alright, listen up. The way I see it, Shinra got careless. But they ain't gonna get careless again. As soon as they get their artillery in place, they'll shell this place to dust. Then they'll move troops in to finish us off."
"We should withdraw to Fort Condor," said a man. "We can't win."
Barret slammed his fist against a table. "We ain't beaten yet! And we ain't gonna get beaten! We can't defend! And if we run, they'll hunt us down!
"So, we're gonna attack!"
"Attack?" asked Cloud. "How can we attack an enemy force larger than us?"
Barret smiled, and it was not a pleasant smile. Cloud suddenly realized Barret was having the time of his life here. "The roads out here wind through forests, and there's a lot of places we can set an ambush.
"You people know this terrain better than anyone.
"So we'll use it. We lie in wait and catch em as they coming up the roads. Shinra troops like to march in tight formation. A couple of bombs'll do wonders for their numbers."
"This is insane!" said a man. "We have time to get to Fort Condor now! We should-"
"We ain't gonna win this war by running away!" snapped Barret. "We're gonna win it by killing Shinra scum! If you keep waiting around for someone to come save you, the planet'll die long before they!
"Fort Condor used to be a Mako Reactor! They was sucking the life outta the planet little by little, and your people stopped em! Well, we can stop em here! We just gotta take some risks! Now, I need a map and the lay of the land!"
A cheer came from some of those who had won the earlier battle.
Barret seemed to have become the leader of the village very quickly. And Cloud realized that he was a pretty good one. As the men scrambled and an ambush spot was picked out, Cloud reflected that this would not end well. If Barret's ambush failed, Shinra would kill all these people and crackdown all the harder.
And what if it succeeded?
Cloud thought about that and realized it was possible if Shinra was careless. What would happen if Barret destroyed the entire group? Well, Shinra would have to draw in more troops to replace the ones here. Resistance would probably be a lot stronger, and if Barret actually got his hands on artillery...
Come to think of it, Barret was a fanatic, and so were his men. You didn't need to pay fanatics.
But you did need to pay Shinra troops. And Shinra was already engaged in a war in Wutai, so they couldn't give this region their full attention.
And then Cloud realized that Barret could win.
"Making all these explosives is not exactly fun," muttered Cloud as he and Jessie stood on the walls. They were looking out at the road, where Shinra was marching forward.
Much as Barret expected, the troops were lined up in tight formation. They marched in front of supply trucks, with heavy artillery pulled behind. And like the scout had said, there were a lot more than before. Cloud was peering out with binoculars, Marlene with them.
Barret had told Jessie and Cloud to get Marlene out if things went badly.
"Now we just have to see how this works," said Jessie. "Hand me the binoculars."
Cloud did so, and Marlene looked out. "Can you see Daddy, Jessie?"
"No, he's hiding," said Jessie. "So, the Shinra won't be able to see him either."
And then came the sound of gunfire. A cluster of Shinra troops fell, several hit by bullets. Bombs were thrown into their ranks and landed. What was Heidegger doing? Barret wasn't a professional officer, and he'd had the sense to send scouts.
Either way, the explosions in the road scattered Shinra. Panicked and taken by surprise by the attack, the lines fell into disarray. In those moments, more and more bombs were going off, kicking up smoke. Shinra soldiers opened fire, but their frenzied shots ended up being friendly fire. Others landed in the brush.
Jessie passed back the binoculars, and Cloud looked through it. He saw Heidegger, or who he thought was Heidegger. A huge, burly man in a truck near the rear and he was...
"He's running!" said Cloud. "The coward is abandoning his men!"
The truck rushed off down the road, even as the men screamed. Wounded and dead were piling up. Some tried to make a run for it, running the gauntlet but were packed like rats as they tried to get past the artillery. None escaped that way.
Others tried surrendering and were gunned down. The last group fled forward, toward the village. Some of them made it out of the area of the ambush. But Barret had planned for this. Even as they cleared the trees, a group of riflemen sprang out of the rocks. They opened fire from the flank, and the Shinra were mowed down.
It was over.
The battle, or rather, the massacre was over.
"Barret's plan worked!" said Jessie in awe. "Yes, we did it, Cloud!"
Cloud felt incredibly empty. He remembered the huge pyre Barret had made, burning the bodies of the Shinra troops. Then he remembered how he'd taken off all the uniforms. Barret had assembled from undamaged clothing a set of uniforms. He'd stored them somewhere. And now Barret was dragging the artillery this way.
At this rate, Barret would make a fortress of this place.
"They're coming back," said Jessie.
"...I'm just saying, we can use the guns to make a stand," said one of the younger men.
"No good!" said Barret. "Shinra'll send SOLDIERS and planes next. We gotta hide the guns and uniforms somewhere safe where they won't find em. Then we make a run for it."
"But we just wiped out five companies," said a man.
"And we'll be facing a lot more than that!" snapped Barret. "Sooner or later, Shinra will get smart. We gotta get out while the getting is good, now help me find a place to hide these guns."
"Couldn't we take them to Fort Condor?" called Jessie.
"Nah," said Barret, looking up. "Shinra is faster on its feet; they'll find and catch us. We'll wait till they forget about the guns. Then we'll bring them in for something when they least expect it. Cloud, Jessie, get your things and prepare to pack up; we gotta scram as soon as we've finished up here.
"And make some explosives for the road."
And so began the unbearable scurrying. Barret and the villagers worked quickly and ended up taking the guns into the forest. Before they took it in, he saw Barret draw out a spray paint can and put it on the guns.
'Barret Wallace was here.' He painted on the gun.
Then the guns disappeared into the forest. Barret came back a while later, with the men who'd gone with him had disappeared. Cloud wondered where they'd hidden them.
Even as that happened, men began to head for Fort Condor. At the same time, others stood on the walls on the watch. Cloud saw Barret arguing with some men.
"I'm telling ya!" said Barret. "Shinra won't get careless three times! They're going to be coming down here with all they have! You wanna fight em, you gotta fight em somewhere other than here!"
"Run if you like," said a man. "We'll stay here and fight them ourselves."
As he spoke, Cloud saw other men breaking into the wilderness. By now, there were only forty or so men, most of them newcomers. Barret stayed to argue with them, but then he heard the buzzing.
"A plane," said Cloud, looking up.
Jessie looked up in shock. "Get down! It's a bomber!"
Cloud was pushed down and looked up. The cargo bay of the bomber opened, but nothing came out. No, wait, there was a small figure descending toward them.
"It didn't drop anything," said Jessie.
"SOLDIER!" said Barret. "THEY'VE SENT A SOLDIER! SCRAM YOU MORONS!"
Then snatching up Marlene, Barret sprinted like a man being chased by lions. He paused only to pull Jessie and Cloud up by the collar. Even as they did, Cloud heard the sound of gunfire from above. Running with Barret, Cloud found his footsteps slowing. It was then that he realized he was at a crossroads.
If he kept running with Barret and Jessie, he'd end up in Fort Condor and become a terrorist. Or a freedom fighter, whichever. He'd abandon his dream. But then Cloud's gaze turned to the road lined with the corpses of Shinra soldiers.
That way led to Midgar. To fulfill his promise to Tifa.
Cloud halted as Barret and Jessie disappeared with Marlene into the trees. Turning around, he looked to the village. There he saw a man on the walls firing blindly as a silhouette. The silhouette surged past him and cut the man in half. Then, spinning its blade, it summoned a lightning bolt from it and sent it down.
Screams and war cries came from the village, and he saw the flash of gunfire.
Yet a single SOLDIER was winning.
And then silence.
Not a sound was heard.
Eventually, the man behind the silhouette walked out of the gates. He looked some years older than Cloud and had spiky black hair. On his back was a standard issue longsword, and he was whistling as he walked forward. Glancing up, he saw Cloud and sprinted forward.
Cloud was about to make a run for it, but before he could even fully rise, the SOLDIER had reached him. "Hey, kid, you okay?"
"Oh, uh..." Cloud halted. "Yes, I was um... I had to work for these guys but slipped away when they started evacuating." It was true, in a way. Barret hated Shinra. If he'd suspected Cloud hadn't abandoned his dream of becoming a SOLDIER...
Cloud would not have felt safe, to say the least.
"You were taken captive by terrorists and escaped on your own?" asked the man. "That's pretty impressive."
"Uh, right, yes," said Cloud, liking the praise despite himself. "You're um... a SOLDIER?"
"Yup," said the man. "The name's Zack Fair. I joined up because I wanted to be a hero. Guess I'm well on my way at this point."
"What makes you say that?" asked Cloud, remembering Corel.
"Well, I did just kill off an entire enemy fortress singlehanded," said Zack. "Kind of funny, I was supposed to just throw the place into chaos. But I guess they were too much for Heidegger." Then he glanced at the rows of corpses. "Geeze, things got a little out of hand here, didn't they.
"So, what are you doing out here anyway?"
"Oh, um, I'm sort of on a journey to Midgar," said Cloud. "See, I walked all the way to Costa Del Sol, worked up the money for a ticket to Junon, and now I'm walking to Midgar."
"Why all the effort, though?" asked Zack.
"I'm looking to become part of SOLDIER," said Cloud. "My name is Cloud Strife."
"Huh, no kidding. I had the same goal before I made it," said Zack. "Now, I've got a different one."
"What's that?" asked Cloud.
"To become a hero," said Zack, standing triumphant.
Cloud looked to the corpses of hundreds of his comrades. Then he looked to the village where at least forty people were dead. Then to Zack, to whom the deaths of all these people was apparently a statistic. "...You might be in the wrong line of work."
Zack seemed surprised by this. "How do you figure?"
"Well, I mean... those villagers were defending themselves from Shinra," said Cloud. "Shinra demanded they leave their homes, and they were resisting.
"How is that heroic?"
"Oh come on, they were terrorists," said Zack. "SOLDIER is going to establish world peace and bring freedom to the world.
"You heading to Midgar now?"
"Yeah, though I have no idea where I am," admitted Cloud.
"I could probably get you to transport there by plane if you want," said Zack.
Cloud reflected that Zack was very friendly for an utter psychotic. And then he reflected that he still didn't want to risk being in an enclosed space with him. He contemplated taking a plane ride with his only company Zack. A man for whom the deaths of hundreds were just mooks on a computer screen. "I'd rather head there on my own. I mean, I've come this far, I'd like to finish the journey."
Zack smiled and ruffled his hair. "Hmm, you've got guts, kid." Then he drew something out of the socket of his blade and tossed it to him. "Catch!"
Cloud caught it. "What are these?"
"It's Lightning Materia," said Zack. "Could come in handy if you get attacked. Listen up, Cloud. A friend of mine gave me a bit of a guide on being a hero.
"If you want to be a hero, you have to have dreams and honor."
Cloud contemplated what that actually meant, beyond sounding cool. It meant nothing, was his conclusion, it was just flowery nonsense. But he didn't want to say that to a heavily armed sociopath. "...What does that mean?"
Zack shrugged. "I don't know, but Lazard says unattainable dreams are the best kind, so I'm sure it'll work out.
"See ya in Midgar!"
And he ran off.
Cloud watched Zack Fair go and came to a resolution. "That guy is gonna die horribly, and I'm going to be there to see it."
So, Zack Fair 'the puppy' becomes a whole lot more disturbing when you remember his body count. In his first mission, he slaughters an entire fort of sentient human beings.
This renders his cheerful demeanor... terrifying if you think about it.