Last Exit for the Lost Chapter 9
Strange Things are Afoot
They drove through the rolling hills, on what seemed to be a path of sorts.
Well, more like a couple of ruts in the ground, Zack thought to himself.
Nevertheless, he was glad to be out of the city and its oppresive, ominous
presence. A small rain shower had passed them earlier, and the day turned
wonderfully cool and sunny. He sensed Tifa stretching beside him, and glanced
to the side. Her eyes were closed and her face was turned towards the sun,
basking in its light. A slight smile graced her beautiful face and her dark
hair trailed behind her in the cool breeze. Barret was in the back, not saying
anything, occasionally fiddling with his gun arm. Tifa sensed Zack looking
at her and opened her eyes, turning to him in question, the smile still on
her face. He smiled back and said, softly, "How could I ever have stayed
in that city for so long?" Tifa's expression flickered as she responded,
"Sometimes, we lose sight of things that are truly important." They rode
in silence for a while and then she said, firmly, "I'm not going back." After
a while, Zack called for a break, and Tifa took the wheel. They drove on.
"Hold up a sec," rumbled Barret, standing up in the back of the truck. Tifa glanced back at him and started to slow down. She knew him long enough to know he didn't like to waste words, so asking him why he wanted to stop was probably a waste of time. Before they even stopped, Barret was out of the truck and walking purposefully through the growing fog. Zack and Tifa exchanged looks, shrugged and followed, remembering to grab their weapons. They caught up to Barret who finally stopped and was looking down at the remains of a campfire. "He must've ran through dat town to get dis far last night," Barret said, his gruff voice sounding uneasy. "More like flew," Zack remarked. Tifa stared at him questioningly, but he didn't offer anything else. She turned her attention to the ground, and shivered suddenly, pointing to something on the ground. "What does that say?" Barret walked to where she was pointing and read the crudely scratched word, "Mako." "Mako?" Zack said wonderingly, "What would he want with Mako energy? That stuff is nothing but trouble!" Tifa thought for a few seconds, remembering the revelations of the previous night, and finally said, "I have no idea, but I plan to find out. Zack, where's the nearest Mako reactor from here?" Zack answered immediately, "Junon and Fort Condor are the only other ones on this continent...but from Junon he could catch a ship to the other continent, where there are more..." he trailed off, thinking. Barret spoke up. "He so fast, by the time we get to Condor, he'll be in Junon!" Tifa nodded, "We should head for Junon and see if we can cut him off...uh-oh." She backed up towards Zack as a hulking figure emerged from the fog. Zack looked quickly around, spotting four more menacing forms, and pulled out his sword, grinning wickedly, "Looks like we're in for a bit of trouble." The forms came closer, resolving into tall, humanoid forms. They were over 7 feet in height, had huge, barrel chests, unpleasantly large teeth and small, yellow eyes. Adding to their unpleasantness was their green coloring, an alien stench that came from them in waves, and the large, barbed swords they were wielding. The forms gibbered something to each other, intelligibly, and charged towards the remains of the campsite. Two rapid gunshots rang out and one of the forms fell. Another staggered, but kept coming. Tifa could hear Barret cursing behind her and then she had no more time to think as one of the creatures skidded to a halt in front of her and swung its blade, grinning insanely. She ducked it, intending to hit back as the creature followed the heavy blade's momentum. She was unpleasantly surprised when her Claw rang loudly on the creature's blade, its arm upraised again to fend her off. It grinned again, pushing her away. She backed off and thought, 'Damn, these things are fast.' Faking a swing to the head, she took a step forward and brought her foot up, sharply. As the creature fell clutching its groin, she stabbed it through and watched the life fade from its eyes. She began to turn around when she heard Zack yell: "Tifa, duck!" She dropped and rolled, feeling a blade thud to the ground where she was just standing. A sudden chill shook her as she jumped up, watching in disbelief as the creature fell over and shattered. Zack grinned and said, "These things don't like Ice much, do they?" Tifa said indignantly, "At least you could've warned me!" "I did! I said 'duck', didn't i?" Zack protested, a merry light twinkling in his eyes. Tifa sniffed and began to walk back to the truck, yelling out on the way, "Barret, you shouldn't use your gun as a club, you know! It's not made for that!" Barret looked at Zack and grumbled, "Smartass." He lowered his voice, "But at least she's feeling better enough to pick on us." Zack nodded somberly, "Yeah. Definitely an improvement. How's your gun?" Barret waved his hand, dismissing the matter, "Bad worksmanship on the cartridge. I threw it out and checked the others. It should be fine now." Zack nodded and headed to the truck, stepping over the bodies, and checking them out for items of interest. Barret stopped at one of them and picked something up. He caught up to Zack and tossed it to him, "Smack me if I'm wrong, but that looks like that Materia stuff you and Sephiroth have been using." Zack nodded, examining the shiny globe, "Yup...thing is, I'm not sure what kind it is...but I'll work it out on the way. I don't think I've ever seen a red one before..." He looked up, frowning. "I wonder why such primitive creatures would have it...hmm...."
While Tifa drove, Zack examined the Materia and explained briefly the origins of Materia and what it does. He showed them the phrases and gestures that served as aides to concentration, needed to invoke the power of the Planet locked within the Materia. Since they needed to continue driving, Zack took the wheel and had Barret and Tifa practice casting Fire and Ice at various targets on their way. After a few mishaps in which Tifa blew several neat craters directly in their way, and Barret refrigerated their supplies slightly, they both improved visibly and could hit fair-sized targets seven times out of ten. Barret grumbled when he realized his spells weren't as powerful as Tifa's, but she only stuck her tongue out at him and attributed it to woman's touch, while Zack tried to stifle a laugh and failed. After that Barret rode in the back, sulking. Zack drove for a while, warning them that they might feel tired from the use of magic. He said it was like using muscles that haven't been used before. They might get weaker and hurt, but after recharging would be stronger.
They drove throughout the day, not stopping for food since they had travel rations from Kalm, refrigerated thanks to Barret's mishaps with Materia. They took turns driving and sleeping, so they could all recover from the fight and the usage of magic. Zack spent some time examining the Materia, but couldn't glean any knowledge from it. He decided to ask the next Materia shop owner if they could figure it out. He also filled Tifa and Barret in on Junon, since it was more or less a ShinRa base. "The main thing about it is the large cannon they have there," he explained. "There is so much hooplah surrounding it that it's scary. An airbase, the underground reactor to power it, a submarine base of operations and about half of ShinRa's troops are based there. Thing is..." he scratched his head, "I never could understand what the hell that cannon was for! It's never been fired, as far as I can remember...and what possible threat could be large enough to require such massive firepower?" He shrugged and finished, "Hopefully, we'll never find out." He changed the subject, "Also, there is a small town at the bottom of the base...it's pretty much subsumed by the military base, but we should be able to check it out for news, maybe some rest and hopefully, a way into the base. That last is crucial because at the moment, I have not the slightest idea how to get us in, especially to the reactor."
They left the truck parked a few miles away from the city, deciding to make their way in on foot. Most sentries watching the base would probably disregard a few lone travelers, whereas a truck might be too conspicuous. "Especially as it's a ShinRa army truck," Zack laughed. They walked into the small town as the sun began to set and set out for the inn. The innkeep was friendly enough, and became friendlier when he found out they had nothing to do with ShinRa. Zack stayed back and talked to him, sitting at the inn table, his face revealed occasionally in the flickering candlelight. He joined Tifa and Barret upstairs a little later, and divulged what he learned. It seemed that most of the townfolk harbored no sympathies towards ShinRa and wouldn't mind bothering the corporate megalith just a little bit. Barret groaned when he heard what getting into the base entailed, "Damn it, more climbing...I hate heights!!! Aaarrgghh..." his mutters trailed off as he threw himself onto his bed. Tifa hid a smile and turned to Zack, "He'll be all right. We better get some sleep." Neither of them betrayed the anxiety they were feeling at the thought of sneaking into the heavily fortified and hostile base.
"It's time," Tifa's quiet voice brought Zack out of his uneasy slumber. He was on his feet at once, his hand on the hilt of his sword. He relaxed as Tifa woke up Barret in turn. He was slightly pleased that the past several months working in ShinRa corporate didn't dull his combat reflexes. Suppressing his pride, he followed Barret out of the room.
They stayed in the dark shadows created by the overhangs of the sloped roofs. After a quick look ahead, they ran towards the far side of the base, which was built into the cliff wall. The wall was a natural cliff, and could be scaled fairly easily under normal circumstances; Zack estimated an hour of hard climbing. Considering that it was nighttime, stealth was of the essence and the locations of guards were unknown they'd be lucky to make it to the top undiscovered. They counted on ShinRa's arrogance to be their salvation, as people who are assured of their safety rarely post guards. It would remain to be seen if this was the case.
Zack insisted on taking the rear guard position. He knew Tifa didn't get any sleep but instead stayed up 'til it was time to go, sharpening her Claw. He decided not to make an issue of it, but instead paid extra attention to her as they climbed, ready to catch her if she fell. He was impressed with her ability to continue, but worried that she might be driven by desperation, and might push herself too far. He decided he'd talk to her if her efforts seemed excessive. He continued, placing his hands and feet with deliberate care into the footholds created by Tifa's Claw. Up and ahead of him, he saw Barret do the same. The man's strength was astounding. He was currently swinging on one hand, while ranging out with his hook attachment for another hold. Zack shook his head. For all the talk of hating climbing, Barret was moving along as if born to it.
They reached the top without a major incident, although Barret had two close calls when his hook slipped and Zack almost lost his sword on one of the trickier sideways traversals. It was a silly incident; one of his buckles ripped on an outcropping of rock and the entire scabbard almost went over. Fortunately, he managed to catch the sword belt as it whipped in front of him. None worse for the wear, they climbed over the top and remain prone, catching their breath and scanning their surroundings. They seemed to be slightly above a landing field, just outside the lit area surrounding a gigantic airship hovering gently above the field. Fortunately, very few people were still out and about at this hour, most of them mechanics working on the airship. "That's the Highwind, Rufus ShinRa's pride and joy," whispered Zack. "If it's here, then he's gotta be around here too..." he broke off, thinking. "Of course! Every ShinRa president is officially recognized at Junon, and a parade is given to his ah...honor." Zack smiled wryly and added, "fortunately SOLDIERs from 1st to 3rd class are exempt." He continued, "I'm sure Rufus is just as vain as his old man, and will want a parade too. It's probably what he's here for." Barret looked up from where he was exchanging the hook for the assault cannon. "Then mebbe everyone tonight is busy preparin'. How 'bout we grab some of those guys," he pointed to the mechanics, "and play dress-up?" Tifa nodded, "Yeah. SOLDIERS have commanding officers, guards have assigned posts, but mechanics are pretty free to wander around where something needs to be fixed...and I bet that's everywhere, including the reactor." Zack nodded, pleased. "Sounds like a plan. Let's hustle." They hustled.
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