Balance of Power Chapter 14

By Frank Verderosa & Jen Bond

Tifa could hear gunfire all around her, but it didn't seem as if any of it was directed at her and Cid. She had her eyes on the compound in front of her, and although she saw some people running inside, she didn't see anyone to fire her own gun at. When they reached the gate she saw the bodies of half a dozen men, two of whom she recognized as Barret's commandos, but she didn't have time to stop and think about it. Cid was already in the compound in front of her, and she didn't want to be left behind.

A blast of gunfire to her left made her turn with a start. She could see the outline of a large building in that direction. The sound must have come from behind it, or inside, for she saw no one. She ran on, trying to keep up. She could see Cid dashing toward another building in front of her, but Barret was out of sight.

She ran on, through a puddle which splashed water up onto her legs. It would have been uncomfortable if she had stopped to notice. The sound of gunfire was a constant backdrop, but still none of it seemed close to her. Cid had disappeared around the corner of the building in front of them. She sped up, not wanting to be left alone, and had to come up short as she rounded the structure and saw Cid and some other men crouched along the side of it.

There was a burst of gunfire from out of the darkness, and Tifa heard bullets pelting against the side of the building. The men returned fire, the sound of their guns roaring in Tifa's ears. She looked to see where they were shooting, but could find no target. She crouched down beside Cid, hoping the others could see better than she.

The shooting stopped, though she could still hear some not far away. A man in front of the line stood up, and she saw it was Barret. The door to the building was right in front of him. He looked around quickly, then kicked it in, rushing inside immediately, his men right behind him. Tifa stayed behind Cid as he followed. As they were about to enter the building a man suddenly appeared out of the shadows. Tifa instinctively lifted her gun, but Cid instantly grabbed hold of it.

"He's one of ours," he hissed as the man ran by without even glancing at them.

Tifa lowered her gun and let out a slow breath. If Cid hadn't been with her there was a good chance she would have shot the man. How could they tell each other apart?

She didn't have much time to ponder however. Cid was already disappearing into the building. She ran in after him.

The inside was well lit, in sharp contrast to the darkness outside. She looked around. She and Cid were in a long hallway. The men ahead of her were pushing open doors, searching the building. Most of them had already disappeared into doors or down various corridors. Cid turned into one of the rooms. Tifa followed. It was some kind of lab, filled with counters covered with microscopes and lab equipment. Except for Cid and Tifa and the other rebels, it appeared empty. Tifa stood by the door, not sure exactly what to do. Barret's rebels seemed to be well trained, covering each other as they moved and checking all areas someone might be hiding, or laying in wait. She could still hear gunfire, but it was coming from outside, not that close. So far things seemed to be going according to plan. Still Tifa felt very nervous. She didn't know how long it would take to find Dr. McKindle, and she knew the longer they were here, the more chance there was for their enemy to get help.

The rebels in front of them pulled open a door to what looked like a closet and started checking around inside.

Tifa noticed Cid looking at her.

Just to try to reassure him she gave him a not particularly heartfelt smile. She wondered if she looked as nervous as she felt.

"All clear here, let's move on," one of the men announced.

They turned back toward Tifa and Cid. Suddenly there was a blast of gunfire and the window to the room shattered. Tifa instinctively lifted her arms and ducked her head as shards of glass flew all around her, stumbling to the side to get out of the line of fire. When she lifted her head again she could see shadowy figures through the window. She lifted her gun and returned fire. For a moment the air was filled with the sound of blazing guns. She could tell the others were returning fire as well, though she wasn't looking at them. She saw at least one man fall outside. She thought there were more, but it was hard to see in the darkness and rain. Their guns quickly feel silent when they realized whoever was out there was either dead or had fled.

Tifa looked for Cid and was relieved when she saw him still standing not far away. There was blood on his face from a small cut on his cheek, probably from the glass, but other than that, he looked no worse for the wear.

He turned toward her.

"You alright?"

She nodded without answering. The commandos were already filing out of the room, all except one who was lying face down on the ground. Without another word the two of them followed the others out.

The moved down the hallway, turning into another long corridor. The building was huge, with hallways twisting in all directions. It might take them hours to find Dr. McKindle, Tifa thought nervously. She caught a glimpse of Barret ahead. He was standing with a number of men in front of one of the doors. He signaled with his hand, then opened the door and disappeared inside. There were four more doors in the hallway. The rebels divided into small groups and went into each room, until only Cid and Tifa were left in the corridor, standing beside the last unopened door.

Cid looked at Tifa and shrugged, then walked over to the door. He stopped beside it and looked at her.

'Ready?' he mouthed.

Tifa brought her gun up, not at all sure this was a good idea, and nodded.

Cid pulled the door open. He started to lunge inside, but then stopped himself, almost losing his balance in the process. Tifa had been holding her breath, gun ready, half expecting a blast of gunfire to issue from beyond the door as soon as it was opened. Instead she almost laughed when the open door revealed a small closet filled with household cleaning items.

Cid turned back toward her, a sheepish grin on his face, but before the could say anything they jerked toward the sound of gunfire coming from down the hall.

It was in one of the rooms. The one Barret had entered, Tifa was pretty sure. Without a word the two of them ran down the hall and into the room.

It was a large room filled with laboratory equipment. Three rows of counters ran the length of it. Barret and three of his men were crouched behind the nearest one. On the other side of the room Cid spotted at least two soldiers before he and Tifa ducked down and joined Barret. A moment later shots whizzed by over their heads, striking the far wall.

Barret lifted his head and peered over the counter for a second, then ducked down again. He looked at Cid.

"I think I can get a clear shot at them from behind the next counter," he said. "Cover me."

Without waiting for a reply he lunged up, rolling over the top of the counter. The others lifted their heads and starting blasting away. Tifa saw one of their adversaries crouched near the last counter for a moment, but he immediately ducked down when the gunfire started. Barret was over the counter now and behind the next one. Tifa could spot him bobbing up and down and he crawled on hands and knees around the counter. Tifa's weapon clicked suddenly. She ducked down again. She pulled out the old clip and replaced it with a new one. As she was about to lift her head again she heard the unmistakable staccato sound of Barret's gun arm.

She peered over the counter. The gunfire had stopped. Across the room, near the third counter, Barret stood up.

"I got them," he called out.

Tifa got to her feet. There was a door on the other side of the room from the one they entered by. Barret walked over to it as his men moved into position to cover him.

Barret pulled the door open. Inside a number of men and women dressed in lab coats were standing, looking nervous.

For a moment they all just stood there looking at one another.

One of the men stepped forward.

"Who are you and what are you doing here?" he questioned, not sounding in the least bit afraid.

"We're members of the Wutai resistance," Barret replied. "We're looking for Dr. McKindle." He looked at the man for a moment. "That wouldn't be you, would it?"

The man paused for a moment before replying.

"Yes I am, actually," he said finally. He stepped forward and extended his hand. "I was hoping you would come. I was delaying the research as much as I could, but I knew I'd have to show them some results sooner or later."

Barret did not reply. Tifa had a feeling he hadn't been expecting this. Red hadn't told them much about Dr. McKindle, or where his loyalties were. Tifa had a feeling Barret had been expecting him to put up some resistance.

Barret took the man's hand and shook it.

"We're here to get you out of here," he said. "I take it you don't have any objections to that?"

"None at all," the man replied. "I wasn't a close friend of Godo, but I did know him. I thought he was a fine man."

Tifa could see that Barret was greatly relieved by these words. Dr. McKindle turned to the people behind him.

"All right people," he said. "Gather your things together. We're getting out of here."

The others walked out into the main lab, gathering together whatever they thought necessary to bring along, with Dr. McKindle directing.

"How long is this gonna take?" Barret questioned. "We don't have a lot of time."

"I know," Dr. McKindle replied. "I'm just going to have them bring the bare necessities to continue our research. We could have been a lot quicker if we had been expecting you, but of course, that wasn't possible. Even so, it shouldn't take long. We just have to disengage the locking mechanisms on the huge material and extract it. Shouldn't take more than fifteen, twenty minutes."

Barret did not look all that pleased, but of course there was nothing he could do about it. Tifa couldn't blame him. The fighting had died down outside, but she could still hear sporadic gunfire. The guards were still putting up some resistance.

Cid plopped himself down in a chair beside one of the counters. He wasn't anymore anxious to hang around here than Barret, but even so, he thought things were turning out better than he expected. He hadn't expected Dr. McKindle to be so cooperative.

The minutes dragged by. Barret positioned men by the windows and doors, while he himself paced back and forth impatiently. The longer they stayed here the more time Wutai had to bring in reinforcements. From the intelligence he had, it was estimated it would take almost an hour for Wutai to send reinforcements from the nearest base. That should give them enough time to get out before they arrived. Still, that was just an estimate, and Barret didn't know for sure if he could trust it. The sooner they got out of here, the better he would feel.

"Almost done," Dr. McKindle reassured them.

"Someone's coming!" the man by the door called out. "One of ours."

A moment later another commando ran into the room. His face was pale and his shoulder was covered with blood.

"Enemy reinforcements are approaching the main gate," he burst out.

"What?" Barret exclaimed, a shocked look on his face.

"There's hundreds of them, and armored cars as well. Sergeant Lee is dead. The others are going to try to hold the gate, but I don't think they'll last long. You've got to get out of here!"

Barret just stood there for a moment. It was pretty obvious this event had not been anticipated. Tifa felt a knot forming in her stomach. She looked over at Cid, who was frowning.

"Hundreds of them," Barret repeated slowly. "That can't be possible. There's no way they could have gotten that many reinforcements here that quickly."

He looked at Dr. McKindle.

"How much longer?"

"Only a few minutes," the man replied.

"Hurry up," Barret stated. He walked over to the window, peering out. They could all here the sound of gunfire in the distance.

"How the hell..." Barret muttered.

Suddenly the phone rang.

They all stood there staring at it.

Dr. McKindle turned to looked at Barret, who paused for a moment, then motioned that he should answer it.

Dr. McKindle picked up the phone.


He stood there listening for a second, then extended the phone to Barret.

"He wants to talk to the leader of the rebels."

Barret slowly took the phone and put it to his ear.

"Who the hell is this?" he growled.

He listened for a few minutes, the frown deepening on his face. Tifa looked at him nervously. Whatever was going on, she was sure she wasn't going to like it.

Finally Barret hung up the phone. He didn't speak for a moment.

"That was Colonel Shigasu of the Wutai army," he said finally. "He says he has the place surrounded by five hundred men. He's demanding that we surrender. He wants an answer in twenty minutes and if he doesn't get one, he's coming in."

Cid had gotten to his feet again. Now he was staring at Barret.

"How did they get here so fast?" he questioned.

"Who the hell knows," Barret said bitterly. The looked around slowly, the look on his face giving the impression he was looking for something to rip apart.

Cid slowly turned and meet Tifa's eyes. His face looked as grim as Barret's. Suddenly she thought she knew what he was thinking.

"Surely you don't think Red..." she began.

Cid just stood there for a moment.

"What difference does it make," Barret cut in. "Now matter how we got into this, what's important is how we get out."

Tifa said nothing. Even now she could't believe that Red would betray them. What motive could he have for doing such a thing? But anyway, Barret was right.

"What do we do now?" she questioned.

Barret didn't reply. He leaned against the wall, looking at nothing in particular.

"How many people do we have left?' Cid asked.

Barret shrugged.

"Hard to say," he replied. "I'd say probably about twenty. Even with that we're no match for five hundred, no matter how good we are."

"That's if this Colonel was telling the truth," Cid pointed out.

"True," Barret replied. He looked at the man who had warned them.

"Can't say for sure exactly how many," the man said. "I could see what I'd estimate to be at least a hundred."

Barret shook his head.

"Even a hundred would make it difficult."

Tifa thought difficult was being optimistic.

Barret walked back into the center of the room.

"I'm open to suggestions, if anyone's got any," he said.

No one spoke. Tifa looked around at the grim faces of the men around her. She didn't think Barret was going to surrender. Had they come all this way just to get killed now?

Suddenly Dr. McKindle turned toward them.

"I have a suggestion," he stated. "But it's a desperate gamble."

"I'd say desperate pretty much sums up our position," Cid spoke up. "What ya got in mind?"

"We were doing several experiments on the huge material," the man replied. "Wutai wanted us to explore all possible uses. In the course of our experiments we removed a few small pieces of the materia to see if we could make smaller tactical weapons. Perhaps we could put one of them to use."

Barret looked at him curiously.

"But, if you took off a small piece, then it wouldn't be huge anymore..." he said slowly.

They all looked at him.

"Barret, you were with us when we got it," Cid said. "It wasn't all that huge to begin with."

"Which makes no sense," Barret countered.

"Huge materia is actually a misnomer," Dr. McKindle spoke up. "It's not any larger than any other materia. Rather it's super dense. The name huge materia came about from the huge explosion it caused the first time some was detonated."

"I really don't think we have time for this," Cid cut in.

"You're right," Dr. McKindle acknowledged. "As I was saying, we could detonate one of the small bombs. Even that would still be a tremendous blast. Our enemy wouldn't be expecting it and it would probably cause a large amount of damage, almost certainly blowing a gap in their line. Perhaps we could escape through that gap before they could close it again."

Dr. McKindle fell silent, looking at the others.

"Sounds like a better plan than anything else we've got," Barret spoke up. "So how do we go about setting this thing off?"

"I'm afraid that's where the desperate part comes in," Dr. McKindle replied. "The bomb isn't finished. We were still working on it. There is no timing or detonation mechanism. It will have to be set off manually."

He stopped again. The others just looked at him blankly.

"Whoever sets it off can't possibly escape the blast radius," the Doctor clarified. "It's a suicide mission."

For a long time they were all silent. Tifa looked back and forth between Barret and Cid. Both their faces were pale. She felt the knot of fear in her stomach tighten.

"I was hopin' for a better solution than that," Barret muttered slowly.

"Obviously this is not ideal," Dr. McKindle replied. "That's why I said it was a desperate gamble."

Again they all fell silent. Tifa bit her lip, wishing she could figure out what was going on in Barret's head. He didn't seem to be anxious to make any decision here, not that she could blame him.

"I'm afraid we don't have a lot of time," Cid pointed out reluctantly.

Barret nodded. He took a deep breath.

"What has to be done to set this thing off?" he asked Dr. McKindle.

"Barret, no!" Tifa interrupted. She took a step toward him, fear washing over her like a cold hand.

"There ain't no other choice," he snapped, the frown on his face as he glared at her making her stop dead in her tracks. "It's our only chance to get out of here."

Tifa stood there. She didn't want this to happen. She didn't believe this was happening. There had to be another way, another solution.

"Isn't there anything else we can do?' she asked desperately.

She looked around at the others, but no one spoke. Finally her pleading eyes fell on Cid.

"I'm afraid I'm all outta ideas," he said slowly. "Unless you got one of your own..."

Tifa turned away. She wasn't good with strategy; she didn't have any brilliant ideas. She usually left it up to the others to come up with a plan.

But even she could see that they didn't have much in the way of options. It looked like this might be their only chance. But still, why did it have to be Barret? He was the commander. He could order one of the others to do it.

Dr. McKindle walked over to one of the tables, Barret behind him.

"Just give me a moment," the Doctor said.

Tifa just stood there helplessly. Barret could order one of the other men to do it, but she knew he wouldn't. He was the commander. He probably figured it was his responsibility. She tried to swallow, but her throat was so dry it was impossible.

Dr. McKindle tinkered on the console in front of him for a few minutes.

"There," he said. "I've bypassed the safety mechanism. All you have to do to set it off is touch these two wires together."

He pointed to two red wires on the console.

Barret grunted. Tifa felt like screaming. How cold he look so calm?

Dr. McKindle started scribbling quickly on a piece of paper.

"Only ten minutes left before they attack," one of the men observed.

"We better get going," Dr. McKindle said, looking up. "I've calculated that the maintenance building at the south end of the institute should be safe for us to weather the blast. It'll take us almost that much time to get over there."

One of the other scientists came up and looked down at the paper.

"Are you sure?" he asked. "That seems a bit close. Don't you think the garage will be safer? It's farther away."

"We have to get through the gap as quickly as possible after the explosion," Dr. McKindle replied. "It won't do us a bit of good if the enemy can recover and close the gap before we get through it. We have to be as close to the blast as we can safely get."

The man looked skeptical.

"True, but that's cutting it mighty fine," he replied.

"Maybe, but I don't think we have much choice."

"Would you quit your yappin' and get going already," Barret snapped. "You're runnin' outta time."

"Your right," Dr. McKindle agreed. "Have we got everything together?"

"Yes," the other scientist said.

"Alright then, let's go."

Dr. McKindle looked at Barret.

"Anything else you need?"

"Yeah, for you to get outta here," Barret replied.

Dr. McKindle nodded and led the scientists out. The commandos followed, each of them saluting their Captain as they filed out the door. A moment later only Cid and Tifa remained with him. Tifa wouldn't even face him. She couldn't believe this was happening.

"Cid, I know you're not a member of the rebels," Barret said, his voice very calm, "But I'd like to ask you to take command. Make sure the group gets outta here."

For a moment Cid did not reply. His face was set, and though he was trying not to show it, Tifa could see he was struggling to keep his emotions in check.

"I'll do my best," he said simply.

"One other thing," Barret continued. "And this might not be so easy. If this gamble fails, if you get trapped and you can't get out, you have to make sure that Dr. McKindle isn't recaptured. He's the only one that can make the bomb for Wutai. At least, anytime soon. If they recapture him and build that bomb who knows how many people might die. You get my drift?"

Tifa did turn around now. She stared at the two men. She could hardly believe what she was hearing.

Cid was silent for a moment. Barret was asking him to kill Dr. McKindle if he decided that capture was inevitable. Cid wasn't sure he could do it. He had killed plenty of men in his time, but almost all of them had been trying their level best to kill him at the same time. He had never killed a man in cold blood, a man who was defenseless. He wasn't sure, if it came down to it, that he was capable of such a thing.

"Cid?" Barret said, looking at him questioningly. Cid glanced over and saw Tifa giving him the same look, but for what he assumed was very different reasons.

Cid nodded. Tifa opened her mouth, but no words came out. She turned away. He still wasn't sure if he was capable of it, but he knew he had to reassure Barret that he could. He figured it was a safe response, cause he had no intention of getting in that situation in the first place. He'd get Dr. McKindle out of here safely...somehow.

"You better get going then," Barret said, his voice emotionless.

Cid nodded again. He looked at Tifa, who was staring at the floor. They had to go, but he couldn't just leave it at that. He walked over and grasped hold of Barret's arm.

"I guess good luck would be a stupid thing to say, eh?" he said heavily.

This managed to get a weak smile out of Barret.

"I would think so," he replied. "But I can certainly say it to you. Good luck. Now get the hell out of here before I get all sentimental and shit."

Cid nodded but he didn't move for a second. He wanted to say more, but there wasn't anything left to say. His arm dropped down and he turned to Tifa.

She was still facing away from them. He took a step toward her and she suddenly turned and ran into Barret's arms. She didn't say a word, but Cid could see tears in her eyes.

For a long time she gripped him tightly. She couldn't see Barret's face, but Cid could, and for the first time the facade cracked, and he saw Barret's features cloud with emotion.

Gently Barret pushed Tifa away. His hand reached into his pocket and he took something out. It looked like a necklace. He held it out to Tifa.

"This was Eleanor's," he said slowly. "I'd like ya to make make sure Mar..."

He couldn't finish the sentence. Tifa looked at him, but he turned away, not wanting her to see him like that. She reached up her trembling hand and took the necklace. She didn't know what to say, what to do. She just knew she didn't want it to end this way.

"Now get outta here before it's too late," Barret finally managed to get out.

Tifa didn't move. She just stood there wiping the tears from her eyes. She couldn't believe this was happening.

Cid walked over and took her by the hand.

"We have to go."

She didn't reply, but she followed him as he led her toward the door. She looked back at Barret when she reached it. She thought she could tears in his eyes as well, but she couldn't be sure. A moment later they were out in the hallway.

"We have to hurry," Cid said, but his voice seemed oddly distant. Tifa followed without a word. She couldn't comprehend how this was happening. Not now, after all they had been through. They had fought Shinra, they had fought Sephiroth, and they had survived. They had all survived. All but Aeris But now, after all that, this was going to happen? They had fought to make the world a better place. They had fought to make the world safe, for themselves and everyone else. But had they done any good? Aeris had died for this? Had anything changed at all?

They were outside now. The rain was coming down harder than ever. Cid started to run, still clutching Tifa's hand. They splashed through the puddles. The shooting had stopped. The place was eerily silent.

Tifa wasn't sure how long they ran through the rain. It must have only been five or ten minutes, but is seemed like forever. She had no idea where they were going, just trusted Cid to lead her in the right direction, thankful that at least one of them had paid attention when Barret was going over the layout of the place. She kept glancing back, but of course, the building Barret was in had long ago disappeared behind them.

Suddenly another building reared up in the darkness in front of them. Cid ran to the door and pulled it open. A moment later they were inside, out of the rain. For a second Tifa thought they might have entered the wrong building, for it was dark inside. But then she saw movement and a flashlight beam struck them.

"You cut it pretty close," the now familiar voice of Dr. McKindle stated. "It's almost time for him to detonate the bomb. Come over here, away from the door and windows."

Cid and Tifa moved slowly through the dark. The room seemed to be full of machinery, though exactly what type of machinery Tifa couldn't tell. The others were huddled in the center of the room, surrounded by as much heavy equipment as they could pull around themselves. Cid and Tifa sat down on the floor beside the others.

"Why isn't there any light?" Cid questioned.

"The power must have been cut to this building in the battle earlier," Dr. McKindle replied. "But it doesn't matter. We shouldn't be in here very long anyway. Stay behind the machinery and cover your head and shoulders. The bomb should be going off any minute."

Tifa and Cid did as they were told, both of them feeling a little foolish. Cid wondered just how good Dr. McKindles calculations were. It wouldn't matter much how badly they damaged the enemy if the building came down on top of them.

The next few minutes were excruciating for Tifa. Running through the camp, at least she had had something to do. But just sitting there in the dark, waiting for the bomb to go off, waiting for her friend's life to end, was almost too much to bear. She wanted to get up. She wanted to scream. She wanted to run back to the other building and pull Barret out of there. Her mind raced, trying to find something they had overlooked, trying to find some other way out of this. She knew it was too late now to change anything, but that didn't mean she was willing to accept it.

She sat there, her head bent down almost to her knees, staring at the floor, wishing that somehow this whole thing was just a horrible nightmare.

Barret sat in a chair, drumming his fingers on the console beside him while staring vacantly at a nearby window. Not that he could see anything outside. The rain was still coming down, drumming against the roof and sides of the building. It was coming down a lot harder now than it had before. Barret wondered how long it would last.

Not that it really mattered. He was only thinking about that to take his mind off other things. Things he didn't dare think about right now. His resolve had come dangerously close to cracking when he had given Tifa the necklace. The only way he was going to get through this was to not think about it, was to not think at all.

But that was difficult to do when he sitting there doing nothing. He wished the enemy would come. At least then he could get down to business. Almost everyone feared battle, but once it started you had more important things to think about than being scared. He didn't know how much longer he could sit here and still keep his nerve.

He glanced at his watch, for about the hundredth time. The twenty minutes had passed. If the Colonel was true to his word, even now he would be advancing on the complex. He and his men should be showing up any minute.

Barret looked at the console in front of him, at the two red wires. They seemed so innocuous, so harmless. Hard to believe that they could do any damage at all. Barret wondered for a minute if this thing would actually work. It had obviously been jury rigged. Suppose he touched those two wires together and nothing happened? Wouldn't that be a kick in the head?

His head lifted up as he caught the sound of a door opening. Involuntarily his body tensed. He looked outside again, but still could see nothing. It sounded like they were in the building. Shouldn't be long now.

He slowly reached out and picked up one of the wires.

The minutes seemed to drag by. He wasn't sure how long he sat there, with one wire poised above the other. He only knew that the time seemed interminable. They seemed to be taking forever to get in. What if they had gone by the building without searching it. What if they somehow found out the others were somewhere else, and even now were going after them?

A bead of sweat trickled down his face. He wiped it off with his free arm. The others were all depending on him. He had to get a grip on himself, stop thinking these crazy thoughts before he did something stupid.

Did something stupid. What a laugh that was.

He shook his head. It didn't matter. Don't think. This was the main research lab. This was the first place the enemy would look. It made sense. All he had to do was wait.

A few more minutes dragged by, and then he heard more sounds. Footsteps, and voices. He couldn't tell exactly where the sound was coming from, but it was close.

The wire in his hand was inches above the other one. He could see his hand was trembling.

The door to the room suddenly flew open, and he saw three men bringing their guns to bear on him.

"Merry Christmas," he growled.

And then touched the two wires together.

Tifa thought she was going to lose her mind if they sat here in the dark a moment longer.

And then the ground rocked beneath her.

It was as if a giant hand had picked up the building and shook it. Even though she was crouched down, she lost he footing and found herself sprawled on the floor. Around her people and machinery were tossed like toys. Something heavy slammed against her shoulder, causing her to cry out. She heard shouts from some others as well. She curled up into a ball, just trying to protect herself from whatever flew through the darkness around her.

And then it was over. The building stopped shaking, damaged perhaps, but still standing. It took her a moment for her head to stop spinning, then she heard Cid's voice call out.

"Is everyone all right?"

There were a number of cries, some to the affirmative and some otherwise. Plus a moan here and there. Cid and Dr. McKindle were already on their feet, urging the other to get out of the building, or to help anyone out who couldn't make it on their own. With a groan Tifa pulled herself to her feet. She was bruised but otherwise seemed undamaged. She knew they didn't have much time.

Somehow they managed to get themselves out of the building quickly. Once outside they paused for a minute to access the situation. The rain was still coming down, but through it they could see the nearest buildings, or what was left of them. There wasn't much. A fire was burning nearby, casting a dim light around them. All of the buildings she could see were just piles of wreckage.

Cid and Dr. McKindle made a quick survey of the group. To Cid's great relief, none of them seemed to be hurt too badly. It seemed that Dr. McKindle's calculations had been correct after all.

"All right, we don't have much time," he said. "Straight north, up into the hills. That's were the airplane is. Let's go!"

They started off at a run. Cid and Dr. McKindle leading the way, but Cid soon dropped back until he was beside Tifa.

"I've got to lead the way," he told her. "Can you make sure no one falls behind?"

Tifa nodded. Cid sped up to get back to the front. They were running at a moderate pace, one that Tifa could keep up with easily. Even though no one had been seriously hurt in the blast, they still had minor cuts and bruises, some of which forced a few people to move more slowly. In addition to that, some of the scientists were not in the best physical shape. If someone didn't watch out for them, they could easily be left behind.

Tifa had her gun ready. In spite of the devestation around them, she knew the enemy wasn't far away. Although it didn't seem possible that anyone in the area had survived the blast, she could never be sure. It was possible someone could have found some shelter somewhere and survived. And besides, she didn't know how soon the men from the fringes of the explosion would close in on them again.

But they met no one.

The land around them started to slope upward as they reached to foot of the hills surrounding the base. They were no longer in the blast radius, and Cid was almost certain they had passed through whatever blocking line their enemy had erected. Still, they weren't home free yet. The commandos that had been with Barret moved swiftly and silently, staying together and quickly obeying any command he gave them. The scientists, however, were another story. It was difficult to keep them in a group, and though he tried to keep them quiet, some of them seemed to insist on talking, and on top of that, in a much louder voice than Cid deemed necessary.

But there didn't seem to be much he could do about it. They were scientists after all, not warriors. They had not been trained for this, and he didn't have time to give them a lesson. The only thing he could do was hurry them along as fast as possible and hope for the best.

He glanced back. The group was strung out in a long line, much longer than he wanted. He could barely make out Tifa near the back, urging the slowest one's on. He felt very uncomfortable separated from her, but there didn't seem to be much he could about that either. Although he was sure the commandos knew where they were going, Barret had placed the burden of leadership on him, and he felt he had to be in front to handle any decisions that arose. But he wanted someone in the back he could trust, and the only person with him that he did trust was Tifa.

All had been quiet so far, and Cid had started to hope against hope that they might make it out without encountering the enemy at all, but suddenly he heard voices off in the distance to their left.

He held up his hand, halting the party.

"What are we stopping..." one of the scientists began, but a commando waved frantically for him to be quiet, and after a pause and a puzzled look, he took the hint.

Cid gritted his teeth. The sound of voices could be heard plainly, coming out of the darkness. He stared off to the left, gun ready, and saw shadowy figures.

He signaled for them to crouch down. The commando's obeyed immediately, and the scientist followed suit a moment later. All their guns were trained on the figures the could barely make out in the distance. Their voices could be heard plainly now, calling to each other as they searched. They seemed to be getting closer.

"They're getting closer," one of the scientists said, even his whisper sounding aggravatingly loud to Cid. "Shouldn't we run for it?"

"Shut up!" Cid hissed. Running would immediately alert their enemy to their presence. He didn't want to give their position away unless he was sure it already had been compromised.

They remained there, crouched down uncomfortably, for agonizing minutes. The enemy came closer still, so that Cid could hardly believe they had not been spotted, but then the searchers moved off again in another direction. A few moments later they were gone.

Cid stood up and signaled them to move on with a sigh of relief. But they had hardly taken more than a few steps when two figures materialized out of the rain coming from the other direction.

For a moment they all just stood there looking at one another.

Cid had one advantage. The enemy had men scattered about, searching. They couldn't be sure when they ran into someone if they were the people they were looking for or other searchers. Cid's people were all together. Anyone they ran into had to be the enemy.

So it was that Cid was a split second faster.

The blast of his gun was almost shockingly loud after the long silence. The two men fell to the ground. Cid looked around. There didn't seem to be any others, but the searchers couldn't be far away, and the gunfire had to alert them. They could no longer depend on stealth.

"Move out!" he shouted.

The commandos obeyed immediately, herding the confused scientists along with them. Cid paused for a moment to make sure everyone was moving. Again he caught a glimpse of Tifa near the back of the line, right behind an older woman scientist who was the slowest of the bunch. She wasn't looking at him.

He ran ahead, trying to stay near the front. He heard more shots to the left and redoubled his speed. The enemy forces were far superior to theirs. They wouldn't stand a chance in a knock down drag out fight. Their only chance was to get away before their enemy could reorganize.

"Hurry!" Cid yelled toward the back of the line, not caring that he was shouting. They couldn't hide anymore, not after all the gunfire. They could only hope that the enemy was still scattered and even more confused than they were.

Tifa heard Cid yell. She urged the woman she was with up the slope, practically pushing her ahead. She paused for a moment to look around to see if there were any more stragglers.

She caught a glimpse of a small dark object flying through the air nearby.

The grenade's explosion sounded like a cannon fired in her ear. Something slammed into her back, sending her tumbling to the ground. She lay there for a moment, stunned, feeling as if she had been smashed against a brick wall, not even realizing what had happened. But then she shook her head and lifted herself up on one elbow. She could see someone running toward them, and it was from the direction the grenade had come from.

Every part of her body seemed to be in agony, but she forced herself into action. She looked around wildly, searching for her gun, and found it underneath her, of all places. Lifting herself up she grabbed the gun, bringing it up and firing in one single motion. The man coming toward her fell to the ground.

She pulled herself to her feet. Her breath was coming in short gasps, her lungs feeling as if they were on fire. She stumbled forward, looking around. The woman she had been sheparding was lying face on the ground, unmoving. The grenade had been closer to her than to Tifa, and it was obvious she was dead.

Cid had heard the blast. He looked back, but at first couldn't make out anything. The rain had lessened a bit, no longer the downpour it was before, but still steady. Visibility was slightly improved, but in the dark and uneven terrain, he still couldn't see much. All he knew was that there had been some kind of explosion near the back of the line, and Tifa was back there.

In spite of the need to get them all out of here, he started back toward her, but then suddenly he saw her, getting to her feet. She stood there for a moment, looking around. Then she looked at him and waved a hand to signal that she was alright.

He paused for a moment, then turned and ran forward again. It seemed she was okay, and he had to get them out of here.

"This way!" he called to some of the scientists who were headed up the ridge in the wrong direction.

The land was getting steep now, they were well on their way up the ridge. It wasn't much farther to the airplane. Just a few more minutes and they might actually make it.

He could still hear sporadic gunfire, but was not always sure of the direction it was coming from. Though the enemy seemed to be all around them now, they still seemed unorganized, and attacked in small groups instead of coordinating. But Cid knew that wouldn't last long. Now that their location had been ascertained, he knew more and more enemy soldiers would be pouring into the area. They didn't have much time before they were overwhelmed.

He ran faster, urging the others to hurry. He continued to hear gunfire, but none of it was close by. Either their enemy was shooting at shadows, or, even better, at themselves. He looked up and saw the narrow tree covered hill that marked the landing spot. They were almost there. Since the first time he had heard about this mission, he was beginning to believe they might actually pull it off.

One final burst of speed and he was there. The plane suddenly loomed out of the darkness in front of him, and he couldn't imagine a more beautiful sight.

"Let's go, get everyone aboard!" he called out, pulling open the door. "Tell Tifa to come up front as soon as she comes aboard."

He scrambled into the plane and dropped himself down in the pilot's seat. He didn't know how much time they had, but he didn't think they had a second to waste. He had to get the plane revved up and ready to go while the rest of the group were boarding.

The engines roared to life. If there were any enemy soldiers nearby, they be bound to come running at that sound. Cid checked his gauges. It took him only a minute or two to see that everything was in order. He turned his head when he heard the door of the craft slam behind him.

"What'd you close the door for?" he said angrily. "Where's Tifa?"

The man just looked at him, and suddenly Cid's mouth went dry and he felt a cold feeling rush up from the pit of his stomach.

"That's all there was sir," the man said slowly.


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