Terminal velocity, rotor wash seared in his vox-com. He waited like a coiled spring, gaze focused, jaw taught, knees pinched together holding his bladder. This was it…

"Kssshhhh Wutai troops have taken over Midgar City's main reactor. SOLDIER blackop Zack Fair will be low-jumped into the hotzone on my mark…"

The com blared in crash-static, and blood rushed to his head.

"…3…2…1…MARK."

Zack flowed into combat-mode. The chopper door opened as a rush of aggressive wind slammed him back. He gripped the doorframe, swallowing a lump in his throat, when a huge hand fell on his shoulder.

"Don't look down," said the big man it belonged to, with dark eyes that scrutinized his technique, his composure, his body-posture, and his Jump Materia. Zack winced up at him with the same shaded hue in his Mako-infused irises. All SOLDIER's had those neon-cyan eyes.

The answer to Zack's glare came as a boot-kick to the back. His mentor leapt out of the chopper after him.

Zack whirled in a catalytic vertigo, his stomach turning in a G-force knot. Cerulean sheerfractus sliced at his navy battle fatigues. At least his sword was strapped tight to his back. The blue null of the sky was a saleen supercell swirling to swallow him whole, a crystal aphelion splayed against the luminous night. He fell through umbral nothing at terminal velocity in terror, until an image flashed before his eyes, and he was no longer in this world's sky…

…He saw her wreathed in a hue of emerald, lithe and airy with hair like silky tidal waves. Ringed in a paraselene glow, she gazed at him like she'd been waiting for someone for a long time. He hung suspended in a subliminal stasis, darkness thick like molasses in a netherworld that engulfed them. She held out her hand to him…and disappeared.

He still reached for her as he toppled over and over back in the sky, stretching his body out prone in an aerodynamic fan. Coalescence ripped at his psyche, but somehow he found his equilibrium and stopped spinning.

The ground blurred into focus on an abandoned junkyard, a bonepile of scrapmetal the City called "The Train Graveyard." His training held, a slow count back from ten to keep time quelled his nerves.

10...9...8...

When he hit a low number, he threw his feet under him, and his Materia crystal glowed—a piezoelectric orb that fused with his aura. He landed crouched on his toes like a lynx, not an ounce of impact thanks to the ability orb. Behind him, his mentor hit standing, not needing to crouch to absorb impact—he'd done the Jump correctly.

Together, they stole into the industrial railyard. Decommissioned aerotrain cars lined out in sad rank and file. Dead quiet, with the dusty tinge of burnt copper filtering through their nostrils, they prowled like feral cats through impromptu scrap corridors.

Zack's foot tripped a wire, and spotlights burst down on the two operators. Ambush. Wutai sentries leapt from over train cars and junk piles dressed in black stealth-camo. The big man shoved Zack on.

"Go kid! Your time to shine!"

Zack loped like a wolf straight for the mass aggregation of enemy combatants, drawing his longsword in a shining crescent sheen. This was his time, his ticket out of reserve status and into 1st Class ranks. 1st Class meant Active Duty, Green Team, door-kickers, first in and last out. That was going to be Zack if it killed him. All set, here goes nothing…

He hopped off a lead foot, stabbed through a chest plate and whipped his sword back before his feet touched dirt. Riding the momentum, he leapt in a spiraling elliptical twirl that sent a ring of troops flying like marbles. He landed back in fighter's stance, sword gripped tight in both hands.

Gunfire erupted at his flank. Bullets shattered a floodlight down on him, leaving tiny cuts across his pale face and peppering his black hair. No fear, no time. His sword came down to slice a rifle in half, then up-rushed to slice its trooper in half. He danced a sword-ballet all over the junkyard, his blade flowing about like the edging of a screw, until they all lied twitching in the twilight.

Zack's vox-com vibrated. He whipped it out like a switchblade.

"They've started the self-destruct sequence. Get there and enter the abort code before it blows."

Zack hung up and sprinted toward the Reactor.

Mako Reactor 1 powered the Shinra Electric Company's Headquarters, smack in the middle of Midgar City. The entire metropolis was built on top of a floating grid wholly controlled by the international energy mogul, which was the leading supplier of Magnesium Cobaltite in the developed world—Mako. How the city hadn't exploded from the mining fumes was a miracle. They had to practically tow-line the Plate to the ground to keep it from floating away.

SOLDIER was Shinra's elite security wing, tasked with keeping all operations safe. Too bad terrorists like Wutai had other ideas that SOLDIER's wouldn't see eye-to-eye on. So what if farmlands shriveled into dustpools during the strip-mining, and so what if Reactor 1 didn't even power any residential areas? If that hub went, the entire army went with it. Zack broke his quarter-mile time getting there.

The Reactor Compound was a massive thermal generator geared-out in gyroscopes and guard railings. Steam stacks and glowing pylons reared like electrified Tesla rods. Zack didn't think he'd make it through unchallenged, and was right.

Rogue thugs encroached on both flanks. His sword flew into action, singing a hyperslash powerballad dubbed to a speed-metal track in his head. He power-slashed through their detachment like he was playing hockey, but they kept coming.

Bulletspray to his left—Zack toppled into a sweeping dive roll. A slug struck millimeters from his hand, he felt the heat of its flash powder on his fingertips and lurched his arm back. Reacting, he launched at the gang-banger with the piss-poor aim, up-slashing, cross-slashing, and windmill-slicing to slam him to the ground. When he looked up, all enemies had been neutralized.

Conflict Resolved.

He rested his sword on his shoulder, letting his guard down for a split second, until an edge of cerulean steel slit his earlobe.

A cold voice.

A deep voice.

"Never turn your back to an enemy…" velveteen darkness regarded him in a calm storm of syllables. "Overconfidence will destroy you."

Zack froze at the death-ring of a daikatana that grazed his cheek from behind, banishing his confident rouse to reveal a kid— a twenty-something rookie with pierced ears and boots that weren't dirty yet. He turned in a cloud of shame to face his mentor, and gasped when he saw it wasn't his mentor standing there.

A tall figure like a living star stood in his wake, the sharp face of angelic darkness marred in the pale pallor of death. With hair like silver comet tails streaking down to his boots, he was the most malefic image of malevolent beauty Zack had ever beheld in his life.

That deadly daikatana streaked for him like stars. Zack flayed his sword up to cover while the beautiful man whipped his blade sidelong in slitting one-handed swipes. Zack whirled his arms at cerulean cured metal that screamed for him in razor slashes.

He cross-slashed with all his might at the man, and Zack's sword shattered. Time seemed to end in that endless second of stasis, a moment held in suspension somewhere between life and death. Zack's heart beat in his ears, all of his hopes and dreams played before him like a black-and-white theatre. A phenomenal arc-slash from the daikatana leered for the kill, but Zack found his broken sword crossed in front of him, blocking it.

The big man—Zack's mentor—shoved the malefic figure back with Zack's blade.

"GO!" he yelled at Zack, who scampered off like a streetkid up the metal-cleated steps of the Reactor. Inside was a giant nuclear fission chamber with a control panel board over the mineshaft. Zack clamored up to it as smoke steamed from overheating vents. The self-destruct countdown had begun.

Zack fumbled his fingers over the keypad, biting down on his tongue until he remembered the abort code. He muttered it out loud, typing as fast as growing up on AIM Messenger had taught him to.

Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start…

He hit ENTER and threw his hands up.

…The entire facility exploded into flaming apocalypse.

Then, tone-outs. The walls around them stuttered and glitched, fading in a pixelated rain. The simulation test BLACK BELT short-circuited back to dark matter algorithms, leaving the two operators in a blank grey training room.

Zack ran up to his mentor with a panicked expression, who stood with his arms crossed.

"You typed the abort code in backwards, Zack."

Blank stare. Zack didn't get it.

"The abort code is the self-destruct code backwards," his mentor explained.

Still no expression.

"What did you type in, Zack?"

Now an iota of understanding lit up behind Zack's eyes. He held a finger in the air, a big smile crossing his face, until the realization hit. He wiped that smug grin straight off.

The big man pinched the bridge of his nose with a groan, while Zack stood there shuffling his foot.

"I'm sorry, Zack, but I can't recommend you for 1st Class."

The words hit like a freight train, an electric shock straight to Zack's rocked core. He took a desperate step forward, to which his mentor held up the broken sword, leering like the shining example of his botched mission.

"Zack…" the big man bore into his student, who held in burning tears. "If you want to be a First, you need to have honor."

Zack wouldn't look up to meet his gaze. It was just like a kid to have trouble accepting responsibility for his missteps. He could see the self-destructive tinge smoldering in his student's eyes, telling him he was no hero, just a dreamer.

The tall stallion of a man strode past him, adding something as he opened the simulation field door.

"…and dreams."

Zack looked up as his mentor left the training room, leaving him to mull over this day's lesson. But as the leaded sheet-glass doors slid shut automatically, his own waking dream came back to him in monochrome.

He didn't see the technovoid of hologram pattern-cameras that projected visual stimulus for rookies to practice in—had they malfunctioned? Nor did he discern the radial-mirrors that looped movement-feedback to the simulations computers lined along the walls, for a moment he didn't see his stats projected onto the overhead monitor showing he'd garnered Zero Stars for this training mission.

All he saw were her eyes.

.

[Received Potion]