They all three rode the in the bullet train that traversed the outer continent, while Vincent gazed out the window, recanting a tale.
"Lucrecia Crescent was a scientist at Shinra working on the Jenova Project. Dr. Hojo threatened to have her fired unless she shared his bed. Rather than see her life's work go up in smoke, she acquiesced. I was assigned to her for 'protection,' but really I was to keep her from talking to anyone about anything. So she talked to me, about everything. When we became lovers, I wanted to take her away from Shinra, but she wouldn't leave without her son. We were going to elope, and steal the child away in the middle of the night. But Hojo found out, killed us both, and turned Sephiroth into the creature you know today."
"Killed you both?" asked Cloud.
"I tried to abduct Lucrecia's son anyway, but I was shot in the back by Hojo. He did what he does with all of his bodies, used me for mad science. Now I just don't age, and can't sleep worth a damn."
The landscape flowed by in lush swathes of forest and prairies. Their planet truly was a beautiful place to behold outside of the world of Reactors and scientists. Cloud took it all in with eyes glued to his boots.
"I don't think you want to hear what happened to Sephiroth afterwards. I can't believe a creepo like that would do those things to his own son."
But Vincent shook his head.
"He wasn't his father."
Everyone looked up at Vincent, who continued his long stern gaze out the window.
Midgar came upon them after three days of travel, and what they saw shocked them.
A phenomenal electrified plume of Chaos swirled over the skyline, while helicopters and Humvees charged around barking at the citizens over loud speakers. Curfews had police brutalizing common folk. One guy had his dog shot for taking a walk.
The train pulled into Union Station and armed guards stood every ten feet apart in riot gear. People were shoved around by batons and pandemonium had everyone in a confused uproar. Cloud and party got off the train and were immediately stopped.
"Hey! What do you think you're doing!" A Second Class SOLDIER marched right up to Cloud and company. Cloud stopped breathing.
"Just…going to clock in."
The SOLDIER looked Cloud up and down, and seemed satisfied.
"Aye aye, sir." And he threw Cloud a hard salute. Cloud saluted him back, and they went about their business. The party exhaled.
"So what do we think we're doing?" asked Tifa. But Cloud was way ahead of her.
"Before we rolled out to our deployment, there was one person who was friends with Sephiroth, a key ally, someone who was in his corner when he stood up to Shinra about Nibelheim. Director Scarlet."
Shinra's offices ran the entire length of their headquarters building, but a little known fact was that the War Department wasn't actually in the headquarters building in case of a terrorist attack. It was in a low rise co-op behind HQ, where there was no outside security detail to remain inconspicuous. The doorman thought they were simply walk-overs from the Shinra building with Cloud's uniform, and opened right up for them.
Inside was a lot of hanging glass art deco and minimalist marble floors. A lone girl receptionist sat behind a plastic screen hiding a raunchy romance novel in the pages of a museum guide.
Cloud walked up to the desk like he owned the place.
"I have an appointment with the War Department Chair."
The receptionist set her magazine down and dialed a number on a cord phone.
"Hello, can you please inform Commander Reeve that his One O'clock is here—"
"ACTUALLY," Cloud threw his hands out, "I was hoping to speak to Director Scarlet."
The receptionist hung up the phone, and a part of Cloud thanked the Gods.
"Director Scarlet is no longer with the War Department. She has been reassigned to the Department of Internal Affairs."
"HR?" Cloud cocked his head.
"Shall I page her desk?"
"Um, no thank you. I'll reschedule our meeting."
And they left in a whirl, but not before Cloud grabbed a building directory pamphlet on their way out.
Around the alley, Cloud folded open the directory.
"HR is always on some weird level in an office that goes through another office. They make it hard to find on purpose, which actually makes it super easy to locate."
He looked for the weirdest possible department that could exist.
Department of Fish Hatcheries.
Yup, definitely through there.
It was on Level Four #234—odd and convenient. They took the service entrance and the janitor's elevator. An empty desk at a security check point let them right through—the guard was on a smoke break.
There were relatively few personnel and everyone they walked past saw the uniform and averted their eyes. One tall woman in a plain boring business skirt and tightly pinned blonde hair stuck out. She wore thick brimmed glasses and no makeup, a common analog watch and rhinestone earrings. There was something about the way she walked that had a power behind her step. The only thing that gave her away: her blood red heels.
"Director Scarlet…You're under arrest for conspiring with an enemy of the people."
Something hit him, out of nowhere, and Cloud found himself toppled into his party members on the floor—Status: Confuse—an impact so sudden that Cloud didn't even know what happened.
"Owwwww apparently the author didn't either."
"Are you here to kill Sephiroth?" Scarlet demanded. Cloud thought of a brilliant answer to her question.
She lifted him up by his sword harness.
"Come with me. I will help you."
The three of them followed her in a hurry down the halls. Scarlet took them through gated-off secured areas, flashing her badge before anyone could say a word.
"The Nibelheim Massacre was tabloid craze, an absolute media storm. But we were able to cover up the names of the operators who died, and deny that SOLDIER was even there."
A guard buzzed them through a gated area, where rooms screened in glass held exotic and experimental weapons by the truck load.
"Then two months after the explosion of Reactor One, Sephiroth reported back in and just quietly started following old directives. No one said a thing. Everyone got really quiet, and people started disappearing. He was supposed to be dead. I changed my hair and moved departments. I've just been running from him. The only person who seems to know what's going on is Hojo, and in a sick way it looks like he's covertly taken over the company. A military blockade has been set up in the center of town…This will get you through."
She handed Cloud her ID Badge. He took it with an uncertainty hanging in his soul.
"The world needs a new hero," said Scarlet, then kicked them out the fire escape.
The Chaos loomed unbridled in the distance toward Downtown. Cloud and party hiked through backstreets that were now empty due to quarantines and curfew enforcement. It was a complete warzone. Everyone had lost their freedom overnight.
They followed the helicopters overhead to the town square, where a massive military operation cordoned off the epicenter with Humvees and turrets. The Infantry was out in full force—razor wire and foot patrols on high alert without a clear mission. Cloud and company walked up to the checkpoint where a devil dog Captain stopped them.
"Where the hell do you think you're going? You're violating curfew!"
Cloud held up the ID Badge.
"Director Scarlet sent me to see to the Chaos."
"Director Who? Get the fuck out of my sector before I execute you for insubordination!"
A strong voice made everyone jump. A microcheck suit pushed his way through the convoy, flashing his own ID Badge from a flip wallet that glinted in the sun.
"Tseng of the Turks. You're ordered to allow safe passage for this party of special operators."
"Bullshit! My orders are to secure Downtown tighter than a gnat's ass."
"Your orders are overwritten."
"Who do you think you are?"
"DO YOU KNOW WHO THIS IS? This is SOLDIER First Class Cloud Strife, honorably discharged with full colors and on record at the Midgar VA…not like you can get seen there anyway but for what it's worth."
"Reeve will be hearing about this!"
"I hope so. Carry on, SOLDIER."
Cloud stood taken aback for a long moment as the Turk's stoic eyes drilled into him. He took his party and walked past the Infantry Captain, who refused to move and spat a wad of snuff at Cloud's feet. He walked by the Turk who threw him a subtle nod, and Cloud couldn't help but feel like he'd known the man at some point long ago.
"Hey…" The Turk called to them, and they all turned around. "Kill that asshole."
A small smirk, a little salute, and Cloud accepted the mission.
Once past the blockade, they set their sights on the swirling Chaos beyond them. This was it, their final boss fight. Luckily for them, the arena was cleared of most possible casualties but they needed a plan. Cloud bit his lip as he sized up the situation.
"We need to take out Hojo first, then go after Sephiroth."
"Hojo is mine," said Vincent.
"I'll win the battle. You go win the war."
The Red Turk eyed them as he drew his weapon, a tri-barreled .50 caliber pistol engraved in the shape of wolves' heads. He cocked it and started off. He didn't need to wish his comrades good hunting.
Vincent Valentine knew where to find the mad scientist. He would be in an operations bunker close by but not near enough to be in direct danger. He'd also have cronies with him. Vincent leveled up his ability slots and tricked out his equipment menu which was so outdated he had to sit through a full solid minute of an update screen.
"Oh who designed this new gambit system?" he spat at the drop-down menu.
A building with black cars parked outside gave them away. Vincent kicked in the doors.
Inside was a wide marble atrium with stacked cages of subdued animals. And at their center, Dr. Hojo leered like a loiterer, hands behind his back as if expecting Vincent's arrival. But it was his entourage who greeted him instead. Reno and Rude stepped up, gripping their knuckles and charging a stun baton.
"Wrong place, wrong time bub," said Reno. He shot a stun beam at Vincent but a whip from a clawed gauntlet bat it aside.
"Special Agent Vincent Valentine, Op Code Silver-Five-Silver. Stand Down!"
"You're a Turk?"
"Why didn't you say so!"
Reno and Rude promptly about-faced and jumped in a party line with Vincent.
Hojo's mad cackling increased to an echo as he threw his arms out wide.
"I expected as much. Behold, the final experiments of Project Gemini!"
He pressed a button in his hand, and all the cages opened. Horrible monsters charged forth, winged, fanged, clawed, and viscerally deformed, all under the mind-blind control of Dr. Hojo. Vincent peered at the madman, as a radiant light began to coalesce around him.
"You forgot, I'm one of them."
The light burst forth and Vincent's body transformed to that of a gargantuan werewolf. His slathering fangs frothed and foamed, and harrowing claws bared.
A gorgonoscipid leapt at him. Vincent caught it in a fanged jaw, snapping its body in two. Blood and entrails flew everywhere. A tentacled tigris latched onto his leg. He bat it so hard that it smashed against the wall in a flattened bloody work of modern art.
Reno and Rude jumped in and held off smaller mutations of plants. Strange flower insectoids cast status ailments that they threw their own elixirs at. A swamp monster thing leapt at Vincent's back. Luckily the thing was mostly made of water, and Reno's shock baton made short work of shorting its lights out.
Winged beasts got their wings ripped off and slathering gobs of living flesh were flung into other non-slathering gobs, and the doctor found himself with no more protection.
A phenomenal swipe from a clawed paw sent Hojo flying across the room. He toppled to the ground in a bloody heap, slash lines running vertical across his chest to expose pulsating muscle and cracked sternum bone. And still the man laughed in between labored, gurgling breaths.
"Hehehe. Midgar thanks you for your invaluable service to your country. Without your actions, none of this would have been possible."
Vincent's feral form rescinded to a man in a carnelian cloak. He approached the madman with cautious steps.
"Why do you think the Reactors were unprotected? The Crystals were guarding the pieces of Jenova. When your friends defeated them, they dropped her body into the Mako chambers, allowing her to float right back to where she belongs…home to me. Entire battalions couldn't defeat those Weapons but your friends did all the hard work for us, allowing for the final act of our grand stage play."
"What happens now?"
"When the last piece of Jenova is assembled, she will remanifest in living flesh and assume her dominion of this world. In my own son, I have created a gateway for her into our domain, a foothold for her to assume her unearthly throne."
"What's in it for you?"
"Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. But in this storyarc it seems like the most important thing for a man to achieve is a legacy. I will be remembered, oh yes, you will all remember me. This story was not possible without me. None of you would have existed if it weren't for me and no matter how much you hate it, you will always remember it. Hahahahah!"
Vincent pointed his pistol at the madman's open maw, and fired. A single shot rang out in the atrium, that seemed to ring across all Midgar, and the world went silent. As smoke pillowed from the gun's barrel, Vincent turned away in a solemn rouse.
"There Lucrecia. It's been done. Now sleep, my love. I'll take care of things from here. And maybe I'll finally be able to get some rest as well."
But Reno grabbed his shoulder.
"Not yet though! We have to help Cloud. Come on!"
[Received Steel Gauntlet]