Chapter 45 - Last Call

The images moved, adjusting their glasses as they focused in on Cait. "Hmm? What's this? A rat seems to have wandered into my lab. More evidence that I am once again surrounded by incompetence."

"Well, ye ken whit they say 'bout birds o' a feather."

The images flickered out of sync until the one closest to Cait leaned uncomfortably close to the camera. "Should I know you? Perhaps in one of my scattered data packets, though you certainly don't look like one of my creations."

Cait tried to stand up straight on his quivering legs. "Ye'v ne'er created anythin' in yer life."

Hojo's perpetual frown deepened as the screen flickered again. "Yes, there is something familiar here. Almost certainly irrelevant, but it may prove amusing while my incompetent subordinates clean up their mess."

"How come dinnae ye wash it up yersel' if they're so incompetent?" Cait slid his heels toward the door.

"You obviously know nothing about science." The door slammed shut followed by several locks clunking into place. "Now then, Specimen T, pause the current program and prepare for a new search."

A voice far too young to be so monotone rose from the technological monstrosity in the center of the room. "Pausing data deframentation. Saving progress. Awaiting search parameters."

"Now the annoying part. So many useless labels. Search parameters: bipedal feline," Hojo leaned far too close to the camera again, "probably mechanical... hmph! The specimen is right there in the room with you. Get whatever data you need and report back when you discover who made it and how."

All the screens blinked out just as the monotone voice responded, "Affirmative. Beginning search."

Cait wandered over to the modified hospital bed, trying to look casual as he inspected all the tubes and wires. "Ye micht as well nae bother. There's hee haw on me in ShinRa's databases."

A few seconds passed before the tiny figure cocooned above him spoke. "Extending search to all available outside networks."

"Well, isnae that interestin'." He hopped up to sit cross-legged on the figure's knee. Or where the knee probably was under all the cords. "So ye kin hear me, then?"

"Affirmative." The voice was definitely young, almost too young to identify as male of female. The lower half of the child's face didn't give him much to go on, either.

Cait scowled as best as his limited facial mechanisms allowed. "Peely-wally bas. Tell me ye at least ha' a name."

"Query is irrelevant to current program."

"And my last question wasn't?"

"Affirmative."

"Hmm." Cait sat there a moment drumming his fingers on his knee. "Ah! O' course, ye're suppose tae collect data on me! Well, howfur about this, I will tell ye somethin' about me if ye tell me something about ye."

More than a bit dangerous, but he had to try something.

The child didn't speak for several seconds. "Acceptable."

"Right, then, I'll start. What's yer name?"

"Shelk the Transparent."

"Ah. Well, th' foremaist half o' that's a name, at least."

"What is your name?"

"Cait Sith." That, at least, was safe enough. The previous Cait's involvement with the Turks never made it into any official reports.

He just had to be careful with everything else.

*7*7*

Aerith woke slowly to the reverberating groan in her husband's chest and a buzzing cellphone. She stayed still, smiling at how much noise Zack made trying to reach the offending device without moving her.

"Reeve, you know there's a time difference, right?" A second later he shot up. "What?" He motioned for Aerith to get dressed. "How does he usually contact you? ... Okay. ... Didn't Cid say there wasn't enough fuel for another trip? ... He won't like that."

Aerith leaned over the bed once Zack hung up, her dress only half buttoned. "Bad news?"

"Yeah." He didn't even look up, just kept glaring at his phone. "Cait sent an encrypted message. Reeve's still working on the decryption, but he wants us to head to Kalm just in case." He ran a hand through his hair with a sigh. "And I have to convince Cid to risk using oil in the Highwind."

"That will probably be easier once he's awake." She smiled up at her husband. "Maybe we can help each other get dressed first."

Zack laughed as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I don't think either of us are going to get dressed that way."

"Not any time soon, at least."

For a moment, Zack argued with himself. A large part of him wanted to run to his friend's aid right away, airship or not. Two more parts, one more sensible than the other, agreed with Aerith.

As if reading his mind, which he honestly wouldn't put past her, Aerith stood up straight with her hands on her hips. "It's not just about waking up Cid." She glanced over at the clock. "It's four in the morning! I don't know what's involved with switching an engine from mako to oil, but I should think it would require the mechanics to be awake. We won't do Cait any good if we get stranded."

Zack let his head fall forward as he shook it. "You really are always right."

"Of course! Now, are we going to fret over things we can't do yet or enjoy each other's company?"

*7*7*

Even at a more reasonable hour, Zack still had to hold the phone at arms length as Cid roared obscenities mixed with what fuel oil would do to his precious airship. He'd seen this reaction coming and his ear still rang. One of the downsides to mako enhancements.

Though it did get Cloud and Kunsel's attention from the next room, which saved a little time in collecting everyone. By the time Zack finished with Cid, they had started on breakfast in the tavern portion of the inn.

Nanaki greeted him first. "What is the plan?"

"For now, pack and wait for Cid." Zack sank into the chair Aerith left open for him. "Shouldn't be more than a couple hours. I'm guessing Aerith filled you in?"

Everyone nodded, though Kunsel pushed away from the table as well.

"Whatever the final plan, I have to sit out."

"What?!" Yuffie almost jumped on top of the table. "Why?"

"I'm compromised. Especially if whatever happened to Nibelhiem is connected to what's happening in Midgar. So I'm going to stay here and go through the cleansing."

"Alone?"

Aerith tried to gently pull Yuffie back down. "There's not much we can do to help him. I'm sure the doctors and students here have everything under control."

Zack nodded, though he didn't manage to look anywhere near as certain as Aerith. "Yeah. So, once Cid gets here, we'll be heading to Gongaga to pick up Barret and then to Fort Condor to meet Reeve. He's hoping to have the rest of Cait's message decrypted by then."

Eating and packing took hardly any time at all. Partially because none of them had much to bring but also because they wanted plenty of time to say good-bye to Kunsel and wish him luck.

Cid arrived a half hour earlier than Zack guessed, fuming over the PA system as those heading for Midgar rushed up the ramp.

Despite Yuffie's usual complaints, they made excellent time. No attacks. No complications.

They all expected the other shoe to drop long before they saw Reeve's grim expression.

Zack stepped forward. "How bad is it?"

"You should see for yourself."

Their sinking stomachs muffled Cid and Barret's complaints about being kept in the dark longer. Reeve led them into a storage room hastily repurposed as a meeting room. A laptop and several connected devices sat on a large crate in the center while smaller crates had been shoved into corners to provide some room to stand.

"The images were encrypted." Reeve turned on the computer. "More precisely, steganographic techniques were used to conceal most of the data in other formats."

Cid huffed. "Yeah, yeah, lots o' geek stuff. Just git on with it 'fore someone blows a gasket." He not-at-all-subtly glared at Barret.

Before Barret could even growl in response, one of the devices projected an image on a clear area of wall.

Aerith gasped, her hands over her mouth as Zack pulled her closer to him. Yuffie muttered about 'evil ShinRa jerks.' Tifa glanced at Cloud, who couldn't be more still if someone had cast stop on him. Only Vincent seemed entirely unaffected.

Barret swore. "That's a $%^&*# kid! Damn ShinRa! Killin' the planet ain't enough fer 'em, they gotta torture kids, too!" He pumped his gun-arm. "I say we bust in there, grab Cait and the kid, an' blow the whole shit-stand sky high!"

"Sounds great, 'cept fer the part where half o' Midgar gets covered in flamin' rubble an' mako." Cid took a long, supposed to be calming drag on his cigarette.

"Ya got any better ideas, smartass? Or are ya sayin' y're fine wi' lettin' these bas'r'ds run loose ta grab some other kid?"

Cid jabbed at Barret with his cigarette. "I'm sayin' we kill the bad guys! Not everyone within ten miles! 'Cides which, ya ever think there may be more kids down there?"

Reeve cleared his throat, heading off further argument and potential collateral damage. "The level of destruction possible might not be an exaggeration."

Zack hugged Aerith closer as he examined the partial map now displayed on the wall. "Is that a reactor?"

"Reactor Zero, directly below the ShinRa Building. It seems the bulk of this secret facility is below the reactor."

"Shit. Wha's wi' ShinRa an' hidin' their crap in reactors?"

Tifa slipped her arm around Cloud's. "How are we going to get inside? The entrance Cait used is too small."

Cid snorted. "I'm more worried 'bout us gettin' back out. No way we're bustin' in there without alertin' everything they've got. Hell, they're probably waitin' fer us."

"Assuming this is the group responsible for the disappearances of late, there has to be a larger entrance." Reeve brought up a complete blueprint of a mako reactor next to the incomplete map Cait sent. "Unfortunately, there isn't enough here to tell how closely the layout conforms to the standard."

Zack scowled at the images. "This would be a lot easier if we could get them to come to us."

Everyone turned to stare at him. Mostly surprise, but Reeve in particular seemed almost relieved.

"That... That might actually work." Reeve typed something into his computer but the images projected onto the wall didn't change. "Hojo hates disruptions to his experiments. A full-scale attack on Reactor Zero would certainly qualify."

"Now tha's wha' I'm talkin' 'bout!" Barret punched the air with his gunarm.

Cid realized what Reeve had in mind half a moment later. "Oh, hell no. These folks are civilians! Sure, they kept ShinRa outta here, but that's mostly 'cause ShinRa didn't wanna risk damagin' the reactor! Ain't no way they'd survive goin' up against whatever freaks Hojo's got in there."

Zack winced, memories of 'friendly' matches between him and entire infantry companies popping to the surface of his mind.

Reeve almost looked like he'd been slapped. "What? No, no. I was actually thinking of asking the Turks."

"Works for me." Yuffie set her hands on her hips at the stunned looks that earned her. "Hey, it's not like anyone cares if they die."

Both Zack and Aerith glared at the young ninja. Zack nearly growled. "I care."

Yuffie rolled her eyes, completely unaffected by the concentrated disapproval aimed at her. "Well, sure, you care about everyone."

Nanaki's tail swished. "You should be thankful for that, considering you were once enemies."

"Hey! I totally had him beat the first time we met!"

"Back ta the important stuff." Cid took a long drag on his cigarette. "While the Turks'd have a fightin' chance o' survivin', ain't they more trained for covert ops? Kinda the opposite of 'full-scale attack.'"

That pulled a sigh out of Reeve. "Ah, yes. I suppose administrative skills don't translate to military strategy."

"Maybe... The Turks are good at being sneaky, right? So this could still work." Tifa looked to Cloud, who had surfaced from his daze enough to give her a faint smile, before continuing. "One of the first lessons Zangan taught me is that you can usually avoid a fight by looking big and confident. That's why chocobos puff out their feathers when they feel threatened. So maybe we don't need an army, we just have to look like an army."

Yuffie's shriek could've deafened the entire fort. "That's brilliant! But who needs stupid ShinRa goons when you can have ninja? Lucky for you, you've got the White Rose of Wutai to set you up with the very best."

"An' how're they gonna get here? Jes' flyin' y'all here did a number on the Highwind's engines. Ain't no way I'm takin' her up again 'til I've scrubbed every square inch."

"So we shud fight 'longside the Turks?" For a moment, Barret looked more shocked than angry. "Tifa, ya can't be serious. Duncha remember wha' they did ta Sector Seven?"

That set Tifa's back ramrod straight. "Of course I remember! But they also helped us." Her voice dropped to a murmur. "It's not like we don't have our own sins."

"Turks follow orders." Zack crossed his arms and stared at not much of anything. "It's how they're trained. Follow orders regardless of your personal feelings. SOLDIER... wasn't much different."

"I was also a Turk." Vincent's eyes narrowed by barely a millimeter. "In fact, half the people in this room once worked for ShinRa."

Aerith scooped up Barret's flesh and blood hand in both of hers. "It sounds like our best chance to get Cait and that child out. Please, Barret. Maybe they want to make up for their regrets."

Barret grumbled as he avoided Aerith's pleading eyes. "Gaa! Fine! 'Bout time ShinRa started cleanin' up their own messes, anyhow."

"If we're not using ninja, then I better be on Team Turk to make sure they don't screw up." Yuffie suddenly stuck her finger almost up Vincent's nose. "You, too, Vinnie! You can do all that spooky vampire stuff."

"I am not..." Vincent sighed. "We have to find a way to contact the Turks, first."

That, Reeve already had covered. Zack and Yuffie spent the next few minutes teasing the former Turk about joining the nu era.


I really didn't want this to happen, but after struggling with this chapter for... what has it been now, a year? Yeah, I've come to the realization that I've managed to write myself into a wall with a tsunami at my back and pit traps to either side. I've lost track of several key characters, the timeline's a mess, and most of the 'plot threads' (if we're to be charitable) are so tangled that I'm not sure I can't find them.

Basically, between the narrative problems and the distinct lack of interest this fic has gotten compared to the previous one, I think it's going to need a total rewrite. Not abandoned, I'm not at that point yet, but I'll probably be working on some other projects for a while. Give my brain a break from Final Fantasy and practice coming up with an actual framework for stories instead of letting the characters hijack everything.