When Zack Fair met death, he saw her ringed in Andromedal stardust. Green Team Commander Darien Lazarus had been taken hostage at Mako Reactor 1. Shinra sent its SOLDIER's.
"Copy Ghostrider. Target has been painted. SOLDIER blackops will be lowjumped into the hotzone on my mark…"
Zack crouched in the belly of the mech-hawk, awaiting the opcode to Jump. His piezoelectric Materia orb glowed in his left arm, his sword strapped tight to his back. 21 years old, first mission, this was it...
He leapt to the open bay door, senses jolted into primeval Combat Mode. But a big hand fell on his shoulder.
Angeal, Silver Elite veteran, steadied his student with silent signals from neon-cyan irises; all SOLDIER's had the same color eyes. He shot hand-signals over the rotor wash that he'd jump first, Zack would follow.
Angeal stepped to the door like a gladiator into battle, leaping without hesitation from 3000 feet. A deep breath, sheerwind ripping at Zack's navy fatigues, and he fell into the blue null of the sky after. Terminal velocity took him like a twister as he stretched his body out prone. The vacuum of updrafts whipped him around in microsonic supercells, atmospheric pressure dropping in supercooled jetstreams that blasted his eardrums and tore at his autonomic senses, until he was whisked out of reality in a sudden dreamscape away from this world's sky.
He saw her wreathed in a hue of emerald, lithe and airy with hair like paraselene light. The girl hovered somewhere between dream and reality, shrouded in the conceptual hallucination Zack found himself summoned to. She reached for him through umbral nothing, and disappeared.
Zack whirled to get his bearing, wretched back into the now. The ground was coming up fast, aerial pockets of industrial landscape lurching to and fro. A slow count back from ten helped him gauge distance…10, 9, 8…and when he hit a low number, he threw his feet under him.
When Angeal hit a low number though, he activated his glowing Jump Materia. The drop zone loomed like a graveyard, a bone pile of scrap metal where decommissioned aerotrain cars were ditched. Scuttling shapes moved about below like ants. He zeroed in as he fell, fists flaring alchemically, and smashed down upon two robed enemies to scatter the horde.
Zack's crystalaic Materia orb glowed, and he landed crouched on his toes like lynx. He'd done the Jump incorrectly. He shook his head out, whirling from her ethereal image in the sky.
"You alright?" Angeal yanked him up by his sword harness.
Their target had been painted for them by recon drones. Angeal and Zack dashed like feral cats toward Reactor 1.
Midgar was a city perpetually caught between architectural idealism and an engineering nightmare. Conceived as a floating plate spanning ten square kilometers suspended over nine supermassive fuel reactors, the entire circumference had to be chained to the ground to keep it from flying away. Now the reactors provided an endless wealth of energy for the bourgeoisie above, and a fume-polluted slum for the proletariate below.
They came in troves, surrounding the two operators, street samurai hooded in black bandit robes. Angeal's fists once again flared in alchemical resonance, despite the massive meat cleaver of a longblade sheathed over his back.
"You know, I've never seen you use that sword," Zack mocked as he drew his own.
"This sword…is heavy and unwieldy," his mentor replied.
"So bring a lighter one, you wasteful bastage!"
Zack wound up to slash as a dark rogue ran at him. But Angeal overstepped Zack with a huge arching uppercut, stealing his confirm. He one-two cross-hooked three flankers, and threw a flying crescent kick over Zack's head, connecting with an enemy behind him.
When the rogues had all been KO'd, the big man waved a wagging finger in his pupil's face.
"Use brings about wear, tear, and rust…and that's a real waste."
He said it so curtly, like he was quoting a dictionary. Zack shook his head.
"You're something else."
They dashed off into the shadows with as much of an idea who their enemy was now as when they landed.
Over a concrete buffer they could see the sheet metal rise of the Mako reactor 500 meters away. They skidded to a crouch while Angeal activated a pocket hologrammaton in his palm, displaying graphic readouts of the reactor.
"There's the target…B-Unit's going to set off a depth charge. That's our entry-point. Recon pings the Commander's location in a wet lab on the lower level here. We'll get in, get out, and get to the extraction point. Copy?"
"Good. Let's go."
He pulled Zack over the buffer wall, dashing with him for three seconds before yanking him to the ground again. Belly-flat, three more seconds, and they ran on. Repeat.
I get up, he sees me, I'm down. I get up, he sees me, I'm down. I get up, he sees me, I'm down…
They made it within sprinting distance of the reactor like this, blending into the backdrop in bursts, until a floodlight flashed down at them 50 meters out. Clutches of black robed assassins converged on them like a plague. Whoever these shadowed assailants were, they knew SOLDIER enough to want them dead.
"Go kid! Your time to shine!" Angeal shoved Zack on.
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 thugs 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 an Uzi in half, then up-rushed to slice its shooter 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.
A rush of air. Rappellers ziplined down behind him, hitting the ground with quickblades drawn. Zack whipped around too late to see a sleek laser line coming at his face. He stumbled back to the ground, this was it, game over...
A single slash of razed light ripped time and space in two, a blinding flash, and Zack looked up to see Angeal standing behind the two fallen rappeller corpses, sword splayed out in combat stance. He stood an hierophant of anger, a dark gladiator rending rays of lunar light off the shining single-edged greatsword that he double-handed. Now he relaxed, looking down on his young pupil who slumped in his shadow.
"That's one more you owe me."
But Zack didn't miss a beat.
"Oh, sorry if I got any wear, tear, or rust on your sword."
"You're a little more important than my sword…but just a little."
A flicker lit up Angeal's eyes, gazing on Zack with something like pride. A big hand held out, and he pulled his young student to his feet.
Explosion. The signal! Five fighters dove out in front of them, sabers drawn. Angeal's massive sword snapped into low-guard and Zack leapt in beside him.
"The Commander! Go!" Angeal ordered, but Zack hesitated.
Zack grit his teeth and took off, leaving his mentor to fend for himself.
The reactor was a big nuclear fission facility rigged up to power pylons like Tesla rods. As soon as the Commander had been pinged a hostage, infrared drones took a high-pixel aerial scan of the interior, their eyelet lasers penetrating durablast concrete walls a metric meter thick. Zack wouldn't be able to blast, tunnel, hack or beg his way down through the secured lower wings of Reactor 1 even with the President's keycard on an admin-override. That's why B-Unit's blast through the shipping bay was seriously appreciated.
He dropped down into a stainless steel bunker on Level 2, his leather-shank combat boots hitting the slick floor with a hard thud. Vibram soles. They could grip the side of a waterslide.
He followed the Pre-mission Intel down the network of corridors into the reactor's science wing.
In a rear laboratory, outfitted with wet samples like an alien butcher shop, he found a man tied to a forensics chair.
"Commander!" Zack rushed to him. "I'm Zack Fair from SOLDIER, here to rescue you."
Zack's foot sailed through a thin laser motion line, and all doors instantaneously slammed shut with electromagnetic locks. An achievement bubble popped up in the far right corner for trap-springing.
Lazarus sighed while Zack winced and proceeded to untie the Commander's restraints. Lazarus was a big older bull-rocker, top-brass and hadn't let admin work slow him down a bit. He still kept with the old police decorum of a shaved scalp and dress blues, contrasting Zack's nomex fatigues and spiked faux-hawk with razor-bangs. Punk kids.
He leapt up as soon as he was free, flanking with eagle eyes while the young SOLDIER took point. When they got to the science wing door, he motioned Zack to engaged the override touch-console on the wall.
"The facility's in lockdown mode," said Lazarus, "thinks there's a threat and will turn weapons on us. The abort code should force it to disengage."
Zack's fingers fumbled over the button pad, trying through hell and high water to remember the abort code in front of the highest ranking senior chief in the Chain of Command. He mumbled to himself as he keyed in the alpha-numerics.
Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start.
He hit Enter, and a countdown appeared on the console dial. That was probably not supposed to happen. Zack swallowed his tongue in confused panic, but Lazarus peered down on him like a baseball coach.
"You typed the abort code in backwards."
"…The abort code is the self-destruct code backwards."
Blank stare. He still didn't get it.
"…What did you type in, Zack?"
Now an iota of understanding lit up behind his eyes, and his stomach leapt into his throat.
Lazarus' hand tore the face panel off the control board and went to town ripping wires.
"'salright. Rookie mistake. To destroy the facility, you'd need to back-syphon the Mako anyway, and for that you'd need to cut the pipelines on North Hill with the sword of God Himself. This'll just blow out some windows."
"But what about the reactor?"
"They can send me the bill. C'mon."
Lazarus hotwired the bulkhead door as it slid open with a rush of depressurized air. The good thing about the self-destruct protocol was that weapons systems had disengaged, allowing the two operators to slip unhindered out an emergency exit in the shipping and receiving wing.
Out on the battlefield, shuikens and hollowpoints flew like metal melee, and Angeal leapt in front whirling his massive sword as a shield.
"Get the Commander to the extraction point. I'll cover you here."
"Call for B-Unit!" Lazarus ordered.
"Zack is more than enough, now go!"
"Follow me, Commander," Zack coaxed, leading them to the rendezvous.
Stealth-trekking through undeveloped drainage brush outside the reactor grounds, Lazarus took point even without a weapon.
"More than enough…Hey Millennial, you got your phone on you?"
Zack pulled out his personal cell and Lazarus dialed in to Headquarters.
"This is Green Team Commander Lazarus. I need an extraction and backup. Lots of backup. Send him."
He flipped the phone and chucked it back to Zack, heading toward the extraction site where the paratroopers would set up a helispot.
"I've got it from here, Tiger. Go help Angeal!"
But Zack was already racing back the way he came, running like someone else's life depended on it.
When he got back, he found Angeal facing the enemy alone…with his sword sheathed.
But the big man turned to Zack in solemn fortitude, and something in his eyes stopped the young SOLDIER dead in his tracks—a look of guilt and resolve.
Time froze on its axis. Zack held his breath amid building dread. With steady hands, his mentor materialized a floating ruby orb in his palm, sending it toward his young student like a bubble. As Zack stood, it flashed malefic red, and before him appeared a creature conjured from the depths of Hell itself.
The daemon Ifrit stood like an almighty gargoyle, with cloven feet and abbadonian horns wreathed in immortal flame. Zack gasped as the towering colossus of unholy majesty rushed for him through fire in a stampeding barrage. He dove away, equipping his Ice Materia. He was definitely going to need it for this one.
The fire-beast sent a wall of flame hurling at Zack in an infernal nuclear nimbus, while Zack threw up an Ice Barrier. It melted in seconds, but kept him safe long enough to start hurling ice magic at its head. Fire missiles shot for Zack as he ducked and dodged, rolling away while sending ice rockets flying right back mid-strafe. Calamity cast down on them in apocalyptic maleficence as a Fire and Ice spell collided in the midst of their battle arena, the blastwave sending Zack toppling across the ground.
As the creature prepared another stampeding rush, Zack charged a Power-Slash, imbuing all the Ice Magic he had left. The demon ran at Zack, he leapt to the side, and overhead slashed with all his might. Everything he had left pierced through the unholy carapace of the fire daemon…and did absolutely zero damage.
Now Zack was out of magic.
The creature stood up, sending a pyroclast of flame at him in a tidal wave of nuclear heat. He ducked, preparing for the blow, waiting to be bathed in wildfire.
But something flashed in front of him, holding the wall of fire at bay. An infernal angel stood before Zack with his daikatana out like a proclamation to the sun, guarding the young SOLDIER against the fray. Silver hair like shooting comet tails flared like apocryphal wings. His eyes were dark against the fire, his countenance smoldering as if to challenge the sun.
A single slash from a twelve-foot daikatana and Ifrit had fallen, the blinding explosion bathing the mysterious man in hot aural radiance as he drove his blade skyward. He held his ground, victorious in a flowing gunmetal black longcoat that waved against the wind.
"Holy…" Zack stood taken aback, as if he had witnessed an avenging angel absolve him. Now he understood why Lazarus requested backup.
The man turned his attention from the fading Eidolon to the bodies of the two rappellers Angeal had dispatched with. His gaze was fierce and piercing from a face carved of marble with a razorblade. He turned one corpse over, then the other, and all was as he had feared.
"Genesis," he said.
"Who?" Zack trotted over with a gasp. "Hey! They're identical!"
But the man ignored him in a sharp rebuff.
"He…left with them." Zack stammered, unable to wrap his mind around what had transpired.
The man grunted, whipping a grey lock out of his eyes.
"So he's gone too."
"What?" Zack pressed him as he stood. "Wait, what does that mean?"
"Your mentor has betrayed us. He is now our enemy. Forget his name and prepare yourself for war."
"No! I know him! He's not like that! Wait!"
Zack ran a few steps, but something in his gut held him back. He screamed at the silver monolith who walked away.
"Who are you!"
But the man with the gleaming daikatana continued in a slow stride, disappearing into the shadows of pooling black smoke and aural flame.
Firefighting drones scuttled in like mechanical doves, dropping sulfites and water in a noxious deoxygenating mist. Zack stood alone before the burning reactor in an acid rain.