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Invasion CAPOW!

compiled and edited by Dot

Dot's Obligatory Legalease: Changes made to this story other than grammar/spelling/punctuation/sentence structure are marked within [brackets]

[Dare wrote:]

        The meeting took place as schedule. The two parties, who had a mutual distrust for each other, chose a neutral venue to discuss their growing concerns. On one side of the table sat Akiko Natsume, president and CEO of Mashima Industries. To either side were her two most trusted aides, Kyouko and Arisa. On other side sat Quincy, CEO of Genom Corp. To his left was Brian Meison, a high level executive of the corporation. Quincy had his suspicions on Meison, but he proved useful most of the time. To Meison's left sat Kate Madigan, Meison's aide. Quincy didn't trust her much. The fact that she said little added to that distrust.

        "So," Quincy started, "tell us why you've called this meeting?"

        Akiko smiled her professional smile. "First of all, Mr. Quincy, I would like to thank you for coming. I could have called this meeting with Shinra or Red Ribbon but I chose Genom Corporation."

        "And what makes me think you might not have called them? Perhaps to secure the best deal for you? But please, continue." He wanted to make it clear that he wasn't going to be easy to manipulate.

        "Yes," Akiko replied simply. "You may recall about 2 decades ago one of our biggest experiments had gone awry."

        "I recall a major explosion at one of your top research facilities. What was the name of that project? Project 18? I don't remember. [What] I [do] know [is] that she escaped and was never seen again for twenty or so years. And that it set your company back a little, that I do remember."

        "And Genom flourished because of that," Akiko pointed out. "I suppose in a twisted sort of irony, you have much to thank for."

        "Bah! Genom Corp. merely seized an opportunity to expand its resources. Your own ineptitude in the project only led to that unfortunate, or should I say fortunate, outcome. If you had only left the work of AI and artificial life to more skilled hands." He smiled wickedly. "Such as ourselves."

        "You dare insult Akiko-sama's competence!" Arisa growled.

        "Arisa! Calm yourself," Akiko restrained her aide. "Forgive her, she's very protective of me. But I admit, you are correct. That is of little concern at this point. The point is we've located her and we have the means to reach her."

        Quincy raised an eyebrow. "So? Why are you telling me this story? So you've found your lost lamb, I'm so happy for you. What do you want me to do? Go get her for you?"

        Akiko stood and walked to the window that overlooked the bleak city. "Look at this dump," she said offhandedly. "Neo-Mega Tokyo-3 is falling apart and we both know it. There's nothing more to exploit from this land. No more resources. Nothing, between your company and mine and Shinra and Red Ribbon. And with the emergence of a little agency called NERV, it's going to get even more crowded. What we need is a new world with new resources."

        "And where is this new world?" Quincy asked.

        "Where our little wayward project has fled to. We've been able to do some inter-dimensional scans. There's no sign of advanced technology. In fact, they're just in the infancy of their growth." She grinned. "They're still using silicon technology for chips. Can you believe that?"

        Quincy smiled too, if nothing to just be polite. "No Knight Sabers?" Akiko nodded. "But how do you plan to get there?"

        Akiko sat back down in her chair. "You were right not to trust me about the other companies. I have talked with Shinra. We've made an arrangement with their materia reactors to allow inter-dimensional travel."

        "And how can you be sure to trust Shinra?"

        "We can't. But they don't pose a threat. They're manpower has been severely limited this year and their research department unsuccessful in producing anything new. And, I've been able to procure the help of the Turks. They're eager for some action, and they think President Rufus has been sitting on his butt for too long. I told them they'd get a small share of whatever we obtain for the new dimension."

        "Not very loyal of the Turks to Shinra," Quincy noted. "But, then again, I've heard the Turks are really only loyal to each other. And now, the hard question: how can I be sure to trust you? What you entail seems to be a major offensive on this backward world. How do I know you're not going to attack us while we devote all our resources to fighting your battles?"

        Akiko leaned back and smiled again. "It's not just you that will be fighting. Your boomers will work alongside our mecha to form one of the greatest armies of all time. Of all existence! But as a show of good faith, we will commit our forces first. We'll be completely defenseless here at home, save a small contingent squadron, just in case. This is too good an opportunity to throw away in favor of treachery."

        Quincy mulled it over in his mind, at least he appeared to. She was right, he admitted to himself. Genom could take advantage of Mashima's limited defenses and destroy them utterly. But what would that lead to? One less competitor but the world remained the same. It was only a matter of time. But if there was a whole new dimension to be had, expansion was unlimited. He looked over to Meison for any reactions. He had none. Neither from Kate Madigan but he hardly expected her to say much. He wondered how Meison might use this new scenario to further his plans to take over as CEO of Genom.

        "Very well, Miss Akiko," he finally agreed. He got up around the table and shook her hand, officially confirming the deal. "We'll do as you ask. Where are we going to strike first?"

        "There's a little nexus in their version of Tokyo called Capow. From there we'll set up the dimensional gateway to operate at peak power and the rest of our troops can cross through. We expect little resistance."

        "What about your wayward project 18?"

        A glint of terror flashed in Akiko's eye. "She will be neutralized."


        Kimiko raced hard. At times like this she really thought she deserved a company car. The Lurker's Retreat was just ahead, the pink glowing neon sign brightly lit. She scrambled through the doorway and breathed hard before the bar counter and a confused Madoka.

        "Something wrong Kimiko-san?" Madoka asked.

        "Ah...ah...yea...big trouble.." Kimiko said between short breaths.

        "Okay, maybe you should calm down first."

        "Can't...ah...we gotta get everyone together! Ah..." her beating heart slowed. "I was just called by the CAPOW self defense force. They've picked up a large dimensional portal opening just on the outskirts of Capow. They've also got locks on multiple targets, large machines, and mechanized troops. There's no doubt about it, we've got an invasion force coming from another dimension."

        "An invasion force!? Here? Are you sure?!"

        Kimiko nodded frantically. "And from the analysis of the sensor sweeps, their technology is way more advanced than anything we've got on earth!"

        "What's going to happen?" Madoka asked, a little frightened, mostly for her bar.

        "We need to gather everyone together! I'm afraid to say it, but it's gonna be us that stands between them and the annihilation of our home."


[Dare's] Notes: ooh, pretty big premise, huh. Yeah just continue on whatever ya feel like. If you want a little background on the dimension, it was created by Dot. Samui was originally from there. There are 4 major weapons/military companies competing for global domination. As a result things have gotten pretty run down there. The companies are Shinra (Final Fantasy 7), Genom Corp. (BGC), Mashima Heavy Industries (Nuku Nuku) and Red Ribbon (DBZ). I've neglected Red Ribbon and I hardly know anything about Genom so forgive any mistakes on Kate/Quincy/Meison. Besides, it's an alternate world, so they're not 100% like the anime! :) I forgotten the name of the Turks from FF7 but they're personally leading the assault. (What, you thought Akiko was gonna put on some fatigues and carry a rifle?)

Oh yeah, I remember something else. I had a thread called Fate, Reality and other Misadventures and there was a Mashima in that story. Just to make things interesting, their technology isn't as advanced as the Mashima/Genom army. :)

[Chika wrote:]

        Madoka raised an eyebrow. The Retreat had been destroyed plenty of times only to be rebuilt, but she had no real idea as to what would happen if CAPOW in its entirity was destroyed. Perhaps the Retreat would hang about in space, connected to one point by its GRIT door... Ah well, now was not the time to muse on such things. Better not to find out.

        "I only hope someone has a plan," Madoka said.

        "Same here!"

        "I don't mean that!"

        It was Kimiko's turn to look puzzled. "What do you mean?"

        "I don't appreciate false alarms," Madoka informed her, heading for the door. She took a deep breath, opened the door and yelled: "HEY EVERYONE! DRINKS ARE ON THE HOUSE!"

        About half an hour later, Chika walked in. "The others wanted to know where the drinks are." She said.

        "So where are they all?" Kimiko was getting somewhat impatient; however, Madoka knew now what had happened.

        "Come on," she said, leading the way behind the bar. "We'll take a short cut through the store room skylight."

[Dot wrote, with some additions by Keon:]

        The STRA office was in a state of mass panic. The lower level secretaries, assistants, and other non-combatants were frantically packing up and vacating to safer ground, while the agents and supervisors gathered together for a brainstorming session.

        Itsuko paced the room. "The higher-ups are a little reluctant to admit that they didn't see this coming, so for now, we're on our own."

        "Washuu's recruiting help as we speak, and the locals are already banding together," Samui reported, her only sign of stress being the vise-like grip she kept on the table.

        "Great. You and Talon will be our go-between." Itsuko turned to the communications officer. "Keep trying to reach the sector head. As for the rest of you guys, we need to turn this place into a bunker." She clapped her hands together. "So let's get moving!"

        As soon as Samui and Talon entered the Lurker's Retreat, all heads turned their way.

        "Well, look who's here," sneered Dachend, his contemptuous tone of voice suggesting that they should have been able to prevent the invasion.

        "We're just as surprised as the rest of you are," Samui answered evenly. "Did I miss anything?"

        Madoka brought out two more chairs. "We just got started."

        Another round of introductions were made as Samui and Talon sat down.

        "I think it's obvious to everybody what kind of odds we're going against, so I'll skip that part, but we do have two things in our favor." Samui held up a finger. "First, we know the territory and they don't." She held up another finger. "Second, we have abilities that they're not aware of."

        "None of this is helpful if they just decided to bomb us from here to kingdom come," Kimiko pointed out glumly.

        Samui shook her head. "No, if that were true, then this place would have already been a large smoking crater. There must be something here that they want intact."

        "Anyway," Tarsax jumped in, "what we need to do now is cut them off from wherever they're coming from."

        Kimiko typed rapidly into her computer and brought up a map. "Here's the location of the dimensional breach." She pointed to the glowing dot at the edge of CAPOW.

        "We should move in groups of two or three and strike at the same time," Talon suggested. Everyone murmured in agreement.

        Samui hefted the duffel bag that she had been carrying onto the table. She opened it to reveal some very dangerous-looking weapons, drawing awestruck gasps from some of the CAPOWers. "This was all I could carry, but hopefully, they'll be bringing more to the Retreat later."

        Ryan picked up one of the guns and marveled at it. After a while, though, he put it down again. "Thanks, but I feel more comfortable with my own guns."

        Samui picked up a large sniper rifle and tested its weight before slinging it across her shoulders. "Do what you like."

        A few of the others chose a weapon out of the bag, and began separating into pairs.

        Dachend looked sourly at the stack of weapons and then glared at Samui "You've GOT to be joking."

        Samui shrugged. "Got something better?"

        The monster hunter grinned. "Wait half an hour and see," [he said,] then left the Retreat without another word.

--Approximately 2300 hours, CAPOW Standard Time--
        Left foot, right foot. One step at a time. Rifle hanging from shoulders. Handgun under left arm. Clips under right arm. Dagger tied to left thigh. Total weight: 20 pounds. Not too heavy, compared to the weight bearing on her soul.

        Wasn't there another way? A tiny voice inside of her asked. She shook her head. Even if there were, they needed her. This was the kind of thing she was created for.

        But what if she was only trying to prove herself useful, like that first time?

        "Samui?" Talon looked at her, worried.

        Talk to him, stupid.

        "I'm still half expecting all of this to be a nightmare, but I'm not waking up." Unconsciously, her hands balled into fists.

        Talon walked a little faster to match her pace. "Samui, you're not going to be any less of a person if you kill anyone."

        She didn't reply. His larger, warmer hand clasped around hers.

        "Do you know why I had been reluctant to join the STRA at first?" He took a deep breath. "I had been a soldier under a large organization. They sent me to oversee a small mining town, and I was so eager to impress my supervisors that I obeyed everything they told me without question. I didn't realize what they were doing to the town until the people revolted." His voice wavered a bit, but he cleared his throat and went on. "During the riot, one of the houses caught fire. There was a little boy trapped in that house." He squeezed his eyes shut, as if it were painful to remember. "I couldn't save him."

        He understood. One life, no matter how seemingly insignificant, was still of worth. The load on her heart felt a little lighter.

        "For the last couple of years, I just kind of wandered, because I didn't want to face what I did. But you helped me realize that I wasn't looking for myself, I was running away from myself." He stopped in front of her and looked into her eyes, taking hold of her other hand as well. "So it's my turn to ask you, Samui. What are you running away from?"

        Tell him. For the love of God, tell him.

        "There's a--" she stumbled for the right word, "survival instinct, I suppose, that kicks in when I'm under high levels of stress. When that happens, it feels like I'm just a distant observer, watching myself..." She couldn't go on. How could she explain that deep coldness which seemed to encase her entire soul?

        She didn't need to.

        Talon gave her hands a reassuring squeeze. "I know."

[Dachend wrote:]

        "Aww, you're breaking my heart, a single fucking tear is running down my cheek."

        Talon and Samui spun around, their hands [separating] with a sound that bordered on a whip crack. Both had heard the voice and recognized it as Dachend's, but he was nowhere in sight.

        Then, Dracho'xian's voice rang out at least as close as Dachend's had been. "Dachend, why in the world to you take such pleasure in making other people embarrassed?"

        "Hey, you only have the fun you make of others," chuckled Dachend's voice from a place right in front of Talon. Talon, having a good suspicion, reached out in front of him, almost instantly feeling a strong hand close around his wrist. "Watch it, bub, that's a privilege of Katt's your about to abuse."

        Talon's eyebrows rose. "Cloaking field?" he said in disbelief.

        There was a *bib* followed by a low hiss and crackling of electricity. Then, just sort of fading into appearance [was] a person that had to be Dachend. [The demon hunter was] garbed in a dark grey military style combat suit, with armor plating. In his right hand [he held] a long spear-like weapon with a crack running down it's blade, tough looking electronics covering the staff below the blade. On the back of his left lower arm was a gun-like contraption, with a belt feed going from it to a compartment on his back. Also strapped to his back was the familiar soul sword Dracho'xian. Last, a complete facemask covered Dachend's head, reaching up and taking it off with a metallic click, Dachend looked back at the two. "The very best there is: total optic cam, zero heat concealment and [near] invisibility to both motion and electronic sensors."

        Samui studied the combat suit. "Sounds expensive."

        "Sure as hell was, very fucking expensive."

        Kimiko passing by and looked at them. "Looks pretty high tech for you, Dachend," she mused.

        Dachend shrugged. "Hey, these fuckers are moving in on my turf, trying to take over my town, just gotta make sure that I can kill them real good."

        Ahlen follow his sister, looked at Dachend's other equipment. "Wow, what'ya packing, Dachend?"

        Holding out the spear, Dachend explained: "Vibro blade spear with build in plasma caster, slow firing, but sure ass hell packs a punch. Also convenient if people get a little close," then, holding up his left arm with the gun attached to it, "this is the anti personnel sucker. Electromagnetic assault pulse gun, fires self-propelled, armor piercing, explosive ammo..."

        Finally, Dachend clapped himself on the back, and Dracho'xian answered, "and me for when the fighting get's close-"

        "And personal," Dachend finished with a smile.

[James Chu wrote:]

        Klaxons were barely audible throughout the bustle of activity in the CAPOW SDF Primary HQ. The cavernous main situation room, comprising of rows of communication racks, vid screens and people operating the machines, all facing three giant-view screens, was beyond frantic. The Commander [James' note: names, anyone?] sat down at the command chair overlooking the room. Several smaller holographic repeater displays surrounded Commander's nest.

        "Situation? Major!"

        A smartly dressed older man in uniform turned around from a console he was checking and saluted.

        "We are tracking multiple contacts inbound, sir. The first elements of the hostile force will contact our outer scout perimeter in two hours. Five percent of Intel's probes have been destroyed during the initial recon sortie. From the preliminary results of Intel appears that the invading fleet has sizable armaments and somewhat superior technology. IntelCom will brief you personally at a later time, once they have compiled more hard evidence."

        "Keep me updated. Captain!"

        A woman in a blue uniform talking on a headset and turned around and saluted.

        "What is the status of our troops? I know we don't have much in the way of reserve space defense, but can we make a call out for privateers?"

        "It's already been done. We're mobilizing our active troops and moving them into defensive positions. Reserves have been notified of the situation and should be reporting in now. Wait...         We have flash communication from outpost 134. Stand by."

        The center view screen of the war room flickered briefly and a grainy video transmission came into focus. A calm looking young man dressed in a crumpled uniform was talking to the screen. Brief flickers and distortion blanked out parts of the transmission.

        "This is ... 134 We ... ...element of incoming force. We missed their scouting force... They attacked post 133 about five minutes ago... ...survivors. Repeat. This is Intel outpost 134. We have encountered an advance element... "

        The screen blanked out into a flurry of static. A second later the screen replaced itself with a map of the SDF's planetary defense net.

        The Commander leaned back in the chair and started to crack his knuckles.

        "Well. It seems that they are almost here. If they want a fight, let's damn well make sure that they get their money's worth. Tell SpaceCom that it's in their ball park now."

        "Yes, sir!"

[Jay Arisugawa wrote:]

        On the outskirts of CAPOW, the Arisugawa Dojo had just finished construction. Finally Jay had a place to stay, even if he _did_ have to mop the wooden floors and clean and take care of the entire dojo. Jay didn't mind though, at least now he had a good excuse to live in Japan, and his father couldn't bother him anymore. He got good money out of his new job.

        He still had to study, though.

        Jay didn't have any time to go to the Retreat, as he was helping out with the construction. But now that it was over, all he wanted to do was lay in his bed and rest.





        -...let me sleeeep...-

        "BAKARA?!? DOKO NI!???" [Translation: IDIOT! WHERE ARE YOU?]

        Jay jumped out of his bed and poked his head out of his room's doorway. "I'm here, sensei!" An old man in a light grey kimono walked towards Jay. [He carried] a walking stick in his right hand, and a big black book on the other. The old man had a long Chinese style beard, making him look even more venerable. For an old man, he walked pretty fast, and he had no trouble getting to Jay.


        The walking stick wasn't just for walking, either.

        "Itee! Nani yo??!" replied Jay after being hit on the head with the bamboo stick, rubbing his head.

        "Gakusei, why were you sleeping?"

        -Well, duh-

        "I was tired, sensei. Gomen nasa--"

        "All you do is apologize." The old man interrupted. "Now go mop the floors of the dojo... The workers left it rather dirty...wouldn't you say?"

        Jay looked around. The old man was right, the dojo was a mess. A large sweat drop traveled down his head.

        "Well, hurry up, Jay-kun!"


        "Hai, hai! Please quit hitting m--"


        The old man chuckled as Jay stepped back, hoping to avoid further attacks. "I'm pretty strong for an old man!" He said, beaming at Jay. After whamming [Jay's] head a few [more] times, he walked away. Jay walked out of his room again, dressed in a white kendo kimono. After taking two steps out of his room, he slipped on something.

        "Arrraa--" A loud thud was heard as Jay fell backwards into the wooden floor. He realized he had just slipped on...

        A mop?

        -Damn that old man,- He though. -Where did he get a mop so fast??!-


        After 3 hours of hard work, sensei had finally let Jay rest. Of course, not in his room, but in the main shrine, meditating. Jay kneeled down, closed his eyes, and simply thought about nothing. His sensei was by his side, doing the same.

        -Finally, I can sit down! Wai wai--


        "Concentrate, bakana!"

        "Don't you ever let go of that stick??!"

        "Why should I? It's good for making you learn!"

        "Oh..." -Cretin-



        The old man nodded and chuckled, facing back to the dragon sculpture that was in front of them. The dragon was made of some material Jay didn't recognize, but it was very white, and soft to the hand. The old man closed his eyes again, and ordered Jay to do the same. After a while, the old man twitched his hand. Of course, Jay didn't notice that, his eyes were closed. And his hearing wasn't as sharp as of his sensei's, so he couldn't notice anyway.

        -...Evil is coming... People with evil intentions...of...conquering...?-

        The old man nodded slightly as he thought about what he had just felt.

        -I can see this way...but why?- Thought the old man, looking for an answer.

        -...I'm bored, how long does this take?-

        "Can you feel it too, gakusei?"



        "Honto ni?"


        "This is no time to be so innocent, baka! This is serious!"

        Jay beamed. "What's wrong?"

        "Evil, coming this way. Come, let us prepare."

        "P-prepare? For what?"

        "Just close your eyes, I want you to feel it!"

        "Feel what??! That sounded pretty perver--"

        -*WHAM WHAM WHAM*-

        "ITEE!!!! OKE, OKE! I'LL DO IT!" Jay closed his eyes, annoyed at his master.

        "Hmph...baka" The old man did the same. "Now, concentrate on yourself."

        "Hai, hai."

        "Also, concentrate on our home.. On CAPOW.."

        "..? O-oke..."

        The old man trembled a bit, and put his left hand on Jay's right shoulder for support.

        "Something wrong...sensei?"

        "No, no" The old man coughed. "Just concentrate... I'm tired, so I shall go sleep... You stay here until you feel the evil..."

        -Nuts- "Oke, Ja!"

        "Mata," The old man stood up, with his walking stick, walking slowly out the door, closing the shrine's doors behind him, making a creaking sound.

        Jay concentrated as hard as he could. Frowning, he took a very deep breath and tried over and over again. Until a little flame sparkled inside his head.

        -...n...nani? Who are those guys?-

        Inside the shrine, a cold air blew out the candles that illuminated the room. The little wooden tablets with prayers that were hanging from the ceiling shook, some of them falling down. The cold mist surrounded Jay. The white dragon stood un-movingly, like he was coldly watching over Jay.

        -...It wasn't a joke...I can feel it...coming this way...-

        Suddenly, one of the swords that hung from the 3rd wall in the shrine fell down, waking up Jay from his trance. He looked behind him and saw the sword that somehow got out of its scabbard. It gleamed with the little light that was in the room. From its appearance, it looked brand new. Not a scratch, nor any signs of a battle. Jay stood up and picked it up.

        There was a character in the blade. Jay read "'s light...I think.." Jay put the blade back in its scabbard and hung the sword again. Then he headed for the door.

        As soon as he left, the cold mist disappeared, and the candles were lit up again.

        "...the old man should be where do I go? i have to find out if this is true..." [Jay's eyes lit up. "Yeah..."

        -The Retreat,- He thought, first running towards his room. After changing clothes, wearing a tee shirt and black baggy pants, he ran out of the dojo with his shoes on hand. Right after he was out of the training ground, he quickly put them on and ran towards the retreat.

        "Someone over there should know..! I'm sure of it!"

[William Geiger wrote:]

        Deep underground...

        Washu was tapping her foot impatiently as she stood by a huge pile of equipment. Within the pile, there were rustlings sounds, and every so often, an object would fly out and land in another pile. "Are you about done?" Washu griped.

        "Don't you vorrry dearrr." Feelgood's voice came from the middle of the pile. "Genom hast notink on my inventionz. If day can't evink beat fourr arrmored lassies, den day haf no hope vhatsoeverr againzt da vorrld'z grreatizzt doktorr und da univerrze's grrreatiztz genuizzz."

        Feelgood finally emerged and piled everything into a hovercar. He and Washu got in and drove off to the battle.

[James Chu wrote:]

        Rows upon rows of armored soldiers huddled along the walls of a transport. Electronics, light intensification lenses and air filters covered the faces and helmets of the warriors. The dull sheen of ceramic armor shone from the uncovered portions of the grunts' chest plates.

         One of the armored figures lurched up and grasped a handrail. As he turned, a glint of silver came from the simple bar adorning the front of his helmet.

        "First element sighted! Okay! Get to Point Tango and set up a perimeter! Your firing arc will be from 60 to 120. The Hell's Belles will be holding your left and the Tomobiki Terrors will be holding your right flank. Y'all get me?"

        "We get you, sir!"

        "All right! Hold that line until the rest of the infantry get here. We can't let them break through. Whup 'em, boys!"

        A hatch on the side of the craft slides back to reveal whipping winds. Several zip lines are thrown down, out the side of the transport. Two lines of troopers begin to fling themselves down the lines toward the ground, as the transport is is shaken by the turbulence that two heavy armored sky cranes lowering several fairly nasty looking tanks, waft out.

        "Go go go! Get to your positions! Start digging some holes, or start digging your graves, your choice!"

        Several earthmoving mecha lumber by as they pile sandbags up on top of a small rise. Others spewed dirt into the air as they dug trenches. Troopers scurried by, hefting heavy weaponry and ammunition to the hastily constructed pillboxes.

        After an hour of work, the soldiers hunched down into their freshly dug foxholes and waited for the inevitable storm.

        A wing of aerospace fighters blazed by and the tired figures in the ditches cheered.

        CAPOW SDF was ready for the enemy.

[Ace Bandage wrote:]

        "I'm bored," grumbled one marine after doing lookout for a few hours.

        "Hi Bored, I'm Geist, he's Mamoru, that's Boomer...." deadpanned his partner, pointing out people.

        "Damn it! That's not what I meant! I said that I'm bored!"

        "And I'm Geist, and he's Mamoru..."

        Grabbing Geist's shirt and raising his fist, 'Bored' threatened, "If you don't stop that right now, I'm going to use your tongue to make my next pair of boots."

        "Mail Call!" yelled the new arrival to cheers among the marines.

        "You're lucky that Ace got here before," continued 'Bored'.

        "Before you got torn up by the most dangerous person around? You're welcome, 'Bored'," Geist smirked.

[Dot wrote:]

        The high-pitched ringing noise got progressively louder as Samui walked closer to the supposed location of the dimensional breach, but no one else seemed to notice. The sound was unsettlingly familiar, but she couldn't exactly remember where she had heard it before.

        Could it be possible that the invaders are from my home world? she wondered. The STRA had supposedly cracked down on that world after its unauthorized use of dimensional-crossing technology, but how hard was it to escape detection or pay someone to look the other way?

        The whine suddenly exploded into a cacophony of grating squeals, something like that of a nail running down a blackboard, except a hundred times worse. Samui staggered a few steps and almost tripped.

        Talon reached out to steady her. "Samui? Are you all right? What's the matter?"

        "Maybe she's finally lost it," Dachend cracked.

        Katt whapped him on the back of the head. "This isn't the time to joke!"

        Gun shots began ringing in the distance.

        "What in the world..." Kimiko gasped. "Oh, no! The SDF must have begun their assault already!"

        Samui forced herself to continue walking. "Come on."

        Talon's face was filled with worry. "But--"

        "I'm all right," she lied. "We've got to get there and close up their gate if we want to have any chance of winning."

        Nods were shared all around, and everybody broke into a run.

        "We're encountering some resistance," Rude reported over the secure (relatively speaking, anyway) contact line.

        "If it's not causing any major casualties, ignore it and go around them, then cut them off from the back," Reno ordered.

        "Right. That's what I was thinking, too." Explosions sounded in the distance. "Sounds like you're getting some your way, too."

        "That's for me to worry about. You keep pressing forward where you are unless I say otherwise."

        "Roger. Over and out."

        "I still say it would have been easier if we dropped a few N2 mines on this place before we came in," Elena muttered grumpily as Reno ended the transmission.

        Reno 'tsked' and shook his head. "Elena, Elena, Elena...did you fall asleep during all the tactics sessions? In the long term, it would cost more to rebuild this city from the ground up if we leveled it than if we merely took it over."

        Elena crossed her arms. "Yeah, whatever." She looked at the description of the android they were supposed to be capturing again. "And why are we going through so much trouble to look for this 'Project 18', whatever it is? Don't they have stuff that's better than this by now?"

        "I dunno, but from what I heard, that was supposed to be the prototype for a new line of AI's that would have put Mashima on the top of things."

        This time, Elena actually read through the design specs of the android and let out a whistle. "I see what you mean. So that's what the machine over there's for, huh?"

        Reno grinned. "Yup. It sends out a signal that only our little AI can hear, and it completely screws up her internal processes." Or, at least, that's what it's supposed to do, he added mentally.

        Samui kept her mind off the din that continuously blared in her ears by focusing on keeping her balance. Her head spun, as if she were on a rapidly moving merry-go-round, and her body alternatively felt like a lead weight at one moment and a helium balloon at another. Her stomach churned, and she could almost feel the bile rising in her throat.

        Damn. Damn it all to hell and back. If she didn't find whatever it was that was causing this noise, and soon, she would really go insane, and who knew what she would be capable of doing when that happened. She handed the rifle to Talon, and that was the last thing she was vaguely aware of was his question.

        The world dimmed as a long-suppressed instinct began to kick in.

        Objective four: do whatever it takes.

[James Chu wrote:]

        The SDF troops were in trouble. The reserves were fully committed. The armor division was smoking debris. The enemy had broken through the lines.

         Several grunts huddled behind the smoking hulk of a ruined battle tank Two of them ducked up and down, sniping at the enemy ranks surging about in the dusty battle zone. A weary corporal, half splattered with mud and dust, held a radio receiver by his ear. "We're holed up in here tighter than an ant in an elephant's ass! Where's the artillery! What?!!"

        The crackle of the radio was barely audible above the din of battle. "... the artillery is tied up holding back the advance on the airfield. Armor has been flagged to support you in fifteen minutes."

        The corporal flinched as the brain and skull fragments of a comrade splattered over him. "We don't have fifteen minutes... We'll be dead by then. Right. We'll try to hold tight... What's the situation out there?"

        One of the grunts, a private turned around from the grisly task of salvaging the dead soldier's ammo. "It's not good. They seem to have committed most if not all of their main troops to this section. We're not going to be able to hold this position."

        "Well, we've been told to hold the line. Command has scraped up some of the old landmates from the border wars. The tech crews are bringing them on line. They're gonna stage a counterstrike at the airfield. Let's get moving to a better position."

         Suddenly a metal monstrosity came lumbering around the tank chassis. The group sprayed the target with their assault rifles to no avail. The vaguely crab shaped mecha swung its arm mounted chain gun around, digging holes in the hard packed dirt and spraying the grunts with stone fragments. A sharp concussion blew the soldiers back against the tank as a bright light blinded them. As their vision cleared, they saw the melted remains of the combat boomer, minus most of the upper torso.

        The corporal turned around and spat out some blood and spittle. "'Bout time you guys showed up!"

        "Heh. We figured you guys needed the cavalry."

        Several landmates crested the ridge behind the tank. One of them carried a large smoking rifle.

        Jay Ya's landmate leaned its assault cannon on the ground. "Sorry. We were a little late. The landmate carrier got wasted, so we came out here on foot. We figured the enemy would be listening to some of our transmissions, so we gave y'all a bit of bad advice."

        "S'okay. As long as the job gets done."

        The landmates continued their advance through the front lines. Squads of soldiers came scurrying out of their fortifications and used the landmates as roving cover. The SDF was making a bulge.

[Robert Geiger wrote:]

        Several more of the crab-mechas scuttled over the landscape, heading right towards the newly arrived landmates. One raised it's chain gun and...



        A huge chunk of rock slammed into it's side, sending it crashing to the ground. The other mechas spun to face where the projectile had come from when suddenly a small blur leapt into their midst. It leapt onto one mecha and punched a hole into it. Within seconds, the mecha began to shake and something burst out of it's side. It shook some more and then exploded. The figure landed and a small man dressed as a Viking dusted himself off.

        "Goot Vorrk!" Asterix looked up to see Feelgood hovering over the battlefield in a one-man whirlybird. "No time to vaste! CHARRGGGEE!!" A tube attached to the bottom of the whirlybird pointed towards the remaining mechas and a shell shot out. The mechas crashed to the ground as the EMP blast destroyed their circuitry.

[James Chu wrote:]         "Yeee haw! It's time to lay down the law! Hold your tickets in the air bucko's, it's time to ride the whirlwind express!"

        Jay "Diesel" Ya rushed his landmate into the fray as some of the more ECM "hardened" mecha started recover. Enemy fire blew small craters around his feet as he deftly maneuvered his vehicle to and fro. Several chunks of shrapnel scraped shallow pits in his chest plate as a shell exploded on a nearby rock formation. He ducked behind another rock outcropping as a volley of bullets sped past him. His squad mates and a small group of infantry crouched down behind his position as an enemy hover tank crested the opposing ridge.

        Diesel readied his heavy rifle. "Cover me! I'm gonna bust that tank up there!"

        He spun out of his cover position and charged up the base of the ridge as the tank attempted to aim down slope. His squad mates shifted position and started to pin the tank down with automatic fire. The tank started to come down the slope, as it attempted to bring its main gun to bear on the landmate. A point defense machine gun started to spit bullets at the landmate, but they ricocheted off the armor. Diesel leaped onto the tank, and grasped the mounting brackets on the front hull and ripped out the offending machine gun. The tank turret attempted to knock Diesel off by swiveling, but only succeeded in letting him grab on to the main gun. The landmate tensed for a second and then flipped itself onto the top of the turret. The landmate slung its gun over its shoulder and gripped the main hatch firmly in its hands. The hatch slowly gave way with a metallic screech. Diesel casually shot a crewman that popped out, and dropped a grenade into the tank.

        As he leapt off the tank, Diesel gleefully shouted, "Don't come back now, y'hear?"

        The tankers never got a chance to reply as the turret bounced into the air a few meters after the grenade lit off the tank's ammunition.

        Five more tanks came rumbling over the ridge. A sweatdrop graced the head of Diesel's landmate. He looked around briefly. The newcomers were tied up assaulting a group of boomers (and were shouting out something about the "Gauls..."). The tanks fired a volley at the foolish landmate.

        "Oh shit!"

        Diesel made a hasty retreat to the rocks as the concussions from the narrowly missing shells rattled him inside his mecha. He turned and fired his assault cannon at one tank while firing off a rocket pack at another. As he approached the relative safety of the rocks, his shoulder joint shuddered as his landmate's left rocket pack was sheared off by a near miss.         "Craaaaap! What do we do now?"

[Dot wrote, with a few additions by Dare:]

        Boomers, although heavily armored, were not completely invincible. The bullets in Samui's gun had been specially designed to penetrate said armor. Additionally, you could always find some kind of weakness as a result of a design flaw or due to inherent properties of the armor itself.

        Samui knew where those weaknesses were.

        A boomer collapsed as Samui shot it in its electronic equivalent of a spinal cord. She continued moving forward against the "flow" of the invaders, heading gradually for what she hoped would be the source.

        Talon couldn't stop his hands from shaking. Nor could he be completely sure that he was still breathing. Samui was moving through the boomers like a hot knife through butter, but that wasn't what fazed him.

        Samui's eyes were like dull chips of ice.

        Talon thought back to his journey into Samui's mind. While the little girl he saw there might not have been Samui's de facto soul, he remembered the desperate, frightened expression on that little girl's face.

        For a terrifying moment, Talon was back in Rodick again, the roar of the flames ringing in his ears, and the agonized screams of a young boy piercing his soul.

        "Help! Please! Somebody! Anybody!"

        Talon tightened his grip on his bo. No. Never again.

        With that thought, he dashed out into the open after Samui.

        Kimiko gaped at what just happened. She wasn't completely surprised that Samui would suddenly take off into the middle of things like that. After all, she had seen Samui jump from a rapidly moving vehicle onto another equally rapidly moving one. From what little she had seen of Talon, though, he didn't look like someone who would act so impulsively. Then again, she hardly knew those two at all, and both of them were difficult to read or understand.

        "Well, well, I thought those pansy-assed bureaucratic types usually had their thumbs shoved up their asses until their fucking faces turned blue," Dachend remarked, not quite sarcastic. "I'm almost impressed." Grinning, he put on his helmet again. "Can't let them have all the fun now, can I?"

        "We're gonna have to fight them sooner or later," Tarsax added, making sure that he was secure in his grav-tank.

        Ahlend drew his sword. "Let's kick some butt!"

        "That should be 'let's kick some ass', boy," a now invisible Dachend corrected.

        Reno shook the frightened young Turk by his collar. "Why didn't you report that the sensors picked up a group of people heading this way earlier?!?"

        "I-I didn't think it was important," the Turk managed to choke out.

        "You idiot! Even if you don't think it's important, I do!" Disgusted, Reno threw the Turk onto the ground. He turned to Elena. "What's the sit rep?"

        "Not good," Elena reported grimly. "The boomers aren't as well equipped to handle small, singular, rapidly moving targets." Scanning the battleground, she let out a gasp. "Reno..."

        "What?" Reno looked to where Elena's shaking finger was pointing at, and felt all of the blood drain from his face.

        "That can't be possible..." Elena whispered. She knelt down to the machine Akiko had given to them.

        "No, wait!" Reno stopped Elena from turning the setting higher. "If that thing is making her act like this, then who knows what could happen if you make the signal even more intense?"

        "Then what do we do?" Elena wondered, staring at Project 18 with morbid fascination.

        Reno swallowed. "I don't know."

        There! Seeing the woman's actions confirmed Samui's suspicions. That must have been the thing that was emitting that horrible noise.

        Her gun clicked, signaling that she had used up her second clip as well. She discarded it, as well as the holsters that had carried the gun and the clip. Drawing the dagger from its sheath, she held it like an extension of her fist and swiped at the boomer that was charging at her. As the boomer ducked, she jumped and used its head as a springboard. She continued to hop off the other boomers, moving too quickly for them to react.

        The woman moved forward to block her. One quick stab and she would be out of the way.


        She would not kill. It didn't matter whether the reason was compassion, stubbornness, stupidity, or arrogance. She had a choice, and she was free to make it.

        Samui turned the dagger around and slammed the butt of it into the woman's stomach, sending her flying towards the group of other Turks who were heading towards her. She then turned the dagger around again and buried it firmly into the offending machine. The dagger went in as far as its length allowed; had it been any longer, Samui would have split the machine in half.

        The noise finally stopped.

        Samui let go of the dagger and stood up. Her breaths came in deep, ragged gasps and her heart hammered in her ears. In the rush of adrenaline, her sense of pain had been dulled, but her legs were already beginning to ache. She was probably also bleeding, but she couldn't tell from where.

        The Turks were also on their feet again. They surrounded her completely, leaving no room for escape. She made no moves to resist as they took a hold of her and forced her to move forward.

        Out of the corner of his eye, Talon saw Samui being captured.

        No! He broke into a sprint, moving at nearly superhuman speed. A portal opened up for the Turks, and they began going through it one by one. Dammit! Even at my top speed, I'm not going to make it...but, maybe if's worth a shot. Pulling his bo closer to his body, he began to chant.

        A bolt of lighting streaked from the heavens and struck the portal, bathing it in a strange green glow. Those who were unfortunate enough to be in or near the portal were thrown away from it.

        Dachend also saw the effects of Talon's spell.

        "That must be where those bastards are coming from," Dachend realized out loud. He unsheathed Dracho-xian and turned off his cloaking shield.

        "Dachend!" Katt hissed. "What do you think you're doing?"

        Dachend grinned. "This way, the last thing they'll ever see when I kick their pathetic little asses is my face."

        "That'll definitely send them all to hell," Draco-xian joked.

        "Shut up, you."

        Katt groaned. Dachend just has to pick the worst times to be an arrogant jerk, doesn't he?

        The immortal swordsman was a blur. Several soldiers stepped in to cover the Turks retreat with Samui in tow. Dachend wove between them, cutting them down as he passed. The soldiers screamed as Dracho'xian's bite cut into their bodies.

        Unfortunately, the Turks holding Samui were already through the portal. Dachend raced towards the machine that was sustaining it. With a mighty overhand swing, he brought the blade down.

        Talon blocked his swing with his bo, much to Dachend's disbelief and annoyance. Disbelief that Talon's staff could sustain the sharp edge of his sword. Annoyed that Talon had stopped him. "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!" he screamed.

        "No! We have to save Samui! We need the portal machine to do it!"

        "Aw, Jesus Christ!" Dachend cursed. "Your girlfriend picked a fucking helluva time to get her little ass captured! Jesus!"

        Talon was about to point out Samui wasn't his girlfriend but he decided not to bother. He knew guys like Dachend and the best thing to do was to let them rave as much as they wanted.

        Katt joined up with them. "What's wrong?"

        "Miss-I-can't-fight-so-I'll-just-let-them-capture-me is on the other side of the portal," Dachend said with almost a bit of resentment in his voice.

        Katt chuckled. "Well, at least it's not me who needs the rescuing this time."

        "Look, we don't have much time," Talon said, trying to take charge of the situation, "I cast a lightning attack on that portal to stabilize it even after those goons went through. But if we don't hurry it'll collapse."

        "Yeah, yeah," Dachend muttered, "Don't get your panties into a grind." He stepped through the portal without so much as a blink.

        "Where's Ahlen?" Katt asked.

        "The kid with the sword?" Talon asked back, not too sure who Ahlen was. "I don't know, but I think we have enough people to get Samui back." Katt nodded and stepped through. Talon followed and the portal subsequently blinked out of existence.


        The sky was a bleak gray. Dirty clouds filled up most of it and prevented little sunlight from cascading the desolate land. The landscape, where not filled with smoke-stacked factories and industrial complexes, were completely devoid of any vegetation save a few weeds here and there. Thick, inky smoke billowed up from those factories, adding to the already dark sky.

        For Dachend, the scenery didn't bother him. He'd been in much worse places. Even Hell seemed like a flower garden to him and this place was probably not any more disconcerting to him, either. But neither Katt nor Talon liked what they saw. Maybe because Katt had her natural elf instincts on which was usually to be around nature. This world was the anti-thesis of nature. Man and technology had completely taken over.

        For Talon, it was a different effect. Shinra, the company or Corporation he used to work for had flourished into a super-force in this world. Competing with other companies like itself, ruthlessly and carelessly. His world could have been like this, he thought, sickening.

        Movement caught their eyes. The Turks who were hauling Samui away were not far off. Talon spotted Samui slumped over the shoulder of one of the men. Several soldiers around them, including a few boomers caught sight of them and advanced.

        "Samui!" Talon yelled and raced. The soldiers began to ready their weapons. Talon didn't even mind them as they feel. He looked back to find Dachend firing one of his guns. He and Katt followed shortly after.

        Talon caught up with the Turks who were racing towards one of the larger factories. "Stop!" he yelled, "release her!"

        The leader, Reno, dropped Samui onto the ground and stood casually. "Who's this?" he asked.

        "I don't know," Elena said, "he looks like one of the residents we were fighting."

        "What's he doing here?" Reno asked. He studied Talon. "There's something in his eyes, he could have been a Turk like us."

        "Quit talking like I'm not here," Talon growled. "I'd never become like you losers." Somehow, he was feeling angry that they would even compare him to them.

        "Losers, huh?" Rude said. "I guess he's looking for a fight."

        "Turks never turn down a fight," Reno said.

        "Well neither do I!" yelled Dachend as he appeared over the last hill. Instead of stopping, he ran straight at Reno and knocked him down. Reno squirmed out of the way and retreated a little.

        Katt squared off with Elena and Talon circled with Rude. Talon felt strange energy surging through his body. He looked at his Materia. They were glowing brightly. They didn't normally do that except when he first got them on his world. A world with Mako, he noted. Of course! This world had Mako too and that meant his Materia were at full strength. He called up a powerful lightning attack and hit Rude hard with it. The Turk had some special elementals to absorb the attack, but he was knocked off his feet nonetheless.

        Meanwhile, Katt had summoned up her armor and sword. Elena responded by readying a Materia attack of her own. But while she was doing so, Katt sneaked out her stun gun and zapped the female Turk. Elena slumped to the ground unconscious. Katt could not wipe the grin off her face.

        Reno was hardly a match for Dachend's relentless sword strikes. He saw Rude staggering to get up and Elena not at all. "Damn it!" he cursed. "Rude, get Elena, we're outta here. Screw Project 18!" Rude rushed over to Elena and tossed her over his shoulder. With Reno's help, they quickly retreated.

        Talon raced to Samui's side. She was lying on the ground but not unconscious. Talon called up a Cure spell and healed her wounds. Her eyes however, did not move.

        "What's wrong? She turn into a vegetable?" Dachend asked.

        Talon just glared back. A small hand touched his and he turned back to Samui. She still looked catatonic but her pupilless eyes began to focus. "Thanks for coming," she whispered. She got up and pretended nothing was wrong.

        Samui glanced over at the large Mako reactor. There was only one thought in her mind: destroy it.


        "Hurry up, Katt," Dachend urged the elf-mechanic. Her small body had disappeared under a panel with its cover ripped off. Dachend fired back at the group of Shinra security forces that were advancing on their position.

        "Don't rush me," she hissed underneath the panel, "this is delicate work. It's got a time lock and it rescrambles itself every few minutes. I need complete concentration here!"

        Samui fired at the soldiers as well, using one of Dachend's weapons. Talon covered Katt since he didn't have any long-range weapons he could use rapidly.

        The door to the mako reactor suddenly opened. Katt pulled herself out from underneath the panel, dusting off her hands. "Piece of cake," she said. She ducked just before an energy beam cut through her head.

        Dachend pulled out a grenade and lobbed it to where the soldiers had dug in. They scrambled to escape its blast, but they were too late. After the dust had cleared, the soldiers were laying face down on the floor.

        "Why didn't you do that in the first place?" Talon asked sheepishly.

        "What? And take away all my fun?" Dachend responded with mock surprise.

        The reactor room had a large chamber running through the middle. Around it were computers on various platforms. The room glowed an odd green and thrummed rhythmically. Dachend whistled. "That is one big fucking piece of crap," he said. He turned to Samui. "So, miss-know-it-all, how do we destroy it?"

        "Easy," she said. She hopped over onto one of the platforms and began punching the keys. "Mako reactors have one flaw. Poor design. That's why they're so heavily guarded. Otherwise, anybody could waltz in and destroy the place."

        "Um...isn't that we just did?" Katt asked.

        "We're sort of lucky, I suppose," Samui continued, "what with all the efforts turned to invading Capow, security has gotten slim here. Anyway, we need to destroy the reactor because that's what's powering the portals. Usually a powerful bomb could do it..."

        "Damn, I shouldn't have wasted that last one," Dachend mused without much thought.

        "...but all I need to do is...there we go," said Samui. "I just reversed the back flow of the Mako-by-products. The mix of that with the pure Mako will cause a catalytic reaction that will be unavoidable. The whole place will just explode."

        "And how long do we have before that happens?"

        "A couple of minutes?" Samui guessed.

        "Oh gee, now you tell us!"

        Samui could have smiled. "Oops. I guess we'd better mosey, then."

        Talon blinked. "'Mosey'?"

        "I'm really tired all this running around," Dachend complained. "One day I'd love to just have every fucking zombie come to me while I'm sitting in a chair and let me blast their asses to a million pieces."

        "Yeah, you'll be so old and decrepit that the only way you can attack anyone," Dracho'xian said, "is from your rocking chair."

        "Shut the fuck up."

        Exiting seemed was much easier than entering, as dead people tended to stay dead. With no reinforcements available, the group could have leisurely walked out had it not been for the fact the reaction took place a little sooner than Samui predicted. Fortunately, though, the portal machines were still running on their current cells. The four of them stepped through and found themselves back in Capow.

        Without the power of Mako sustaining them, Talon's materia returned back to their dormant state. Not that he really minded, of course. He'd take Capow over any place with Mako.

        Akiko felt her hands tighten into fists as she watched and listened to the frantic reports from the field. Quincy kept his face a blank mask, but she knew that he was probably just as upset.

        A warning light lit up on one of the many consoles. The main Mako reactor had been lost.

        It was by sheer willpower alone that Akiko managed to keep herself from exploding.

        She punched a button before her. "Pull back," she ordered through clenched teeth.

        She was immediately bombarded by various incredulous replies.

        "QUIET!" She roared. "That's a direct order! Reopen the portals and pull back, NOW!"

        Various murmurs and doubts continued to be voiced.

        "Pull back," Quincy unexpectedly echoed.

        Upon hearing this second order, all responses changed to the affirmative.

        Akiko forced herself to sit back down and face Quincy. "Thank you. To be honest, I didn't expect for you to help me."

        Quincy smiled back. "I'm a businessman, Ms. Natsume. I know when to cut my losses."

        Diesel cautiously re-opened his external speakers. "Have I gone deaf, or have they stopped firing at us?"

        One of his fellow soldiers peeked out from the foxhole. "They're..." His eyes widened. "I can't believe it! They're retreating!"

        "What?" Diesel turned on the viewscreen and visually confirmed the obvious lack of enemies. He jumped to his feet and nearly hit his head on the top of his tank. "They are!" He let out a whoop. "All right!"

        Loud cheering erupted from the previously besieged SDF. Today may not have been that bad of a day after all.

--The Lurker's Retreat, 3:07 a.m.--
        Talon looked at his watch and couldn't believe his eyes. Had it really only been a little over four and a half hours since this whole thing started?

        "It's not over yet," Samui said, as if reading his mind. "They're not just going to give up."

        "So what do we do now?" Ahlen wanted to know.

        "Sleep," Washuu adviced, walking into the bar with Dr. Feelgood.

        "Yes. You've all had a very long day," the doctor agreed in his thick German accent.

        "You guys can always crash here," Madoka offered, suddenly and unexpectedly generous.

        Ace hopped up to the bar and put a hand on Madoka's forehead. "You sure you're okay, Mads?" He asked jokingly.

        Madoka responded by burying him in a pile of bills.

        "Forget I asked," Ace muttered from beneath the pile.

        Someone let out a yawn, starting an infectious round throughout the bar.

        "Yes, sleep would be nice," Katt agreed between yawns. "How about we all meet back here in the afternoon?"

        The general consensus was positive.

        A tired but triumphant Itsuko greeted Samui and Talon when they came into the office at 11:30 a.m. "Hey. Glad to see you're still alive."

        Samui smiled back slightly. "Same here." She then launched into an abbreviated account of what had happened.

        Itsuko spent some time absorbing all of it. "Well," she said at last, "this certainly buys us some extra time."

        "Yes," Samui agreed, "which is why--"

        "I'm way ahead of you, Samui," Itsuko interrupted, motioning to one of the others. A few moments later, a thick pile of papers was handed to Samui.

        Samui looked through the sheets, and her eyes widened slightly. "Itsuko-san...what did you have to do to get so many of them?"

        Itsuko smirked. "I only had to remind them that their negligence had led to this whole mess, and they were more than happy to get these through the system. Of course, I still couldn't get anybody to actually do anything helpful, but a lot of things have been happening at the same time, so we have to make do with what we have."

        Samui bowed as deeply as the stack of papers in her hands allowed. "Thank you very much, Itsuko-san."

        Itsuko lay a hand on Samui's shoulder. "Hey, this is my hometown, too, you know."

        The silence hung over Talon like a heavy weight as he walked alongside of Samui. What made the lack of conversation even worse was that she was completely closed off to him.

        Or maybe she never really opened up to me in the first place, Talon thought glumly. He still knew very little about her, even if he had been in her mind. Yet, when they had talked earlier, he could tell that she was seriously disturbed about becoming the cold-blooded killer people often thought she was.

        So why did she do exactly what she had been so afraid to do?

        Samui walked a bit faster so that all Talon could see was her back. "Spring is coming," she said unexpectedly.

        "Yes," he agreed, speeding up to match her pace. "It's been getting warmer." Perhaps even Samui had gotten uncomfortable of the silence.

        Samui pulled foward again. "It's still a while off, though. She pulled her hands out of her pockets and rubbed them together. "My hands are always cold before Spring."

        That was true, Talon remembered. When he had reached out to touch her hand, he had nearly drawn back in shock over how little warmth was in it. It had felt as if something was sucking the very life from those hands. He caught up to her again, his pace quickening to the edge of a light jog. "I hear that this place looks very nice in Spring."

        Samui walked faster still. "It does. The cherry blossoms bloom then, and their falling petals make quite a sight." Her gray eyes focused on the unlit neon sign in the distance. "We're almost there."

        Neither one said anything more for the rest of the way.

        Dachend looked disdainfully at the papers that Samui handed out. "So what the hell does this mean, 'temporary employee'?"

        "It's an emergency measure we sometimes use to get extra help without violating our own rules," Samui replied, passing out the final sheets to a group sitting at the corner of the Retreat.

        "And why is any of this necessary?" A voice in the back called out. "We beat them, didn't we?"

        "Maybe," Tarsax spoke up, "but they're not just going to give up. They'll attack again."

        Dachend grinned. "Then we'll kick their asses again."

        Samui shook her head. "The next time, they'll be more prepared. The only way we can have the advantage of surprise again is if we launched a counteroffensive into their world. Which brings me back to these papers." She held the last copy up for everyone to see. "This will authorize you to travel to a different dimension and use the resources of the STRA to help you."

        "Would we get paid?" Ace asked half-jokingly.

        Samui did not react in any way. "You can take that up with the Finance department after this is over."

        "Wait a minute," Jinx raised her hand, as if in a classroom. "We can't all possibly go, can we?"

        "Of course, we'll still need people here to keep watch in case they decide to attack." Samui looked around the room. "Either way, the decision is yours."

[James Chu wrote:]         A nervous silence fell over the pockmarked battlefield. A low beating sound slowly built in volume as the CAPOW SDF regulars cautiously peered over the trenches.

        A flight of heavily armored attack helicopters roared overhead, hanging a scant two meters above the ground. The ripe clusters of sharp tipped missiles and multi-barreled chainguns that hung from the blunt struts dotting their vaguely shark shaped airframes oozed an aura of violence. The SDF emblem was stenciled on their fusalage sides.

        High above, several flights of light attack fighter bombers overtook the slow choppers as they raced ahead to sow confusion and destruction among the enemy ranks.

        "This is Ultra 49. AWACS has spotted four hostiles on an intercept vector. Ultra 47 and 48, split and take the low two. 50 and me will take the high road," the helmeted figure in the lead aircraft drawled.

        "Roger, boss. We're on it,!" replied the leader of the second flight element. Two fighters peeled down and left, scraping puffy contrails out of the thin air.

[Dot wrote:]

        Meanwhile, back in the dimension from which the invasion had initiated, the rule of the superconglomerates did not go unchallenged. On a global scale, each company competed against each other intensely in the economic, political, and military arenas. On a more minute scale, several fringe groups had risen up, determined to topple one company or another and restore peace to the battle weary planet.

        One of these fringe groups was the company known as NERV. On the outside, it appeared to be a fledgling company in the biotech and AI manufacturing process. On the inside, NERV was conducting an all-out war against Mashima by any means necessary, from good, old-fashioned competition to sabotage to even terrorism. NERV also provided resources and refuge to other fringe groups, but no firm alliance had yet been formed with any of them.

        Currently, Robunkugi Gendou, the leader and creator of NERV, was in his office looking at a framed picture. The brown-haired young woman in the picture was looking up with pleasant surprise, as if she wasn't expecting to be photographed. Gendou traced a finger along the woman's cheeks, then stared at her smiling face for a long time.


        "It would be twenty-three years now, wouldn't it?" a voice asked quietly.

        Gendou looked up into the understanding eyes of Kozo Fuyutsuki, his associate and only friend. It was Fuyutsuki who had first introduced him to Ikari Yui, the woman who would become the only point of light in his life. Their courtship had advanced quickly, and Yui had heartily accepted Gendou's proposal. The two were planning to get married after Yui completed her contract with Mashima, a top-secret project that was rumored to be able to make the heavy-weapons manufacturing company the sole controller of Earth. Yui died in the fire that consumed Mashima's main research laboratory two years before the contract expired.

        Returning to the present, Gendou placed Yui's picture down. "What is it, Kozo? You know I don't like to be disturbed today."

        "It couldn't be helped," Fuyustuki said apologetically, "but something big has come up."

        Gendou raised an eyebrow. "Ryoji finally hit pay dirt?"

        Fuyustuki nodded and handed Gendou a manila folder. "Not only did he find the details to Project 18, he also made some interesting discoveries pertaining to Mashima's most recent activities. I think you'll find it interesting reading."

[Dot wrote:]

        Elsewhere, at a little bar known as "Tifa's Seventh Heaven", another group of freedom fighters--or terrorists, depending on whose point of view you were taking--met in the basement level only accessible to their members. They called themselves AVALANCHE, for the way they hoped to bury Shinra under its own machinery. Recently, they had pulled off a successful string of Mako reactor bombings that, while not a tremendous setback to Shinra, made their presence known.

        Currently, the group was discussing their future plans, since it was becoming clear that they could not just attack Mako reactors.

        "We've got find a way to disrupt their manufacturing processes," said Jesse, the youngest member of the group and electronics wizard.

        "But how?" asked the ever practical Biggs. "Their weapons facilities are much more well guarded than the Mako reactors, and we don't know where the supplies are coming from or what the delivery routes are."

        All eyes turned to Cloud Strife, the sullen ex-Soldier sitting in the corner.

        "What?" Cloud asked irritably. "You think they ever told me anything? I was basically just a grunt."

        "But didn't you ever have to escort any of the routes?" Tifa wanted to know.

        Cloud thought back, then shook his head.

        Tifa sighed. "I guess we'll just have to stick with bombing Mako reactors for now..."


        Aeris looked up from the report she was reading and frowned. "What? You know I don't like being disturbed."

        The well-dressed man bowed deeply. "I'm very sorry, ma'am, but our team lost the target in Sector Seven."

        "Is that all?" Aeris waved her hand, feigning annoyance. "Next time, don't bother me with such trivialities."

        The man bowed again. "You are indeed most kind, ma'am."

        Aeris turned her attention back to the papers on her desk. "You're welcome. Now, please leave me in peace."

        She waited for the man to obey before getting up and heading to her closet. Opening it, she sifted through her wardrobe before finding a demure and slightly ragged dress and changed into it. She then undid the bun in her hair and re-shaped it into a long braid, tying it off with a pink ribbon. She then picked up the small basket of flowers in the corner of the closet and made sure that they had her special touch. Finally, she examined herself in the mirror and smiled cutely.

        "Sector Seven," she muttered to herself, brushing her bangs out of her eyes and tucking it behind her ear. She giggled. "Ru-chan would have a fit if he knew I was heading there."

        Aeris Gainesborough, made Vice President of Shinra by her fiancee Rufus after the tragic murder of his father, walked out of her office and towards Sector Seven.

[Dare wrote:]

        Talon tugged on his SOLDIER uniform. He didn't recall it being so tight the last time he wore it. He exercised regularly and was very fit. He must have gotten taller, that was it, he thought to himself. He stood motionless outside the HQ of Shinra, rifle butt in hand, muzzle rested on his shoulder.

        A side door opened and he turned his head slightly. A young woman in ragged clothes, carrying a flower basket exited the doorway. She looked around carefully, as if trying to see whether anyone was following. She disappeared down the road.

        Talon flipped his goggles up. Odd, what would a poor flower girl be doing inside Corporate headquarters? (He still referred to it as 'Corporate' from his younger days) STRA had placed him undercover on this world to watch for anything suspicious. This certainly fell into that category. Casually, he left his post and began to follow her.

[Dot wrote:]

        Nene cracked her knuckles and placed them on the keyboard. "Ready, Mr. Grey?"

        Kubo Grey, self-proclaimed expert hacker for hire (although in this case he suspected he was working pro bono), smiled back from a different computer with confidence. "As ready as I'll ever be, Ms. Romanova."

        Mack raised his hand into the air as if he were holding a gun. "On your mark...get set...GO!"

        As soon as Mack pulled the 'trigger', Nene and Kubo attacked their respective keyboards simultaneously, their fingers flying. For a few moments, only the sounds of their rapid typing could be heard.

        "I'm in!" Nene announced.

        "So am I," Kubo answered calmly, keeping his eyes on the screen.

        The race was on.


        Talon was lost.

        The strange girl with the basket of flowers had long ago disappeared in the crowd, and now Talon himself felt as if he were being swallowed up in the thronging multitude. Of the few times that Talon had gone to Midgar in his younger days, he always carried a map with him, as even the Upper city was a labyrinth of streets and alleys that could easily confuse a non-resident. The Lower portion was even worse, as it was constantly bathed in smog trapped by the Upper disk residing above it. Denizens of Lower Midgar were jokingly said to turn into vampires, for they can never see the sun during their daily routines.

        Taking in his surroundings, Talon guessed that he was in the commercial area of the Lower city. However, he had no clue as to which sector he was in, and he wasn't really in any position to ask someone. His Locate materia was not helpful either, since he had no idea where he was going. In addition, he didn't have a good image of the girl he was following, just that she was carrying flowers and dressed in plain clothes. That could possibly be anyone in this poor section of the city.

        Then, remembering that he had been given a secure line back to the STRA, Talon looked around him again to find a place where he could place the call without being overheard, and found a narrow alleyway that suited his purpose perfectly. Weaving around the various people--who, by the looks on their faces, looked more like they were automatons--Talon made his way to the alleyway and slipped into it. Pulling out his phone, Talon dialed for the STRA and reported his current situation.

        A little while later, Talon walked back out of the alley and towards his new destination.


        Gendou put the report down and pushed his glasses back to his nose. His face showed no emotion, but Fuyustuki could tell that Gendou's hands were shaking slightly.

        "Did Yui know any of this?" Gendou asked, his voice not quite as confident as before.

        "I think you know the answer, Robunkugi," Fuystuki replied quietly.

        "No..." Gendou's hands clenched into fists. "NO!" He slammed them into the table, sending the report flying. "Yui would never...never..." he couldn't bring himself to finish. "Why didn't I stop her?" he whispered.

        Fuyustuki placed a hand on Gendou's trembling shoulder. "You couldn't have known."

        Gendou shook his head. "No, I knew. She told me about it." For the first time in twenty years, a tear escaped his eyes. "She had been so excited that it was successful..." another tear tumbled down Gendou's gaunt cheeks. "She promised me that we could get married soon..."

        In a different world, the same man would willingly destroy the entire world to save his wife. But here, in the small underground office at the center of Tokyo-3, Robunkugi Gendou had neither the resources, the manpower, nor the will.

        Gendou wept.


        GENOM's encryption program was said to be the best of the best. Its 128-bit, ternary, advanced RSA private-key encryption combined symbols and letters created specifically for GENOM, and it was constantly mutating. So even if you could break the current code, chances are it was already something completely different by the time you did. For nearly thirty years, GENOM withstood countless hackings with little or no loss of data.

        Today, that changed.

        Nobody knows who got in first. When the first trickle of data began downloading, the contest between Nene and Hunter suddenly didn't seem so important any more.

        "What the fuck is that?" Hunter breathed, unable to wrench his eyes from the monitor.

        "The source of the Boomers," Sylia answered from behind him. "And what GENOM did with my father's research."

        Everyone's eyes turned her way.

        "You guys better sit down," Sylia advised. "It's not pretty."


        His hand shaking slightly, Talon dialed for Samui.

        "Hello? This is Samui."

        Talon steeled his eyes from the images before him. "You're not going to believe what I'm looking at right now."

        Samui sighed. "So they really did send you to investigate the Mako Sub-Reactors..."

        Talon felt himself go cold. "What do you mean?" he asked slowly, then realizing. "You knew?"

        "In most of the other Shinra's the STRA has come across, we've discovered something similar."

        Talon stared at the creatures within the glowing tubes. "So those are..."

        "Members of SOLDIER. Shinra's researchers pick 'qualified' candidates and immerses them in the Mako for various periods of time."

        Talon walked around the room and found that some tubes contained people who, by the dates printed on the label, had only recently been placed within, but he could see from the expression on their faces that the Mako was already beginning to take effect. He thought back to the time that he did an autopsy as part of his training. The cause of death for the person he autopsied was listed as accidental, but now Talon wondered how true that was, as the deceased had shown signs of severe radiation poisoning.

        "Talon?" Samui's voice cut into his thoughts abruptly. "You still there?"

        Talon forced himself to look away. "Yeah."

        "You've got clearance to come back."

        And how many more people are going to suffer in these things before anything gets done? Talon wondered, not without some bitterness.


        "I've seen worse. I'll be all right. If anything, it only proves that we need to shut this down."

        But Talon couldn't help feeling as if he were abandoning those unfortunate soldiers as he left. Then, he remembered what Samui had just said. Most of the Shinra's STRA had come across had been doing the same thing. It sickened him. He wished he could stop them all, but he was here, on this world. He vowed to have at least this small victory.


(23 years ago)

        With his long lab coat hiding the Red Ribbon insignia on his clothes, weapons cleverly encapsulated, and a fake tag identifying him as merely another employee, no one gave the cybernetic assassin known only as Juunanagou a second look. He made his way through the research facility quickly, as he had observed his targets well and knew where they would be.

        Checking the numbers on the doors as he went, Juunanagou found the room he was looking for and slipped in soundlessly. Passing the various tubes and vials he made his way towards the other end of the room. Just as he had predicted, his first victim was there. Ikari Yui was her name, and she was engaged to a man named Robunkugi Gendou. She was currently busy too busy chatting to this Gendou to notice Juunanagou behind her. Reaching into his pocket, Juunanagou carefully took out and deployed his knife.

        "Everything's going along perfectly," she reported with great excitement. "There's just a few more details I need to wrap up, and then I'm done for good." She listened to Gendou's reply. "I know, honey. Love you too. Bye." She hung up, turned to leave, and jumped a little when she saw Juunanagou. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't hear you come in."

        "You weren't supposed to," Juunanagou replied, covering her mouth with one hand and stabbing her in the heart with the other. Yui's eyes went wide, then rolled to the top of her head as her blood rapidly drained from her body. Juunanagou let her drop, then rinsed his knife in the nearby sink. Before leaving the room, he reached into his pocket again, brought out a small sized bomb, and attached it to the side of the flammable liquid storage bin.

        His next target was another woman, Habuki Washuu. She was the outcast of the bunch and thus kept mostly to herself. Even when she was with the talkative Yui, she didn't say much about herself. Not that Juunanagou really cared, of course.

        Currently, Washuu was busy checking the diagnostics on Mishima's most recent development, Project 18. Washuu, too, was fully engrossed in her task, but Juunanagou got a bit careless when he came within striking range and she heard him.

        "There you are," she commented, thinking it was Yui. "What took you so long?" she turned, and seeing Juunanagou, gasped. "You're not Yui!"

        "No, I'm not," Juunanagou agreed, stabbing Washuu in the same manner as he had Yui. Taking the keys from Washuu's limp fingers, Juunanagou walked over to the room where Project 18 was currently sleeping. As he inserted the keys, his hand slipped a bit. Juunanagou cursed under his breath and, seeing no reaction from Project 18, steadied himself. He opened the door slowly, reaching into his pocket for the capsule that held the small neurological disruptor as he tiptoed in. Juunanagou turned on the disruptor and brought it down towards Project 18.

        5 minutes later, Juunanagou drove out of the gates of the research facility, his prize safely hidden within the sensor-proof trunk.

        10 minutes later, the timer on the bomb ran out.
[Dot wrote:]

Point of No Return

        The night before the attack, all interested parties--namely, AVALANCHE, the Knight Sabers, NERV, the Capow SDF, and a handful of other Capowers--gathered at the abandoned STRA office. Not only was this to make sure that everyone knew the plan of attack, the subspace pocket in which the office resided could be sealed off from its "home" dimension, keeping all that were in it safe. Upon arriving at the office, everyone had quickly dispersed themselves into three main groups, to mirror the three companies that had attacked Capow. Once thusly distributed, the people began readying themselves for the next day, getting some much-needed shut-eye, or discussing various strategems. And, although nobody was willing to admit it, this made it much easier from the more cynical people to keep an eye on the others.

        Talon was one of those who watched. Through his experience with Shinra and his later dealings with people of all dimensions, he had gained a substantial amount of distrust. The success--or, God forbid, failure--of the entire counterattack hinged on the loyalty each of those there, and Talon felt that this was too high of a risk to take. He was especially worried about NERV, as it quickly became obvious that each member of the small company had their own agendas and motives behind their actions. And then there had been that strange flower girl who had come out of Shinra, who seemed to have vanished into thin air after he lost track of her. Who was she, and what did she have to do with Shinra?

        And, although Talon had tried to bury it deep within his mind, his old suspicions of large organizations resurfaced. Despite Samui's confidence that the STRA would be forced to act once their presence was made known, Talon had to wonder. After all, if the STRA had kept a blind eye to so many gross ethical and moral violations for so long, would they really step in now? What if the STRA decided that they would rather maintain the status quo and therefore do nothing? Or worse, to protect the interests of those who they were in league with, would they even actively try to suppress the counterattack?

        Samui's mind, on the other hand, had gotten past the issue of trust long ago and was already focusing on the impending battle. Inevitably, this led her back to the topic she had been trying to avoid for as long as she could remember.

        Why does it bother me so much that I am capable of taking life? Samui wondered. According to her creators' notes, she wasn't supposed to be capable of feeling any emotions, much less guilt; emotions made her "unsuitable" for her grisly task of carrying out Mashima's assassinations and executions. And yet, even while she was being taught to be an efficient killing machine, something deep inside her told her that this was horribly wrong. As time passed, she didn't even want to think of killing as a possible course of action. Even when her own life was in danger, she had been hesitant.

        But now, there could be no more running away from the issue. While Samui could leave all the killing to other people who had less problems with it, she knew that the best way to deal the death blow to Mashima's biological weapons program was to do it with her own hands.

        Samui sighed. No wonder Shelly said what she did looked easier than it really was...

        She held out her hands in front of her and turned them over back and forth. It was hard to imagine that a pair of hands so small and frail could be capable of hurting _anything_, much less playing the grim reaper. But Samui knew better.

        "Don't be naive," Shelly had warned in one of her impromptu lectures. "Someday, you'll have to make that decision. It won't be an easy choice and it may not be the right one--and, in fact, you might not ever find out whether it was--but you'll still have to."

        Samui closed her eyes. Before, she had chosen to preserve life, nearly at the cost of her own and her friends'. Now, between the lives of many and the lives of few, Samui had to make another choice.

        Samui opened her eyes, her decision made.

        It was time to use the "gifts" that she was born with.

        Sylia checked her hardsuit yet again, although she knew that everything worked perfectly. As she did, she watched Nene chat exitedly with Hunter and Mack, Priss brood in the corner, and Linna stretch out.

        Four people with different backgrounds, different ideals, and different motives... Sylia thought, observing her teammates. And yet we not only made it through every mission without killing each other, we actually work together so beautifully...

        She turned her attention back to her armor, and her thoughts strayed back to what she and her comrades were about to do.

        Toppling GENOM was what I've always wanted to do...isn't it? Why am I having doubts now, of all times?

        It definitely wasn't fear of death; if Sylvia cared anything for her life, she would never had started the Knight Sabers. And Sylia had hated Mason, Quincy, and everything GENOM stood for so long that she wasn't sure whether there was any room left for compassion left in her any more.

        Sylia shook her head. It's too late to have second thoughts... she looked at the others again. Even if I didn't want to do this, I can't turn back any more...

        Perhaps, if Sylia had really thought about it, she would have realized that on the day she was born she had already been cast headfirst into the long chain of events that crystalized to this very moment, and that she never had the chance to reconsider her role in it.

        Sylia rose to her feet. The time was drawing near.

        "Okay, everybody," she shouted, clapping her hands together. "Let's run through the plan one more time."


[Authoress' foreword:]
For those of you who were expecting a huge battle scene with lots of dead bodies and immense property damage, sorry. Not only do I suck at writing such things, it would have been way to confusing to try to portray the three different fronts. Additionally, I'm totally burned out from writing Playground.

Anyway, it's about time this thread got wrapped up, ne?
        Another twenty years of work down the drain. Damn! Akiko thought grimly as she fled up the stairs, gun in hand in case anyone tried to catch her. Damn, damn, damn, DAMN!

        She should have known better than to underestimate her own employee's creation. After all, Project 18 was supposed to be Mashima's ace in the AI wars. If she hadn't been so quick in writing it off as a failure...

        No, the real failure had been her certainty that Nuku-Nuku was perfect. Indeed, Nuku-Nuku was, as Project 18 pointed out herself, stronger, faster, and more lethal than her counterpart. But, unlike Project 18, Nuku-Nuku could not make her own decisions. In effect, Nuku-Nuku was nothing more than a robotic version of a wild animal.

        Without the internal processors for logical thought, Nuku-Nuku couldn't have possibly predicted that Project 18, with her gun arm injured, would still try to fight. Nor could Nuku-Nuku guess that Project 18 would be able to read her moves and fall back a fraction of a second before she jumped. And, no matter how strong, fast, or lethal Nuku-Nuku was, there was no way she could have dodged or survived the bullet Project 18 blasted point blank at her head. With one gunshot, Project 18--the prototype, the defect--had reduced Nuku-Nuku into a pile of very expensive parts.

        Dammit! Why hadn't she simply ordered Project 18 to be destroyed? Why did she listen to Ikari and Habuki? If she had just gotten rid of Project 18 as soon as it showed signs of disobedience, then now she wouldn't be fleeing for her life.

        At least she had remembered to send Kyouko and Arisa to the roof and get the helicopter ready on the roof in case of something like this. No, she corrected herself, just Kyouko. Arisa had been fatally shot by Project 18 on the 35th floor while the rest of the people who came with it climbed up the cable to the 37th floor and finished off the Production Type Models that Arisa had with her. Kyouko had waited for a good twenty minutes on the 36th floor before finally losing her patience and going downstairs to check on her partner.

        Akiko burst through the door to the roof and stayed low so that the heavy winds wouldn't throw her off balance. A few feet ahead of her, the chopper lay waiting, its blades already whirling at a merry speed. The door opened, and Akiko made a mad dash for it, shielding her eyes from the sand that was blowing in her face. A hand helped her up, then closed the door.

        Akiko leaned back into her seat and let out a long breath, her eyes still shut. "Thank you, Kyouko. You know where to go."

        "Of course, ma'am." Kyouko sounded amused. "A one-way ticket to prison."

        Akiko's eyes snapped open. A stranger with long black hair tied in a ponytail looked back, only her mouth smiling. Akiko reached for her gun. "Who the hell are you and what have you done with Kyouko?"

        The woman grabbed Akiko's wrist and banged it against the controls, forcing Akiko to drop her gun. "None of our business, and I sent her to the same place you're going."

        Stars danced in Akiko's vision as the woman punched her hard in the jaw, and then everything went black.

        Former agent Shelly McLaughlin dusted her off her hands with satisfaction. "I feel much better now."


        Two STRA agents wrapped Rufus' body in a white sheet before hefting it onto a stretcher and carrying it off. Cloud continued to stare at the pool of blood that remained there.

        Tifa walked up next to Cloud. "Cloud?"

        "He was really going to summon Meteor..." Cloud muttered to himself. "If Sephiroth hadn't..." he shuddered.

        Tifa wrapped her arms around Cloud and hugged him fiercely. "Shh. It's over now. It'll be all right."

        Barret let out what sounded like a laugh. "Well, don't this beat all! NOW the damn elevator decides to work."

        "It was manually disabled before," the STRA technician working at the panel next to the elevator explained. "It should be fine now." He rose. "We can deal with the rest of this."

        "Yes, let's go home," Tifa said, taking Cloud's hand.

        "Wait..." Cloud turned to the technician. "When you guys stormed through the roof, did you happen to see a guy with long silver hair or a girl wearing a pink dress?"

        "Uh..." The technician looked deep in thought for a few moments, then shook his. "Nope, can't say we did."

        Cloud never worries about me like that, Tifa thought, feeling a twinge of jealousy. "I'm sure they're fine."

        "I...I guess." Cloud gave the President's office one last glance before heading for the elevator. "Well, then, let's mosey."

        "What is it with you and that word, 'mosey'?" Barret was heard complaining as the elevator doors closed. "What the hell does it mean, anyway?"


        Mason was dead, killed by Sylia herself. Quincy wasn't dead, but by the time the STRA was done with him, he probably wished he were. GENOM was as good as dead, with its leaders gone, and most of its employees dead or arrested. The boomers were all destroyed, and Hunter had conveniently deleted all relevant data after his little romp in GENOM's computer system.

        So why did Sylia feel do empty inside?

        "You okay?" Diesel, one of the people who had fought with Sylia asked, sitting down on the curb next to her.

        "I..." Sylia looked out to the other Knight Sabers. Priss was talking about signing a major record deal with this company--a "Capsule" something or other. Nene was considering accepting that promotion at the AD Police and working there full time. Linna was going to train for the upcoming Olympic trials. And Sylia...she had her shop, she supposed, but things just wouldn't be the same any more. "I don't know. All I've ever thought about was toppling GENOM, but now that we've done it..."

        Diesel shrugged. "Life's like that. You can't always expect things to work out perfectly."

        "I know..." Sylia turned her helmet over in her hands. "But I still can't help feeling that we've created more problems than we've solved."

        Diesel shrugged again. "Who knows?"


        "...'and it fell with a great crash'," Aeris observed with great satisfaction as she watched the smoke from the day's battle rise into the air.

        Behind her, Sephiroth, having finished cleaning the blood from his sword, stood and joined her. "But the task is not yet complete; the Planet must be fully cleansed."

        "Patience, dearest." She opened her hands, revealing the glowing White Materia that nestled between her palms. The staff that lay on the ground by her side began glowing in response and levitated to a vertical position in front of her. The White Materia rose into the air as well and settled into position onto a slot in the staff. "We must let the Planet heal first. In its currently crippled state, the Planet wouldn't survive another blow."

        "Of course." Reaching into his jacket, Sephiroth brought out the Black Materia, which seemed to leech the light from its surroundings. Closing his eyes and chanting softly, Sephiroth caused the Materia to float towards Aeris' staff and nestle in a different slot. Then, walking up to Aeris, Sephiroth wrapped his arms around her. "Until then, what do we do with the puppet?"

        "Nothing," Aeris replied, caressing Sephiroth gently. "He and his friends think it's over. They've already gone their separate ways and settled down to a 'peaceful' life." She recalled her staff to her side and turned to Sephiroth, smiling. "It'll take another catastrophe for them to regroup."

        Sephiroth smiled back and kissed Aeris lightly on the forehead.


        Samui leaned back in her seat. "If Stevenson debriefed all of the agents like that, then nobody would want to work for the STRA any more."

        Shelly guided her seatbelt into place and started the engine. "Give him a break. He had to do that to satisfy the people you ticked off by doing what you did."

        "I know." Samui watched the passing scenery for a while, idly stroking the stitches on her arm. "Shelly, if you weren't retired, would you have taken the investigation?"

        "If I were younger, maybe. But now..." Shelly trailed off. "In all honesty, probably not. Heck, I don't think they'd even let me anywhere near the case even if I wanted to, since they wouldn't be able to scare me away, buy me off, or feed me some half-truths." After a few moments of awkward silence, she looked into her rearview mirror. "Hey, Talon, you still alive back there?"

        "Hm?" Talon forced himself back to the present.

        "How come you haven't said anything?"

        "Oh, I was just wondering what'll happen to those people in Samui's dimension."

        "Well, now that the three biggest companies have been put out of commission, they've got a chance to rebuild." A light rain began to fall, and Shelly correspondingly turned on the wipers and the headlights. "Of course, it'll probably be a long, long time before true peace can be achieved, and an even longer time before life can return to normal."

        Talon thought back to what the local doctor had said about those soldiers the STRA pulled out of the Mako sub-reactors.

        "I doubt we can clean all of the Mako out of their systems, and even if we could, they'd probably have to live with frightening flashbacks, bouts of manic depression, and other psychological scars we haven't even discovered yet. As for those mutated guys, forget it. I don't think they even know they're still alive, much less sane."

        He looked back out of the rain-streaked window into the bleary gray sky. "You could say that again."


        "Shelly McLaughlin, you bad girl!" Itsuko exclaimed, hugging Shelly tightly. "You've had us worried sick!"

        Shelly laughed and hugged back. "It's nice to see you too."

        Seeing Samui and Talon behind Shelly, Itsuko made a shooing motion. "Go home, you two. You deserve a break after all that's happened. Take a vacation, even."

        "There'll be hockey teams in hell before that happens," someone in the back of the room quipped.


        "Shelly was right," Samui admitted as the two headed back into town. "It's not like I'd be able get any of the people really responsible. They'll just find some unfortunate guys to be the scapegoats. Or, if I manage to find any evidence pointing to the big heads, they'll only get slaps on the wrist."

        Talon regarded his partner. "Who are you, and what have you done with Samui?"

        Samui looked back evenly. "What? You don't think that an organization as big and bloated as the STRA wouldn't have its share of bad apples?"

        "No, it's just that I didn't expect you to be so cynical about it."

        Samui raised an eyebrow slightly. "I wasn't aware that you saw me as an idealist."

        Talon shrugged nonchalantly. "Well no, but I wouldn't exactly call some of your opinions very realistic."

        Samui shrugged as well. "Maybe I've just been acting out of selfishness."

        Talon's eyebrow furrowed. "You don't really think that, do you?"

        Samui didn't say anything for a while. Then, quietly, almost too soft to hear, she spoke. "Shelly gave up everything for the STRA. But in the end, how much of what she did really amounted to anything?" She closed her eyes. "I want to believe that virtue is it's own reward, but at the same time, I know that the real world doesn't work that way. So what you would interpret as idealism might just be me trying to satisfy my desire to live up to that standard."

        Talon shook his head. "I think I follow you but I'm not sure. For myself, I've always believed in righteousness too, but then I also realized what the real world was, fast. Everyone's self-imposed standards are, well, just that, self-imposed. Far be it from me to try and interpret yours, of all people!"

        Samui was silent for a few moments. Then, she made a sound that might have been a laugh. "Don't worry, I don't think I quite follow myself, either." She walked a bit faster. "Never mind. I was just being depressing."

        Talon guessed that that was Samui-speak for "I'm not ready to talk just yet", so he didn't press the subject. Instead, he just trailed behind her and took in the fresh post-rain air.

        Samui suddenly came to a stop. "Oh, look, the sakura have blossomed."

        Talon followed Samui's glance and drew in an involuntary breath. The cherry trees planted in the narrow strip of land that divided the two sides of the roads had burst into a delicate, eye-pleasing pink. Some of the blossoms had already reached the end of their short life cycles, and the trees wept petals every time the slightest breeze tickled their branches.

        Samui caught one of the petals and caressed it. "Isn't it strange how something can be so beautiful and so sad at the same time?" Then, letting the petal drift to the ground, she continued her way. Talon marveled at this display a little longer before hurrying to join her.

        Spring had arrived.

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