It was loud. It was confusing. It smelled bad.
That was the first impression Cloud got, stepping off the bus at the Midgar train station. People were everywhere, getting on the trains, getting off the trains, waiting on the sidewalk, milling about. Cloud had never seen so many people in his life, and everyone of them seemed to be talking at the top of their lungs, which was the only way they were going to be heard over the screeches and wails of the trains pulling in and out of the station.
Cloud, walking slowly through the crowd, glanced up. It was so weird to see the huge metal framework supporting the upper levels of Midgar above him instead of the open sky. It was different, and exciting, but he didn't think he liked it. He wondered how many of the people walking by him lived down here below the plate, and how anyone could stand it for long.
He supposed one could get used to anything, given enough time.
Still, it didn't matter much to him. He didn't plan on spending much time down here.
He lifted his hand and looked once again at the instructions that had come with the letter he had received from Shinra.
Eight ten a.m. train on track three to Shinra Headquarters.
Cloud raised his head. Now that he was off the bus the crowd swirled around him. Most of them were taller than he was. He could see the roof of the train station and the top of the train on the track closest to him, but he couldn't see any signs. Where was track three?
He pushed his way through the crowd, toward the station. For some reason it seemed like everyone he passed was looking at him, and every face seemed to have a look of disapproval on it. It had been the same way on the boat to Junon, and the bus here. He looked down at his clothes. Sneakers, blue jeans and a navy blue t shirt. He carried a backpack slung over one shoulder. In just a few minutes, he saw half a dozen other young people wearing the same thing, or similar. There was nothing about him that stood out, nothing to say that this was his first time away from home, his first time in a big city. He made sure he didn't gawk at the huge metal pillars holding up the roof above them, no matter how much he wanted to. He was invisible, or should be. There was no reason for these people to be looking at him. He was obviously just being paranoid.
He forged ahead, determined to ignore any perceived looks from others. Soon he would be on the upper plate, at Shinra headquarters, probably with a bunch of other Soldier recruits. A bunch of other people just like him.
Or so he hoped.
He made it to the station. It was on a raised platform, and from there he had a much better view. He could see signs above the tracks now. In fact, TRACK ONE was almost right over his head. He looked at the sign by the second track and saw that it was track three. He moved back into the crowd, walking up steps and through an overhead walkway to that track, all the while kind of curious as to exactly where track two had gone.
The track was empty, but the platform, like everywhere else here, was crowded with people. He looked at his watch. Only seven forty five. He still had some time. There were benches in the center of the platform, beneath a dirty gray awning, but the seats were all taken. So he slung his pack off his back and sat down on the concrete floor, his back against one of the posts holding up the awning. He opened the pack and rummaged through it, finally finding the sandwich his mother had packed him. It was the last one. The previous one's had already been consumed on the way. It had taken him the better part of three days to get here. By wagon from Nibelheim to Gongaga. He had hitched a ride on a truck from there to Costa del Sol. The boat ride across to Junon, and finally the bus ride here. Now one last mode of transportation, the train, and he would be at Shinra headquarters. Wagon to truck to bus to train. It almost seemed like he had fast forwarded into the future.
He hadn't really needed the sandwiches. There was plenty to eat, and his mom had given him enough gil. He felt a little guilty about that. He was sure this little trip had pretty much cleaned out their savings. But his mother had given it to him with her blessing. He had never seen her so nervous, so worried about him, but at the same time, she didn't try to hold him back. He could tell by the look in her eyes when he waved goodbye that, in spite of her tears, she was proud of him.
He paused for a moment between bites, thinking back to their parting. It gave him a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. Nibelheim was a long way away now. There was no going back. It had only been three days, and he didn't want to admit it, but he already missed her.
He forced himself to take another bite from his sandwich. There was no point in thinking about that. There was a whole new world in front of him. He should be excited. It wasn't like he had any great memories of Nibelheim anyway. It wasn't like he had any friends there. Except for his mom, no one would probably even notice he was gone.
He didn't want to think about her, but again, he couldn't help himself. That night at the well, the promise she had extracted from him, it still bugged him. Why had she asked that? All this time he had thought she didn't really like him. They had only talked a few times, had never really hung out together. She had her own friends, and they in turn had made it obvious they did not want him included in their little group. But she had seemed friendly enough when they HAD talked. And that promise thing. Would she have asked just anyone to do that?
He looked up for a moment. For once, no one seemed to be paying any attention to him, no one's eyes seemed to be staring at him. Holding the sandwich in one hand, he pulled open his pack again. He pushed aside the small amount of items he had brought along, his hand probing down toward the bottom of the pack. Finally his hand closed around the thing he sought. Keeping his hand in the backpack, he opened it again and looked at the small charm bracelet it held. The bracelet was broken, the clasp missing, and only held a single charm, a tiny chocobo.
It had been Tifa's. It had fallen from her wrist the day he had followed her up into the Nibel Mountains. The day they had fallen from the bridge. He knew there were more charms, but he hadn't been able to find any of the others. He had never worked up the courage to give it back. Not that she'd have wanted it. It was broken, after all.
He wondered why he still kept it.
The sound of a train whistle made his head snap up. He dropped the bracelet back in his pack, wolfed down the last of his sandwich, picked up his backpack and stood up.
With the screech of brakes that reminded Cloud of someone dragging fingernails along a chalkboard, and a huge burst of steam, the train came to a halt in front of him. He looked at it for a moment. He had never been on a train before. He had seen them, of course, on television. But it wasn't really the same. Like everything else here, the thing was so damn big.
The doors were pulled open, and with a clatter of footsteps on concrete, the passengers began to board.
Cloud let himself be swept along. It was almost impossible not to. He looked up at the sign again, just to reassure himself he was on the right track. The city was confusing as hell, and he certainly didn't want to get lost, or end up on the wrong train. If he got lost in this place, he'd panic for sure. Maybe he had read the sign wrong. Maybe it was two after all. That would have made sense.
But the three on the sign stubbornly remained.
The car he entered was already crowded. He looked around for a moment. Most of the seats were already taken. He didn't really want to sit next to anyone, but it didn't seem like he had much choice. He went to sit down next to a woman who seemed to have a little less of a scowl on her face than everyone else, but a man beat him to the seat. Again he looked around. The seats were quickly filling up, and there were almost none left now, and he could see more people still entering the car. Without waiting any longer he sat down in the nearest available seat, next to a man in a business suit.
He glanced at the man, but the man did not look at him at all, instead just sat there with a bored expression on his face.
It was more than a half hour later that the train began to move, at eight twenty. The man beside him, his expression unchanged, mumbled something about nothing ever being on time.
But Cloud soon forgot his discomfort about sitting next to a stranger. He was more interested in what was going on outside. The train was spiraling upward on a track around the central hub of Midgar. As it traveled, more and more of the city below them came into view. Cloud had seen pictures of Midgar on television too, but again, they didn't do it justice. The city was laid out below him in all directions as far as the eye could see. He could see streets radiating outward like spokes, and each of them packed with buildings so close to each other they almost touched. Building reaching up into the sky, taller than anything in Nibelheim. Some of them so tall in fact, they came very close to the roof above them. And over all, the huge metal plate above their head, the plate that was growing closer and closer even as he looked.
"First time here?"
Cloud's attention focused suddenly on the man sitting next to him, the man he had almost forgotten about. He felt himself blushing suddenly, realizing he had been staring, something he had told himself he wasn't going to do.
"Umm..yeah," he said slowly, leveling his eyes at the seat in front of him.
The man turned his head and looked out the window.
"It is a pretty impressive sight," he said slowly. "Been a long time since I looked..."
Cloud did not reply. He wasn't in the mood to talk.
The clanking of the train on the tracks turned suddenly into a whining sound, and with a whoosh it suddenly became pitch black outside.
Cloud looked at the window again in surprise. All he saw was the reflection of the inside of the car. He realized after a moment they must have entered a tunnel in the plate.
"Not much longer now," the man muttered.
Again Cloud did not reply. He couldn't see anything at all out the window.
Suddenly the lights in the car flickered and went out.
Cloud, suddenly plunged into pitch darkness, felt himself begin to panic, but a moment later the lights flickered back on. He looked around, his right hand clutching the arm of the seat tightly, but no one seemed to have noticed what had happened at all. He forced out a breath to relax himself, realizing that this must be a common thing.
"Does take a little getting used to," the man beside him spoke again.
Still Cloud said nothing, just glanced at the man a moment, then turned away, not at all happy that someone had noticed his reaction.
The man opened the paper he had until that moment held tucked under his arm, and began to read. Cloud was glad. That would probably keep him occupied and less likely to want to engage in conversation.
The car was filled with light as the train, as quickly as it had entered, emerged from the tunnel. They were now on the upper plate. Cloud, more curious than ever, tried to take in the details of what was outside without trying to look too obvious.
The difference was stark and immediate. The buildings were newer, the streets cleaner. There was no garbage in the streets. No graffiti. As the train continued on, he saw parks and gardens, none of which made an appearance in the sectors below. It was as different as night and day.
"Quite a difference, eh?"
Cloud still didn't want to talk, but he felt he had to say something for the sake of politeness.
"Most people up here don't even know what it looks like below the plate," the man continued in a conversational tone. "Most of them don't want to know. Seeing what it's like down there just makes them feel guilty. Instead of doing something about it they'd rather just hide their heads in the sand."
Cloud just looked straight ahead, hoping the man would take the hint that he was not interested in talking.
"It's gotten worse in the last few years too," the man continued, seemingly unaware of Cloud's discomfort. "I'm afraid urban development down there has been sadly neglected. Hopefully that will change soon."
"Uh huh," Cloud muttered again.
The man put down his paper and looked at Cloud.
"Where you from?"
Cloud resisted the urge to sigh. He had been afraid that question was coming.
"Nibelheim," he said.
"Nibelheim eh? You're a long way from home. What brings you here?"
None of your business was on the tip of his tongue.
"I'm joining Shinra's Soldier program," was what he said.
The man looked only slightly surprised. Cloud just glared at him, expecting some kind of comment about his size.
"Ah, I see," the man said. "Should have guessed, I suppose. We're getting more and more young people in town for that very reason. Well, good luck to you then."
The sound of the train whistle interrupted them, and they could feel the car slowing down. The man glanced out the window.
"Looks like we've arrived," he announced.
Cloud nodded, glad for the interruption, and the fact the man was silent as the train came to a halt. Even before it had stopped people were getting out of their seats and heading for the doors. Cloud stood up and followed. As soon as the doors opened he made his way out.
The first thing he noticed was the bright sunlight. He looked up, shading his eyes, to see the blue of the sky above him once more.
But the sky wasn't the only thing above him. Nearby a large building towered up into the sky, high above all others. The huge monolith of metal and glass was the tallest building in Midgar, and the tallest Cloud had ever seen. He couldn't help but stare.
"The Shinra building," said a voice beside him. "It does look impressive, doesn't it? At least you can't get lost."
Cloud turned to see the man had followed him off the train. Cloud frowned. Didn't he have other things to do?
"C'mon," the man continued. "I work there. I can show you where you have to go."
Cloud hesitated, then nodded, resigned to his fate. If the man worked there and could lead him in the right direction, it might not be so bad, as long as he didn't babble too much.
The walked slowly down a wide concourse toward the building. On both sides of them ran low walls beyond which stood carefully sculpted gardens. Down the center of the concourse ran a narrow pool of crystal blue water, fountains rising up out of it every few feet. The place was more like a garden than the center of a city.
The man kept up some small talk as they walked, something about how Shinra was working toward providing cleaner energy and making the place better for everyone. Cloud didn't pay much attention, but the man didn't seem to notice.
As it turned out, Cloud didn't need his help at all. As they reached the base of the building they saw three men in uniform standing in front of one of the doors. One of them was calling out in a clear voice for all new Soldier recruits to gather in front of him.
"Well, sounds like that's your que," the man said, stopping and turning toward him. "My names Reeve, by the way. I work in Urban Development. I've just been with them a few months, but I know my way around. If you ever have any questions, feel free to look me up."
"Thanks," Cloud said, thinking that would be very unlikely. "I'm Cloud. I gotta get going."
"Of course," Reeve said. "And good luck again."
Cloud nodded and hurried off. He supposed he should have been more grateful. After all, the man had seemed friendly enough. But Cloud wasn't interested in making friends, at least, not any that weren't in Soldier. He was here to become a good soldier, not to be a social gadfly.
He hurried over to the man in uniform. He could see five of six other young people already gathered there. He stopped beside them, looking at the soldiers and the young men standing in front of them. He couldn't help but notice he was the shortest of the bunch. Two other boys came strolling up to the group just a few moments after he did.
The Soldier who had called out turned to the others.
"I think we've got enough now to bring inside. Johnson and I will take them in. Murphy, you stay out here and wait for stragglers."
The one Cloud assumed was Murphy nodded.
The one who had spoken turned toward them.
"My name is Sergeant Zu," he announced. "Welcome to Shinra headquarters. Now follow me and Sargent Johnson."
He turned and walked quickly toward the huge double glass doors that fronted the building here. Cloud and the other recruits followed, almost having to break into a run to keep up.
Inside the building Cloud found himself inside a huge lobby. Which by this time didn't surprise him at all. It rose up more than ten stories, and the largest house in Nibelheim could have fit inside it with room to spare. But Cloud didn't have much time to gawk. Sargent Zu led them over to a large desk with another man in uniform seated behind it.
"Papers," the man said gruffly to the first recruit that neared him.
"Line up and give Corporal Dounce your papers. When you're done, go stand over there," Sargent Zu said, indicating what appeared to be a small lounge area not far from the desk.
The boys formed a line and handed over their papers. Corperal Dounce seemed to have a permanent frown on his face, but it appeared to deepen when Cloud handed over his. But the man said nothing.
Cloud walked over and stood beside the others. One of the boys sat down in one of the chairs. Immediately Sargent Zu came over and stood in front of him.
"What's your name son?" he asked.
"Lucas," the boy replied slowly.
"Well, Kominsky, you're not at home anymore, and I'm not your mama. As far as I'm concerned you're a soldier now, and that means you obey orders. And when I say to go stand over there, I mean stand!"
Kominsky eyed him for a moment, then without a word got up.
Sargent Zu turned toward the others.
"That goes for all of you," he said. "You'll find that being here is very different from what you're all used to. No one is going to pamper you. It's not going to be easy, it's not going to be easy for any of you. As I'm sure you're all aware, Soldier is Shrina's elite program. Only the best make it through it. You're only going to make it if you've got guts, fortitude and brains. From now on everything you do will be scrutinized, every move you make evaluated. There are no second chances with this program. I'll tell you right now, there's a seventy five percent failure rate, so take a good look at the person next to you, cause odds are he won't be there when training is over."
The sargent paused for a moment to let the last of the boys give Corperal Dounce their papers and come over. When the last one stood before him he spoke again.
"So if any of you think you can't handle that, there's the door, you can turn around and walk out right now."
He pointed to the door and looked at them all. No one moved.
"Very well," he said, lowering his arm. "Wait here a few moments while Sargent Johnson and I get things organized."
He walked back over to the table. Cloud stood there in silence, as did all the other boys. He was just glad he wasn't the one who sat down.
A few minutes later Sargent Zu returned.
"All right, we're going to split you into two groups, and then Sargent Johnson and I will give you a little tour of the Shinra building, just to get you familiar with the place, since you will be spending a lot of time here in the next few years. If I call out your name, line up behind me."
He read off five names, Cloud's among them. They dutifully lined up behind him.
"Sargent Johnson will take the rest of you," he finished. He turned to look at the boys standing behind him. "This way."
The Sargent let them toward the back of the lobby, toward a huge marble staircase, explaining along the way that the entire first floor was mostly a huge reception area, and that the real workings that went on at Shinra headquarters happened on the upper floors.
Cloud followed with the others, trying to soak in all the Sargent was telling them. The walked up the stairs to the second floor. The Sargent told them there were over seventy floors in the building. Cloud couldn't get over the enormity of the place. He had been worried he might get lost in the city, might not be able to find Shinra headquarters. That fear had proved groundless. Now he thought he could get lost just in this building. It was like a city within the city. Cloud wondered just how long this tour was going to take.
"It would take days to see the whole place," Sargent Zu commented, as if reading his mind. "Most of the lower floors are similar, dedicated to conference rooms and the offices of lower level executives. Pretty boring stuff actually. Floors fifty five through fifty eight are dedicated to Soldier and Soldier training. And above that is where the high level executives have their suites. We'll save the Soldier floors for last, since that's where you'll end up at end of this little tour."
Of course, no one objected. Sargent Zu led them across the room to two elevator doors. There was a pair of guards standing in front of them. They nodded an acknowledgement to the Sargent as he passed.
He pressed the button and soon the doors of the elevator slid open. Sargent Zu stepped in, ushering in his followers. Even with six of them in the elevator, there was still plenty of room. The doors slid closed as the Sargent pressed the button for the fifty ninth floor.
It was one of the recruits who hadn't spoken before, but Cloud had noticed him because of his height. He was almost as tall as the Sargent. Cloud had assumed all the new recruits would be about his age, but this boy looked bigger and older than any of the others.
Sargent Zu looked at the boy.
"What's your name?"
For a moment the boy hesitated. Sargent Zu had asked the same question of Kominsky, and they had all seen how that had turned out.
"Tigana sir. Zack Tigana."
"Have you ever had any kind of military training?"
"I guess your parents just raised you to be polite then," the Sargent continued. He looked at the others. "Everyone you meet of higher rank you will address as sir, just like Tigana here did. Ranks can be a bit confusing at first, since there are quite a few and a number of branches of the services all can be found here. But I'll make it real simple for you. Since you are starting out at the lowest possible rank, everyone you meet except your fellow recruits will of a higher rank, therefore it's pretty safe to say you can address everyone in uniform as sir and not make a mistake. There are no females in Soldier, but there are in other branches of the armed forces, and they will outrank you as well. They will be addressed as ma'am. If a superior addresses you, you will reply with the proper response. Am I making myself clear?"
"Yes sir," they all replied, some quicker than others.
"Very good," the Sargent said. "Now what was your question, Tigana?"
"You said the Shinra builiding has over seventy floors, but the elevator only seems to go to fifty nine," Zack said.
"Very observant," the Sargent replied. "Floors sixty and above are restricted. They have their own elevator which can only be accessed with a special security card. You will be issued your own cards, since entrance into a lot of the areas of the building below that also have restricted access, but your cards will not allow you into the upper floors. Shinra is a huge company, and there are always..."
He stopped as the banal music that was being piped into the elevator was suddenly replaced by the blaring of an alarm.
The Sargent frowned. "What the hell..." he muttered. The boys with him just looked at one another.
The Sargent cocked his head to one side, and appeared to be listening to something. Cloud realized he had some kind of communication device in his ear.
After a few moments he spoke again.
"There's a disturbance up on the sixty seventh floor. Something's going on in Hojo's lab."
"Hojo, sir?" Zack questioned.
"Yes, Shinra's chief scientist," the Sargent replied. "Some strange things go on in that lab, but the man's a genius. Probably nothing we have to worry about."
The others said nothing. Cloud wondered if this sort of thing was common. If the Sargent wasn't worried, then he supposed he shouldn't be either.
The Sargent frowned, and again appeared to be listening. He glanced up at the digital gauge above the elevator doors. Forty two and rising.
"Seems like things are getting serious," he said. "I'm afraid we're going to have to cut our little tour short." He reached forward and pressed the button for floor fifty five. "I'm going to have to head up there. I'll drop you all off at the Soldier dorm. You should be safe there. No one would be crazy enough to attack the Soldier area, unless they're bent on suicide."
The boys said nothing, but Cloud felt himself tensing. What was going on?
The elevator stopped, so suddenly it almost threw them off their feet. At the same time the lights went out.
"What the hell is happening?" one of the boys cried out in the darkness.
"Remain calm!" the Sargent snapped.
They were silent for a moment.
"Tigana, help me get these doors open."
It wasn't completely dark. There must have been light somewhere in the building, for some filtered through small cracks by the doors. It was enough for Cloud to see the dark forms of the Sargent and Zack in front of the door.
Both Zack and the Sargent grunted with effort, and then suddenly the doors slid open.
The power outage did not seem to extend beyond the elevator. In front of them was a well lit hallway. The elevator had stopped about a foot above the level of the hall. The Sargent stepped down and looked at the side of the elevator door. It read level 47.
The Sargent seemed to be listening again, then suddenly pulled out his gun. The others looked at him with suprise and, some of them, a little fear.
He looked them all over for a moment.
"This way," he said.
He walked down the hall a short distance until he came to a door. He opened it and they entered what looked to be a small deserted office.
"This is a serious situation,' he said, his voice somber. "There's been an attack. Intruders have gained entry on a number of levels. They've disrupted communications and power. We're not sure what their objectives are, but the are armed and dangerous. The elevators are no longer working, and they've blocked the stairs. There's an auxiliary power junction box on this floor. If that can be turned on, it should restore power to most of the floors. As it happens, we appear to be closer to it than anyone else."
The boys just stared at him.
"I know you're just recruits," he said. "But I've been ordered to find the junction box and restore power, and I'm afraid that takes precedence over your safety. I'm the only one who can do it. I'll be honest with you, some of the intruders have been seen on this floor. This is a very dangerous situation, but I think it would be best if you stayed with me. I've got a weapon at least, and can defend you if we run into anyone. The other choice is for me to leave you here, in this office. It's out of the way and you probably won't be bothered, but if they find you here by yourselves, you'll have no defense, and I don't know what they would do to you."
"We'll come with you sir," Zack said immediately.
The Sargent looked at them.
"You're all in agreement?"
Some of the boys were obviously reluctant, but none of them dissented.
"All right," the Sargent said. "Follow me. And if there's any shooting, find someplace to hide. We don't need any dead heros here."
He led them back out into the hallway. Zack was right behind the Sargent, with Cloud behind him, and the others following. Cloud felt his heart thumping in his chest. He had hardly expected his first day at Shinra to be like this.
They made their way down several corridors, the Sargent moving them along as quickly as he could without being reckless. Eventually they came to an intersection that had a map of the floor on the wall.
The Sargent pointed to the map.
"We're here, and the junction box is...here," he said, his finger moving across the map.
"That's not that much farther," Zack said.
"No, it's not," the Sargent replied. "And we haven't met anyone so far. Maybe we'll get lucky."
He turned away from the map to see a man with a rifle standing down the hallway.
Cloud wasn't sure of the exact order of events in the next few seconds. For some reason it was hard to remember details afterward. He supposed it was the excitement of the moment, and the fear. He knew for sure there were a number of shots fired. He knew that Sargent Zu stumbled backwards into the wall. He knew Zu was hit, for suddenly there was blood all over the corridor, including on himself. He distinctly remembered the sound of Zu's gun going off, because he was right beside it, and it was so loud it made his ears ring. He remembered finally reacting, dodging out of the way, even though by then it would have been too late if a bullet had been aimed in his direction. He remembered recovering to see both Sargent Zu and the other man down on the ground. And he remembered some of the other boys crying out, but he couldn't for the life of him remember what any of them were saying.
Zack was beside the Sargent, bending over him. Cloud stepped over beside him. The Sargent was lying on the ground, his head against the wall. He was still conscious, but his hand clutched his side, and Cloud could see red underneath.
"Sargent!" Zack said.
Sargent Zu shook his head.
"Don't worry about me," he said. "I can keep pressure on it, and there's nothing else you can do."
He grimaced and looked down the hall. The man he had shot was unmoving. The Sargent tried to get up and cried out in pain.
"Let me help you," Zack said, reaching out his arm.
"No," the Sargent waved him away. "There's no time. I'll be all right until help arrives. But someone has got to get to the junction box and restore power."
He looked at them expectantly.
"You want us to do it?' one of the boys exclaimed.
"You're not my first choice, but there's no one else,"
"We'll do it."
The Sargent nodded and handed Zack his gun.
"You know how to use this?"
"I'll figure it out," Zack replied.
"You remember how to get to the junction box?"
"I think I do," Zack replied.
"Yes," Cloud said.
The Sargent grimaced again.
"All right," he said. "I know this isn't exactly what you expected. We don't usually expose recruits to this kind of danger, especially on the first day. But I'm afraid there's no getting around it. Just think of it as on the job training, and I'm sure any of you who live through this will get a commendation, and have a leg up on the other recruits. Anyway, no sense in wasting time. The sooner you get to that junction box, the sooner this will all be over."
"Yes sir," Zack said.
He hesitated a moment more, then stood up.
"C'mon," he said to the others.
They all followed him. At the end of the corridor Zack stopped. He looked carefully around the intersection, then waved them forward when he saw all was clear. The body of the other man was right on the floor beside them now. None of them wanted to take a closer look.
They walked down the corrider, but as soon as Sargent Zu was out of sight behind them one of the other members of their group spoke up.
"Do you really know how to use that gun?"
Zack just looked back at them disagreeably.
"Don't worry about it," he said.
This did not seem to reassure the boy at all.
"How come you get the gun anyway?" Kominsky spoke up.
"This is insane," the first boy who had spoken said. "This is our first day here, we're not trained. They can't expect us to do something like this. We're just going to get ourselves killed."
"Oh shut up," Cloud snapped.
"Shut up yourself," the boy responded. "Who the hell do you think you are? And you, Tigana, you're no better than the rest of us. How come you're taking charge?"
Zack turned suddenly, walked over and stood in front of the boy, making full use of his height.
"We don't have time for this," he snapped. "Arguing is just wasting our time, as well as giving away our position to anyone who might be nearby. You got two choices. You can follow me, or you can go back the way you came. Either way, I don't give a shit. But if you decide to come with us, you better shut your mouth or I'll shut it for you!"
With that he turned around again and, without looking back, started once more down the hall. Cloud stared at the boy, who was just standing there, his face red. Finally, the boy shook his head.
"You're all going to get yourselves killed," he gave a parting shot, then turned and walked back the way they had come.
Cloud made a face. He looked at the others.
Kominsky nodded slowly. The other boy pointed at Zack.
"It's easy for him to say let's go on, he's got the gun. What does he need us for? It only takes one person to turn on the junction box. We'd just be risking our lives for nothing. It's stupid."
Cloud just shrugged. He glanced down the hall and saw Zack had almost reached the end.
"Suit yourself," he said, then he and Kominsky followed Zack down the hall.
Zack was waiting for them at the intersection.
"Just the three of us," Cloud stated.
Zack looked at them for a moment, then nodded.
"There's something going on ahead," he said.
Cloud frowned. He hadn't really been paying attention, but now that Zack had mentioned it, he could smell smoke.
"Is something burning?" Kominsky questioned.
"We'll soon find out," Zack replied.
They made their way down the corridor. With every step the smell of smoke became stronger. Soon they could hear the crackling of flames. It seemed to be coming from around the next intersection.
"Stay behind me," Zack warned.
He edged up to the corner and looked around, then waved them forward.
The corridor in front of them was in flames. The entire left wall was engulfed. The smoke stung Cloud's eyes. But at least there was no sign of the enemy.
"The junction box is just down that hall," Zack commented.
"Fat lot of good that does us," Kominsky commented.
"If we stay on the right hand side, we might be able to get through," Zack mused.
Kominsky looked at him in surprise.
"You want to got through that?"
"No I don't want to," Zack responded. "But the junction box is just down the hall. Look, you can see it."
He pointed, and indeed, just beyond an archway past the fire, they could see a metal box on the wall that momentarily became visible through the smoke.
"Seeing it and getting to it are two different things," Kominsky observed. "Isn't there any way to go around?"
"Who knows how long that'll take," Zack said irritably. "It's right there!"
"No matter how close it is, it's not going to do you much good if you're a crispy critter when you reach it," Cloud said. He had to admit he didn't relish the prospect of running past that fire. From where they were, the heat of it was already making him uncomfortably warm.
He sprinted forward.
Cloud hesitated a moment, then charged after him. It seemed insane. The other boy had been right. It would only take one person to turn on the junction box. Zack was obviously going, so what was the point of him following? But he didn't let himself think about that. All he knew was he wasn't about to let himself be left behind.
The fire filled the corridor to his left now, so close he could almost feel his flesh burning. There was no stopping now. The only way to get through it was to go as fast as possible.
Cloud passed doors and corridors on both sides of the hallway as he ran, but he paid no attention. His only thought was to get through this as quickly as he could. However, as he neared the end, there was one door open on the left hand side, and a man lay on the floor there.
Cloud glanced at him only a moment, thinking it was just another dead body, but as he approached the man looked up and waved his arm feebly.
"Help," came his croaking cry.
Cloud stopped. The flames were all around the man, and would engulf him in minutes. He obviously didn't have the strength to save himself. There was another hallway branching off this corridor almost opposite him. He quickly looked down it and saw it was clear of smoke. It would only take a minute to pull the an to safety.
He looked ahead, and saw that Zack had reached his destination. But he saw something else as well. A metal door was sliding slowly down in the archway before the door.
Zack turned to look at him. He grabbed hold of the door to try to push it back open, but it moved inexorably lower.
"Must be a fire door set to close by the flames," he called out. "Hurry!"
There was no way he could pull the man to safety and still get through the door in time.
There wasn't time to think about it. He had to act. He bent down and lifted the man, pulling him quickly across the corridor. As the man slid free of the doorway, Cloud glanced down the hall to see the fire door had closed.
He pulled the man a little farther down the hall, until they were well away from the fire. He stood up, satisfied that he had done what he could. Zack was there, he could turn on the junction box. Saving the man had made sense.
A sound behind him made him whirl around.
A man stood there, a gun in his hand.
Before Cloud could react there was a blast of gunfire. He raised his arms to protect his head, bracing for the impact of the bullets.
But there was no impact.
He stood there like stone for a moment, then lowered his arms. The man was walking over to him, a grin on his face.
Cloud spun around to see the man he had rescued was sitting up, miraculously improved, with a grin on his face as well.
"This is a test," he said. "This is only a test. If this had been a real attack, you would be dead."