At first glance, the Junon command center was not easily breached. Sash had cased it before Yuffie's arrival, and learned that Rufus had placed guards on its entrance who not only repeated ID checks, but insisted on doing them helmets-off. That made it a risky business for Yuffie to try entering head-on. Moreover, any time the top brass had an important meeting, they'd do a thorough sweep of the room and clear out all the lowly employees and infantrymen.
Yuffie might've called it paranoia, except that she was exactly the person they were trying to keep out.
Fortunately, there was no way a place where Junon's bigwigs regularly hung out would have only one exit. What if there was a fire? An assault that broke through into the base? Rufus needed another way out.
And that was why he had an emergency exit up to the roof. The only problem was, Reeve's schematics indicated it could only be unlocked from the inside. Which made this a two person job.
Sash's face wasn't known to the Shinra, not as part of AVALANCHE, so she had the inside job. Yuffie was waiting up top, crouched beside the emergency hatch.
Between the horizon and the edge of the roof, a tiny sliver of ocean was visible. That was the way she had come, scaling the walls of the base near that huge cannon. Her stolen Shinra uniform meant that no one had questioned her presence walking past the smaller batteries below, but she'd had to use a Sleep spell on a couple guys to create a blind spot for herself, because they definitely would've had questions about her upward climb.
The sun had set not long ago, the sky still afire with orange, and they were getting close to that five o'clock meeting they'd heard about from the base soldiers. Two long range Gelnika-types had just come back from some mystery mission, and Rufus was due to be briefed.
By now, Sash could've already been in and out of the command center. Smack in the heart of Junon base would've been a bad time to find out Jessie's fake IDs didn't pass muster, so they'd tested them a few days earlier, at the harbor. No problems. And maybe the hatch was already unlocked. Yuffie wasn't sure if it was supposed to make a noise or not.
She checked her phone again. Nothing yet. The time read 4:55. They had to be finishing up their sweep by now. Soon.
Another minute ticked by, and then she felt it vibrate in her hand. All clear.
Yuffie hauled the hatch open and dropped into the room below, trusting that it would be empty.
No one there. Yuffie had asked before why there was an escape hatch in an interrogation room (and why was there an interrogation room right off the command center anyway?), and Sash's best guess was that it had originally been designed as an office.
That explained the big, pretty windows. But Yuffie didn't have time to take in the view.
She closed the hatch behind her and then stepped through the door into the command center. She'd seen this room before, but never been inside of it. Rufus's big desk sat in front of the huge windows dominating the rear wall. One of the only decent views in Junon, and Rufus would sit with his back to it. What a waste.
They'd either gather for their briefing there, or near the big displays on the next wall. Yuffie chose a desk that wouldn't have line of sight to either and ducked beneath it, tucking herself into its deepest corner.
Not a moment too soon. The door whooshed open, and a group of people entered. Yuffie tried to differentiate between the footsteps--she couldn't have said which was Rufus but there were four... no, five distinct sets.
She held her breath as they strode past the far side of the desk, but there was no way they were in a position to see her. They continued on to the far end of the room, as expected. She wondered if any of them bothered to appreciate the view.
"Let's get right to it," said Rufus. "You said you had good news for me."
"Yes," answered a man whose voice Yuffie didn't recognize. "The preliminary survey of the site is looking excellent. We're measuring Mako outputs even higher than the initial estimates. You can see from the figures here..."
Yuffie didn't risk trying to get a look at whatever monitor he must've been pointing to, but she decided he must've been some kind of scientist. Hojo's replacement? Probably not up to snuff, considering Rufus had nearly given Lucrecia run of the department despite suspecting she had ties to AVALANCHE.
Lucrecia... Yuffie wondered how Vincent was dealing. Was it even possible for him to get any more depressing?
"Incredible," Rufus was saying of the data displayed.
"Indeed," said the scientist. "There's even been some concern that the output could overwhelm our reactors as they're currently designed."
"I trust your departments can work together to make the necessary modifications."
"Of course," said a woman. What department did she represent? Rufus had lost all his previous lot to Holy, one way or another, and AVALANCHE had yet to figure out the new command structure. "It's almost the opposite of a problem," the woman went on. "The pumps will have to do less work, since the Mako will come out so easily."
"Exactly," the scientist agreed. "The only thing that might actually pose a problem is the terrain."
"What about the terrain?" said Rufus.
"We've located some sort of cave system running beneath the center of the crater."
Yuffie's breath stilled. The crater? Were they talking about the Northern Crater? She thought of the Lifestream gushing forth there, massive amounts of energy, energy that had come together and manifested Leviathan.
Energy that was nothing but more Mako to the Shinra.
"We have yet to determine how extensive it is," the scientist was saying. "We may be able to fill it in, or even make use of it. My worst case scenario is that the crater's center won't be able to support any significant construction, but I doubt we'll be forced to abandon the site entirely."
"I see," said Rufus. "How long do you anticipate a survey of these caves will take?"
"I'm not sure yet. The way down from the entrance we found is treacherous; we're having to be careful, and we haven't explored far yet."
"That doesn't answer my question. I want an estimate by the end of the week. We can't begin laying out the city until we know the crater will support it."
"It's a shame we lost most of Director Tuesti's department," remarked the woman.
"We still have the plans he drew up for Neo Midgar," Rufus said coldly, "so we're past needing his skills as an architect. Reeve's people were dead weight. What we need now are engineers, and there are none better than Junon's."
"I suppose a few caves are nothing compared to building the undersea reactor..." she conceded.
"Exactly." There was a short pause. "Moving on. Talk to me about the Huge Materia."
Yuffie perked up. What the hell was Huge Materia?
"The data we have from our Mako Cannon puts the power output of a single Huge Materia at 330 times that of normal materia," the woman answered. "It's untested in any other capacity, but it should be enough to rival the destructive power we saw from Holy."
"And can you adapt what we've learned from the cannon for use in something more mobile?"
A weapon, Yuffie thought. And if he wanted something mobile, then he was after a weapon he could use against AVALANCHE. Something as powerful as Holy? It'd be Sector 7 all over again, swaths of collateral damage just to get to them.
That was sobering. She wanted to be excited about a whole new kind of materia, but that made it hard.
"We're working on designs for a Huge-Materia-powered bomb," said the woman. Maybe she'd taken over for Scarlet--the new head of Weapons Development? "We expect to begin constructing the prototype by next week, but eventually we're going to need some Huge Materia to work with. I don't think you want to use Junon's."
"No," Rufus confirmed. "I'm not disarming the cannon. Where do we get more?"
"The East Junon, Corel, and Nibel reactors were all designed to produce it. So was the Gongaga reactor, but Scarlet inspected it herself this summer; the malfunction meant it never operated long enough to produce anything that powerful."
"And AVALANCHE destroyed the Nibel reactor weeks ago..." That voice was Elena's, and Yuffie grimaced. Elena had lent Reeve a hand in the immediate aftermath of Holy, but she'd split for Junon the second she heard Rufus and Tseng had survived. Like she couldn't lick their boots fast enough.
Yuffie wasn't surprised they'd heard about the Nibel reactor, but she wondered exactly who they'd heard it from. One of their employees masquerading as harmless villagers in Nibelheim? Or maybe somebody from Rocket Town? They all would've noticed when the power went out.
"That's true," said the weapons expert. "It's possible they destroyed the materia with it. At the very least, the rubble will make it difficult to reach."
"The East Junon reactor will likely give us trouble, too," said Tseng, finally putting a voice to all five people present. "Patrols say it's still occupied by insurgents."
"What were they calling it again?" Rufus asked.
"We have the manpower to take it, don't we?"
"Of course," said Tseng. "It was simply never a priority before now."
"I want you to prepare for it then. And put a team together to retrieve the materia from the Corel reactor."
"Yes, sir. And the Nibel reactor?"
A short pause. "We can send people to Mt. Nibel later if we need to," Rufus decided. "AVALANCHE has already done what they meant to there; they won't be back to get in our way."
"Well then," said Rufus. "You all have your orders. Get to it."
"Yes, sir," the others all said in unison.
Footsteps again, tracing the path across the room to the door--but only four. Had Rufus stayed behind? Yuffie cursed internally. She had to get the hell out of here and call Tifa, but if she came out of her hiding place now, he'd see her for sure.
The meeting was over. Other people would be returning to the command center any minute, and people were a lot better about looking down.
Yuffie fingered her Seal materia, thinking. Sleep spells didn't usually work on people like Rufus, and even if she could Silence him, it would only delay him from raising an alarm. She might make it back out the hatch before anyone could catch her, but the harbor would be on high alert for her.
Damn it, he wasn't supposed to have stayed.
The door opened again, allowing a single person entrance. Yuffie tensed as footsteps approached her hiding place...
No, it was all right. She'd heard those same footfalls pacing the floors of the apartment the past few nights.
A uniformed soldier pulled back the chair in front of her and sat down. Yuffie made out a familiar face beneath the helmet. Sash glanced down at her and gave a slight nod.
Stay put for now.
Someone else came in for a little while and left again. Finally Rufus moved away from his desk and crossed the room. The door swished shut behind him.
"You're clear to come out," said Sash. "Take the desk to my left. The soldiers at the door don't have line-of-sight to that computer."
Yuffie was out from under the desk before she'd finished speaking, and darted across the aisle to the other desk, sliding into the chair and wheeling it back behind the computer monitor.
"We'll wait until it fills up again," Sash went on, "then head out."
Yuffie hated the wait. This was exactly the kind of information they'd been hoping to learn, but after all this time, why did Shinra have to be moving so quickly now?
Well, really, they'd been moving all along, she guessed, but out of sight. Yuffie had forgotten they'd see any value in the Northern Crater; it was the place where they'd defeated Sephiroth, and with him gone, she'd thought of it as empty. Just a big crater. How long had Rufus been established in Junon before he'd sent a team back there? When had he decided he just wanted to build a whole new Midgar?
In the four days that she'd spent in Junon, Yuffie had watched a lot of news. Shinra pundits analyzing footage captured of Holy, talking about how it debunked Reeve's claims about a fatal flaw in Midgar's reactors. Of course Rufus knew what had really happened--Aeris and Tifa had tried to warn him--but he hadn't shared that with the press. Instead Shinra had cultivated the idea that Reeve had been collaborating with AVALANCHE, that they'd turned some new weapon on Midgar.
Was that what they were planning to say after they used their new bomb? That it was AVALANCHE, yet again? It sounded transparent and tired to Yuffie, but the people of Junon seemed to buy it. There was no dissent among the TV hosts or their viewers, just different theories on what AVALANCHE's next move would be. Get rid of Midgar, get rid of AVALANCHE, and Shinra's would be the only story there was.
Yuffie stared blankly at the computer screen in front of her, and pretended to be working. There was probably more intel to be dug out of its systems, but she wasn't Jessie. Hell, she didn't even know how to type.
Thankfully, she'd observed plenty of real soldiers having trouble with that, so none of them batted an eye at her hunting-and-pecking over the keys.
At last enough people had gone in and out to disguise the fact that the command center had picked up one extra. Yuffie got up from the desk, and Sash stood, too, and they strode out through the door. They passed the gaudy statue of the late President Shinra, and didn't speak until they had made their way safely through the rest of the halls and out of the base.
"You got something big?" Sash asked her as Yuffie picked up the pace.
"Yeah," she said. "We really gotta tell the others."
But not in the middle of the street. Yuffie hurried along the sidewalk, passing through the glow of street lamps and the shadows in between, as quickly as she thought she could move without drawing undue attention. Closer to the apartment, the street lamps grew farther apart, and the light from the lobby spilled out through the glass door into a stretch of darkness. Yuffie pushed her way inside.
Within the safety of the apartment, Sash locked the door behind them, and Yuffie threw off her helmet. She flung her cell phone from her pocket onto the kitchen table and dialed Tifa without hesitation.
"Yuffie?" Tifa answered after a couple rings. "How did it go?"
"The good news is I've got a lot of intel for you," said Yuffie. "The bad news is we gotta move fast."
"What's going on? What are they up to?"
"Is everyone there?"
"I'll go grab Barret," said Jessie.
"Good," said Yuffie. "'cause Corel's involved, too."
"Corel..." Tifa murmured, and Yuffie could just imagine her brow wrinkling with worry. Even after they'd gone and saved the world from Sephiroth, she was still a worrier.
There was a minute of relative silence, and then came the heavy thud of Barret's footfalls. "Awright, I'm here. What's up?"
"The Shinra are going after something called Huge Materia," Yuffie explained. "It's s'posed to be over 300 times stronger than regular materia. They make this stuff in their reactors, too, and they've been using the one in Junon to power that big cannon."
"Does that mean they're finally headed back to Midgar for it?" Jessie wondered.
"No. Doesn't sound like the Midgar reactors were set up to make it. They're going after Corel and Fort Condor first."
"Corel!?" Barret exclaimed.
"Yeah," said Yuffie. "I mean, I don't think the town's in any danger, but..."
"They mess with the reactor and it could be," said Barret. "I ain't takin' any chances on it."
"What are they planning to do with the Huge Materia?" Aeris broke in.
"They were talking about building a bomb," said Yuffie. "Something that'd rival Holy. They didn't say anything about a target, but I've got two guesses as to who they'd wanna use it on."
"AVALANCHE," said Tifa, "or Reeve..."
"I'm not even sure they know we're here," said Jessie, "so... that most likely means Midgar. It'd be Sector 7 all over again..."
There was a short silence. Yuffie hadn't been there for Sector 7 like they had, but she'd seen the wreckage. As a single blow, it was worse than anything the Shinra had done to Wutai. And they'd done it to their own people, and they didn't even regret it, or they wouldn't be plotting to do it all over again.
"Well, we ain't gonna let that happen," Barret said at last, a hard determination to his voice. "We ain't gonna let them get their hands on the stuff."
"Is this really what they've been up to all this time?" Tifa wondered. "Just looking for a way to destroy us? To wipe us out completely...?"
Yuffie shook her head. "No, I don't think so. At least that's not all of it. They've had this team up investigating the Northern Crater."
"What?" said Aeris.
"So that's where the Gelnikas went," said Sash.
"Yeah," Yuffie confirmed, glancing up at her. "They wanna build a whole new Midgar there."
"So their survey team just reported back, and now they're after a weapon to wipe us out..." said Jessie, in that slow way she had while she was putting something important together. "I get it. That's what they've been waiting on, isn't it? They couldn't make any decisions on the old Midgar, until they knew whether they could have their shiny new one."
Maybe they should've known to expect it, but the idea that the Shinra would abandon Midgar had never crossed Yuffie's mind. All of them had figured that once Rufus had gotten back on his feet in Junon, he'd be gunning to retake the city. They'd been braced for the first signs of it for a while now. Midgar had always been Shinra's pride and glory, the crowning jewel of their empire.
"I can't believe they're throwing away an entire city," said Tifa. "I mean, I can, but..."
"It's not actually a new plan," said Aeris. "Neo Midgar was the dream of Rufus's father. It's why Shinra was interested in the Cetra. It's why they followed Sephiroth. They wanted to find the Promised Land, so they could build it there... The Northern Crater isn't the Promised Land, but it's what Shinra imagined it to be. The Planet is still concentrating so much of its energy there..."
"And I'm sure they figure," said Jessie, "that by now every citizen that matters has already found their way to Junon. Every citizen loyal to Shinra."
"There aren't too many refugees showing up anymore," Sash put in, as if to say they were more or less right about that.
"Fuck that," said Barret. "They got all the folks who could afford the trip; loyalty don't factor into it beyond that. The ones left behind need our protection, so let's talk about how we do that. We got a timeline for when they're headed out?"
"Not exactly," Yuffie admitted. "But Rufus put Tseng on it, and I don't think he's gonna waste any time."
"They've grounded the Gelnikas for servicing, though," said Sash. "They'll be out of commission for at least a few days."
"Do they only have the two?" Aeris wondered.
"They've got three, as far as we know," said Jessie, "but I'm betting the third one's still up at the crater with the rest of the survey team, so as not to leave 'em stranded if something happens."
Yuffie nodded. "That gives us the speed advantage then, right?"
"If they can't go by air, we'll beat them to Corel for sure," Jessie reasoned. "But Fort Condor... That's only a day's drive from Junon, and the Highwind's in Wutai right now."
"We might not make it," Tifa conceded, "but we can warn them. Hopefully they can hold off the Shinra until we get there with back-up."
"Yeah," said Barret. "We get our people to Fort Condor first, then we head for Corel."
"Wait," said Aeris. "What if they already have people at Corel? It's not like the Nibel reactor; the one at Corel is manned. I remember that from the tour."
"Shit, you're right," said Jessie. "If they've already got personnel out there, they wouldn't have to send anybody from Junon. They just have to transport it back."
"It'll have to go through Costa del Sol either way," said Sash. "Hang on. I've got the shipping schedules." She got up from the table, moving to the farther end to search through a stack of papers.
Yuffie watched her rifle through them, something nagging at her that she couldn't quite put her finger on. They were rushing to get to these reactors ahead of the Shinra, which made it feel like the Shinra were rushing, too, but they wouldn't be feeling the same pressure. Not yet.
"Guys, I just thought of something else," she said. "They were saying the Nibel reactor should've had some, too, but since you guys blew it up, they didn't wanna bother with it right now. They think they've got plenty of time to go back for it, but once they realize we know what they're up to..."
"Then they'll hit that reactor, too," Tifa finished.
"You don't have to go back there, Tifa," Aeris said gently.
"Yeah," Barret agreed. "Jess an' I can hit it after we take care of Corel."
"Here we are," said Sash, moving back to the phone. "There's a ship headed out of Costa del Sol tomorrow morning, but that'll be too soon for them. Looks like... the next one on that route is the one that was supposed to leave Junon harbor this afternoon. Shinra delayed it."
Yuffie exchanged glances with her. "You think... they knew they might be sending people west?"
Yuffie did some quick math in her head, trying to figure out when Barret would make it to Corel, versus when that cargo ship would reach the western continent.
"If it hasn't left yet, then I'm getting on that ship," she decided, and the words out of her own mouth made her grimace. Gods, she hoped that ugly wristband Cloud had given her for her birthday really did help with seasickness.
"Yuffie," said Tifa, "you've done plenty already getting us the intel. You don't have to put yourself through that."
"I wanna help. Think of it like a fail-safe. If something happens, and the Shinra get the Huge Materia outta Corel before we do, we've gotta snatch it from 'em before they get it to Junon, because once it's here, they're gonna lock that thing down."
"Are you sure this isn't just you wanting in on a mission involving materia?" Jessie asked.
How had she managed to forget it was materia they were dealing with? There actually was something to look forward to in what she'd just volunteered herself for. She'd been focusing so much on the potential bomb aspect of it, but how would it feel to hold a piece of the most powerful materia in the world in her hands?
Hopefully nothing like the Black Materia.
"Only a little bit," she said. "Like ten percent?"
"Ten?" Jessie repeated dubiously.
"Maybe twenty," she amended, "but what's wrong with that? The Shinra wanna blow stuff up with it, but we haven't even thought about what we might be able to do with it."
"AVALANCHE's past its bombin' days, Yuffie," said Barret.
"I know that. But maybe it's got some other use besides."
"She's got a point," Aeris put in. "Maybe all the Shinra made was a weapon... but it wouldn't be the first time they didn't fully understand what they created. There could be a power there that doesn't just lend itself to destruction."
"Well, I guess we'll find out," said Tifa, "because I plan on us winding up with it."
"Guess it wouldn't be a bad thing to have some insurance," said Barret. "We can't let 'em make that bomb."
"All right, Yuffie," Tifa decided. "You go if you can. And if that's everything, we should probably let you go. We've got some calls to make."
"I'll get back to you if there's anything I forgot, but yeah. I gotta get goin'."
"Right. Thanks, you two. Stay safe."
"Yeah, yeah. You, too."
Yuffie ended the call, made sure the phone was still on silent, and shoved it back into the pocket of her Shinra uniform.
"Man... Guess I'm not gettin' outta this thing any time soon."
"I could go instead," Sash offered, but Yuffie shook her head.
"Nah. I've done this bit before, and my gut's telling me I gotta be involved in this somehow."
"All right," said Sash, "but I'll go with you to the harbor. Just in case you need a hand."
Yuffie nodded, reached for her helmet, and then hesitated. She caught Sash's eye. "Thanks for your help, before."
"Just doing my job," said Sash, though Yuffie thought she detected a hint of satisfaction. "Maybe I never pictured myself on the same team as some teenager from Wutai, but we are on the same team. That means I've got your back."
"Yeah..." Yuffie eyed her cautiously. "Weird, huh?"
"I've... been through weirder," Sash pointed out. "Missing five years was a trip. Especially finding out my commanding officer was actually an alien? Who wanted to destroy the world."
"When you put it that way..." Yuffie considered. "Anyway, we better get moving."
Sash nodded in agreement. Her face disappeared behind her helmet, and the two of them left the apartment again together, moving through the night towards the harbor.
Lights glinted on the water between the ships at dock, and Yuffie knew. There was something more to all of this than what the Shinra saw. She just didn't know exactly what yet.