© 2004 Stratadrake/Draconus of TWZ
(Original Draft: 1-31-04)
Higher-class ponies scattered into the next car forward as Berett, Cloud, and the others entered the railcar. The morning train announcement broke over the intercom informing them of the current time, their next destination, and a usual thanks for choosing the Rin Sha's railroad system. As Cloud entered and took a seat next to Lockheart, Berett found something to complain about. After casting a glance over the higher-class passengers in front of them, and at how Biggs, Jess and Wedge were sitting in adjacent spaces next to Cloud and Lockheart, Berett let out a loud yell: "Hey! What d'ya think this is, a private car or somethin'!? Split up!!"
The car erupted with the sounds of many hooves as Biggs, Jess, and Wedge scrambled to find a new seat and as the higher-class ponies evacuated to the next car forwards. The only high-class pony to remain was a light-skinned pony in a fancy suit, staring firmly out the window, apparently trying to ignore them.
Berett walked down the length of the car, stopping next to the suited pony. "The car got empty real quick ... why aren't you with yer friends or somewhere?"
The pony shuddered, muttering something about hoodlums and bad luck.
"Ya say something...?" Berett imposed. Silence was the other pony's only response.
"I said..., ya say somethin'!?" Berett yelled again.
"It's because of... hoods like you that...," the pony stuttered. "...Haven't you seen the news? They say Snowslide's planning another attack in the upper districts. Many ponies are scared to leave their homes and... and... only the most devoted employees have the courage to go to work on a day like this..."
"Employee? Who you work for, Rin Sha or somethin'? It's not us they should be 'fraid of!"
"I, I'm not giving you my seat, okay!?"
"Why you little--"
"--Berett!!" Lockheart interrupted. She walked between Berett and the other passenger.
"What you doin, bustin' up my rhythm like that?"
"We don't need a scene. There are plenty of seats, so just leave him alone!"
Berett huffed and angrily sat himself down on the other side of the car as Lockheart apologized to the other pony.
"Is there a problem?" Asked a guard, walking in from the next car forward as part of the train's final security check before moving.
"No, just a misunderstanding," Lockheart answered. The guard nodded, then turned towards the next car. He cast a curious look back at them for a moment, then turned back and grabbed the car's intercom. "All clear, ready to move."
Everyone felt the train shudder slightly as the conductor powered up the engines and the cars began moving. Lockheart walked towards the front of their car to find a seat. "Whoa, wait a minute," the guard interrupted.
"That's okay, I'm just finding a seat," Lockheart said as she sat down at the front of their car.
"Good," the guard nodded. "In case you don't know, Headquarters issued a code orange security level this morning. I don't want any disturbances." The guard took up a position just outside their car and shut a door between them.
Cloud walked from the back of the car towards Lockheart. "So, Berett, what's the plan?"
"Hah! Listen to Mr. Serious here!" Berett piped. Then he glared at the suited pony across the car, who quickly looked out the side window to ignore them. Berett turned back to Cloud. "Okay... Jess told you about the ID scan system didn't she?"
"Well Jess caught a report on the news this morning. They're increasin' the checks on all trains entering the upper levels. If there's even one pony on board without a proper card, they'll..."
"I get it," Cloud interposed. "We can't use our ID's anymore, right?"
"Good morning, passengers," the intercom began. "Our next destination will be the Fourth District Station Checkpoint, expected time of arrival is approximately 11:45 Midnight City Time. All passengers please have your ID cards ready for verification. Thank you for choosing the Midnight City Transport Rail, and have a nice ride."
"You hear that," Berett began, before casting a glance at the suited pony across from (and still ignoring) them. "We got about five minutes until the checkpoint. Then we're jumpin' off this train! And we'll hoof the rest of the way from there."
Cloud walked near the front of the car and stood opposite Lockheart. Lockheart glanced at the nearby map terminal. "Cloud, want to take a look at this?"
"No," Cloud answered. "Jess showed it to me last time."
"That's okay," Lockheart said. "Take a seat."
Cloud shrugged and sat down, then Lockheart took a seat next to him. "You know, Cloud...."
"Hmm?" Cloud asked.
"Are you still wanting to leave once this mission's over?"
Just then, red lights flooded past the windows and the interior lights went out. "--That's odd," Lockheart wondered. "I thought we weren't arriving at the checkpoint until farther down...."
They heard the train's brakes engaging, and the cars slowing. An alert sounded over the intercom. "Alert! This is a Type 1 Alert: Unauthorized passengers are aboard. We are preparing for security lockdown starting with the rear car. All authorized passengers please be ready to present your ID cards for verification!"
Berett immediately hopped up. "That's our signal!" He ran to one of the side doors and tried to open it, but to no avail. "Dammit, this car's locked down?"
Cloud got an idea and stood up. In a moment a guard entered from the car ahead. "Everyone stay where you are and present your ID cards for verification. Don't--"
Cloud cut the guard off by kicking him aside forcefully, almost knocking the guard out. "This way!" Everyone else stood up and ran to the next car ahead, Cloud taking up the rear as the dazed guard began coming to.
"What now?" Berett asked.
"Well..., if they haven't locked down this car yet, we can jump train here." Biggs and Jess continued running forward through to the next car with Wedge.
An announcement over the train intercome interrupted them. "Warning! Unidentified passengers are reported moving from car to car. All authorized passengers please prepare for lockdown and have your ID cards ready."
"Al'righty, move!" Berett ordered. Cloud and Lockheart ran forwards through the car with Berett behind them, running by about a dozen higher-class passengers in the process. They continued through to the next car. Berett tried and opened one of the car's side doors.
The intercom came along again as the train slowed to a near-stop. "Danger! Unidentified passengers have been traced to cars 4 and 5. Preparing for lockdown, maximum level. Authorized passengers please have your ID cards ready for verification." Several footsteps indicated that someone, probably guards, were boarding the train, probably at both ends.
"You two, first!" Berett ordered to Cloud and Lockheart. Lockheart jumped safely out of the train as Cloud asked Berett, "What about you?"
"Don'chu forget, I'm the leader here! Jess and th'others will take care of themselves, now out with ya!" Berett shoved Cloud out the door before jumping out himself.
"Y-yeah...," Cloud said, shaking his head to clear up. "A little bruised, but, I'm fine."
"You shoulda jumped sooner," Berett said as he walked over.
"Well, if you hadn't shoved me out like that, I would've landed just fine," Cloud spouted back.
"Whatever, Mr. Pegasus," Berett mused. "Accordin' to Jess there should be a maintenance shaft somewhere down these tracks an' it leads straight to the Fifth District Refractor. So which way do ya think it is?"
Cloud looked to the outer side of the tracks. Through the scaffolding he could see the underside of Midnight City's upper plate, and the sparse lights identifying the Slumps below. "Up."
"Wise guy," Berett huffed.
"Over here!" Lockheart shouted from some distance uphill. "I've found some stairs leading up."
"Great! That'll save time fer sure!" Berett said as he galloped off towards Lockheart. Cloud gave his legs a stretch and then trotted off to follow. About thirty paces later he caught up to Lockheart and Berett. Correct as Lockheart had announced, there was a dusty metal staircase leading upwards. Cloud volunteered to lead the way, Lockheart following him and Berett taking up the rear. The staircase led upwards for some twenty or so steps, levelling off at the next set of railroad tracks. Cloud looked both ways and spotted a second staircase leading behind them and farther up. He led the way up this next set of stairs, and they arrived at a third floor of railroad tracks, and another staircase.
They approached the underside of Midnight City's upper plate not one or two, but four flights of stairs further. From this point only the railroad tracks led further upwards. Cloud looked out across the plate's underside for any accessible catwalks, platforms, or shafts, but nothing was in sight. "So, where should we go from here?"
"Hey, what's that?" Lockheart interrupted. A light shone from around the downhill side, followed by the unmistakable sound of a train approaching. Cloud hunched down as the light grew lighter, the sounds louder, and in another moment a six-car passenger train railed by, many higher-class ponies on board but none interested in the scenery, and none that spotted them. Soon the train was gone, the echoes of its noise and lights fading in the distance.
Cloud stood back up as Lockheart and Berett climbed the last of the stairs. Lockheart looked one way, Berett the next. "We're goin' this way!" Berett announced as he began walking up the tracks.
"I hope he knows where he's going," Cloud stated.
"Don't worry about it," Lockheart answered. "Go on, I'll follow."
As Berett led them around the next curve of the tracks, they spied a grated maintenance shaft leading outwards from the Midnight City's central support pillar. A faded red label next to it read '5'. "This mus' be it," Berett stated. "Sure is dark in there...."
Cloud looked at the grate covering the shaft, its rusty-red metal and corroding bolts. "Looks pretty shabby to me...." Cloud kicked the grate at the top, and it broke off and fell over with a large, echoing clang.
"You first," Berett instructed. Cloud sighed and shook his head, thn led the way through the dark shaft. Lockheart followed, with Berett in the rear. On their way in, Berett picked the metal grate back up, carefully propping it against the entrance of the shaft to hide their entrance.
"...So, what about the explosives?" Cloud inquired as they walked carefully through the darkness.
"Jess 'n the others'll hook up with us once we near the refractor and she'll give us the package there. Then we can blow the joint."
Cloud stopped. Ahead of them the shaft split into two directions, left and right, and dim lights peered in from both sides. "Um, which way do you think we should go?"
"Let's go right," Berett answered. Cloud shrugged and then led the way. About five minutes later they arrived at a grate. Cloud pushed against it and it swung open. Cloud carefully peered outside and spotted a maintenance catwalk leading to a platform and security panel on one side, and leading some distance in the other direction. Cloud carefully hopped out onto the walk, followed by Lockheart and Berett.
"Now it's your turn to lead," Cloud said to Berett.
"Sure," Berett answered as he began walking down the catwalk. "Don't fall behind now!"
Lockheart and then Cloud followed. The catwalk turned left soon, leading to a staircase and hall. Climbing the stairs and moving down the next way, they came to a T-shaped intersection. A sign on the left branch read '4' while a sign on the right branch read '5'.
There were also shushed voices and careful footsteps approaching from the left. Berett sidled up against the wall and prepared his laser for use. Cloud gripped his blade carefully.
Just as the footsteps were about to round the corner Berett rolled out and pointed his laser straight at them. "FREEZE!!"
"BERETT?!" Yelled one of them. It was Jess.
"Jess???" Berett shouted aloud as the three of them -- Jess, Biggs, and Wedge, came into view. Everyone was relieved and Berett, slightly embarassed. "Jus'... being careful, is all," Berett stumbled as he closed the casing on his laser. "So you got the package?"
Jess nodded. "Got it, all right. That lockdown was a pretty close call. We were able to steal some ID cards from a few security personnel and sneak off before too many noticed. But I think they'll be expecting us at the refractor. So the front door is out of the question. Here...."
"Give it to Cloud," Berett said. Jess nodded, and then handed the 'package' to Cloud, strapping it to his back, like before. "Now remember," Jess said. "Just like last time, once it's set you'll have about ten minutes to get away before it blows."
Cloud nodded. "Just like last time."
Berett signalled to Jess and the others. "We'll take it the rest of the way from here. You three find a safe location and wait for us. We'll be heading out real quick after the blowin' the refractor."
"Roger. We'll be waiting at the Fourth District Park for the signal," Jess nodded. Biggs and Wedge followed her as she turned around to leave. But she stopped momentarily. "Oh, there is one more thing. I did some research on the Fifth District Refractor. Its emergency exit is controlled by three switches located in the control room. You have to hit all three at once to open the door. Good luck, guys...."
"We'll take care of it," Berett said as Jess, Biggs, and Wedge left from the direction they had come. Berett pointed the other way, down the hallway marked '5'. "Come on guys, let's move!"
Berett lead the way down the hallway, then down a staircase to another maintenance catwalk. The followed the catwalk for several minutes until they encountered a grated air duct. A familiar, somewhat rank smell emanated from it. No doubts about this one: the refractor had to be on the other side. Berett forced the grate open and led the way inside. But a few steps inside, and they lost their footing as the shaft led downwards at a steeper angle. After some shouting, clambering, and a lot of sliding, they piled out of the shaft onto a metal grate platform. Off in one direction was some piping and a door. Below them was a familiar glow. The dim pale blue-green could only be the raw energy source of a Refractor, and the core could not be too far below them.
"Is... everyone okay?" Cloud asked, feeling a bit bruised.
"Wow. That was some ride," Lockheart said as she climbed off of Cloud and Berett, and back on her feet.
"Sure, jus' try not to land on US next time, will ya?" Berett complained as he stood back up. "Al'right. We're in good. It's time to plant that baby and go home!" Berett led the way down two sets of stairs, another platform, and then a third set of stairs leading to a familiar-looking catwalk. Leading in one direction was a control station for the refractor. Berett took up a position next to the control station, and readied his laser, expecting that they might have another fight. Cloud and Lockheart followed. Lockheart took a position opposite Berett, and Cloud walked to the station to set the bomb.
Then, for some reason, Cloud passed out.
"Cloud!?" Lockheart yelled. The name echoing through his ears rather strange, it registered more as something like "Papa!!" And "Sephiroth." It conjured up a strange image, something like a Rin Sha refractor core, only different, with a lot of churning gears and mechanical parts. There was an older-looking pegasus lying on the catwalk, slain, several large gashes and cuts indicating the source, an extremely large and razor-sharp blade that lay nearby. Next to that was a young white pegasus, mourning the older pegasus and cursing everything else: Stallion. Sephiroth. Refractors. The Rin Sha....
"Cloud!!" Lockheart yelled again. Suddenly Cloud came to and looked up, seeing Lockheart looking at him concerned. "Wha...? Lockheart...?"
"Damn, guy, you okay?" Berett inquired, his laser still at the ready.
Cloud shook his head a few times, and things seemed to clear up. "...Lockheart..."
"What?" Lockheart inquired.
Cloud shook his head again. "...Nothing. Nothing important. Let's just set this bomb and get out of here. This place... gives me the creeps."
Lockheart unloaded the bomb from Cloud, unwrapped it from its packaging, and then set it underneath the refractor control mechanism. She strapped it in place and then pressed a large red button on it. It beeped and a readout of 10:00 apppeared on it, blinking. After ten seconds it stopped blinking and began ticking down the seconds and minutes until detonation.
"Okay, it's set," Lockheart announced.
"Let's get outta here then," Berett said, putting his laser away and standing back up.
Cloud looked around. "Strange. No alarms...."
"Come on, guy, let's move!" Berett ordered.
Cloud snapped to attention, looked at Berett, and then led the way back upwards. First the catwalk and stairway, then a small platform, two more stairways, another platform, across some piping to a door. Cloud examined the door and found a latch. He turned the latch and the door opened. Familiar-looking scenery lay on the other side, a long staircase leading upwards and around two corners, but strangely not a security guard in sight. The three of them trotted up the stairs quickly, around its corners and past a small security checkpoint and to the top of the stairs, and still no security guards in sight. They neared an elevator and Cloud pressed the "Up" button. Berett readied his laser just in case, only to find the elevator empty when it opened. They entered the elevator quickly and pressed a button for the top floor. In a minute they arrived and exited the elevator. Still no ponies in sight; Cloud was finding this most disturbing. Berett and Lockheart ran to a control room and located the emergency exit switches. "Hey, Cloud! Over here!"
Cloud looked over in their direction. "I don't like this. It's too quiet...."
"Get over here and help us!" Berett ordered. Cloud shrugged and trotted over, then located one of the switches. "Okay, on the count of three..." Berett began.
"Three!" Berett said. He pressed down on one of the switches. Lockheart pressed the second and Cloud hit the third, almost in unision. The control panel beeped a few times and a nearby door, clearly marked "EXIT" in red letters, slid open. Berett and Lockheart ran out, Cloud following behind. They arrived at a steep staircase leading down to the refractor's entry/exit catwalk and the upper Fifth District. The three of them ran to the middle of the catwalk, where it split off to both the left and right.
And then it happened.
"DON'T MAKE ANOTHER MOVE!!" Came a shout as three Rin Sha military soldiers in blue uniforms approached from the right, weapons drawn. A second later, three soldiers also approached from the left. Another second, and two soldiers appeared from behind them.
"I knew it! A trap...," Cloud huffed.
A helicopter approached from the distance and descended to the same level as the catwalk. Its side door slid open and a round pony is a red suit came into view. "Well, well..., what do we have here?" Asked the pony. "Three little rats in a row. Is this all you have to that... whatever you call it?"
"Don't you forget, the name's Snowslide!!" Berett fumed. "And what's you, the president of Rin Sha or somethin'?"
"Long time no see, Mr. President...," Cloud answered.
"You look familiar," the red-suited pony, the Rin Sha president, replied. "Have we met?"
"My name's Cloud, a former Stallion member."
"Ah...," the president responded. "The way your eyes twinkle... yes. Forgive me, but I can't be expected to remember the name of every Stallion member we have, or used to have. Unless you were, say, to become another Sephiroth."
That name resonated with Cloud's memory sharper than anything else. "Sephiroth?"
"Wasn't he brilliant? You should know. Maybe even a little too brilliant..."
"Forget about that!!" Berett shouted. "In maybe five minutes this whole area's going down in a big BANG!"
"Oh yes," the president nodded. "And if I may say so, it's a waste of good fireworks, just to get rid of three vermin like you...."
"Hah!" Berett shouted. "Is that all you can say? News flash! It's you Rin Sha that are killin' off this Land! You Rin Sha are the vermin . . . and I guess that makes you their KING!"
"I grow weary of such rabble," the president responded, shaking his head. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have a lunch to attend. Affairs of state. ...Not like you would understand...."
"Don't you be goin' anywhere yet!" Berett shouted back.
"Oh, don't worry a bit," the president said as two of the Rin Sha soldiers boarded the helicopter and strapped in. "I did make certain ...accommodations for you. He should be here any moment...."
There was a loud mechanical roar. Three Rin Sha soldies on the left side stepped aside as a large mechanical ... thing entered from that side.
"Ah, here he is now. Meet 'Trojan'. Our weapons department created him. I trust he'll be able to extract some useful information from you, one way or another. Now... goodbye...."
The president shut the door on his helicopter and it took off, away from the area and back to the Rin Sha HQ.
"What the hell...?" Berett exclaimed, as what looked like a giant metal box began to open. It flipped up its two large side panels and folded them back into the shape of wings, unfolded four large metal legs and stood up on them. From the front emerged a large headpiece, a helmet shaped like a pony's head. In the head two optic 'eyes' glowed red. Before long, as it unveilied and readied its weapons, it looked like a large pegasus-shaped robot.
The giant robot, Trojan, began by activating its engines. It flew overhead as Berett tried to fire a few laser blasts at it. Trojan landed on a nearby roof and trained its two shoulder-mounted laser cannons on them.
"MOVE!!" Cloud shouted as he jumped over Berett and Lockheart then ran to the opposite wall. Trojan fired its lasers as Berett and Lockheart scattered in opposite directions. Berett stopped and returned fire. Meanwhile Cloud charged and unleashed a long-range lightning bolt from one of his magic stones. The bolt hit Trojan dead on, and Trojan seemed to flinch from this. As if angered, it jumped down onto the catwalk, the immense weight of its impact leaving a very noticeable dent.
Berett opened fire with his laser, hitting Trojan in one of its optic sensors. In the meanwhile Cloud shouted something about an idea, charged, jumped, and landed on top of it, burying his blade almost up to the hilt in its torso. Trojan jerked sideways and backwards, but Cloud kept a good hold on it. It moved to one side, away from the center intersection of the catwalk. "Berett! The refractor!"
Berett got the hint and ran across the catwalk to its center, then to its side where Lockheart was standing. "You know anything 'bout magic stones, Lockheart?"
Lockheart nodded. "Yeah, I know how to use them."
Berett removed the green magic stone from his laser and handed it to Lockheart. "Good, 'cuz I don't..."
Lockheart compared the stone to another already in her posession, then got an idea. She ran forwards to attack the mechanical beast, just as it threw Cloud off. With his wings, Cloud steered himself twoards the catwalk and landed safely, then unleashed a bolt of lightning at Trojan. The machine reared backwards, nearly trampling Lockheart in the process.
"Lockheart!" Cloud shouted.
"I know what I'm doing!" Lockheart responded. Using the magic stone in her posession, she kicked the machine forceufully in one of its rear legs, and a the power of that small stone created a thick layer of ice around that leg and the catwalk in that area, affixing it to that section of the catwalk. "Cloud! Now!"
Cloud nodded and ran forwards, jamming his blade into the front side of Trojan's torso. The machine reared up and backwards, but unable to move effectively due to its frozen leg it lost balance and fell over onto its back, just as Lockheart jumped aside.
"You're mine!!" Cloud said as he jumped over it and buried his sword into its already torn underside. By using one of the magic stones of his, Cloud electrified his sword with energy that quickly arced across Trojan's armor.
Cloud withdrew his sword and jumped off as Trojan lay there, sparks of lightning jolting across its armor. "Now! All together!"
Lockheart acted first, using one of her magic stones to unleash a fireball at Trojan. Berett followed up with a supercharged burst from his laser, and Cloud finished by unleashing a last bolt of lightning energy into Trojan. Trojan's armor chippe, seared and cracked from the hits, and in another moment, it exploded. Mechanical bits of Trojan went flying into the air as the force from it knocked everyone back and blew a hole in the already-weakened catwalk.
"Cloud!!" Lockheart yelled.
Cloud was hanging from the catwalk just a little yonder from its destroyed segment, away from Lockheart and Berett. He struggled but couldn't find anything for his rear legs to stand on.
"Hey, you gonna be al'right??" Berett asked.
"I... it's hard to say..."
"Come on Cloud!" Lockheart shouted. "Don't fall! You can do it!"
Just then the whole area shook as a large explosion rocked the nearby refractor. Berett pulled Lockheart to the wall as she kept yelling for Cloud. Cloud, meanwhile, was knocked free of the catwalk by the force of the explosion. But there was no way he could grab ahold of sommething -- anything safe in the process, and in the next moment Cloud was falling from the upper level, trying to gain some control over his descent as he disappeared into a bank of the City's smog.
"CLOUD - - - ! !"