Happy Birthday

By: Jolene Lau

"I'd like to thank my wonderful parents, and all my family and friends who supported me for so many years," the girl murmured to her pillow, tightly clutching the edge of her sheets with sweaty palms.

She was interrupted by the pair of hands that rudely shook her by the shoulders, roughly rousing her from her sleep. "Dammit, Celes, what's been wrong with you lately?" growled a male voice. "You never used to hit the snooze on your alarm before."

It took the girl eight seconds, four more mildly violent shakes, and three indignant groans to remember where she was. Then, an embarrassed: "Alex!" Followed by: "How the hell did you get in my room?"

"Do you forget my special forces training, little sister? Bolted doors and protective force fields are of no concern," he mimicked the slogan of their organization. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"

"Too early," Celes grumbled, scrambling out of bed, then wincing as her feet made contact with the icy-cold linoleum floor.

"You were dreaming again, you know."

She threw the stiff-backed, uniformed man an annoyed glance before making for the bathroom. "I didn't notice. Now, will you go back to wherever you belong and let me get into some decent clothes?"

"A uniform, preferably--there's somewhere we have to go."

Truthfully, the blond-haired young woman was grateful for Alex's early-morning intervention--without it, she briefly thought, her morning might not have begun until noon. Not that she had planned anything spectacularly productive on this, her one weekly day off. It would have infringed on her new motto of "carpe diem", however.

"There's something you're not telling me," he called around the closing bathroom door, making himself comfortable on a wooden chair. "I'm discreet--a potential special forces leader, you know."

The toilet flushed. "You've only told me that every other day, Alex. You know I love you, but if you weren't the closest thing I have to family, you'd be a too much a pain in the ass to stand."

"You *do* outrank me, you know," he said casually. "The sad result of the emperor's preplanned breeding programs."

There was no response, other than the sound of running water.

"I hope you weren't getting plastered last night."

"I haven't changed *that* much."

"You'll have to change back, you know--to the way you were before."

Toothpaste lather hit the bottom of the sink with a resounding splat of irritation. That Alex--who did he think he was, a super-noble imperial sycophant who was suddenly better than the rest of them? "Before what? Before I made my own identity and grew up?"

Alex got up and began to pace the room nervously. "Celes, you were born and raised to become a top-ranking army general for Gestahl. Do you think they'll let you get away with the crap you've been putting up? Everything you've done against the training they gave you as a child?"

"I'll do what I want," she retorted from behind the door. "Do you think I'm going to throw away the rest of my life, after losing the first 15 years? Slavery was nominally outlawed in the Empire, you know."

Her brother sighed heavily. He had once felt and acted as she did now, with the fresh rebellion of youth, but things had altered of late. No longer did he spend anxious hours wondering about his past and future, or trying to forget the reason for his existence at the pub the other military men frequented. Now, he was bent to the will of authority, accepting the ruthless, uncompromising present for all that it was, jumping into dangerous training missions fearlessly. A perfect soldier, a perfect secret agent, a military director might have grinned coldly.

Alex remembered when the change came. That young, newly-appointed imperial general had called him personally into his study--personal interrogation room, as many thought of it--which was actually unsurprising, considering that the progress of genetically and magically augmentated subjects was followed closely by imperial hierarchy. It must have been the man's enormous force of power--or madness, it could be said--that had shocked him into submission. When he left, all he remembered was the utter necessity of absolute obedience; to him, it seemed as though anything to the contrary, no matter how minute, would lead to the complete collapse of the entire Empire of Vector.

Celes emerged from the bathroom, dressed sharply in an officer's uniform of imperial colors. Ignoring Alex--who now stared distractedly out the window at the drably brown buildings of technologically-advanced Vector--she took her boots and polishing cloth from the closet.

"By the way," the man suddenly said, his voice filled with forced calmness, "I've been sent here to direct you to General Kefka's private study."

"The prick," she snorted. "What does he want now?"

"A discussion on the ceremony tomorrow--your proper 16th birthday present."

She smirked, briskly glossing the toe of her left boot. "I've been waiting to become a general for the last year. If anything, I won't be Kefka's subordinate anymore."

"The advantages to being born to the right...masters, I suppose."

"Might as well meet him early, and get the thing out of the way."

"I suppose," Alex repeated. Something at the back of his mind bothered him, but he couldn't place the discomfort, so he shrugged and held the door open for his sister.

They walked through the halls of the housing quarters, passing various other officers and higher-ups of the imperial armed forces, nodding or saluting to some they recognized. Then down a short flight of stairs, out the building, and across the street to the Empire's Headquarters for Military Defense, the IHMD building.

A receptionist waved them through without authorization, and Alex led Celes to an elevator to the 23rd floor. Finally, the door with the unobtrusive placard reading, "R. Kefka, IHMD."

As he walked down the hall to let her conduct her business meeting, he passed the offices of several lab-coated engineers, and that nagging feeling refused to leave his mind. Intuition was vital for the secret missions on which he would inevitably be sent, but the tacical logic of his armed forces training overrode gut instinct for the moment.

Inside, Kefka was being uncharacteristically polite to Celes, which only unnerved her more. "Have a seat," he said generously after the formal greetings were concluded, trying to imitate a friendly smile but only succeeding at creating a wicked-looking smirk.

She did.

Leaning forward in his chair, he uttered carefully, "You know, your birthday is tomorrow. Meaning you will receive your birthright."

"Yes, Sir," she replied mechanically, resisting the urge to scowl at him.

"You know absolute obedience to the Empire is a necessity for all of Emperor Gestahl's highest officers."

"Yes, Sir, no question about that, Sir."

"Well, then. In that case, you won't be opposed to a little...confirmation of the fact?"

Before Celes had a chance to answer, the panel in the ceiling above her slid open, responding to the buttons at Kefka's fingertips. A metal headpiece, wires jutting randomly from its hemispheric top, descended to rest on her head. She felt the electrodes, like persistent fingers against her skull, attach to her forehead and scalp.

The evil roar of laughter drowned out the crackle of pure voltage passing into vital spots of Celes's brain.

"Obedience--the Empire--blind devotion--" she whispered, hands clenched on the arms of the chair, eyes clamped shut so tightly that tears began to dribble down to her chin.

Then her head grew limp on her neck, held up only by the scientific work of art that hung from overhead.

She woke the next morning, to the sensation of being shaken. "Dammit, Celes, can't you even wake up on time for your birthday?"

Hazy-headed, Celes groaned and stared up into the face of her older brother. "Can't you at least say 'happy birthday' without being violent?"

A shrug was the response. "I just hope you have your speech memorized--I'm not the one who should be up early and alert this morning."

She grinned as she trudged to the bathroom. "My duty to the Empire is unwavering. I would never fail by being half-asleep at an important function."

Alex smiled to himself, pleased at the convincing job Kefka had done the previous day. Yes, she would make an excellent general, if only she stayed in line.

"Complete obedience to the Empire is the absolute priority," Celes said woodenly to her mirror, feeling the words run peacefully through her body.

The bottle of mouthwash gripped between her fingers, she slammed her hand down on the closed lid of the toilet tank, her arm muffling the shock. Ignoring the liquid mint spilling out onto the floor and the shards of smashed glass, she turned steadily away, but for the trembling of her hands and lips.

Then she began to put on her uniform.

-- End --

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