The evil potentiality in any given scenario must be less than, or in extreme cases, equal to, the good potentiality in that scenario, plus or minus any and all bonus characters.
Discussion of Literary Theorems
In the complex web of theorems and rules that is life, this room is a haven of chaos.
Sign on the door to the Writers' Chamber
The Writers' Chamber was in uproar. It may be pointed out that this was, in fact, the usual state of affairs within this room and that the only reason all twelve Writers remained in the same place was simply because none of them wanted to concede defeat and leave. However, this was worse than normal. If the usual arguments were likened to a mild rain shower, this was the sort of storm that would pick up houses and chase their previous owners down the street with them.
It is a minor yet relevant point that the current crisis had absolutely nothing to do with any of them. Normally, each Writer concerned himself or herself only with his or her sphere of expertise, and they tried to minimise discussion, with limited success. Nevertheless, for any cataclysm such as this, they would all band together and argue protractedly about the best course of action, regardless of who had caused it.
They did not even stop shouting at each other when the door at the far end of the room opened slowly, revealing God, who hurried over to His place at the head of the table with a sheaf of papers under His arm and cleared His throat. "Excuse Me?" He asked pointedly.
This had precisely no effect whatsoever. God sighed. "Blasphemy," He muttered gloomily to Himself, and tried again.
"SILENCE, IMPUDENT MORTALS!" He boomed. This time He received a favourable reaction.
"There was no need for that," muttered a younger Writer to himself, in defiance of the facts.
"Now," began God, putting the paper down on the table, "you said there was something you wanted Me to have a look at."
"Yes, there is!" exclaimed one particularly irate Writer, standing up and raising one hand in the air in preparation for remonstration. God stared at him and he quietened down. "We received this earlier today," he explained, handing the Lord a hand-written sheet of paper.
"Greetings to all of You up there at the literary chambers," the Almighty read out. "You may recall - or at least God may recall - that recently You partook in a real-time strategy game played out in a fantasy setting."
Gaming had become one of God's hobbies over the last few millennia, usually in a two-player deathmatch against His age-old adversary, the Devil. The two were fairly evenly matched, with Satan's greater intellect cancelling out the advantage given by God's omniscience. Unfortunately, the two sought the most realistic simulations they could find, and after God's first triumph in creating the world, well, there had been no stopping Him. Extra worlds had started popping up left right and centre, and it was only thanks to Satan's advice (and the Writers' numerous complaints about their already considerable workload) that the Void wasn't full of the things by now.
It was really quite cunning. After all, once a game had ended, the story of that world could be said to have ended. And so, by a few of the more obscure laws of literature, it could just be allowed to fade away, so to speak, as the Readers (not even the laws of literature could explain precisely who the Readers were, mind) lost interest in it. Thus the world itself continued in potentia, so to speak, meaning that it just disappeared from view, without the inhabitants all getting killed off at once, could be brought back later on if required, but neatly freed up the Firmament to make new worlds later on.
It was really quite cunning.
The latest world to be created had been "the Mako Wars," a diverting little war scenario set in a world with elements of both fantasy and technology. The Devil had been the victor that time, taking control of the armies of 'Shinra,' the more potent yet less accessible team.
"I have reason to believe," continued the Lord, "that after the game You forgot to erase the planet. It still remains, and therefore falls within Your care. There is a man, going by the name of Sephiroth. At some time within the foreseeable future, he will attempt to destroy the planet using the power of a meteor. Obviously I demand that You dispatch an LTF team to prevent this. But there is one more thing I bring to Your attention. I can sense the imminent death of a girl, a Cetra, named Aeris. You know what a Cetra is, I assume? You did create the planet, remember. Anyway, I'm sure You can read up on it, but I'm deviating. The girl must not perish. This is imperative. I hate at this late stage to make this message sound like a threat, but there is great power present in this world. I have my own reasons for wishing the girl alive, but they should not concern You. Let me just say that should she die, I will use the power at my hands to cause a major cataclysm on Earth. I would not wish to do this but I will if necessary. Signed: FG."
God lifted His head and looked at the assembled Authors. "Oh dear," He said mildly.
"Read the postscript," snapped the Writer who had handed the letter to Him. God glanced back down at it.
"PS," He read. "I would be most disappointed if You did not send Team Omega to sort this out. I have heard very great things about them." He put the paper down and mused for a bit. "FG? Who is FG?"
"The only FG of any importance we have in our files is Fishook Grysley," explained a bespectacled female Writer from the far end of the table, "but he was suitably erased. We've drawn a blank on this one."
Fishook Grysley had been a Writer himself, quite a while ago. He had lost his title when it was discovered that he had been using his influence to amass a substantial fortune by placing bets on games of chance and then writing the outcomes in his favour. He had acquired roughly the net worth of the United States before being found out, and after this, there had been only one suitable punishment. He had been cast down onto Earth but never written into the Book of Life. Cursed to wander for eternity without his life ever being acknowledged by another, he had become nothing more than an anecdote. A warning for Writers to come.
"And Team Omega?" interrupted another Writer. "They were dismissed ages ago after that disaster with the Titanic. Good thing, too. Never did like them myself. That useless little man with the cheek to call himself an Author. And his companions! Pathetic crowd, the lot of them."
"Well, we need to send someone," observed a Writer of about sixty.
"I've compiled a list of the available teams," agreed the female Writer, handing God a typed list.
"Hmm..." God scanned down the page quickly and professionally. "Alpha team: away on assignment... Beta team: rest and recuperation after extreme misfortune..." He muttered away to Himself for a few minutes. "Phi team: available... Is that it?"
"I'm afraid so," affirmed the woman. "They have had some limited experience in these type of affairs, though," she added, trying to see the situation optimistically.
"Very well," God acquiesced. "I'll give the order. I really should have got rid of the world after We finished the game, though."
"Yes," said the first Writer pointedly. "You should."
High above the world, an unusually high build-up of narrative potentiality wavered and burst. A group of four people found themselves standing on air, several thousand miles above the world. Usually this is a euphemism for 'they started falling a very long way to narrowly escape their deaths,' but in this case they really were standing on air several thousand miles above the world.
"Ooh, nice world. Lots of green."
"Yes, but somethink ees goink to go wrong. It alvays does."
"So what're the objectives?"
Perigee Roberts, a tall man wearing a lab coat, removed a folded sheet of paper from a chemical-stained pocket.
"'Objective 1. Stop the meteor,'" he read out loud.
"Oh right, that's easy enough. It's only one meteor," said another sarcastically. She flipped her brown hair out of her eyes.
"I'm sure there'll be some footnote that will let us stop it, Ess. This is a narrative, remember?" said Perigee unconvincingly.
"Yeah, yeah, so what's the next objective?" asked the third, a teenage girl with short blond hair.
"'Objective 2. Save Aeris.' Aeris?"
"Vat's an Aeris?" asked the fourth. He was of average height, with short black hair slicked back, probably with some sort of mousse. He was wearing evening dress and a particularly stylish black velvet cloak. "A kind of vine, maybe? Perhaps a nice red from Bordeaux?" He grinned. His teeth were remarkable, in that his two upper canines were longer than they ought to have been, and probably led to his difficulty pronouncing the letter 'w.'
"I think that Aeris is a woman, Kea. This world seems somewhat...familiar. At least to me. Meteor...Aeris...hmm." He pulled a device from his pocket, and spoke into it, while pressing a button labelled 'X.'
"Could we get a clip of Aeris?"
A screen materialised in front of them, and they watched...
The two ships sailed on, barely a matter of metres from each other.
"Ahar!" yelled the captain of the galleon with the skull and crossbooks motif on its sails, waving his arms in the air menacingly. "We'll cut yer mainsail from yer giblets, yer scurvy sons o' barnacles! Yer no good fer anything but... yes, what is it?"
A man in an immaculate suit had appeared from below decks and handed him a mobile phone. The captain raised it to his ear and gazed absently into the distance.
"Hello, this is the Author, to whom am I speaking?"
"God here," said the indistinct voice at the other end. "Glad to see you're still around."
"Oh yes, no problems at this end," the Author replied cheerfully. "We're just sorting out some matters in the Caribbean at the moment. Anything I can do for You?"
The captain of the other ship leaped onto the prow and roared at him. "Come on, shipmate! We'll settle this like seadogs!"
The Author reached out absent-mindedly and hit a cannon as hard as he could with one fist, sending a cannonball hurtling towards the unfortunate pirate.
"Well, I do have a slight problem," God explained sheepishly. "It seems that... erm... I forgot to delete the world when I finished My last game, and now someone there's taking matters into their own hands. Basically, We've got to save that world, and the only team I could get is really not very good at all."
"And You want me to come along and help out," the Author finished for him. "Well, I'll see what I can do. You'll have to give me the background, though. I like to be able to jump into the plot as seamlessly as I can, you know. Make my guys fairly inconspicuous."
At this juncture a large black rabbit emerged from the lower levels of the ship, clutching several water biscuits between its ears. It should be pointed out that it was wearing, for some unknown reason, a pair of very stylish sunglasses. Rabbits are not normally known for their fashion sense, but this one was obviously trying to adjust the balance.
"You should try some of these ship's biscuits," it munched at him, clambering up his back and perching on his shoulder. "They're really rather tasty."
The Author took one from it and tried it. "Not bad," he agreed.
"Excuse me?" asked the Lord.
"No, I wasn't talking to You," replied the Author hastily before the Almighty could take offence. "Could you just keep quiet while I'm talking?"
"Me?" said God.
"No," snapped the Author emphatically, shaking his head and almost dislodging the rabbit from his shoulder. "I'm arguing with Mr. Big. Remember him? He's just offered me a biscuit."
"Oh." The Lord sounded thoughtful. "Could I try one?"
"Sure," agreed the rabbit, holding out a ship's biscuit to the mobile phone. "Ah. This might present some problems."
"If everyone would just be quiet?" The Author's normally infinite patience was beginning to run out. "Perhaps it might be a better idea if We continue this conversation face to face."
Stars, flung throughout the endless reaches of space. In the distance, one flares bright red, then collapses into nothingness. Then another does the same. And another. Soon, the universe is filled with red, the stars seeming to dance...
But the camera pauses, and adjusts for distance. The blaze fades, and on the other side a woman's face is revealed.
A voice is heard.
"Oh no..." breathed the chemist.
"Sssh!" hissed the teenager. "I want to watch."
The woman stands, and pulls her threadbare coat tightly around her. As she walks away from the crackling bonfire, the camera pans away, out of the alley and up, until she is lost among the seething suburbs of a vast, metallic city.
The orchestra flares up, on cue. Then the lights gradually dim, leaving only darkness, which soon gives way to static.
The chemist sighed again, and flicked a button on the screen. It blinked out of existence, returning to wherever it had appeared from. "We've really got our work cut out for us. For reasons we haven't got time to go into, I know exactly what would have happened if we hadn't been sent here. We ought to be able to change the series of events, but it won't be easy. Literature tends to have a lot of inertia. I won't worry you with my knowledge, but I will say this: be careful."
"Perigee?" asked Ess.
"Yes?" replied the chemist.
"We aren't guaranteed to all arrive in the same place, are we." It wasn't a question.
"Yes, that's right," answered Perigee, unnecessarily.
"So we could be separated."
"Don't worry," Perigee assured her. "I'll be fine." He wasn't the most sensitive person ever created.
Ess frowned, and wondered, not for the first time, why she put up with him. They had been together ever since they had met back in feudal Japan. That had been the first time for both of them on a mission, and they had both felt...well, a little insecure.
"I'll be okay too, I guess," she said finally.
"Enough with the mushy stuff!" exclaimed the teenager. "C'mon, can't we pick jobs now?"
"Hey, Kasuto, vat do you vant to be?" asked Kea.
"I dunno. Maybe a thief or a ninja or something. It's boring always being a princess."
"I vould like to be a spy. Perigee, is there an Empire on this vorld somevere?"
"Yeah, there's a big megacorporation. But..."
"Are there any tanks on this world? Tanks are always fun."
"I'm not in th..."
"Everyone be quiet!" shouted Perigee.
There was silence.
"Right. You will assume your characters, no matter who or where they are. We will reconvene as and when the plot dictates. Everybody ready?" The others nodded. "Good." He inspected the device he was still holding in his hand, and eventually pressed the 'O' button.
The four vanished, and silence reigned, broken only by the sound of the reader mentally attaching the last few lines to characters, and finding that there aren't enough to go around.
"Commander Roberts," read the Author. "Age: 24. Time with LTF: 5 years. Prior occupation: chemist. Rank: Commanding officer of phi team..." His voice trailed off as he scanned the rest of the page quickly and efficiently. "Hmm. I bet that with people like him around, You wish You had me back."
"Occasionally, yes," God admitted from His seat on His heavenly throne, several metres above the clouds on which the Author and his group were standing, "but whenever I feel like that, I just think of what happened to the Titanic and suddenly I'm extremely relieved to have got rid of you."
"Look," the Author snapped, in an uncharacteristic moment of annoyance, "that was an accident. You know that as well as I do. The Major just got a bit overexcitable with the Blunderbuss."
"Eh? What?" bellowed an elderly campaigner of over 90, wearing a dark green jacket, a well-polished pair of British army boots, a line of medals roughly four feet long across his chest, and a round leather hat with a spike on it. He had previously been standing on the edge of the cloud, looking down in case of Jerry air attacks, while God and the Author talked business, but now he strode forwards, waving his battle sabre in the air. This sabre was an extraordinary weapon. It was about as sharp, efficient and dangerous as its owner.
"What's this about the Blunderbuss, old beans?" he asked concernedly. "You can't talk about it behind my back, you know. Why, we've fought together for years, me and this Blunderbuss, what?"
"You killed... oh, however many hundred people it was... when all you were meant to be doing was helping two of them fall in love," God reminded him flatly.
"Oh, yes. Haha." The Major was obviously embarrassed. "Whoops."
"Anyway," God turned back to the Author, "I admit that you were one of Our best, but every now and then you would produce a truly cataclysmic blunder. That Titanic affair was the last straw. Every single one of the Writers went on strike until I got rid of you, you know."
"So I assume they don't know You've called me in for this," stated the Author. God shook His head.
"Of course not. I don't like the look of this, so I wanted to bring in the best," He explained. "As I said, you are the best... occasionally. Please, don't mess this one up. I dread to think what could happen if whoever wrote that letter carries out his threat."
"Might it not be a reasonable idea to investigate the source of the letter?" suggested the suited man previously seen on board the Author's pirate ship. "I, would advise You to dispatch one of Your many operations teams to uncover his identity."
God nodded. "I'm hoping that he'll be waiting around in that world to make sure that everything goes as he hopes. I want you to keep an eye out for anyone who looks like they might have some kind of interest in the Cetra girl."
"This may seem like a bit of a stupid question," commented a man wearing an overlarge beige trenchcoat and an expression of na´ve stupidity, "but how are we going to recognise this person? All we know is that he... or she," he added in a moment of political correctness, "signs himself... or herself, as FG."
"We'll just do what we normally do, Croft," the Author told him. "You know us. Sooner or later we run into everyone important."
A train pulled up to a quiet station in the north of Midgar. A rusty sign swung half-heartedly in the breeze created by the train's arrival. The sign declared that this was 'Upper Sector 1 - Authorised Personnel Only.' But it was rare that any unauthorised personnel got this far anyway. Shinra had installed an identification system some years ago that could check the personal details and background of any passenger on a train, and set off alarms if the wrong people were on the wrong train. It was fairly efficient, although there were rumours that it was going to be upgraded soon. As it was, it was a fairly bored and unsuspecting guard who was interrupted during his routine inspection of the train by a hefty black man jumping off the roof onto his head.
"Awright! Let's get this show on the road!" shouted the man, waving one hand in the air... or at least, waving what should have been one hand. His right arm appeared to have been severed just below the elbow, and attached to it was a fairly chunky chaingun. It made him look even more formidable than he would have otherwise... which was only to be expected, really.
A few people appeared from various carriages of the train, and in an obviously precalculated manoeuvre, ran towards the station's exit. Almost as an afterthought, the train disgorged one more man. He would probably describe himself as tall, but most others would think of him as being merely tallish. His hair was an almost yellow blonde, formed into an unusual spiky hairstyle that brushed against the bottom of the sign and gave it the first cleaning it had seen in years. His eyes were a deep shade of blue, but they glowed faintly, and there was little compassion in his expression.
A second guard appeared from the hut, saying, "Hey, Glenn! Haven't you finished that inspection yet? It's your turn!"
The blond man unsheathed a ridiculously large sword and brought it around in one smooth movement, relieving the guard of his boredom. Apparently satisfied that all threats were removed, he returned the sword to its holster on his back. Then he ambled casually in the direction the black man had gone.
He eventually caught up to the others when they stopped outside a large steel gate, the entrance to the Sector 1 Reactor. One of them, a woman with medium-length light brown hair, was inspecting a computer terminal next to the door. The blond man sighed, and prepared to wait. These amateurs couldn't be expected to do anything quickly.
A short, rotund man turned to him and said, "Hey, you're new, aren't you? I'm Wedge. Nice to meet you. You're...the ex-SOLDIER that Barret can't stand, right?" This idiot had that much right, at least, thought the blond man. For some reason, the black man had taken an instant dislike to him.
He gave Wedge a cold stare. "The name's Cloud. Listen, I don't care what your names are. We blow this reactor, then I'm out of here."
"Oh...sorry," said Wedge nervously.
"Alright, this ought to do it," said the woman. Cloud brightened up slightly at the sound of her voice. He could remember her name, now he came to think about it. Jessie. Maybe he might hang around, after all...
The door slid open slowly, allowing the group into the reactor. Again, most ran ahead, while Cloud lagged behind. Barret skidded to a halt, then turned and shouted at him.
"C'mon, hurry up! We wanna knock out this reactor tonight! What's the matter with ya, got bricks in those baggy pants of yours?"
Cloud frowned, and sped up to a brisk walk. Barret growled quietly to himself. Okay, so maybe this kid was ex-Shinra, a big-shot ex-SOLDIER even, but he was working for AVALANCHE now. Needed to respect his superiors. After all, who was in charge, the kid or him? Now take that other guy who'd just joined. Whatshisname, Perigee. He'd worked for Shinra, but he was showing real devotion to the terrorists. Barret was proud of him. Perigee might not be the most clued-up guy, but he sure knew his science. And he followed orders.
The terrorists stopped again at the junction of a narrow catwalk, and awaited directions, which Barret was more than happy to supply.
"Okay," he announced. "I'm gonna plant the bomb. Wedge, you secure an escape route." Wedge saluted, and waddled off. "Perigee, you go shut off security." Perigee nodded. "Jessie, Cloud." The two remaining terrorists acknowledged him. "You're with me."
Perigee leaned against the wall with his eyes shut, immersed in thought. The problem with knowing the original outcome of this plot was that his knowledge would become less and less accurate as time passed. That was why he hadn't disabled the security; it was better to make as few changes as possible. The reason why they were there was, of course, to change things, but even their very arrival and existence in this world would change things, because of chaos theory.
He checked his watch, and a siren began to wail. Right on time. Good, no deviations yet...But the alarm faltered, and died away with a pathetic "Eeeeeoooooooooo...." Perigee frowned. Disturbances this early most likely meant that the narrative would spiral away from predictability even sooner and more wildly than he had thought. In a couple of weeks, he calculated, his knowledge would be completely useless. He had to try to keep the plot on course as much as possible, so that when the time came when a change had to happen, he would be able to choose the results. For example, if Aeris and Cloud didn't meet, then there was no guessing whether the scene at the City of the Ancients would occur or not. It might happen in Nibelheim, or even here in Midgar. But so long as they stuck to the original plot as much as possible, then he'd know what changes would be needed to stop Aeris' death.
It was always good to check your assumptions, though. Another explanation for the failing of that alarm was that, for example, something in the past had changed because of the LTF. Of course, within this plot, the only literarily relevant event was the scene at Nibelheim. Well, another explanation was that one of the Writers was personally helping them, but how likely was that?
From the shadows two pairs of eyes watched him curiously, one blinding white, the other jet-black...
Some considerable distance away, on the forty-second floor of the Shinra company HQ, a man dressed in a suit watched the progress of the terrorists on a security monitor with a degree of mild interest. He couldn't help noticing how incompetent they seemed to be. As far as he was concerned, if it had been him trying to take out the reactor, it would have been over and done several minutes ago.
"Uh... sir?" squeaked a subordinate standing in the doorway. The suited man calmly reached over and flicked a switch next to the monitor, which promptly flickered and started displaying adverts.
"Yes?" he snapped irritably.
"Sir... the President has requested a meeting with you. Um... he says he wants to know how the -"
"Very well," the man replied before another word could be said. "I, will join him in his own time."
It was an unusual quirk of the Shinra Director of Finance that, although he was undoubtedly a phenomenally clever businessman and generally far too intelligent for his own good, he seemed to have only a limited grasp of the English language, in that he almost constantly referred to himself in the third person. The fact that his first name was, "I," only served to complicate the issue.
Almost immediately after the messenger had left, I,'s jacket pocket started playing a loud synthesised melody. Those who knew the original tune might have recognised it as an extract from the song, 'Money for Nothing.'
I, reached into his jacket and brought out a small mobile phone. He pressed a button on it and lifted it to his ear.
"Caroussis? Is that you?" it enquired. "How's it going?"
"They are proceeding slowly," the Director of Finance informed whoever he was speaking to, "and have placed their explosive. By I,'s estimation, they should be outside the established perimeter within the next ten minutes."
"Okay, thanks for informing me," replied the voice, and hung up.
I, Caroussis put his phone back in his pocket and shook his head. Theoretically, of course, the man he had just held a conversation with was his superior, but it was part of I,'s essential personality that he treated everyone, no matter how important, as the insignificant minors they were.
He turned towards the door and headed off towards the President's suite.
Perigee was waiting with Wedge when the others emerged from the reactor core, coloured with varying shades of 'scorched.'
"I'm sorry, there was one robot I couldn't deactivate," apologised Perigee. "It was sort of a..."
"...scorpion thing?" supplied Jessie.
"Oh, so it found you, then."
"Listen," interjected Barret. "We gotta get movin'. That bomb ain't gonna wait for us to get outta here."
Wedge nodded. "Well, let's go. Shinra have probably sent SOLDIER by now, so we shouldn't leave through the front door. But I think we can get out through the sewers."
"Ah, I,." The President did his best to look pleased at seeing his subordinate, but it wasn't easy. Very few people had mastered the art of actually liking Caroussis. It was possible that not even Caroussis had mastered the art of liking Caroussis.
I, gave him a stare that said, simply, "What I, would not understand, if indeed there were anything that I, did not understand, is why, based entirely on intellectual merit, you have come to be his superior. However, I, must warn you not to press this privilege to any degree, otherwise you may find yourself to be the unwilling target of a hostile takeover." It was a stare that I, had perfected over a couple of years, to save himself the trouble of saying it at the beginning of every company meeting.
Those who have been following the complexities of the integration of the LTF agents, and I appreciate that there may not be that many of you, may be wondering about the fact that I, Caroussis seems to have a Past. In the game, that is. Well, suffice to say that I, took a certain amount of pride in his plot integration, more so, perhaps, than even the Author. Besides, sorting out a Past with Shinra effectively required him to have spent the last two or three years actually taking part in the game as an NPC. This sort of thing is pretty much routine for LTF agents, but the Author had allowed himself and his group to get out of the habit and only bothered when it was absolutely necessary.
I hope that clarifies things to a certain extent. Please, don't concern yourself overly about it. It's really not that important.
"I am interested to know the exact progress of Project Overseer," the President told him, rather uncertainly. He pulled himself together. "From what I have recently learned from Hojo, the experiments involving telekinetics have been surprisingly successful."
I, produced a small platinum notepad from within his jacket and read off the top sheet.
"While the theory may be reasonably sound," he explained, "there are considerable drawbacks involving practicalities and finances. I, is afraid that the company resources would most likely not stretch to supporting more than one or two of the remote systems. Of course, I,'s personal finances would have no difficulties, but that is beside the point. You and he both know that the agreement made when he joined this company was that his outside affairs would have no bearing on his business within. Also, taking into account the current state of technology, constructing a facsimile human with sufficient detail to be regularly mistaken for the genuine article would, sadly, involve the robot being at least twelve feet high, if all the necessary components were to be fitted inside."
The President paused for a moment. Usually this was necessary to dissect and understand I,'s speeches.
"So what you're saying," he said after a while, "is that, despite the obvious potential of mind control for robotic spies, we can't actually put it into practice?"
I, nodded. "Precisely. Technically, the host machine could be fitted into a shell approximately four or five feet high, assuming it to be almost spherical. However, there are still financial difficulties and I, would suggest that the company's limited funds are better spent on more productive schemes. I, should point out, on the other hand," he added finally, "that I, has come up with one or two more... viable alternatives."
As the terrorists left the reactor, a man in a black cloak turned to his companion.
"Well?" he asked.
"Hmm..." The other thought for a moment. "Not the most efficient group, are they? I'd have expected them to get themselves captured or killed fairly soon."
"I would agree," admitted the man, "but they're going to be important. The men, at least. You can trust me on that. I can sense these things."
The other nodded agreement. His sunglasses threatened to fall off, and he steadied them.
"Not the girl then?" His voice made his disappointment clear. He had an eye for any reasonably attractive female.
"Afraid not," the man replied. "Don't worry, though. I'm sure this Aeris person will be more than beautiful enough to satisfy your instincts - when she turns up. I wonder how long that'll be?"
"The sooner the better," muttered the companion earnestly.
The end of a large sewage pipe leading from the Sector 1 reactor exploded violently, without warning. A rather grubby group of terrorists soon exited the pipe, quickly flinging themselves in some of the many puddles conveniently scattered around the area, extinguishing the flames that were scorching most of them. After a few moments' silence, Cloud looked up from his puddle and asked, "So when do we get paid?"
Barret frowned. "Wait 'til we get back to the hideout. We'll sort out the pay then," he said peevishly. Perigee shook his head sadly. Cloud was going to realise soon enough that money wasn't everything.
"Come on, let's get going. We don't want to be around here when Shinra security shows up," he warned. "The last train is leaving soon from a station about five minutes from here. We'd better hurry."
Without undue effort, the self-nominated saviours of the Planet slowly got organised and then set off into the polluted night of Midgar.
Perigee turned a blind corner too quickly and accidentally crashed into a blonde woman, knocking her to the ground "Oh, sorry," he said, as the other members of AVALANCHE passed them, oblivious to Perigee's plight.
"No no, it's my fault. I wasn't paying attention," replied the woman.
Perigee looked at her properly for the first time, and with a growing sense of horror, began to realise what he had done. His left eye began twitching uncontrollably. "Sorry," he said again, this time with true sincerity. Then he leapt up and dashed off.
The woman watched him disappear round a corner, waving his arms around in a state of extreme agitation. She shook her head sadly and made as if to pick herself up.
A hand reached down to her, and she took it before even looking at who this stranger was. When she did, it was all she could do not to show her shock. The man helping her to her feet was dressed solely in a black cloak, with rather over-padded shoulders. But his eyes... To say that they glowed would be an understatement. They were almost like two small stars.
"Some people," commented the man noncommittally as she dusted herself off. "Are you okay?"
She smiled. "Don't worry about me. I'm fine. Thank you."
"Anything for an attractive girl," he said, and smiled back. "Now, I must be getting off. Hopefully I'll bump into you... sorry, bad metaphor..."
"Oh, flowers!" said a voice that seemed to be coming from his shoulder. "Do you have any vegetables? Carrots? Lettuce?"
"Sorry, no." She reached into her basket and produced a particularly pleasant blue bloom. "Would you like one of these? They're only a gil...?"
"I haven't seen many of these around here," he replied, taking it from her and inspecting it in the light from his eyes. "A gil? You could get away with asking for a lot more. Here."
He reached out, and she heard the clinking of what sounded like a large number of coins falling into the basket. It was always nice to meet someone genuinely concerned with the welfare of others for a change. Someone like her, really.
"I don't do it for money," she told him. "I do it to try and bring a little colour into people's lives."
The man shrugged. "You've got your work cut out for you, doing it in a place like this. Good luck to you."
As the two parted and wandered off in their separate directions, the man turned his head and glared at his shoulder. "From now on, you will let me handle conversations, okay?"
"Fine," sighed the voice. "Who was she, anyway? Good looker, in my unbiased opinion."
"No idea," admitted the man. "Probably no one important."
Perigee sat silently in the train carriage and let the conversation of the others wash over him. This was all going horribly wrong, and so soon! Cloud hadn't met Aeris, hadn't missed the train, hadn't really done anything. And he, Perigee, hadn't heard from the others since their plot integration. It had been entirely his fault. He shook his head, as if to disperse the gloom filling it and slowly turning his brain to lint. He looked up to see Cloud and Jessie talking animatedly at the other end of the carriage. To top it all off, Cloud was getting interested in the wrong girl. Well, at least Tifa ought to distract his sufficiently to stop him from doing anything too rash. He shook his head, and decided he'd sleep for the rest of the journey. Entering a narrative always made him tired.
Barret stormed noisily into the Seventh Heaven, one of Sector 7's more well-known bars, and glared at the regular clientele. "Awright, everyone! Happy hour's over, now get out!"
It really was remarkable how rapidly the bar emptied. Admittedly, the appearance of a huge black man with a machine gun could cause anyone to reconsider the idea of another pint, and most of the people in the area knew what it meant when Barret returned, but still.
The lone barmaid watched the regulars disappear with a slightly worried expression as she ambled sedately between the tables, collecting all the half-empty glasses and taking them back to the bar where they belonged. She noticeably cheered up, though, when Cloud entered. The few drinkers who were either too stupid or too drunk to notice Barret made up their minds upon seeing his rather ridiculously large sword and left hurriedly.
"I was worried about you," she said quietly to him as he pulled back a chair and slumped on it, resting his feet on the table in front of him.
Cloud shrugged. "Why? That wasn't even difficult. I was First Class, remember?"
Tifa looked up as Perigee sidled gloomily in and leaned up against a wall. It didn't take much to spot that he wasn't exactly in the best of moods.
"What happened to him?" she asked. Once again Cloud shrugged. It was a gesture that he was particularly good at.
"Dunno," he admitted. "He's been like that all the way back. He must have seen something to upset him in the reactor, I guess."
"Hey, Tifa!" Barret interrupted. "Where's Marlene?"
The barmaid pointed towards the stairs in the back. "She was having difficulty staying awake so she went off to bed," she explained, while behind her Perigee stared for a few moments and then broke down and started crying quietly to himself.
Any further discussion, however, was disrupted by the entrance of a fairly tall man in a black cloak. Tifa couldn't hold back a shudder at the memories it brought, but at least this man was definitely not who she at first dreaded it was. He had short black hair, for a start, and his eyes burned with an intense white glow.
"Get me a drink," he snapped at her. "Anything."
Barret rounded on him. Obviously this guy was new around here. The locals had long since realised when it was not in their best interests to be in the Seventh Heaven. There was sort of an... unspoken agreement.
"We're closed," he growled.
"Oh, sorry." The man seemed genuinely embarrassed. "I must have missed the sign, I'll come back later when... Hang on." He looked thoughtful. "I'm acting out of character, aren't I? I'll come in again."
He stalked out, and re-entered a few seconds later, flashing Tifa a brief apologetic smile before his face reverted to its original impassive expression.
"Get me a drink," he snapped at her. "Anything."
The six of them stared at him.
"Oh, fine." He threw his hands up in a gesture of exasperation and left for the second time.
"Weirdo," commented Jessie pensively.
"Wha'ever," Barret replied, unconcerned. "C'mon, all of you. I wanna talk to you downstairs."
He waddled over to a rusting pinball machine with only three legs remaining and hit it, knocking it over. Slowly and noisily, a small section of floor descended downwards, revealing a small chamber below. Ignoring the possibilities of using the section as a lift, he simply hopped through the hole. Wedge, Jessie, and Cloud followed, and Perigee took the time to climb down rather more carefully.
Tifa watched them go, sighed to herself, and went to clean the glasses.
After a few moments, a large black rabbit sidled into the bar, obviously trying to make itself seem inconspicuous. This would have been easier had it removed the trendy sunglasses it sported, but apparently it was very attached to them. It stopped in the shadow of a table, looked around it, and spotted Tifa.
Obviously it was impressed. In fact, it took it several seconds to tear its gaze away from her... abundant femininity, shall we say? - and return to the task in hand, or, as is perhaps a more appropriate phrase, in paw. After examining the interior in more detail, it spotted the sole window, through which could be seen the man with the glowing eyes. He pointed towards the lift and made frantic 'hurry up' motions.
The rabbit nodded unhurriedly. It indicated Tifa with one ear, raised its sunglasses and mouthed, "Phwoah."
The man shook his head in a gesture of annoyance and disappeared from view. Mr. Big - it will be assumed from now on that the reader has realised that this rabbit is, in fact, the same one previously seen talking to the Author a few pages back. The sunglasses are something of a giveaway, really - hopped silently to the hole in the floor, and, with one last lingering glance at Tifa, leaped down.
Nighttime in the Midgar slums was an eerie experience. The exact reason was hard to identify, but perhaps a likely candidate was the strange feeling that one was still, somehow, inside, even if one slept out on the streets, as many did. Perhaps that one knew exactly when the 'sun' would come up - most people set their watches by the lights embedded in the plate above. Perhaps the fact that strange creatures prowled around in the more run-down areas, despite Shinra's attempts to eradicate them.
There was a small patch of light behind the Seventh Heaven. In the centre was a man in a black cloak, and it was his glowing eyes that were illuminating the area. He was trying to play Patience, although this was difficult because whenever he looked straight at a card he lit it up to such an extent that he couldn't tell what suit it was.
He looked up as a small black shape made its way through the gloom and lay down next to him.
"Well?" he asked, professionally forming the cards back into a deck and putting it inside his cloak.
Mr. Big shook his head. "Didn't find out too much, I'm afraid," he admitted gloomily. "I can tell you their names and what they're trying to do, but with regards to an Aeris, absolutely..." He paused. "Would you mind turning your eyes off? They're giving me lens glare."
"Sorry." The man reached up to the side of his head and flipped a tiny switch on a black box concealed behind his ear, causing the specially written luminescent contact lenses he was wearing to flicker and fade. Had it been during the day, this would have revealed the rather pleasant brown shade of his eyes, but as it was it just plunged the slums back into darkness. "Anyway, you were saying?"
"Let's see now..." The rabbit collected his thoughts. "The big man with the gun, he's Barret. That guy with the sword's called Cloud for some reason. Then there's Wedge, Jessie, and that scientist guy's Perigee. Couldn't find out what the barmaid's called. Shame, though. I'll make sure I get her number when I do."
The man would have given Mr. Big a sarcastic glance, but as it was pitch-black he reasoned it probably wasn't worth it.
"I wonder if she's Aeris?" he mused.
"Possibly," agreed Mr. Big sagely. "Anyway, they call their group Avalanche -"
"The snowball effect," murmured the man.
"They start off as something pathetically small, but escalate into a force to be reckoned with. I think that might be what they're trying to imply."
"Oh." Mr. Big considered this. "I don't think they're clever enough to come up with that sort of thing. Moving on, from what I gathered, they seem to think that the Shinra company's reactors - Mako or Moko or something like that - are draining life out of the planet, so they're trying to stop it by blowing them up, one by one. I think they're going to go for number 5 tomorrow."
"Hmm..." The man considered this. "I'll have to talk to I, and see whether the reactors really are killing the planet." He stopped for a second and looked thoughtful. "I wonder if you can kill a planet? Interesting thought. But good work, nonetheless. If they're going on another mission tomorrow, perhaps we should follow and see if we can integrate with them. As I said earlier, they're important characters, so I would expect either that woman in there is Aeris, or they'll come into contact with her fairly soon. Well done. You make a surprisingly good spy."
There was a rather long silence, finally broken by Mr. Big.
"Author?" he asked.
"Are you actually going to sleep here?"
The Author sat up. "Of course. We want to make sure we're near them when they set off. Don't want to get lost or anything."
"Ah." Mr. Big nodded sagely. "Good thinking, that man."
"It's only to be expected," the Author replied, lying down and using his cloak as a pillow. "After all, I am the Author."
Prologue: Writing of Wrongs
Part 1: For What We Are About to Receive
Chapter I: Editorial Changes
Chapter II: Insert Chapter Title Here
Chapter III: Biohazard
Part 2: Present Imperfect
Chapter IV: Ahead on our Way
Chapter V: On That Day, Five Years Ago...
Chapter VI: Feather in the Wind (reprise)
Part 3: World Travel
Chapter VII: Twelve Good Men on a Dead Man's Chest
Chapter VIII: Music of the Night
Chapter IX: Drawing Inexorably
Part 4: Crossroads
Chapter X: The Trousers of Time
Part 5: Calculus
Chapter XI: Differentiation & Integration
Chapter XII: The Sunrise and I
Chapter XIII: The Best Is Yet To Come
Part 6: Introduction to Destruction
Chapter XIV: Makes No Difference
Chapter XV: Second Impact
Chapter XVI: Judgment Day
Epilogue: Loose Ends
Return to index