See My World Below

It was sunrise in Central City, and Noel couldn't force himself to go back to sleep.

He was in his room at the Brandywine Inn, sprawled on a hard, uncomfortable bed with scratchy sheets. His robe was bunched up uncomfortably under his back and his head was aching for no good reason at all, and he was distressingly wide awake. It was a shame - normally he loved getting up at the first light of dawn, but he was usually out in the woods. It just wasn't the same in the big city.

He'd arrived late last night, and had been half-asleep by the time he'd arrived at the city and stumbled in to rent a room. He had only been vaguely aware of what was happening around him. He barely remembered a bored, surly night clerk, a lethargic bartender, or the antsy crowd of drinkers at the bar that had given him some odd looks. He did remember that he'd seen two absolutely adorable puppies in the city, though; they'd been locked up in a pen just in front of the inn. That fact did at least make him feel a little more at home, although he really couldn't help but feel sorry for them. It must've been really hard, being penned up in a city like that one. Noel knew that he wouldn't have been able to stand it for long himself.

He didn't even know why he was there. True, Narl had called him, but that wasn't so much a reason as an excuse; he could've just sent him the information he'd needed. The Mayor probably wanted to ask him about the odd behavior that the planet's animals were displaying lately. The mass extintctions, the drastic changes in migrations... the overall strangeness in observed animal behavior, even in the crossbred, cloned specimens. It was happening all over Energy Nede, as if the animals were growing restless and losing hope.

Noel felt that way too, and it disturbed him. The feeling was oppressive, almost painful, and he couldn't even begin to explain it to anyone else. It was instinct, something that most Nedians had abandoned and forgotten long ago. Even Narl barely understood it. Not that Noel himself really wanted to make any attempt to understand; instinct was best left unanalyzed, observed only by recesses of the primitive mind.

What it was telling him wasn't really a surprise. Get away from here, it said. Something's going to happen. If you don't run away, you'll die.

Considering that here seemed to be the planet itself, there wasn't much that he could do. There were no ships on Nede, nothing that could pass through the energy barrier. They were all trapped in a prison of their own design, and everyone knew it, including the animals. But instincts could be too strong to ignore sometimes.

He wanted nothing better than to run away and hide, but there was nowhere to hide. He felt safe enough at the Preserve, but even that was a temporary sort of safety, and he knew very well that it wouldn't last. Sooner or later this instinctive sense of danger would come to his home, and he'd be lost. Worse than lost - he'd be helpless again, and he'd have to watch everything happen without being able to do a thing about it.

That was what he was most afraid of, not so much just losing it all, but not even being able to fight for it. He wasn't strong, and he wasn't a fighter. Just a Nedian, even if he happened to be a little bit... different.

He sat up and heaved a big sigh. He couldn't get back to sleep; the sun had risen. Dim as it was, it was bright enough that he knew it was daylight, and that was enough to keep him awake. In very many ways, he reflected as he sat up and stretched, he was a slave to instinct; all the reason in the world couldn't let him sleep in, unless he somehow blocked the windows completely. There were no logical arguments that could make him forget the vague sense of impending doom that had settled over him like a dark cloud.

He dressed quickly, pulling on his khaki hiking outfit and tall boots, and walked out of his room. He hadn't really had a destination in mind at first; he'd thought about getting some breakfast, but instead of heading down to the restuarant, he found himself climbing the stairs to the rooftop observation deck. More instinct, or maybe just simple habit; he liked to watch the sun rise in the morning, although he'd already missed the best part.

The deck was empty as he stepped onto the roof. He was grateful for that; he really didn't feel like making small talk at the moment. He took a deep breath of the city air - it smelled depressingly stale, even more so than anywhere else on Energy Nede thanks to the constant filtering that they had to do to keep pollution in check - and walked out to take a look around. The weather was perfectly controlled, as usual - it was clear and cool, with a beautifully simulated sunrise. The fact that it was the same sunrise as always did dampen his enthusiasm, but at least he hadn't seen it from that perspective for a while. The inn was high enough to offer a good view of both the city and the surrounding countryside, so he couldn't complain about that.

Noel walked out to the edge of the roof. Pushing himself up onto the rim, he sat, his legs dangling down into thin, recycled air. His sense of balance was good, and he wasn't afraid of falling in the slightest. He looked down on his world. There was the city, of course, black and grey and, well, frankly ugly to him. Beyond that there was bright green grass and a few forested patches, surrounding the road that ran to North City.

From there the trees looked lush and healthy, although he knew better than to think that they actually were. He'd explored all of those forests; he had touched the trees and felt the strangeness in them, lukewarm and oddly lifeless.

And small wonder. He knew that every single one of those trees had been created by the careful manipulation of cultured plant cells, artificially replicated and held together by Crests that were carefully burned onto their cell walls. They weren't real; they were manufactured as much as the rest of their planet had been. He'd watched starving animals dive for food, only to discover that their prey was nearly as emaciated as they were; those half-real plants simply couldn't provide enough nutrition to support even the thinnest, shortest food chain, and everyone knew it. And no one else really gave a damn, as long as they could continue to use their precious technology to grow the few animals that they needed.

It simply wasn't right. Nature needed evolution; species needed to grow and change, to find new challenges to adapt to. If things continued as they were, there wouldn't be anything left for Noel to study. Stagnation led to extinction; there was no other alternative. But then again, he couldn't really say that it wasn't already dead in all but name. This practice of creating a false face on their planet and then assigning people to study it as if nothing had happened was disgustingly hypocritical.

It was ironic, he thought, that he was the only one who was capable of coming to those insights, largely thanks to instincts that most Nedians would've scoffed at. But it was part of who he was. He couldn't accept that this world was all that there should ever be.

Still... he'd fought for something different once, hadn't he? And it had been the most foolish mistake of his short, dull life. He didn't believe that the Wise Men had ever been right, of course, but he hadn't really cared. He'd been young, and stupid, and the world had already started killing him inside. When he'd heard that man's voice, he'd thought it was the answer to all of his prayers. He'd wanted nothing more than to show the Nedians the damage that their neglected wildlife could do.

It had all ended quickly, though. They'd stopped him, changed him, made the voices stop... he was still amazed that the Mayor had done all of that for him, given him a second chance. He was a wise man, Noel supposed. Instead of destroying someone with an unusual ability, he made use of it.

But not any great deal of use. And it wasn't enough - he hated to be so selfish, but what could he do? This world was killing him inside; he could feel the emptiness, as he sat in Central City and listened to unnatural silence. He couldn't tolerate living in the cities, he had to be out in what was left of nature, surrounded by the cries of birds and the gentle sounds of wind rustling in the leaves...

But even then it's wrong. The whole planet is a machine, held together with Crests. And nature's just a half-artificial afterthought - a mockery added to satisfy someone's nostalgic yearnings. It doesn't mean anything to anyone but me.

It sounded harsh, but it was true. Nede had been built for the sapient life of their planet, and no one would deny it. Little or no thought had been made for the plants and animals, beyond what would be needed to sustain the Nedians. They hadn't wanted to resort to artificially creating all of the food and other necessities that a population that size would need; the energy required would've been insane.

So they'd cobbled the place together from bits and pieces of other planets, bringing what they'd expected to need and recreating the rest with complicated Heraldry that would never come close to conveying the warmth of one real tree. It drove him crazy, being the one creature on that planet that could feel just how cold and dead the planet really was, and not being able to convince anyone else that this kind of existence was unbearable.

He'd probably never leave Nede; he'd been born there, it was his world. He'd die with it, if it came to that. But more than anything, he wanted to find someone else who understood how important these things were to him. He wanted to find someone who cared, who understood his sadness over what Nede had become.

Why do I bother? I think that nature could die out completely and no one here would care. I just do it because I have to... because it makes me feel better.

He laughed, but only briefly; anyone listening in would've barely noticed. Noel didn't laugh or cry often; his fixed smile was ready to give way to a flat, unaffected expression at any moment. He simply didn't feel like he knew that he should. But when he was surrounded by a dying ecosystem, when he was the only one who could feel it wasting away or who even cared for longer than a moment at a time... how could he feel anything when he was already half-dead inside?

He had never shed more than one or two tears at a time. Almost everyone who knew him thought he was cold and flat, maybe depressed. It wasn't really that, though, at least that's what he told himself... he was just... a little bit out of place. Narl had been telling them for years that Nede was destined to die, that it would probably come sometime soon. He almost wanted it to happen...

But how could he say things like that? This was his world, the only world he'd ever know. Besides, if it was destroyed, so many people would die with it, and so would the few friends that Noel had left.

Why am I here? he suddenly asked himself, forcing his mind back into rational thought. I shouldn't have come back. This place is too quiet. It makes me think too much. Sighing deeply, he pushed himself back from the precipice. If there was any place that Noel could claim to hate, it was Central City.

He pushed himself backwards, off of the railing... it would've been just as easy, part of him thought, to go the other way. It wasn't really a suicidal thought, since he really had no desire to do such a thing. Part of it was a simple observation; the rest was another condemnation. It was too easy because the city made it too easy.

It's almost time for my appointment with Narl, anyway, he thought. Maybe if I go now, he'll let me get out of here early. That would be nice, at least. It was a good idea; he'd leave right away. He was already dressed, and really, he didn't see any need to prepare himself. He was pretty sure that he could give Narl any details he needed from memory. And he didn't feel any need to impress him, or anyone else. As long as they left him alone and let him do his job, he didn't really care what they thought of him.

He moved quietly down the stairs, not meeting any of the other guests. The man at the desk looked up from some old pulp paperback as he passed; Noel greeted him with a nod, and that was about it. The man nodded back and went back to his book. It was the lengthiest social interaction he'd had with anyone since he'd first arrived at the city, really, if you didn't count actually renting the room.

He walked out of the inn, and was pleased to see that one of the puppies was already outside, frolicking as best it could in the small enclosure. As soon as it saw him it started barking, and ran to plant its paws on the metal bars of his pen. Its shaggy tail wagged hard enough to shake its entire body - no, his entire body, Noel decided after slightly closer inspection. He seemed to want nothing in the world more than to jump out of its enclosure and follow Noel back home.

He smiled wistfully, and reached out to scratch its furry neck. "Good boy," he murmured gently. The dog yipped in response, and tried its best to lick Noel's hand and jump out of its pen at the same time. "I'd take you home if I could," he continued. "But you've got to stay here, ok? If you don't, I'm sure that someone here is going to miss you very much."

The puppy whimpered as he backed away. Noel was sure that the cute little guy understood what he'd been told, somehow. Dogs usually did. It made him feel a little bit better, knowing that there was some kind of life left in this city besides the constant, noisy mass of people. Yes, he definitely would have to see if Narl would see him a bit early. The sooner he could go back to his Preserve, the better off he'd be. It might just be a comfortable lie, but at least it was better than the painful ones. And as for the truth... well, he doubted that he was brave enough to ever face that.

He turned and walked off to find City Hall, absently humming to himself.


A/N: Character study, rather plotless as you can see. I wanted to try to work out a few of the more inexplicable details that you learn about Noel in the game and this was the result. The fic was inspired by lyrics from Collective Soul, "The World I Know." They fit the character extraordinarily well, I think.