Disclaimer: The characters belong to the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, Square Enix etc.
Author's Note: Hello, nice to meet you if I don't know you already. This is Zen speaking! If you're one of my Naruto readers, don't worry, I don't expect you to read this story and I am most certainly not leaving the fandom. I am still working on Dream and Library.
This story idea, however, wasn't leaving me alone and after coming up with a plot plan of around 20 pages I really needed to get some of it down before it drove me mad with distraction. I really do enjoy Final Fantasy VII time-travel fiction ('The Fifth Act' by Sinnatious, and 'When You Wish Upon Materia' and 'Sojourners' by XD I recommend wholeheartedly) and I know there's a lot of it out there, but I wanted to see if I could do it in a way that hasn't been done before.
Without further ado, I'm going to pin down this idea butterfly before it leaves me. I hope you enjoy it! Best, Zen :D
"If - and this is all just conjecture, mind you, conjecture! - if there was a way to make contact with the past, would you?"
It was early evening - a dry, red, dusty early evening. The sky was as red as the dust on his boots. The wind in his ears was bone dry and crickets were singing in the yellow grass.
Cloud brought his motorbike to a stop in the shadow of a juniper and gave the man on his PHS his undivided attention. "What do you mean by, 'Make contact', Reeve?"
"Exactly as it says on the tin. Hypothetically speaking, I might have found a way to communicate with the people of the past and I was wondering if you might like to give it a try."
Cloud gripped the PHS. "You mean, time-travel?"
"No, nothing so drastic as time-travel." Reeve made shooing noises at something beside him, presumably the troop of nursing robots that were trying to administer to his care. "Sending a physical person is a little beyond me, but I think I have found a way to send messages, or large quantities of data, at any rate. We could call them, just like how I am calling you now – "
"Not interested," Cloud said sharply, crushing down the temptation that had rushed instantly up from the darker parts of his mind. He needed to quit while he was still ahead, before he could be talked into something he might regret, before he got himself entangled in another mess that needed him to save the world.
Because he was Cloud Strife, Strife Magnet, and nobody with his name should be allowed within a hundred miles of an experiment mucking around with space and time, so said the part of him that was still unabashedly Zack and the part of him that was Cloud enthusiastically agreed.
" – and I've already tested it on myself."
Cloud started and almost dropped the phone. "What?"
"I had a go at sending myself a message via Cait Sith to fifteen minutes before I sent it. Now I have a very distinct memory of Cait Sith activating and telling me exactly what I read off my script that I wrote fifteen minutes later, but! But! I also have a parallel memory, which is fading even as I speak, where such an incident did not happen at all!"
"Reeve, are you sure that you're alright?" The irony of Cloud, of all people,asking after another person's sanity was not lost to him. If anything it should have sent up a very colorful and pointed warning flag to Reeve that normally the man wouldn't have overlooked.
"I have a terrible headache and almost had a heart attack, but on the whole I feel wonderful!"
Cloud said nothing. Worried cogs turned in his brain.
There was every possibility that Reeve was finally going senile. Fifty six years on since geostigma, it had been a decade since Reeve relinquished his leadership of the WRO, retiring to a small house in Kalmwater – a town built as a commuter suburb for Kalm – where he spent his days inventing gadgets and gizmos that nobody could justify the need for, but somehow sold well anyway.
In Reeve's wake he had left behind a seemingly changed world, although when Cloud asked if he thought the world had changed for the worse or for the better, Reeve never seemed able to reply.
There were new towns – new cities, even. Edge was booming, but it had quickly paled in the rise of Altacorel, the so-called City of Shining Smoke that had blossomed out of North Corel and its coal and oil operations. The switch to hydrocarbon based fuels, however, had been a slow and frustratingly messy process. As much as the new leaders agreed that burning the lifeblood of the Planet was no longer an option, slippery rainbow sheens of oil in paddy fields, tar on tree bark, slicks in estuaries, and banks of thick grey smog rising off the towns made them far from the ideal solution. Some communities even turned bitterly back to the decaying mako reactors on the outskirts of their towns, taking comfort from the old green glow against the dull red of the new age.
On his more whimsical days Cloud wondered if the world had really changed at all.
Once they had burned the souls of the dead for power. Now they were burning the bodies. Rufus Shinra's Earth Energy Initiative had fingers in every vital sector - energy, commodities and communications – and his daughter was looking to expand the company into medical research. There was an eerie familiarity to the new world like the touch of a ghost and just as in a haunted house, the longer he lived with it, the more Cloud had to resist looking over his shoulders.
A new fear had started to gnaw at him. He ignored it as best as he could. He shoved it aside on his deliveries and buried it under rebuilding projects. He pretended to drown it under a placebo effect of sorts in Tifa's bar. He couldn't get drunk, but Cloud theorised that if he believed enough in the power of the alcohol to get him drunk, he could convince his suggestible mind that he really was drunk.
None of his distractions worked. Cloud began waking up in the night. First it was just cold sweats, but then he started finding his hands gripped on his sword, his heart trying to prise apart his ribs, and his ears and eyes would be turned to the door as if he was expecting an intruder to barge in, and after a month of these nights he knew that something was wrong.
Because he was waiting, like a haunted man waiting for the ghost in the house to finally show itself. He was waiting for the moment when somebody in a board room, brought up on stories of men on the knife edge of gods and monsters, dreamed about the power and prestige of Soldier.
'We,' they would say to themselves, comfortable in their office fortresses, 'are different from Shinra. We know not to dabble with the Lifestream. We do not suck upon the blood of the Planet like tics and leeches. If we could resurrect the Soldier research program, imagine all the good we could do for the world.'
The boardroom crowd of Cloud's mind would not to one another, congratulate the innovative idea, then send a man in a suit to knock on Cloud's door, and Cloud would wake with a start and a cry of, 'Don't!' that was never heard.
Who would it be? Cloud often speculated. The WRO Peacekeepers? The EEI Medical Sciences? The Sons and Daughters of Gaia - a commune funded by the Gold and Silver Saucers - perhaps? It was only a matter of time. That thought gave him more comfort than it should have. It was easy to lose touch with time when his own face refused to age a day past twenty and, gradually, one by one, those he could count on to remind him to number the passing hours faded away.
So far as Cloud knew, nobody had died, although Cid had come close, flirting with every single smoking related illness the Planet could throw at him by the time he was seventy and somehow managing to flip his middle finger at all of them.
Cid, Barret, Yuffie and Tifa had all done as humans were supposed to do. They had aged day by day, collecting memories in their skin. Barret had grandchildren who liked to swing off his gun-arm and cram sweets into its barrels. Yuffie had handed the reins of Wutai to a peacetime generation who learned ninjutsu for sport rather than war. Cid was annually pushing the records for 'Oldest Person to Fly' like he was daring time to stop him. Tifa was still working. She ran a dojo as well as her bar now, also in Edge, with the same firm no-nonsense approach that had anchored Cloud time and time again as ever.
He made a point to drop in on all of them, once in a while at least.
Sometimes, Cloud thought that he might be being selfish. He saw time trying to leave him behind and so, there he would be, in Tifa's dojo, refusing to let his friends to leave him behind as well. He would hold onto them, despite how much he knew it hurt to remind them that even though they had saved the world, they were all too human – they aged, they decayed, and they crumbled – and Cloud was all too beyond that.
Perhaps that was why Vincent had left. Vincent had disappeared three years ago, leaving only the proof of purchase of a new phone on Cloud's kitchen table and a bullet from his pistol, his way of saying 'Gone monster-fishing, will eventually come back', but Vincent's grasp of the flow of time was potentially shakier than Cloud's. 'Eventually' had a high chance of being anything between twenty to fifty years.
Nanaki largely kept to himself these days. His species were famously longer-lived than humans, and he made it no secret that he found it perplexing and deeply sad to see his friends undergo what he perceived as 'life sped up'. The others could only console him that they understood what was happening to them and were willing to accept it with what grace they could. The last Cloud had seen of Nanaki was five years ago. He had been trying to impress a female lionwolf who had copper coins jangling in her mane.
And Cloud, here he still was, like a stubborn piece of Nibel granite in a stream, unchanged and unaffected by the rush of time - still delivering, still fighting monsters, still travelling new lands and trying out new things, many that would later make him shake his head and pretend they had never happened.
Any mention of the Gongagan Touch Me Frog-racing incident, for instance, from forty years ago still made Tifa and Yuffie hoot with laughter and Cloud hadn't had the nerve to try the damn sport since. The part of him that was Zack was sorely disappointed. The part of him that was Cloud was still fumbling for his dignity.
In any case, time had passed for those around him. People changed even if the world didn't, and so, Cloud mused sadly, there was every possibility that Reeve's age had got to him at last.
But, of course, wasn't there also the possibility, whispered one of the more treacherous voices swimming under Cloud's thoughts, that Reeve really had experimented with time, dropped himself into a loop of reality and come out with little more than a migraine?
The wind brushed cold against the back of Cloud's neck. He swallowed a ball of spit, felt it stick in his throat and replied after an uneasy pause. "That's good, I guess."
Every regret he had ever wrestled, kicking and screaming, to the back of his mind and locked in a cage pressed hopefully up against the bars.
He looked towards the twisted shadow of Midgar's ruins in the distance, raised his voice to be heard above the wind. "I'm on my way back to Edge, so I'll be with you in half an hour."
Reeve seized on it instantly. "So, would you be willing to try - ?"
"No, Reeve. Absolutely not."
"Don't be like that, Cloud. Humour an aging CEO with nothing better to do in retirement than tinker in his gadget hut!"
Chuckling despite himself, Cloud shook his head. "There tends to be a rule, Reeve, that, if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong once I'm factored into the equation."
"Well, if you're sure, Cloud. I was just curious as to what would happen if somebody with more mako infused in their system tried to use this. Mako is liquid Lifestream after all and there's been a lot of speculation over how closely tied the Lifestream is to us and our perceptions of time and space. I might be able to increase the accuracy of the data stream fire, or be able to upload a higher quantity of data so that we could send visual streams instead of audio, or perhaps simply expand the window of communication time - "
"I'm sorry, Reeve, but I'm really, honestly, not interested." Cloud closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.
If Reeve had asked him the same thing fifty years ago, Cloud might have leapt at the chance, but he liked to think that he had learnt something since. In the years after the geostigma and Aerith's rain, Cloud had tried to come to terms with his past. It had been a long, hard process. Tea had been spilt, tears restrained, punches thrown and far more received, but slowly he had shed his weight of If Onlys and torn his gaze away from the pendulum of What Ifs, and he felt far better for it. The present was tough enough to handle without the past snatching for his attention like a bored chocobo.
The past could only rule Cloud if he let it.
It could only hurt him in the form of an especially vindictive memory that refused to die, stay dead and keep its overly long sword out of Cloud's face.
Cloud had moved on from his regrets and his mistakes. He had accepted what had happened. He may not have entirely forgiven, but he had learnt to live with himself and enjoy the life that he led, however bittersweet and charmed it was beginning to prove. He wouldn't change the course of events even if he could, because forcing time into a different course would destroy all the good things that had happened since the dark days of Shinra and Meteor.
…but wasn't there a chance that all the good things could be destroyed and remade better?
"I'm not interested," Cloud repeated softly. "Absolutely not."
Who was he trying to convince?
In celebration of the new office hot beverages machine, Reeve had cleared a fifteen minute slot in his schedule for a well-earned coffee break.
He was efficient with his work and he doubted that anybody would bat an eyelid at it, so he was feeling somewhat cheerful. With his desk tidied and his PHS switched off, he settled down with cup of coffee in hand to tinker with his new pet project.
He sipped his drink as he typed. It was a miracle. For the first time in all his years at Shinra, the coffee didn't threaten to scour the roof of his mouth on swallowing.
Today was good day. Reeve was almost certain of it and he wasn't an optimistic man in the least. As head of the Department of Urban Infrastructure, there was very little in the grand scheme of Midgar, temple city of Shinra, the toxic cigarette thrust and clamped into the mouth of the Planet, to be optimistic about, but today he was almost willing to give optimism the benefit of the doubt.
Another three keystrokes, and a tap on the Enter key, the coding was finished. Smiling, Reeve sat back in his chair and awarded himself a mental cheesecake, served with real coffee.
The program for Cait Sith's personality interface was complete. Now, it was just trialling and refining to perfection.
"In other words," he swallowed the last of his coffee and grinned at the monitor, "play-time!"
Propped up against his monitor was a black and white toy cat - robotic, if anybody cared to look under the 'bonnet' they would find some very sophisticated wiring. Reeve was rather proud of it. His fingers tingling with excitement, he flipped open a panel on the cat's back, flicked a couple of switches, attached a cable to a port and linked the cat to the computer.
The lights flickered once, twice, and went out with a low twang like a plucked wire. The blue-white glow of the monitor faded, the fan whirred to a stop and the room was left with the dim brown-green light of early evening filtering through the blinds.
Reeve looked down at his hands, still gripping the cable to the port, then back at the darkened screen. He let go of the cable in an instant and sighed.
Just his luck really, he thought ruefully. He crumpled up a sheet of doodles and lobbed it into the bin under his desk, and imagined it to represent his feelings of optimism for the day.
"Just my goddam luck," he decided to say out loud, even though there was nobody to hear it, although since this was the Shinra building there was always the chance that there was a Turk bug was embedded in the walls somewhere.
No sooner had he spoken, the computer and lights sputtered to life again.
The cat lifted its head.
Reeve stared. At first the cat didn't seem to see him. Then it blinked, and straightened against the monitor, dragging its arms across the desk. Slowly, stiffly, the cat turned its head left then right. After a long minute of twisting, it looked up, meeting Reeve's stunned gaze with one of its own.
Reeve swallowed, or at least he tried to. He couldn't find a lick of spit to do it with, because Cait Sith was, of all improbable things, alive, and even more astonishingly than alive, the robot was conscious.
The longer he stared into its eyes the more certain Reeve became. He wasn't imagining it. There was a flicker of something deep within them, something that asked questions, understood answers and from those extracted knowledge that it itself existed. Intelligent awareness, that's what it was, but seeing it suddenly there in Cait Sith's face was like watching candles suddenly flicker in the windows of an empty house.
It was incredible. For a moment, Reeve entertained the wonderfully exciting thought that somehow, somewhere in the programming of Cait Sith's personality he had unintentionally created a true artificial intelligence. One look at the coding on the screen, however, popped that happy thought in an instant. The code streaking backwards and forwards across the page was falling into hundreds and thousands of lines more complex than any coding Reeve had ever seen.
All he could do was stare in fascinated wonder. He let whatever had possessed Cait Sith write itself into existence before his very eyes.
A crackle of white noise burst the silence. Reeve fell out of his chair and as he swore and picked himself up off the floor, a voice sounded out from the speakers in Cait Sith's mouth.
"Er..." it said thickly, as though weighing the sound on its tongue, which seeing as it didn't have one, the macabre thought almost made Reeve smile. "Er…ah…ah...er…"
As it continued to test its voice, Reeve shifted his chair to sit down directly in front of the robot. He cleared his throat. "Hello?"
The awareness wavered.
"Hello?" it echoed him in a young man's voice.
Reeve raised his eyebrows. That wasn't the voice he had programmed into Cait Sith. It was lower and sounded strained and cautious, nothing like the chipper Cait Sith with his lilting accent and cheap brand of salesman cheeriness that would match the fortunes he would be dispensing.
White noise buzzed and the voice crackled. "Did I pass out again?"
"No," Reeve replied carefully, absently wondering what kind of personality this intelligence had been imbued with if that was first thing it said on waking. "But you could say that you've only just woken up."
The awareness paused. "What happened, Reeve? Why have you moved me? Where am I?"
It knew his name. Reeve suppressed a shiver and tried to decipher its oddly phrased questions.
"I don't think we've been introduced yet," he said lightly. Out of habit, he tried a soothing smile. He had no idea if the intelligence could recognise facial expressions, but there was no harm in trying. "I'm Reeve Tuesti, and this is the office in Shinra Corporation where I work, or I usually would work, but I'm on an extended coffee break at the moment. You are inhabiting the body of a robotic cat I built which I like to call Cait Sith."
The cat continued to stare.
Reeve shuffled in his seat. He fished for something that perhaps might engage the awareness in conversation, and eventually blurted, "Do you have a name at all?"
"Reeve, I'm really not the person to find an identity crisis joke funny, so maybe you should stop messing around and quit whilst you're ahead!" it snapped, white noise fizzing between its words. "You know who I am! I'm…"
The voice petered out. A pensive silence swelled between them.
"What's the date today?" it asked, suddenly quiet.
Reeve knew what the date was, but he made a show of checking the calendar on his desk nonetheless, if only for the excuse of breaking eye contact with the cat. "It is Monday, twentieth of August, the year 2000. Why?"
Something in the air between them seemed to stretch taut and tighten.
"Are you sure?" said the cat, and if Reeve wasn't mistaken, there was a barely suppressed tremor running through its words. "Because if this is a joke, it's the worst I've ever heard and I don't care what the others say, when I'm out of here, I will find you - "
"I am telling you the truth," Reeve cut in quickly. A chill ran up his spine like a panicked rabbit. He turned his calendar towards the cat and gestured at the chart. "See - Monday, August the twentieth, the new millennium."
The cat leaned forward and glowered at the calendar. Reeve knew that a calendar alone was hardly convincing evidence. If he had been in the awareness's position he would have suspected the calendar to be a fake, but he had a sneaking feeling that, deep down, whatever had awakened in the robot cat already knew that Reeve wasn't lying. It was simply lashing out to cover up something even deeper down that it couldn't face up to yet.
If the awareness had been human, Reeve would have thought it afraid.
He watched the robot study the calendar and felt a rush of sympathy. In fact, why shouldn't the AI be afraid? It had shown every sign of having remarkably life-like emotional intelligence so far. Perhaps it really was confused and scared, and, in which case, needing of help.
"Are you alright?" he asked, when the robot cat settled back on its haunches and stared off into the distance.
"I – I don't know." It pointed at the blinds covering the windows behind Reeve's desk. "Maybe if you opened those blinds I could…I might be able to work something out."
Reeve was only too happy to oblige. He pulled out a remote control from the top drawer of his desk and pointed it at the blinds. They rose, revealing a wide panel of glass, divided by the smooth gunmetal curve of the Plate's edge in the distance.
Midgar glistened and glinted under the setting sun with mako reactor sweat, hard lights and jutting shards of metal. With the lifting of the blinds, the urban hum of traffic, clanking building works and steady heartbeat of a city filtered into the office. Midgar seethed like a dung heap.
Reeve turned back to the cat, which was flexing its toy paws like a baby straining to make its first fist. He gestured at the view of Midgar. "Does this help in any way?"
It hesitated, gave him a small but brisk nod. "Close them. Close the blinds. Please."
"Alright, alright. I'm closing them right now."
Reeve hurriedly pressed another button and the blinds slid down over the windows with a mechanical whir, muffling the sounds from the outside and cutting off what dim light had been trickling into the room.
The robotic cat slumped against the computer monitor, its eyes dull, although still unmistakably (miraculously) alive. They had simply turned inwards, which thrilled Reeve to an extent he hadn't imagined – not only was this AI potentially emotionally intelligent, it could also introspect.
He was itching to study its coding. Whoever had created this was a genius, a craftsman, a true artisan! A small part of Reeve was bitterly jealous that it hadn't been him.
"You still haven't given me your name," he reminded it and the cat started out of its reverie to look at him with wide, round eyes. "If you don't have a name yet, it's nothing to worry about. I'm sure you'll have one in due course, but perhaps you could tell me who it was that created you?"
White noise sputtered and the robot closed its eyes. "Oh, shit."
That was a puzzling reaction and not the one Reeve had expected. He made a mental note to put a language filter on his eventual Cait Sith model.
"I'm stuck in Cait Sith," the voice went on numbly as if Reeve wasn't there to hear it, "I've been beamed into Cait Sith, in the year 2000. I'm inside a robot toy cat, in the year 2000, and…" It stopped babbling and paused. "I'm not breathing."
"It's alright," Reeve tried to reassure it, partially trying to reassure himself at the same time, because the incredibly human horror in the AI's expression was starting to unnerve him. "It's alright. You are an artificial life-form. You don't need to worry about breathing. Judging by our conversation so far, I believe your creator programmed you to be as life-like as possible. Perhaps that has, unfortunately, led to a very strong delusion that you should be an organic being, but I can tell you quite plainly that you aren't, and that everything you are experiencing is perfectly normal."
"I'm not breathing," the voice repeated, now with an undeniable touch of hysteria. "I don't have a heartbeat. I can't…feel my eyeballs. I don't have any fingers. I…how the heck am I talking without a tongue?"
Goosebumps prickled over Reeves' skin. Everything the AI had said made it sound exactly like a real live young human man trapped inside Cait Sith against his will, but that was impossible. "If you calmed down I'm sure that we could work this out together - "
"I'm a…" the cat twisted to study the screen behind it, at the lines of coding winking down from the monitor, "I'm some kind of computer program…aren't I?"
All reassurances that Reeve had mustered up died on his tongue. "Yes," he said, "although, if it is any consolation, a stunningly life-like one."
So life-like it was almost cruel, he wanted to say, but chose not to. The cat stared down at the keyboard in front of its feet, and, for a moment, looked small and very, very lost.
It burst into laughter. The hairs on the back of Reeve's neck stood on end, and it laughed, laughed and laughed some more, shaking all over from pointed ears to paws, before dropping its voice to a hiss. "What did I say, Reeve? Didn't I say that something would go wrong as soon as you factored me into the equation? Didn't I tell you?!"
Reeve wasn't offended. He was, admittedly, scared to be sharing the room with a highly complex intelligence that he was starting to suspect was a little unstable, but he wasn't offended. Those angry words had been spat out in a fit of furious frustration. The AI wasn't concerned about who heard them, and, despite it mentioning his name, Reeve was almost certain that its anger wasn't meant for him.
"I'm nothing," it said simply, as if by voicing its thoughts it was affirming them, and it chilled Reeves' blood to hear it. "I'm a bunch of zeros and ones. I can't run or fight or breathe goddammit."
"Now, you listen here, young…man. You aren't nothing." Reeve looked into the robot's eyes and hoped that whatever was in there was listening. It seemed to have retreated inwards like an animal backing into its lair. "You are not nothing. You are an intelligence - you have the capacity to exist intelligently. This means that you can act and react. You can do things and cause other things to happen. That isn't nothing. That is an existence." He chanced a small smile when the robot blinked at him. "You are definitely not 'nothing' as you so grimly put it. Besides that, coding is meaningful, which means that you must mean something, and I think you mean something very important."
Something hardened in the robot's gaze and Reeve knew that he had said something wrong, but it was too late to take it all back.
"I can't stay here," the AI muttered, and there was something manic in its tone, the way its eyes darted from side to side. "I can't. I have to get out. I can't stay like this. There has to be a way out!"
"If you stay," Reeve said earnestly, "I will do all I can to help you."
The cat looked at him. It chuckled, shook its head. "You've done enough already."
Reeve opened his mouth to say something, anything, possibly to ask where it even imagined it could go, when he realised that the awareness was fading. It was falling away, withdrawing, sinking down into the depths of the glass beads.
The coding on his screen flashed once, and vanished.
The spark of intelligence winked out from the cat's eyes. The toy slumped over the keyboard and Reeve was alone.
The clock over the doorway ticked. Reeve's coffee break was supposed to have finished twenty minutes ago. It was a miracle that nobody had disturbed him and he thanked whatever god had been looking out for him this time, and then hoped they wouldn't come asking for favours. His coffee had long gone cold, but he drank it anyway. Coffee was still coffee and he could do with a bit of grim cold coffee reality after his experience with that rogue artificial intelligence. His hand, when he picked up the cup, shook.
He wondered where the AI had gone. There had been something fiercely stubborn and defiant in the robot's eyes before it had left Cait Sith's body. He couldn't imagine it self-destructing any time soon, and it would be such a terrible shame if it did. It had been so painfully human - it was a masterpiece of computing science.
And it was precisely because it was so human that the Reeve was dismayed with himself for not having pulled the plug on it when he had had the chance. He might as well as seen a monster-mauled man on the roadside and left him to walk to hospital on his own. That an AI that human could exist was wrong.
In any case, Reeve now had a new headache to contend with. Somebody out there had the expertise and the facility to create that intelligence and, the last he looked, that somebody was not Shinra. If it wasn't a Shinra creation, it was just as likely that the intelligence had been deliberately released as it had escaped from its masters, but for what purpose?
Where was it going to go next?
Reeve reached down to unplug the cable connecting Cait Sith to his Shinra-issued computer when the answer hit him like a truck full of goods from a sledgehammer factory.
Cait Sith had been connected to a Shinra computer, which was in turn connected to the Shinra offices computer network, and from there to the whole Shinra computing mainframe.
A short smart knock at the door. Reeve jumped and crammed Cait Sith into his desk drawer, closing it just before his secretary stepped into the room. "Mr Tuesti?"
Relax, try to look casual, but casual in a business-like way, like you negotiate contracts for train track production over your breakfast toast. Chasing away his thoughts of the mysterious AI, he forced his mouth into a smile. "Yes, Miss Wist?"
"Mr Tseng called."
Reeve picked up his cold coffee, sipped it, set it down. "Did he mention why?"
"He said that he tried to contact you on your PHS, but you had it switched off again." Her eyes roved around Reeve's office. "He wanted a report on any issues that may have arisen in the Department due to the blackout."
"About half an hour ago, Mr Tuesti. It only lasted for a minute or so, but the power went down through the whole Tower."
"Ah, yes, so it did. Have the other departments reported yet?"
"The Science Department had a containment chamber shutdown failure and they have several minor monsters loose on their floor. The others have yet to report. Some members of your department lost data on their projects and experienced computer errors."
Reeve didn't let his eyes drift to his own monitor. That would have been too telling. "I see. Thank you, Miss Wist. I will talk to Tseng as soon as I can."
No skin, no flesh, no mako fire in his blood, or blood at all for that matter. He was thought and memory and nothing more, hung together by electric threads of awareness that were still jumping between moments of screaming clarity and quiet haze and leaving little time or room for him to simply be Cloud in between.
Was he floating? Perhaps not, there was no sense of weight here and without weight it was difficult to feel as though he was defying it, although feeling anything at all should have been out of the question - he didn't have a body to feel with.
It was similar to the times he had been dunked in mako, but whereas then he could still feel the limits of his body from the warm mako smoothness sliding over his skin, this time there was nothing. There was nothing to draw outlines around him and separate him from everything else.
He was at the heart of everywhere and his edges were nowhere.
Perhaps this was what it felt like to be part of the Lifestream, but he knew as soon as he had the thought that it wasn't. The Lifestream was full of souls and chatter, torrents of emotion, bursts of life. Here – here in the space he had escaped into, angry as wildfire and burning through every security program he saw – here there was only him, lonely as a seashell in a desert and it was just as desolate.
Cloud had been to many strange places in his time. He had fought Sephiroth at the core of the world, been to a forest that needed to be awakened by a harp, swum in the Lifestream and wandered inside his own mind. He hadn't thought anything could faze him anymore, but nothing had prepared him for the Shinra mainframe.
There were things around him, things he could perceive and sense, partially as if he could see them, partially as if they were rushing through him – they were all fish, and he was the sea, but at the same time he was in the sea, and he could see the flow of instant messages and e-mails shuttling to and fro between terminals and PHSs, the moments they were sent and received, and the Turk surveillance programs wrapped about each inbox, combing through the messages and scooping them up when enough warnings had been triggered to deliver them directly to a Turk for assessment.
He was fascinated, despite himself, and all in all, it was very effective diversion from the completely justified freak-out Cloud was trying to wrestle down, before it drove him crazy with the need to scream, laugh, cry or pick a fight with a wall without being able to do any of those things even if he wanted to.
The messages moved on around him, silent, unseen and uncaring about his problems. It was soothing, in its own way. With nobody beside him to care or look as concerned or pitying as Reeve had, Cloud's predicament didn't seem so bad. It allowed him to collect his thoughts together and settle them into place.
He thought he had handled waking up to the past pretty well, given that he had been streamed back to a year he barely remembered in any useful detail.
Into Cait Sith's yet-to-be-animated body.
To be confronted by a Reeve minus dentures and sixty years and a Midgar that had yet to be pounded into the earth by a meteorite.
On second thoughts, perhaps Cloud hadn't handled that as well as he could have. It was obvious now that he should have stayed in Cait Sith. He had fled from the robot in a fit of panic, claustrophobia and sheer shock at the inherent weirdness of the situation, but now that he had time to think about it, if he had stayed he would have had mouth to speak from, a moving body, and eventually Reeve would have found him a moogle to ride. Then he would have been free to go - Cloud Sith the Moogle-riding Time Traveller! It had a ring to it, of sorts.
Something strange drifted into his consciousness amongst the shoals of messages.
A very swift e-mail exchange was occurring between two particular inboxes and the e-mails were sliding through the Turk surveillance nets as if the e-mails were ghosts to the system. They had been cloaked in some way, disguised perhaps. Cloud wasn't sure. He had never known much about computers, but what he did know was that when others didn't want his nose in their business, that was precisely when his nose needed to be in their business.
He shifted his awareness towards the e-mail exchange to study it more closely.
The messages were being passed between a terminal on the Soldier floor and a laptop connected to the wireless network in a laboratory of the Science Department.
If he still had eyes, Cloud would have narrowed them.
Once in a while he wished that he was a decent enough of a person that after sixty years he no longer held grudges against certain people, departments, or companies, that had been, quite literally under Meteor, long ground into dust, but he was fooling no one, least of all himself.
Whatever dark feeling it was that he held towards the Science Department, and Soldier for allowing the Science Department to thrive in the way it had, he had spent fifty six years trying to bury down deep along with his regrets and seal over in new memories, fresh experiences, and better things from the future.
But here he was in the year 2000, before everything had begun, seated in the centre of Shinra building's computer network, without any real capacity to feel anger or pain or happiness except remembering the memories of those feelings, because that was all he was - a cloud of memories, perhaps even a Cloud of memories, and those grudges and regrets were embedded as bitterly in his memories as bullets he had failed to dig out from his wounds.
Unseen by the Turk surveillance and the participants, Cloud reached into the e-mail exchange and opened up the conversation. To his utter vengeful delight, he could see everything – the e-mails already written and the e-mail in reply the man in the Science Department was typing right then on his laptop.
And so Doctor Hollander and Director Lazard unwittingly found themselves with an invisible audience.
To: L Deusericus
On testing samples of activated cellular matter from First Class Genesis Rhapsodos, I can confirm my previous speculation. His DNA has manifested an ability to hijack that of another organism and rewrite its sequences as identical to his own. Using Genesis's cells and full grown human specimens, we could produce a line of mature clones that not only retain the physical strength and characteristics of the First Class Soldier, but also his fighting abilities. There are also promising results that suggest Genesis would be able to control these clones in much the manner of a hive mind.
Would this not be suitable for the small fighting force you said would be necessary to deal with Soldier in the event of your seizing the company Presidency?
Doctor Greyson Hollander, Science Department
The name Genesis struck a curious bell in Cloud's memories. He remembered a newspaper clipping in the months before he had left for Midgar, something about a desertion in Wutai and taking a whole unit of Soldiers along with him. He had been declared missing or killed not long after. At the same time, Cloud also recalled a suddenly empty Soldier lounge, long days packed with missions as those who remained scrabbled to fill in for the missing, and the wild face of a red haired man as he crashed, burned and dragged down all those who were close to him. These had to be Zack's memories, which meant that somewhere in the Shinra Tower of year 2000, Zack Fair was a Soldier, pursuing his dream of becoming a hero and very much alive.
It would have been a nice thought if only Cloud had been in any position to physically do something, instead of lurking amongst the Shinra e-mails.
A new e-mail was sent out from the terminal in the Soldier Department. Cloud plucked it from the message flow.
To: G Hollander
Genesis will only be useful if you can ensure his full cooperation and absolute loyalty to our cause. From what I can see of Genesis's service records, he has a tendency for insubordination and rash stunts. I would be cautious in expecting consistent good behaviour from him, and ideally I would rather we didn't have any more than one of him in existence.
You mention that this cloning ability has arisen parallel to a degeneration at a cellular level which you term 'degradation' and suggest it to be a mutation caused by the First Class Level mako exposure. Might there perhaps be a chance of First Class Angeal Hewley's or First Class Sephiroth's cells producing a similar effect?
Lazard Deusericus, Director of Soldier
Typical of Shinra. First Class Genesis was suffering from a mako-related illness and they hadn't spared a single a word of concern for his health or well-being, despite the Soldier being one of their elites. It was all cold calculation as to how his mutation could be used to this Lazard or Hollander guy's advantage. It was sickening but unsurprisingly ruthless.
To: L Deusericus
In response to your question about Angeal, I have yet to obtain a recent enough cell sample from him to test for these effects. Sephiroth, however, we have confirmation that he does not present this cloning ability and likely never will.
I believe Genesis's loyalty can be easily secured. I raised the possibility of searching for a cure to his condition and I have never seen the man more attentive to what I was saying. I know Genesis well. He dislikes weakness, especially anything that reminds him that he is just as human – or less human, perhaps in his case - as the rest of us, and I think this degradation may affect him in such a way to make him susceptible to our offer.
Doctor Greyson Hollander, Science Department
To: G Hollander
Do you think an offer of a cure will be enough in return for Genesis's cooperation? Who else knows about Genesis's condition?
Lazard Deusericus, Director of Soldier
To: L Deusericus
Genesis is a selfish brute and always has been. He knows that the only alternative he has to a proffered cure is a slow humiliating death off the battlefield under the eyes of all his peers. I'm sure he will accept and he won't challenge your claim to the Presidency, so long as his own interests aren't interfered with.
The trick would be to sustain his hope for a cure long enough for the fight against Shinra. I have no doubt that he will desert our cause, and possibly betray us, as soon as we find him a cure. I can arrange for realistic setbacks to occur in the process and stall the research. In all honesty, however, it would be much more convenient if he could die towards the end of our venture. That way, we would not have to deal with him along with the inevitable takeover fallout. I might not be able to feasibly find a cure, but I'm sure I can keep him alive and mobile until we no longer need his clones.
As for who knows about Genesis's condition, at the current it is only me, you, and Genesis. He came directly to my laboratory after the accident. First Class Sephiroth and Angeal, who were sparring with him in the VR room, do not know that his injury has persisted.
I have told Genesis to rest and avoid others finding out about the degradation (to stall panic amongst the Soldiers - they might start thinking it could happen to them after long term mako exposure) and have received reports from catering that all meals had been delivered up to his living quarters since.
Doctor Greyson Hollander, Science Department
Anger, or the memory of it, rippled through Cloud, and even if it was just a memory it was intense enough to almost qualify as the real thing. Cloud didn't know this Genesis. Zack hadn't known him beyond being his mentor's oldest friend, and a dangerous man to cross both in a good mood (expect a spontaneous poetry recital) and bad (expect a spontaneous poetry recital whilst his rapier traced pretty red lines on your throat), but he still felt a deep dark rage swirl up inside him like a storm.
This man Genesis was wounded, sick and dying, and apparently isolated; Lazard and Hollander (both of the names were familiar, but the faces that went with them were hazy) were plotting to use him for their own ends, targeting him whilst he was emotionally, physically and mentally the most vulnerable he had ever been. Hollander didn't even sound in any particular hurry to find a cure for Genesis at all.
Cloud flicked through the earlier e-mails in the exchange. The more he read, the more his conviction grew.
Nobody, especially a dying man, should have their weaknesses used against them, to turn them into a puppet for another man's purpose.
But what could he possibly do about it? So he could see all the e-mails and spot the ones that were trouble – when it came to doing anything about them, he was stuck as smoke in a bottle.
He watched Hollander slowly type a new message, delete a whole paragraph and restart it, and an idea occurred to him that he decided to try the instant Hollander sent out his e-mail.
A stubby thumb on an Enter key later, the e-mail was sent. Cloud snatched it out of the message currents and nudged it open.
To: L Deusericus
Watching Hollander had allowed Cloud to see with his new perceptions of data and code exactly how the keyboard input translated into letters. He focused on the e-mail, tried to recall how the inscription of each letter had felt in this weird new world and mimicked it, and, to his surprise and delight, the e-mail changed.
To: L Deusericus
Cc.: G Rhapsodos
Subject : (none)
Cloud released the e-mail back into the current and with a grim feeling of satisfaction watched it split into two – one copy flew on to Lazard's address, the other drifted out towards the inbox of a certain Soldier First.
The PHS vibrated next to the medicine box. Genesis paused in probing the wound in his shoulder and picked up the phone.
It was a call from Angeal, the sixth this evening.
Angeal's behaviour was a curiosity of contradictions. He wasn't going to visit in person because he thought he was respecting Genesis's wish of getting some rest, but he called so often it was a wonder how he imagined Genesis could rest at all with his incessant ringing.
He sighed, set the phone down by the box with a smart click, and breathing slowly down his nose, returned to examining the strange, ragged-edged wound in his shoulder.
He prodded at it with a pair of tweezers. It looked no better in the light of his bathroom than it had in Hollander's laboratory. At least it had stopped oozing, but the way the blood had congealed in the centre of the gash reminded him of days' old bodies.
He wrinkled his nose. The flesh around the wound was hard, like a soap bar.
Was there such a thing as localised rigor mortis on a living body?
Genesis pressed the tweezers against the skin, almost hoping it would hurt, but the wound defied all reason and science once again. He couldn't feel the tweezers, couldn't feel their sharp edges, the cool metal, or the pain that ought to have flared under their touch.
Hollander had told him not to aggravate it. Genesis had scoffed at him. After all, you could hardly aggravate something that was already dead.
A low hum. His PHS buzzed on the tiles.
He was half-tempted to throw the irritating device through the wall. There was a small chance that it would collide with the head of some poor fool sent to deliver something and shear off the top of his skull. Then they could cast call the Cures over the victim they liked. The secretary, cleaner, trooper on an errand would be irreparable, his 'wound' untreatable, and then Genesis could imagine, for one blissful moment, that it wasn't his body failing him at all, but the limits of human medicines.
He frowned and shook his head. He regretted it when his head swam, but the thin red veil that he had hardly noticed creeping over his mind dissipated like mist and it made him feel a little more balanced, if not entirely clear-minded.
What was wrong with him? He had standards, believe it or not. Phones just weren't worth throwing through anything. They broke too easily. The shape of the hole they left in the wall was as unimaginative and aesthetically interesting as a brick, and the gods forbid if any member of his fan club stumbled across his PHS in the hallway whilst - very often she, but there was plenty of ardent hes - was on stalking duty.
The PHS blinked up at him with its little green light.
"The wandering soul knows no rest," Genesis muttered, setting down the tweezers and picking up the phone again.
It was an e-mail this time. Perhaps Angeal had finally cottoned on that Genesis wasn't in any mood to talk right then, but when he flipped open the phone and checked the sender he found that it wasn't Angeal at all.
He frowned on seeing Hollander's name. There was no subject, but since Lazard had also received the e-mail, Genesis could guess what the contents would be. Possibly some sort of recommendation that Genesis be kept off missions' roster until they could find out why he wasn't goddam healing.
He clenched his teeth and tapped the phone against his forehead. The thought made Genesis want to burn something, preferably something alive with explosive gases in its veins, something that would burn well and viciously enough to fit his mood.
On that pleasant thought, he opened the e-mail.
A little later, Genesis snapped the PHS in his grip and swept out of his room on a quest for a new one.
Cloud saw a message arrive in Hollander's and Lazard's inboxes and couldn't resist a crooked inward smile.
To: G Hollander
Cc.: L Deusericus
Subject: Did you really intend to sic me into this?
Doctor Hollander, Director Lazard,
If either of you think that I am going to rely on the Doctor to develop a cure for me after reading this, you are gravely mistaken. I see now that you were attempting to manipulate me on the back of a false hope. If this is the best I can expect from Shinra, I would rather look for a cure myself and I would probably have better luck doing so.
Since the participants in this scheme were incompetent enough to, unintentionally I assume, sic me into what was obviously a private conversation, I can only think that whatever you plan is doomed to fail. I will have no part in it.
I would also like to speak on behalf of my cell samples in Professor Hollander's possession. You will not use them in this scheme. You can get your proposed 'clone army' from somewhere else – perhaps your lab assistants and junior scientists, Hollander, they all already look and sound and think the same. I doubt it would be much of a leap.
If you try to use Angeal or Sephiroth for your plans instead, I will see that a transcript of these e-mails finds its way to the top of Veld's in-tray and President Shinra's morning papers. You can be assured of my silence if you can prove to me that my colleagues (and their cells) will not be involved in your plans.
The arrow has left the bow of the goddess. Where shall it hit?
Genesis Rhapsodos, Soldier First Class
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