11-Dual Trigger Extra: Apologia
By Chronic Guardian
Author's Note: Written for Twelve Shots of Summer: Trinity Limit [week 11:For the Ones Who Couldn't Make It/Gardening]. For taerkitty, who made me understand the tactful use of heartache.
Claes thought it was funny: for all the advancement mankind had been doing in the last few decades, all it took was one little incident to shatter the illusion of control. The Padania movement in Northern Italy was one example, but for her purposes in the moment the weather was a more fitting illustration. In an age where scientists could construct a biomechanical body and rewrite the basic behaviors and memories of a person it was amusing that a storm could take them by surprise.
And yet here they were.
It wasn't one of those storms that had been predicted and tracked for the last few days; Claes had only seen the clouds rolling in because she'd been trying to paint a landscape earlier. That was the problem with these things: everything seemed to be going normally until it wasn't. This was one of those rare winter squalls aiming to disrupt the otherwise temperate Lazio climate. Frankly, she wouldn't care if she wasn't raising a few biennials in her garden. As things were, though, she decided it was best to add a layer of protection to the caraway to compensate for shallow roots. It would be a shame to lose her work to a cold shock; losing the crop now would mean she'd have to wait another two years before she got to try the blooms.
The wind was already biting cold when she stepped outside and by the time she arrived at her gardening shed the first flakes were falling. Claes merely set her lip and grabbed a few translucent tarps. She would also need something to prop them up, but she was quickly running out of both time and hands for that.
She'd just found some old tomato cages when someone interrupted her. "Um, Claes?"
Claes threw a look over her shoulder. Terra, one of the more reclusive cyborgs stood a respectful distance away, hands behind her back.
"Do you… have a minute?"
Claes turned her attention back to gathering supplies and pushed an armload of tarps towards the door. "Help me out with this," she told the other girl. "Then we'll talk."
"Ah!" Although she wasn't looking, Claes could bet with reasonable certainty that Terra's face had just flushed. The girl was shy and sensitive, even more than Henrietta. There was a brief pause before Claes heard the rustle of the tarps being gathered up. "R-right!"
Loading up on her own cargo of tomato cages, Claes left the shed and set off for her garden with Terra in tow.
It was really coming down by the time they finished their work. There was one extra tarp left over and they used it as a shield to cover their retreat back to the campus dorms. Once there, Claes gave Terra an invitation to tea. She'd actually been looking forward to reading, but if Terra didn't get her promised reward she'd probably just mope outside the door. Everyone else was out on missions trying to track down the missing elements of the de Sica Fratello so it was just the two of them in the dorms. Claes didn't see herself as a particularly sympathetic listener, but if Terra was really that preoccupied it was probably best to just get it out of the way.
They met again after changing into dry clothes. Claes served a licorice tea, biting and sweet. No one else really cared for it so Claes was taking this opportunity to indulge in the flavor.
"So…" Claes said, sitting down across from Terra. She tried to think of what Triela might say in this situation. Claes understood the psychological importance of confidance, but she wasn't used to initiating it. Frankly, she also didn't get why Terra wasn't bringing this up with Dr. Bianchi, the resident psych expert. To be fair, Terra tended to tick to a different metronome so even in the complex web of cyborg thought processes she was still kind of a unique snowflake. That didn't stop Claes from asking the obvious question between them though. It was probably as good a starting place as any. "Why do you need to talk to me?"
"Oh, well," Terra fidgeted and looked away. "I… I did something when we were out on our last—"
"I meant, 'why me'?" Claes sighed, adjusting her glasses. "Why not your handler or Bianchi?"
Terra's shoulders hunched and her face flushed. "Oh! I… Um… well, Claes?"
Claes eased her cheek down to rest on her hand. If this kept up, maybe Triela would come home and relieve her before Terra stammered her way through some semblance of a preamble.
"I… I think I did something I wasn't supposed to."
Claes paused. It was at least something substantial she could start with. Terra was probably referring to Agency policy, but it wasn't outside the realm of possibility that she'd done something without—or even against—her handler's consent.
"All right…" Claes nodded as she processed the deduction. "And?"
"I don't know if Cyan will get in trouble for it," Terra went on. Claes watched as the girl's eyes wandered around the room, finally settling on Triela's teddy bear collection. "If I tell him, he has to tell. And you know it's Bianchi's job to figure out if there's something wrong with us."
The situation was increasingly sounding like something she wasn't qualified to deal with. Claes lifted her head and casually folded her hands as she prepared to give Terra fair warning. Putting on a slight frown, she asked, "So what makes you think I won't tell?"
"Well… I don't think they would ask you," Terra explained as a grimace flickered over her face. "It's not your job, and usually people don't talk to you about stuff like this."
"They'll know we talked," Claes pointed out calmly. "The campus surveillance cameras saw you come in here. If they suspect something, they won't ignore me as a resource. And if they ask—"
"That's why I've got to talk about it now," Terra cut in. She immediately looked down and pressed her lips together. "...Please? I-I just want to talk. I need to get this out before I do something to make them suspicious."
Claes didn't particularly care for the way this conversation was going. In general, she had trouble being sympathetic on emotional matters. Suck it up, she wanted to say. Just go tell Bianchi. She didn't have time to play accomplice in coddling Terra.
"Please," Terra pleaded, meeting Claes' serene gaze with an effort. "I won't blame you if you tell them."
"Don't be stupid," Claes sighed. "If this is really that important and they find out you told me instead of them you'll be reconditioned."
Terra stopped to take a deep breath. Claes thought that was an an extremely collected reaction, all things considered. Reconditioning was the sort of thing cyborgs knew they didn't want and knew they couldn't fight. It wiped away memories, made you go through training again, and, in a worst case scenario, left you unfit for service. Claes knew she'd been reconditioned once before. The staff tried not to talk about it, but she understood that this wasn't her first life as a cyborg. She hadn't been born a test-subject; military cyborgs were too expensive to waste on that. No, they were making the best of a mistake. The problem was, Claes never knew if the mistake was her fault or not.
And then here was Terra, getting ready to send herself into reconditioning all because she couldn't just play by the rules and do what she was supposed to. A thought began gnawing at the back of Claes' mind: maybe she was jealous. Maybe she hated Terra for treating her functional life so carelessly.
Maybe she was stopping Terra from doing the same thing that made them recondition her.
"It's okay," Terra said at last. "They reconditioned me once already. I… I don't think it worked the way they wanted it to."
Claes popped an eyebrow. "So you're seeing how far you can push them?" How childish...
Instead of denying the assertion, Terra just leaned back and squared her shoulders. "I don't want to drag anyone down with me. Even if they do find out we talked, we can say you didn't mean to. Even if you tell on me, it'll be better than Cyan or Bianchi having to do it."
"And why is that?"
"Because you don't care," Terra said simply. Claes froze. "It hurts them. It's their job, I know, and they're grown ups, but… if they knew what I did then I think it would hurt them to say I have to be reconditioned for it. If you tell on me, maybe I won't have to do that to them."
Claes just stared for a moment. Terra didn't mean it as an insult, she meant it as a statement of fact. Claes could respect that, but she didn't particularly expect it from a cyborg. There were still logical holes here and there that Claes just knew would come back to bite them, but Terra seemed prepared for that. What it really boiled down to was that Claes had two choices: either throw Terra out now and get a lecture from Triela about it later, or just sit and listen for a while and be ready to tell the doctors during her next check-up. Shaking her head, Claes decided she would risk the second.
"All right…" Claes breathed a sigh and recentered her focus on Terra. "Tell me, what happened."
Terra's anxiety melted into shaky relief and she tried to form a smile in gratitude. Claes gave a slight frown. That was enough to make the other girl duck in apology and actually get to the point this time.
"Okay," Terra said slowly. "I guess the really important part is just… there was someone I think I should've killed."
Terra gave a sad smile. "Not exactly..."
Terra breathed hard. The gun in her hand was warm. The blood on her back was getting cold. It wasn't her blood. She'd been carrying a corpse, someone to lay the blame on. He'd been a Padania supporter. Now he was dead.
So was the man he'd been protecting. That man was Terra's target. She didn't understand why—she didn't need to know why. She made sure to fire before the questions could make it out. The conditioning was supposed to stop them, but her conditioning was broken in places. The doctors said it was the magitek. Terra only knew that it hurt.
The sound of a door opening drew her attention and she snapped into a combat pose. Someone gasped as Terra aligned her sights on them, taking the briefest of moments to identify whether or not they were Agency backup staff. They weren't. It was a woman, probably a civilian, probably linked to the target. Terra let her instincts kick in and fire.
The woman toppled backwards and fell crying. Terra tried to fire again to silence her. It was strange, she could have sworn she'd seen a bullet go through the woman's throat. There shouldn't be any sound now, even if she had survived.
Then Terra realized it wasn't a woman's cry, it was a baby's.
"A baby..." Claes echoed.
"I… I couldn't do it," Terra said. "Part of me knew I had to kill it. That's what the conditioning says: kill anything that sees you on assignment, anything connected to the target. I knew if I was just making a future enemy, really, I did. But something… well… someone else stopped me."
"No," Terra looked away and paused for a moment as if thinking about how to say the next part. "...Claes, have you ever felt like there's someone else hiding in your head? Like… there's someone this body used to belong to that the conditioning tried to paint over?"
Claes leaned forward to rest her chin on her interlocked fingers. "That's called schizophrenia." She decided against relating herself to the subject. Some doors were meant to stay closed.
"...I had my fingers around its neck. When I couldn't shoot, I thought she'd at least let me end it that way."
"But you didn't."
"So what did you do?"
"I listened to the other girl."
Terra forced herself to a stand as she held the infant to her chest. It was still crying. It would give her away. She would walk outside with blood on her clothes and someone would shoot her through the eye before she had a chance to draw. She was terrified. This was a horrible idea.
And yet, her arms were frozen. She cradled the baby like she would cradle a rifle.
Don't worry, this will work.
She grimaced and shook her head. This was crazy. She'd left her handgun with the dead bodyguard. The bullets in the target would match its barrel's bore. All the loose ends were tied up except for the tiny life in her hands that she somehow couldn't end despite how fragile it was. She could feel its ribcage heaving. If she contracted her arms a little further, she would crush its lungs. But she didn't. She couldn't. Something was stopping her.
She heard movement outside, the sound of boots clacking down the street. Cyan was watching the getaway car to make sure the target didn't escape, he couldn't help her unless she called. If she called, he would know she'd left someone alive. No, she shook her head to herself, she couldn't call. She had to get out of here on her own.
Forcing herself out of her trance, Terra moved her legs and took shaky steps down the stairs. She tried to remember the layout of the house, to picture where the windows and doors were. A sound made her stop. Someone was knocking at the front. Footsteps were pounding to the other sides of the house.
The ground floor wasn't an option anymore, she'd have to jump.
Terra reversed direction and started moving up the stairs as the front door barked and came off its hinges. "Stop!" someone yelled. The words were followed by a gunshot. Terra felt it pierce the back of her right calf. It only hurt for an instant. She kept moving.
She looked out the window. There was another house close by. It probably had people it. If she went that way, she would have to kill them. It doesn't matter, she told herself. You can't stay here. You have to jump.
She nodded grimly and held the baby a little closer. It was still crying. She wanted to cry too. The tears wouldn't come. That was all right, it was probably wrong for her anyway.
She took a deep breath and got ready to charge when her heart seized and her body jerked backwards. A hand had closed around her arm.
A gasp escaped her lips as a thought forced its way to the surface. This is where I die…
The world became blurry. She felt herself being jostled left and right, all the while still held by her arm. Any moment they would turn her around and shoot. Part of her was just ready for it to end, to hear that discrete judgment and just not be there anymore. Another part was ready to fight with whatever she had to to survive. To be honest, she completely forgot she was holding a crying infant in her arms. Her mind was somewhere else, waiting for a signal that wasn't coming. She tried to focus, to pull herself back together. Slowly, she reconnected her cognitive process to the signals coming from her nervous system.
She was being shaken.
"Are you all right?" Someone was asking. "Can you hear me?"
Another voice cursed. "She's in shock. She just saw them get murdered. Look at the blood, she's probably hurt too."
"Is she their child?"
"No, maybe the neighbor's girl."
"Get her out of here! She's a witness, she's probably still in danger. Get her to the safe house down the street."
Terra felt movement as another hand grabbed her shoulder. With the extra weight of her cybernetic body, she could have stopped them just by standing in place. Somehow, she knew to just go along though. They started to guide her back down the stairs.
As they left the building, a group surrounded her and made a human wall. They were all faced outward though. It belatedly occurred to Terra that they weren't trying to restrain her, they were trying to protect her. It was funny in a very sad way. She had just killed three of their own and now they were taking her back to their base. Still, she moved her feet and made sure not to give too much resistance. If they found out she was a cyborg now then it was all over for sure.
And why shouldn't it be? she asked herself. I killed them. They should kill me.
No! I was only doing what they told me to! another voice answered vehemently. It was for Cyan. It was all I could do…
She tried to look for Cyan's hiding place as they walked hurriedly down the street. Would he come to save her?
No, she grimaced. That would be suicide. Handlers don't die for their cyborgs.
She watched with a sinking stomach as they moved further and further away from the site of the mission. Finally, she was led through a door and brought to a fire place. People talked over her head and the baby was taken from her arms. Someone brought her a cup of something warm and dabbed a wash cloth over the bullet wound in her leg. Terra just waited, ears searching for the sound of a cocking gun.
It never happened. They moved her to the attic and left her alone. For a moment, she just lay there watching the moonlight fall in through a small window. She blinked. Feeling rushed back into her body and she shivered. She was alive—and she was in the lion's mouth.
Terra sat up and looked at the stairs leading down into the rest of the house. She was in a Padania safe-house. She could walk down those stairs and tear her enemies apart from the inside with her bare hands. That would make up for this. From what Cyan said, Padania was spread mainly by people trying to avenge their loved ones. She had to cut the circle off here and kill them before they had a chance to retaliate. She could still salvage the situation and do what she was meant to do.
She thought about it a moment more and then shook her head. Maybe if I were another girl, she told herself. But not me. I'll stop and I won't know why. Once she killed one, she would have to kill another. She would kill and kill until she couldn't stand it anymore and they killed her instead.I have to get out of here, I have to get back to Cyan.
Yes… escape was probably best. Her eyes moved to the lone window. It was pointing away from the street. Her conditioning was still screaming at her to descend the stairs and kill the people who took her in. She set her lip and prepared to leap. She wasn't listening anymore.
Compared to the rest of the night, the jump was easy. She crashed through the window and tucked into a roll as she hit the ground. Her carbon-fiber spine took the momentum with grace and she was off running again before the glass finished clattering down behind her. They would probably wonder where her body went.
No… they'll probably figure out you were never normal to begin with. It hurt to think that. She winced. She could imagine the look of horror as they put the pieces together and realized they'd taken a weapon home. Was sparing them a good enough apology for what she'd done that night? Probably not. It'd probably just make them fight harder. Someday, she might even be shooting the ones who thought they were protecting her.
But none of that mattered right now. Right now, she just needed to get back to Cyan. She knew where the rendezvous point was, if she could catch her bearings then she could get there pretty easily. So long as she avoided the lingering Padania elements in the area, she would be fine. There was no thinking, no second guessing, just one foot in front of the other. She moved by instinct. Nobody saw her, nobody heard. She was just another shadow in the night.
Cyan had his gun trained on the door when she walked in. For a moment she stared down the barrel and wondered if he would shoot. He didn't. He checked behind her before lowering the firearm and resting a hand on her shoulder. At his touch, Terra felt herself solidify. It was like becoming a real, living person after wandering as a ghost. Everything tearing her apart fell silent and for a moment she felt safe again.
Then Cyan spoke.
"Terra, are you all right?"
A lump formed in her throat. She looked up into his eyes and tried to force some words out. What was there to say? He knew something was wrong, she could hear it in his voice. How did she tell him she'd run away? She'd let him down. She'd had a chance to stop problems before they happened and she didn't take it.
I'm sorry, she wanted to say. I'm so sorry, Cyan. I meant to make you proud. I wanted to listen. I tried. I just…
Just what? Wasn't strong enough? Decided it was wrong? Was broken? She knew what she was supposed to do and she hadn't done it. That was the end of the story, wasn't it?
"I..." She swallowed. Her mind was still blank. She wanted to feel, to think, to say something, but when she looked inside she came up empty. She couldn't lie, but she couldn't tell him what she'd done either. She was like a jammed bullet shell, already spent, caught between inside and out. She was just waiting for him to cycle the chamber and let her go.
"...Did you eliminate the target?"
"...Yes." Yes, that was true. She'd done what they set out to do. The Padania agent was dead. Even if someone else took over for him, it would take time to adapt. The operation would be wounded, vulnerable. She had still accomplished something. There would still be another day.
But I should have done more.
"Good. Good work, Terra," Cyan straightened up and looked towards the door again. "Come, they're still in disarray."
And just like that, the world began moving again. Nothing had happened, she'd just finished the mission. "Yes, sir."
They left without being noticed. Terra didn't look back. She didn't need to be reminded of the weeds she'd left untended, of the life that would someday grow up to hate her. She would see them again. For now, she just had to get away.
...So why did it still feel wrong?
Claes poured Terra another cup of tea. The other girl drank it without adding sugar. They sat in silence as slush hit the window in muted thumps. It was getting dark outside. Across the way, Claes could see the lights of the main compound flickering off as the staff shut down for the day and went home. The day was over.
"You know…" Claes began, lifting her own cup. "They'll come back. The strength of the Padania movement is with the people: the more of them you kill, the more come to avenge them."
Terra heaved a sigh, but still met Claes eyes. "...I know. All of them who thought they needed to protect me… the next time we'll probably be enemies. I wonder what they'll think when they find out what they saved."
"...Why do you do that?"
"You're trying to understand them," Claes explained. "Don't you think that's a little dangerous?"
"...I'm sorry," Terra shook her head, sending a shiver through the blonde curls spilling out of her ponytail. She looked like a classically depicted angel—serene, delicate, somehow transcendent in a way. A small, sad smile moved across her lips. "I just… wish it wasn't this way. I wish it were simple, Claes. I wish they'd just shot me. But..."
"It's funny," Claes said, peering into her tea. "How far we've come, how much we're able to control. And even then there's still that little bit left on the side that just doesn't want to cooperate with the program."
"I know, I'm sorry, I just—"
Claes looked up at Terra and gave her a frank look. "So then what are you going to do about it?"
Terra paused, her mouth half open as if an answer had gotten stuck in her throat.
"Because unless you do something about it," Claes went on, "you might as well not be sorry at all."
The other girl looked down at her hands. A storm flickered through her eyes, but her face stayed calm. "Is… is that right?"
Claes quietly sipped her tea and declined to repeat herself. Terra had heard the first time.
"But... whose fault was it…?"
"Does it matter?" Claes pressed. It was odd to see someone so resilient to the conditioning. Most cyborgs did their duty without a second thought.
Terra set her mouth and put down her cup. "Yes, yes it does." She didn't raise her voice, but her tone became clearer. "It matters if I was wrong. Because if I'm sorry for me, then I have to do something—I have to kill the girl in my head and keep killing whoever they point me at. But maybe that's not it, Claes. Maybe she stopped me from doing something wrong I thought was right. Maybe it's a black hole… I mean, we're supposed to be making Italy a safe place, right? But it looks like we just end up hurting it more. I have to know, Claes. Unless I know the other girl was wrong, I can't stop her."
The words pressed against Claes' mind, pushing up questions that she knew the conditioning would clamp down on in an instant. What were they really doing? Was this the right solution? Why did people need to die? When did it all stop? Who would still be alive at the end of it all?
A good soldier always asks questions, Claes. You want to be a good agent? Think for yourself. You'll never know right from wrong if you always let them decide it for you.
Claes blinked as the words echoed in her head. They were familiar. She knew the voice, she'd heard it before. And yet… she couldn't remember who it belonged to. That was another question the conditioning clipped off before she could think it out properly. Her head started to buzz and a slight ache began creeping in behind her eyes. Like dropping an anchor in the midst of a storm, she squeezed her eyes shut and stopped thinking as she waited for it all to pass. When things calmed down and she opened her eyelids, she felt tears trying to form.
Across the table, Terra was patiently watching. Claes felt her lips part, but didn't know what to say. She couldn't explain herself. All she knew was that the conditioning was reacting. Something was wrong.
No… not wrong, she told herself, inhaling slowly. Just unsanctioned.
"You know..." Terra began again, more quietly this time. "If I'm wrong, maybe you should tell them. If I get reconditioned again, it might actually work this time."
A small smile made its way to Claes' face. She finished her tea and set the cup down before pouring a little more. "Terra," she said. "Do you want to be a good agent?"
Terra sighed and looked down at her hands again. "I want to be right."
"Then keep asking questions, and don't be sorry about what you find."
Gunslinger Girl: An anime/manga about adolescent girls remade into combat cyborgs by the Italian government via the Social Welfare Agency(SWA). The meat of the series covers the girls' plights as well as that of their Handlers, adult men assigned to the training and field supervision of the cyborgs. Together, these teams are known as fratelli(singular: fratello). In order to make the cyborgs combat worthy, as well as to prevent the organic bodies from rejecting the cybernetic components, the girls are given a drug known as "conditioning" that often affects their thought patterns and erases the memories of their previous lives.
Dual Trigger: Dual Trigger is then taking the Gunslinger Girl setting and crossing it over with Final Fantasy characters. This particular installment deals with Terra and the unique effects of her "magitek infusion", an augmentation based off of Final Fantasy VI psuedoscience that did not appear in the original GsG canon. While most of Dual Trigger is hidden in conceptual stages, entries like this (Dual Trigger Extras) are meant to put down a basis for the characters outside of main canon and explore things like the effects of Terra's magitek a little more thoroughly.
Terra (Christina Branford): Terra (Final Fantasy VI) is a South African girl with a troubled past. She was found by the SWA on a derelict vessel near Mazara del Vallo after being shot through the forehead. By a sheer miracle, the bullet only graze the frontal lobe and Terra (then Christina) was still alive. However, the trauma left her in a coma.
After testing as extremely compatible for Cyborg conversion (an attribute that was later linked to a previous infusion of substance known as "magitek"), it was determined that Terra could be revived using the conditioning programming as a stimulant. Terra then underwent conversion and was assigned to Cyan Garamonde, an agent with ties to Senator Caelum.
While Terra has exceptional combat abilities, she is psychologically fragile due to conflicts between her magitek altered chemistry and her conditioning. Still, she completes her missions and is efficient in the field. With how quickly she's picked everything up, it's been assumed she had at least some firearms experience in her previous life.
Cyan Garamonde: A half-English, half-Japanese man, Cyan Garamonde(Final Fantasy VI) worked as a bodyguard for much of his life and is well versed in various foreign cultures pertaining to his employer, a well traveled business man by the name of Owaka who specialized in government contracting. Cyan lost his employer and family due to a great tragedy while in Italy. After a frustrating few months trying to pursue justice in court, he was taken in by a certain Senator Caelum who was impressed with his bearing and personal sense of loyalty. Cyan was then assigned to work as a handler for the SWA and quickly formed a bond with Terra, his charge.
Although Cyan is often a stern man, he is very protective of Terra and considers her his closest ally. In a world where he is constantly seen as a foreigner, he rewards her loyalty with his own. He doesn't entirely trust the SWA and their tactical solutions, but he understands discipline and will do almost anything that is asked of him. While some of those higher on the food-chain question his reliability from time to time, Senator Caelum's endorsement has kept Cyan relatively clear of suspicion.
Claes: A cyborg whose handler was declared killed while off-assignment, Claes was reconditioned to overcome the trauma of the loss. Now she acts as the resident labrat and is used by the SWA techs to test new cyborg technologies. For the most part, she leads a quiet life tending her garden, reading, playing piano, and painting. Being away from the combat and without a handler have given Claes a more removed perspective in comparison to the other cyborgs. While she isn't very social, she is considered wise by her peers.