"Someone close to you has returned to the Planet." The words slipped from Aeris's mouth on the day the world felt different. The day started normally; lead from her room along familiar, sterile hallways into a far smaller room with a chair and a glass floor and wall. Today something green flowed in pipes beneath the floor. Today the glass beneath her bare feet was warm, the warmth extending to the somehow rougher hard plastic of the chair. A contrast to the normally chill air.
And the words came. Not a whim or a conjecture; a certainty. The tester was a man in a white coat – one of Hojo's oft-replaced assistants. He stared at her when she spoke, his expression shifting into a frown. He scribbled something on his clipboard and moved out of sight.
Aeris never saw him again. Not today nor any later day. Test days were various degrees of boring or painful. Today was more boring than normal – nothing happened. She sat in the chair waiting for the lab assistant to come back. After saying those words the various people in the lab left her alone; occasional glances from someone in the distance but no one approached – until it was time to go back to her room.
She tried saying the same thing the next day to the new tester, though the world did not feel the same, nothing green beneath the floor, no warmth in the air. The tester – a lady in a white coat – offered a slim smile and scribbled a note. "Who? Who returned to the Planet?"
Aeris blinked. "I don't know." The lady did not believe her. Which made sense; her words were untrue. But those words held truth for the man a day previous.
"And what do you mean 'Return to the Planet'?"
"Um." Aeris fidgeted on her chair. What had she experienced yesterday? "They're happy now. They're with their friends and family and-" Something good. Something wondrous.
The lady nodded. "But you don't know the name of the person who this happened to?" Aeris shook her head; the lady studied her. "When was the first time you knew someone returned to the Planet?"
Easy. "Yesterday. During testing." Testing was never fun, but if she spoke more and answered their questions, sometimes they gave her chocolate or books or smiled and said she was doing well. Mother – when Aeris got to see her – told her not to, but it always seemed better to do what they wanted. Except when Hojo was on the other side of the glass. He never gave out treats – and nothing Aeris ever said or did made him happy. Hojo testing days were the worst.
The lady was looking at something out of sight – to the side of the glass wall in front of Aeris. Some more scribbles on her pad. "Thank you, Aeris." She smiled and Aeris grinned back. The same lady awaited her the next day when testing resumed. Green beneath the floor and the warm difference to the world again today – like the first day. "Hello Aeris." The lady had a chair set up on the other side of the glass. "Did someone close to me return to the Planet today?"
"No." The lady's gaze flicked to one side and she gestured. Her gaze locked with Aeris's and the situation changed. Wait. Another certainty. "No. No one you know returned to the Planet. But-" A fleeting impression, a sense of someone else in the lab. One of the other technicians. He had to know.
The lady leant forward. "Not me?" Aeris shook her head. The lady tapped a finger against her lips. "Did you know Ardyn's mother died two days ago?"
The lady smiled. "The man in charge of your tests."
"Oh!" Two days without seeing him odd; and now she knew his name. Now confusion. "Died? What does that mean?"
"That's-" The lady scribbled down something. "-that is our word for returning to the Planet."
"Died." Blunt, short, somehow wrong. "Is... Is that why he hasn't been here?"
The lady shrugged. "Amongst others." She smiled again and Aeris smiled back. "Thank you again, Aeris. That's it for today." She was telling the truth and life was better still: no tests for the rest of the week. Books and chocolate in abundance. Mother was not allowed to visit disappointingly.
The next week, the world was the same kind of different and warm. A new man in a white coat stood on the other side of the glass. "Hi."
"Hi." Aeris sat on her chair. Worth a try. "Someone you know has returned to the Planet?"
The man smiled. "Ah, they said, you would say that." He leant closer to the glass. "Afraid that's not going to cut it now. No more lies please."
Aeris winced and recoiled from him. They knew too – somehow. A test of some kind. The man asked her routine questions – a boring test day. Aeris answered as quickly and said as little as she could. She did not remember her dreams. She did not know what the Promised Land was. She did not know how her mother's Materia worked. She could not read either of the pieces of paper the man held up.
A dull test day. Until: something got the man's attention and he strode out of sight. The lady returned with a chair and sat down. "Hello."
"Hi-" The sensation dropped on her like a blanket; a prickling, shivery sensation across her shoulders and the back of her neck. "Someone close to him-" She gestured in the direction the man had gone. "-has returned to the Planet."
The lady smiled more; she pulled a photo from her clipboard. "This man? Someone close to him, returned to the Planet?" The photo was of the man from before.
"Good. Good. That's excellent, Aeris." The lady stood up. "That will be all for the day."
A pattern soon emerged. The lady or an unfamiliar white-coated person would be waiting for her on test days. At first – if it was someone new – and she lied they would not believe her; and on these occasions, the lie would quickly become true. The sensation came so readily and so regularly the lie became pointless, and she would wait until she knew; as if she could stop the words spilling out of her mouth. But never a certain outcome. Some days the words never came at all; other days it was more than once. Always she wound up telling the lady, never the one it referred to.
Occasionally she would struggle to articulate who she meant when a succession of technicians talked to her. But the lady always had pictures and Aeris would pick them out. Aeris never saw any of the people in the pictures ever again.
These new tests carried on for years, correct answers getting more treats, more perks – including more time with Mother. A huge improvement to her life.
Until the day Mother shook her awake. The day they ran. The day Mom fell and never got back up. The day she met Elmyra Gainsborough.