Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, or anything associated with said property.

Author's Note: This story is based on a dream that I had once. It was a very cool dream, and when I woke up I immediately began to try shape it into a story. This has been sitting on my computer for quite awhile, and it's an idea I like too much to just abandon. So I'll try to get the entire thing written – maybe even do updates every other week, time permitting. It's my hope that I'll be able to stick to writing a new fic, since restarting fics that have been sitting for a year – or more – is difficult, though I'm trying.

Infinite Requiem

One Wake Up Screaming

The dream is different, somehow. The barren, scarred landscape has been leeched of all color except the sickly green of the sky. Aki takes a tentative step forward, her faze on the same-yet-different landscape spread out before her. What, she wonders, has changed it?

"Aki? Where are we?" The voice startles her, and she wonders what whim of her subconscious has brought Gray into her dream.

"On an alien planet." Her voice is flat; this new aspect of her dream worries her.

"How is that possible?" The gruff voice makes her pause. He sounds very real…

"I'm not entirely sure," she admits.

"You seem pretty calm." Gray's voice reflects his confusion.

"I've been having this dream every night for months." It's only a half-truth; why is everything changed?

"Dream?"

"Well, whatever it is…" Aki finally realizes the truth. "You're really here, aren't you? What's happening to me?" She tries to keep her voice calm, but for him to be here, things must have taken a turn for the worst.

"Dr. Sid is implanting the seventh spirit directly into your body." He sounds skeptical, and Aki has to smile.

"Then you're my spiritual support? Gray, how sweet of you!"

The soft glow from the moon highlights the somber expression on his face. "Look, I don't think you realize how serious the situation is."

As if his words are a cue, darkness sweeps over the horizon. She places a hand on his shoulder to keep him from overreacting. "Just watch," she begins, then the rest of the words freeze in her throat. What approaches is not the Phantom army.

Her grip on Gray tightens. "What's happening?" The landscape is disintegrating before her eyes – not the destruction of the planet, for the sky itself is being engulfed by blackness as well. The dream is falling apart around her, as if her consciousness is fighting to waken… or as if she is dying.

"Aki!" Gray's voice sounds distant, and her fingers pass through his shoulder as if she is a Phantom.

"We're losing her!" Dr. Sid's distant voice echoes through the shrinking dreamscape. "Aki, hold on! Aki!"

The world around her goes black, and then, there is only nothingness…

XXX

It is a nothingness that spans eternity. She lives; somehow, she knows this, but it is an unlife, one of no light, no sensation, no thought, only vague awareness. She cannot feel anger, nor regret, nor sorrow… she feels nothing.

Nothing… and then the monotony is broken. At first, she doesn't notice. Then, as if waking from a deep sleep, she becomes aware of voices around her, reduced to barely audible murmurs as if over a great distance. The voices grow louder, closer. She wants to scream at them to stop, to let her sleep, but she hasn't yet found her voice.

Then the first sensation, the first real sensation she'd felt in what seems like ages, washes over her. Pain. Pain like nothing she'd ever felt before. The nothingness around her shatters completely, and agony rushes through her, like a tidal wave. Now she finally finds her voice in a scream that rips itself from her throat, a scream so loud it causes her to do what she's been unable to do for an endless time…

She wakes up…

XXX

The scream still echoed in her ears as Aki's eyes slowly opened. She blinked once, the movement feeling awkward and unfamiliar. She lay still as her sluggish mind slowly came to terms with the fact that she was awake. Awake… had she been sleeping? She could remember…

She blinked again, wondering if her vision was messed up or if the room really was as dim as it looked. She squinted, trying to make out the details. Where am I? She dredged the depths of her memory, struggling to recall what had happened. It was slow to come; she decided to ease her memory along by recalling simple things. My name is Aki Ross. I was born October 7, 2038, in San Francisco. Yes, all this she was certain of. I am… a doctor, I think. Yes, a doctor. She could remember her training, her attendance of the Houston Military Academy so she could join the USMF scientific division. She remembered Dr. Sid. And Gray.

The seventh spirit! Her eyes widened as she remembered retrieving the spirit, the Phantom attack, getting shot…

She must be in the hospital, then. Gray had said they were implanting the spirit directly into her chestplate. That must be why she felt so weak. I don't recognize this place, though. It doesn't look anything like the facilities in the Bioetheric Center. Her eyes had adjusted enough to make out the ceiling, pale with dark squares where ceiling panels were missing. She turned her head slightly, and was pleased her body responded. She could feel nothing below her neck, and had worried she'd lost all control of her body. Her pleasure in the small movement quickly faded, however; though she couldn't make out details in the dark shapes across the room, something about what she could see suggested it wasn't in prime condition.

And now that she was thinking about it, something about the air tasted stale, musty. Definitely not a hospital. Aki sat up, an awkward motion that would have startled her had she not been distracted by her unkempt surroundings. This isn't right… not right at all… "Sid?" she croaked. Her voice sounded rusty with disuse. "Gray? Hello?"

Her voice echoed. It was the only sound she could discern. Which meant she was alone in what looked to be an abandoned section of some strange building. Those men on the ship, the 307's… they tried to kill me. Sid could be protecting me from General Hein by hiding me here. There could be a note from him on that table over there explaining everything. It made sense, and the sooner she got up and checked, the sooner she would know.

Could she get up? She didn't feel hurt. In fact, she didn't feel anything at all, really. But the lingering memory of an all-consuming agony made her pause. Perhaps she was hurt, badly, and could feel nothing because of pain killers. There was no pain now, and her body seemed responsive enough, so she decided to give movement a try. Tentatively, she shifted her legs, dangling them over the edge of the gurney until they touched the floor. With a light push, she was standing; a little awkwardly, perhaps, but it was a good sign.

The sound of her footsteps was muffled by a thick layer of dust that covered the tile, and her frown deepened. Where was she? There were many places within the barrier that were abandoned due to the ever-shrinking population, but she'd never seen a place in such a sad state of disrepair as this place. It looked as if it had been abandoned for decades…

In the dim light, she could make out a similar carpet of dust over the table, undisturbed for years. No note… Aki glanced wildly around, but saw nothing that resembled a message from her comrades. She could make out pale smears on the floor where tile showed through the dust – signs that someone had dragged the gurney in here and left her.

Fear rose within her. This was not something Dr. Sid would do, not even to save her life. Had something happened?

A horrifying thought occurred to her. What if Dr. Sid hadn't been able to stop the Phantom infection, and it had spread out of control within her? What if she'd been dumped outside the barrier and left to die?

For that was the only place she could be, the only place where the air could be so still, musty with age. The only place where the barrier's ever-present glow failed to shine through the slats window she could dimly discern. A sob escaped from her; this was a cruel way to dispose of a victim of a Phantom infection. Does this mean General Hein won? Would he really leave her die such a lonely, inhumane death?

It couldn't be true. No one could be that cruel!

There had to be something else. Something she was missing. Her mind refused to believe what the clues were telling her. She stumbled towards the window, needing to see the truth for herself. Because no one, she kept telling herself, would strand a Phantom victim outside the barrier, no matter how dangerous her condition. There had to be a logical explanation, something her still-scattered wits were missing.

She found the cord to the blinds and tried to raise them. However, her tug had been too much for the old window covering to handle, and it broke from its setting and fell the floor with a clatter. Aki didn't notice the damage; she hadn't even heard the noise, for she was focused entirely on the sight before her.

The moon, nearly full, hanging over a ruined city. There was no barrier to obstruct the view before her.

No tears stung her eyes, despite the truth of the situation. All she felt was a hollowness inside of her. She'd accepted, long ago, that she could die from her Phantom infection. She'd shed all her tears for her fate then. This… as much as this situation hurt, she knew she had to face the facts. She was alone outside the barrier. She'd lost her fight with the infection. She was going to die. The only despair that she felt was for the fact that her friends had abandoned her, just when she needed them most. Even if Dr. Sid and Gray couldn't do anything to help her, their presence would have eased her passing.

Aki lowered her eyes, not wanting to see the sight before her any longer. It's only a matter of time before the Phantoms find me. Maybe I should just curl up on the gurney and stay there, until… She didn't finish the thought, because something had arrested her attention.

She'd rested her hands on the window sill, and in the moon's soft light, she could see them clearly. Slowly, Aki lifted her right hand until it was in front of her face, wondering if she could possibly be seeing what she thought she saw. Instead of the smooth, washed-out white tone that skin took under moonlight, her hands reflected the light with a dull gleam, like… like…

Like metal. Her hands were encased in metal. And it didn't stop at her hands; her arms, where they disappeared into her shirtsleeves, were covered, too. And her legs… they were the same way. A quick examination proved her torso was in the same condition.

"What happened to me!" she screamed.

XXX

She went a little mad then. Later, she'd wonder at the insensate fury that had driver her to claw at the metal with her unfeeling fingers, while screaming at the top of her lungs. She fell into a crouch as her legs gave out under her, but she was unaware of the motion. Her thin shirt tore under her assault as she sought somewhere to grab the metal and rip it away. She wanted it off, off, off! She finally found purchase where her flesh met metal under her jaw, and even the flashes of pain, the first real feeling she'd had since her awakening, wasn't enough to restore her sanity.

When scarlet motes began to dance before Aki's vision, she squeezed her eyes shut. What… what is wrong with me? The madness began to ebb, and Aki gasped for breath. That was totally unlike me! Clearly, there was more wrong with her than she'd initially thought. She needed to get out of there, to get help now.

She slowly opened her eyes. I'll have to search this room, see if I can find any clues as to what's been done to me. And then I'll have to get out of here. Maybe if I follow the tracks of the people who left me here… Oh, God… The red haze that had preceded her return to sanity was still there, but now she recognized it for what it was: the segmented coils of a Snake Phantom, wrapped around her body. She couldn't feel the tingling sensation that would indicate contact with it, but she could see that pieces of it were inside her.

Panic froze her limbs as the creature's head swung above her, and Aki jerked her head upwards at the movement. Its feelers probed at her body, and Aki could only helplessly stare up at the face of death. She wanted to close her eyes so she wouldn't see the moment when her spirit was wrenched from her body, but her eyelids wouldn't obey…

The Phantom screamed, a deafening sound at such close range. Her ears were still ringing as it loosed its coils from her body and flowed down through the floor, leaving Aki crouched motionless, her eyes on the undisturbed dust where the Phantom had slipped through the tile.

It didn't take my spirit… She drew in a deep breath. Why? Other questions were occurring to her as well. Why had she been able to see the Phantom? Why hadn't any Phantoms gotten to her earlier? This one hadn't found her until, she presumed, it had heard her screams and followed them to her. Did it have something to do with the metal that coated her body? Did it muffle her spirit, somehow? But, if that were the case, the Phantom still could have taken her spirit, anyway. So why hadn't it?

What the hell was going on?

She stood unsteadily, using the wall behind her for support. Her body seemed to be responding more smoothly now, though she still felt only numbness. Except for where her fingers had dug under her jaw; she'd need to find a mirror to see how much damage she had done. But at least the pain meant she could still feel something. The complete lack of sensation she'd been feeling had begun to alarm her.

She made a quick search of the room. From what she could see, it had been a laboratory of some sort, though it looked as if nothing had been touched for years, up until she'd been dumped there. So I won't be finding any clues here. She'd follow the tracks, then, see where they led her. To answers, hopefully, before she dropped dead of a Phantom infection.

The tracks were only visible in the dimness because the tile beneath the thick layer of dust had been white, leaving a path that was surprisingly easy to follow. Aki followed the path out of the room, glancing warily to either side before stepping into the corridor. There was no sound except for the pounding of her heart and her ragged breathing; even the moaning of Phantoms was absent.

The trail took her down a labrynth of shattered corridors, with several unexpected twists and turns where the path was blocked by debris. Aki halted once to examine a pile of rubble that had fallen through the ceiling from the floor above, bringing down much of the wall with it. Pieces of equipment hung down from frayed cords, familiar equipment, like that found in hospitals. Aki frowned as she picked out what looked like the remains of a bio-etheric laser amidst the debris. That… that's a relatively recent invention. Why is there one in a building that's been abandoned for decades? And why does it look so old?

The feeling of wrongness intensified. She turned away and resumed following the footprints, knowing it was the only way of getting answers. She quickened her pace, and finally, after about a quarter of an hour, the trail led to a pair of double doors, one sagging on its remaining hinge, the other gone completely. She kept a wary eye on the hanging door, which creaked at her passage but remained in its semi-upright position.

Steeling herself for travel through the city's haunted streets, Aki took her first steps into the ruined city.

XXX

"She's on the move." The words were clipped with irritation as the black-clad woman watched Aki Ross leave the ruined hospital. The scientist's steps were still slow and uncertain; bringing her down would be a snap. "I should be able to retrieve her before she reaches the population center." The woman rose from her crouch, ready to drop from the ledge where she'd been seated.

"Let her go." The woman almost lost her balance in surprise as the words echoed in her ear.

"Can you repeat that?" she asked, not certain she was hearing the voice correctly. She'd been sent here to retrieve Dr. Ross; she wanted to finish her task and return to the base.

"Let her go. Let her see this for herself. It will make explaining easier," the voice explained in a weary tone.

"Are you sure that's wise?"

"It's not like we can lose her. Just follow at a distance, let her see the city and the people, then round her up when you think it wise." The come link in her ear fell silent, and she sighed irritably. She thought it wisest to collect Dr. Ross now, but she knew that wouldn't be acceptable. So, gritting her teeth, she activated her wrist computer, bringing up the signal from the homing beacon implanted in Dr. Ross's body, and followed the scientist's weaving path.

It was going to be one of those days…

XXX

She wasn't aware that the surroundings were familiar until she realized she had instinctively chosen a path that she knew. The buildings had become decayed, the streets strewn with rubble as the buildings fell to pieces around her, but she recognized the area, and it filled her with dread. This is… this is within the New York barrier limit! But where is the barrier? A quick glance upward revealed a vast night sky, obstructed only by the skeletons of the abandoned skyscrapers.

New York has fallen… Aki's body began to tremble, and she felt a scream well up within her. Sid… Gray… They're all dead!

She was close to falling to her knees and wailing in despair, inviting any nearby Phantom to come and feast upon her spirit. Another city gone, when we were so close to finding the answer! Gone, gone, GONE!

But… if everyone is gone, who left me in that hospital room? Why leave me in a dead city? It makes no sense! Aki fought back her hysteria, forcing herself to think this through logically. Something was going on, and she needed to find out what. She needed to find out why she'd been left out here, why her body was sheathed in metal, and why the now-visible Phantoms seemed to be ignoring her.

Aki resumed walking, heading towards what had once been the city's center. If there was anyone still living here, somehow, it would be near the heart of the city. And as she drew nearer, she began to see signs that there might be life in the city, after all: the buildings were in better shape, and the streets were mostly clear of debris. And then there was the fence up ahead; chain-link and gleaming, it was clearly a new addition. Beyond that fence, she could hear a dull roar – a meld of the varying sounds of humanity. There are people alive in the city! Without a barrier!

The fence was easy to climb, so its purpose obviously wasn't to keep out invaders. It's probably just meant to keep people accidentally from wandering into an abandoned part of the city. It showed a surprising unconcern for safety that made Aki uncomfortable. What's going on? When did everyone stop giving a damn that something could sneak in and kill them? How long was I unconscious, anyway? This didn't all happen in a day!

She landed awkwardly, and would have sprained or broken something had her legs not been encased in metal. She supposed she should be grateful to her mysterious benefactors for something, at least. But she highly doubted this had been done to her just to protect her from a few bumps and bruises.

Following the sounds of life, Aki saw her first people: a couple strolling along the raised walkway ahead of her. Their style of dress was peculiar, but that wasn't what caught her attention: there was the gleam of metal visible under their clothing. Like her, they were sheathed in it. And they seemed completely unaware of the Phantom that lay in wait about ten feet in front of them. Aki opened her mouth to shout a warning, starting to run forward. Her legs were still unaccustomed to the motion, however, and she fell sprawling, forcing her breath from her throat in a gasp. She couldn't cry a warning; just gasp for air as the couple continued walking towards the Phantom… and then stepped through it. Only a slight shift sideways to the other side of the walkway showed they knew the Phantom was there. They continued onward, as though nothing had happened.

Like what had happened to her back in the hospital. Aki fingered the metal at her throat, feeling where it joined her skin. What had happened? Why couldn't the Phantoms feed on human spirits anymore? It had something to do with the metal casing… Aki's fingers found the ragged edges of the flesh she'd torn during her fit, and suddenly, it seemed as if the world dropped out from under her. Beneath the skin, instead of feeling damaged flesh, she felt… wires. She held her hand in front of her face, examining the fluid that lightly coated her fingers. It wasn't blood, or pus, or anything else produced by the human body. She brought her fingers to her nose, and smelled oil. Then she wasn't wearing a suit…

"Oh, God…" she whispered. What the hell was going on? Would she be able to find answers in this bizarre parody of the city she'd known? Aki proceeded, knowing her tattered shirt and unkempt hair were drawing looks from these strange metal people, but she didn't care. She needed to find answers, and she needed them now.

A blaring voice, speaking in the familiar tones of a news anchor, caught her attention, and Aki followed it to a holo-screen suspended in a store window. Aki had missed most of the broadcast, but her attention was on the date in the corner. December 27, 2099.

Twenty… ninety-nine? She'd somehow lost more than thirty years of her life! She staggered backwards, her head spinning. No… this isn't right… this can't be true! It had to be another Phantom-induced dream, because this couldn't possibly be happening!

In her daze, she didn't see the black-clad figure come up behind her until a hand came down on her shoulder. "Gotcha," a voice hissed in her ear.

XXX

"They tell me you had a bad dream." The words were tinny coming through the intercom, wiped clean of any expression. "Was it the same dream?"

The glass that divided the speaker from the quarantine chamber was streaked with dried blood; a legacy of one of the inhabitant's nightmarish fits. The speaker was unaffected by the grisly sight, having seen it many times before. The boy's wounds would heal, and he'd show no sign of the madness that had consumed him until the next fit took him.

"Tell me about the dream." The doctor's voice was commanding, and the boy, curled into a fetal position on his small cot, shifted his head towards the window, the first movement he'd made since the doctor's arrival. Large, dark eyes rimmed by shadows and haunted by pain briefly met the doctor's before once more staring back into space. His lips moved, but no sound came out.

It would take him several minutes to find his voice, so the doctor waited patiently. He studied the boy carefully, noting the blood-encrusted fingers, worn almost to the bone. He'd been digging at the window frame, and clawing at it like an animal desperate for escape. His too-thin frame belied the strength the madness gave him. Of course he was strong; he was the only one of them who had survived. Really, the doctor shouldn't have been thinking of him as a boy; he was physically seventeen years old. It was only his shy, innocent demeanor that made him seem only a child. "Tell me about the dream," the doctor urged again. "Was it the same dream?"

The boy dipped his head in affirmation, but then his brow knotted in confusion. "I… It was… the same but… but different." His voice was soft, hesitant. He hardly spoke unless directly addressed, and even then, coaxing a response from him was a difficult task. "It was blue… everywhere… It felt so good, and made me happy. But then… They were there" The doctor made a note on his data pad; though the boy's description so far was identical to those of to previous dreams, copious notes would have to be taken. It always intrigued the doctor that the boy dreamt of Phantoms when he'd never seen any during his entire sheltered life. "The blue… it began to turn red," the boy continued. His eyes widened slightly, as if seeing something too horrible to bear, but was unable to turn away from. "It was everywhere… I couldn't escape from it!" It was at this point in the dream that insanity would overtake him, and he'd launch himself screaming at the plexiglass windows. The doctor waited for the boy to curl himself more tightly into his fetal position and trail off into silence. Instead, a strange expression crossed his face. "Then… then she came… She said she wanted to help me, and that she needed my help. Because if I didn't…" his voice was so soft, the doctor held his breath to better hear the boy's words, "everything would turn bad. The whole world… the blue and the red… it turned black and started to break apart around us… I could hear screams… millions and millions of screams… the living and the dead…" Now the boy tightened his grip on his knees, pulling them as close as physically possible. His wide eyes closed, and he buried his face in his knees. He wouldn't say anything more until he recovered from the ill effects of his dream.

The doctor stood up, his hands shaking slightly as he reread the boy's final words. While the dream had evolved slightly over the years, this new development disturbed him. It wasn't just the addition of the woman, which would have been an alarming development on its own, but the image of the world going to black… and the screams…

Could he have just foreseen the end of the world?

To Be Continued…