Above the black city, in a tower of glistening white, a man sat in a cozy office on a high, high-up floor, staring out the corner window at the bustling plaza below. The people down there were small as gnats, as plentiful as mold spores, and they swarmed about each other like a cloud of locusts.
'Which one would I hit first?' he thought, resting an elbow on the leather arm of his chair. 'Terminal velocity? Or the ground?' He should have gone home hours ago. The city lights stretched like a starscape beneath him. The plaza fountain glowed in changing light.
The walls of his office were white, pearlescent metal, as was the door – a speaker box next to it chimed gently.
"Yah," he said at the door, then picked the phone off of its docking station and put it to his ear.
The door slid into the wall with a hiss. His secretary entered with a stack of papers, file folders and envelopes, all of which she put into his inbox. He nodded at her, pretending to listen to someone on the other end of the line. She smiled politely at him, mouthed "goodnight" and left. The door hissed shut.
'No raise today, Gladys!' he grinned to himself. He hung up the phone – its cord furled and twisted. He turned his gaze back to the corner window, down upon the black city.
While waiting for the early evening shows to let out, Aeris took a moment to duck into the alley behind the theatre and watch a livewire drip green sparks onto the black brick. The sparks came out in splashes. Verdant embers of mako energy cascaded at her feet, scattering and spiraling through the air before fading into the dark of the setting night.
Aeris watched, reminded of stars. The noise of the city, however, drowned out any hope she had of meditating. Cars honked on the street. Vendors shouted. Before she could think, her break was over.
The adjacent "Loveless Theatre" had previously been named something else, before the play became more famous than the space. Loveless played thrice daily, for nearly thirty years. Aeris never saw the show, but she often observed the poster – a portrait of a starving pauper. A particularly friendly buyer told her once that Loveless was a grunge musical about a failed revolution in times long gone. That sparked Aeris's interest, but the ticket price made her gasp, and she gave it no further thought.
She emerged from the alley in her usual place. She made sure the flowers in her weave basket were arranged nicely. She double checked that her pink dress was free of dust. Customers would be flooding out of the theatre soon enough, with hearts afire and gil to burn.
Sammy eavesdropped in the locker room.
"I hope we see some action today," the tall MP slung the semi-auto over his shoulder, leather strap pressed tightly against the blue uniform, the barrel of the gun pointed casually at the tile floor. His helmet and mask were slumped at the bottom of his locker. "I ain't shot a crook in a week."
The other replied distantly, "Oh, yeah?"
They were otherwise alone, but for Sammy, who they hadn't seemed to take note of despite being here the entire time. The first MP continued to describe the scene. "This stupid kid holds up a Nightmart with nothing but a six-shooter."
"Oh yeah?" the other muttered. "Y'don't say. What, uh, one a' those little pea shooters?"
The MP laughed. "Yeah it was. An old Peacemaker, I think my grandpa had one. Anyway, the culp ain't ready for the gas, no goggles, nothing, so I rush into the cloud with him. He had this stunned-ass look on his face. I got him right through the front tooth." He pointed towards his own face – an estimation of his bullet's trajectory. "Fuckin' guy splatted all over the ice cream freezer."
"Oh, good shot," the other MP was barely listening, having some trouble attaching his nightstick to his belt.
The change-room complex they stood in belonged to every public service employee in the sector. Police, firefighters, art gallery employees, power-plant workers. The room was enormous, rows and rows of lockers stretching out in either direction. Long curtains along the far wall veiled the facility's enormous group shower, and steam half-obscured the MPs to Sammy, a train attendant, who was grateful for it. The last time these two took note of him, they hazed him. Again.
The talkative MP tried to continue his story, but coughed open-mouthed into his locker. "Goddamnit. This damn cough."
"That's been goin' on a while," the other one adjusted his right pauldron. "You see a doctor?"
The MP sighed. "Yeah, but, y'know doctors."
"They got all 'em doctors using materia now," he shrugged. "They get the job done quick, but fuckin' sometimes it comes right back. You notice that?"
"Yeah," the other was slipping the cloth ring around his head that served as their masks. Blue, like most parts of the MP uniform. Blue and silver. Military Police.
Sammy grimaced. 'More like Shinra Police,' he thought. During the war, legions of gun-crazy kids signed up to protect and serve the corporate interests of the Shinra Electric Power Company. After the victory, Midgar's city watch quadrupled in size. Coincidence? Sammy thought not.
These two were the worst of the lot (in this section of the locker room, at least. Sammy heard absolute horror stories from the librarians.) The chatty one was the taller of the two, with a wide chest and square jaw. He looked like he might make a candidate for SOLDIER, but he'd probably already tried and failed. He was taking his sweet time putting on the cloth mask, and when he got it over his face he pulled it down below his chin like a cowl-neck scarf, so he could yap unimpeded. "You hear about this robot shit?" he asked. "On the news? They made a robot that can fuckin' cry."
The other's voice was muffled behind the mask. "Babies cry. Let me know if they build a robot that can fuck."
"Heh. You been to Wall Market lately?"
"Ha! I don't mean a mechanical bull, I mean a straight lover." The MP paused before a chuckle escaped through the cloth. "Heh, heh. But yeah, I been down there."
They laughed, but it was interrupted by Gary coming into the locker room. The chatty one swiveled his head at the door, and then back to his buddy. And then his head shot the other way, over in Sammy's direction, as if noticing him for the first time.
Sammy made whatever he was doing inside his locker look terribly important.
The MPs didn't say anything.
The obnoxious one pulled his scarf up, and it became a mask again. He lowered the silver helm onto his head. The two MPs passed Gary in silence on their through the door.
When they were gone, Gary gave Sammy a sick look.
"It's five-to," Sammy said flatly.
"I still have time," Gary shrugged, heading to his own locker.
"You'll miss the train."
"The train won't be here for twenty minutes. You're not my boss. If I want to sit and have dinner, I'm gonna sit and have dinner."
Sammy took his crimson cap off the rack inside the locker, closed the locker, put on the cap, and went out the door and up the stairs to the street. Outside, it was dark and still. Even though it was August, he was glad for the coat. He looked up at the blanket of smog blotting out the moon. He turned away from the guardhouse and towards the train station, weaving through the lanterns and shadows of Sector 1.
It was never really dark in Midgar, though – the smog carried the lights through the alleys. The reactors always churned out bright green-grey smoke along the outer borders of the city. At any given moment Sammy could look up and count at least three reactors. Midgar had eight of them in total – enormous, volcanic structures that formed a circle around the city.
The northernmost reactor loomed above North Edge Station. Sammy watched green embers drift from the open stack up into the clouds.
He took the stairwell down to his post at the end of the line. Cargo trains came all the way to Sector 1 twice weekly, but Sammy guarded it every day.
At the bottom of the stairwell, the break staffers leaned against the wall, wearing the same crimson uniform as him. They straightened when he came onto the platform. He thought he ought to say something like 'You're relieved,' or, 'Hello,' but he just stood there until he had to step aside to let them pass.
He was alone on the platform for a while. There was no roof of the station – there was no need, it hadn't rained in years.
The tracks followed a trench south through Sector 1, to the center of Midgar and the tunnel that slipped underneath the city.
A free-standing steam clock marked the north end of the line. It was older than the city itself. Copper hands. Hand-blown glass. No trace of digital display. It was ten-past eleven already. Steam still drifted out of the whistles. The steam was generated by a mako engine – obviously – but it felt very old-world.
Then Gary strutted onto the platform – again, no one said anything. They waited as the minute hand on the steam clock crept past the number II.
It was another four minutes before anything happened.
The rumbling began in the tunnel. It rose quickly from nothing to a loud but distant roar. The headlight climbed into view, plateauing on the horizon.
Then the train was bursting out of the tunnel. Clouds of dust exploded out with the vessel's iron nose – as if the world underneath the city was coughing up smoke. Sammy heard a distant pop of air.
The front car curved onto the flat track along the trench. Exhaust pipes wound about it. Steam hissed up out of them, obscuring the top of the train.
Sammy didn't know what else needed hauling up from underneath these days, but he told himself not to worry about it. Thinking about underneath was grisly work. He got ready to check the ID cards of every greasy crate-hauler in that train.
It was the same as always, but as he looked at the train, he felt like he'd forgotten to do something. Like he'd left the stove on. Something seemed off.
The train slid towards the end of the trench with a screeching of brakes and a scattering of orange sparks. It screeched to a stop just as one of the copper hands on the steam clock snapped to III.
The brass pipes on the clock erupted with a cloud of white vapor. The loud whistle almost muted the shuffling sound.
Something moved on top of the train.
He looked up.
A boot clubbed his temple. The full weight of a person crumpled him to the platform. His shoulder blade cracked against the floor. All the air left his body.
His attacker stumbled but leapt off of him. All the attendant could do was gasp. His mind raced. He saw a red bandana. He saw dirty, pale skin.
Some slumling whelp had hitched a ride up to the Plate.
He reached for his nightstick, but he was sitting on it.
The door of the train car opened. The crate-haulers, they'd—
A lone woman ran out of the train, in pauldrons, breastplate, and a red bandana. She had a pistol at her hip.
Sammy tried to get up, but the woman was upon him. She was stronger. She threw him into the side of the train. His head hit an exhaust pipe.
He went deaf. Suddenly, the world was on its side. He felt warm liquid drenching his neck.
'That's my blood,' he thought.
He saw Gary on the ground nearby. He was dead.
Another figure charged out of the train – a black-skinned giant of a man. No bandana. His arms were as big as kegs – the sleeves of his leather jacket ripped off to make room. The left arm was covered in tattoos. The right arm… Sammy strained his eyes through the pain. The right arm looked like it had been replaced with a machine.
The giant barked at the people in red bandanas – there were three now – the third was fat. Sammy couldn't make the words out – he just heard a gruff booming underneath the ringing in his ears. They nodded at his orders, and ran up the stairs off the platform.
Sammy's vision cleared a little, allowing him a glimpse at the man's artificial arm. Just past the elbow, the skin had been fused to the edge of a metal appendage – thick and straight. The end of the limb had been outfitted with six rotating chambers. Sammy realized with horror that it was a kind of gun. His head was already swimming again, his eyes darkening. But he had seen it clear.
'That's how I'll identify him,' Sammy thought. 'I just have to stay awake.'
Just when it appeared the giant was about to leave, another figure jumped – vaulted – off the train, making a three-point landing on the platform. A messy clump of yellow hair obscured his face. He had a two-handed greatsword slung on his back. He stood before the giant with his chest up.
Sammy kept his eyes open. Hope started to return. Swords were a gentleman's weapon. Only a SOLDIER would dare to use one.
The blonde man looked almost too thin at first but his bare arms were chiseled with muscle. His military uniform was a deep indigo, which signified a hierarchy Sammy couldn't remember anymore. The SOLDIER's eyes had that unmistakable glow.
The cavalry had arrived.
The way the giant and the SOLDIER looked at each other, Sammy expected them to attack.
A moment passed. Perhaps they were old enemies. Fights like that took forever to get going.
Another moment passed and still no one moved.
The ringing in his ears subsided long enough for him to hear them talking – talking – to each other.
The giant huffed. "I told you, this area is clear."
"I heard you," the SOLDIER didn't move.
"So get a move on."
"You jes' gonna wait for the army to come down on our heads, s' that it?"
"Something like that."
"Shoulda known it!" the giant curled his one hand into a fist. "You're nothin' but a goddamn saboteur!"
"You can believe what you want," the SOLDIER rolled his eyes. "As long as you can pay."
Sammy's fear rose like a flame up his throat, keeping him awake. SOLDIERs did not – could not – go rogue. 'Stay awake.'
The big man puffed up his chest and seemed to grow in size. "I'll pay if the job get done, and that means my crew does what—"
"Get down!" The SOLDIER pushed the giant into the wall.
A spray of bullets scattered where they had been standing. The two MPs arrived at the platform and ran forward, guns at the ready.
The rogue drew the greatsword from his back, arcing it over his head. The blade was as thick as the cross guard – built like a giant kitchen knife. Two green gems were set inside holes that had been crafted into the blade's base.
A blade that big… with materia gems… It would be impossible for normals to wield it.
The tall MP was stunned for a moment. That was all the time the traitor needed. The sword twirled in the air as it came down.
The other MP tried to pivot and spray fire at the same time, but he stumbled when the sword cleaved his partner in half. The SOLDIER whirled the blade around with the ease of a twig.
The second MP fell apart before firing another shot.
Blood drenched the platform. It fell quiet again.
The rogue SOLDIER swung the sword up again and slammed it against his back. It held in place on the magnetic harness. He looked at the giant expectedly. "Don't tell me how to beat my own kind."
The train attendant rested his head, eyes unfocused, fading.
The giant grunted. "C'mon, newcomer. Follow me."