I want to say, just before this all starts, a huge thank you to my editor Queen000, she has often edited some of my works that I have been doing on and off since my initial retirement. Editing her work has made me step back and analyse my own, thanks to that, I created this piece. So thank you, for giving me back my spark. In addition, I want to say categorically that I own neither Mirror's Edge or Final Fantasy VII. This is not a piece I am writing to make money and it is not something I am going to claim I created entirely without input from the game. I wrote this for my, and more crucially, your enjoyment. I want you all to come along for the ride and enjoy every last second!
Chapter 1: - Survival
A shiver pulsated through her body like quicksilver, the energy scything through the veins and capillaries in a split-second. The rain kissed her stomach where the low-cut white vest top ended, before it joined to a black leather skirt via five looping rings.
She did her best to ignore the cold caused by the water flashing against her. Instead, she prowled silently in the shadows, listening to the movement of the people. Despite the unusual attire, the girl was almost totally anonymous. Were it not for the red eyes that she sported, the girl would not stand apart from anyone else.
For three months she had toiled within the scraps of the city, constantly ducking and weaving past security checkpoints. Hiding beneath the radar of a city, that was surveyed eternally by the panoramic eyes of security cameras and helicopters.
She hated this place, the city of Midgar. The two-tiered industrious wasteland was a featureless and grey universe. The lower levels, from whence she came, were full to choking point of people. All of them huddled around burning braziers outside shanty huts and other junk, anything that they had desperately tried to make into a home.
To her right, she heard a television screen talking about the New Eden, a mall in sector six of the upper plate that was filled with all the future conveniences and luxuries available. While at the same time it vomited forth a deluge of sugar coated words about job opportunities and a future.
The girl had no future. Not since she had awoken in the slum hospital had she been so lucky.
Before bitterness and anger could come to her, she heard the door of the jewellery store open with a hissing sound. Suddenly the stranger walked free. He was a balding man in his fifties, the hairline almost totally gone besides a few wisps that hovered at the back of his skull. The figure epitomised the upper plate. A smart black suit adorned his body while the locked briefcase remained conjoined to his wrist by the handcuffs he had attached himself.
Coolly she watched him advance. The short and fat man had a slow walk due to the shrapnel wound he had suffered in a botched raid just a week earlier. This was the reason for the presence of the handcuffs, because last time he had dropped the case, he had lost half of his produce. The injury to his leg had proven to be the perfect distraction, however she had watched as her partner, within reaching distance of the prize, had been clubbed unconscious by a Shinra guard who had been close enough to witness the exchange.
She had retreated to the shadows then, avoiding arrest while the guards had scoped the area of accomplices and other witnesses to the exchange. The Shinra had caught on to the existence of her band, so since that moment she had slipped away alone. Silently she followed her prey, slipping from shadow to shadow like a wraith. The timing would have to be perfect, she needed the distraction to carve her opening.
Forty paces ahead of the figure was the Shinra checkpoint. Should the prey reach the checkpoint she would be ill pressed to follow through, because the alarms would set off due to her lack of identification. It was with that thought in mind that she sprung into action and charged forward, her boots slapping hard against the cobbles of the streets, echoing loudly through the darkness. The figure, surprised by the noise, turned on his heel, to be greeted by a thunderous kick to the groin. As he keeled over in agony, the girl followed up by slamming her right elbow against his temple, sending the victim sprawling silently to the ground.
Swiftly she searched the inner layer of the coat and felt the key to the cuffs hidden within the suit-jacket lining around the shoulder. Callously she tore at the stitching until the seam shattered, before she placed her fingers into the hole and drew it free. She released the handcuff from the case barely a heartbeat later. In her head she had been counting backwards from twenty, her own stopwatch for the time she had, before one of the guards advanced from his post to investigate the noise.
"FREEZE!" The guard's voice boomed suddenly.
Tifa looked over her shoulder to spot a guard staring down his rifle. With curse a she leapt to her feet and ran forwards, slipping into a narrow alleyway between a convenience store and a cafe.
"Suspect is a Caucasian female, approximately fifteen years of age, slim build, around five feet four inches in height..."
She heard the description flying into the man's radio while thundering along the alleyway, her calves feeling stiff and hot as the lactic acid built up. Ahead she saw the dead end and despaired, feeling herself having to follow the path of her former partner to prison. This was before she spotted the fire escape to the right along the brick wall of the adjacent building. With a startled cry, she began an ascent of the spiralling stairwell.
The rusted steel steps felt jittery underfoot and many times she felt like the soles of her feet would fall through them. She shrieked as the metal rail next to her sparked as the projectile collected it. Glancing down, she could see the guard on one knee aiming up in her direction. Desperately she tried to remember the code, hoping to force the teachings upon herself.
But she simply couldn't do it. Her breaths were erratic and uncontrolled, and her limbs burning from the effort of the climb while her fear constantly drained any focus and control she had over her mind.
After climbing more than thirty of the steps she felt the stone edge of the building. With a final flurry of effort she rolled over the top and lay down. Her breathing deep and desperate, she watched as her chest constantly rose and fall. Intently listening all the while, her ears trained for the sound of boots on steel that suggested the guard was following her up the ladder.
She remained still for two minutes, not hearing any chase. Confused, she rose to her knees and looked over the edge. Below, the alleyway was empty. Her confusion heightened, knowing that the guard would not just give up the chase. Thinking fast she turned around on the spot and saw a door on the other side.
Smiling she ran towards it, only to watch as it suddenly flew open. Desperately she drew herself to a stop as the guard spun into sight. Cursing she leapt behind a small wall and listened as slugs kissed the stone on the other side of her position.
"Target acquired on the rooftop of..."
She didn't listen as the radio transmission started again. Kicking herself to her feet, she darted across the open rooftop and saw a building at a similar height fifteen paces away. With a gulp she looked at the two yard gap between them, before she pulled off a light jump between the buildings. She landed with a jerk on her feet, the energy from the shock landing jarred at her thighs for a second before the feeling subsided. Behind her the rifle fire started again. With a cry she dived behind a chimney stack, clutching the briefcase tightly to her chest.
For three seconds the gunfire continued until she heard the guard yelp with courage. Guessing that he'd attempted the same jump, she rushed to her feet and set off again. Ahead was a low wall and she coolly placed her hands on it before swinging her body over.
It was a mistake. On the other side, there was nothing but air to catch her preceding a six foot drop. She entered free-fall and desperately rolled during the descent, landing with a cry of agony in a pile of garbage. She could feel pain in her ankle. With a tremendous effort she clawed her way to her feet and hobbled along the ground.
Suddenly a hand grabbed the front of her outfit and she was hauled through a doorway. She kicked and screamed as the door was slammed shut. Instantly the assailant threw her down on the ground. Fury made her think that she should immediately jump and attack, but the sound of a pistol hammer pulling back caused her to remain still.
"Keep quiet." The deep male voice commanded suddenly.
With the stranger holding the aces, she maintained her silence. Tifa was sat down low, her back pressed against the wall. The stranger was stood up to her right, his eyes fixed to some form of crack. For three minutes the silence remained, then, the figure turned to her.
"Girl, you got some heat on you." As he spoke, Tifa got the chance to look him over. He was around three inches taller than her, had a dark skin tone, his head was close shaved and he had a full frame. On his left and right arms were unusual tattoos shaped like some blocks. "What's your name kid?"
She took a deep breath. So far he was talking, which meant he was delaying killing her for a moment. His wrist was thick, so an application of kotogeshi - a simple wrist-lock hold - would be impossible without him moving towards her. If he raised the pistol, she'd have to employ a cross block. If she was lucky the gun would be dislodged, allowing her free reign to attack the knee. Of course, she'd like to avoid that situation altogether.
"Tifa." She replied swiftly.
"Uh-huh," the man mumbled as he looked at the briefcase that was lying on the ground. "Now then girl, let's have a look at what you were carrying." Confused, she looked on as he drew a hairpin from beneath a leather bracelet he wore on his wrist. With a few twists and pushes, the locks opened. Immediately the man shook his head.
"What are you shaking your head at?" Tifa reacted defensively.
"Walking trap. Gotta give the blues credit, they played you for a fool. Lucky I was around. Had you gone any further across these rooftops, they'd have probably sent a bird and a death squad after you." He signalled to a stairwell. "Lead on, I'll explain when it's safe."
Tifa felt nervous wondering what trap had she exactly fallen for. The man had hauled her in, pointed a gun at her, and now was offering advice. She thought back to what she knew about him. She knew the man held a weapon, therefore he had the edge. She'd have to watch his movements and work a way free. Reluctantly, she went forward and up the stairs, with the stranger bringing up the rear.
The pair had fled silently into the night, neither speaking during their run from the law. With the initial guards shaken off, and the stranger giving her a different route to take, Tifa had been able to relax into herself. The man had not made any aggressive moves, but she was unsure if that meant the man was to be trusted or eyed with even greater suspicion.
What had impressed her had been the knowledge of the city he possessed. It was as if he had some form of GPS in his mind. Street names, building titles and sub-sector numbers constantly eschewed from his mouth. After an hour of high intensity running, climbing and jumping, they had come to what the stranger said was the safe zone.
The structure was a cylinder shape, which narrowed at the top in the same way as a funnel. The walls had multiple slits in them to allow those within to see outside. What confused her was how it was on a solitary corner of a building rooftop. The stranger had shown her a concealed ladder before he flipped a hatch and they dropped down revealing the interior.
The circular floor was tiled in a white colour, reflecting the moonlight back towards the heavens. In the centre of the room was a circular dais, she counted at least seven computer monitors and numerous towers all whirring mechanically. Off-setting this was a brown leather sofa containing three seats, while on the other side of the dais three military bunks were made neatly.
"Now that the blues are off our tail, maybe I can give you some answers." The fellow announced as he slid into a large swivel chair. To Tifa's disgust, the stranger then opened a pizza box and drew forth a slice. The cheese on top had set to a musty yellow colour that suggested at least two days exposure.
"That looks awful." She announced, even though she had wanted to resist commenting. The way he smacked his lips as he ate just went through her.
"A mature topping is how I eat. Anyway, what matters more is you." He bit off another chunk out of a piece. "Walking trap ok? I'll explain what I meant." Swiftly he turned the box around to reveal an arrest warrant, rubber-stamped with her name.
"What the hell?" She yelped.
The stranger nodded. "They had their eyes out for you girl. I heard that a jewellery guy had been robbed and the perp busted. Evidently he was more than some ageing store owner. Chances are, he was a sleeper agent, used to fish out insurgents."
Tifa let free a slew of expletives, to which the figure simply nodded. "That's it girl, flush it out. In this city, anyone and everyone has eyes for the blues." He stood and walked up to the slits in the walls that granted a broken vision of the outside world.
"I can't believe I was that stupid. No wonder Rikas got caught."
"Now we come to important bit girl. Tell me, where are you from? I know everyone who stalks the night of the upper plate, and you're a stranger."
She swallowed desperately, trying to quell the adrenaline coursing through her. "I'm from the slums," she began, thinking the truth was a safer bet than some fabrication. "I have no family, no friends, no future. I fell in with a street gang, ripping off alcohol stores and herbal vendors. It was a nothing life, so I encouraged everyone to migrate up here."
The stranger nodded. "So the flurry of activity in the upper plate of sector four was caused by you. Heh, figured it would be someone green." He walked to the central dais and hit a button on a keyboard. Instantly the air became awash with voices on many frequencies, all ending their sentences with the word 'over'.
"What is that?" She questioned, bewildered why anyone would listen to multiple streams of random conversation.
"The chatter, kid. That noise is the blues, all reporting into their radios. Take a listen, you might pick up something." Together they pulled up a seat, the stranger ripping another cold slice of pizza from the box.
"Officer O'Malley reporting in. Caucasian female was last seen leaping off the roof of the Tanaka building. No visual on suspect now. Over." One voice announced.
"Acknowledged Officer O'Malley, we have reports of a disturbance at the Kitade electronics store in your sector. Three youths armed with shotguns, Officers Angel and Kioku are in the vicinity. Link with them and investigate. Over." Another countered.
"Understood, O'Malley out."
The stranger hit a button and the silence returned, only briefly disturbed by the distant sound of a helicopter. Tifa stood up from the chair and mimicked the man, walking up to the visual slots and gazing at the city. A morass of buildings, varying from fourteen storeys to over one hundred littered the horizon. She couldn't help but spot the many patrols, cameras and helicopters circling Midgar, always watching, always waiting.
"I wish I could do more." She announced suddenly. "Being chased like that, I want to do more to change things." Swiftly she spiralled around to face the man. "When I was finding my spot to wait, I walked past so many people. They were all there in their suits and long dresses. Gold dripping from them, their little phones constantly pressed to their ears. While they walked, we had armed guards waving people over for identity scans and other stuff. How can they bear it?"
"Don't know kid. You know that ninety per cent of things in this city are either taxed or a crime right? Ever since the Shinra president had that building erected, all funded by the fallout from the Wutai war. Once Wutai was done, no one else had a market share in the energy field, so with it they gained power."
He stood up and walked to stand at her side, looking through the vista again. "Now the people all parade in line, bowing their heads and dropping to one knee as if this is some form of medieval kingdom."
"Who are you?" The question came suddenly, "I mean, with you listening to police scans, helping me escape, talking about everything being taxed or a crime. Who are you?"
The stranger looked at her. "Listen very carefully Tifa. You stand at a point where you can go back to the slums and fight your little street war. Who knows? You might even gain some turf down there, be able to control the slums your own way. Or... You can let me answer that question. But know this, once I tell you you'll be aligned to one of the groups the city doesn't want free."
She frowned at the statement. It was like something out of a movie, where a man was offering a random person from the street a way to bend reality. To see some truth that everything that surrounded them wasn't real. She knew that wasn't what he was hinting at, but he obviously had some form of agenda that the Shinra didn't like. Because of that, despite her fear, curiosity won out. If the Shinra didn't want his people, then she did.
"Who are you?" She asked again.
The stranger smiled. "All right girl, time to climb out of the rabbit hole and know how it is. The name's Merc, and I am a sort of commander of a street army myself, only we don't fight if we can possibly avoid it. We run." He pointed through a slit in the strange hub that served as his command centre. "Tell me what you see."
She looked through, and the same thoughts cycled into her mind. "Skyscrapers, apartments, mako towers. Watching them. Cops, Shinra soldiers, cameras and helicopters."
Merc nodded. "Not bad. You see the city and the hawks that watch it. Good beginning, but you need to look beyond it. You know what I see?"
He pointed to a nearby wall. "Drainpipe to climb." Swiftly, he flicked his fingers to a gap between two buildings. "Bar to swing from point to point." In the blink of an eye his fingers moved again. "Fans to run on to clear the gap to the next roof." He turned and saw her awed expression. "That's the way of the runner Tifa. Run the night and drop our goods."
"So it's like a delivery service?" She questioned.
Merc smiled. "Yeah girl, take all the edge out of what we do." He replied with a chuckle. "E-mail, physical mail and phone calls are insanely copy-protected. You have a conversation on a phone and jokingly say the name of the former Wutai ruler, twenty minutes later you're in a jail cell. The swift justice programme makes mincemeat of anyone who strays remotely between the black and white. There are no shades of grey here. Other crimes at least feature a trial, or what passes for one. So, we runners are an alternative, we don't care about what the package is or who receives it. We run, client pays, we deliver. It's that simple."
"Now I understand." She replied. "By existing you undermine everything they patrol for. It's how the anarchy goes on."
"Exactly girl. Ever since the riots the Shinra has put through emergency act after emergency act, constantly whittling down what liberty people had. One of my runners, Faith, can tell you all about that more than anyone. Me? I'm just here to show that we can be free and we can be what we want. You got potential girl. You were nuts to jump without training, but, that shows me you can learn. I can make a runner of you Tifa. It's my offer to get you out of the slums."
"I have nowhere to stay." She countered.
Merc pointed at one of the bunks. "None of the runners have a permanent home. We live on the edge, between the gloss and the reality. Everyone cycles in and out, even me. For now, you stay here. Once we get you running, we can show you some of our shelters that we keep off the grid. For now, get some sleep girl. It's nearly 2am and we got an early start to reach the training ground."
Gratefully she slumped into the bunk. Her mind drinking in the points about what he saw when looking at the city. It would take her time, but she would learn. She would finally be free.
They had arisen at 7am. Tifa had barely felt the sleep with the adrenaline from the previous night still flushing through her, though the rate had slowed considerably. Merc had taken point and gone into the streets. He stated that it was dangerous to be at street level for a runner, but with a recruit it was too risky to take the runner path.
So, they had both bought long coats and hats, they chose a cover identity of a pair of street artists. Merc was able to perform high-leaps and twirls, which generated colossal applause from the crowds who watched when they'd stopped at random plazas on the way and performed briefly. Tifa, on the flipside, had impressed with her ability to juggle objects.
Twice Shinra patrols had been curious enough to come over and watch, but the sight of clapping and coins flying into the hats was enough to quell any desire to place the pair under arrest. After a painstaking two hour journey of this, Merc called the button on an elevator at a rundown apartment complex.
For five minutes they rode upwards, the journey bumpy as the aged elevator car rocked where the weathered cables distorted the route. Soon though, they stepped free of the car and Tifa marvelled at the vista before her. It was some form of area that would have once been used to dry clothes. There were a slew of bars that resembled goal posts, all at the same seven feet height, while a rail surrounded the edge of the square roof.
"Time for your first lesson." Merc announced. "One of the most important skills in any runner's arsenal is the ability to fall safely. So I'm gonna teach you something we call the skill roll."
Instantly she felt like she was back in the dojo, it felt surreal, in her martial skills, she was a ranking sensei, here, she was a novice again. Carefully she listened as he talked through the importance of momentum, that the roll was meant to continue the motion, not stop it dead. Then he gave her demonstration. He clambered onto a low fuse box and jumped forwards. But as he neared the floor, instead of adopting a position with legs wide apart, Merc closed his body up, before he aimed his right hand into a shape similar to the letter D. Then he rolled forwards and his legs were running before they even hit the ground, the momentum total so his speed remained.
"Your turn girl." He commanded.
Tifa stepped onto the transformer box. Carefully she jumped and angled her body, halfway through, her main training kicked in, instead of flowing close and rolling over, she instead overlapped both hands, forming a long curled loop from her arm. The roll was smooth, but her leg control was lacking. She thought fast and locked one leg solid so that it was perpendicular with the landing. She was able to continue moving, but not with the smoothness and grace Merc had shown.
He looked at her with a raised eyebrow. "That's an interesting style. It's not fast but it's very well controlled. You definitely have potential girl. Keep at it. Try and bring your leg control in. Show me that you can run."
Casually, he sat on an old and rusted bench and watched Tifa go through the motions. The way she had locked the right leg and let herself go on was not natural or accidental but deliberate. Merc was interested. The girl had some form of background, and he wondered what it was.
For two hours he had watched her go through the technique. She had begun to stop locking the rear leg, but was still not carrying the motion through. But he was encouraged. She had picked up the basics faster than any of his other students. Even Celeste hadn't been this fast.
"Merc come in." The voice announced into his com piece.
"Yo Kreeg what's up?" He replied casually.
"Drake says there's higher blue traffic at street level. Something to do with sector five. He's warning runners to stay clear of the area."
"I got you man. You on duty?"
"Not yet. Faith and Celeste are out taking care of the big business. Jackknife is keeping me on standby for the next job. Currently listening to the chatter to try and figure out what's going on down at street level."
"Well I might have a job for you. I got a new recruit going through the motions at the training ground in sector two. Currently got her skill rolling but I need someone to talk her through finding a path. Reckon you're my man for that?"
"Been a while since we got some fresh blood. Sure, I'll come check the greenie out for you. But if Jackknife calls, I scoot straight off, so I wouldn't be going anywhere. Chances are you'll need to guide your newbie back to the nest. Out."
As the com went dead he watched Tifa one last time. The motion was almost there. If he kept her training on this move she'd have it nailed by the end of the day. But he knew that too much of the same thing bred monotony. "Tifa! Good effort. Come here, time for a break."
He watched as the girl breathed heavily and jogged over, sitting herself down beside him. "You got the basics of the move down. Though from the height of that box, you don't really need to skill roll. But I don't want anyone breaking their neck or worse first time out. When you get the chance, we'll slowly raise the height." He pointed behind him at a raised electrical box on another roof, the gap between a good five metres across. "Eventually you'll be leaping across gaps like that and skill rolling on the floor here. But that's a long way off, so don't panic."
"How long have you been running?" Tifa asked swiftly.
"Good few years. Can't remember exactly how long, but long enough to have seen some of the best runners quit and new blood step up to the plate. On the whole, it's been good. The blues have kept distant and we've only lost a couple to the cells."
"The cells?" Tifa yelped.
Merc nodded. "Yup. A couple of our guys have been busted and imprisoned. The Shinra love control. If you are in any way something that doesn't fit into the machine, they take you out of it and lock you in the cells. It's funny, you watch a news report and the guy doing the job is always going on about how the freedom of the people is being upheld and all that. Every line he reads comes from an autocue, everything released is controlled. You're free, so long as you do exactly as you're told. Unless, like us, you run."
They sat in silence reflecting on the conversation. Tifa began thinking of how it had all began for her. To this day she did not know how she'd made it to this metropolis. All she remembered was the flash of the sword-blade and then darkness. Next, she was in a hospital some six thousand or so miles away from home.
Suddenly the twenty-minute long silence was disturbed by the rustling sound of movement on the grated fence nearby. Tifa looked up to watch as a figure suddenly leapt twenty feet from a rooftop to the east. Without flinching the figure rolled and was up on his feet. The man wore an orange shirt with black trousers, his hands were covered by a pair of finger-less red gloves, while he also sported a block style tattoo, this time on the underside of his left wrist. Like Merc, he was dark skinned.
"Tifa, meet Kreeg, one of our runners." Merc announced before any hostility could occur.
"Pleased to see you girl," the newcomer announced abruptly. "I want to show you the art of finding a route."
Tifa looked to Merc who nodded his head. "All runners share their skills. We each can highlight something different. I'll be waiting here, but Kreeg is gonna take you further out and bring you back by showing you the ways. But Kreeg, she doesn't know anything besides the skill roll, you understand?"
Kreeg nodded. "I'll keep it basic for now, but I can talk about the advanced stuff so that when Merc says you're ready, you can jump straight into it. Let's go."
Tifa, without a backwards glance, strolled after Kreeg and followed the runner into the world above the street.
Merc was pleased. The last two months had gone to an extent he could not believe. Tifa had shown great adaption and had found herself soaring free of any doubts he could have seen her holding within. Like with any new runner, the bedding in time had gone on for a short while. Her first time out with Kreeg had shown she'd have a long way to go. Unable to do wall runs or kick turns, they had taken an arduous but rewarding path back to him.
Since that trip, often without his presence or that of any other runner, Tifa had gone off alone into the night. Once she understood what to look for, her inner runner vision had come to light. Merc had listened as she radioed in on coms stating what she had been using as her markers. He had been impressed at how unusual they were, because often runners would use the signs on billboards, graffiti and even guard checkpoints. Instead, Tifa had been picking out things such as an unusually arranged set of chimneys, windows that showed no light due to the property being vacant and the angle that aircraft took to swoop down into the sector four airport.
Over the last two months, Merc had watched her on the training ground, slowly getting ever closer to the natural pace of runners experienced for years. While reflecting on this, he stood on the rooftop with the washing poles, when suddenly he saw her run at a large plank and perform the five metre long and four metre deep jump between one building and the one he stood on, before skill rolling and immediately running along the side of power box, turn-jumping to her left and leaping for his position, gripping onto the edge of the roof and hauling herself up before him.
He clicked the stopwatch and nodded. "Good. Under two minutes. You've done well girl."
"Thanks." She replied with a smile, "I'm feeling on top of the world. The feeling I get when I run... It's like a drug. I just want to do it all the more."
He nodded. "I was once told that the time someone feels most alive is when they are on the edge of death. So I can understand why you feel it is like a drug. But like a drug, Tifa, it can be a nasty addiction. Don't go too far. That's the sort of thing that leads to the blues getting one up on you and hauling you off to prison."
"I understand Merc. Thanks, for everything."
"Well girl, you can thank me after you do your first drop." He grinned as her mouth hung open in shock. "Most runners don't see action for at least six months, but you're something special. I haven't seen anyone just get straight into the smooth running and style. As such, I want to see how special you are."
"T-T-Thank you." Tifa stammered helplessly.
"As I say, don't thank me until you do your first drop. I am gonna return to the nest so I can get on coms and track you. Meantime, get over to sector six. I need you near New Eden."
He shook his head as she actually saluted and set off. Inside he felt his nerves fraying. On the training ground it was easy. Out there, the blues will be the ones watching, if she's too green, she might not return. He shrugged off the fear as best as he could. She'd had the chance to say no, and he'd have felt no less about her. She chose the path to run, and he would ensure she'd get through it.
Alone, she ran at the rooftop and executed a swift jump. As the ground neared she prepared and pulled off the skill roll. On her feet again, she darted forwards and hurdled a steam pipe. Instantly she was near the wall. Swiftly she leapt and gripped lightly at the edge, pulling herself over and onto the narrow top.
To her right was the wire. She gulped and swallowed her fear, before she jumped and grabbed hold. The gloves took most of the friction, but even so the heat was pulsing through to her palms. She saw the other end coming and waited patiently before she released her grip and rolled. Running on, she dropped onto a small storage container and ran at the wall. Her feet kissed the bricks three times before she jumped clear and onto the wide rooftop.
Looking up she saw in the distance the spire of the tower directly behind the New Eden mall. She could not reach it on foot from where she was so instead, she tracked the angle of the railway and aimed for the nearest station. With the time close to 9am the body count on board would be sky high, thus the perfect cover for someone who never operated at street level to slip through undetected. This was thanks mainly to the fact that no identity card system had yet been formulated that could cope with the amount of people using the rail system at once.
As she darted towards the tracks, she looked to shadow it from the rooftops until over the station she let out a wide smile. The stupidity of the conglomerate would provide her mask, and from behind it, she would begin to distort their control.
The hands on her watch pointed to 09:43, and she was alone. Four hundred metres on the horizon was the New Eden. The mall with the dome shaped roof, and also a hive of new opportunities if the sludge its adverts spat out were to be believed. Merc had ordered her to be near it, but she was wise enough to guess that the mission would not be there.
He had talked about this being her first slice of action, and how other runners wouldn't have gotten the chance within six months. Therefore, it was to be a low key job in the overall frame of running, but even so, it was a task she had never undertaken before. So she knew to not underestimate it.
She was standing on the flat roof at a height equivalent to a twentieth storey. While she thought of it as the roof, the building itself stretched on as a secondary part, which had a narrower structure, continued skyward for another ten to fifteen storeys. She had chosen the spot herself, wanting as many avenues of escape as possible in case anything went wrong.
Directly under her feet were a pair of pipes that dropped down the whole building. To her right, just ten paces, was the roof of a multi-storey parking garage. Directly in front, the outcrop of another building similar to the administrative office block she stood on now, while behind her, was a telephone cable that stretched out across at least three buildings before joining the central cable network.
Looking to the North-West, in the direction of New Eden, she saw again how the main population of the city just got about their lives. At least five taxis all waited in tandem outside the mall central square, their drivers casually standing next to the doors waiting for a person burdened with bags to collar their services at a price.
She could not see the actual main square at the front of the building, but she guessed that there would be at least three different buskers all trying to play recognisable songs on a beat up guitar, in the vain hope that a person would throw some coins into their hat to contribute towards a meal. While smaller stores would try and entice people from the main chains, promising some more unusual stuff that you can't get on the high street usually.
All in all, not much had changed in the way people saw the world from before she was born, excluding the runners and the dissenters. Merc had been right when he mentioned how you were free so long as you did as you were told. The amount of cameras and guards made it impossible to see things any other way.
"Stop daydreaming girl!" Merc's suddenly sounded into her communicator.
"Go ahead Merc, I'm ready."
"Course you are. Now listen, one of our runners stashed a bag inside the Nakano Construction office building on the 25th floor. Area is a vacant floor awaiting lease. Now from your position you need to go North-East."
Merc fell silent suddenly and Tifa pirouetted in that direction. The parking garage gave her an uninterrupted view for a while, until the Midgar rail headquarters building got in the way.
"The building has a large sign of an airship on it. Nothing else like it in the city. Unfortunately, no building in the area matches the height of the floor, meaning you'll need to get in at a lower level and somehow up without being seen." He announced swiftly.
"I can do this Merc." Tifa countered before she ran to the edge and leapt across the six metre wide gap and dropped down four metres, instinctively she pulled off the skill roll and began to dash across the open surface. "I just need to run."
"I'm keeping my ears on the chatter. Blues are still interested in the commotion of sector five, not exactly sure what's going on down there. But either way, the blues still have some heat on you over the walking target thing and it'll take a while for that to drop entirely. If any blues see you..."
"I know the rules Merc, if any blues see me and I'm caught, I'm just a street thief and know nothing about the runners. Keep me posted, out."
She took in the view of the city and saw a multitude of paths. Merc told her the building was to the North-East. She scanned the horizon and couldn't see any building with an airship, which told her it must have been past the rail company building. As she looked in the direction of that, she saw a building under construction some two hundred yards from it.
Picking that as her first contact point, she took in the immediate vista about her. Jumping straight ahead, she gripped onto the wire and rode through the friction. As she saw the edge of the first tier of a building come into sight, she let go and rolled on landing. Instantly she darted to the North-East again.
Ahead, she saw a thick door. Focusing her strength, she darted for it and threw the back of her right arm up at a ninety-degree angle, so that the forearm and wrist were locked tight. With the motion carrying her forward, the wrist and arm forced the door open taking her onto a spiralling set of stairs.
She jumped forwards over the bannister and kicked out as her feet neared the railing on the other side. With the grace of an ice dancer, she spiralled her body around and reached out with her hands, gripping onto the rail and hauling herself over. Three times more she carried on the motion until she performed the same door trick again.
This time she was on the roof proper. The door behind her was covered by a sloping roof that was designed to blend in with the roof floor behind it. It was obviously built so that the rain could run off the top and that the door would stop water flowing down into the building. Swiftly she closed the door, thankful that her trespass upon the rooftop had not set off any building security alarms.
Turning to the east, she could see the city much clearer now. Thanks to being level with the transport building, she could now see behind it. Almost directly ahead was the target. It must have stretched for at least thirty-five floors, with the sign being an addition at the very top. Its edges had lots of red lights, which were currently off, but she imagined they would dazzle the sky at night.
In the centre of the board was the image of the airship. Its propellers were painted red, while underneath it was the slogan: 'Soar free of the chains, drink Highwind.' She shook her head at the sight of the advert, wondering how anyone could believe that a drink would be able to make them fly or sprout wings. It all felt a nonsense.
Shrugging off the reaction to the advert, Tifa scanned the area around the target building. Merc had not been kidding when he said that no building in the immediate area was of the same height to where the drop had taken place. Even though she was currently as high, with the target building being at least five hundred metres away, no runner on earth could jump the gap.
The next highest building looked very plain and had numerous flags around it. Puzzled she squinted and tried to make out the design. Instantly she struck the building off. The flags were all for different nations that formed part of the Shinra empire, which meant heavy blues traffic. That was something she neither wanted nor had the patience for.
To the left though was another structure only a couple of storeys smaller, this one had the logo 'Doctor Dave' emblazoned all over it. Tifa figured it was some form of advertising building, where there would be a lot of people traffic. With her thoughts locked, she leapt off the edge and fell for around five metres. She gripped out with her arms and caught the fire escape, her arm shuddered as the impact hit and for a heartbeat she thought she'd lose her grip.
She gritted her teeth though and was able to pull herself over and onto safe ground. Unlike other buildings, the fire escape was a metal platform that circled the entirety of every floor, meaning that every window went out onto a walkway that could be used to reach a ladder. It might have resulted in people considering it ugly, but to Tifa's mind if made sound sense, as well as presenting an easy opportunity to exploit it as a runner.
Dashing forward she climbed the nearest ladder to the floor above. As an extra precaution, the ladders were not in one fixed place all down the building. Instead there was a ladder was specially positioned so that each floor only conjoined with the one directly beneath and above it. No doubt so that not only could fire not flash down a condensed route along the exterior of the building, but also stop the ladders from shattering through too much force on them at once.
Utilising this to her advantage, she scaled the building as high as possible and then ran along the rooftop. The gap to her and the advertising building had narrowed considerably, and she was delighted to see that ahead was a jump directly to a flat roof. She gauged the fall to be around ten metres. She gulped at the figure, knowing that it was about the same as someone leaping off a diving board and into a thirty foot deep pool of water. Shaking her fear she ran for the edge and jumped, halfway through the fall she felt the speed increase and was close to panic when she executed the roll.
The motion was taken out and as such she did not shatter any bones, but she had so much momentum she carried on until she tripped over a ceiling skylight. With the grace of a five year old on a bucking bronco she crashed to the floor. Dazed, she sat for a moment as her vision blurred, as she placed a finger to her skull she felt a little blood where she had hit her head.
For a minute the dizziness continued but it didn't last, subsiding after that minute had passed. As she pulled herself to her feet, she saw the door and quietly opened it. Again, to her delight, no alarms went off and she found herself inside a dusty stairwell. This puzzled her. She was high up, but didn't think it would be such that no one came here.
"Merc come in." She quietly voiced into her microphone. "I'm in the advertising building for Doctor Dave, adjacent to the target building. The stairwell here is really dusty and disused. Can you run a scan and see if there're any surprises?" As she spoke, Tifa stealthily moved onto the steps and slowly upwards.
"Hmm... Looking at the schematics I'd guess you're on the South-West stairwell. Tell me, you getting a broken signal?" He asked quizzically.
"A little. A touch of static but then it stops, why?"
"I think you're in the bomb-proof stairs. Buildings have them so that one section of the building is designed to take a heavy blast. There's nothing to stop people using them, often they are quicker, but people have a mind-set that if something is designed to protect them from bombs, you should stay away. Good call girl. That'll get you to the roof without any detection."
"Thanks Merc. Keep me posted if the chatter suggests otherwise. Out."
With the little pep-talk pushing her on, Tifa quickened her pace and climbed at least ten sets of stairs before she reached a door similar to that she had utilised before. Again she swallowed her fear and opened the door, but this time a loud bell sounded. With a curse she slammed the door shut then ran on and looked ahead. Directly in front of her was a sheer wall of the target building and no ledges to exploit.
She spun to the right and followed the path of the building, looking for anything she could use. As she reached the end she cried out. There was nothing.
"The building alarm was tripped with the door opening. Annoyingly, it wasn't the fire alarm. That would have got the building evacuated. Instead it's got their security coming. They're about eight floors down. Find a way out of there!"
She needed no telling, taking another look down she saw a flag fluttering in the wind. Narrowing her eyes she looked beyond it to where she saw a second, and ahead of that a large open walkway of another building.
Swiftly she rushed to the back edge of the roof she was on. She took a deep breath. This was do or die, either jump and succeed, jump and fail or remain and be arrested. Instantly she knew that there was only one choice.
Throwing all caution to the wind she darted forwards and stepped onto the thin stone edge of the roof before she pressed all her weight into her right foot and catapulted into the air. As she cleared the roof, the space between each building suddenly threw wind at her. She yelped as it did so, before throwing all her effort into the bodies left side, desperate to stop the crosswind pushing her off target and to the street some eighty or so metres below her.
Desperately she threw her arms out and gripped the flag pole. Continuing the motion she kicked out with her legs and released her grip, the force pushing her forwards, before she again gripped the flag pole. With one last deep breath she swung herself forward again and into free fall, once more at the mercy of the winds. Defiantly she shrieked as the force of wind collided with her force of will. After dropping approximately ten metres she was ready for the roll. This time she reverted to her older style of fall, the arm extended and flowing.
As the roll began she tucked her left leg back so that the ball of the ankle touched the inside of her knee. The tucking motion caused her left leg to touch the ground first. Without thinking she swept her left leg behind her in an arcing motion, to bring her into a martial arts stance. Her right foot forward, left foot back and body facing one hundred and eighty degrees away from the direction of the jump, the style stopping half the motion dead. Instinctively she then took a step backwards, her right leg being dragged behind her, before she dropped onto her back and rolled on her right shoulder to stand facing the flags that had been her salvation.
Thinking fast she ducked behind a chimney stack. On the building across, confused guards were patrolling, wondering what had set the alarms off and where said cause had disappeared to. For two minutes she remained silently in cover before she risked a glance and saw the rooftop appeared to be clear.
"Merc, can you check if the guards have gone back in?"
She was left waiting patiently for a further minute after she'd asked before she received a response. "Good work kid. Insane method, but good work. Guards have gone back in, chatter has them talking to the blues and requesting one of their techs examines the door. They found it shut with the alarm going off and no one in sight. Guess they think it's a fault in the system. You're currently on the transport headquarters building at floor twenty-two. Blues are in the area but they should be distracted by your last stunt. If you get to the roof you should be able to reach the ventilation system that runs on the outside of the Nakano building. Find a way in from there."
More wary this time, she avoided the door and instead sought another route. Walking to the edge of the building, she saw an electricity box. Clambering atop it she looked around patiently and saw that the building had an odd design feature where a stone rail circled it with no real reason.
She jumped and grabbed tightly to it. Calming herself, she began to shuffle along while hanging on the outside of the building from it with her fingers. For five agonising minutes this continued until she felt the main building end and an outcrop appear above her. Climbing up, she found herself on a balcony and to her right was a large windowed office that was vacant.
Coolly she walked up to the door handles and tried her luck. To her astonishment, it was open. Instantly she was suspicious and she pulled back, gripping the edge and hanging over again, shuffling around the corner she was back out of sight of the ledge.
"Merc, found a possible entrance, but it's fishy so I need you to check it out."
"What you need kid?" He replied swiftly.
"I'm currently hanging on a ledge about thirty metres from my last drop zone. I found a balcony that leads to an office and place is open. Any chance you can see the area?"
"Hmm... Know what you mean about fishy. Hang on a second." The sound of tapping filled her ears for a long minute, her arms, all the time, burning from the effort of hanging on. "Looks like it is the accounting offices. Interesting that they left it unlocked, but no people traffic and no sign of the blues. No idea how long it'll remain that way though so you're best making your move. Remember, get on the roof and look for the external fans. At some point it'll lead into the Nakano ventilation system. Out."
Hastily she shuffled along the ledge and hauled herself up once more. Coolly she slid open the door, and then silently shut it behind her, leaving the lock disengaged in case someone had actually deliberately left it open. Last thing she needed was to tip people off because someone was meticulous about things being open for once.
The area was plush and professional. A cream sofa sat along the wall facing a large television screen, while an adjacent long room was visible thanks to the pair of wide doors being wedged open. Inside of which was a long oval table that had at least twelve seats. Focusing, Tifa walked past this into a narrow hallway.
The space between each wall could have been no more than ten feet, as she followed the numerous straight paths that were punctuated by ninety-degree corners she lost count of the office doors that were sitting silently shut. Her eyes were constantly alert for stairwell access.
Ten paces along, she saw that the green line she had assumed to be some form of decoration. They changed shape and pointed diagonally upwards, right beside a door.
Curious, she twisted the handle and opened it slowly. Behind the entrance was another set of spiralling stairs similar to those in the advertising building. It felt strange to her, as she had never seen a place conceal its stairways before. She knew the rail network building would be important, but why conceal such a standard feature?
Anxious at not really knowing, she did her best to throw the curiosity off and began to ascend them silently. After six flights of stairs she passed a door marked 'twenty-two' and onto a final staircase. Throwing up her wrist and forearm she pushed the door open, ready to dart free from the alarm sounding off.
Only there was silence.
With a sigh of relief she calmly slotted the door back into position. Directly ahead of her she could see the target building. If the sign she passed moments ago was to be believed, she was only two floors down, now, from where the package had been stored. Glancing up she craned her neck to follow the path of the building, only to lose count after fifteen more floors.
Standing on the edge of the building, she began to look for signs of entry. Merc had pointed to fans that ran on the outside and into the ventilation system. Immediately ahead she could see nothing. Taking a turn to the west, she walked towards the corner that way. The gap between the buildings was the width of one street.
Thinking in her head, that meant the distance had to be at least four metres. Even with a run up, anything on the same level of a building would not be possible to grasp. Standing once again on the very edge of the building, she looked down, a floor below she saw thick metal boxes hanging off the side of the building. Each one was at least three feet across and a group of three of them were together, with thick ventilation shafts coiling around the building and into the side of the boxes.
Stepping back from the edge she paced out the distance, before she ran and leapt. The rush coursed back into her veins as the wind caught at her. One fade or drag and she would be looking at a fall of eighty metres or more. Calmly she watched the fans and, as they got within touching distance, she pulled off the skill roll. The motion carried her forwards and instinctively she stood up and stretched her palms out.
Instantly she locked the muscles and the firm shove against the building transferred the energy, stopping her from smashing head first into the thick glass that served as the exoskeleton for the structure. She stepped harshly on the top of the fan to test the strength and was surprised at how little the metal moved. It had been built to survive severe stress, or so it seemed.
Trusting her instincts, she turned to the east again and rushed across two of the fans - she had landed in the middle of the trio - and onto the actual ventilation tunnels. She didn't want to risk entering the vents themselves because, by being tied to such fans on the outside, the interior would be either extremely hot or extremely cold. Both situations could prove fatal, and she wouldn't have that. Not on her first job.
Instead, she reached the point where the ventilation shaft went back into the building. As she had hoped, there was a walkway constructed just at this point with a door leading to it. Despite the world being built upwards to the sky, there was still a need for certain buildings to have these pathways for engineers to access things. Normally, a crew would abseil from the summit of the building and work whilst hanging off a rope. But when your summit was a good sixty metres or greater above the point of repair, ropes became a little unpopular.
Carefully pulling the door outwards, she walked inside to find the area darkened. She resisted the urge to find a switch and hit the lights, not trusting the area to be crawling with blues who had set a trap for her. Instead, she silently moved through the darkness, until the service path joined the regular pathway of the floor.
Unexpectedly, she found herself at an elevator shaft. Trying her luck, she hit the button and ducked out of sight behind a vending machine. For a good minute she listened to the whirring of the fan that kept the contents cooled, before she heard a pinging sound. Risking a glance, she took in the sight of the elevator and saw it vacant.
Tifa bolted and once inside hit the button for floor twenty-five and then the button to force the doors closed. She had no desire to share the elevator with anyone. For twenty seconds the ride was smooth before she felt the car slow down, and the doors ping open again. Swiftly she flicked her head around the door. As soon as she saw the elevator lobby was clear of people she stepped off the car.
Merc had described the floor as empty. While the people traffic was certainly quiet, the area was far from empty. Numerous office cubicles sat neatly organised with desks, chairs and computer systems all still setup. The walls still had many unusual paintings that contained motivational messages at the bottom of them. One caught her eye by having an eagle flying over a mountain and the message at the bottom saying, 'the sky is not our limit, it is the starting point for our greatness.'
She chuckled as she thought about it. The message probably had more to do with the fact that most floors people worked on were above the clouds, rather than motivating individuals to reach their goals. Taking her mind from the decor she paced the offices swiftly, again noting the many cubicles that seemed to have been abandoned in a hurry.
"Merc, this place doesn't appear empty. Are you sure it's the twenty-fifth floor?" She asked casually.
"Girl, who's the one sitting with all the greatest surveillance gear on the black market huh?" He replied curtly, almost offended by the remark. "Appearances deceive. This floor was one of the departments for introducing new lines and liaising with other transport networks. All that has been out-sourced now, god knows where, but you know the Shinra. Once a place is past its use by date, chuck it on the scrapheap. We got a couple of days before the crews come in to clean it out. It's why we had to get in now."
"What am I looking for?"
"Time for you to discover how we hide things. The runner chooses a hiding place, could be absolutely anywhere. But, once the package is stored, they paint or write a special symbol somewhere nearby. What you need to do is to find what we runners call 'the glyph'. It's a small logo that's red in colour, always red, has a main shape that's a square. But, in the middle is tribal symbol, it resembles a bird but sort of has a fin at the back of it. You'll know it when you see it. Basically, that glyph tells other runners the object is nearby. Find the glyph, then grab the package and get out. Level thirty-two has a window cleaner lift you can use to drop down to a lower building and run the city. I'll buzz you again once you're clear of the area. Out."
Tifa set off again. This time she paid attention to ever detail, looking at the walls, desks, anything that possessed a coloured logo that seemed out of place. For three minutes she had no luck, but then she spotted a file on the main desk. The top-right corner of the file had been marked as Merc had described it, looking at the glyph she could understand why it seemed so tough to visualise in her head. She smiled, the runners were careful. No one wants to leave a secret message that is easily cracked by the cops.
She started by trying under the desks, but saw nothing. Next she thought of opening the drawers but instantly dismissed it. It was way too obvious a place. A pair of plant pots caught her eye and she rustled through them, but felt nothing. Calming herself she thought hard. This was a hot item, it was not something you'd leave in a place that was easy to access or easy to lift in a hurry. Not without it being concealed anyway.
Sure, the building was tough to access for runners, but not for the workers nor the cops. It had to be safe from anyone, including the runners. Armed with this perception, she turned to the environment. This was a bustling office place until very recently, which meant that the runner could not have easily scaled into air vents or moved entire bookcases without raising a few eyebrows. It had to be somewhere relatively open, but also relatively well out of sight.
She glanced around again and suddenly saw a vending machine, but unlike the one on floor twenty-two, the fan was not whirring and the lights were not flashing. Tacked onto the front of it was a message stating 'Out of order'. She shook her head. It was clever, but also very risky of the runner to do it. The message was written in red ink.
She walked to the vending machine and placed her hand behind and under it. Instantly she felt a canvas bag. Dragging it clear she saw that it was a yellow colour with six small pockets on the front of it, while it was built so that the contents in the main compartment were heavily insulated by foam between the layers of fabric. Looped through two thick rings on either side was a shoulder strap.
Swiftly she placed her head through the loop and tightened the slack so that it would not be dislodged whilst running. Turning back, she saw the elevator, having no idea if she was on a clock or not. Tifa dashed for the elevator and called it, hitting the button for thirty-two. Merc told her to get out and get clear.
Did that mean the mission was over? She wasn't sure, but she trusted him. So far he had kept her out of trouble for the most part and guided her through it when it was unavoidable. He wouldn't drop her in it now. She knew that in the depths of her heart. With a jerk the elevator kicked into life again. The flow returning, she focused on getting out the building.