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How We All Got There (Was a Mystery)

Chapter 3. Get On Board

The wait was short, but felt interminable for the silence that continued uninterrupted. The space around Lucrecia allowed her to hear the creaking, groaning of Central’s structural supports, as though the iron ached at the touch of the sun, bolts restricted by the filigree they pinned into place. As a child Lucrecia had always watched the birds here, living their lives above the lines, but now there were no birds permitted within the station despite the arches that offered so much compromise in place of branches. Since the frequency of monstrous incidents in the wilderness had increased, even to the extent of plaguing Midgar's periphery, it was not safe to allow birds within the city. To this end, the ornamentation itself bristled with further ornament: a corona of thin spikes.

While she waited, Lucrecia learned her companions by more than their namebadges. The Doctor bit his nails, the Professor tapped his toe, and Ifalna toyed with her hair. V. Valentine was economically still, from what Lucrecia could judge, but she avoided looking at him to excess lest he determine her interest unusual.

The train arrived, and with it the realisation of an unknown future. Lucrecia, quite unlike herself, had been unable to see past her current circumstances. A train arrived, and Lucrecia would board it, travelling to an unknown destination. She had never before left Midgar. She tried to impose a personal logic on her circumstances. Their end destinations would be limited by their mode of transport. Midgar linked to other continents via the Del Sol Channel, from Del Sol, a slow creep across the upcountry to Corel or down into Gongaga's jungles; considering the coats they had all been requested to wear, Lucrecia did not think Gongaga likely. But what was in the mountains?

Apart from its engine and an accommodation carriage, the train also pulled a large refrigerated unit. Fueled by mako, the train itself operated without emission, yet white-cold steam leaked from the seams on that rear trailer, an ominous fog that did nothing to comfort Lucrecia and everything to remind her of the stinking steam trains of her childhood, as though this train wanted to transport her nowhere but back into that past.

She said, sharply: ‘I hope that giant fridge isn't the reason why we were told to pack warm clothes. I'm not working in those conditions.’

Her utterance arrived loudly. In her contemplation, she had forgotten the unspoken compact to maintain the silence. The others turned from their regard of the approaching train and their own uncertain futures to consider her instead, as though anticipating her next words would offer an alternative to their situation, or at least an apology for her objection.

Only Ifalna seemed taken by the urge to collude: she snickered, in sympathy.

‘Not quite,’ said V. Valentine, rendered Shinra's mouthpiece by the blue coat he wore, ‘but fundamentally yes, as you'll see when we reach our destination. We have some distance to go.’

Having already exchanged glances with all previous members of the party, noting Lucrecia's flush, Gast's irritation, Hojo's challenge and Ifalna's smile, Vincent had no reason to address them directly, so he spoke still facing the train. Hojo snorted, likely thinking the Turk's turned back a simple arrogance. Lucrecia thought V. Valentine simply wished to avoid answering her directly.

Midgar’s street vowels were clear on Vincent's tongue. He had worked hard at eradicating his accent. The barest trace of a foreign clip could be heard only by someone who strained to note it.

Hojo's snort proved the precursor to a tirade he had been unwilling to unleash without another to act as icebreaker. ‘Brilliantly uninformative answer, Turk, nearly as clear as that invitation and the compulsory RSVP attached, you guys probably practice ripping the meaning out of words for fun. So, if one of us happens to ask how long this party's going to run-‘

V. Valentine said, monotone: ‘Short parties can be dissatisfying experiences, Doctor.'

‘Ah, Mr Valentine, but who can guess from a few friendly words what an all-night party might involve? What's going to happen after dark, when's the special guests coming out, and who the hell thought callgirls were a good idea? No, Valentine, I’d prefer some certainty before I step onto that train. I'm sure even you can understand all of us here operate by proofs; I was hustled here in the company of an unspoken threat, and I'm not going further without an explanation.’

'Here, here,' said Ifalna, with clear continuity of her role as the moral support.

Gast's feet had been the embodiment of his uncertainty so far; his tapping toe became a definitive forward move, a step that brought him into the centre. ‘Everyone, please,’ the Professor announced, ‘I must apologise! I had no idea you - you all - would be approached so precipitously-‘

V. Valentine was unrepentant. ‘All in good time, if you please, Professor.’

'Hold on,' Lucrecia said, 'you — Professor. You know why we're here, and you didn't say a thing this whole time? We've been waiting—!'

Gast shuffled, and hunched, unable to determine how to deflect the tremor of anger underlying Lucrecia's demand; she herself was surprised to hear her uncertainty articulated as a demand.

'I do apologise, Ms Crescent, I truly do, but I have been asked to keep this confidential until —'

'You will all be briefed in Costa Del Sol,' so said Valentine.

‘Of course we will be,’ said Hojo, ‘once we’re on the train and we can’t get off, what a perfect time to ask us to stay the night. You're a real gent, you are.’

When the train came to a definite halt, the doors opened. As if spurred by Hojo's last comment, V. Valentine stepped brisk to one side, his left arm behind his back, as though he intended nothing more than to usher them all forward with a gentleman's grace. Raised to class and knowing its uselessness, the gesture provoked Lucrecia to laugh, just once, a-ha.

No forward motion was made on the part of the wholly ignorant.

‘You’re not being arrested,’ Gast said. His frustration, and what could only be called his excitement, seemed greater than his repentence, for the shift of his feet now was not a shuffle but rather a definite click of his heel on the tile; an impatient tap, irregular in intensity. The refrigerated carriage, tiger-striped by the sunlight angled through the station's girders, had begun to sweat; Gast glanced at it often. ‘I will guarantee that— Mr Valentine! Was it really so necessary to frighten everyone? Shinra was so pleased when he and I spoke…and to be hustled out like this, my sister will, she was expecting me for breakfast…’ Professor Gast Faremis carried no handkerchief on his person; in lieu he pressed his shirtsleeve against his brow. ‘Mr Valentine, please, you are here to assist. I do not want to lose a willing staff on the basis of a misunderstanding!’

V. Valentine let his arm drop, and appeared to consider this. His calm was immaculate above the knot of his tie; his fingers, Lucrecia saw, flicked inside his cuffs.

‘Listen, Gast,’ Lucrecia said, 'I'm not frightened, thank you for your concern,' she intended to decorate that with irony, but instead sounded stupidly sincere, 'I'm simply withholding my opinion until someone tells me what's going on. I thought — well. You're in Midgar, too. You know what I thought.'

‘I'm with the lady,’ said Hojo. ‘I'm definitely not as frightened as a kitten in a sack, especially not considering the recent bout of accidents and long term holidays that hit up my department's head officers.’

'Goodness, Doctor,' Ifalna murmured, trace amusement. 'That's about as clear as a presidential directive.'

Hojo winked at her, though the gesture looked more a nervous twitch, if still somewhat endearing for its lack of smooth delivery. 'Paint my white coat blue and call me a bloody Turk.'

All three of them, as though united in a conspiracy of stubbornness, folded their arms. Lucrecia wondered if she would have been so brave in resistance without an audience.

It took Gast's aimless, yet desperate hand-waving to draw from the Turk his response. V. Valentine spoke reluctantly, as though moved only to spare Gast his exertions. 'I can confirm you're not being arrested. Obviously. There should have been several cues to alert you all to this fact: the lack of handcuffs, the notable lack of an armored guard. This is a government, ladies and gents, and despite the martial law declared - in defence of the city, I will reiterate! - we don't act in the shadows, or without good reason. This move is a change in location of your employment, which Shinra, according to all of your contracts, has the definitive right to action. You’re exemplary citizens of Midgar, and experts in your respective fields, hence your current involvement. I should not have to defend my nation to her own citizens, but here, you want to hear it? You all have nothing to fear.'

'Thank you,' Gast said.

'Then why the faffing?' Hojo asked, bluntly. 'Why not give us the time to wrap up our own work first? We haven't even packed equipment!'

'AVALANCHE,' Ifalna murmured, so quietly only Lucrecia, in close proximity to the other woman, startled to hear. The rebels attempted to sabotage every one of Shinra's projects on principle. Wielding self-recrimination like a cudgel, Lucrecia had not thought of the dangers of an external threat.

V. Valentine confirmed what he could not have heard. 'The subterfuge thus far has been articulated to avoid alerting AVALANCHE of the significance of this project, on which you will be briefed in Costa Del Sol. Any correspondence you’d like to send to your family or friends will of course be permitted so long as it's within the constraints of your confidentiality agreements.’

The offer of freedom, a symbolic letter or telegram delivered, gave Lucrecia a disproportionate relief. She shook her head at herself; she had taught herself to catch the seeds of sentiment before they could sprout. To whom would she address her correspondence, her research assistant, or her computer's repairman?

‘I suppose Shinra wouldn’t have bothered with his letter if we were being disappeared.’ Hojo unfolded his arms. He was the first to collect his bag, which trailed an incongruously bright and anonymous strip of fabric from a zipper too strained to close; uniformly, the Doctor wore grays and blacks, an urban camouflage.

‘He surely would not have worded it so politely.’

V. Valentine’s fingers abused his cufflinks. His sleeves, Lucrecia decided, were an inch too long. The slight angle of Mr Valentine’s chin downwards, and the corresponding curve of his lips upwards, seemed a calculated signal to inform them all of his good humour. In another circumstance, Lucrecia would have been compelled to laugh, but for that not even the outwardly good-natured Ifalna proved inclined to accept V. Valentine’s humour at face value.

‘Ahaha,’ said Professor Gast, dutiful. ‘This project will be the making of - this project will be - Ladies. This discovery is without precedent. I need your skills. I need your bravery. Please be assured you too are essential on this project; incomparably essential.’

Ifalna was the next to move, yet the decisiveness of her actions made it clear she was moved only by her own choice, neither Gast's encouragement or Hojo's example. Ifalna wore her moth-eaten rucksack across her back, which had Lucrecia wonder at Ifalna's status; she was reminded too sharply of a student’s willing poverty, yet surely Ifalna was qualified?

With her hands left free by her practicality, Ifalna collected Lucrecia’s case, and placed the leather handles in Lucrecia’s hand in passing.

‘There you are, Ms Crescent.’ Ifalna took the opportunity to indicate the uneven tile of the aging station, where the wheels on Lucrecia’s suitcase might catch, and the object itself turn and wrench her wrist.

‘Thank you,’ Lucrecia said by default, and smiled in return.

The train accelerated once they were all aboard, with such engineering that Lucrecia scarcely swayed.

Continue to Chapter 4

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