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How We All Got There (Was a Mystery)

Chapter 5. Set the Scene

Lucrecia's Midgar had been a world known in parts. Several streets, a few cafes, one apartment; Lucrecia lived the life of a claustrophobe, fighting to avoid the sheer size and scope of this city born of one man's dreaming.

Lucrecia had never been out of Midgar, and without the interference of Shinra's Turks, she never would have left. The train pulled her away, faster than she had thought possible, until the scale of her existence was suddenly revealed by a hard curve of the tracks: for the first time, Lucrecia saw Midgar.

She had lived in such a tiny world considering Midgar's size. Lucrecia looked at what she left behind. Midgar had such grandeur. Lights and haze, the mako glow and the sparks of motion around the ring; depending on the light, the dawn sun rising behind the industrial haze, Midgar was either a city built upon a cloud, or buoyed by a brilliant flame.

Even stripped of its poetry, all rusted steel and condensation clouds, it should have been impossible for such a city to exist.

The revelation did not unsettle Lucrecia for long. She ignored her fear, which she felt sourced in some primal irrationality, and fixed on her irritation, which was quantifiable and justified. She was known in Midgar, her name and face, her role, her skills; removed from her context, how could she redefine herself as easily as her past six years of study could do?

The train followed a further curve, which matched the angle of the rising sun and allowed a painful directness of light into the cabin. Lucrecia did not squint, or raise her hand to her eyes. She snapped the blinds closed.

There was a light and unexpected meal set out in the dining cabin, a buffet which Lucrecia’s newest associates, with the exception of Professor Gast Faremis, ignored. Gast chose stand by the very end of the buffet and contemplate the contents with a focus that suggested the depths of the sago could hold the answers to all his questions. As he pondered, he nibbled on a carrot stick, taking such small bites that it seemed the sound of his digestive commencement would never end.

Lucrecia would have been pleased to encourage a sense of solidarity by also ignoring what must have been the absent Mr Valentine’s efforts to have them ease into their new roles, but for that her schedule and the sudden rush of her armoured collection service of this morning had left her small time to eat. She claimed two slices of well-buttered toast, one cup of clear soup, and returned for a cup of coffee. She sat opposite Doctor Hojo, where he stared with one eye narrowed at her coffee.

He indicated. 'Is it any good?'

Ifalna sat at the other end of the table, where she did not face the table but faced outwards instead. Her posture permitted a certain privacy to the fledgling conversation, yet Lucrecia's sensitivity to flirtation made her sharply aware that Ifalna was likely eavesdropping.

Shortly, Lucrecia said: 'I haven't tasted it yet.'

'I like to get in preemptively,' Hojo said, and smiled. 'Let me know if it's worth my time?'

Doctor Hojo's smile, while biased to one side by a habit of talking to the side of his mouth, was nevertheless unfeigned. A certain good-natured air surrounded him. His was not an intelligence that lent itself to easy conversation, yet, daunted by the thought that anything could be beyond him, he tried. For his intelligence and good nature, he was forgiven the social awkwardness that manifested as mistimed statements, which sounded as though he intended to impress depth of meaning onto even the most mundane of statements.

Nevertheless, Hojo presented with an easiness of being, of one at such peace with life that even tact was unnecessary. His inner peace was not an acceptance of his lot, for he thought himself a chronic striver. Rather, he had long since accepted that other people would often be fully resigned to their own lives. The hardest task would be to change a person's mind; far easier, Hojo had often thought, to change the world itself. Lucrecia Crescent interested him because of her works, which presented a far more fundamentalist image than this slightly uncertain woman who sat, narrow-lipped and with a resistant quirk to one groomed eyebrow, as though concerned her slightest motion might result in her accidental hurling of her crockery across the cabin.

She looked, Hojo decided, as though she was afraid to smile. He felt moved to smile in her stead, and did not expect a response.

Yet that lack of expectation had Lucrecia feel strangely free to respond, if a little more slyly than Hojo could have anticipated, to say: 'Do I look like your personal taster, Doctor? Next you'll be expecting me to bring you coffee in the mornings.'

'Hardly,' Hojo said, after a pause, and with the vowel disproportionately elongated. He tapped one finger alongside his nose, a gesture of unified conspiracy. 'We have our pet Turk for that, remember?'

The train rounded a curve, imperceptible but for the motion of the liquid aspects of Lucrecia’s meal. Circumstance dictated Valentine enter the cabin on cue, and so he did.

His presence appeared to catalyse a negative reaction, for everyone stilled. Gast's ceaseless carrot-chewing ended in a profound swallow.

The silent treatment did seem disproportionate to Mr Valentine's presentation, Lucrecia thought. From nape to heels he presented as would any a bluecoat, clad in competent threads, but there was something petulant about the set of his mouth, and the haircut defiantly in mode. The bluecoat reputation seemed to weigh the others' opinions. Lucrecia hunted for evidence of the being behind the Young Turks' deeds. She looked for a child who had spurned his parents, and been spurned in return. Lucrecia defined the half-smile on Valentine's lips as nothing more than Grimoire's own confidence, turned instead to a desperate, defensive arrogance.

‘We’ll be arriving at the tunnel shortly,’ Mr Valentine said. ‘A full briefing will take place in Costa del Sol.'

He did have too deep a voice for the image of an uncertain child Lucrecia was building in her mind, but she was not daunted.

Without meaning, as though he had been taught to do so, Mr Valentine added:

‘You can call me Vincent.’

At that moment, they discovered how a bluecoat defined 'shortly', for they were plunged into an instant darkness. The tunnel, Lucrecia thought, and stilled her hand; the rattle of her cup against its saucer would betray her. Gast had been the only one of them facing in the correct direction to anticipate the tunnel, and he had failed - again - to warn them of the approach.

Ifalna laughed on the tail of her shocked gasp. The delay was only a moment before the lights sprang to light. The new mako globes did not flicker, yet it took some moments for shocked eyes to adjust.

In that time, as though undisturbed by total darkness, Vincent had seated himself beside Lucrecia.

Hojo announced: ‘Alright, Turk, so if you're coming to the party, let’s play a game. Do be a gracious host.’

Vincent kept his hands beneath the table. Lucrecia wondered if he wore a gun, then derided her own thought: of course he did. Only the Turks and Midgar's old guard still wielded guns.

'I have cards.' Vincent's offering seemed incongruous in its normality.

‘I was thinking Twenty Questions,’ Hojo said. ‘You’ve a tight lip, though, don't you? We could always play charades.’

Vincent said, this time with almost a sneer, ‘One question. And then you can wait until we arrive at Costa del Sol. You should be glad to see your home again, Doctor.’

Lucrecia realized Vincent had thought Hojo's initial proposal an innocent one. Her realization added substance to her impression of him as nothing more than Grimoire's lost child. She did not notice Hojo's flinch, nor recognize Vincent's latter statement as carrying a warning: Vincent knew more of Hojo than Hojo ever would of him. Any games they played would not be on a level field.

‘I’ve never been out of Midgar,’ Lucrecia felt compelled to add. ‘But I know Costa del Sol's too hot to be where we're going, considering the demand we bring warm clothes.’

Hojo waved a hand scarred with mako burn. ‘As the lady says, Mr Valentine. But to be honest, I’m thinking our destination is actually irrespective of our task. I don't care where we're going. So, one question, you say. It's more than I was expecting.'

'It's more than I should be giving,' Vincent said. 'Except in the interests of goodwill, of course.'

'Of course.' Hojo's mouth twitched to the side. 'And I can trust in the much-vaunted honour of a bluecoat to answer truthfully?’

Mr Valentine’s smile drew tight. 'Turks don't lie.’

'You just kill people who know the truth?'

Lucrecia fought for a phrase to deflect the sudden tense mood, and found herself addressing Hojo: 'Is that your one question?'

The Doctor laughed, at ease. 'Alright, let's play in earnest. To deduce what I don't need to ask: one, I know Ifalna, she's GPU’s lab assistant, hazardous materials and biochemical standards. Two, I know the Professor by name. Theological archaeology, from memory, eh, Gast?’

Sucking on a new carrot stick, and in general having spent the last hour lamenting how readily circumstances had escaped his control, Gast felt oddly limited by the Doctor’s sudden reference. Hojo's own reputation was one of vagrant genius, and his summary of Gast's lifetime of work in two words was dismissive, truthful as it was. Gast wondered if now would be an appropriate time to mention his editorship of Old Science Weekly and his somewhat all-encompassing hobby of amateur film, anything to define himself outside of Hojo's scope. Gast resisted his instinct to snipe. He knew more than Hojo knew of their task, and would have been willing to talk behind the Turk's back to those who must serve as his staff: yet Hojo had ignored his chance through all the long silent moments they had inhabited this cabin, uninterrupted.

Gast grunted an acknowledgement. But, before Hojo could open his mouth again, Gast said, quickly, to qualify his ejaculation:

'But of the Cetran mode of theological evolution, Doctor. Certainly not of the naturalist mode.'

'Which brings us to Lucrecia Crescent,’ Hojo continued, with a relentless and uncouth glee, ‘who is fundamentally of the naturalist school of evolution. The Natural Theory of WEAPON Evolution as her non-qualifying graduating thesis; and the more widely accepted Natural Theory of Materia Evolution. I'll note the second as being of far more value than the first, Lucrecia, and the primary standard for my own exploration of artificial materia generation.’

‘I’m flattered,’ Lucrecia said. The blush that waged war on a Midgarian’s native pallor could have made her words an evasion born of social convention. As if to disparage her own polite response, as she was stung by the fact that Hojo's praise had come in the company of his criticism, Lucrecia added, ‘I’m afraid I don’t know of you, Doctor. Or indeed, of any of you.’

Lucrecia spoke the last with a speed that turned an otherwise mellow voice into a higher, unnatural key. Beside her, Vincent moved his shoulders, as though cracking his knuckles beneath the table. Lucrecia expected nothing more than to be called out in a lie.

'How odd,' Hojo said. 'You work at General U. Did you live in a box?'

Gast bit his carrot stick in half.

‘I do know Professor Gast,’ Ifalna offered. ‘I run carbon dating for him, on occasion.’

‘And on all occasions, I have been very impressed with your methodology,’ Gast said. ‘I had had such difficulties with the techs on No 32. Your presence was a blessing.’

Ifalna smiled, if only undirected. ‘Quite rightly appreciated, Professor. What you gave me wasn’t exactly typical.’

‘Aha,’ Hojo said. His excitement appeared spurred more by inspiration than a deduction based on reason; he tapped his knuckles on the table repeatedly, the rhythm of a triumphant march. ‘And our Valentine already asserted that Shinra’s friendly neighborhood sniper is pointed well away. We haven’t done anything wrong, we aren't being pulled away to be punished with vast media silence, which means-’

‘This isn’t another incident in Shinra’s history of political violence,’ Gast could not help but say, in patriarchal tones that longed for argument. ‘This is an opportunity to end all violence!’

‘Shinra’s eternal war against reason,’ Ifalna murmured. ‘The unnamed monsters who war against Shinra's order. The war against the Planet, if we believe AVALANCHE's claims. In fact, Professor, you sound almost like a member of AVALANCHE, except that they promote the ideal of peace through the violent overthrow of Shinra himself.’

Unnoticed by any but for Lucrecia, proximal to Vincent's heat, Mr Valentine tensed. All motion beneath the table ceased.

‘No,’ Gast said, half a stutter and half anger, ‘of course I’m not AVALANCHE, how dare-‘

‘Time to break out the cocktails, Valentine.’ Hojo tapped the table one last time. ‘Cetran theological archaeologist suddenly spouting revolutionary and non-violent ends to all violence? I’ll have a Cetran corpse on ice, with added Promised Land.’

What Hojo did with that statement, he could not have anticipated. Vincent did not think the Doctor's deduction skills at all worthy of note: he made a mental note instead that Gast could not be trusted with information, that the Professor would leak like a sieve, given the chance. Ifalna did not gasp, as she had when the tunnel shocked them all with darkness. She felt as though the earth had moved in ways unfamiliar; and when the dislocation of that sensation settled, it was as though a purpose previously vague had congealed in her throat. She did not allow hope to burgeon unwarranted, but her inborn and sorely tried belief in a benign global intelligence felt again like a warm glow, not the pain it had become over her long years thinking herself alone. For Lucrecia, she felt a similar upheaval, but one that came unfortunately close to her previous shock at the sight of Grimoire Valentine's son. For years she had ignored the guilt surrounding the matter of Grimoire's passing, secure in the knowledge that his sacrifice had, at the least, given her substantial evidence towards a world ruled entirely by chance. Lucrecia argued against all the old mythologies and outmoded religions that the Cetra did not and had not existed. What evidence did they have of a divine retribution, a judgment that would fall from the sky? All Cetran relics could be explained by processes of natural evolution; to believe in a Cetra was to believe in the untested truth of an old wives' tale of boiled frogs curing coughs. If the Cetra existed, then so too did Lucrecia's guilt. What had Grimoire died for, if not her own proof?

Yet the world's axial tilt was not visible by any.

‘Good gods,’ Gast said, after his own disgust at Hojo's manner had curdled. ‘This isn’t a game, Doctor.’

‘I don’t know,’ Ifalna said, somewhat lower than her usual tone. ‘I thought it was rather fun, right up until Hojo won. Don’t you think so?’

With all other occupants of the room being male, Lucrecia felt herself unduly targeted by the question.

'Oh yes,' Lucrecia said. 'No one likes delusional fantasists, Doctor.'

'Tosh,' Hojo said. 'Just because a Cetran corpse would disprove both your theories, Crescent. Of course it's a Cetra. Why else are we toting along a freezer? Even WEAPONs don't get this treatment, WEAPONs are a gil a gallon these days.'

‘Vincent.’ Lucrecia needed stability, and if Hojo had been the one to rock the world, then only Vincent would be able to right it. ‘You still owe us an answer.’

‘That I do,’ the Turk agreed. ‘Do you have a question, ma'am?’

‘Tell us where we’re going,’ Lucrecia said.

Having already discounted the importance of such a question, Hojo ignored her.

Vincent did not.

Vincent found himself remembering Lucrecia's prior ignored revelation, that she had never been outside of Midgar; he remembered as well how she had looked behind herself while waiting for the train, as though she had left behind something important. Vincent had never associated himself with his immediate geography, having been dislocated so extensively through his youth and his profession, but he could detect somewhat of shock in the way Lucrecia asked. So demanding, as though a strident desperation lurked beneath the unyielding cover. Lucrecia's vulnerabilities showed only when she looked to the side, away or behind, in the surprisingly slender curve of her neck beneath that weight of hair.

'Nibelheim,' Vincent answered.

Even moved by pity, it did not justify that he followed information with further description.

The last time Vincent had been in Nibelheim, the Mt Nibel reactor had been but a shadow in Shinra’s eye, and Nibelheim's mayor the prophylactic. In retrospect, and certainly in the way Vincent now described it, his lone hike through Mt Nibel's haunted pass had been one of the most beautiful experiences in his life.

In fact, Vincent had never considered that small town’s colloquial beauty worth of note until he felt moved, now, to note it. Vincent's audience had grown, even Gast standing near, and Ifalna's gaze no longer so distant; lounging back on his chair, even Hojo appeared to be listening. Soul of a poet, as the Professor said in tones of surprise, but Vincent decided he had betrayed nothing more than his own wide-travelled nature. He ensured he made constant reference to other cities that he would not appear without objectivity before the objective minds of scientists. Nibelheim lacked the Saucer’s zazz, but did possess somewhat of Gongaga's homey warmth. Unlike the still-traditionalist Gongaga, Nibelheim had a bar that permitted women to drink, and as such, Vincent would be pleased to acquaint them all with it.

Under words that Vincent intended as hyperbole, there was a sentiment that Lucrecia felt for, and strongly. Rightly so, for it was for her, home-based, land-bound and so proud, that Vincent was moved to move another, when he had been trained to disregard all forms of human discomfort.

Vincent thought he pitied Lucrecia, a creature as alien to him as the frozen god on their trailing carriage.

Continue to Chapter 6

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