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How We All Got There (Was a Mystery)

Chapter 9. A Funding Bid

‘Please,’ the President said, as though the word was not at all unfamiliar on his lips.

He indicated the glass of scotch which sat before Gast on an otherwise unpopulated desk. The liquid rippled without any definite cause for its unease; it quivered, Gast decided, as though afraid of its inevitable consumption. Gast was filled with the irrational terror that everything that touched Shinra's desk would invariably be consumed. His palms sweated at the thought that he might inadvertantly touch that polished wood.

‘Do be at ease.’ The President again indicated the glass of scotch, as though only consumption of high quality scotch could signal a man's ease in Shinra’s mighty presence. Fat enough to require the oversized magnificence of the chair that backed him, Shinra nevertheless moved with a curt kind of fitness, every motion precisely considered for minimal effort and maximal gain. The very wave of his hand, magnanimous and encompassing Gast, the glass, and the clear territories of his desk, could not have told a clearer story in words.

At Shinra’s desk, empires must devour their own weight in strength and surety, or be swallowed whole themselves.

Gast did not drink at home, his sister disliked the smell. He took the quivering glass and called it courage.

Shinra smiled, just enough that the round of his cheeks lifted and his lips did not quite curve. In Shinra’s own youth, before the company had become a way of life, before Midgar, before even the Consolidation, Shinra had come from a sector of the countryside where horizontal lines across a man’s brow were indicative of wisdom, confidence, honour. Shinra’s abundance gave him the false glow of youth; his brow was unlined with any form of worry.

‘I always like a scotch at the end of the day,’ Shinra announced, ‘don’t you? It eases the stomach, clears the throat of the day’s unpleasant business before a man can talk with a friend. Ahah! Brisk, that blend, isn’t it?’

Gast swallowed desperately his second round of choking, and fought free at last to speak, only to find Shinra had already moved on without him, this time to cigars. Gast detested smoking. Cigar smoke in this small room would be somewhat like fogging for ghosts instead of insects; the ghosts of unpleasant political disagreements past.

Had Gast spoken his latter thought, he would have been surprised to find Shinra approving of the idea that cigar smoke could offer business a benediction comparable to holier incense. Shinra understood symbols, and liked them. He had spent his life to date redefining old myths, shaping them in his own image. He despised the romanticism of the old world he had grown of age in; he had fought half his life against those austere rituals of balance and the meaning held within. For Shinra, balance implied limits. Balance suggested that humanity was constrained, and Shinra could not abide by the thought that he and his humanity could ever be limited. His very obesity told the tale of his belief: Shinra did not abide by abstinence, limits nor control. In Shinra's dream world, hunger did not exist, nor poverty: a person would be allowed to eat what he wanted, when he wanted, and however much he wanted, for there would always be more. Shinra’s dream world was a land of more than plenty — it was a land of always more. Born into a childhood of subsistence starvation, suffering the frugality of a world where there was barely enough, Shinra believed in more.

But not all people likewise believed. Shinra assumed the responsibility of one who was large enough to see the distant horizon, to point at it, and to lead the way. Shinra thought in horizons to conquer, and in systems that would allow the conquering. He acknowledged that one man alone could never reach the sky — but one man standing on the backs of one hundred others, yes, and by building such a human pyramid, what would that topmost man do but uplift the lowest common denominator of people everywhere? Shinra dreamed a world of magnificence; Shinra would reach the moon, or his men would; Shinra would span the earth from pole to pole; Shinra would unify, discover, create; Shinra would provide it all, and provide that elusive always more.

Shinra dreamed a grand dream, but he dreamed in micro-steps, of hierarchy and administration and progress. This was his success.

And because of this, Shinra had short shrift for fools who foiled process, who acted independently, who believed in heroism. He thought Gast was a fool, but Shinra was uneasy with first impressions. He had not reached the heights he had by resting on his assumptions. The Turks could find nothing of Gast that added weight to his motivations with regards to the Cetran discovery; the man had no vices, only interests, no desperate need to prove himself by conquering old mountains. Gast appeared to be a genuine mortal being who wished only to do a job which, it seemed, he genuinely enjoyed. And so, uneasy yet patronising, Shinra poured scotch and offered cigars. Both were symbols of his own creation, markers of excess that labeled him a pleasure-driven fool, but a rich one, with always more money to burn.

‘So,’ said the President, still in tones of an obnoxious joviality, ‘when did you know what it was you unearthed?’

Gast blinked too fast. Curling smoke made his eyes prickle as though threatening to water. He shook his head. ‘Mr President. It is never a matter of ‘moments’. There have been so many myths that reference the Icicle region, a star from the sky, a winged angel of great power and beauty that would sleep forever in the ice, yet how many corpses have been unearthed, mammoths, fragments of dinosaur bone, uncertain human remains…when did I know?’

Emboldened by the President’s attentive silence, the masculine appendage between his own two forefingers, and a gut full of gulped courage, Gast continued:

‘Not when I unearthed it, for sure, though perhaps then I suspected - but even there my hesitance was methodogy. The ice had preserved it — the ice had preserve the Cetra, but not kindly. I could not risk further excavation without appropriate facilities. I garnered what samples I could. Even then, I did not know. I could have held in my hands only the dumb flesh of a ravaged whale corpse, at best the shattered bioform of yet another WEAPON. All I knew was that what I had unearthed was no human remnant, no ancestral source. The shape, you see - it was —' Gast wanted to say "repellent", but he could not bring himself to form the word. 'It was alien,' he admitted. 'Unpleasant, by human standards.'

Shinra himself had no objection to unpleasantness, and his girth told the tale of his lack of respect for human standards. Shinra understood in extreme emotion there was always the flipside presence. Gast’s voice held more fascination than repellence.

‘Once back at the lab,’ Shinra prompted.

There were two Turks in the room, well practiced at being ignored. Gast imagined his cup filled continuously by some miraculous means, for as he spoke he drained it in rounds. Shinra clenched his teeth around his cigar and waited.

‘No,’ Gast mused, with an air of conspiracy that Shinra smirked at inwardly, ‘not even back in my lab did I know for sure. Laboratory tests take time, and I am not - theological anthropology has never been a department prioritized in the queue. Perhaps I had some inkling that I'd found something unusual when the expected six week wait became twelve. When excuse after excuse kept coming. When at last, an apology came, and a request for my presence - I suspected, at least. They could not determine the terrestrial origins of the thing. Seemingly, it was not possible to carbon date an object lacking in carbon.'

Gast waiting, smiling, as though expecting Shinra to misunderstand. The President instead challenged: 'I did think carbon dating could date from the carbon surrounding a sample, if not the sample itself-'

'You forget the impact of surrounding Lifestream - ah, mako - Mr President. Seemingly I had taken too pure a sample. There was nothing in my swabs but for the specimen itself, clean and clear. Pure, as though all other forms of life had been swept away beyond even burning.'

'And what are the odds of that,' the President mused, in conscious mockery of Gast's contemplative mode.

Gast failed to observe. 'And perhaps I suspected then, Mr President, that I had at last discovered my life's crowning achievement. But it was unknown even to myself! Only as though obstacles were thrown in my way: an incompetant department, time concerns, lack of funding for rigorous tests or the allocation of a biotechnologist...General U set their best technician to run the final analyses. The results filtered back to me in such small amounts I could not even then determine a point where I knew I had discovered the first Cetra...or the Last Cetra, if you will.'

'The last one left behind,' Shinra said. 'As though to turn off the lights after all the others ascended to the Promised Land.'

Encouraged, Gast accelerated. 'First the date was confirmed. The creature was aeons older than even I could ever have expected it - and consider, too, how low the tides of the Lifestream must have fallen for this being to be unearthed again! Then the behaviour of the sample itself, under the scope, was unlike any other mortal being we found. For you see, President, the cells -' a hesitation, unhappily, 'were immortal.'

‘I should have thought you would have known then you'd found a Cetra.‘

‘Ah, but what could I think but that it was another mistake? A human error in the laboratory, a misreading of the graphs. I say to you now: Mr President, this being is the corpse of an Immortal Cetra, but that definition is one defined by summary. I tell this tale in retrospect. The conclusion was presented to me a series of graphs, charts, summary, and I simply did not know-‘

‘Professor,’ the President said, ‘are you certain now?’

‘Why, yes. The being is a Cetra.’ A cough. ‘There is no other explanation, is there?’

‘You are certain,’ the President emphasized.

Eyes sliding from Shinra's shining stare, Gast said: ‘As certain as anything is in this world.’

‘I cannot have uncertainty,’ Shinra announced. ‘The people do not want uncertainty, Professor. We live in a time of crisis, of unexplained attacks and the growing threat of monsters — whose numbers even now must be more than twenty for every man alive. War: the people could understand that, and have sanctioned many of Midgar's benign conquests — but this monstrous threat is a threat of massacre! Consider too our growing inability to farm for lack of safety! Death will come by famine, if not by outright monstrous ravage.’

‘But your army-‘

‘Has proven only partly a success.’

Shinra sighed. At once, all his size and magnificence seemed to deflate, to leave behind only a man too old for these burdens, too desperate. Gast found himself flooded with pity instead of courage; he sipped his scotch.

‘It was only with great regret that I allowed the army to be formed, Professor. Twenty years on the structure has proven still futile against the growing monstrous rampage; I cannot rightly keep the monstrous threat silenced, though I cannot allow, either, panic to sweep the population. I am their father, their guide, the one who must face the threat without quailing that all may live without fear. But my people are not stupid, professor. They know. There are questions, and I must have answers. I must have certainty! Are you certain, Professor?’

Confronted with Shinra's sudden revelation that Gast would be a part, somehow, of the correction of the world's unbalanced situation, Gast sputtered: ‘You think - how will a Cetra help-!‘

‘Old mythology,’ Shinra rumbled, regretful. ‘I have deliberately turned my face away from old myths. I have accepted the advice of others that old mythology gave us nothing but fragments, outmoded beliefs, rituals sourced in nothing more than pure evolutionary coincidence. But the Cetra are a thread through all the tales, Professor. The angels. The watchmen. The guardians of the earth and of the earth's balance. The winged Cetra, powerful enough to create the WEAPONs to safeguard the world's balance. But where did the Cetra go, Professor? Why did they leave us? Why do the WEAPONs still sleep, when Shinra could use them? Did they all return to the stars from which the legends say they came in such a gout of great glorious fire? And in this time of crisis, why will the Cetra, or their trusted servitors the WEAPONs, why will they not return to help us? Slolwy, surely, wearingly, the monsters are removing all aspects of civilization we have fought so hard to establish. They have infested our mines, they erode the tracks of the trains, desecrate our fields — and our armies do not breed as fast as the monsters do. Every one of our men is cherished, and lost. The people cry out for guardianship, and where I cannot provide, I must look to the stories that say, once upon a time, the Cetra protected us all.'

Shinra breathed, shook his head, and continued.

'And the mako, professor. The Lifestream. Have you noted the drop in level?’

Gast stuttered. ‘It permitted me to discover the Cetra. The levels were low…we have not yet found a safe method for exploration of mass quanities of lifestream…’

‘The Lifestream is low,’ Shinra said, ‘in the way blood bursts from a fresh wound but ebbs, surely as the blood itself runs out: the researchers have confirmed it. The Lifestream is limited. But all is not lost.’

Presented with apocalypse when all he had come for was funding, Gast struggled to follow Shinra's sudden positive leap.

‘The Lifestream level drops,’ Shinra said, beaming, ‘and you discover a Cetra! Is this coincidence? I will not believe in coincidence: the world offers opportunities to those who would take it. Who can say that the Cetra did not preserve their last specimen in exactly this location, so we would only discover it at the peak of our desperation?'

'Well,' Gast said, 'I couldn't say it, but couldn't say it otherwise, Mr President.'

'Professor, I need answers. I need certainty to save our way of life. The Cetra promised us a land of plenty, of endless sustenance against the black void of space; eternal life for us all. I have scorned old myth only to turn now, in my time of crisis, towards it. A Cetra, Professor. You have unearthed the answer, for we can rekindle the trust legendary between our angelic guardians and ourselves. We can reclaim our rightful place in that Promised Land, wherever it may be. Certainty, Professor - you offer us certainty, comfort, safety. You will lead the way into a better world.'

At that, Gast at last ignited.

Perhaps it was the years of unacknowledged labour. Certaintly it was the scotch, at best a flammable liquid. Gast had never worked for money, though he did indeed need money to work; what truly set his imagination on fire was Shinra's promise of acknowledgement. Nothing more than that. Shinra himself was an incendiary type, his dreams forever demanding fuel. He recognised the sudden change in Gast's eyes, Gast's stance. Shinra had won himself the loyal ally he sought, loyal to him and to humanity.

One of the Turks coughed.

Even inspired, Gast had spent too long working with vaguaries to enjoy them. 'I don’t know,' he said, 'the Cetra is dead, Mr President, what form of intercession had you been imagining?'

'I did think you said it was immortal.'

'Well, immortality, Mr President, is not necessarily the immortality of fables. Yes, each cell of this Cetra is immortal — practically independent of each other, able to survive fire, vacuum, any force we could apply. But as a whole, thinking being, the Cetra - by human terms - is dead.'

Shinra folded fat fingers together and rested his chin on his hands. He thought.

'Professor, you mentioned before only understanding your own knowledge in hindsight. But you must think forward, my friend, you must think forward! You must anticipate yourself. You must not think the way a scientist does or a man does, where change occurs and he but a part of the process. You are thinking of yourself as a passenger in this life, not the driver. No, my friend, no, understand that all of human progress has been driven by individuals, and you are now one of those drivers. Look on the Cetra with the eyes of a visionary. Think forward, even sitting here now opposite me, two friends chatting, so that you may look on this very moment as though possessed of hindsight. This is the moment, Professor. This is the moment in which you will change the world for the better. And what is death, I say, for an immortal being?’

Shinra laughed to offset the mood.

His laugh was high, slightly girlish, and rendered him human. Shinra was no grand symbol of conquest, only a man. Gast's friend, who acknowledged him.

'And how will history look at us,’ Shinra chortled, fit to have Gast grin too, ‘two men too old for this excitement, nursing their scotch and cigars.’

‘To practicalities,’ Shinra said, ‘Of course you must have your requested funding. Your team, unfortunately, we will have to keep so very small. There are those unfortunates who would regard any attempt at study of this magnificent being to be an atrocity. There are always those who deliberately misinterpret even the straightest of facts, terrorists and the like, so even within my own cohort this will be kept small. You must give me your ideal team, multitaskers all, versatile, adaptable, the minimum staff you would require.’

‘But…what will I doing? As my proposal states, I needed only one assistant and a geneticist, and we can document the Cetra with just two—’

‘But you cannot resurrect a Cetra and save a nation with only two. I have read your intial proposal for funding, my friend, and you shortchange yourself and your capabilities. You requested funding only for the documentation of a unique gene structure. I want, Professor, I want more. I want answers out of that coding. And for answers you will need a staff that asks questions.’

'Mr President,' Gast agreed, 'you are right.'

Gast was buoyed by Shinra's certainty for the length of the Turk-chauffered drive back to his sister's residence. He remained buoyed through the re-drafting of his proposal, his sister's tireless feedback a background whine. Shinra had a lasting presence: the impact of his gravity did not fade until two days later, when Gast was awakened before dawn by two Turks, and given instructions to pack his bags.

Bereft of Shinra's vast presence, that pull of certainty, Gast found his own belief but the skim on the surface of an endlessly deep doubt.

Continue to Chapter 10

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