Ch. 1 Why Are We Here?
Why are we here? How, for that matter, did we get here? Is there a God? Are there multiple, or just one? What's our purpose as a race? What's our purpose as an individual? Do we even have purposes? Are we even real?
These were the kinds of things Aeris Cole, age 22, often asked herself.
She lay prone on her drab, almost too soft couch, one leg suspended by its ankle on the armrest opposite her head, the other lazily half-draped over the seat, her foot resting on the floor. A PlayStation 2 controller occupied her hands, and she stared intently at the T.V. screen. Her party traversed the sandy landscape of the Dalmascan Estersand, felling innumerable Cactites and Wolves; even the mighty saurian fell by the hand of her party. "Stupid License Points..." She grumbled. "Can't even wear a stupid hat without a twenty-five point license." Another wolf fell victim to Vaan's blade, and her chain counter bumped up to 49. The bag the scruffy beast dropped yielded a handful of potions, a generous amount of wind stones, and an ungodly amount of wolf pelts. Aeris sighed and made back toward Rabanastre. The loot obtained during the streak would fetch a hefty price, probably 10,000 gil, all told. "Maybe I'll finally be able to buy that grimoire…" She paused in thought for a moment as East Gate loaded. "…Meh." She navigated Vaan toward the large blue sapphire and saved before powering off the console.
She arose from the couch and stretched, getting stiff muscles that hadn't been used for a few hours back into the idea of moving. She placed the scuffed little black controller on their small entertainment center and scratched the base of one of her large, triangular ears whilst making for the tiny kitchen island. This place, cold in the throes of winter due to crappy insulation, was home. It was small, it was dark, and she lived with an idiot, but it was home. She opened the refrigerator -notably one of the only normally sized things in the apartment- and looked around. Half a loaf of white bread, a half consumed package of bacon from the local deli, and a carton of eggs, also half consumed, were its only occupants suitable for breakfast. Yawning quietly to herself, she slid some bread into the toaster and cracked two of the eggs into a most likely dirty pan. Whilst tending to the eggs, she absently combed her fingers through her hair.
"Euch…" She stuck her tongue out and immediately disentangled her fingers from her greasy locks. "I need a shower…" She shrugged and slid the eggs onto two plates. "eh, it can wait until after breakfast. Speaking of which…" she paused and picked up the nearest expendable ballistic objects in reach. These happened to be a pair of ratty blue sneakers. With the grace and power of a major league pitcher, she launched the shoes down the hall, toward Leo's door. The sneakers connected successfully with two consecutive 'Thump's, followed by a 'Whump' and the hurried cries of a gray feline.
"I'm up, I'm up!"
The door swung inward slowly, and from the depths of the dirty blue room emerged Leo. He rubbed at his eyes tiredly and gave a mighty yawn before grabbing a slice of toast and his eggs. He shuffled quietly back over the couch and sat down before starting in on his meal. "Thanks for the breakfast, Aeris." He wiped his mouth and gave her a small smile.
"I swear, Leo…" She shook her head slightly as she drank half a glass of water and inhaled her small breakfast. "If I didn't take care of you, you'd die. Now drink your milk." She pushed toward him a glass of milk he'd poured himself a few days prior and only managed to drink half of. He set his dishes in the sink and took a whiff of the foul smelling liquid, and cringed.
"But it's chunky!" he whined.
"Then chew it." Finished with her breakfast, she slid her own dishes into their dirty sink and made for her room. Whilst sorting through her closet for something to wear, she heard a wet sounding heave followed by some groaning. "That had better be cleaned up by the time I get out there!" The gray cat in the living room cringed at the warning tone in her voice.
"Sure thing!" Aeris heard another heave and some splashing, and shook her head.
"Poor, stupid Leo…" She over at her clock, which plainly displayed the time and date: 7:30 A.M., December 5th. A Monday. "I've gotta get ready for work."
Meanwhile, Leo was busy cleaning up his sick.
"Last time I ever chew my milk. Though I wonder…" He stared off as he wrung a dish towel of his stomach juices. "Maybe if I left it in there long enough it'd turn into cheese!" his emerald eyes lit up with childish delight at the idea of making cheese out of milk. For the time being, he became completely oblivious to his task. As he finished cleaning up his regurgitated breakfast, he heard the telltale 'hisss…' of the shower running. Leo threw the defiled rag into the laundry bin and ran his hand through his own grease-stricken hair. It seemed that he'd not taken a shower the entire weekend –as was customary. He ran the tap and put his head underneath the small rivulet of water, rinsing most of the dirt out of his grey locks. He picked up a towel to dry himself off with, but noticed something odd about it: Its smell. As his brain went through the process of identifying the vile piece of cloth, his face twisted into an expression of horror.
He was drying off with the barf rag.
He let out a rather girlish scream and bolted down the hall, trying to rid his face of the disgusting monstrosity it was clothed with. Just as he managed to fling it off, he connected rather harshly with his own door. He stopped dead and fell flat on his back with a pained expression on his face. Small streams of red began pouring from his nose, and the wind had been knocked out of him. He'd just been defeated by a rag and a door. The story of his freaking life. As he regained his composure, he sat up and covered his bleeding nose.
"This is almost as bad as the time worms had warfare in my bowels." He groaned and opened his door before sidling inside. Picking up a half used box of tissues, he ripped one in half and stuffed the small wads up his nose. "Dere." He managed, setting the small box back on his nightstand. Leo's room wasn't the grandest of places, not the cleanest, either, but it was his. An old Nintendo 64 was hooked up to a tiny tube T.V. that was attached to his wall by what seemed to be an unnecessary amount of duct tape. A few handheld Nintendo consoles littered the ground by his bed: A Gameboy color, a Gameboy advance, A D.S., and an emulator he'd picked up a while back. It ran an old version of Linux, but it functioned well enough. He picked up said emulator and plopped down on his futon. As he powered the little guy on, it immediately picked up on the session of Galaga he'd been playing the night previous. The tiny little alien bugs died as Leo shot them down with pin point precision. They hadn't even the time to get into formation before he'd cleared the stage. For someone of Leo's limited intellect, he played games freakishly well. It wasn't long before he'd beaten the small arcade game, still two lives left, well over a billion points. By now, the shower had stopped, and He'd flopped onto his bed. He sighed.
"It is a Monday… I suppose I'd better get ready."
He lifted himself grudgingly off of his bed and flicked through his closet.
"Blue shirt and jeans, blue shirt and jeans, blue shirt and jeans… blue shirt and jeans! Let's mix it up a little!" He snickered quietly to himself and changed quickly into day clothes. The bloody tissue used to clog his nasal bleeding was discarded as he opened his door and grabbed the ratty sneakers used to break him out of peaceful slumber and slipped them on. The not so quiet sound of the front door slamming shut signaled that Aeris had left for work, and he'd better get on it himself. He grabbed a blue pair of briefs and a scarf, stuffed them into the pocket of his azure windbreaker, and locked the door behind him as he left. He descended the concrete steps of the Toronto apartment complex as fast as he could manage, and sprinted down the street. First part of his day was at Scott's –he meant Pantsman's house. As brief boy, he did little but clean up, make the Pants-themed heroine snack foods, and occasionally lure Major Payne away, but at least he got paid for it. As he reached the middle class apartment complex where Pantsman was, he slipped the scarf around his neck and the blue underoos over his head. God forbid people actually knew he did this.
"The things I do for money…" He shook his head and rapped sharply on the door of his mentor and employer.
"I can only hope Aeris doesn't have to do something this humiliating."
"This is so humiliating…"
Aeris sighed sadly as she dusted off the "Out of Order" Sign on the Xbox display for the umpteenth time since her employment. She wasn't even really sure why they even had the stupid thing anymore. It'd been well over a year since the 360 came out, and… again she sighed. She fingered the keyring of her lanyard thoughtfully and grabbed a thick volume from the game guide rack on her way back behind the counter. 'Such is life, I suppose.' She cracked open her read for the day –a guide for Final Fantasy XIII. The inch-thick text was sure to keep her occupied for at least a few hours while she waited for her shift to end. Today the GameShop was unusually quiet; usually the place would be bustling with people trying to fill their Christmas lists, some looking around, a few mothers asking questions that ten year olds could answer, but not today. Not even a lonely non-gamer had come in for even a few seconds to escape the cold. Not that she was complaining. The peace was, well… peaceful. Not being harassed by idiots was a major bonus in the eyes of Aeris Cole.
She was interrupted halfway through copying down the dismantle list by the chime of a bell sounding through the air. She quickly slipped the notebook paper into the corner of the guide and snapped it shut. Her dark blue eyes lifted from the counter as she addressed the potential customer. He was a tall, white cat dressed entirely in black, from his baggy hoody to his cargo pants to his boots.
"Welcome to GameShop. May I help you?" She asked, as enthusiastic as she could manage. Which, by the way, wasn't very much. The sentence came out flat and droll, like someone half asleep.
"Yeah…" His voice trailed off as he scanned the shelves of the store, his deep red eyes flicking from place to place every so often, only to rest back on the counter. "You don't happen to have a copy of Skyrim in, do you?"
"I don't know… let me check." She quickly unclipped the keyring from the lanyard around her neck and unlocked the glass casing behind the counter. She flicked through the games with a sort of professional grace before stopping to pull out a green plastic case, wrapped in cellophane. She set the game on the counter and punched a few keys into the register.
"Last one we had. That'll be sixty-five dollars."
"Yeesh." The cat rooted around in his pocket for a few seconds and pulled out a brown leather wallet, from which he extracted a single hundred dollar bill. He laid them on the counter and picked the fantasy title up off of the counter, examining the back of the case. "It's becoming expensive to be a gamer."
"You're telling me." She slid the twenties into the register and pulled out a twenty, a ten, and a five. "Oh?" The question was simply asked, and he arched an eyebrow, as if expecting an explanation.
"I'm a gamer myself," she said flatly. "As of late keeping up with new games is eating me out of house and home."
"Really…" He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "What kind of games do you like?"
"Shooters, mostly." She shrugged. "Though I've been known to indulge myself in a JRPG every once in a while." She lightly tapped the Final Fantasy guide she'd been reading before he'd entered.
"Yeah, the Japanese have managed to come out with a few successful RPG titles in days past, but the quality's beginning to drop."
"I couldn't agree more. FF Fourteen was a disgrace, and Thirteen wasn't too pretty either."
"True, true. What did you think about Thirteen-two?"
"Eh… It'll probably be the same as Thirteen, but with some other threat and story line. I'm not personally expecting any changes, and from what I've seen the battle system is pretty much the same. It's smart, but relies on the stupidity of the consumer for it to work, kind of like with Twelve."
"What was wrong with twelve?"
"Well…" She rolled her eyes to look up at the ceiling and then back down to the counter before looking back at him. "Besides the fact that the main character was essentially useless, the programmers made their jobs easier by incorporating programming into the actual gameplay. Because of the Gambit system, they didn't have to program algorithms for the NPCs to play along when not given orders, as well as managed to incorporate another B.S. aspect of the licenses while they were at it. It took out two birds with one stone."
"Very perceptive… I wonder how that perception fares in online shooter matches."
She shrugged. "It helps. You wanna see it in action?" She gave him a devilish smile.
"Nah…" He gave a shrug of his own and stuffed his merchandise into the pocked of his hoodie. "I'm sure you're busy, and besides, it's a policy of mine not to make girls cry."
"Is that a challenge I hear?"
He flashed a devilish smile of his own. "Maybe."
"Then follow me." She circled around the counter and locked the door, flipping the sign on the door to 'Closed' while she was at it. She opened the door to the back room and signaled for him to follow.
"So, do you do this kind of thing often?" His eyes trailed the length of the storage room, stacks upon stacks upon stacks filled the large concrete expanse.
"No, not really. Just on days like this where I have the place to myself." She rounded a corner into a small hallway and pushed a red door open, into which she disappeared. He pushed the door open himself and uttered a low 'Whoa…' when he stepped in. "This," She said, a wide smile on her face, "is the break room." A large, dimly lit room filled with consoles hooked up to a single projector and a large, white screen covering one of the walls.
"This is Amazing!" A large, childlike smile crossed his features, and his eyes turned bright for a moment before he managed to wrangle it in and compose himself. "Ahem… This is a really nice break room. You ready to get whooped in it?" His smile turned devilish again.
"As if. Choose your field of battle!" He pointed simply to an Xbox 360, already hooked up to the projector. He grabbed one of the controllers, in the colors of black and red. He tossed her another, a pink one. She caught the controller and pointed to two words scratched into the battery pack. 'Pink Fury', it read.
"Modern Warfare Three?"
The game started simply enough. Rust was the agreed map: Small enough for a game of two players, fast paced combat, no time limit, no score limit. Both players had nine lives each. Aeris' character couched low to the ground, an M16 with a holographic sight calmly sweeping the area before her. She didn't hear the footsteps coming from behind her. A quick burst of fire dispatched the first of her lives. She growled lowly. The sound of metal dropping against the sand emanated from the projector. He'd probably picked up her weapon. Her suspicion was confirmed as a three round burst of bullets to the head ended the second of her lives. She pressed the start button and chose a class labeled "Fury". She spawned with an SPAS in her hands. She made quickly for the iron structure in the center of the map, narrowly avoiding the gunfire of her enemy. She heard footsteps, but could not see him from her position in the crawlspace of the iron tower. For the sake of professionalism, they'd agreed radar was to be completely off. She didn't even know where the fire came from, much less where he was. She threw a package of C4 when she rounded a corner and moved to the outside of the small tunnel, retaining the crouch position. Odds are he was following her, and in just three… two… one… she pulled the right trigger, and an explosion sounded from within. The small, x-shaped crosshairs appeared solidly in the center of her screen.
"Yes!" She hissed. "A direct hit!"
She tossed a concussion grenade into the crawlspace, followed shortly by a semtex grenade. One hit followed the other, and a small '+150' appeared on her screen, followed by bloody red text that read 'Payback!' She snickered. He may have obtained the upper hand, but she was making up ground fast. She ran and jumped into the large brass pipe jutting out from the fence, and readied a P90 she'd stolen from the body of her enemy. He approached the corner where the pipe sat carefully, checking all directions from which attack could come. His class was still set on the P90, and he didn't seem to notice her. She jumped down from her perch with a rain of gunfire; another '+100' filled the center of her screen. She didn't have much time to celebrate her victory before the familiar ring of sniper fire sounded from the speakers, and her third life was ended. Two more lives followed suit, she not having any time to move before a fifty caliber round was lodged firmly into her characters skull. As she spawned for the fourth time, a yellowish hue surrounded the edge of her screen, and the hated line of 'Pain Killer' filled the screen. Another round was fired into her head, this time not fatal. She looked up to where the bloody red indicator pointed, to his perch on top of the tower itself. Another round, another life gone.
'Three lives left… damn.' She inwardly grimaced. This was getting out of hand. She barely even knew this guy, and he was schooling her like Mr. 47.
Again she spawned, the yellowish outline marring her screen. She flung a semtex grenade upward, barely sticking to his position on the perch as he fired another round. The second round was fired just as the semtex exploded. The score was not looking good for Aeris Cole; 2 to 6. She spawned yet again, this time without the protection painkiller offered. This time he didn't bother with strategy. He had lightweight and marathon equipped, and he ran forward and knifed her. She took the ten seconds to look over at her opponent. His face was cool and collected, and he exuded the air of a professional. She spawned, the text 'Last Life!' appearing on her screen. She took the safe route; a riot shield accompanied by blast shield and an AK-74, overkill perk apparent. She managed to bludgeon him before he could get around the shield. '+150' appeared again on her screen, though she barely took note of it. She stared at the screen intensely, not letting a singular detail escape her vision. Gunfire was heard, and her riot shield was marred. M16 rounds pelted her, and the riot shield was barely holding up as it was. Suddenly it stopped, and she switched at breakneck speed to the 74. Several rounds were fired from the SMG, and another '+100' was hers. Another three rounds fired from a different position, breaking the riot shield's protective cover. She looked in horror at her enigmatic opponent in the split second it took for the match to be over.
The game stopped, the individual game screens disappearing in favor of an overview of the map. 1st place: PrometheanBreed, 2nd place: Pink_Fury.
She sighed and placed her controller on the table on which the projector sat, and turned toward the victor.
"I've gotta hand it to you, you're good. I wasn't expecting someone of that skill level to challenge me." She stuck out a hand, which he took firmly.
"Don't short yourself. You were pretty good too, y'know." He placed his controller next to hers and stood up with a mighty stretch. "Not many of my friends are able to get even a single kill on me, much less four." He gave her a kind smile, which she returned. He unplugged his small white memory card from the console and powered it off. She lead him back around to the store again, and made her way back behind the counter.
"Thanks for the game." He gave her a smile and started toward the door. Aeris started back on her dismantle list and noticed three green bills sitting on the counter, staring at her. Her eyes widened slightly and she hopped over the counter with the bills in hand. He was almost out of the door, and as he opened it, a nippy winter air entered the store.
"Wait!" She said, grabbing hold of his sleeve. "You forgot your change." She tried to place the money in his hand, but he refused it.
"You keep it." He said, answering with the same kind smile he'd had in the store. "You look like you could use It."
"And, uh… one more thing?" She asked a tone of shyness in her voice.
"Are you doing anything tonight?" He tilted his head curiously.
"Well, I was thinking, if you wanna go see a movie or something?"
By God, it took me forever to finish this! But I'm satisfied with my work.
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