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Desperate Measures

Jets of fire spewed out into the night sky, giving the city of Midgar a brief reminder of daylight. Plumes of smoke and ash eclipsed the stars above, and fragments of steel heaved this way and that from the explosion. From miles around the spectacle could be seen, the flames reaching higher and higher, until finally they subsided. In their wake lay a ruin of blackened silver, the reactor now no more than a husk of its former self.

“Not again.” Robert Benson looked up from his computer terminal to see the last vestiges of the explosion die away into a vast silence. The graphic shrank to stand fixed at the shoulder of a thirty-something anchorwoman, her eyes set forward on the audience.

“…the second attack in as many weeks late last night by the notorious ecological terrorists, AVALANCHE. The destruction of the reactors will leave hundreds of homes in the slums without power. President…”

“Hey, do you guys mind?” Robert said, waving his hand at his computer monitor. “If you could turn it down—-some of us are trying to work here.”

One of the employees standing by the screen glanced at his watch and shook his head. “Ten minutes ‘til five, Rob. I’m sure you can get away with taking a little break. Besides, you’ve already worked overtime how many nights this week?”

“Three,” he replied with a grin that undermined his earlier demand. “But I’d still like to get further on this plan.”

“We know, you haven’t stopped talking about it for weeks,” a woman said from her desk.

Robert blushed for a moment. “Well it’s about time Shinra started putting money into the slums. With these renovations”—-another gesture toward the screen upon which he worked—-“we’ll have more people employed, they’ll be healthier… Maybe we won’t be scared to go down there anymore.”

“Maybe, if they can get the lights back on,” the man from before said, the one with an eye firmly fixed on his watch. “Too bad for them, huh? Lucky we never have problems like that up here.”

“Except for AVALANCHE,” Robert said. The image of the detonating reactor-—all yellow, black, and silver-—was still bright in his memory, and would be for some time to come.

Every clock display read five, and so every employee, even those around the television, began gathering up their things. Robert closed up the program and patted the side of the monitor. “Not too long now,” he whispered to himself.

“I’m not too worried about them,” the other man said, as if the conversation had not ended. “Shinra’s not a company to take things lying down. You remember the group in Kalm, when they were handing out all those anti-Shinra flyers? Put a stop to that real quick, and all they did was talk.” He grinned wide. “I’m sure they’ll find these AVALANCHE punks and get them off the streets. You’ll see.”

Robert offered a weak smile. “I guess we will.” They all bade each other goodnight and went their separate ways, some to the parking garage, others to the street.

“Rob!” Marty waved at him. “Go for a drink? I don’t know about you, but I could sure use one. All this AVALANCHE bull.”

Robert smiled and shook his head. “Thanks, Marty, but not tonight. I promised Carly I’d be home before she went to sleep.”

Marty nodded. “Give them my best.”

“Will do.”

Robert headed for the rail station, picking up a newspaper on the way. He rifled through the pages for even a small write-up of AVALANCHE, of their continued siege against Shinra, but the attack had happened too late to reach today’s edition. He boarded and sat down by a window, settling against the cushy foam. He could drive into work, but he enjoyed the view of the city, not to mention the chance to let his thoughts wander.

As the train sped along, a metal snake winding its way about Midgar, Robert searched for the phosphorescent gases that marked the places of the remaining six reactors. The exhaust they gave out made the sky ripple with color, making even the night vibrant. It gave the city, otherwise pristine and uniform, some welcome personality.

Meanwhile, in the depths of those reactors, engines hummed and panels lit up with activity. Drills burrowed deep into the earth and, through a series of complex energy siphons, transported the resources it found there--Mako-—to the conversion arrays. Then, those natural energies became available for the public. It made their cars move and their houses glow with light; it sustained them. AVALANCHE appeared after, calling Shinra murderers; if AVALANCHE was to be believed, Shinra was killing the planet.

Robert thought again of the reactor in the throes of destruction. Fire with fire.

Through the latticework of support pillars and catwalks that made up the rail lines, Robert glimpsed the slums. Even from above, he could see how different it looked compared to the plate. The plate’s underside effectively trapped most of the pollution beneath; everything in the slums looked blackened, filthy beyond all but the most thorough cleansing. The streets were littered with piles of junk, though no one minded. So many had to live there-—the plate was too expensive—-that the landfills had become full and now spilled out in whichever direction they could.

He had been down there before, to research his renovation project. He saw men and women fish for something to eat from garbage cans, cats and dogs roam the alleys, houses boarded up on the verge of collapse; still people lived in them.

That’s why this has to work.

The train announced his stop, and Robert broke from his reverie to hurry out the door; they just missed closing on his blazer. As he walked Robert admired the neighborhood he called his. Here every dog was safely penned, every trashcan lidded. The streets were clean and wide. Only from the plate could they see the sky, all blue now deepening to indigo, save for the distant reactor fumes. He waved to his neighbors as he passed and they did likewise.

Robert unlocked his front door and entered. “Lisa? Carly?”

“Dad!” Carly’s voice preceded the pounding of her feet down the stairs. She leapt and flung her arms around Robert’s neck; she had quite a grip for a seven-year-old. “Was work okay?”

He tousled her hair. “Yeah, it was okay. You feeling any better?”

She nodded as he set her down and stood, towering above her. She looked nearly straight up into his eyes. “Yeah. Mom was reading to me so I could go to sleep, but then I heard you. So I wanted to see you.”

Lisa descended the stairs, a book tucked beneath her arm. She smiled.

“Hey hon.” Robert turned back to Carly. “You should be resting up, bedbug. Tell you what. You let me talk to Mom for a little, then I’ll finish the story for you. Is that all right?”

“Promise?”

“Would I lie to my angel?” He poked her in the stomach and she doubled over. “Now get going. I’ll be up soon.”

Carly vanished as fast as she had appeared. Robert leaned over and pecked Lisa on the cheek, taking her hands in his. “She looks like she’s doing better.”

“She is. She wouldn’t stop throwing up and her fever wouldn’t come down this morning. Then she was fine.”

“Maybe it’s finally going away.”

“Maybe.” She squeezed her husband around the waist. “It just isn’t any easier. After all this time, all that medicine…”

“Hey,” Robert said before he kissed her again. “She’s tough. She’ll get through it.” He tilted her head to see her soft brown eyes. “We’ll get through it.”

“Dad, I’m waiting,” Carly shouted down the stairs.

“You’ve been summoned.”

“Yeah.” She handed him the book, her finger on the page she had left off at. He climbed the stairs and sat down at the edge of Carly’s bed, under the watchful eye of cartoon characters. She lay riveted, hanging on every word until the book was finished. He kissed her goodnight and by the time he was at the door, she was already drifting off into a dream.

***

Robert glanced from one chart to another, tabulating numbers in his head. Everything had seemed fine the first three times, and even now, on his fourth check through the figures, nothing was out of place. He saved the file and began uploading it to the company network when his intercom buzzed.

“Benson.”

“Mister Benson, Renee Hughes, President Shinra’s secretary? He would like to speak with you.”

“The president wants to see me? Now?”

“If you could.”

Robert’s voice faltered. “Y-yes, of course. Um, I finished the plans for the sector one and two renovations. Would he like me to bring them along?”

She considered in silence for a moment. “If you wish.”

“I’ll be up in a minute. Thank you.” Robert scrambled to print up the plans—-street layout, investment figures, development timetables—-and made for the elevator amid questioning by his co-workers. As he rode to the top floor, Robert tried to breathe slowly. He had to present the plan and himself as best he could, if it was to have any hope of success.

The doors opened out onto a large foyer, easily the size of three or four joint offices like his own. Toward the middle was Miss Hughes’ desk; she beckoned to him. “Mister Benson, President Shinra will see you now.”

Robert bowed several times. “Thank you.” He entered the president’s office and immediately imagined it being rented as a penthouse suite. Spacious, decorated with lavish furniture, it boasted a breathtaking view of Midgar. Windows lined all but one wall, so that four of the eight reactors were visible, sending up their iridescent banners of residual Mako. Below, the city gleamed in the early afternoon sun, a metal land with silver hills and valleys.

Shinra sat behind a grand mahogany desk and rose at Robert’s approach. He extended a hand and Robert, after marveling at the surroundings, took it. Robert expected the president to look older; his hair sported no noticeable gray, nor was his face withered by time. “Mister Benson, I’m pleased to meet you.”

Robert readjusted the ream of papers he carried. “The pleasure is all mine.”

Shinra waved a hand. “Please sit. Sit.” Robert did so. The chairs were as comfortable as they were luxurious. Shinra leaned forward, his fingers steepled together. “Now, Mister Benson, I’ve brought you here because I wanted to speak with you about a very important matter, one which impacts you directly.”

Robert leafed through his papers. “Yes, the plans…” He held them out toward Shinra, but he waved them back.

“No no, this doesn’t involve that. Well, it does, but it doesn’t.” Shinra straightened up and walked to the rear of his office. Hands behind his back, he scanned the view wrapping around him. Robert followed his line of sight and noticed that one of the visible reactors was demolished, the first AVALANCHE had assaulted in fact.

The president sighed. “It looks awful, doesn’t it? Everything around it so perfect, it stands out that much more. And you can’t see it from here, but there’s another just like it, a burnt-out wreck.”

“Sir?”

Shinra turned to Robert with a grim look on his face. Suddenly he gave the impression of a man of his years, burdened, weary. “It’s no secret that AVALANCHE wants to destroy us, and they’ll continue to strike where it counts—-the reactors. They have six more targets to pick from, and of course, we’ll need to rebuild the other two.” Though they had been on Robert the whole time, Shinra’s eyes focused now, as if they were seeing him for only the first time. “You can see where I’m going with this?”

Robert shook his head. “I’m afraid I don’t, sir.” Even so, a sensation of cold snaked up his back.

Again Shinra sighed, his gaze resting on the skyline. “We are going to commence rebuilding the damaged reactors and, further, tighten security at the others. The cost involved in this will be tremendous. The slums reconstruction will be put on hold indefinitely.”

Robert wanted to get to his feet, but fear sapped all his strength away; he was rooted to his chair. “Sir, you can’t mean…”

“Your department is no more, Mister Benson. You and all those under you have until the end of the day to clear out your affects.”

Robert got up, staggered a bit, then began moving toward the door. He had gone no more than a few steps before he turned back. “Sir, perhaps I could help in the rebuilding. Or I could even do security detail. It’ll save you the trouble of bringing in new employees.”

Shinra sighed, shook his head. “We thought of that, actually. But it’s ridiculous, Benson; you’re not fit for either. No one from your department is.”

“But sir…my family, my daughter…”

Shinra turned to Robert and his face became menacing. His eyes were fine like a knife edge and his mouth formed an imposing scowl. “I called you here because I don’t like memos. I think they’re too impersonal. Do not take that as an invitation to play on my sympathies.”

Robert cast his gaze to the floor. “I’m—-I’m sorry sir.”

“Please see yourself out, Mister Benson. I’d hate to call security upon you.”

Robert composed himself as much as he could manage and left. Back at his desk, he began collecting his things. Everyone abandoned their tasks and took notice.

“Rob, what’re you doing?”

“Pink slip, Marty.”

“You’re kidding. Why?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Robert placed the lid on the box that had waited there for him and made his way to the exit. Marty called something after him—-probably some kind of condolence—-but he could not hear. Out on the street, he stood in thought before deciding to go to the rail station. There he waited for a train and when it arrived, he let it pass. He felt no rush to get home.

How can I explain this to Lisa? Then he thought of Carly and felt ill.

***

From the train up to his front door, Robert’s steps were heavy, measured. All the ride home, he had tried to formulate his explanation, and a solution to the problem. He had spent years under Shinra making plans, supervising improvements. Now, he found himself at a loss.

He fumbled with his keys longer than normal before he held them securely in hand and opened the door. Carly lay on the couch and Lisa knelt beside her, patting at her face with a damp cloth. Their daughter’s breathing was rasping and shallow; her eyes seemed to stare off into nothingness.

Lisa got up and wrapped her arms around him. “Robert!” Her fingers sank into the fabric of his suit jacket and her face rivaled Carly’s for wanness. “I tried calling, work said you already left. What happened?”

Robert saw his reflection in her eyes, swelled to the size of quarter pieces. He took her hands; they trembled. “Later. What’s—-” They both settled on their knees beside Carly; Robert placed his hand on her forehead, warm to the touch and beaded with sweat. She continued to gasp and twitch. She didn’t respond to his hand upon her, didn’t notice at all. “What happened?”

“I…don’t know. She just started shaking and went white. I don’t…she…” Tears spilled down her cheeks as she reached for her husband. A sob burst from her throat even while she spoke. “The doctor’s on his way.”

They said no more after that. Carly’s labored breathing was the only sound in the house, save for Lisa’s muffled cries and Robert’s attempts to console her. The child’s face twisted, looking far older than seven years. Every minute passed like this, their hands gripping each other’s tighter by the second.

A sound of sirens then a knock at the door and Robert all but bounded to answer. A gray woman of about fifty stood on the step, a sleek case dangling at her side. Parked in the street was an ambulance, a pair of EMTs at attention by the rear doors. Robert ushered the doctor in and closed the door behind.

He told her what Lisa had told him, but the words came out in a jumble, and he had confused both the doctor and himself.

“I need you to calm down, okay? I can stabilize her. I’ve seen this before.” She set down her case and began sifting through it.

“What is it?” Lisa said. “What’s wrong with her?”

The doctor remained focused on her tools. “You know the exhaust from the reactors, that light show you see in the sky all day and night? Sometimes, when it gets into someone’s system, they get sick. Mako poisoning. The condition, it’s still new, so we’re not totally sure how to handle it. But we do have treatment, in a way.” She procured an injection needle full of a pink-purple substance and swabbed at Carly’s arm before pumping the liquid into her veins.

The color returned to the girl’s face and her breathing resumed its normal rhythms. She closed her eyes, fast asleep. The doctor stored the syringe away and rose to her feet. “That’ll stop the seizures, for a few hours anyway.” She handed Robert a container full of the same fluid. “A few ounces of that every few hours, and she’ll keep stable. The treatment process is still new, but it’s worked in every test run. You’ll have to talk with your company to see if insurance covers it.” She glanced at Robert’s Shinra identification badge and smiled. She patted his shoulder and bowed toward Lisa. “She’ll be all right. You’ll see.”

“Thank you,” Lisa managed. Robert was silent, studying the fluid in the transparent vessel. The doors closed and the ambulance rolled away, sirens mute. The couple stood a long while, watching Carly sleep peacefully. Lisa crossed to her husband and embraced him.

“I was worried something had happened to you. When she started…” She tried to meet his eyes, but he would not cooperate. “What?”

“I’m sorry, Lisa. I’m so sorry.”

***

Beside their soundly sleeping daughter, he told her. Her brow creased, her mouth bent and contorted, her eyes pleaded with him as he related his encounter with Shinra. He remembered every word and gesture.

When he was done, she sat in thought; once she had come out of it, she smiled at him in that way that made him believe everything would be all right. “You’ll find another job then. Your skills, your experience—-they’ll be lining up to have you.” She kissed him.

“We’ll see.”

Slightly, ever so slightly, Carly rustled beneath her blanket and opened her eyes. They were less red and seemed to absorb all they surveyed. She turned to her parents, spotting Robert. “Dad,” she said, surprise in her frail voice. “You’re here.”

Robert locked his fingers with hers. “Yeah, long story, angel. I’ll tell you about it later, huh?”

“I like it when you tell me stories.” Then she went back to sleep.

He kissed her cheek and wished he could tell her a happy one instead.

***

Robert pulled up to the office building and set his car in park. It was rather modest, only two floors and in need of some fresh paint, as well as a few architectural repairs. He checked the address scribbled on the notepad in his lap and found the two did indeed match. In his front passenger seat lay a folded up newspaper, with a dozen circled classified ads and over half of them crossed out with an angry red X.

He walked inside and the lobby was solely occupied by some chairs and an unattended reception desk.

This has to be the right place.

He climbed the stairs to the upper floor, and made his way through a series of corridors. The manager’s office stood before him, labeled in white letters on a wooden placard. Entering, he saw a secretary typing away at her keyboard. She turned and regarded him with curious, if suspicious, eyes. “Can I help you?”

Robert adjusted the knot in his tie. “Yes, Robert Benson, I called the other day about an interview.”

“Sorry, not hiring.”

Confusion etched itself across his face. “I saw the ad in this week’s Metro. It said…”

The secretary’s fingers left the keyboard and laced between one another. “Those ads run all month. We’re not looking for anyone at the moment.”

“Please,” Robert said, his voice straining. “I-I need this job.”

“Sorry.” She sounded anything but.

Robert glanced at the door behind her leading to the manager’s office. He strode past her desk and hurried inside, ignoring her protests. The man at the desk—-James Lowell, according to his nameplate—-swiveled in his chair and raised an eyebrow. Only the desk and the items on it gave the room any semblance of life. “Elizabeth?” he said into his intercom.

“I’m sorry, Mister Lowell, he just barged right in. Should I call security?”

Lowell watched Robert a moment, considering. He pressed the speaker button. “No, let Ray enjoy his break.” He released the button and leaned on his desk. “So, what can I help you with?”

Robert bowed several times. “Robert Benson, sir. I called about an interview.”

Lowell paused before nodding in a show of gradual enlightenment. “Yes, the, umm, Shinra ex, am I right?” Robert nodded. Lowell sighed, indicated for Robert to have a seat. “I’m sorry to have you come out all this way…” he said.

“No trouble at all.”

Lowell smiled, ignoring the interruption. “Yes, well, I do apologize, but…didn’t Elizabeth tell you?”

“What, sir?”

Lowell waved around him at the near-empty office. “It didn’t strike you as odd that everything looked so…deserted?”

“It did, actually.”

Lowell chuckled. “There’s a reason for that. We’re relocating. To Junon.” Robert did not respond, so Lowell took it as cue to proceed. “It’s AVALANCHE. Everyone’s worried that they’ll strike some other business. Sure, they say their beef is with Shinra, but what’s stopping them after?”

Nothing, Robert thought. The idea chilled him inside and out.

“Besides, clients don’t want to work with someone in a dangerous environment. To everyone else, a Midgar operation is a liability. You never know when your partner will just—-poof—-go up in smoke.”

Robert shifted in his seat. Lowell smiled a genuine little smile, for the first time. “Mister Benson, your resume speaks for itself. I’d love to offer you something with Vega. But as I recall, you were intent on staying here in Midgar.”

Robert nodded firmly. “I am.” Whatever else its shortcomings, Midgar had the best medical staff and technology.

“I’m afraid I can’t help you then.”

Robert pushed himself to standing. He bowed again. “Thank you for your time, sir.”

“Good luck with the search. I’m telling you, though. Right now, that market’s no good.”

Robert thanked him again and marched to his car. He crossed out another listing in the paper and rested his head on the steering wheel. He had no idea how long he spent like that. Eventually he raised his head and, noticing a payphone, emerged from the vehicle.

He drew a few coins from his pocket and, depositing them in the machine, entered the numbers. Three rings later he heard his wife’s voice. “Hello?”

“Hey hon, it’s me. How’s it going today?”

“The TV and computer went right away. A few of my dresses, some stuff from the attic…”

“How’d we do?”

“Seven hundred and fifty.”

Robert smacked the phone’s plastic casing with his fist. “That’s nowhere near enough.”

“I know. But we still have other things to sell, and what Doctor Binder gave us should last a while longer.”

He smiled at the hopeful tone in her speech. “Yeah. There’s still time. I have a few more places to try out. I’ll see you tonight, okay?”

“All right. Love you.”

“Love you too. Give Carly a kiss for me.” The connection clicked, leaving only a dial tone. Robert shuffled into his car and glanced at the paper by his side. The sun was making its way down the sky, only a few hours of daylight left. His foot slammed the gas and he sped off, billows of smoke trailing him.

***

The doorbell chimed out a pleasant little melody. Robert kicked at the concrete steps with the steel-tips of his shoes, scuffing the metal. He wrenched his hands as the door swung open. Marty appeared, and he gave a start.

“Rob. Hey. Good to see you. Something up?”

“Can I come in, Marty?”

“Sure, yeah, of course.”

He held the storm door open as Robert ascended the last two stairs. Like so many others on the plate, Marty’s house was spared few, if any, expenses. Finely-wrought candelabra were placed around the walls; leather furniture begged to be sat in; a gorgeous rug from Wutai lay beneath it all, its colors and patterns a dizzying array. Robert’s reflection in the coffee table’s surface was haggard, worn. The days had begun to take their toll on his body as well as his wallet.

“Can I get you something? Water? Soda? But you look like you could use something a little stronger.”

“No, thanks, Marty.”

Marty obtained a glass from a nearby cupboard and poured himself out a small measure of a deep amber drink. The smell made Robert wrinkle his face. “I was worried about you, Rob, the day you walked out like that. Nobody would say what was going on. Then I found out-—whole redevelopment branch, wiped. I didn’t hear from you, tried calling. Your phone’s been busy a lot.” He sipped from the glass.

Robert ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah, setting up some interviews. Got to pay the bills somehow, right?” He laughed a little, but his heart was far from being in it.

“I hear you. So…” Marty swirled the glass a bit, the whiskey lapping around the inside.

“Marty, look, you know how it is with Carly. The doc gave me some medicine for her, but it’s not going to last. I need money. I was hoping maybe you could give me a loan.” He looked up from his hands, eyes wide and fiery. “You know I’d pay you back.”

“Oh Rob,” Marty said in a thin whisper. “I know you’re good for it. And you know I’d love to help you out.”

Robert’s countenance fell. “‘But.’”

Marty walked around the room, his hand skimming the bric-a-brac arranged about. He downed the last of the whiskey. “It’s these AVALANCHE guys, you know? What if Shinra axes me next because of them?” He drew a finger across his neck, sucking air through clenched teeth. “If these guys keep hitting Shinra, there’s no telling who’s gonna be next in line.”

Robert stood up, his hands balling into fists. “Aren’t you the one who said they wouldn’t be a problem?”

“Everybody makes mistakes. Better safe than sorry, huh?”

Robert swept his arms around him, encompassing the entirety of the house. “It’s just you here, Marty. Just you. You can’t help me at all? I’ve got a family; you don’t.”

“I don’t know what’s gonna happen, Rob, so that’s why I can’t. If I knew those nutjobs were in jail, I’d give you a hand, here and now. But they’re not. I can’t.”

Robert let out a long sigh as if he had been holding his breath. “Hey, sorry to bother you. But thanks for listening; that counts for something.”

“Rob…”

“I’ll talk to you when I talk to you.” He yanked the door shut behind him. Marty was motionless for some time, the echo of the slam fading away into a silent void. His hand faltered and the glass fell to the floor. It bounced once and rolled to rest at his feet, undamaged.

***

Time drained away, as did their funds and the serum. Even with it, Carly seemed to grow weaker by the day. Every morning she seemed less present than before; her body barely moved, but the rest of her drifted away, slow and sure as the rise and setting of the sun. They knew that, soon enough, she would lapse into a spasm that she would never recover from. It was only a matter of time.

Robert tossed and turned in his bed. He dreamt of mouths lined with razor-sharp fangs gaping at him. He threw anything he could find at them, to stay their advance, but still they approached him, the snap of their jaws ever closer. He stripped himself of his clothes and threw them in as well; it bought him a few moments, but no more. As one set of jaws clamped down on his arm he shot up in bed, the pillow soaked through with sweat.

He closed his eyes and breathed deep, taking control of his body, his heart slowing to a natural pace. He swung his legs over the floor and walked to the windows. He could see the glow of central Midgar, its massive towers and buildings all of glass, teeming with signs of life. Visible above everything else was Shinra, situated in the middle of the city, the axis upon which everything else turned. Ringed around it were the reactors, the operational six radiating waves of prismatic Mako. To anyone else, it must have been a beautiful sight.

Soundlessly Lisa stirred from sleep and peered at her husband silhouetted against the glass. “Robert.”

He turned to her. Moonlight played upon her face. Her eyes were sad; even in the dark he could see that. “I’m sorry, Lis. Did I wake you?”

“I wasn’t sleeping either. I haven’t really slept in weeks.” She sat up and stroked the vacancy beside her. Robert sat down on the edge of the bed, facing away.

“I should be doing more. There has to be something I’m just not seeing. Something I’m—-”

Lisa shuffled over to his side and pressed a finger to his lips. “More? Morning ‘til night, you’re out there every day. I feel like I should be the one doing more.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re here with Carly, making sure she’s okay. Selling things off. You do plenty.” A kiss.

“So do you. Now stop beating yourself up over it, hmm?” She tugged the blanket up to her neck and yawned. “Get to sleep. You won’t be much good to anyone tired.”

Outside his window, little more than pinpoints on the horizon, the reactors glowed beneath their canopy of color. And in the center stood Shinra’s main building.

Robert slid out of bed and retrieved something from the nightstand drawer, looping it around his neck. He searched his closest and threw clothes over his boxers. “I will. But I want to take a walk, maybe clear my head.” He pecked her face. “Be back soon.”

“You better be.”

On the way out, Robert stopped at Carly’s room and eased the door open. He could barely hear her in her sleep, she breathed so light. Close by on a bureau was the medicine container; not much remained of the liquid. He stole in, touched her hair, kissed her, then made for the garage. Within another minute he was in his car driving toward the center of the city.

***

It had only been a month and a half since he had set foot on Shinra property, but it may as well have been years ago. Of late he had only seen the building from a distance; now, so close he could see offices through the windows, it seemed alien to him. The guard at the parking garage entrance said something about not recognizing him, to which he gave an elaborate story about being out of town on business. His ID had checked out through the scanner—-the company was too vast to be keen on tying up every little loose end—-so the guard did not think to question him further. He exited his car and headed for the elevator. Cameras were upon him at every turn; if it was going to work, he had to be fast.

What the hell am I doing? It wasn’t the first time he had asked himself the question that night, nor would it be the last.

The elevator stopped on the designated floor and Robert walked the corridor as if he belonged there. The employees who did see him caught sight of the ID badge swaying from his neck and let him be. No one working at this hour would recognize him, would know that he was trespassing.

His heart threatened to explode with every step he took. He should have been impeded by now, though he was grateful that he had not been. Any minute he expected an alarm to go off and a swarm of guards to fence him in. Even when he swiped his card through the accounting office’s entry port and stepped through the archway, the halls were as quiet as they ever became.

Robert seated himself at one of the computers and drummed his fingers as he waited for it to boot up. He knew the system, and that let him breathe a little easier, but only a little. The accounting staff had shown him a fair deal when he had to produce estimates on the renovation costs; cracking the system would have brought the enterprise to a premature end.

The screen flashed ready and Robert took to the keyboard, fingers gliding along in a frenzy. There was so much data, so much information the company kept tabs on, it made his eyes blur. Rows upon rows of numbers and names and yet more still. He lost track of time as he scanned the lines of information for his own. “Benson, Robert. Deposit amount,” the screen read.

He keyed in a seven, a five, then three zeroes and began the transfer. He kneaded his hands as he waited. At the thought of Carly healthy again, he brightened. He could show her more of Midgar, or even take the three of them on a trip to one of the other cities—-Costa del Sol would be nice this time of year. She would no longer be confined to the house, to the isolation of her room. The transmission finished and Robert switched off the terminal.

He left just as he had come in, neither too fast nor too slow. He worked here. He belonged here. Or so he told himself. One step from the elevator, he heard a gruff voice bark into a bullhorn. “Freeze. Put your hands up. We’ve got guards on every floor, so let’s make this easy.”

“No.” The word came so soft it must have been meant only for himself. Robert turned to face his captors, his eyes brimming with tears. The picture in his mind of a rejuvenated Carly, a new life for them all, shattered with the screech of feedback from the bullhorn. “No no no.” He repeated it over and over, nearly collapsing with the intensity of his sobs.

***

The gray walls of the cell had been hewn repeatedly by makeshift knives of previous occupants. Snippets of thought, names, and columns of slashes marking the passage of days were the room’s only ornament. The metal shelf they called a bed was cold to Robert’s touch, and the toilet in the corner looked a breeding ground for a new form of life.

He sighed, deeply, the acrid smell of grime and urine stinging his nostrils, and continued staring at his hands. He scratched at one, then the other, until both were fairly red. The guards had not even allowed him his phone call, so that he did not get to so much as talk to his daughter, though he wanted much more to see her. She could not last until he had done his time. He prayed for a miracle while he expected nothing.

The door leading into the passageway swung open with a creak, and two pairs of footsteps echoed along its length. Robert pressed his face up to the metal bars, but could not glimpse the visitor. He recognized her as she was coming into view. Lisa had aged years in the last few hours, her face lined with worry, her eyes sad and heavy.

“Robert,” she choked. She nearly flung herself at the bars and slid her arms through to wrap around him. She tried to draw him closer to no avail. Their tears fell upon each other’s shoulders.

When Robert looked into her eyes, all feeling left his body and was replaced by an immovable cold. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m…” He bowed his head and started weeping.

Her hand grazed his cheek. “Why?” she asked, though she knew the answer.

He fought for words, a dozen thoughts racing through his mind, throat dry. “I…I had to do something! I had to; you see that, don’t you? I couldn’t just—-”

Lisa nodded, her lip trembling. “I know.” Through the bars she squeezed his hand. “That’s why…”

“What?”

Lisa stood a moment, her hand still locked with his. The guard paced up and down the hall, his boots a rhythm that filled the gaping silence.

“Lisa, what—-”

“I’m going to the Honeybee Inn,” she said in a rush, to leave no chance for him to protest. “Someone told me they’re looking for people.”

“What? No.” He released her hand, retreated to the back wall, and supported himself against it. He breathed in, out. In, out. He was back in a single stride, his features twisted. “I can’t let you—-you can’t.”

“I have to, Robert. We need a lot of money. Now. The medicine’s almost out.”

“But…” His face burned and flushed red to match his temper. “Whoring yourself out?” He intended it to come out as a bellow, but it sprang from his throat weak and brittle.

“I have to, like you. For her.” She composed herself. “I’ll post bail for you as soon as I can. If they make what I think…” Robert sank to his knees with his head resting on the bars. Lisa bent down and kissed him. “I’m sorry. I have to.”

The sound of her shoes ushered her away, and the clang of the large door left him alone with his thoughts again.

AVALANCHE. It’s all because of AVALANCHE.

They blew up the reactor and made him lose his job. They scared business into leaving the city for a safer place. They forced citizens into self-absorption—-every man for himself. Shinra had poisoned his daughter, but AVALANCHE would be the ones to kill her. They were the murderers now.

Wrapping his arms around his knees, he laid his head in his lap. He fought the urge to cry, until he could no longer stand it, and gave in.

Damn them all. Damn them all.

All they wanted to do was save the world.


All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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