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Off the Line

Chapter Text

Reeve glanced up as Rainstorm left the tent and then sighed, looking down at Vincent. Fuck summed up the whole situation rather nicely, he thought as he sat on the edge of the bed, looking down at what both he and Cait Sith had thought to be a bug for years. Vincent was already deep asleep – deep enough to dream – and as unaware of the administrator's presence as the Viera player had been.

It was no wonder he read as a bug, though. Vincent was… invasive in the system. He didn't play along with the rules, he ignored the barriers. Sure he was limited too, more so than normal players, but that was only in the sense of the game play. In the sense of simple player-game interaction… Just the very act of sleeping within the game broke right through the limitations and barriers Reeve had so carefully installed between the game and its players. And that was just the beginning.

Reeve glanced up as Cait Sith walked through the tent wall, as intangible and invisible as he was. "Hm?" Reeve asked.

"I explained to them some of what we figured out," Cait Sith said, jumping onto the bed. "I think Rainstorm's probably figuring some of it out for himself, though – he worried about it being a connection issue, but his first reaction, back in the Wastes, was that Vincent was probably just exhausted. That kid has weird instincts with the game."

Reeve nodded thoughtfully, looking back at their so called bug. He had some dozen search programs trying to back-track Vincent's connection, with little success so far. The way the man was wired in was just… abnormal, in terms of how VRDC operated. It wasn't just that the man was hooked in with first-gen tech – no, he was probably hooked in with pre first-gen tech. Not just a prototype, but something from before that – from when they were just figuring out dream based virtual reality technology.

The truth was, the technology had been around for a couple of decades now. It had started out as one of those ShinRa science experiments that had had a completely different goal originally, the same as pretty much everything. It had probably been intended for interrogation, or maybe for mind control, originally – or just plain exploitation. Put a genius in a virtual world, have him invent all sorts of things, copy those inventions in the real world, that sort of thing – ShinRa had had a lot of weird ideas like that.

It was hard to say what had been the goal with Vincent – the only thing that they knew for sure was that the man was still hooked in. And had been for at least ten years – the timeline could be backtracked from the history of the Demon of the Wastes bug, that was how long they knew it had been around. But before that… Vincent might've been around for as much as ten years previous, there just hadn't been an online virtual reality for him to exist in, and no one to record his passing. Ten to twenty years, hooked online.

It was no wonder Vincent couldn't remember. Hell, Reeve was surprised the man wasn't completely mad. Well, maybe the man was – it was hard to tell.

And after all that – after all that time knowing about the Wastes Demon bug, Reeve hadn't had any idea. Neither had Cait Sith. It had taken Rainstorm, a relative newbie, to notice that maybe there was something weird going on with the boss mob.

"What do we know about Rainstorm?" Reeve asked, narrowing his eyes. "His actual background."

"Do you want me to break confidentiality?" Cait Sith asked slowly, frowning. He was the only one truly privy to all of the players – he knew all their real names and identities, their locations and most everything about their history. Cait Sith was the original brain hacker – and he hacked millions of minds every day.

That was why Reeve had installed damn good secrecy ethics on the AI – as well as even higher security protocols. If someone got access to the data in Cait Sith's possession… it didn't bear thinking on. No one living and thinking that had a bias should have that much power. So Reeve lied to his superiors, told them the interaction was superficial, no, the game didn't really go into the player's mind that much, no secrets were gleaned. They were, though. And Cait Sith told no one, not even him, no matter what he learned about the players, it was all confidential even to the game's creator.

Reeve bit his lip. He had never asked. He knew who some people were in the game – he knew Sephiroth went by his own name and Genesis Rhapsodos had made himself rather obvious by his name and his guild, and he knew that the Overseers guild was almost completely made up of Turks, their informants, their charges and whatnot. But that was what he had learned in game. He had never asked Cait Sith to break confidentiality.

This was different though. Rainstorm was… there was something strange about him. His first choice of a companion in the game was RedXIII, who wasn't even a human. His second was an under-age Wutaian. It was hard to tell about the two Ronsos yet, but Reeve had suspicions. And now this, out of the blue? Add to that, the fact that this was the man's third night in the game, and the fact that at level 14, he had an over 500 gold bounty on his head – and no one had yet managed to kill him.

A person could be lucky – but that lucky?

"Tell me," Reeve said. "Just him, though. Tell me who Rainstorm is."

Cait Sith gave him a long look and then settled down with a sigh. "He's a ShinRa employee – a Private Second Class in the 49th Regiment, a relatively recent recruit. The VRDC he is using is actually owned by the ShinRa Health and Medicine department – it was assigned to him as a medical aid device to combat insomnia."

Reeve frowned, turning to look at him. "Really? He didn't buy it himself? Has he used one before?"

Cait Sith shook his head. "Nope. I have no previous recordings of his brain waves - this really is his third night in the game."

"Where's he from? Midgar?"

"No. A little Western town called Nibelheim, south east of Rocket Town, just past the Nibel mountain range," Cait Sith said. "Also, he's sixteen years old."

"Really?" Reeve asked, blinking.

"Yep. He has little to no schooling – he knows how to read and count, but that's about it. I'm guessing Nibelheim doesn't have much of a school. He actually came to Midgar to join the SOLDIER program, but he failed the entrance exam and was offered a place in the infantry instead, which he took. He's currently in the Midgar patrol roster along with the rest of his squad – a period of grace before they're assigned somewhere out of the city."

Reeve frowned, running a hand absently over his beard. It didn't sound particularly remarkable – and if there had been anything of note in the young man's mind, Cait Sith would've told him. "So he really is… a nobody. And don't think I haven't noticed you not telling me his name."

Cait Sith grinned. "He really is nobody. As far as his background and what he knows, what information he's taken in, goes. But that doesn't necessarily mean anything, you know that."

"I do," Reeve murmured. The thing about the VRDC technology was that no matter how it had started or what it had become later… it had been perfected as a training tool. To teach SOLDIERs strategy and tactics and whatnot – even fighting methods. Reeve had stripped as much of that as he could away from Terra Online – but the VRDC itself was basically a learn in your sleep trainer. And it still worked for some people like that.

Terra Online had been created to be entertaining, to be distracting – to be an escape from everyday life. And it was that, sometimes having a somewhat addictive side effect on some. But beneath it all, the way the game worked, the baseline structure, the base physics… it still worked like a training program. While they had tried to build up a fantastic combat system, they hadn't been able to get rid of some of the original elements. Players still had natural affinities, they still had inclinations and the skill sweet spot, where a player could learn a skill just by doing something more than once, was still a thing.

If you stripped away the classes and jobs and races, stripped the players down to only what they themselves brought into the game, you were left with just a person. And if that person had skills learned by the skill sweet spot, without in-game aids… well. Those skills, ones learned by the skill spot, were completely feasible in real life.

"Has Rainstorm learned any skills by in-game aids?" Reeve asked.

"Nope," Cait Sith said. "And he doesn't seem to intend to. Whenever he can, he's trying to find the sweet spots. Plus, when you look at his actions, he's sort of weirdly against in-game aids in general."

"All in-game aid?" Reeve asked thoughtfully.

"Most, yeah. He rarely upgrades his armour – usually he does it for aesthetic reasons, rather than for stats. Even now he's working with below level 10 gear and he doesn't seem bothered by it – though granted, he got the gear for the exp boosts, to bring his exp gain back up after the infamy he gained. He doesn't fortify, he doesn't upgrade, and even with Treasure Princess around, he never equips crystals. The only thing he tolerates as a stat boost tends to be being buffed by RedXIII. And, most of all, he's dead set against being power levelled because, get this, he wants to experience the game himself."

Reeve frowned. "Weird instincts, huh?" he said slowly.

Cait Sith grinned at that. "It all kind of piles up, doesn't it? The company he keeps, the stuff he does, the way he plays the game. Now Vincent? It could be luck. Or he could be hacking, somehow. Or he could just have some sort of weird sixth sense about this game. Honestly, I don't think he's even aware of how he goes about it. He just does, and it comes naturally to him."

Reeve snorted at that, shaking his head. So Rainstorm was pretty much a video game protagonist. Wonderful. "I guess we were right about keeping an eye on him," he said and turned to Vincent. "Do you think it's right, leaving Vincent with him?"

"I think it's probably the only right decision, for Vincent," Cait Sith said. "Rainstorm, whatever he is, is protective of his friends. And he's been pretty gentle with Vincent so far. I'm not sure if any other player, if presented with a pet of Vincent's level, would've been. Rainstorm at least won't take advantage."

"No, probably not," Reeve agreed. "We need to keep a close eye on this. Whatever Rainstorm is aside, Vincent's our priority now. Setting things right is our priority. We need to find him and…"

And release him, if it was even possible. There were lots of problems with that, though, lots and lots of problems. Like the fact that, when one got down to it, hooking Vincent online had probably been a company project – and the fact that Reeve hadn't been informed about an experiment or project of that sort? That made it also a company secret. There might very well be a person out there who didn't want him or anyone to know – who was keeping Vincent hooked up in secrecy.

And under the memory loss, who knew what sort of person Vincent was, who he was or why he had been hooked up. Lots of human experiments had gone down in ShinRa's history. Some of them had been done to volunteers, involuntary innocents, some to company employees – a lot to convicted criminals. Maybe Vincent had volunteered or maybe he had been a company enemy. It was impossible to tell, and the searches were coming up with close to nothing.

"For now, make sure Rainstorm treats Vincent right," Reeve said, giving the mod a serious look. "The guy's gone through enough. There can't be any more abuse."

"None at all," Cait Sith agreed grimly.