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Off the Line

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"There are two versions of virtual reality technology," Tuesti explained after Cloud had signed his soul – or his brain anyway – over to the man. "VRDC is the technically older, but also technically newer, type. The technology of accessing brain waves and signals and manipulating them has been around for a while, but it took… almost a decade to make it safe. The second type, a MVR or Manual Virtual Reality, was developed after the first generations of brain signal manipulating virtual reality proved to be… unsafe."

"Okay," Cloud said slowly, awkwardly leaning back in the chair across Tuesti's desk. "How does Manual Virtual Reality work?"

"Well, first of all… you're awake for it," Tuesti smiled. "The actual virtual reality is generated in a blend of hologram technology, various environmental manipulators, and a visor that the user wears over their eyes, which displays images and which finalises the virtual reality. All this requires a specialised facility – a fairly large room, in fact, with all the necessary technology. They are extremely expensive to make – there are currently only four state of the art MVR rooms in existence."

"Well. No wonder you use VRDC then," Cloud said.

"There are definite benefits to MVR," Tuesti said. "VRDC is essentially only an intellectual exercise at best. At worst, it is somewhat addictive to the user thanks to all sorts of annoying social and biological factors that gear people to striving for achievements which I won't get into right now. MVR however is a full body experience. SOLDIERs use it for training, actually. It's expensive, yes, but cheaper than losing SOLDIERs due to mishaps in field training."

Cloud nodded and then eyed the man. "I'm hoping there's a point to this all," he said. "Not seeing one right now, but I'm hoping."

Tuesti smiled, leaning back in his chair. "Both types of VR technology have had their… generations if you will. VRDC as you know it is about the fourth generation of brain signal manipulating technology. MVR, as it is used by SOLDIERs among other people, is approximately in its sixth generation. VRDC started out not as a virtual reality, technically, but as a… well, medical interrogation and torture device. MVR on other hand started out simply as a rather splendid visual display instalment. VRDC is older, but MVR went through more generations. You follow me?"

"Still waiting for the point," Cloud nodded.

"MVR has been many different things over the years," Tuesti continued. "It's so called second generation included a suit that applied minute electrical charge to the user's muscles, to further simulate them and to imitate actual physical exercise. Its fourth generation moved past this and instead made use of larger spaces, forcing the user to move around more in it, and so forth."

"Utterly fascinating," Cloud answered blandly.

"I'm getting to the point," the older man chuckled. "Now, there was a time, when these two technologies crossed paths – VRDC generation two, MVR generation three. Of course neither was called that at the time and these aren't exactly official facts – I've had to do lot of backtracking to figure this out. But there was a time when there was a virtual reality… device of a sort, that gave the user both a mental and a manual experience."

Cloud frowned at that and then leaned forward. "That's what Vincent is in, isn't it?" he asked.

Tuesti pointed a finger at him. "Good," he said, sounding almost proud. Like a teacher, satisfied that the student had caught on quick enough. "Yes, I think so. It took me a while to figure it out, but part of the reason why he… doesn't quite work with Terra Online is because he is connected very bodily into it. Plus, Terra Online is designed to interact with the mind, and not the body. The signals he sends back just… aren't compatible. As it is, it's a wonder he's doing this well."

Cloud considered that for a moment, thinking about what little he had learned about Vincent and what he had gone through. "Does he… when he's…. when he's hurt or when he dies in the game, does he feel it in the real world?"

Tuesti sighed. "Probably," he said. "But seeing that he can't get out of the game –"

"And if he feels something in the real world, is he aware of it in the game?" Cloud asked, ignoring the words.

The other man frowned. "Maybe," he said slowly, shifting forward and looking at him seriously. "Has he said something?"

"Just that he's cold all the time," Cloud shrugged. "I was sort of hoping that it'd be a connection issue and not how it was for him, wherever he is."

Tuesti nodded slowly, considering it. "It's not much to go on," he murmured. "Might be that where he is, the air conditioning is just cranked up to max. Which might very well be necessary, just to keep the system he's in cooled down…."

"How old is the tech he's in?" Cloud asked.

"That… I'm not entirely sure about," Tuesti admitted. "I was brought into the VR projects – either of them – relatively late in their development. VRDC tech was iced for years and years, it was only dug up a little less than ten years ago, which was when they started to try and perfect the generation three of VRDC – and it took them good five years to manage, and another two until generation four as you know it was made. And they had more or less figured out the MVR tech by the time I into it. The older generations – especially that one… well. It was a long time ago, and there aren't that many records."

"How long?" Cloud asked, confused. "I mean… Vincent doesn't look older than twenty five maybe."

"It's hard to say, it really is. It's been at least twenty years plus," Tuesti admitted. "Though, it's hard to say when Vincent was put into the machine. It… might've not been that long."

"Do you have any idea how long for sure, then? I mean, he existed as the Wastes Demon… thing, so –"

"That bug, as it was thought at the time, was first encountered… almost ten years go," Tuesti said quietly. "Around the same time they started working on brain signal manipulating technology again. Cait Sith… did tell you, didn't he?"

"Yeah, but…" Cloud trailed off and grimaced, running a hand over his face. So, as much as he wished to change it, the past was past and Vincent had been stuck in VR for at least that long. Fuck it all. "And despite knowing all this shit, you still can't backtrack him?" he asked.

Tuesti sighed. "He's connected in a way that… just isn't used anymore. He's hardwired in. Or at least the connection he's using is. This tech is from before the network was organised, before terminals and connections had their own addresses. He's a landmark in a world made of street signs," he shrugged. "He's there and he interacts with the system, but he's just… not pinned on any map."

"And there's no way to do anything about that, huh?" Cloud asked.

"We're doing the best we can, with little luck so far. But that's why you're here," Tuesti said, giving him a look. "How did you figure out that Vincent was a human beneath all the horns and growling? Ignoring the conversation and everything – before either of you even said a word to each other. You knew there were NPCs in the game, and humanoid monsters wouldn't be that that big of a jump up from there. And Vincent didn't look that human. So how did you know?"

Cloud frowned, thinking back to it. Then he shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "It didn't even cross my mind that he wouldn't be."

"Not even for an instant?"

 "… Not really?" Cloud said and folded his arms, really thinking about it. "No, I figured out pretty much instantly that he was a human being. Granted, I thought he was a player, but…."

"How about RedXIII?" Tuesti asked. "When you met him? Did you think he might be a mob in the game? He doesn't look humanoid at all."

"I was surprised, sure, but… no. Though he talked to me first, before I even saw him, so that helped," Cloud said, shaking his head. "I thought he was just another player, just one with a very weird avatar."

"And now?" Tuesti asked, looking at him keenly

Cloud frowned. "I know he isn't human," he admitted. "It's sort of obvious the longer you look at him move or do pretty much anything – it's too natural, he doesn't make any sort of motions like a human, nothing. He's probably pretty much the same in real life as he is in the game."

"And did you figure that out by observation or –"

"What, you think I have some sort of sixth sense for this?" Cloud asked, frowning. "For… anomalies in Terra Online?"

Tuesti smiled. "Your track record speaks volumes, wouldn't you say?" he asked and then stood up. "Come on. I want you to try something."

Cloud eyed him a bit dubiously but stood up as well. He wasn't sure how he felt about the man fanboying after his damn brain – it was weird as hell, kind of creepy, and reminded him a lot of the start of the Albrook Newbie Massacre at times. But he'd signed the contract and if this would help him help Vincent….

He'd just keep a decent bit of distance between himself and the man, until he was sure Tuesti wasn't about to lobotomize him and put his brain in a jar, or something.

"Here," Tuesti said, leading him into what looked like a workshop and a dentist's office had had a baby, and then a mad scientist had moved in. The room was full of computers and screens and all sorts of half-finished technological gadgets that looked vaguely dangerous. It was the end of the room that called for attention, though. There were four very high tech chairs – the sort with their own motors that moved by remote control – arranged in a fan formation there, near the wall furthest from them. Each of the chairs had a bulky, elaborate helmet with a very familiar visor sitting on them, all of them wired right into the walls behind the chairs. And not just with one wire, but several.

"What's this?" Cloud asked, as Tuesti made his way to the chairs and, judging by the sound of a sudden mechanical hum, turned them on.

"These are… well," Tuesti smiled, lifting one of the helmets. "These are supercomputer versions of your usual VRDC. These are what was and still is used when games like Terra Online and Asgard were created. Come here and sit down."

"Do I have to?" Cloud asked, but went forward, sitting down in the dentist chairs from an ergonomist's wet dreams. He practically sank into it and had a moment of vertigo – the chair, however it was made, made him feel almost weightless.

"Lift your head," Tuesti said and Cloud did, grimacing slightly as the man fit the rather heavy helmet into his head. The visor was bigger than he was used to and the edge cut into his nose for a moment, before Tuesti adjusted the helmet in a couple easy, practiced motions. Then it fit perfectly.

"There. Now give me a moment, to set myself up. Here," Tuesti added, handing Cloud a remote control. "Make yourself comfortable."

Cloud didn't really even get a proper chance to figure out how to work the damn remote, before Tuesti had already finished fitting himself in to the chair beside his, helmet on head, visor in place. The man adjusted his own chair, reclining back and lifting the feet up.

"Comfy?" the man asked.

"Let's get this, whatever this is, over with," Cloud sighed, setting the remote down.

Tuesti smiled – and the world fell away, literally fell somewhere far below them. Cloud looked after it with mingled confusion and fascination, before sensing a surface beneath his feet, and dropping down to it, Tuesti doing the same beside him

The place they were in was nothing like Terra Online. For one, they were themselves with their actual clothing and bodies – Cloud had even brought the itch he had had on his left shoulder blade with him into the simulation. And for another… there was actually nothing around them. It wasn't even black, or white – or anything. There was actually just nothing there.

"This is what we call the Primordial Soup, in VR development," Tuesti said, resting his hand at his hips. "It has all the physics of the real world, gravity and so on, and it has air. The space is infinite and filled with precisely nothing. This is where all Terra Online terrains, objects, creatures… pretty much everything in the game was created."

"Okay," Cloud said slowly. "And you brought me here because…?"

"Because I want to see you create something," Tuesti said.

Cloud waited for the man to continue, but he didn't. "… Okay," he sighed. "And how the hell do I actually do that?"

Tuesti just smiled and said nothing.

"Oh for love of –" Cloud grumbled. "Is this a test or something or are you just fucking with me?"

"Think of it as a test if that makes it easier," Tuesti said and out of nowhere a chair appeared – an incredibly comfy looking throne. The man sat down on it smoothly, crossing one leg over the other, watching him. "Just ignore me and make something. Doesn't matter in the slightest what, or why, or how. Just… make something."

"And you're just going to sit there, not telling me how I'm actually supposed to make this… something?" Cloud asked wryly.

"It'll come to you, I'm sure," Tuesti said, the smug son of a bitch.

"Great, just great," Cloud grumbled. So, he'd sign up to be Tuesti's dancing monkey. Wonderful.