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Off the Line

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Over the course of the day, Tuesti ran Cloud through a variety of virtual reality simulations, most of them for designers and developers. He also put Cloud through the basic training programs a couple of times to demonstrate where the basic structure of Terra Online came from.

"You've been using it from the start, though," Tuesti said while Cloud wielded a simulated sword against a generic simulated opponent. The feel of the combat simulation was a little different from Terra Online – the physics in the simulation were different – but a lot of it was the same. The weight of the weapon, the way it felt to swing it, and the way it felt when it hit something, a lot of that was exactly the same. Some of it was different though. Rainstorm's reach and strength and agility, for one, were missing. For another, everything was heavier.

It was closer to reality than Terra Online. And yet…

Cloud spun past the blade making for him and finished his opponent by a rough slice across the throat. "Yeah, it feels similar," he said, spinning the blade in his hand. It was smaller than what he used in Terra Online, and still heavier, and it felt off somehow. "It's still not exactly like it. Not exactly like reality either."

"Well, it is a training program," the man shrugged, while Cloud's opponent disintegrated and vanished. "Intended for the learning of sword arts. You can add your own physical limitations to a hundred percent reality into it, but sometimes those limitations are pretty detrimental. The idea is to teach the right way to the mind here, and then go about teaching it to the body in real life – or in MVR. Do you know why you have such a hard time learning skills in Terra Online?"

Cloud frowned. "It has something to do with my body, I guess," he said. "Mena thinks I'm suited for heavier, bigger swords and she's right, I think, but… I'm not as tall as Rainstorm, not in real life. Nor as strong. So there is a separation that makes it disconnect, somehow."

"Very good. There is another thing too, though," Reeve said. "You still don't know swordplay, not well enough, not yet. Your Braver is an extremely basic, extremely simple attack when you think about it. Jump and downwards swipe, basic stuff. What makes it a skill is the precision you need to use it – precision both when you jump and when you deliver the attack which is done while in the air. Considering that, what can you extrapolate about what your next skill might be like?"

While Cloud thought about it, Reeve walked around him, considering him. "A lot of what's possible in Terra Online is based on your own body potential. Yours is… somewhat strange, I admit, but very interesting too. Heavy swords and precision. And you knew that too, right from the start. You've put all your stat points into Strength and Dexterity after all. Why?"

Cloud shrugged. At the time he had figured that as a Viera, it would make sense but… he didn't really do things the optimal way for a Viera, did he. Sighing he rested the sword against his shoulder and glanced at Tuesti. "So, what would be my next skill then?" he asked.

"Honestly, I think it will be a combo attack," Tuesti shrugged. "You've been trying single attacks, single thrusts and swings and swipes and they all work… but they don't optimise your potential the way skills do. Braver indicated a sort of over use of strength and also precision, yes, but also certain a sort of flashiness. So… whatever the attack will be like, I think it will be something of an overkill."

Cloud rolled his eyes at the man's chuckling. "Okay, a combo attack, will have to try that," he mused. "What's the point in this all, though? All these simulations? Or are you putting me through these things just to see how I do?"

Tuesti smiled. "In part, yes, but mostly I want you to adapt to thinking of virtual realities as a malleable systems. In Terra Online you conform to the rules in the end. I want you out of that mind set," he said, looking around them in the virtual training room. "Terra Online isn't a perfect world. It is full of flaws and errors and weak points and I want to see you take advantage of them all. The battle system, I think, will be easiest for you to start with. Once you break it and make it yours, everything else should follow neatly."

"And then?" Cloud asked frowning.

"Then, I think, you can start hacking the system," Tuesti looked at him plainly

"…Hacking?!" Cloud asked, surprised. "You want me to hack Terra Online?"

"Yes," the man nodded and smiled. "Don't look so shocked. There are two types of hackers – those who abuse the system to their own ends, and those who test it to find flaws and errors so that they can be fixed. You will be the latter sort. It's my hope that eventually you'll be able to find the flaws and the errors, the holes and the weak points. And that eventually… you can use those things to find Vincent."

Tuesti smiled and looked away. "We developers look at Virtual Realities in a certain way, as something we can make and mould and fix. When I start looking for flaws, all I find is things that I want to develop further, systems I want to evolve. I need someone with different mind-set. Someone who looks at the system and instead of something to perfect, he'll see something to simply take advantage of. Terra Online is a creation for Cait Sith and for me; it's an art work, the worth of which is in what it is. For you… it's a tool to use."

"So all this talk about self-betterment and whatnot –"

Tuesti shrugged. "Well, I certainly wouldn't mind if you made use of it in real life. But yes, I'm trying to make you both see and figure out how you can use the system to your own ends. And inspire you to do it. Is it working?"

"Yeah, I guess," Cloud sighed. "Dunno how I feel about it, really, though. I want to play Terra Online the same as everyone, not… break the system, or whatever."

"Nothing stops you from enjoying the game. I'm not telling you to cheat," Tuesti laughed. "Just… find different ways to play. Terra Online doesn't actually have rules, you know. It never did, it only has limitations. Besides… you have things heaped against you in the game. You're practically collecting handicaps. So how about a bit of an advantage?"

"I suppose," Cloud sighed. He still wasn't sure about any of this, but… at least Tuesti seemed to know what the end game was. And if it would help them find Vincent, well… there were worse things. Probably.

Tuesti smiled. "I think this is about enough for today," he said and finished the simulation. A moment later Cloud found himself in the high tech chair, staring at the inside of the visor that informed him that he had spent 204 minutes in the simulation and perhaps he ought to get something to eat now.

"The helmet is telling me to eat," Cloud said while Tuesti took off his own helmet.

"Yes, we needed to add in security measures to keep our developers and programmers from skipping meals," the man laughed. "Which reminds me, do you have a place to stay for the night?"

"…Not really. I didn't think I'd be out of the infantry this fast," Cloud sighed, and took his helmet off. All his things were still in the infantry barracks too – though, he hadn't really brought that much to begin with. "I guess I have to go to a hotel, or something."

"I have a guest room, you're welcome to it until you find yourself a place to stay," Tuesti said and stood up. "Probably best you stay with me for a little while anyway, while I talk you through your future duties."

"…Not entirely sure I like the idea of working even during my off hours," Cloud frowned. Nor did he know how he liked the idea of staying in Tuesti's presence. The man occasionally gave him some major creeps. Being in the same house while he slept…

The Department Head glanced at him pointedly. "You will be using VRDC in your sleep, won't you?"

"Yeah, but…" Cloud trailed away. "Actually, my VRDC was issued by ShinRa Health and Medicine. I… probably have to hand that back now that I'm not in the infantry anymore. How did I get out of the infantry this fast anyway?"

Tuesti smiled amusedly at him. "Do you really think that I, as a Department Head, need to go through the proper channels? All I needed to do was to inform your superior officer that I'd taken you into my department and that was it. ShinRa, you might not be aware, is extremely corrupt."

"…Wonderful," Cloud groaned, running a hand over his face.

"Come on," Tuesti said. "Let's shut the floor down and get out of here. Do you want to pick your things from the barracks? Then meet me in the cafeteria in half an hour and I'll take you home."

"Do you have to say it like that?" Cloud asked grumpily. "I am not your date."

"No. You're my asset," Tuesti grinned at him.

Cloud glared at him suspiciously. "You're doing this on purpose, aren't you?"

The developer grinned and walked off. "Half an hour, Strife. Don't keep me waiting."

The guys at the barracks gave him some narrowed looks and, while Cloud changed out of uniform and into his civilian clothes and as he emptied his overhead shelf, he could hear them muttering. There were a few mumbled traitors and cowards from his former bunk mates, which he had pretty much expected. The infantry didn't exactly look up to the people who quit. Not that his fellow troopers had exactly looked up to him before either.

Cloud endured it to the point where he had his things and turned to leave, only to find the other guys barring his way to the door. He looked at them as they lounged there, suspiciously casual with their legs out stretched so that he couldn't walk past them.

"Do you really wanna do this, guys?" he asked.

"I don't know, quitter. What are we doing, exactly?" one of them asked, folding his arms. "I'm not doing anything. How about you guys?"

"Just hanging around," another said almost casually.

Cloud glanced between them and smothered the urge to sigh. They hadn't… quite bothered him, since they had become part of the same squad. He had always been the smallest and weakest, sure, and to his annoyance the prettiest too… but while that had gotten him shoved around, hazed and not so kindly propositioned a lot in basic training, in actual duty it was different. The others knew that screwing around might get them kicked out of the army, after all. So mostly he had been left alone, a lot. Left behind in patrolling, left behind when the others headed to mess hall, left behind everywhere. And whenever the others had headed off to town, they very pointedly never invited him. He hadn't minded, really. Bars weren't his scene, as it was.

And that had been, what, respect shown to a fellow trooper? And now that he no longer was, all bets were off. Wonderful.

"Go on, quitter," Jaise, who usually was pretty decent with him, jeered. "Leave. We're not stopping you."

Cloud snorted at that and eyed the distance between himself and the door. About four meters. Four meters, and seven guys all bigger and stronger than him. No way would he get there without severe bruising and bleeding. And wouldn't that be fun, showing up at the HQ cafeteria to meet with Tuesti, all the while needing medical care.

Cloud narrowed his eyes, glancing from guy to guy. With so much VR behind him, with the whole day spent talking about Terra Online, he couldn't help but think; if this was the game, these guys would all be under level five. They were big but clumsy, barely trained, and they made a poor party. None of them had weapons, or armour. The quarters were cramped.

If he was Rainstorm, he could do this without breaking a sweat. If he was Rainstorm… he could jump right over them.

He wasn't Rainstorm, though. He didn't have a Viera's jumping abilities, nor the speed, the strength, the agility. Except… some of that was based on him. A lot of it was based on him, on his own potential. Not what he was capable of, no, how his body was, but what it could be. And what had Tuesti said again, about Cloud Strife being used to failing? And in the meantime, Rainstorm… was used to no such thing.

If he did nothing he'd just get beat up. So really, what did he have to lose?

"Mind over matter," Cloud murmured. While the nearest guy blinked at him he threw his bag past the guys and through the door, into the hallway. Then he jumped ahead.

The leg in his way turned into a stepping stone and he kicked off from it and over the second one. When the third guy tried to reach for him, Cloud grabbed the hand in his way and tugged the guy out of balance and somehow landed onto his back, crouching there and then kicking off again. Somehow he ended doing a damn flip over the fourth guy, and there was the fifth guy, in his way. Cloud twisted in air and landed feet first on the guy's chest, sending him backwards and then he was already jumping forward, reaching for the next one, grabbing him by the shoulders and using them for leverage, pushing up, flipping over him. The last guy he almost accidentally kicked out of the way and then…

Then he was at the door, with seven very confused looking guys staggering in the room behind him.

"Fuck," Cloud murmured. Sure he had always been sort of agile himself, and he had been decent in what little gymnastic type of exercises they had had in basic, but… "Fuck," he said again with more feeling.

"What the fuck?!" one of the guys asked, and spun around. "You son of a bitch!"

"Well, that's a déjà vu," Cloud murmured as his brain caught up on the fact that he had managed to get away, pretty much unscathed. That would only last for as long as he managed to keep his distance. So he spun around, grabbed his bag from the floor, and got the hell out of there.

His mind was still catching onto what he had done, a little unsure how exactly he had done it, when he made it to the ShinRa HQ cafeteria. Tuesti wasn't there yet, so Cloud sank to the nearest table, rewinding the incident in his head. How the hell had he done that? What had he actually done?

He had… well, not quite fought, but that was how he moved as Rainstorm while fighting. Sort of anyway. Rainstorm was an agile type of fighter, ducking past weapons and going for single hit kills. Cloud hadn't quite done that, but… the movements were similar.

Did that mean that Tuesti was right? That… he could really do some of the things Rainstorm could, and the only reason he hadn't been able to so far was because he hadn't actually really tried? If he could move like Rainstorm, could he fight like him too? Mena had told him that Rainstorm's stats were based on his own body and abilities and he hadn't really believed. He still wasn't sure but…

It had been so easy. How the hell had it been so easy when for years everything had been so hard?

"Strife?" He heard Tuesti ask and looked up to see the man watching him with a frown. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah," Cloud said and stood up. There were people staring, the staff of the cafeteria, a couple random employees, a few guys wearing SOLDIER uniforms. He barely even saw them. "Yeah, I'm fine."

"Did… something happen?" Tuesti asked, still looking at him worriedly. "You look shaken."

Cloud looked down at his hands. They were shaking. He quickly squeezed them into fists. "I'm fine," he said and smiled. Fuck was even happening right now? He had no idea. He felt a little like he was stuck in a game, in a simulation, and the physics made no sense. But… if he could do it again, if he could actually bring Rainstorm out like that again…

He straightened his back and lowered his hands. "I'm fine," he said a third time and this time he actually believed it. "Shall we go?"

Tuesti looked at him a moment longer and then nodded. "Alright. Let's go."