For Want of a Nail

The sun rises on a strange land. A land that should be familiar, and yet somehow it is not. The light glints off the vast mirror that is Impact Lake; the clear, still waters looking far too serene for a geographical feature with such a complex and exiting history. Clustered on the shore of the lake, like a crowd of people huddled together in awe of its size and beauty, is a sterile-looking, mostly-white city. On official documents, this city is known by its name of New Midgar. To most of the inhabitants of the land, however, it is – and always will be – Shin-Ra City; the headquarters of the planetary government and the personal home of aptly-named President Insanity. Only the finest are ever promoted to a position that merits a free pass into Shin-Ra City. And this time around, there aren’t even any slums.
A lone figure sits atop one of the small, ragged ‘mountains’ on the other side of the lake, thrown up by the same disaster that formed the lake itself, and watches the sun rise. The world has turned out more astonishing than he would have thought possible. Most importantly, however, is that it has removed, most spectacularly, the one major barrier that stood in his way. A single alteration of conditions for a dice roll somewhere as far away, in quantum terms, as it is easy to get, had now sealed the fate of the entire multiverse. All, as the poem said, for the want of a horseshoe nail. The lone figure allowed himself a dazzling smile, before pressing a little black button on the edge of what looked very much like a watch, and quietly slipping away between two fundamental particles of reality. The world would maintain itself now. There was no-one capable of ruining anything.


Doctor Rebecca Ericho was, it seemed, capable of ruining anything. That was certainly the opinion of her direct superiors. It made sense, she supposed: she made an easier scapegoat than anyone else, given her ancestry.
Her crime, on this particular occasion, had ultimately boiled down to too much humanity, being unwilling to sacrifice the life of a colleague simply to ensure the capture of a terrorist. It probably wouldn’t have mattered quite so much if that particular terrorist hadn’t been deemed the Primary Threat to Homeworld Security. As it was, the matter was too great to just be dealt with by those immediately above her – it had attracted the attention of the President Himself.
Now she was being frogmarched along a gleaming-walled corridor, carpeted in royal blue, by seven black-suited New SOLDIER guards. The New SOLDIER motto was stitched into the uniform in spidery letters of pure gold: Death or Glory. Probably Both.
When they reached an imposing door of mirrored glass, the New SOLDIER grunt in front motioned with his hands and the others split off to either side and stepped backwards until they were behind Rebecca, blocking any chance of escape back down the corridor. Moving forward already to take their place were four of the six silver-suited Presidential Guard, their reflective helmets making them seem less like humans and more like robots. Which, of course, they might well be. The door slid open and the guards marched forwards, Rebecca keeping pace in the middle of them, like the centre dot on the fifth side of a die. She wondered what exactly would happen to her if she fell out of step, or even tried to run. She doubted very much it would involve immediate death. Nothing was ever punished simply by immediate death any more.
The President of New Shin-Ra sat before her on a white throne that hovered slightly above the ground for no good reason. On his left there stood a young man in a ceremonial lab coat, holding a silver tray on which stood a single coffee pot. Rebecca had heard tales that the President had destroyed entire towns in order to extend his personal coffee plantation onto more fertile ground. Much of the populace lived in perpetual fear of some famine or blight killing the coffee crop. No-one knew quite what the President would become without a regular caffeine fix.
At the President’s other hand was a specially-designed interface via which he could talk directly to his personal computer, which in turn controlled the Worldwide Computer Network. Rebecca recognised the device immediately; in fact she had briefly dated the guy who invented it. She had only uneasily broken off the relationship when she discovered that he had stolen the mind of a genetically-engineered girl and imprisoned it deep within the system in order to make it work.
The President himself fixed his gaze on Rebecca as the guards stopped moving and stood, inhumanly motionless, before him. She had to force herself not to choke as the narrow grey eyes looked her up and down – the eyes were so similar to her own, in colour and shape, and yet she had never seen such a look of madness and malevolence in her reflection as she did in President Insanity.
He didn’t look much like a President, it had to be said. The last one, if the pictures she had seen were to be believed, had always been impeccably dressed and had a hairstyle so fashionable you could put it on a magazine cover. This one, however, had hair like a brunette-coloured explosion and wore fairly scruffy dark clothes, over which was the most tattered lab coat Rebecca had ever seen. The President, she recalled, had once been a scientist himself.
For some time, the two simply looked at each other, each lost to their own thoughts. Then the President spoke.
“You are the girl who helped Bob to escape?” he asked.
“Yes, Sir,” Rebecca replied, doing her best to curtsey. The President raised an eyebrow.
“And… apart from that, who else are you?” he inquired. Rebecca felt the roof of her mouth go dry.
“Doctor Rebecca Ericho, Sir. Deputy Director-in-Chief of Project Multiverse, Sir.” The President leaned forwards in his throne, studying her more closely. She could almost feel his gaze as it ran over her long dark hair, fragile oriental features and slight build.
“Ericho, you say?” he repeated, thoughtfully. “Tell me, girl, what was your mother’s name?” Rebecca swallowed softly.
“Xoco,” she said. “Xoco Ericho. Sir.” The President frowned.
“Hmmm,” he muttered to himself. “Does sound oddly familiar. What about your father?”
“He died before I was born, Sir. But I believe his name was Hisashi.” This time the President showed no recognition, but he remained interested nonetheless.
“Your mother; what does she do?” he inquired. “Where is she now?”
“She’s also dead, Sir,” Rebecca told him truthfully, hoping that this would prevent him from digging any deeper. It didn’t.
“Why?” he pressed. “What happened to her? When?”
“She was caught in the blast radius of the Impact,” Rebecca replied reluctantly. “Just over ten years ago.”
“Why was she near Midgar?” the President insisted, his voice now hushed and tense. Rebecca weighed up her options.
“I don’t know,” she lied eventually. It was a bad idea, she knew, but telling the truth would have been just as bad, if not worse. The President seemed intrigued and disappointed in equal measure. At that moment, however, a calm female voice rang out across the hall from unseen speakers.
“I believe the girl was initially brought here to explain her actions, Mr President.”
“What?” snapped President Insanity, looking up. Then, “Ah, yes. Of course. Thank you, J.O.A.N.N.A. Now then, obviously allying with terrorists is terribly frowned on, et cetera et cetera, don’t do it again or I’ll have to have you tasered into a vegetative state, so on, so forth, but as you’re such an important member of the Primary Project you’ll have to be let off this time with all appendages still attached. Let her go. Insert maniacal cackle as appropriate. Somebody give me some coffee.”
The servant to his left obliged. Rebecca was subtly encouraged to leave the room by the Presidential Guard. As the door closed, the President lowered his mug and ran his tongue over his top lip. He lowered his free hand into the computer interface, where it was scanned, before a thousand microscopic needles stabbed into various nerve endings within it. The President half-winced.
Mr President? asked J.O.A.N.N.A. politely.
Keep tabs on that girl, if you will, the President told her via thought. And inform her superiors that she is to be shown Subject One.
You are sure that this is wise, Sir? Asked J.O.A.N.N.A. The President considered this.
Quite the contrary, really, I am almost convinced that it is insane. And therefore I am going to do it.
Just so, Sir, agreed the computer. And are we to tell our guest about her? The President thought some more.
I’ll do it myself, he decided. May require a personal touch. Could also be fun.

The man known as Bob was hiding in one of the few homes anywhere near Shin-Ra City in which he was welcome alive. The home in question was, not to put too fine a point on it, really more of a hollowed-out cave. The old woman living in it preferred not to tell people her name, which suited Bob fine as long as she let him hide there.
“Not brought down the government yet?” she asked dryly as the world’s most infamous vigilante terrorist attempted to dress his own wounds.
“Not yet,” replied Bob irritably. “Armed response arrived quicker than I’d anticipated. I only managed to get out because I convinced a scientist to show me the way.” He realised with some bewilderment that he’d managed to bandage his own hand to his leg, and was forced to tug it free and start again.
“By ‘convince’, I take it you mean ‘threaten to kill’,” the woman said. Bob scowled.
“No. Actually, I mean ‘threaten to kill the friend of’.”
“Oh, that’s all right then,” came the response. Bob didn’t miss the cynicism.
“Look, do you want to bring down Shin-Ra or not?” he demanded. The woman sighed.
“On principle, yes. They killed almost everyone I knew. At Insanity’s suggestion. Of course I want them to pay. But I am an old woman, Bob. As time goes on, the fire in one’s soul tends to die down a little. I’m not sure I am still happy with the way you try to do it. How many died this time?” Bob’s lips moved for a while as he counted.
“Seventeen,” he concluded.
“And how many did you have to kill on the way there?”
“What do you mean by ‘way there’?”
“Since you got within about twenty metres of the city itself.” Bob took longer to count this time.
“Fifty-three,” he said eventually. “But two of them were accidental.”
“So what exactly is your current death toll, Mr Bob?” the woman inquired. Bob’s eyebrows raised as he strained both his memory and his arithmetic skills.
“Two thousand and forty-six?” he hazarded. “Something like that.”
“That’s a lot of people, Bob,” the woman noted. “And not many of them were the right ones. Very few of them made much of a difference, except to increase the number of people who want you dead.”
“Yeah,” conceded Bob, “but their death count’s still higher. They caused the deaths of loads of people and they always –”
“And they always had a reason for it, Bob,” sighed the old woman, exasperated. “A part of me hates to say this, but to Insanity and to his company, Bugenhagen and Strife and Valentine and Reeve and Insanity Sr and even Hisashi – all of these people were dangerous. They all had to die.”
“They died because they didn’t fight hard enough,” insisted Bob. “You have to fight brutality with more brutality.” The old woman said nothing, merely turning away. Bob allowed himself a satisfied smile: he seemed to have won that argument.
For some time they remained in silence, before Bob stood and picked up a painful-looking machine gun in each hand.
“Think you might encounter some New SOLDIER troops on the way to your next hide-out?” the old woman asked, the slightest of barbs in her tone.
“Of course not,” replied Bob in kind. “I found something big in their lab, and I want to know more. I’m going back.”
“That’s it,” whispered the woman as he left. “Don’t give the population numbers a chance to recover will you?”

Besides being the headquarters of the world’s scientific development and the personal residence of the President, Shin-Ra City also served partially as a jail. This was actually perfectly logical: due to the President’s paranoia, the city was the most heavily-defended in the world. And if no-one could reach the President then, by extension, no-one could reach any criminals in the President’s vicinity. The fact that if someone ever did manage to spring one of them it meant that there would immediately be an extra threat to the President’s welfare was largely hand-waved on the grounds that it made things untidy.
It was debatable, however, as to whether the part of the city that served as jail was, technically speaking, a part of the city. The part of the Shin-Ra City that was actually visible was merely the tip of the iceberg. The jail and some of the more interesting scientific facilities were kept in the catacomb-like Underground district, the bulk of which was hidden beneath the bottom of Impact Lake. There was only one way out, which involved getting past multiple security measures before emerging in one of the most heavily-policed areas of the settlement. Any attempt to dig one’s way out would be extremely difficult, and likely to result in instantaneous death by water pressure to the face. Everyone whom the President or his Company deemed too dangerous to be allowed outside ended up down there.
With one exception.
The exception who was, at that moment, sitting cross-legged on a comfortable bed in a large suite of rooms in the President’s private home. The suite was decorated in a simplistic but effective style, and would be considered the height of luxury even by the standards of many non-prisoners. It was, nevertheless, a prison. Escape would only be possible through a pretty-but-functional door which could only be unlocked from the outside. Even the windows were of specially-toughened glass, as if their position sixteen floors above ground level wasn’t enough of a deterrent.
The petite woman opened her eyes and looked to the door when she heard the click of the lock. She reached up a fragile hand to brush her grey-flecked dark hair out of her narrow grey eyes. The door opened slowly, and the President of New Shin-Ra entered, smiling.
“Hello mother,” he said.
“Good afternoon, Mr President,” Azumi Ericho replied, in a calm voice with a hint of sadness. A muscle in the President’s face twitched slightly.
“I have news, mother,” the President said, brushing aside Azumi’s frosty formality. “Did you know that you have a niece? And she’s in my company.” That got Azumi’s attention.
“A niece? But…”
“Daughter of Xoco Ericho and someone called Hisashi. Xoco was the name of my aunt, wasn’t it? The one we never saw.” Azumi gasped.
“Dear little Xoco! But… but why didn’t she tell me? And with Hisashi… good gods, please, not that Hisashi… Why would she keep it from me?”
“No idea,” replied the President, smiling. “But her name’s Rebecca. Odd choice, isn’t it? Not particularly native. I’d let you see her, but, well, security measures and all that. It might be difficult.” He stood up to leave. “Really must dash now, you know, lots of Presidenting to be getting on with. Just thought you might like to know.” Azumi became frosty again.
“How’s your father?” she asked, coldly. President Insanity smiled.
“A damn sight worse off than you,” he replied. “Bye-bye, mother.”

Rebecca was being taken through the labyrinthine depths of the New Shin-Ra Science Department Headquarters for reasons she didn’t quite understand. One of her superiors, a man named Wessel, was babbling on about the history of Project Multiverse as he led her.
“I take it, of course, that you know the basic story of the very beginning?” he said. Aware that he had directed a question at her, Rebecca replayed the last bit of speech in her head and thought up an answer.
“Yes, Doctor Wessel,” she confirmed. “It started as a sort of private hobby of Gast back in Old Shin-Ra. He couldn’t get it to work on his own, so he took it to the company. A little later, Hojo got involved and refined the theory, ultimately taking over the project and constructing the first piece of universal-wall-manipulating hardware. He continued to work on it, ironing out as many kinks as he could, and ultimately creating the base rules of the science as we know it today. It wasn’t until after the Sephiroth Cataclysm and Operation Phoenix, when President Insanity and the other founders of New Shin-Ra found Hojo’s labs, that they re-started the project.” Wessel smiled.
“Indeed, girl. That is undeniably the official story. However, it is about time that you learned that the official story is… not entirely true. The President actually found out about the project before he initiated the rebirth of the company. Before the original company liquidated in fact; when he was the mere head of materia research in Old Shin-Ra’s science department. Hojo himself made sure of that.”
“Then it’s true,” Rebecca gasped. “The Hojo Files. They exist.”
“Did exist,” Wessel corrected her. “They were destroyed in order to prevent the truth leaking. You see, girl, there was more than just the basis of Strand Theory contained within those documents. There was also a very important, very secret piece of news. Something that the President could not afford to leak.”
“What do you mean?” breathed Rebecca, softly, realising that she could be about to learn something earth-shattering. Wessel smiled.
“You’re about to see for yourself,” he said.
Rebecca noticed that they had been walking for so long that they were no longer in the science department. Somehow, by some hitherto unknown route, they had ended up deep inside the city jail. There was a large, forbidding iron door in front of them now, dull but not rusted, held in place by rivets the size of a man’s arm. A faded panel on the front read, simply, ‘1’.
Wessel swiped his security pass through a scanner, looked clearly into a camera set in the wall, and said his name and ID number clearly. After a short pause while his clearance was checked and double-checked by unseen forces, the door swung slowly open. Rebecca followed her superior inside and was faced with another, identical door. The one behind her shut. The one in front of her opened.
Behind the second door was a small room, devoid of pretty-much anything. The walls and floor were covered in gods-only-knew-what filth – it didn’t look like a room that got cleaned a lot. The only item of… of anything in the room was a computer terminal set in the ceiling at the far wall, from which various trailing wires snaked down to where they ended in a series of vicious-looking electrodes and probes. On the other end of said wires, fixed to the wall with all four limbs securely pinioned, was an elderly man, thin and weak with lack of nourishment and exercise, long grimy grey hair obscuring his face.
“Doctor Rebecca Ericho,” began Wessel with obvious pride. “Welcome to Subject One. The only creature ever to intentionally travel through the Void without any negative side-effects. For years now, the President’s personal computer has been scanning his brainwaves and thought patterns, trying to make sense of his knowledge, but his mind is so different to ours that the code remains uncracked. It is this man’s technology which forms the heart and basis of all our trans-dimensional systems. This man’s technology, also, from which we finally learned the secret of the Failsafe Circuit.”
“You mean that bit they invented recently which prevents the machines from becoming swamped with fifty different types of radiation every time we use them? The bit that means that, if the test run tomorrow is successful, we’ll actually be able to send entire armies across time, space and probability, conquering whatever worlds we come across? This man invented it?”
“Quite so,” confirmed Wessel. “Although I doubt very much that this was his own intended use for it.” The man looked up, struggling to lift his head, and feebly jerked the hair from his eyes. They were burning with sadness and rage and desperation. Rebecca felt a pang of guilt.
“Who is he?” she asked. “Who was he?” Wessel shrugged.
“The Hojo Files say he is from the Sourceworld,” he said, and Rebecca’s eyes widened despite herself. “His mind and personal time-trail are very disorientating, but we think he may be the last of his kind, and that he came here on some personal quest to meet the President – would you believe that?” he lowered his voice. “We also think he may be linked to the Source Inconsistency.”
That impressed Rebecca even more; the Source Inconsistency was a point, about a decade ago in local time, when the rules of Strand Theory as they were understood suddenly stopped applying properly – like there was something fundamentally wrong with the multiverse. She looked back at the old man, and couldn’t help but feel there was something in his gaze – something like recognition. She winced and looked away.
“Congratulations, Dr Ericho,” Wessel said. “You are now one of the most informed 0.2% in the world. Welcome to Clearance Zero.”

Project Multiverse was not common knowledge outside of the company. President Insanity had decided that the public should know ‘only slightly less than they need to’. There were always rumours that something was going on, but nobody really knew what. Certainly nobody knew of the bank of machinery in the New Shin-Ra Science Department which was capable of locking onto a fixed space-time point anywhere in any universe and transporting virtually any amount of mass from its current location to there and then. With one exception.
Bob had been fighting the company for years now; over a decade in fact. If truth be told he didn’t actually remember how many people he’d killed; he could only guess. But none of it seemed to have had any difference. He’d taken out generals and executives, blown up laboratories and headquarters, and launched numerous attacks on Shin-Ra City itself, and the company just marched on, unfazed. What he needed was some way to take out the President. And all his immediate underlings simultaneously. Which was a task that couldn’t possibly be done by mundane methods.
If, however, the entirety of Shin-Ra City were to cease to exist, while they were all inside…
Bob was a soldier, not a scientist. He didn’t know how the machine worked. The blueprints he had come across were almost unfathomable. But he knew that if he could just convince someone to work it for him, he could wipe New Shin-Ra away like the stain that it was.

Night had fallen, in the usual manner, by the time things started to happen.
Rebecca was sitting up in bed in her modest apartment next to the labs. Guilt, or something very much like it, was gnawing away at her and preventing her from getting the sleep she really deserved after the day she’d had.
The President was also wide awake, although this was merely a side-effect of his caffeine addiction. He had once again allowed J.O.A.N.N.A, his personal supercomputer, access to his mind, and was monitoring the CCTV of the city via her. Paranoia had kept him in power thus far, and he wasn’t in any hurry to give it up.
Azumi was seated on her bed, meditating. She was sure that something was going to happen, and happen soon. There were now four members of her family in the same city. And in her experience, the larger the number of her relatives nearby, the greater the likelihood of things being damaged in big ways.
Bob was hidden just outside the city, in what he knew from experience was a camera blind spot. In a few minutes he was going to set foot inside the city itself, and when he did so all Hell would break loose.
The Sourceworlder was still chained where he always was, waiting. He had finally found someone on the outside who could help with the final stages of his plan. Now all he had to do was carry out his side of things. This was something he had practised and prepared for in secret for many years. He hoped it had been enough.

This is the vast brain of J.O.A.N.N.A, the Jane Of All Natural Neuronic Affectations (no-one understands the name); a mind that links every single computer on the planet into one huge supercomputing network. A mind-blowing being of pure genius and calculation, fount of all knowledge and mistress of communication. Rarely is she allowed to touch the consciousnesses of anyone but the President, not only because it would be a security risk but because anyone less insane than Von Insanity IV would come out of the experience a gibbering wreck.
Anyone, that is, except for someone who had spent much of his existence hardening his mind and forcing his thoughts to obey his will, because if they were allowed to run unchecked then he would surely fall once more into depression and rage. And this is one of the few other minds to which J.O.A.N.N.A is linked, always trying to force herself in but instead merely flowing around, constricting, squeezing the mind until it bursts. Much of it has fallen apart now. It can no longer remember everything it once could or think as fast as it has famously done in the past. It can’t remember pi much past the seventeenth digit and it’s damned if it can recall the last two notes of the A-Team theme tune. But the bits it knows it will need, it has protected. And the bits it knows the President needs, it has sealed off.
This is the mind of the President, submerged in his computer but remaining separate from it, for fear that if he let his consciousness roam free in the boundless ocean he would never be able to find it all again. As he is now, able to see all that the system sees but regard it from his own point of view, he feels invincible.
This is the only other mind than that of the Sourceworlder to be permanently joined to J.O.A.N.N.A, but this one is in a smaller section of the system cut off somewhat from the rest. This mind was broken a long time ago, and now knows nothing except for what is fed into it by the computer at the President’s demand: a perfect artificial simulation of abject terror. The President liked fear. Unlike pain, which his previous boss much preferred when it came to torture, fear only had one possible outcome. Pain could be volatile, striking back against its creator. Pain could fuel anger and hatred to the point of unstoppable violence. Fear, however, didn’t feed other negative emotions. It consumed them. You can ignore pain, if you try – just grit your teeth and breathe through it. You can’t ignore fear. If you push it to the back of your mind it just lurks there, darkening, until when you least expect it it taps your consciousness on the shoulder. This particular mind had tried to fight the fear for too long. Now, it didn’t even have a consciousness to tap. Inside its head, all there was was screaming.
But there is another mind at work here, buried deep within itself. At the very heart of J.O.A.N.N.A’s brain is a small but incredibly-complex system known as the Thought-Calculation Interface. It allowed the link between human thinking and emotionless computer calculating, which in turn allowed J.O.A.N.N.A to be what she was. The bit of this system that does all the working – it’s consciousness, if you like – has no identity save that it is a tiny part of the vast network. But imprisoned inside that consciousness is the person that this mind once was, cut off from its own workings and unable to do anything save rage – rage against the machine that it has become. It can remember its life before – not a happy life by any means, but preferable to this. It knows that it was once something like a human, and that it would sit alone in the darkness in which it lived and dream of better things. It couldn’t dream any more. It had forgotten how. It desperately wanted to be reminded.
The Sourceworlder knows this mind, and knows that, with enough mental effort of his own, he can wake it up.
“Shelke!” shouts a voice in the darkness, and the mind stirs. Shelke. That’s it. That was the mind’s name, so very long ago. It… it had been a she. It had been a girl. It had been… something to do with being very hard to see.
“Shelke!” shouts the voice again, and with it comes a sudden point of light. Shelke puts all her effort into reaching that point. She can feel change; she is becoming less bound, as if she is switching places with the unthinking system in which she dwelt.
“Who are you?” she asks, and is surprised to find she can speak, even though she doesn’t have a mouth.
“I get called a lot of things,” her new friend replies, “or I have done, in my time. But you can think of me as the guy who wants to give you a better life in return for a little favour…”

Flattened against a wall near the boundaries of the city, Bob took a deep breath and stepped forwards.
Nothing happened. The street remained as empty and silent as it could possibly get. No alarms. No guards. He peered up at the CCTV camera clearly pointed at him right now. Some new trick of the President’s? Trying to lull him into a false sense of security? Or had someone just turned off the CCTV?

The President screamed as he tore his hand from the interface with J.O.A.N.N.A. His brain swam with the strange impressions it had received before he force-quit the system. Some new consciousness had awoken inside there – or some very old consciousness that had lain dormant.
He’d known it. Hadn’t he known it? Hadn’t he always said? It would happen. It had to happen. You didn’t just kill people like Hojo. They came back – they always came back – hadn’t he said? It had to be him! HAD to be! There couldn’t be any other explanations, none that would satisfy him anyway, he’d said this would happen, he’d known, hadn’t he SAID?!?! Why had he let it happen? Why had he become lax, overconfident?! He was BACK!!! HE was back!!!! HE WAS BACK!!!!!! He was coming for him! He had to run! He had to hide! Which ‘he’ was he even talking about any more? He didn’t know! He’d lost track! One of him had to hide from the other one! NOW!!! HE WAS BACK!!!!!!

Rebecca was startled to see the TV screen in the corner of her room turn itself on and words begin to type themselves on the dull grey background.
HEY, BECKY! Typed the screen. LITTLE HLP? And then, as she watched, the word ‘HLP’ corrected itself to ‘HELP’, and the screen added YOURS IMPRISONEDLY, THE SOURCEWORLDER.
That settled it, thought Rebecca. Maybe she was going mad, but clearly she was supposed to help this person. However she could. Which, given she was now Clearance Zero, wouldn’t be too difficult.

The door to the Sourceworlder’s cell opened at her command, and Rebecca hurried over to the bedraggled prisoner. When she tried to release him from the computer interface, however, nothing happened.
“Needs to be done by the President himself,” the Sourceworlder croaked in a voice like an ancient canopic jar being opened. “Or alternatively, now that I’ve removed the human element of the computer, we just need to bamboozle it with logic until it crashes and any mind-interfaces deactivate automatically.”
“What?” asked Rebecca bewildered. “Like, ‘if the barber shaves every man who does not shave himself, who shaves the barber?’?”
“Nah,” replied the Sourceworlder. “Wouldn’t work. Most high-class computers nowadays have a thing called the Cottleston Pie Program which gets run every time they can’t compute something and supplies a nonsensical, one-size-fits-all answer.”
“So how do we fool the Cottleston Pie Program?” Rebecca asked.
“Simple,” replied the Sourceworlder. And then, apparently to himself, “Shelke, ask J.O.A.N.N.A for a full list of questions to which the answer is ‘Cottleston Pie’.”
There was a brief silence, before every single computer terminal in the building, possibly the city, possibly the world, blinked out and went straight to the Blue Screen Of Death.
“And now that you’re in complete control of the system, kindly let me out,” said the Sourceworlder. The wires connected to him all simultaneously fell off, for no apparent reason.
“WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?” demanded Rebecca. The Sourceworlder shrugged.
“Long story,” he replied. “Just get me out of here.”

In the room next door, another dishevelled old man fell to the floor as similar wires disconnected themselves from him. The fear had stopped, and now he was actually free. For some reason, today, everything was finally getting better.
In fact, the man could only think of one thing that could make this day any better than it already was. President Von Insanity IV had to die.
Slowly, unused to using his body in this way, the man who had once been Ryuu Osamu Von Insanity III stood up.

Bob mowed his way through another swathe of unsuspecting guards just as easily as he always had. Heroism comes naturally to some people, cold-blooded murder to others. In many cases, however, they ended up amounting to the same thing.
The last mook fell obediently in two pieces beneath the weight of his sword, leaving Bob facing their captain alone. The captain blustered speechlessly for a moment.
“That last one had a twelve-year-old kid you son of a - !” he screamed before Bob effortlessly decapitated him, and turned his sight towards the science complex.

In her apartment on the sixteenth floor, Azumi decided that the time to act had come at last. She stood up gracefully and moved to the wardrobe. There, hidden behind the rack of clothes, was a long piece of wire made out of several coat-hangers twisted together. It had been bent into such a shape that it could be slid under the door and then, with a simple twist, the opposite end of it would rise up to meet the keypad on the opposite side.
Azumi had practiced the movement many times, having worked out the exact position of the keypad and its labelled buttons through careful observation. She already knew the code – there was only one thing her son would have thought of when he set it.
Carefully, unshakingly, she jerked the wire into where she knew the ‘M’ to be. Then the ‘I’. The ‘T’. ‘S’. ‘U’. ‘K’. ‘A’. ‘I’.
The door opened submissively. Azumi Ericho wrapped her coat around herself and set off down the corridor.

“I’ve confirmed the computer’s command to relieve all on-duty science members,” Rebecca said, putting away her palmtop and opening the door. “How did you get it to do that?”
“I didn’t,” replied the Sourceworlder. “Nobody did. J.O.A.N.N.A doesn’t exist any more, just an angry but brilliantly intelligent young girl with access to everything the computer once did.”
The door to the Project Multiverse Action Hub opened. “Why PMAH?” the Sourceworlder demanded. “That has got to be the single most uncool name I’ve heard since I got here. Lousy unimaginative new management.” Rebecca’s patience snapped, finally.
“What the hell is going on?” she demanded. “What do you want? What am I supposed to do?” The Sourceworlder turned to look at her.
“You, Rebecca Ericho, are going to save the entirety of Creation as I know it,” he answered.
“HOW?” she demanded.
“By removing the Source Inconsistency.”
“Shh!” the Sourceworlder insisted. “I don’t want the whole planet to know. Look, it’s very hard to explain. Basically, the Source Inconsistency had a knock-on effect on this universe, which in turn seems to have had a devastating knock-on effect on all the other universes. See, time is made from stuff. Chunks of stuff. Which wobble. And sometimes, when one chunk bounces off another chunk… I say bounces, I mean… right, think of a hill, and a path going up the hill, and the path splits into two and they go around the hill, but then they split… and the hill is made from stuff… look, give me that pen. Yeah, right, if the pen is moving along at a steady pace like this, and someone… actually, it’s moving more like this, but someone throws something at it… no, someone is juggling with something, chunks of something, and he misses… and the pen is made from stuff…”
The Sourceworlder gave up. “It’s hard to explain,” he reiterated. “It’s best if you trust me and let me show you.”
“Why should I trust you?” Rebecca demanded.
“Because right now, the only alternative involves siding with the President, and he’s none too happy ATM.”

Bob was almost at his destination when a little old woman stepped out from a side corridor and blocked his path. He attacked instinctively. Somehow, his sword missed. And then left his hand. And was caught by the woman. Whose arm immediately dropped to the ground under its weight.
“Sorry,” she said. “I can’t let you get past yet –”
Bob tried to punch her mid-sentence. Again, he missed somehow. “You won’t get anywhere that way,” the woman warned. “I’ve had a long time in my room with nothing to do except read and practise. And Von was kind enough to supply me with books on whatever I wanted.
Bob made a grab for his weapon and inexplicably went sailing backwards down the corridor, several points of extreme pain blossoming on his body.

“A long time ago, the current President was an impressionable young man, full of equal parts good and evil.” The Sourceworlder was explaining while he tapped at various control panels. “He could have been a great hero. He was supposed to have been a semi-decent one at least. But history did not go as it was meant to. Someone interfered. Something went wrong. Professor Von Insanity IV made the wrong decisions and his life took the wrong path. The good he was meant to do never got done. The evil he was meant to avoid never got avoided.
“He didn’t question his company until it was too late. Only once his employer had died did he realise that Old Shin-Ra was essentially destroying itself with its actions. By that time he had been saturated with their evil to the point where rather than help keep them down, he decided to take over. He was given an ultimatum by Hojo: restore the latter to life or watch his loved ones die. He was supposed to grudgingly accept. In our world, he had no concept of love by that point. He managed to delete the last of Hojo’s consciousness, take over as head of the science department and ultimately destroy Shin-Ra and rebuild it from the ground up. Many people who would have died for him did not, and as a result the lifestream was not strong enough to repel that Meteor as much as it should have. Where there’s supposed to be a ruined city but a lot of survivors, there’s now a socking great lake.”
“Impact Lake was never meant to be formed?” repeated Rebecca incredulously.
“Yep. Pre-Source Inconsistency, the timeline ran with the majority of people in that area surviving.”
“My mother was in that area,” said Rebecca quietly. “She was rushing to warn her sister’s family to get out of there. She got held up and was too late.”
“Hmm,” replied the Sourceworlder absent-mindedly, now poking around the inside of a section of machinery with a laser pointer between his teeth. As Rebecca watched, he removed it with one hand and fused some wiring together with it.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“A few things,” he answered. “One, I’m using your machinery and the power of your internet-equivalent to calculate the exact point and cause of the Source Inconsistency. Two, I’m pre-programming your pretty little Project Multiverse technojiggery to send you back in time to fix it. And three, I’m rerouting Shelke’s computer-human interface software through your time machine, the alarm system and a satellite dish on the roof in order to rig up a rudimentary method of communicating with you telepathically while you’re back then fixing things in person and I’m in here controlling the time travel and handling the technical side of things.”
“You can do all that?” Rebecca exclaimed.
“Nope,” replied the Sourceworlder, “but I can work it out as a go along using Shelke’s knowledge of every computer on this planet and my own experience of how quantum works.” Something made an optimistic pinging sound. “Here we go!” exclaimed the Sourceworlder. “The Source Inconsistency is… oh dear…” he pulled out a folded, grimy sheet of paper from a pocket and examined it. “Just outside the Midgar railway station, shortly after the whole incident with the reactor and the escaped monster. Brall. It was all Brall. He filed a complaint which got Loki sent after Shelke which was when he first learned to distrust the company which meant that by the time he met Joanna… except that now he didn’t. Brall never filed that complaint. He was killed. Loki went on trusting Hojo, to the point of happily helping him kill those kids… So the doomed rebellion never happened, hence by the time I met him the Founders of New Shin-Ra were running everything from behind the scenes. Loki and Bob never got redeemed. Brall never came to much. The whole game never happened.”
Rebecca politely cleared her throat. “What?” she asked. But she never got an answer, because she was interrupted by another voice, one that was all too familiar.
“I’ve already told you, Mister. My name is not Loki.” The President stepped through the opening door on the other side of the room. There was a gun in one hand and a set of vicious-looking metal claws on the other. “Now I don’t know what you’ve done, but I want it un-done. Now. I want my J.O.A.N.N.A back.”
“Becks?” hissed the Sourceworlder, surreptitiously tapping at some controls. “You work out at all? Ever done any boxing or martial arts or dancing or aerobics or some sort of movement-based sport?”
“What? No!” whispered Rebecca. The Sourceworlder sighed.
“You’ll have to do anyway. I’m too old. Don’t resist.” He hit one final button.
Before he could answer, Rebecca felt a sudden cold, domineering presence all throughout her own body – in fact, not just her body. It was in her mind.
Don’t resist, a female voice reiterated. I’ll try to keep you unharmed. Then, without warning, the President sprang into the air, simultaneously firing and slashing. The Sourceworlder ducked behind a bank of machinery. Rebecca felt her own consciousness being rammed out of the way as something else took over her mind and forced her to leap too, narrowly dodging the bullets and claws. She landed, spun, snatched up a chair and swung it into the path of the claws the President was now stabbing at her. With a grinding noise, the chair fell apart. She spun the metal leg between her hands, rolled to avoid a further burst of gunfire and slammed the bar into the wrist to which the claws were attached before it could swing at her again.
What. The hell. thought Rebecca dimly.
I took over your mind, replied the same female voice, in a manner that suggested she was trying to concentrate on several things at once. You don’t know how to fight, and this guy does. To even things out, you needed a fighter. You had me, but I had no body. Now I do. Unfortunately - Rebecca’s body was jerked backwards by her controller as the claws finally made contact, cutting three shallow gouges in her side - it’s not a very good one. No muscle memory. When it comes to being able to fight, knowing really is only half the battle.
Another lucky slash caught her, this time in the leg. So far she’d avoided any injury deep enough to hinder her movement, but on the other hand, her opponent hadn’t been hurt at all yet. I really need someone with a history of movement. A warrior or a soldier or a ballerina or a ceilidh dancer or even a flipping tennis player would be nice. Or, even better, someone with memories of fighting, sport and dancing. Some sort of nobleman. I don’t suppose we have a nobleman anywhere in the building?

Ryuu Osamu Von Insanity III stumbled through the corridors of the science department. He could feel his son was somewhere close. It was as if their mutual hatred gave them some sort of bond.
Following his own indescribable instincts, he came upon a door left slightly open. There were sounds of scuffling from inside. His facial muscles twitched in memory. He slammed the door open, unfocussed eyes blazing.
Three figures caught his attention. Two were busy fighting in the middle of the room, one of them clearly losing. A third stared at him blankly from behind a bank of machinery, before quickly reaching over and flicking a switch.
Von III’s already-unfocused brain was caught off-guard by the mental equivalent of a punch to the temple.
“Right,” said a voice that sounded like Von III and came from his mouth but was not actually him, as his arms wrapped themselves around the President from behind and dragged him off the terrified Rebecca. “Now things become interesting.”

As with all of Bob’s fights, it had not taken him long. The woman had surprised him at first, but once he knew what to expect he had been more-or-less guaranteed to win. It had stalled him for a while, however. If her true intention had been to stop him reaching Project Multiverse before anyone else, she may well have succeeded. He quickened his pace.
At last, he came to the room he was looking for. Cautiously, he pushed open the door, sword raised to deflect any attack from inside. The room was occupied. But everyone seemed too distracted to notice him.
He quickly took in all the relevant details. The machinery he was after was in another room at the far end, joined to this one by an open archway. There was a girl standing in one of what he assumed were some sort of booths for sending prototypes to different points in space, time and probability. An old man was tapping fervently at an old-school keyboard he appeared to have wired into the circuitry in a very amateurish fashion. As he watched, the inside of the booth clouded over and became very, very dark, and then very, very bright. And then the girl was gone.
This was exactly what he’d come for. He turned his attention to the one thing that stood between him and that machine: the two figures stood in the middle of the room, circling each other slowly. One was some scruffy old man he’d never seen before. The other, impossibly, was the President. This latter was armed with a set of claws, one of which was slightly bent, and a gun which, on closer inspection, was now useless as the Spontaneous Bullet Generation Mechanism (colloquially known as the ‘bottomless magazine’) had been forcibly smashed out. The old man had only a pair of short, slightly bent iron bars, possibly ex-chair legs, but he did look as if he knew how to use them.
Bob made his decision quickly. In another second they would notice him. He’d never have another chance like this again. In one move, he leapt forwards, swinging his heavy sword in a wide arc. The President was sliced in two almost from left shoulder to right hip, and Bob’s momentum carried his sword into the old man as he tried to backflip to safety, catching him a fatal blow across the head.
The even older man standing in the archway turned and stared, agog, as Bob calmly stepped between the gurgling bodies. Just in case he got any ideas, Bob raised his still-wet sword.
“All right you,” he snarled. “Where did you just send that girl, and how? Talk.”
“Talk?” repeated the old man, nervously. “Sure. I can talk. I’m good at talking, me. I can talk to you for hours on end… but I’m guessing by the way you’re acting now that you’re that insufferable kind of impatient anti-hero who will happily kill another character mid-speech if they don’t get what they want immediately. I hate those ones. Very well. Do you have a pen? This gets rather complicated and… quantum-y.”

Rebecca Ericho stumbled against a wall, head spinning with shock, fear, despair, fatigue and, for some reason, vertigo. If she ever got back, she’d have to make sure they properly ironed out all those kinks.
“Where am I?” she muttered, to no-one in particular.
Somewhere in Old Midgar, about ten years ago, replied the familiar voice in her head. I hope you appreciate the trouble I had to go to to tell you that. The Sourceworlder set up a stable, consistently back-timed link so that he could talk in the present and you’d always hear it the same exact period of time before he said it, but he didn’t count on some moron with a sword killing Von III and the President and holding him hostage. I only just uploaded myself back into the computer in time, otherwise it could have been messy. So now I’m filling in until he escapes the aforementioned moron, which involves sending a bit of myself back in time through that same link and hacking into your brain, a task so complicated I’ve had to temporarily shut down everything else I was doing. My life was so much less complicated when I had a body and wasn’t permanently connected to every computer in the world.
“Ok, so what do I do now?” Rebecca hissed, retreating into the shadow of a large building to avoid detection from the three people that had just rounded the corner.
Right now? Nothing. We need the SW to maintain the temporal consistency bubble stuff for every action you perform, otherwise you rewrite the bit of history when he sends you back and things get nasty. Our best bet is to do as little as possible here until he says otherwise.
“But… I’m supposed to be saving some guy called Brall, amn’t I?”
We still have time.
“How much time?”
About ten minutes.

“So you’re telling me that a decade ago, the President went for coffee, met a military grunt on the way, and kicked off history down the wrong timeline?” summarised Bob. The Sourceworlder winced slightly.
“In the terms of a rather unsophisticated layman, yes.”
“And you sent that girl to put things right?”
“Yep. Save the tree-speaker, save the world. Sorry about that, I’d have thought up a better one given time.”
“And this new timeline, this ‘proper’ timeline. What’s it like?” demanded Bob. The Sourceworlder thought.
“It’s been a while… my memories are… kinda hazy. Shin-Ra still collapsed, for slightly different reasons. There was no Operation Phoenix, it just sorta died. Except Hojo, who came back to ruin things with his Deepground goons. Twice. The man who became President Insanity… he died, stopping those Deepground goons from… well, I’m not sure quite what he thought he was stopping them from, to be honest. Something vaguely to do with Vince Valentine, who didn’t die by the way, or not for a while. I don’t think he understood more than that at this stage.”
“The President is dead?” Bob repeated. “Without any chance of coming back?” The Sourceworlder opened his mouth, shut it again, and then opened it again.
“Ah,” he said. There was silence. “But you don’t understand, he never became the man you know as the President in the real world. He never turned… evil…”
“Did he have the same capacity for evil?” demanded Bob.
“Er… yes…”
“So the President I know could still arise?”
“Unlikely. Y’see, this is where it gets even more quantum; the parts of the universe which directly concerned Insanity were not brought into existence by the same, er, beings who had control over the timeline as a whole. So, um, it’s a bit like when the future of the timeline was being written, it didn’t know to include him. Unless somebody interfered somehow, the chances are even if he came back he’d never do anything dramatic enough to change the overall timeline as those beings envisioned it, and therefore…” he tailed off. Bob thought for a moment.
“It’s a nice story,” he said. “But I’m not sure I believe it. I want you to show me how this time-travel stuff works.”
“Um… how?” asked the Sourceworlder nervously.
“Send me back a bit. Just an hour or so. You can put me behind that big generator over there, where no-one’ll see me. I listen to what’s going on outside, I don’t interfere with anything, you come get me when it gets back to now.”
The Sourceworlder weighed up his options.

“You convinced?” asked the Sourceworlder. “Heard enough?”
“Oh yes,” agreed Bob, and punched him hard enough to send him across the room. “Enough of your gabbling to the science girl to work out how you control this thing.”
He quickly changed the pre-set co-ordinates of destination, put the machine on a timer and stepped into the booth. The Sourceworlder had babbled some hasty instructions to the girl before he sent her back: if the grunt never filed his complaint then Insanity went evil, but it was equally important that Insanity didn’t get held up on his journey to the coffee house, otherwise he’d be killed on his punishment mission.
All Bob had to do was prevent him getting to the coffee house, and the President would never be. New Shin-Ra would never be. Everything he’d been striving for would come to pass. And nothing bad that hadn’t already happened would happen.
The booth went cloudy, then dark, then bright. Bob was gone.
He hadn’t stopped long enough to notice what was missing from the room.
President Insanity stepped calmly out from behind the booth, clicking his claws together in a tango rhythm.
One thing the President had managed to keep secret from everyone, even the Sourceworlder, was his immortality. Just under a decade ago, he had been ordered to deliver to his superiors a prototype for a device which, when implanted in a human heart, could accelerate that human’s healing processes to a ridiculous degree, and revive them from all but the most violent death. Naturally, he had done so, but not before making note of its construction. The device itself had eventually been discarded due to the drawback of driving its users insane, to the point where they ceased to be of use to Shin-Ra.
This was not a problem when you already were insane.
The President casually reset the machines again, programmed in some new co-ordinates, and stepped into the booth.

Bob appeared in the middle of a street, scaring a lot of people. That wasn’t right. Maybe he hadn’t set the thing quite right. He had to get to Insanity’s apartment and check whether he’d left yet. Or should he go to the station and hold up the train? Or to the coffee house itself and burn it down? If only he’d thought to ask which house it was. And which station. And, come to think of it, where Insanity’s apartment was. Unless perhaps he just found a way of quarantining the entire Shin-Ra science apartment block.
His thoughts were rudely interrupted by the sound of calm feet, strolling in perfect unison, towards him. It was a sound he recognised from his youth. Turks.

The Sourceworlder awoke to find a kind-faced old woman tending to him with some sort of medical kit. A woman he recognised, because he had once seen her younger self in a dream.
“Azumi? What on Ear- What on Gaia?” Azumi Ericho raised a slim, fragile finger to her lips.
“Yes, it’s me. You’re lucky I had time to read up on the minutiae of healing. Mind you, so am I. I lost a fight with that terrorist with the sword earlier. Had I not been an expert on the theory of playing dead and administering to one’s own wounds, I would not be here.” The Sourceworlder sighed, the sigh of a man who doesn’t understand everything but is content enough not to care.
“You know your voice sounds so much more beautiful in real life than it did in my head,” he commented. “But that might just be cos it currently belongs to the only sane person on this crappy planet. Why were you fighting Bob?”
“He would have come into conflict with my niece otherwise.”
“Niece?” asked the Sourceworlder. Then, “Oh, of course! Rebecca! I forgot about her! I should really contact her! How long’s it been?” He stood up frantically and began flicking controls like it was going out of fashion. “Also, how did you know he’d encounter her?”
“It is a peculiar trait of my family, kind sir, that when interesting things happen, they gravitate towards us. Have you read up much on the history of our world, unsavoury as much of it may be? On every page, at every turn, an Ericho or and Insanity, or some other branch.”
“Believe me, I know it,” agreed the Sourceworlder. “A-ha! I’ve re-established contact! Hello Miss Ericho!”
“Oh thank whatever deities might be listening,” replied Rebecca’s voice through unseen speakers. “Get your stabilisation things up and running, NOW. We have some major interfering to do.”

As she said this, Rebecca had finally reached the narrativially inevitable dead end of the alley she’d been trying to escape through. The same three strangers she’d tried to hide from earlier were calmly approaching her, none of them even worried enough to have drawn their weapons yet.
Think we can handle three old-school-style Turks? she asked Shelke.
The kind they’d waste on you? replied Shelke. Definitely.

President Von Insanity IV was already walking when he arrived, towards the computer he knew was in front of him. This computer belonged to his predecessor, and could only be operated by someone who knew all of the correct presidential pass codes. One major drawback of this system was that in order to reset the system with his own pass codes, a new president had to be told the old ones. But of course, this didn’t matter, because no-one clever enough to become president would be mad enough to make a note of the old pass codes, just in case they needed to go back in time and use them.
Would they?

Jayde, Turk first class, received orders via an encrypted message that he was to take three Turks to one location in Midgar and send another three to another, and there they were to dispose of, respectively, a funny-looking terrorist named Bob and a young woman named Rebecca who was impersonating a Shin-Ra scientist. This wasn’t a matter of much interest compared to what he usually got up to, and the groups were soon dispatched.
Only as he was setting off with three others to the first location did he start to feel woozy. More than woozy. It was like his brain was forcibly trying to stop thinking.
“Hey, you okay boss?” asked one of the others as he sank onto the ground.
“I’m… I’ll be fine,” Jayde assured him. “Just… get… the terrorist. Go! I’ll catch… I’ll catch… up…” he collapsed. The other three looked at each other and shrugged. They had their orders.

Bob carefully removed a mako-powered grenade-like weapon of his own invention from a pocket as he backed away from the Turks. This particular grenade was only powerful enough to kill two of them, max. But right now they were standing next to a mako reactor. Which could help matters along.
Bob threw his grenade and dived to the side at the same time. Three bursts of gunfire narrowly missed him as he hit the ground and covered his head.
The explosion was almost deafening, the blast ripping a hole in the reactor and using the energy it had been creating to feed itself. When the dust cleared, there was no sign of anyone on the street, but there was a shocked group of scientists staring out from a hole in the wall of the building behind the reactor. Alarms were blaring from inside the building.
Without warning, a dark shape rose up from the masonry wreckage behind the scientists and sent them all flying with one sweep of a mighty arm. One was killed instantly, his head cracking open on the solid street floor. One of the two survivors produced a three-barrelled weapon from his coat and aimed it at the monster.
Bob didn’t waste this distraction by hanging around to see what happened. He charged in the vague direction of Shin-Ra’s HQ, stopping only to pull a handful of coins from his pocket and ram them down the throat of a barking guard hound to shut it up. The choking dog fled down an adjacent street.

Shelke had managed to take down two of the Turks, but was no longer able to push away Rebecca’s pain and fatigue. The third slammed her bodily into a wall and pulled out his gun.
At which point, conveniently, he received a new message ordering him to belay his previous orders, which had apparently not come from the President after all.
The Turk shrugged and wandered off.

President Shin-Ra growled to himself as he finished sending the orders to abort.
“Hojo!” he called. His head of science swept calmly into the room, brushing his dark bangs from his eyes. “Did you get any fingerprints form the computer?”
“Yes sir,” replied Professor Hojo, checking his notes. “But I’m afraid they appear to be fakes. They belong to a Professor Von Insanity IV, who I happen to know was otherwise occupied.
“Your protégé?” frowned the President.
“Apparently so,” replied Hojo, impassively. The President thought for a while. It was unlikely, but it was always better to be safe than sorry.
“I want that man dead, Professor,” he said at last. “But without it looking like we did it.”
“That can be arranged,” nodded Hojo. “In fact, I think I have the perfect method. All we need is an excuse to send him on a punishment mission…”

Rebecca ran down the street towards the station as fast as she could, no longer caring who saw her. Her fight with the Turks – or rather, Shelke’s fight with the Turks and Rebecca’s subsequent recovery – had taken too long. She had under two minutes left until Source Inconsistency.
She was nearing. She could see them: two distant figures of young men, one in SOLDIER gear, and one in a lab coat. But she didn’t have time to get to them. Insanity was injecting Brall with a suspended serum of foreign DNA. The next syringe would be the poison.
Suddenly, she felt something change in the mental ether around her. All New Shin-Ra scientists were given mandatory cybernetic enhancements when they joined up. One of these was called a MEME – a Mental Ether Monitoring Enhancement. Apparently, Insanity himself had overseen its development, based on a similar device he had used as a junior scientist. It couldn’t actually read minds, but it could alert its user to the presence of other minds, and to any change in how they were functioning.
Presumably, the change was her coming in range of this young Insanity’s own brainwave-monitoring device. Which meant…
Shelke! she shouted mentally, hoping that her scream would be covered up on Insanity’s brainwave-monitor by the changes in Brall’s mind due to the injection. If you can get into my mind, can you get into my MEME, and if so, can you get into any other device which overlap ranges with the MEME in the mental ether, and if so, can you relay a message to people in range of the second device?
Yes, why?
Tell Brall it’s a trap!
Rebecca stopped, gasping for breath, leaning her hands on her own knees for support. She felt the mental message zing through her MEME, on its way, hopefully, to Brall. All Insanity would notice via his own brainwave-monitor would be a slight fluctuation, which he would mistake for Brall thinking.
The poison syringe was halfway to Brall’s arm when the message got through to him. He shouted something which Rebecca didn’t hear, shoved Von Insanity away and marched off, producing a small hand-held computer with which to file a report.
Relieved, Rebecca collapsed, exhausted, on the ground.
And then she noticed that the ground didn’t feel as real as it should. And nor, for that matter, did her own body. She opened her eyes. Nothing in the street looked quite real either. Even her own tiredness seemed less real than before.
“Mr Sourceworlder?” she called. “What’s going on?”
“You’re losing canonicity!” exclaimed the Sourceworlder’s panicked voice. “You should be gaining it, as the real timeline snaps back into the ‘canon reality’, but you’re not! The entire canon timeline is haemorrhaging realness! I’m struggling to counter it with the quantum consistency buffers… give me a sec…”
The feeling of unrealness slowly dwindled. “Ye-es!” whooped the Sourceworlder, sounding a lot younger than his years. “Your reality has now re-formed a stable plane of existence! And I love it when a plane comes together!”
“So did we do it?” asked Rebecca. “Did we save the world?”
“Uh, no,” replied the Sourceworlder. “Or rather, yes we did, but at roughly the same time someone else screwed it up by messing with time further. There is now a new Source Inconsistency about… just under an hour ago. I’m now having to keep both the timeline I’m in and the one you’re in temporarily real at the same time, which is a little irritating. Meanwhile, in the current canon timeline… give me a sec… yeah, Von Insanity IV died horribly at the claws of an electric scorpion. The Meteor… still destroyed the entire Midgar area, your mother still died. A very important little girl named Joanna… still died, but at someone else’s hands. The WRO… went bankrupt, but the world’s coping all right nonetheless. You… were raised by your father and now make a living selling what appear to be Bonsai trees, for some bizarre reason. I… am dead. I died leading the war Loki – I mean, Von – was meant to. And… that has the knock-on effect you’d expect a multiverse-travelling genius’s before-time demise to have. In addition to the knock-on effect that was already in place from the original Source Inconsistency, which I am still unable to identify completely. Oh, and I killed Shelke in the battle and Azumi Ericho, your aunt, lived a quiet life on government benefits until she died from illness.”
“So what do we do?”
“You stay where you are until I need you, and try not to change anything too drastically. I’m going to send your aunt back in time to surprise Bob the terrorist.”
“Explanation later. Bye-bye.”

“Okey-dokey,” said the Sourceworlder, standing up straight and beginning to pace. “The new Source Inconsistency seems to have been in your son’s apartment, and is just as small as the last one, so I’m guessing it’s Muddy Mugs coffee house’s failure to deliver a voucher for free coffee. Little Mitsukai went to a different shop for his coffee, so he never did the Heinrich on that guy and he never got the Ifrit materia which saved him from that blasted scorpion.”
“So what can I do?” asked Azumi, straightening also and clasping her hands in front of herself in a picture of obedience.
“Firstly, you can stop doing the whole ‘Classical Japanese Beauty’ shtick, cos it’s putting me off my attempts to juggle reality and canonicity across multiple universes,” answered the Sourceworlder, twisting a dial and pressing two more buttons. “Also, you can step into that booth, whereupon I will send you to Muddy Mugs coffee house, you can buy a voucher, and deliver it yourself.”
“I shall try,” agreed Azumi.
“I said stop it,” replied the Sourceworlder, smiling slightly. “Get in the booth.”

“No mail, no messages, not even a single coffee voucher is to get through today, understood?” Bob had his sword touching-but-not-quite-cutting the neck of the Shin-Ra science department’s Chief of Security. The man grunted a quiet affirmative, electronically relaying the order to his underlings responsible for the checking of all mail to the department.

Azumi stumbled onto the dark slum street, wide eyes blinking, shaking her dark hair from her face. After taking a second to straighten up and rearrange herself into a more composed appearance, she turned to the door of the coffee shop. ‘Muddy Mugs’ was, she discovered, something of a misnomer. It wasn’t mud exactly, so much as unidentified grime.
Pickpocketing was another thing she’d had time to read up on, and it was simple enough to relieve the three depressed-looking men seated just inside the door of their wallets. The counter was manned by a pleasant if tired-looking woman at least thirty years younger than Azumi.
“Hi there, stranger, welcome to Muddy Mugs coffee house. As a special offer today, we’re giving away a token for one free coffee to everyone who spends more than 200 gil.”
Azumi smiled and placed 500 gil on the counter. “One green leaf tea to go, please.”

Shin-Ra security, as it turned out, had one major flaw. They were too scared of people who were clearly Shin-Ra officials to challenge them. Azumi walked impatiently past several of them on her way to her son’s lab, cheaply-purchased labcoat flapping and steely eyes set straight forward.
The door to the lab itself was locked, and the lock operated by an eye-scanning mechanism. That was unusually fancy for a low-wage scientist, but she wasn’t going to argue.
“Wait, hang on a minute, you’re not the professor,” announced an electronically-generated but nonetheless confused-sounding voice as she went in.
“That is a most astute observation, my inorganic friend,” agreed Azumi, with a slight bow.
“How did you get in?” asked the computer. “The lock is programmed to respond only to the professor’s eyes.”
“Indeed,” smiled Azumi. “Most fortunate how some events can play out among my self and my relations.” The small, oriental eyes that her son had inherited almost perfectly sparkled.
“So who are you?” asked the computer, presumably trying to work out if she needed to call security or not.
“Only a well-wisher who would like to remain anonymous,” Azumi answered. “I have a gift for the professor.” She carefully placed the coffee token on a table to one side, next to a metal cage containing a very suspect-looking rat.

“Has reality been healed yet?” Azumi asked as she wandered back out of the building. There was a pause. Then:
“No.” The Sourceworlder sounded angry but restrained, like he would very much like to punch something but didn’t have time. “No, now we’re back to the ‘your-son-is-evil’ timeline, only with the Source Inconsistency ten minutes earlier. You need to get to the street that leads to the station. How fast can you run?”
“Fast enough, I think.”
“Do it.”

President Insanity stood at the corner of the street and waited. In a few minutes, Brall would step around that corner. Insanity flexed his clawed fingers. He had also had time to buy a new gun. Brall didn’t stand a chance. Young Von didn’t even need to meet him. His superiors couldn’t pin any punishment on him until much later on.
The sound of hurried footsteps met Insanity’s ears. But these were not Brall’s footsteps; they were too light. And they were coming from the wrong direction.
He turned sharply, and his gaze caught Azumi Ericho’s running form like headlights catching a rabbit.
“Mother?” he exclaimed, shocked. Azumi came to a halt in front of him.
“Mitsukai,” she breathed. “Please, stop.” Insanity’s face twitched slightly.
“I can’t, mother. If I do not carry out this act, neither of us will exist. We shall be erased from time – from canon time anyway. From the real world. I cannot let that happen.”
“You must, Mitsukai,” Azumi begged, gently clasping her hands in front of her. “Things will be better. We will be better, in the new world. In the true world. You must let the old one go.” For a few seconds, Insanity’s face fell, and he seemed to give off an impression of defeat. Then, slowly, he shook his head.
“No. I’m sorry, I can’t. Also, what you just said would make a good song lyric.”
“Mitsukai!” Azumi protested, but Insanity raised his gun and pointed it square in the middle of her chest.
“Why do you suddenly call me that now, hmm?” he demanded, darkly. “Eighteen years of silence and formality, and now, when you want something and I’m not giving it, now I’m your angel again? Well this angel’s got a gun, and he knows how to use it.”
Azumi stared, open-mouthed and helpless. She opened her arms and slowly reached out to her son.
He shot her.
The bullet tore through Azumi’s thigh and she screamed. Insanity cursed himself for lowering his aim at the last moment. Someone was bound to come investigating a scream like that, even in this callous city.
Sure enough, heads were already appearing at windows up and down the street. And he wouldn’t be recognised as a Shin-Ra member. He’d be tracked down and questioned. And, if they realised who he was, he’d probably end up in one of Hojo’s more unpleasant laboratories.
There was only one easy way out of this. Cursing under his breath, he placed the blades of his metal claws against the warm skin of his neck.
And slashed.
Azumi turned her face away and hid her head, weeping. The Sourceworlder’s voice sounded urgently in her ear.
“Azumi?! Azumi! What’s wrong?!”
“He killed himself,” she whispered, in a flat monotone. “He shot me in the leg and killed himself.”
“Who did?”
“Von. My Von. He came here to stop us. He must have used your machine while you were unconscious.”
“What?! I thought he was dead… Waitaminute, is Brall alive?”
“I assume so. He isn’t even here yet. Does that mean we won?”
“Yes, it… no! Damn it! No! Loki’s dead again! What the - ?” he descended into a string of curses.
“Source Inconsistency?” asked Azumi wearily, largely oblivious to the numerous people that had now stopped to help her.
“I don’t know yet, it’s taking both me and Shelke to keep juggling all these universes and make sure we only drop the right ones! Hang on… yeah, okay, it’s… there are two of them. Two different splinter points leading to two similar but different universes both vying for reality and canonicity right now. Both Inconsistencies are right on top of each other in, for you, about half an hour. Both in Muddy Mugs. Looks like… give me a second… looks like one of them is Von being stabbed in a brawl, and one is the shop burning down before he gets there.”
“Sourceworlder,” groaned Azumi softly.
“I can’t get there in half an hour. I can’t walk, and there are lots of people trying to take me to hospital.”

“Damn,” muttered the Sourceworlder, before flicking communication channels. “Becca, hello, how long since you stopped the Source Inconsistency at your end?” Rebecca looked up from where she was sat, idly tracing in the dust.
“Uh… about ten minutes I think?” she hazarded.
“That means he’s almost there,” the Sourceworlder hissed. “Right, is there a bin nearby?”
“Yeah… couple of metres to my left.”
“Go to the bin. Look inside. Cos by the time you got there by train he’d be long dead.” The Sourceworlder, who was now pacing while grasping his own hair with one hand, used the hand that wasn’t occupied to switch channels again. “Azumi, can you get to the body?”
“Um… I suppose,” sighed Azumi, allowing herself to be helped to her feet and half-carried a short distance. When she reached the corpse, she deliberately pulled away and collapsed.
“If he’s anything like the Von I once dreamt about, he’ll keep his two favourite materia in the… left inside pocket.”
“Yep. Got it. But there’s only one.”
“One? What is it?”
“Looks like a Chocomog summon to me.”
“Perfect. Put it in the bin that’s about three metres from the end of the street.”
Azumi grabbed the top of the bin to pull herself up, dropping the small magic orb inside as she did so.
“Done it,” she whispered.
“Good girl. Uh, woman. Whatever. Does one of the passers-by have a phone? Tell them you need to send an urgent message.” The Sourceworlder began pacing again, operating controls one-handed as he passed. If the Ifrit summon was missing from Insanity’s coat, that probably meant he’d given it to someone.
So, say he knew Bob was there. Having failed his plans so far, Bob would head to the station as soon as he realised Von was headed there. But he couldn’t easily find and kill him on the platform, so it made more sense to go to Muddy Mugs himself and wait inside. Insanity was mad, but also clever, so he’d realise that his own plans might fail or that Bob might somehow overwrite them, so the best precaution would be to send someone to kill Bob. But Bob was a good fighter, so he’d need to ensure plenty of overkill. An Ifrit would do nicely.
He just hadn’t counted on it setting fire to the building in the fight.
“I have a phone,” announced Azumi. “What’s the message?” The Sourceworlder screwed up his eyes, desperately combing his memory for Bugenhagen’s phone number.
“In a moment,” he said, “I am going to give you a number and a set of co-ordinates. I need you to send the co-ordinates to the number, along with a message that, crazy as it might seem, the man at the other end will one day travel between universes, and when he does, he will find himself carting several items known as lightsabers back to this one. It is of vital importance that he sends one of those lightsabers to the space-time co-ordinates you’re sending him. And also that he never speaks of this to anyone. And, so he trusts you, tell him that the message is from the Sourceworlder and will save Von Insanity IV, plus the rest of his world as he knows it.”

Rebecca stared at the two items in the bin. One was a small round materia orb, a Chocomog summon if she was any judge. OK, Chocomog could turn into a chocobo, and chocobos were fast. But not fast enough to outrun a train all the way to the slums. The other item was a small metal cylinder of unusual design. It had a button on the side. She pressed it.
A great blade of blue light erupted from one end. This curious light gave off no heat, but she had the feeling that if she tried to touch it, it would nevertheless burn her skin. Or just plain vaporise it.
The Sourceworlder’s voice spoke out of nowhere again: “It looks like our friend the President has hired a thug to use an Ifrit materia to kill Bob who’s waiting at the coffee house to kill Von,” he gabbled quickly. “Chances are the assassin will be waiting until the right time at the Enemy Gate, a drinking house of ill repute which I believe is actually in the slum almost right below the street you’re standing on. That means you can intercept him?”
“How?” Rebecca demanded. “We’ve got minutes. There’s no way I can make that journey in time. It’s too late even for a train.”
“Please, Rebecca, you’re a scientist,” sighed the Sourceworlder. “Don’t get into the habit of thinking in two dimensions. You have a giant bird. You have a laser-cutter. You’re standing on a giant plate of solid-but-meltable metal and the Enemy Gate is DOWN.”

Enrico Spike had been given very clear instructions. When the time came, he was to visit the Muddy Mugs coffee shop, and if the man his… er… client… had drawn for him was there, then he was to activate the materia and let it do the rest. If he got it right he could keep the materia, or sell it on. If he got it wrong, he was a dead man.
Enrico didn’t like the thought of being a dead man, but he needed the money. So he set off a little early, just to make sure. As he nervously made his way down the street, he was startled by a strange sound from above and behind him. He turned.
A stream of golden sunlight was blazing down from a hole in the plate above him, and descending through it, slowing it’s decent to survivable velocities by constantly flapping its wings, was a giant golden bird. On the bird’s back was a young woman in white wielding a sword of light.
Enrico hadn’t signed on for any supernatural weirdness. He fled.

Bob waited just inside the coffee house door. He had discarded his huge obvious sword in favour of a smaller but equally deadly knife. As soon as he realised Von wasn’t returning to his lab, he knew he had to have got the voucher somehow after all. But Von had been held up fulfilling his destiny with Brall, so Bob had got here first.
He took a sip of his own barely-touched coffee and waited. It was almost time.

Enrico didn’t stop running until he reached the coffee house. By luck, his target was already there. Fumbling, he produced the little orb that would manifest the massive Ifrit. He was too engaged to notice what was happening behind him.

Rebecca spurred the giant bird on, but it was already going as fast as it could. She’d taken a wrong turning earlier, and had to go the long way round. She could see the coffee house now. She could also see the man standing outside, clumsily pulling a small sphere from his pocket. She had the time it took him to activate it to stop him. Her chocobo wasn’t going fast enough.
She leapt, adding her own momentum to the bird’s and sailing through the air at ridiculous speeds. The man was within her grasp. She snatched at the materia. She missed. She crashed into him.
The Ifrit materia flew from Enrico’s grasp as he stumbled and crashed into a wall. It arced gracefully through the murky air, right through the door of Muddy Mugs, landing unnoticed in Bob’s cup of coffee.
Bob checked his watch and drained his mug. And choked.
Rebecca bodily dragged Enrico into the shadows as Professor Von Insanity IV rounded a corner and walked towards the coffee shop.

Just as Bob’s vision blurred over, strange hands from behind him seized him and thrust themselves into his torso. He coughed, spluttered, and expelled the offending obstruction from his throat.
Pushing his saviour out of the way and mumbling gruffly, he staggered out of the coffee shop. Had he missed Von? Had Von even gone to the shop at all, or was he in some other timeline where he went somewhere else? Where should he go next? Was this what defeat felt like?
He was a fair distance from the shop when he realised what had just happened, and turned to run back. Unfortunately, he never got the opportunity to run anywhere, as three metal claws imbedded themselves in the front of his throat.
Bob had just enough time to watch his nemesis smile, before the claws were ripped out sideways and his vision became a blur of red.

The Sourceworlder hit buttons frantically, mentally hurling orders at Shelke. He had managed to neutralise and drop all unnecessary universes now, but a new and even more complex one was trying to rise up. A new Source Inconsistency inside Muddy Mugs, while Loki was there. A new universe in which Loki was once more evil, but for different reasons. He didn’t have time to analyse it, but from the snatches of information he received, it appeared that in this universe, Loki had been told how he should do things. By himself.

President Insanity woke up again to find himself surrounded by people, but they were all more concerned with helping his mother, and he was able to slip away unseen. Perhaps restoring Brall’s death was not the answer. Perhaps this problem required lateral thinking. What if he were to meet his younger self, and teach him everything he needed to know in order to become, well, him? That would cause all sorts of quantum confusion, but it could still be worth it.
There was only one way to find out. He would talk to young Von over a nice coffee.

“Rebecca!” the Sourceworlder shouted as the scientist disentangled herself from the whimpering Enrico. “Insanity’s coming to the coffee shop!”
“I know,” replied Rebecca, confusedly. “He just went in.”
“No, our Insanity,” the Sourceworlder clarified. “He wants to turn his younger self onto the path of evil himself!”
“How do I stop him?” she asked nervously.
“You don’t,” answered an amused voice from behind. She turned, and President Insanity struck out with his battered, blood-stained claws. She jumped backwards to avoid them, knocking one of Insanity’s legs from under him completely by accident as she fell. Insanity landed on top of her, pinning her to the street. He propped himself up on a forearm laid across her throat. Her vision began to blur.
“You were such a promising girl,” Insanity sighed, raising his claws again. Rebecca struggled, but couldn’t get free.
In the split seconds before the claws fell, she realised that something hard and cylindrical was digging into her torso. That laser cutter had twisted in her pocket when she fell and was now caught between them. She also realised she could reach the button through the material of her coat with her thumb.
She just hoped it was the right way round, otherwise this could be painful.
The President jerked slightly, his body freezing up, as a short beam of dazzlingly bright light appeared on the other side of him. Rebecca pushed the button again and rolled his body off of hers. He was dead. Killed instantly as the laser bored a hole through the centre of his heart, neatly cauterising the edges as well.
In the process, the small device which he had secreted in his own vital organ to grant him immortality had been evaporated instantaneously.

Rebecca sat at the edge of Azumi’s hospital bed, exhausted. The bodies of Bob and the President had been hidden, and apart from a slight increase in the amount of puzzlement felt by any local murder investigators, it didn’t look like they’d be changing history ever again.
“Now did we win?” Rebecca sighed cynically. There was a brief pause.
“Good.” She breathed a sigh of relief.
“Not quite,” replied the Sourceworlder.
“What,” said Rebecca, flatly.
“It appears that the, er, source of the Source Inconsistency was never in this universe, but in the Sourceworld. A dice roll, nothing major. You’re not supposed to be able to deliberately alter the Sourceworld directly, the whole universe is quantum-locked because… well, it’s a long story. But someone managed it. That’s scary enough on its own, but it means when we fixed things at our end, the change followed that link and re-rewrote the rewritten dice roll. No problems there, except that this causes a whole lot of quantumy effects which basically result in the Sourceworld drawing energy from the universes on the other end of that link to fix itself and maintain its own quantum-lock. I can’t stabilise things much longer over here. The universe we came from is going to go back to a shadowverse – a sort of unreal non-canon universe, by the way – and will have always been no more than that. We never existed, which creates paradoxes. The fabric of the multiverse will break unless I can manually solidify our adventure RIGHT NOW!”
“How do you do that?” asked Azumi.
“I don’t know!” admitted the Sourceworlder. “I… I’d need to… I’d have to send a message down the link to the Sourceworld and convince someone to write our story!”
“Can you do that?” asked Rebecca
“No!” cried the Sourceworlder. “Not with what I’ve… got…. here… YES! YES I CAN!!!”

The Sourceworlder frantically tore apart the Project Multiverse machinery, flinging unwanted parts in all directions. His own technology was at the heart of this, and he could use it.
Finally, his face was bathed in a familiar dull golden glow.
“It’s fine, it’s okay,” he sighed. “But it’s lost too much power; I can get her to work, but the mass of what she can send is essentially zero which is fine cos I’ve got a chick with zero mass!
Me? exclaimed Shelke.
“Yup,” smiled the Sourceworlder. “I am going to send you into the mind of my younger self where you can plant ideas for this adventure before I bring you back. I won’t notice a thing. Genius, huh?”
“What happens to us all once his written account ends?” Rebecca asked.
“I… don’t know,” admitted the Sourceworlder. “I mean, ordinarily people from shadowverses exist, sort of, in potentia, just not in the same way as real, canon people. If he makes our universe canonically a shadowverse… I’m not certain. It’s most likely everyone here’d go back to shadowversy, but there’s a chance they’d remain. Perhaps somewhere in-between. As for myself, who was never even meant to arrive in this universe… That’s a toughie. And you two are currently from a shadowverse but in a real universe. That’s equally difficult to work out. And Shelke, who is being sent to the Sourceworld itself and then… good lord, who knows?”
“So the instant you finish sending her, we could all wink out of existence?” asked Rebecca.
There was silence.
“Do it,” said Azumi.
“Do it,” agreed Rebecca.
What the hell, I’m only here once, sighed Shelke. The Sourceworlder smiled, just a little tearily.
“Girls,” he said. “This is it. The final horseshoe nail in the coffin. If I never see you again, goodbye, and thankyou. And if it makes you feel any better, you all get good lives in the universe you just helped build. Shelke joins the side of good after a while and, if nothing else, gets some nice sexual tension. Azumi becomes President of the world. And Rebecca…” he stopped, wondering. “I don’t really know what happens to you,” he admitted. “But it’s something that might get written. Might already have been written, and I’ve just forgotten how it went. And it’s a cruel author that gives a girl like you a hard time.”
“And you?” asked Rebecca. The Sourceworlder shrugged, even though she couldn’t see him.
“Not sure,” he said. “But I think it may have something to do with tracking down the guy that messed with that dice roll.”
Do you kick his ass? asked Shelke, as the Sourceworlder directed her mind into his trans-dimensional travel technology.
“Probably,” the Sourceworlder grinned. “After all, he seems to have left us alone recently, doesn’t he?” He finished the preparations. They would fade from existence in about three minutes. Or sooner, depending on the effects of him pushing this button. Either way, he had time for a bit of gallows humour.
“Hey guys,” he said. “Two gallows walk into a bar…”
Having left things on a bad pun, as was his wont, the Sourceworlder pushed the button.


And the sun rises on a familiar land.

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