The funny thing was… Cloud was assigned the thing as a medical device.
"I know it's a bit unorthodox, but it's proven to be a great cure for insomnia – definitely better, than taking sleeping pills. Much more reliable," said Doctor Hield, their regiment's assigned physician, while holding out the unopened, pristine box to Cloud – and a set of instructions. "It puts you to sleep and keeps you asleep until you log out – just set the time like I've instructed here, and you get the amount of rest you need."
"But… isn't the point of sleep to rest your mind?" Cloud asked, bewildered, staring at the box in his hands.
"You will get that – it's as good as dreaming, only… a lot more lucid," the doctor assured. "It's basically instant and continuous REM sleep – which is why VRDC players usually don't need more than 4 hours of sleep each night to feel fully rested."
"Huh," Cloud murmured, still staring at the box. "So I… this um," he looked up and lifted the box a bit. "Aren't these really expensive?" he asked. He had always wanted one, but could never afford it - even when he had became an infantry man and started earning money, he hadn't been able to justify the expense. It was almost 3000 gil, after all. He only made around a thousand per month.
"Well, yes. But this isn't precisely yours," the doctor said, amused. "Technically, ShinRa Health and Medicine owns it – but it's assigned to you until your insomnia is either cured, or you buy your own. So don't go selling it or anything, alright?"
"No sir," Cloud answered, wide eyed.
"Good. Now, you have the rest of the day off, yes? I suggest you go to your bunk and try it on. Report back to me tomorrow morning before your duties, to see how it went."
In a daze, Cloud wandered out of the infirmary, clutching the VRDC in his arms. He had always had a bit of trouble sleeping – where most people grew out of their childhood night terrors, he got them often and they were usually violent. On top of that, he was extremely sensitive to noises and lights and sleeping with his bunk mates had never agreed with him – that was to say, he mostly just didn't. Not until he was on his third to fourth day with no sleep, by which time he usually just collapsed on any available surface for a couple hours of intense nightmares.
At first he had been able to handle it, when he was still in basic training and most everyone around him sucked as bad as he did – no one had noticed if he had been a bit wobblier than the rest. But now, as a Private? It was getting harder to keep up with the other guys. So he had gone to Health and Medicine, hoping at most to get some sleeping pills – the infirmary handed them out like candy to the employees, better drugged than off duty was their motto… but this?
Once he made it to the room which he shared with seven other guys – all of whom were in his squad, none of whom were there, it being a day off – Cloud sat for a long while, just staring at the box. The front of it was clear plastic and the headset sat inside like something out of a sci-fi book. It was so… shiny, the visor gleaming. He had seen them before, of course – three of the other guys in his room had a set, and pretty much every electronic store everywhere sold them. First time he had seen one had been when Mayor Lockhart had bought one for Tifa for her thirteenth birthday, and she had paraded it in class, but…
He hadn't really expected to ever get a set for himself; to get a chance to use one.
Careful, so very careful because it was probably the most expensive thing he had ever handled, Cloud unboxed the visor. VRDC, Virtual Reality Dream Console – ShinRa's latest in virtual reality technology. People said that it was actually developed for SOLDIER, to let them train in their sleep, before it had been modified for the general population and released for anyone to use.
It only had about five games. A fighting simulation, just a basic thing that pitted two – or more – people against each other in a variety of settings. A combat simulation, which let small groups of people fight each other using mostly real world equivalent gear and equipment. The third was a pilot simulator for a variety of machines, which people used to learn how to drive a car, motorcycle, combine harvester and whatever else they wanted to know how to drive. Those were the original programs that had been created for ShinRa's employees and SOLDIERs.
And then there were the games people actually bought the thing to play – the MMORPGs.
There was Asgard, which was a sci-fi game that let people do things like make and pilot ship, harvest asteroids and moons, create space stations and colonies – have colossal space wars with fleets of ships.
And then there was Terra Online, a whole lot more popular game, which was a fantasy game that let people run around, fighting monsters. Terra Online had millions of players. Most people who had a VRDC played Terra – most people bought the thing to play just that one game.
Cloud swallowed, setting the headset down and looking at the instructions given to him by the doctor. Ever since Tifa had shown off her VRDC and boasted about how she was a martial artist, already level so and so, and how cool the game was… Cloud had wanted to play Terra Online. Mostly it had been one of those vague if only dreams that his childhood was full of. If only he was rich, if only he had been born in Midgar, if only this or that and things would be different. If only he had a VRDC, he too could play Terra Online and be cool like Tifa.
Then he had grown a little – just a little, unbearably little, and the wish had changed to, if only he had a VRDC, he too could be somebody else. Someone who wasn't short and skinny and weak and unfunny and uninteresting and useless. Someone who could actually do things – and it wouldn't even matter if he did them wrong because it was just a game. Failure didn't mean the end of everything, not in a game.
With slightly trembling fingers, Cloud hooked the VRDC into an outlet and waited for it to charge enough to turn on – and once the screen on the left side lit up, he entered the commands like Doctor Hield had written them down. 7.5 hours, precisely – unless outside influence shook him awake, of course.
Cloud had never been quite so quick in washing up and dashing back to his bunk, to lie down. The VRDC felt weird around his head, a tiny bit claustrophobic – and he had to lie on his back, which was a bit uncomfortable for someone used to sleeping on his side. But he could bear it; he could so bear it for this.
He hit the start button, and the visor activated. A flash of light ran through the visor, making him squint, before the ShinRa logo appeared for a moment with the VRDC logo and slogan, [ENTER THE WORLDS OF YOUR DREAMS] appeared. They hung there, in front of his eyes for a moment before the headset told him, [Thank you for choosing Virtual Reality Dream Console by ShinRa Power Company, the distributor of state of the art technology for over forty years!]
The text vanished, and then more appeared. [ENTERING VIRTUAL DREAM STATE IN 10] it read before counting down, tick by tick, to zero. [PLEASE STAND BY] the visor said, and everything went dark.
Then he was suddenly standing in a hall of a somewhat old fashioned looking building, his feet bare on the wooden floor, with the heat of a nearby fireplace on his face. The hall was decorated by tapestries depicting battles and heroes, and from the ceiling about twenty flags hung just over head, with artistic animals and crowns and swords and flowers on them.
"Welcome to Terra Online," a voice said and Cloud whirled around. There was no one there and he looked around, confused, until a voice from above quipped, "Oi, up here."
There was a black cat with a crown and a cape, sitting on the wooden beam just above him. It was grinning at him. "Please register your ID by entering your name and SHR security number," the cat told him.
"Cloud Strife, 1008864436-NBH," Cloud answered blinking.
"Thank you for choosing Terra Online, Cloud Strife," the cat said and jumped down from the ceiling, landing with a flip in front of him. "Now we can proceed to character creation," the cat said, and motioned to the middle of the room, where there was a circular pattern on the floor.
A copy of Cloud appeared there, except for the fact that it was all nude.
"Please select a race," the cat told him.
Cloud frowned at his avatar copy, trying to remember what the races were and the differences between them. There were about a dozen of sub-human categories, he remembered – beast humans, elves, fairies, and so on. They all had initial stats, he knew that much, and some races were better at some things than others. He just couldn't remember which was which.
Well, he knew one thing – what he wanted to be. A swordsman. That was the only thing he had ever wanted – and the one thing he absolutely sucked at in real life. His abysmal attempt at becoming a SOLDIER having proven that to him almost painfully. "What's a good race for a swordsman?" he asked, looking at the cat.
"Human, Werewolf, Bangaa and Elf have initial stats suitable for a Swordsman build," the cat informed him.
"Okay. Hm, show me how I look as a werewolf," Cloud said and the avatar changed. He stared at it in disbelief – it was… fluffy. Sure his hair was a bit spiky, but good grief, the wolf-him looked like a poodle with a bad hair day. "Erm, okay, make him – er me – into a, um Bangaa?" Cloud said and then took a surprised step back. Bangaa, it turned out, was a lizard man. Not a good look on him, lizard. "Okay never mind. How do I look as an elf?"
He stared at the elf-him for a long while. It was… the best of the other options – and he didn't want to be human, seeing that he was human all of the time and it wasn't exactly a stellar existence. But elf-him looked a lot like human-him, except a whole lot pointier. Higher cheek bones, sharper chin, with slightly slanted, oval shaped eyes and eyebrows that gave the avatar a perpetual frown. Cloud wasn't exactly round faced to begin with, but the avatar looked pointy enough to prick something.
"Er… how much can I change my appearance?" Cloud asked, turning to the cat.
"As an elf you may alter your height by twenty centimetres and your weight by twenty kilogram. There are a variety of hair styles and colours to choose from, and you can alter your skin and eye colour within ten variables," the cat said and Cloud spent a moment running through them. Long haired he looked kind of… girly. Somehow the skin colour changes made him look even more like himself – and all the other eye colours made him look, somehow, more wide eyed. None of them looked right - none of them looked like what he thought he could bear to look like.
Once you chose an avatar in Terra Online, that was it – there was no changing it later on. So he had to get it right on the first shot.
"Are human, wolf, Bangaa and elf the only races suitable for a swordsman?" Cloud asked, a little plaintive. Wolf-him was too fluffy, lizard-him too… lizard, and the elf just looked off.
The cat considered it. "Burmecian, Miqo'te and Viera are suitable for fencing," it then offered somewhat tentatively.
Burmecian was a humanoid rat and Cloud made a ridiculous rat. Miqo'te was a cat and the cat-him was… well, there was that pointy-face problem again. And last one was a rabbit-man – and somehow it looked the most promising so far.
The Viera had a base of dark skin and light hair, and the Viera-him appeared just like that, several shades darker than Cloud would ever be, and with white hair. And of course, long white rabbit ears which really ought to have looked ridiculous, but somehow didn't. Probably because the Viera-him was the only version of him on whom his actual hair style somehow fit.
The Viera-him wasn't as sharp faced either – it actually had slightly rounder features than he did, with his cheek bones eased out a bit, his chin not quite so pointy. All the races had had varying height and so on, and the rabbit him was tallest, with the exception of the wolf-him. It probably had a lot to do with the feet – the rabbit-him stood on the balls of his bare feet, just like the werewolves did.
"Can you show me the starting stats of the Viera?" Cloud asked, and a window popped beside his avatar. The Viera had pretty high speed and agility, which even he with his utter lack of experience could see made them good for fencing. It had pretty high intelligence and wisdom too – probably good for mages. Strength was decent-ish, and vitality and defence… not so much.
"Can you show me a human's base stats?" Cloud asked, and then compared the two. Human had higher str, def and vit, but Viera had more spd and agi – it had higher int and wisdom, which reminded Cloud of something. "Is it true you can have two classes?" he asked, turning to the cat.
"When you reach level forty, you can choose a secondary class," the cat nodded.
That did it. "I'll be a Viera swordsman," Cloud said. "And once I make it to level forty, my secondary class will be black mage."
The cat gave him a dubious look. "You could kill two birds with one stone, and be a Red Mage instead," it suggested. "A fencer that can learn black and white magic. A Viera is very suited for the Red Mage class."
Cloud frowned at that. "All black magic?" he asked.
The cat scrunched up its face. "Well… just the low level stuff." It admitted
"Then no. I'll be Viera swordsman and a black mage," Cloud said, looking at his avatar determinedly.
The cat sighed. "If you say so," it said and rested its paws on its hips. "Would you like to alter your appearance?"
"Can I make myself taller?" Cloud asked, curious.
"Viera height or weight cannot be altered. You may alter hair style and colour within three variables."
Cloud considered his avatar. It looked like him but not at all like him – the skin and hair colour made a huge difference. The white hair was pretty good looking, but the length…
"Make my hair shorter, and even length all around," he said thoughtfully. He used to have long hair, before he got out of Nibelheim and could finally cut it without having to endure his mother's pouting face. Except the guy who had cut it had messed it up pretty badly and now it was different length everywhere, falling in his face all the time – and he hadn't gotten the chance to cut it again. So he was rather curious to see what it looked like.
The shorter hair, he thought, suit the Viera-him pretty well. It stood on end, just as his own did, and made the avatar look a bit wild. Not a bad look, not at all. Cloud grinned. "Perfect. That's the one I wanna be."
The cat sighed again. "If you're sure," it said. "We can now proceed to job selection. The available jobs are black smith, alchemist, cook, armourer, beast tamer, and craftsman."
"Black smith, definitely," Cloud said, nodding. That way he could make his own weapons.
The cat sighed again. "Please name your character and you may proceed to the game," it said.
Cloud frowned at it. What's with the sighing? It was hard to tell but it almost looked like the cat was… disappointed in him. Or maybe pitying him? It was just an npc, wasn't it? "I'd like to be named Storm," Cloud said slowly. It was the name he had always wished his mother would've given him, rather than Cloud.
"That name is already in use," the cat said, folding its arms. Paws. Whichever. "Please try another name."
"That name is already in use. Please try another name."
Cloud frowned. "Rainstorm?" he said. "No wait, that's a stupid name –"
"Your avatar is now named Rainstorm," the cat said, ignoring him, and a character screen popped up.
Rainstorm LV. 1
[CLASS] Swordsman LV. 1
[JOB] Black Smith LV. 1
Cloud stared at it wide eyed. The stats were shown beside an equipment setup, which was of course empty. His avatar was standing on the screen with the equipment slots all around it and it… was wearing almost nothing. The thing his Viera-avatar had on – which was pretty much the only thing it had on – amounted to little more than a loincloth.
"Wait, wait, wait, wait," Cloud said, turning to the cat with a horrible, horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach. "What does gear look like on a Viera?"
"Your character creation is now complete," the cat calmly informed him as the room around them begun to blur. "You will now be teleported to the beginner area. The Terra Online Development Team hopes you will enjoy your gaming experience."