THE STUDY OF PLANETARY LIFE (cont.)
From childhood, Aerith had constantly questioned what her role as a Cetra should be. She had been conscious of whispers in her heart from an early age, but the relentless noise of Midgar and the irreversible damage the Mako Reactors were causing had distorted the messages being relayed to her from beyond the physical world. The only place she had truly been able to hear the voices – and truly feel at peace – was her church in the Slums.
That was before I met Cloud and fled that godsforsaken city.
Here, though, in this vast desert valley, as far from Midgar as it was possible to get, the voices were deafening. And their defining emotion was distress; the Planet was very sick.
Worse still were the haunting murmurs that seeped from the subterranean bowels of the canyon. These were unlike anything Aerith had ever experienced, even around the enigmatic Materia Pillar where the group had first encountered Yuffie. It made her anxious to sense such violent anger and hatred, but had already decided to keep it to herself for now.
Abandoning her rhythmic tapping on the telescope, she brushed aside her drooping bangs, then reached up and plucked the White Materia orb from the bow of her ribbon. The touch of its glassy surface always soothed her when worries arose, as did gazing into the milky vapours that swirled inside. It was the only memento of her real mother, Ifalna, that she possessed; worth more to her than everything else she owned.
Not a day had gone by since she and Ifalna had escaped their laboratory confines that Aerith had not thought of that night. She could recall tiny fragments of their flight from Shinra Headquarters: the blurry warning signs of a train tunnel; the darkened underside of the Plate; the stench of Mako fumes in the Slums. Never would she forget, however, the fear in her mother’s eyes as her life slipped away, nor the kindness of Elmyra who had shown immediate and unconditional love to an orphaned child.
For many years after, the girl did not speak of the pearly orb Ifalna had given to her in those final moments, and Elmyra did not ask about it.
Aerith missed her foster mother terribly. She had barely been allowed a parting embrace with Elmyra despite surrendering herself to the Turks in exchange for Marlene Wallace’s safety. Had Tseng realised that Marlene’s father was the leader of AVALANCHE, though, he may not have been so quick to release her from Shinra’s clasp. In gratitude, Barret had facilitated the rescue of Aerith from Professor Hojo’s crazed experiments, but not before encouraging Elmyra to take Marlene and get out of Midgar.
I pray she listened to him, Aerith pleaded in silence, absently studying the White Materia and the starry image reflected on its shell. I pray they made it to Kalm.
Clutching her heirloom tightly, she could have sworn right then that she saw a jade green spark at its core.
“That’s a funny-looking object you have there.”
The voice behind Aerith made her jump, wheeling around as an old man emerged from the ingress to the platform, the flames of the wall-mounted sconces casting bizarre shadows about him. He was short in stature, with beaded grey hair tied back in a bandanna, and garbed in a beige tunic over loose-fitting slacks. She recognised him as the elder who had been giving a lecture at the Cosmo Candle when the company first arrived, and the tentative way he was shuffling across the terrace was hardly a threat.
“It’s…um…Materia,” was all Aerith could muster as her nerves subsided, hastily shoving the orb into the pocket of her red denim jacket.
“Did I startle you, my dear?” asked the elder, offering an apologetic smile. “Please forgive my intrusion. It’s unusual to have visitors up here so early.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she admitted as he joined her by the observation instruments.
“Ah. What chance does the body have when the mind behaves as a prison, hmm?” He nodded solemnly. When Aerith did not respond, the old man continued, “I come to this spot to meditate each morning. Sometimes to cleanse my soul; sometimes to barter with the universe for inspiration; sometimes to nurse a rather nasty hangover. I’m partial to the cocktails at the Starlet Tavern, you see.”
Aerith could do little to prevent her giggle, instantly feeling a weight lift from her chest. “I’m sure Lance mentioned something about those when we checked in.”
“You were among those who brought Nanaki home, yes?”
“Then, you have my thanks,” he said sincerely. “And the thanks of all Cosmo Canyon. He is of great importance to us.”
“You’re welcome,” she replied, blushing.
“I am Elder Hargo,” he introduced himself, “one of the resident scholars.”
He held out a wrinkled hand, which she duly shook. “Aerith Gainsborough: flower girl.”
“A pleasure, Aerith. Now, tell me, have you and your friends come to seek the Study of Planetary Life?”
“Well…uh…I guess so.”
“A silly question, I suppose,” Hargo said with a chuckle, “there isn’t really much else to see. People from all over the world gather here on pilgrimages to learn about the flow of Spirit Energy, or for a glimpse into the past through the eyes of the Ancients-”
“The Cetra?” spluttered Aerith.
Was it possible? Would she be able to uncover the secrets of her ancestors at last, just as Barret had suggested?
The elder regarded her curiously. “Indeed. My life’s work has been to collect and document evidence of Cetran legends and culture. So, even when I have returned to the Planet, future generations may still be taught the lessons that history has tried so hard to bury.”
“That…that’s wonderful…” she gasped, her pulse racing with excitement. Around her, the eerie wails had quietened, replaced instead by faint whispers of reassurance.
“I’ve compiled it all into a book,” explained Hargo, relishing her enthusiasm. “The content has become quite the tourist attraction, if I do say so myself.”
“Can I read…? I mean, I…I’m half…”
Aerith hesitated; as honest as the old scholar appeared, her true heritage had always been closely guarded from strangers. Her journey with Cloud and the others had given her plenty of time to challenge who she believed she was, while the Great Gospel that Kimaira had gifted her had opened her mind to the wealth of philosophies and practices her kin once adhered to. The path before her was blurred, but she was growing in confidence each day, prepared to embrace her destiny.
Yet, for now, it was a revelation that could wait.
“I sense there is something you wish to say.” Elder Hargo patted her arm gently, glancing to the pocket that held her White Materia. “We’ll talk when you’re ready, child.”
Above them, a mechanical whir resonated from the highest point of the mesa, interrupting what might have been an awkward break in the conversation. Aerith knew the observatory was located at the summit; she had earlier caught sight of its huge domed roof, spectacularly illuminated by dozens of spotlights.
“What’s that sound?” she queried.
“That’ll be one of Bugenhagen’s contraptions,” sighed Hargo, pulling his tunic snug as another chilly breeze stole across the platform. The torches by the doorway writhed wildly, hypnotically. “He and Nanaki have spent all evening at the Research Centre.”
Aerith frowned. “Research Centre?”
“It’s what we call Bugenhagen’s facility. He lives and works there, conducting most of his seminars inside the Planetarium. It’s a remarkable apparatus. You should go see it if you have the chance.”
“What are Bugenhagen and Red…I mean, Nanaki, doing?”
“For more than a year we have awaited the return of our Guardian,” Hargo replied vaguely, his gaze glistening with tears of joy. “Today is a special day…”
A tremendous swell of warmth and pride filled Aerith’s heart as she watched the elder hobble over to the edge of the terrace, enjoying the last traces of morning starlight. It brought her indescribable happiness to have contributed in some way to Nanaki’s homecoming, and to witness how much it meant to the villagers. She had not expected to be thanked or rewarded for her part, but the idea that she would soon be immersed in the teachings of her ancestors almost made the hardships of her personal odyssey worthwhile.
Hargo was right: today was indeed special. Today was Aerith’s twenty-third birthday, and her purpose as a Cetra was about to be reborn.