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Conflicts of Interest Redux 2/? (FF7 post-AC AU) (1 of 2) - Convolutions of an Evil Mind
madamhydra
madamhydra
Conflicts of Interest Redux 2/? (FF7 post-AC AU) (1 of 2)
Here's Chapter 2 of my massive COI rewrite. I apologize if the writing's a bit dry, but this chapter provides critical set up for a lot of action in the later chapters.

This is an unbetaed rough draft, so if things get too confusing or don't make sense, please let me know. Constructive comments and suggestions are always welcome.

And if any of my readers are wondering... yes, I do know exactly where this epic is going and how it's going to end. I have a 7000+ word outline to prove it. ^_^; It's pretty much unreadable to anyone except myself, but if someone's truly desperate....

Title: Conflicts of Interest Redux 2/?
Author: MadamHydra
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 post-Advent Children AU
Type: work-in-progress
Pairing/Characters: gen (at the moment)
Rating: R
Wordcount: ~17,000
Warnings: violence, mature themes (references to abuse, torture, rape, etc.)
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels, sequels, and works belong to Square-Enix.

Summary: When the WEAPONs reappear two years after Meteorfall, Cloud and his friends discover that his connections to his best friend Zack, his arch-nemesis Sephiroth, and Rufus Shinra are much more complicated than he could ever imagine. And who is the *REAL* Cloud Strife?

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NOTES:
-- "Conflicts of Interest Redux" is a MASSIVE rewrite of my old FF7 epic "Conflicts of Interest", which I started years before the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" existed.
-- The original game and Advent Children/Complete are canonic for this fic.
-- Before Crisis and Crisis Core are semi-canonic.
-- Various individual plot points from other components of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (e.g., games, OVAs, FFVII novellas and short stories, etc.) may show up.

CREDITS:
-- Many thanks to the terrific story "Homesick" by Chris Reaves which provided me with lots of inspiration for the events in Nibelheim. ^_^

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CONFLICTS OF INTEREST Redux
A Final Fantasy VII fanfic by Madamhydra

Chapter 2
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Text Conventions

( ) and / / and // // and { } all indicate thoughts or other types of mental dialogue from various characters

[ ] are miscellaneous date notes, images, or sound effects

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Where do I take this pain of mine?
I run but it stays right by my side
So tear me open, pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps

Just like the curse, just like the stray
You feed it once and now it stays
Now it stays
So tear me open but beware
There's things inside without a care
And the dirt still stains me
So wash me until I'm clean

"Until It Sleeps" by Metallica
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The Planet's mood had shifted.

At first Aerith worried that by curing the Geostigma plague on her own, she had overstepped some unknown boundary or broken some Ancient protocol. As the Cetra race had withered away, so had their knowledge about the Planet and their relationship to it. She was the last of the Cetra, a half-breed at that, and the only information she had to work with was the few scraps of knowledge that her mother Ifalna managed to pass down to her only child before her death.

During her time in the Lifestream, Aerith had learned much, but she was painfully aware that compared to the true Ancients, she was the most inexperienced of novices.

But the Planet was... pleased... by her successful efforts to cleanse Geostigma from humanity. She felt the warmth of its approval. But at the same time, Aerith had the oddest sensation that she was being 'nudged' aside, almost protectively, like a small child being firmly shooed away to safety so an adult could deal with a serious problem or threat.

She hadn't liked the sensation of being sidelined -- even for her own good -- when she had been alive. She didn't like it now. Unfortunately, unlike Cloud or her other friends, the Planet wasn't someone she could easily argue with.

A fierce determination now pulsed through the Lifestream, along with something that was close to, but much more complex than mere anger or hatred.

The sense of implacable resolve unnerved her. The Planet now had a firm agenda of its own and would not allow anything to stand in its way.

The reborn WEAPONs, even more powerful than before, were released onto the Planet's surface to hunt and destroy.

And still the Planet was not satisfied.

It wanted... no, needed... something more effective than the gigantic creatures of destruction that were the WEAPONs. Something more precise.

Not mere weapons.

Tools.

She felt the Planet contemplating... remembering... before ponderously coming to its decision.

... as it had been before, now shall it be again...

Aerith had no idea what that meant, but the Lifestream immediately responded to the Planet's unknown will.

... searching... gathering... cleansing... reconstructing....

Elsewhere, she felt something -- or perhaps someone -- being considered, judged, and... fixed?

... restoring... strengthening... augmenting....

But when Aerith tried to probe the Lifestream for more information, all she got was a kindly, but firm nudge back to her safe little corner.

Apparently, the Planet felt that whatever it was doing was either none of her business or beyond her comprehension.

Well, to hell with being coddled like a child.

If she couldn't find out what was going on directly, there were other, sneakier ways she could use.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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The stench of rotting flesh in the dark cavern was truly horrible.

Vincent Valentine couldn't suppress a grimace at the overwhelming smell. Beside him, he heard Nanaki huffing audibly as the beast tried to breathe through his mouth instead of his sensitive nose.

"Too late," Nanaki panted.

"Yes."

"Think the Remnants originated here?" Nanaki's speech was unusually terse, again due to the incredible smell.

"Possibly," Vincent replied. He was concise by nature, but the reek was giving him considerable trouble as well.

There was a brief lull in the conversation, broken only by the sound of blackish water lapping at rocks, as they explored the cavern.

"More than three pods," the beast muttered.

The cave had two distinct sections, separated by a tall line of rubble, which led Vincent to believe that the two areas had once been almost completely separated, linked only by the pool of blackish green water.

The front cave section was small and contained three ruptured ovoid shapes that looked like they could have held human-sized occupants. These heavily decayed pods sat in a tight cluster, almost touching each other. The back section of the cave contained a multitude of empty pods in a variety of sizes which showed considerably less decomposition than the three pods in the front.

Nanaki made a low hacking noise, muttered a stifled, "Goin' to puke," then bolted from the cavern.

Vincent could sympathize. It took a lot to trouble him, but the contents of the dimly lit chamber definitely posed a challenge. After one last look around, he followed Nanaki outside.

Far from the cave entrance, they both stopped and spent some time breathing in the icy, but stench-free air of the Northern Crater.

"It looks like the Remnants spawned first and left the area. The things in the back area hatched some time later," Nanaki commented, sitting back onto his haunches.

"Yes, but they're no longer here," Vincent replied. "There's almost certainly some traces of Jenova cells left in that cave. We'll need to sterilize the place."

Nanaki nodded, sniffed the air, then said, "When we're done with the cleanup here, why don't we stop by Icicle Inn and see if Reeve's people have found anything interesting?" He leisurely rose to his feet as his ears swiveled, tracking the monsters trying to sneak up on them.

Vincent raised an eyebrow even as he slid his gun Cerberus from its holster.

"You just want to go snowboarding again."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dr. Lawrence Steven scurried around his office, gathering various important items -- credentials, research notes, credit cards, and all the cash he had on hand. He threw them into a duffle bag, along with the spare clothes he kept at work.

It was that Lockhart bitch's fault. She had led him to believe that Specimen C was totally unconscious and non-responsive. Instead, he had woken up as soon as Steven's back was turned. Even worse, the specimen had recognized Steven and immediately tried to kill him.

"Great. Now I've got a physically enhanced, mentally unstable experimental prototype wandering around WRO Headquarters wanting to kill me!"

He needed help. Specimen C had to be recaptured and subdued, not only so Steven could restart his research, but much more importantly, to keep himself alive. However, as his recent brush with death showed, recapturing Specimen C was not going to be an easy matter.

As he rummaged through his desk with one hand, he reached for his cellphone, then remembered that it was lying in pieces back in the exam room.

"Shit!"

Grabbing for the desk phone, he started punching in numbers, then stopped. Who was the best person to call? Roissy was the obvious choice since the woman had been in charge of Project S2. However, Steven had absolutely no desire to help Roissy in any way, not after the way she had blamed him for the two Specimens' escape back in Nibelheim all those years ago and totally fucked up his career.

Who else? There was Montessi, Roissy's long time rival, but she was an even pissier bitch than Roissy. There were also other people on the project, but would they be willing or able to help him? Should he try talking to someone outside the project?

Finally, after several minutes considering his options, Steven made his choice and his phone call.

"Yes?" replied a smooth, contralto voice.

"Hey, it's Steven. You remember me?"

"Certainly. What can I do for you?"

Steven sighed in relief. Yes, this particular scientist, even-tempered and sensible, was a much better choice than Roissy or Roissy's neurotic rival.

"I've uncovered some very important information related to Project S2. But now I'm in trouble and I need help."

There was a brief pause, then the female voice replied, "Project S2. The project was terminated before Meteorfall due to the escape and the subsequent loss of the two experimental subjects."

"Yes! But you see, they got it wrong! I don't know whether someone made a legit mistake or flat out lied, but the reports were wrong!"

"Wrong? In what way?"

"Specimen C survived!"

After yet another pause, the woman replied, "Well, that's certainly an interesting development."

"I'm sure you understand what this means. If we can get Specimen C back into custody, we can restart Project S2!"

"Under the present circumstances, would there be any point in doing so?" the woman replied, sounding mildly skeptical. "The Shinra Corporation, while it still exists, is hardly in a position to sponsor this sort of human research anymore. And I very much doubt that the WRO would be interested, either."

Steven laughed, then broke into hoarse coughing. After catching his breath, he said, "Oh, I think whoever's running Shinra nowadays could be made to see the potential benefits. And it would be easy to keep the project low profile. All I'd need is a lab with good access to Mako, some decent equipment, and a few competent scientists and technicians who can keep their mouths shut. Oh, and some Jenova cells."

When there was no immediate response, Steven added more impatiently, "Look, you know the initial results were extremely promising. It would be a horrible waste to let four years of hard work just slide through our fingers!"

"You mentioned trouble."

Steven sighed, rubbing at his badly bruised throat. "Specimen C has apparently managed to regain a surprisingly high level of cognitive function. He's walking, talking, and even managed to recognize me. Unfortunately. Damn well nearly killed me, but I got away."

"Is he still after you?"

"Not at the moment, but there's no telling when he might get the urge to kill me again. Look, Specimen C might be physically functional, but he's hostile, dangerously aggressive, and mentally unstable. Hell, capturing and locking him away would be doing everyone a public service! But with that enhanced physique of his, he's going to be extremely difficult to subdue. That's why I need your expertise."

"All right. I'll see what I can do. Do you have somewhere safe to hide while I make arrangements?"

"Yeah, yeah. I'll manage something. Just don't take too long, okay?"

"I'll try to expedite things," the female voice said reassuringly.

"My phone's broken, so I'll give you a call when I've settled in somewhere. Later."

After hanging up the phone, Steven smiled. The run-in with Specimen C had left him badly shaken, but he now felt much better. Soon, the situation would be back under control. However, this time it would be HIS control.

He glanced back at the phone on his desk. Should he call Roissy, warn her about Specimen C?

No, let the bitch take her chances.

He grabbed his duffle bag, cautiously checked out the hallway. The area looked clear, so he exited his office and quickly made his way to the elevator lobby.

When the elevator stopped on one of the lower floors, one of his work colleagues entered. Noticing Steven's duffle bag, the man asked, "Hey, you part of the team that's supposed to head out to Rocket Town?"

Thinking quickly, Steven hastily pulled his jacket collar up to hide his bruised throat, and said, "Actually, yes."

"Then you better get out to the upper helipad ASAP if you want to catch your ride. They're going to be leaving in a few minutes."

"Thanks for the reminder. I can't wait to get out of here," Steven said with complete sincerity.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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As they waited in Reeve's office for an update on Cloud's condition, Cid and the others examined photos of the revived Sapphire and Emerald WEAPONs. They also received the unwelcome report of a strange red tentacle-like object sticking out of the sand on a tiny desert island in the southeast ocean.

Cid muttered sourly, "How much gil you wanna bet it's fucking Ruby?"

"No takers," Yuffie said.

Reeve sighed and said, "Well, I guess that settles it. I think it's safe to assume that the other WEAPONs have also returned. Now the question is what to do about them. Aside from that incident with the cargo ship, which could have simply been an accident, they're not doing anything overtly hostile at the moment. I don't want to provoke them if we don't have to."

Cid jabbed a finger in Reeve's direction. "You've got a pretty good point. Since those damned WEAPONs are supposed to be the Planet's immune system or something, we need to know what made them show up again in the first place. You come up with any news or info about Jenova?"

"Nothing definitive." Reeve got up and started pacing. "I've located a stash of old research records in a warehouse in Midgar. Unfortunately, there are literally hundreds of file boxes. Who knows? The answer we're looking for could be sitting right under our noses... IF we can find it. We're going to need someone to sift through all those documents."

"That's going to take friggin' forever!" Cid objected.

"I know," Reeve replied in grim tones.

"You really know how to cheer a guy up, don't you?" griped the pilot, hunkering down in his chair. "And who's the lucky son of a bitch who has to go through all that shit? 'Cause I'll tell you right now that it isn't going to be me. Hell, I wouldn't have a fucking clue what to look for!

"Yeah, we aren't trained scientists. It'll be way too easy for us to overlook something important," Yuffie added.

The Shinra executive sighed. "Unfortunately, practically everyone who knows anything about Jenova and Jenova-related research got their expertise working with or for Hojo. Probably a good quarter of the surviving Shinra scientific staff were involved, if not active participants, in Hojo's research at some point."

"You're thinking that some of these scientists might still be loyal to Hojo or have their own persona agendas going?" asked Yuffie, throwing herself into an cushy armchair.

Cid flung up his hands and yelled, "Mad scientists! Is that all we've got? A bunch of mad, loony scientists? Isn't there a SINGLE science guy out there who's got his head screwed on straight?"

Reeve held up his hands. "Now calm down, Cid. Over the last two years, I've gotten to know some scientists who have some knowledge about Jenova, but who aren't interested in following in Hojo's footsteps. It's a short list, but they're good people. As for the others, well...." Reeve shrugged. "We'll just have to keep an eye on them. Anyway, I've sent a scientific team to Nibelheim to retrieve any information and equipment still left in the Shinra Mansion. I should've done it a lot sooner but...."

"Wait a sec!" Yuffie protested. "You said yourself that we might not be able to trust a lot of those scientists. So isn't sending them to Nibelheim rather like waving drugs under the nose of an addict?"

"True, but I sent along Reno and the other Turks to keep an eye on them," Reeve said with a crooked grin.

Cid and Yuffie exchanged startled looks, then grinned evilly at each other.

Reeve added, "I asked Rufus if I could borrow them. Rufus agrees that the information and equipment left in Nibelheim should be secured immediately. The Turks are experts at intimidation and they have the willingness to back up their reputation, as we all well know."

"So you're hoping that the Turks and their nasty rep will keep those scientists in line," Cid said. "It'll probably work, although I don't envy them that job."

"Well, at least the Turks have their uses," Tifa said drily as she and Cloud entered the room.

Reeve shrugged, "Reno may be a bit of a sociopath, but he's a professional and very good in his particular line of work." He then turned to Cloud. "I'm so glad to see you back on your feet. You really had us worried. Are you feeling all right now?"

"Yeah. Sorry about the trouble," Cloud said with a slight, apologetic smile.

Cid grinned, then said, "I was wondering if you were going to snooze through this entire mess and leave us with all the dirty work." On a more serious note, he added, "So why the hell did you end up so far off the road to Edge and what the fuck happened to you out there?"

Cloud frowned, then slowly said, "I'm not sure how I ended up there, but that outcrop is where... that's where Zack died. I don't know why, but being there triggered some sort of intense flashback about that day when...." His voice trailed away as he stared out the windows of Reeve's office.

"Must've been one hell of a flashback if it caused you to pass out cold like that."

"Yeah. It was."

Yuffie shifted nervously, then said brightly, "But you're feeling okay now, right?"

"I'm fine." Cloud glanced at Reeve. "You were saying something about sending the Turks and a team of scientists to Nibelheim to retrieve Hojo's research?"

"That's right."

"What about the reactor at Mt. Nibel?" Tifa asked. "Are they going to strip that, too? Because there's tons of weird equipment still in the reactor. It probably wouldn't be too hard to get that machinery up and running again."

Reeve nodded and replied, "I know. However, at the moment we're concentrating on the Mansion because that's where most of the research data is located. Also, the lab equipment in the Mansion is much more portable than the machinery in the Mt. Nibel reactor and therefore much easier to remove or steal. The WRO team will check the reactor for data, but as for the equipment there, we can arrange for its demolition at a later date...."

Reeve's intercom interrupted him with a strident buzz.

"Yes, what is it?"

"Sir, a Dr. Aston wants to report an attack on his facility."

Everyone in the room suddenly came alert and began listening very intently.

"An attack? What kind of attack?" Reeve demanded.

"He refuses to say, sir. He insists upon talking directly with you."

"All right. Put him through. Dr. Aston, this is Reeve. You wanted to speak with me?"

Over the speaker phone, a gruff male voice barked, "Yes. The Archival Specimen Storage Research Unit Building has just been raided by a large group of unidentified monsters."

"Hold it, hold it! The what?"

Aston made an annoyed sound, then said with exaggerated care, "The. Archival. Specimen. Storage. Research. Unit. Building. Has. Been. Attacked. By. Monsters."

"What the hell's this Archival Storage and... never mind. Just tell me what attacked you."

"I told you already. Lots of monsters."

"It would be helpful if you could be a little more specific as to the type and number of monsters."

Dr. Aston said snappishly, "If I could tell you what kind of monsters they were, they won't be 'unidentified', would they? As for the number, I was running for my life, not doing a population census."

Cid rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath, "What did I tell you guys about these Shinra scientists? Flaming assholes, all of them."

Reeve gritted his teeth and said, "All right. You were attacked by entities or creatures unknown. Would you happen to have any idea WHY you were attacked?"

"Look, they just appeared out of nowhere and started tearing up the place."

Reeve took a deep breath. "I see. Are the monsters still there?"

"No. They took what they wanted, then left."

"And what did they take, doctor?"

"I don't know. I'd have to check the inventory."

"Then how do you know that they stole something?"

Dr. Aston sounded as if he was lecturing a group of particularly stupid school children. "When intruders break in, head directly for a specific area, ransack said area, then fly away carrying something, the obvious conclusion is theft."

"And what do you have that's worth stealing?" Reeve was getting noticeably annoyed with the director, and none of his friends could blame him.

Dr. Aston's voice bristled with offended dignity. "I'll have you know that we have some extremely valuable and irreplaceable specimens here!"

Cloud walked over to Reeve's desk and said, "Does your facility contain any samples of Jenova, Dr. Aston?"

"Wha... who the hell are you!?"

"Just answer the question, doctor," Reeve interrupted.

"No, of course not! We're only a long-term storage facility," the director said irritably. "Hojo would never allow valuable research specimens like that out of his custody."

"But you do know what Jenova is," Cloud said sharply.

"Of course I do. I'm a senior scientist and facility director, not some junior researcher."

Reeve frowned thoughtfully, then he flicked a quick glance at Cloud. It seemed that their thoughts were running on similar lines because Cloud nodded grimly.

"Where are you located, Dr. Aston?" asked Reeve.

"In the mountains east of the old reactor at Fort Condor, the one that used to have a giant bird perching on it."

"I'm familiar with the area. I'm sending some people out to your facility to investigate. They should arrive within two hours and I expect you to extend them every courtesy."

"Fine."

"Take care of your casualties, but don't mess with the scene any more than you absolutely have to. Reeve out."

"Sheesh! What an asshole!" said Yuffie as she idly juggled a few shuriken.

Cid said sarcastically, "Monsters breaking into a research facility and stealing shit? Now is that friggin' suspicious or what?" Looking over toward Cloud, he noticed the blond frowning.

"What's bugging you?"

"I'm not sure. It's just that...." Cloud hesitated before continuing. "To get a group of monsters to perform an organized raid like the one Aston is describing, a human or human-level intelligence would need to be in control."

Yuffie nodded. "There's materia that lets you control monsters, but only for really short periods of time and only a few at a time. This raid sounds way more complicated."

"So all we know at this point is that someone went through a lot of effort to organize a large scale monster raid just so they could steal something from Dr. Aston's facility," Tifa said.

Cid impatiently rose to his feet. "Look, we can jaw about this for hours, but we're not going to get anywhere by just sitting here. So let's get our asses down to that Archival Storage place and take a look around for some clues."

"Are you really feeling up to this?" Tifa gave Cloud a worried look.

"Don't worry. I'm fine now."

Yuffie suddenly started to giggle, but the giggles soon turned into outright shrieks of laughter.

Cid eyed the ninja sourly and said, "What's so fucking funny?"

She tried to answer, but it took several attempts before she got enough breath back to say anything.

"The name of his facility... hee hee hee... no wonder that jerk never abbreviated it!"

"Abbreviate it? What do you mean, Yuffie?" Tifa said, looking increasingly confused.

"Archival Specimen Storage Research Unit Building... ha ha ha!"

Tifa said in dangerous tones, "Yuffie, I'm about to strangle you!"

Cloud blinked, then choked back a soft laugh of his own, followed by a growing grin on Reeve's face.

"If you abbreviate it... hee hee hee... it comes out... ASSRUB!"

Although the attack on the facility was a deadly serious matter, they couldn't help laughing, snickering, chuckling -- or in Cloud's case, grinning slightly -- all the way back to the Shera.

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A pale, painfully thin woman with very short brown hair burst out of the elevator and stomped into the office, her labcoat flapping like stubby wings.

"I don't know why you called me over, but it better be worth my time," she snapped at the elegant black-haired woman sitting behind the desk.

Dr. Nyx brushed a strand of long curly hair behind one ear and replied mildly, "I received a phone call from Dr. Steven. He had some very interesting information to share, Montessi."

"Steven? That moron! You dragged me away from my work to talk about HIM?" Dr. Montessi jeered, stalking impatiently around the neatly organized office.

A unruffled Nyx continued, "He told me that Specimen C is still alive."

Montessi froze in mid-step, then turned slowly toward the other woman.

"You're joking. Steven has to be talking out of his ass, as usual."

"No, in this case, he's not. I've verified it for myself. Specimen C, the prototype for Project S2, is very much alive."

The thin scientist took three rapid steps forward, then slammed her hands down on Nyx's desk.

"Where is he!? In a clinic, a hospital? Who has custody at the moment? Can we negotiate with them, or do we need to use other means to secure him?"

Nyx raised a slender hand to stem the barrage of questions.

"He's in no one's custody except his own. If the preliminary reports I've received are accurate, the prototype apparently achieved a normal level of cognitive function within a year of his escape from Nibelheim."

"That's impossible! At the time of the escape, Specimen C was incapable of even the most rudimentary mental activity. In fact, if it wasn't for the link with...."

"I have some security footage from WRO Headquarters that might change your mind," Nyx interrupted, gesturing at a wall screen. She pressed a button on her desk. "This video was recorded just over an hour ago. See for yourself."

On the monitor, an attractive young woman with long dark hair walked down a corridor, accompanied by a young man with disheveled, almost spiky blond hair. He moved easily, clearly alert and aware of his surroundings.

Montessi watched the screen avidly, but made an obvious effort to maintain some measure of objectivity. She said, "The hair and the build certainly match Specimen C, but that's no guarantee. That man on the video could merely have a close physical resemblance."

The image on the screen froze and zoomed in on the blond man's face -- more specifically, on his intense blue eyes that glowed with a faint, but distinctive inner light.

Montessi released a long, slow hiss of satisfaction.

"There are no SOLDIERs or experimental subjects on file with a similar physical description," Nyx said, although her comment was probably unnecessary.

"Yes, by god! It IS Specimen C!"

"Cloud Strife."

"What?" Montessi said distractedly.

"The S2 prototype's name is Cloud Strife."

"Whatever," the thin scientist muttered with a dismissive wave of her hand. "The name's irrelevant. What's important is that I have a chance to recover the product of four long years of research. MY research, not Roissy's!"

Montessi's voice started to rise in both shrillness and volume. "She STOLE my ideas and presented them to President Shinra as her own! She got all the credit, not because of her brains, but because of her pretty looks and her willingness to literally whore herself out to whoever's charge! And me? I got stuck doing the scut work, as usual!"

Nyx waited patiently as Montessi started to pace around the room, gesturing furiously as she repeated familiar complaints and grudges.

"And once in charge, what did Roissy do!? She tried to play it safe! SHE didn't have the guts to push the limits! But I did! I'm the one who theorized that Phases 1 and 2 could be carried out simultaneously! And just as I was about to proceed to Phase 3, that moron Steven allows Zack Fair and the prototype to escape! All my hard work, gone, thanks to other people's blithering incompetence!"

Nyx said nothing as Montessi whirled to face her, pale and gasping from her outburst. Seeing that Montessi's rant had apparently run its course, she asked, "What are you planning to do now? Because if you're planning to 'recover' Cloud Strife, I strongly recommend that you don't try."

"What do you mean?"

"You are aware of the enormous monster that attacked Edge two weeks ago."

"Of course. No one in the lab could stop talking about it," Montessi said irritably.

"This is some video footage from a news camera that was on the scene."

On the wall monitor, the closeup of Cloud's eyes changed to a scene of chaos as terrified people screamed and ran through the streets of Edge. The camera jerked around wildly as the cameraman dodged both the fleeing mob and falling debris, but settled just long enough to focus on a sleek, powerful black motorcycle and its blond-haired rider as it roared into view.

Montessi and Nyx watched silently as Cloud pulled out and threw an enormous sword, then smoothly caught the returning blade before riding head-on into a massive wave of collapsing wreckage.

Camera motion and dust obscured the video, but when the picture cleared, the it showed the same black motorcycle, now with two riders, emerging unscathed from all the wreckage, then skidded to a stop in the main plaza.

Montessi opened her mouth to say something, but Nyx murmured, "There's more. Keep watching."

The video blurred with static, then cleared once again to follow Cloud as the man leapt effortlessly among towering steel girders, giant sword in hand, as he relentlessly pursued and slashed at the hideous dragon-like monster that flew overhead. From the creature's enraged shrieks and flailing gestures, the sword attacks were clearly having considerable effect on the huge monster. There were other fighters on scene, but Cloud held both scientists' attention as a single fierce strike knocked the monster from the sky and sent it hurtling into the ground.

The image of Cloud lightly dropping onto a girder, massive broadsword in hand, froze on the monitor.

"As you can see, recapturing Cloud will be no easy task." Nyx leaned forward in her chair to emphasize her next words. "And do you know why? Because even from this brief glimpse at Cloud's combat performance, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that Cloud is a fully successful S2 prototype."

"I know! That's why I want to...."

Nyx made a soft sound of exasperation. "Montessi, do you remember the primary goal of Project S2?"

"Of course I do -- to create second generation super-SOLDIERs with combat abilities superior to the first generation of SOLDIER, and if possible, Sephiroth. But what does that have to do with recapturing Cloud?"

Nyx rubbed her forehead, then said patiently, "As a Project S2 prototype, Cloud was engineered to surpass the very best of the first generation SOLDIERs -- SOLDIERs like Angeal, Genesis, and Zack Fair. Zack defeated both Angeal and Genesis, even before the additional experiments at Nibelheim, so that's why we chose to use him as a baseline for the project."

Seeing that Montessi finally seemed to be listening to her, Nyx continued.

"Do you know how many men the Shinra Army had to use to bring down Zack? Battalions, Montessi, in the plural. With air support. And do you know how many of those men were left standing when Zack finally fell?"

"No."

"Three. Just three of them."

Nyx pointed at Cloud's image on the wall monitor. "That man managed to mortally wound and kill Sephiroth even before he was modified with Mako and Jenova cells. He did it on pure adrenaline." She raised her hand to stop Montessi's protest. "Yes, I am well aware that the earlier fight with Zack wore down Sephiroth considerably. But even so, it's an incredibly impressive feat for an unmodified human. The present day Cloud, as the news video plainly shows, is orders of magnitude stronger. You should know that, because you helped make him that way."

"But there are ways of subduing SOLDIERs. With the right planning, equipment, drugs...."

"And what of the consequences if the slightest thing goes wrong? Why do you think that Shinra sent out SOLDIERs instead of capture teams to hunt down other SOLDIERs? Calm down and think the situation through. There's really no need to rush out and capture Cloud at this point in time. Any questions as to Cloud's capabilities can be answered with less effort and considerably less danger simply through discreet investigation and observation."

Nyx sat back in her chair. "Leave Cloud Strife alone, Montessi. Your work there is done, at least for now."

The other scientist hesitated, then shook her head sharply.

"There are still more experiments to be carried out, other aspects of Project S2 that didn't get tested because the escape!" Montessi protested. "And without a successful Phase 1 prototype like Specimen C as a test subject, we'll never have a chance to achieve the full potential of Project S2!"

Nyx silently pulled a folder out of a drawer, then slid it across the desk.

Montessi read the name at the folder and immediately said, "He's dead."

"As with Cloud, the reports of Rufus Shinra's demise have been greatly exaggerated."

Montessi turned her eyes back to the folder, then picked it up and began to read. When she finished, she slowly lowered it and stared at Nyx with a dreadful sort of hope.

"Brothers?" she breathed.

"The same father, with full siblings as mothers. So, half-brothers and full cousins." Nyx slid two more pieces of paper across the desk. "Note the multiple points of similarity in their genetic profiles."

Montessi studied the test results. "Did President Shinra know that Cloud Strife was his son?"

"Of course he did. Why do you think that he insisted on using Cloud as the initial test subject for Project S2?"

"It says that Rufus had Geostigma. If he has such a negative reaction to Jenova cells...."

"Geostigma is not an accurate indicator of a person's tolerance for Jenova cells. SOLDIERs can contract Geostigma, so there are obviously other factors involved with the disease."

"And where is Rufus now?"

"Healen Lodge, with some of the Turks serving as his bodyguards."

Montessi chuckled, a low rusty sound, deep in her throat. "Turks are formidable, but they're a much more manageable obstacle for a group of competent, well-equipped mercenaries than a second generation super-SOLDIER, hmmm?"

"Especially when most of those Turks are away on various missions." Nyx paused. "As they are, at the moment."

"How... convenient," Montessi purred, then she frowned suddenly. "But that still leaves the matter of finding some Jenova cells."

"I believe that a few samples still exist in various obscure locations. Tracking down the viable ones will take some time, however."

Montessi resumed her pacing, obviously deep in thought. "We can still start work on Rufus immediately. We have to do several rounds of Mako infusion before we can use the Jenova cells, anyway. The lab and the Mako won't be a problem. I already have a place in mind."

"I hope you're not talking about Nibelheim, because that location is being secured by the Turks at this very moment."

"No, no," Montessi said, waving her hand. "Nibelheim's way too obvious. Too many people know about it, and I don't want any interference or interruptions." She looked at Nyx. "I could use you on this project."

"Thank you for the invitation, but I have my own research to pursue."

"Suit yourself. But you're missing out on a marvelous opportunity," Montessi said with a careless shrug, then walked out of Nyx's office without so much as a goodbye or thank you.

Alone in her office, Nyx pulled her long curly black hair into a ponytail, then returned to her computer. Genetic data scrolled rapidly across multiple wall screens -- not only for Cloud and Rufus, but profiles of Sephiroth, Zack Fair, Vincent Valentine, Cid Highwind, Tifa Lockhart, Reeve Tuesti, various Turks, and a multitude of others.

Among all the shifting screens of data, one display remained fixed and unchanged.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
JENOVA PROJECT

PROJECT G - Genesis Rhapsodos, Angeal Hewley
- project terminated -

PROJECT S0 - Sephiroth

PROJECT S1 - SOLDIER (1st gen)

PROJECT S2 - SOLDIER (2nd gen)
- PHASE 1 - augmentation
- PHASE 2 - replication
- PHASE 3 - assimilation
~ ~ ~ ~ ~


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The trip to Dr. Aston's facility -- they all agreed NOT to use the acronym -- took just over an hour. The well hidden facility was nestled in a little valley located surprisingly close to Fort Condor. A tall chainlink fence topped with razor wire enclosed a large number of barn-like structures and a small three-story office building. According to the information from Reeve, the main part of the surprisingly large facility lay underground.

As the Shera descended, the only visible sign of damage Cloud and the others saw was a large jagged hole in the roof of the small office building.

The clearly impatient director -- a large, hulking man who looked more like a scruffy dockworker than a senior research scientist -- stalked up to them as soon as they disembarked from the airship. Dr. Aston glared at them, clearly not impressed by what he saw.

In a harsh, gravelly voice, the man snapped, "So you're the WRO's investigation team? I'm Dr. Aston, the director of this facility."

Cloud moved straight to the point and said, "What happened here?"

"See for yourself." Dr. Aston waved a ham-sized hand in the general direction of the buildings.

Despite the director's statement, there wasn't anything unusual to be seen from ground level. The most noticeable thing was the pungent aroma of livestock and their by-products coming from the barns.

"So, what do you guys do here at ASS...." Yuffie coughed when Cait Sith, who was riding on her shoulder, poked her. She then continued brightly, "... at this, um... Archival Specimen Storage Research Unit Building?"

Dr. Aston shot the ninja a suspicious look. When she merely gave him an innocent grin, he huffed, then said, "We do research into bioenergy."

Cid looked startled. "Didn't think that anyone was still fiddling around with Mako."

The director coughed, then said stiffly, "Bioenergy as in biofuels, not Mako." With a sour grimace, he added, "As you said, no one, not even Shinra, is willing to fund active research into Mako anymore."

"So what's the difference?" Tifa asked.

"Biofuels are fuels derived from biomass. In our case, gaseous fuels derived from degradable biowaste."

"Biowaste?"

Cid glanced over at Yuffie, then rolled his eyes. "He's referring to manure, crap, shit, and that sort of stuff." He jerked his head toward the barns. "Which explains the livestock and the smell."

"Oh.... ooooh." The ninja suddenly made a choking sound that sounded suspiciously like a stifled giggle. "Then I guess that makes the... er, name of this place particularly appropriate."

"Yuffie! Behave yourself!" Tifa hissed, elbowing the ninja sharply.

"And what is THAT supposed to mean?" Dr. Aston demanded, his eyes narrowing dangerously.

Cloud simply shook his head and said, "Never mind. Just ignore her, doctor. Going back to the attack, the only visible damage we've seen so far is the hole in the building roof."

"The real damage is inside. Well, if you're here to investigate, then hurry up and investigate so we can clean the damn mess up and get back to work." He eyed them sourly. "Unlike some people, I don't have time to go jaunting around on airships as I please."

Once inside the building, the damage was massive, but highly focused. The path of destruction led straight from the roof through three floors and into the main elevator lobby on the ground floor. Every pair of elevator doors had been ripped away, leaving gaping entrances to the elevator shafts.

"Sheesh, just follow the copious blood splatter and claw marks," Yuffie said, eyeing the damage.

"Hell, straight in and no messing about, huh?" Cid snorted scornfully. "Monster attack, my ass! This was a fucking surgical strike."

"How many people were hurt in this attack?" Cait Sith asked.

Aston blinked at being questioned by a comical black-and-white toy cat with a gilded crown, but answered, "Five technicians and three support staff died. About the same number were wounded to varying degrees." He shrugged "Fortunately, no one important got killed or seriously injured."

"Only expendable people got hurt, so no big loss to you. I suppose that's one way of looking at it."

Oblivious to Cid's sarcasm, Aston led them through two large metal security doors, now shredded like tissue paper, then into a stairwell.

"As you can see, the monsters used the elevator shafts to enter the underground levels. Three of the technicians died when those monsters severed the main support cables and their elevator car dropped ten floors."

As they descended the stairs, Yuffie whispered to Tifa, "If any of those scientists Reeve sent to Nibelheim are like this moron, those poor Turks are really going to earn their pay."

The group finally emerged into a small lobby area. On one side, from the direction the torn metal curled, the monsters had plainly torn their way out of the elevator shafts. On the other side of the lobby was a massive security door that was mostly eaten away by some powerful acid. Through the gaping hole in the door, they could see a large, sterile-looking chamber filled with floor-to-ceiling transparent cylinders. Surprisingly, the destruction on this floor was strictly limited to the lobby area, with nothing beyond the security door being damaged or even scratched.

Aston gestured at the cylinder-filled room. "This is the high security specimen storage area. As you can see, the monsters came down the elevator shafts, destroyed the security door, opened one of the cylinders, removed the sample inside, and left the same way."

"How does the damn system work?" asked Cid as he entered the inner storage chamber.

"Each sample is locked in an individual security container, each with its own keypad." Aston pointed to a cylinder. "To open any container, you have to enter the proper authorization code."

"How hard is it to break one of these suckers open?" Cid rapped the empty container with his spear and got a dull thunk from the thick plastic.

"You'd run a serious risk of destroying the container's contents if you tried that," Aston replied.

Tifa looked around. "Okay, so who has the codes?"

"It depends on the sample, of course, and who has authority to access it."

"There's only one cylinder open and undamaged, which means that one of those monsters actually typed in a working access code for this specific container."

"Obviously," Aston replied, sounding annoyed.

"Do you know what sort of code was used and what kind of specimen was taken?" Tifa was clearly trying to be patient and accommodating, but it wasn't easy with a man like Aston.

"Do you have any idea how many specimens are stored in this facility?"

"Then why the hell don't you look it up and tell us, instead of standing there like a frickin' statue?" Cid demanded.

Aston glared at the pilot, then snarled, "Fine." With a sigh of disgust, the director turned and stomped over to a computer terminal in the back corner of the room. He typed in a command, then stood back, his arms folded and his face set in a belligerent scowl.

The data on the nearby wall screen read:

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
CONTAINER ID: D3-E1-5K9

AUTHORIZATION: Weapons Development Department

*** ACCESS LIMITED TO LEVEL GREEN AND ABOVE

SAMPLE DATE: Day J, Month K, Year 0005
SPECIES: Human
CLASSIFICATION: Probationary Employee, Weapons Development
SUBJECT NAME: Reilly, Nathan

LAST ACCESS: A-B-0009, LEVEL GREEN (shared)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~


As Cloud and the others continued to stare at the screen, Aston snapped, "Now are you satisfied?"

The only response he received was a darkly suspicious look from every single individual in the room, the silly-looking toy cat included.

"Okay, I'm calling 'behemoth shit' on this," was Yuffie's response.

Tifa folded her arms. "Count me in."

Cid looked at Cait Sith, then back at Aston. "I fucking well know that in Shinra, 'high security' applies to Level Red on up. Level Green? No damn way."

"What are you talking about?" the director blustered.

"No one goes through all this trouble to steal a cell sample from some Joe-slob probie out of Weapons Development!" retorted the pilot.

"You must take us for complete idiots!" Yuffie stalked forward and smacked the wall screen with the back of her hand. "That's not even the right container ID number!"

Tense silence settled over the room as Cloud's friends glared at Aston and the director stared defiantly back.

Without taking his eyes off Aston, Cloud said, "Cait, try the correct ID number for the open container."

The small robot cat bounced over to the computer and did exactly that. In return, he received a loud beep and a flashing red ACCESS DENIED message from the computer.

"No go. The information related to that particular specimen can't be accessed without...." Cait Sith fiddled with the computer. "....without a Level Black passcode from the Science Department or the facility director's permission."

Everyone turned their attention back to Dr. Aston and waited for his response.

The director remained defiant, but he was also showing signs of stress, probably because Cloud and his companions hadn't reacted as he'd expected.

Aston finally said, "The specimens in this facility are Shinra Corporation property. I can't hand out detailed information about valuable company assets to just anyone. And since you're WRO, you don't have proper authorization. You'll have to go through the proper company channels...."

"Enough with this bureaucratic red tape crap!" Cid exploded, losing his last scrap of patience. However, Cloud interrupted his outburst.

"If you're so worried about keeping Shinra company secrets, why did you contact the WRO in the first place? Why didn't you report the attack directly to Shinra?" Cloud's tone was cold and sharp.

"Because he doesn't want Shinra to investigate," Cait Sith said with a surprisingly toothy grin. "I'm guessing that Aston's been embezzling company funds. Or better yet, maybe he's been stealing company property and selling it off in order to line his own pockets. It's always been Shinra company SOP -- standard operating procedure -- for the investigators to do an independent inventory and audit whenever a security breach occurs. I don't think that's changed in the last two years."

"But since we're not from Shinra, Aston would be the one handling the inventory." Tifa smiled tightly.

"Exactly. It would give him a perfect chance to cover his tracks."

"That's... that's a ridiculous and insulting allegation! And coming from a talking toy, no less!" Aston bellowed.

They all ignored the director's blustering.

"I bet he took one look at us and thought that it'd be easy to send us off on some wild chocobo chase!" Yuffie uttered a contemptuous sniff.

Cid snapped, "Well, he's damn well wrong about that!"

The pilot took an angry step toward the director, obviously determined to pound the information they needed out of the man, if necessary. However, Cloud stopped him with an outstretched arm, then turned to Yuffie and said, "Grab his phone."

Yuffie gave the director a quick evil smirk. Before Aston could blink or even twitch a finger, she had neatly pilfered his cellphone -- and probably a few other items -- from his clothing. The ninja waved the phone tauntingly in front of the man's nose, then tossed it over her shoulder to Cloud.

Cloud caught the phone, flicked open it open, and dialed a number.

"What the hell do you think you're doing!?" Aston sputtered furiously.

Cloud merely gave the man a level stare, then said into the phone, "Yeah, it's me. There's a Shinra research facility called ASSRUB -- the Archival Specimen Storage Research Unit Building -- located near Fort Condor. Its director is a Dr. Aston. The facility was attacked today by a large group of unidentified monsters who broke in, stole a single biological specimen from high security storage, and then left. Information related to the stolen specimen can only be accessed by someone with Level Black clearance from the Science Department or by the facility director. Dr. Aston refuses to cooperate. He claims that as a loyal Shinra employee, he can't give us that information because we don't have the appropriate security clearance." Cloud listened intently for a moment. "That's right, high security biological specimens."

After another pause, Cloud thrust the phone back at the infuriated director.

"He wants to talk to you."

Aston grabbed his phone and snarled, "And what makes you think that I want to talk to him, whoever he is!?" He then turn his attention to his cellphone and shouted into it, "I don't know who the hell you think you are but... Mr. President, sir! I thought you were... of course, but... well, yes... I, er.... but... uh.... I wasn't...."

The director began to sweat visibly as he continued to sputter feebly into the phone.

"No, no! There's no need for that... just a misunderstanding... certainly... absolutely clear... um... yes... I understand, complete cooperation! At once, sir!"

Aston closed his phone, then wilted in obvious and total defeat. He then looked around, as if seeking sympathy, but all he got was cold hard looks from Cloud and the others.

"Ah... yes," Aston muttered, tugging on his sweat-stained shirt collar. "The information about the missing specimen." He walked heavily over to the computer.

A few seconds later, the requested information appeared on the wall monitor. As Cloud and the others gathered around to read it, everyone, Aston included, went very quiet.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
CONTAINER ID: B3-R5-3F3

AUTHORIZATION: Science Department, Director

*** ACCESS LIMITED TO LEVEL BLACK AND FACILITY DIRECTOR
*** LETHAL SECURITY MEASURES AUTHORIZED
*** ACCESS BY OTHER PERSONS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN
*** UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS WILL RESULT IN SEVERE PENALTIES INCLUDING TERMINATION

SAMPLE DATE: Day S, Month T, Year 0002
SPECIES: human, modified (JENOVA PROJECT S0)
CLASSIFICATION: SOLDIER (Special Class)
SUBJECT NAME: Sephiroth

LAST ACCESS: A-B-0009, LEVEL BLACK (Dr. Hojo)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(continued in ~Part 2 (of 2)~)

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Current Mood: devious devious

5 hisses or Hiss in my ear....
Comments
tricksterschild From: tricksterschild Date: May 18th, 2010 04:16 am (UTC) (Link)
:) can't wait for part 2
askaram27 From: askaram27 Date: May 19th, 2010 03:01 am (UTC) (Link)
Yay! Yay! Yay!

I really love all the new attention to detail you've put into COI, esp. Dr. Aston not being on the up and up. This is immensely exciting. I will read part 2 immediately!!!
From: (Anonymous) Date: July 28th, 2010 01:31 am (UTC) (Link)
What I don't understand is why the scientists didn't know that Specimen C wasn't alive and running around saving the world? Surely they would have recognized Cloud at some point in time, before he was seen by Dr Stevens after Cloud went unconscious.
(Deleted comment)
madamhydra From: madamhydra Date: July 28th, 2010 04:53 am (UTC) (Link)
What I don't understand is why the scientists didn't know that Specimen C wasn't alive and running around saving the world? Surely they would have recognized Cloud at some point in time, before he was seen by Dr Stevens after Cloud went unconscious.

Why would they recognize him? With the way Cloud and his friends were constantly moving around, it would be easy for the Project S2 scientists to completely miss him, especially if they weren't stationed in Midgar, or in the other major towns.

Most people, the scientists included, probably don't have a clue about the actual game events (i.e., Cloud and his friends tracking down Sephiroth, saving the world, etc.). All they probably knew was that a big glowing rock suddenly started to fall from the sky and that the Lifestream stopped it. Furthermore, for most of the game, Shinra Corporation was in control of the media and they had ample reasons to not publicize Cloud's activities or Sephiroth's return.

Also, I think it's very likely that after Meteorfall, Cloud decided to keep a very low profile and avoided as much publicity as possible. Given his withdrawn personality, Cloud would feel very uncomfortable with public attention -- after all, the man barely keeps in contact with the friends he traveled and risked his life with.

So it's quite feasible that Roissy and Montessi were unaware of Cloud's survival, especially when you consider that Hojo, the sneaky bastard, would have plenty of motivation (i.e., professional jealousy) to conceal that information from them. President Shinra was probably going to inform the scientists about Cloud's survival, but Sephiroth killed him off before that happened. Rufus didn't know anything about Project S2, so he had no reason to tell Roissy and Montessi about Cloud's activities.
kyuu_momo From: kyuu_momo Date: October 28th, 2010 05:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
huh. I think I broke a fangirling record... ;)
I'm usually hesitant to use the L word when describing things I like, but your writing always easily brings it out of me: I LOVE this! ^^

And huh.. Nyx? Is that Savois? or Someone else? (honestly, I hope it's someone else) hmm... questions questions... :)

I really liked Savois in COI because she wasn't as crazy and sadistic as her sisters (and actually seemed at least semi decent on the "good" scale)

So, I hope she either comes up at some point or turns out to be decent. If that makes any sense. o.o;

Anyway, excellent job! ^^
Have a cookie. Have several! You've definitely earned it! :D
5 hisses or Hiss in my ear....