Due to LJ's post size limits, this is the 2nd post (of 2) for COI Redux chapter 2.
~ Link to Part 1 (of 2) ~
"Stay where you belong, in my memories."
"I will... never be a memory."
Cloud knew that his friends were all looking at him, tensely waiting for his reaction. In the end, there was only one thing he could think of to say.
"Not exactly subtle, is he?"
Various jaws dropped.
With a shrug, Cloud turned to look at his friends. "Well, it's true. Hojo certainly isn't trying to hide his intentions. Otherwise, he would've ordered the monsters to steal multiple samples to hide his true target."
"You seem to be taking this awfully calmly," Yuffie commented in a mildly suspicious tone.
"I've been half-expecting something like this to happen. Only not quite so soon."
"You keep saying shit like that!" Cid said, sounding half-relieved that Cloud was handling their discovery so well, and half-annoyed for the very same reason.
"I will... never be a memory."
"Sorry, Cid. It has to do with something Sephiroth said to me just before he disappeared."
Tifa's eyes widened. "He threatened to return yet again?"
"I will... never be a memory."
"You could...." Cloud suddenly stopped, then cocked his head slightly. "Did you hear that?"
Startled, the others listened intently, then shook their own heads.
"What was it?" Yuffie looked curiously at Cloud.
"A series of muffled thumps and scraping noises." He paused. "There it goes again."
"I still don't...," Cid began, but Tifa, much more familiar with the sensitivity of Cloud's hearing, waved for silence.
"Can you tell where's it coming from?"
Cloud frowned. "I think the sound's coming from the elevator shafts. There's an odd metallic echo to it." He stiffened slightly. "Something's definitely moving around in there."
"You think some of the damn monsters are still lurking around?" Cid scowled, staring out into the small lobby area.
"Maybe. I'm going to check it out. Tifa, Yuffie, come with me," Cloud said, reaching for one of his shorter swords. He glanced at Cid and the pilot's spear, then added, "Space might be bit tight for you."
"You figure?" Cid said sardonically. "I'll stick around here with Cait. Someone needs to keep a close eye on this Aston character. Watch yourself in those shafts. As you said, space is gonna be really tight."
Cloud gave the pilot a nod and a quick flicker of a smile, then departed with the two women.
Several minutes later, Cid and Cait Sith heard the distinctive click of high heels headed in their direction. They looked around just in time to see a petite woman in a labcoat step cautiously through the severely damaged doorway. Both Cid's and Cait Sith's eyes widened in surprise. Aside from the labcoat, she looked more like a high-end fashion model than a scientist, starting from her perfectly styled mid-length brown hair, right down to the five inch stiletto heels that matched the color of her exquisitely tailored green dress suit.
"What are you doing here, Roissy?" Aston snapped, scowling ferociously at the woman.
"If you're the investigative team from the WRO, I need to talk to you."
"I can handle matters without your interference, doctor." He spoke the last word with a definite sneer. "Get back to your work station!"
Roissy continued to ignore the angry director. "I need to discuss the sample that was stolen today." She glanced at Cid. "Are you in charge?"
"Dr. Roissy...!" Aston thundered.
"Shut the fuck up," Cid snapped at the director. He then turned to the woman and said, "What the hell do you know about that sample? And how did you even know it was missing?"
She smiled grimly and said, "I don't have the security clearance to directly access the specimen's data, but a while ago, I managed to put a flag on it. That flag lets me know when someone opens that particular storage container."
"Do you mean to say that you had the unmitigated nerve to hack into Shinra company files!?" Aston shouted, his face turning bright red.
Roissy planted her perfectly manicured hands on her hips. "I don't think you're in any position to be self-righteous, director!"
Aston took a furious step toward Roissy, but was brought up short as Cid planted his hand on the older man's chest.
"Let her talk. I want to hear what she's got to say about that sample." When Aston sputtered, the pilot glared at the other man and added dangerously, "Shut up, or I'll shut you up. Got that? Now butt out of the conversation!"
The director took a deep breath, struggled visibly with himself, then subsided into a sullen silence.
Roissy smirked at Aston before turning her attention back to Cid and Cait Sith.
"I don't have a clue what the original specimen contained, but I can tell you that the specimen the monsters took is a complete fake."
"WHAT?!" Cid and Cait gave her an incredulous stare.
"It's a fake," Roissy repeated, then added, "Aston stole the original sample over three years ago and replaced it with a fake sample. So whoever stole the specimen today has junk."
"Probably porcine mammary tissue. That's what Aston used to make the other fake samples."
"Porcine... what?" Cait Sith looked adorably confused.
Cid puzzled over it for a moment, then started to howl with laughter. "You mean.... you mean that Hojo's got nothing but freaking PIG TITS?"
"Basically, yes." Roissy stopped, then it was her turn to look confused. "Hojo? The former director of the Science Department? But I thought he was dead!"
"Long story," the pilot and the robot cat said simultaneously.
"So where the fuck is the real specimen?" Cid demanded.
"Why don't you ask HIM?" Roissy then jerked her chin at the silent director.
"I see." Cait Sith walked over to Aston and stared up at the heavy-set man. "You'd certainly have both opportunity and motive."
Aston clenched his jaw, but continued to say nothing.
"How did you find out about the substitution, Dr. Roissy?" Cait Sith turned to look at the female scientist.
She shrugged. "Several years ago, while I was working in another lab, I ran into some problems with specimen handling...."
There was a sudden series of muffled thumps and crashes off in the distance.
When Roissy stopped in mid-story, Cid casually said, "Don't worry. Our buddies are doing a little pest control. Keep going."
"Ah... all right. At first I thought it was just careless lab mistakes or random computer glitches, but eventually I started to suspect there was more going on. When I got reassigned here...."
"Demoted for incompetence, you mean," Aston said nastily, then subsided back into silence when Cid glared at him.
"When I got reassigned to this facility two years ago, I started to do some investigating on my own. I won't go into the details right now, but I soon discovered that someone was systematically removing the genuine specimens and replacing them with fakes, probably so the real samples could be sold to the highest bidder. By process of elimination, Aston had to be the culprit."
"You lying bitch!"
Roissy reached into the pocket of her labcoat and pulled out a disk. "I've got all the proof right here."
Cait Sith took the disk, then looked up at Roissy. "Why didn't you report your suspicions to Shinra?"
"I uncovered Aston's activities two years ago, just before Meteorfall. After that... well, I just let the matter go."
"Except today, the monsters stole -- or tried to steal -- one of the specimens Aston substituted," Cait Sith said.
"Exactly. I thought that the WRO should know that the thief -- Hojo, you said? -- didn't get what he wanted."
"We appreciate the heads-up, Roissy." Cid turned back to the director. "So where is it, Aston?"
"Where's what?" he muttered.
"Do not fucking play games with us. What the hell did you do with the real sample of Sephiroth's cells?"
"Sephiroth? You mean that original sample was supposed to be from Sephiroth?" Roissy interrupted, her eyes wide.
Cid didn't take his eyes off Aston, but merely jerked his head over to the wall monitor. As she rushed off, the pilot repeated his question.
"Where's the fucking sample? The real one."
"I told you, I don't know what you're talking about! That little bitch is trying to frame me!"
"I certainly did not! Just ask some of the lab people here. They'll tell you what's been going on!" Roissy protested from the back of the room.
"Look, I don't know which one of you are telling the damn truth right now!" Cid shouted, drowning out the two scientists as they hurtled accusations and counter-accusations at each other. "The important thing is that Hojo raided this place and killed a bunch of people to get a frickin' sample of Sephiroth's cells!"
He glared at the two now-quiet scientists. "If Hojo now has the real thing, everyone on this Planet has a big fucking problem."
The pilot jabbed a finger at Aston. "On the other hand, if the specimen Hojo stole is a fake, YOU'RE the one with the big fucking problem, Mr. Facility Director."
Aston sputtered an incoherent protest, but fear was clearly starting to replace his earlier bravado.
"Try to pull your damn head out of your damn butt, okay? If Hojo finds out that he's been stuck with a fake -- and believe me, he WILL find out -- he's going to be coming after you. Because as far as he knows, YOU're the only other person who had access to the goddamn sample!"
"Someone else must've stolen my codes, or hacked the security system!" the director practically wailed. "It wasn't me! I don't know anything about it!"
"Aston, 'some other dude did it' isn't going to cut it with Hojo, and you know it!" Cait Sith planted his paws on his hips. "He's going to ask you where the real sample of Sephiroth's cells are and he will happily torture you until he gets an answer that satisfies him!"
"All... all right. All right!" the ashen-faced man mumbled, rubbing his face in his hands. "I did switch the Sephiroth sample for a fake one three years ago. Someone was willing to pay me a great deal for it. As long as there's the right number of specimens in the right number of slots for the occasional inventory, who would know the difference?"
"Who did you give the sample to?" Cait Sith demanded impatiently.
Aston licked his lips. "Steven. A Dr. Lawrence Steven." He hunched his shoulders wearily. "Look, that's all I know. If you want more information, go ask him."
Cait Sith glanced over at Roissy, and saw a surprising amount of anger in her dark brown eyes.
"Something wrong, doctor?"
She started, then said quickly, "I'm just completely disgusted by Dr. Aston's and Dr. Steven's behavior. That's all."
"Look, the WRO will protect me from Hojo, right? Like you said, he's going to come looking for me. I need protection!" the director demanded anxiously.
"Yeah, yeah. Guess we're going to have to stick you in protective custody or whatever," the pilot said.
"We should evacuate everyone else from this facility, just in case Hojo or his monsters come back. I'll make the arrangements to have them flown to Junon. I don't think Hojo will go after them." Cait Sith gave Cid a meaningful look. "So the regular staff should be pretty safe. In the meantime, we need to track down this Dr. Steven."
Cid's phone suddenly rang.
Cloud's answer echoed oddly over the phone. "There's a small critter headed your way, Cid, through the vents. Be careful. It's got acid blood and it sprays."
Quickly stashing his phone, Cid scanned the area and located the four air vents into the specimen storage room, then snapped, "Back it up, guys, away from those vents! Look, don't ask goddamn questions. Just move and shut up!"
Aston and Roissy scrambled to the back corner of the room, along with Cait Sith, while Cid listened carefully. Soon, a faint scraping sound caught his attention. He took a few silent steps over to one of the vents, and waited.
Despite his preparation, Cid almost missed the creature as it lunged through the vent grating and scurried into the room.
The beast was scaly, the size of a small dog, and looked like a four-legged mouth packed with jagged black teeth and which dribbled nasty yellowish slime. It moved fast, chomping viciously at Cid's ankles. He dodged, then smacked the creature hard against the wall with the blunt end of his spear. The impact didn't seem to faze the monster. It flattened, rebounded like a rubber ball, then quickly scrambled back on its feet and charged Cid again. After a few more rounds, he finally managed to pin it to the floor with the back end of his spear.
"Now what?" the pilot muttered as the vicious little beast squealed and squirmed. He could spear the damn thing with the spear's blade end, but he had a nasty feeling that the thing would pop in his face like an acid-filled balloon.
"Cid, knock it out here!" Tifa called out from the lobby area near the elevators. "Yuffie?"
"Whenever Cid's ready! Give me a three count!"
"Gotcha, on three! One. Two. Three!"
Cid lifted his spear and before the monster could attack or scurry away, he whacked it through the damaged security doorway like a ball. The creature squealed as a bright whoosh of flame engulfed and incinerated it.
"Any more of those things?" the pilot said, walking out to join Tifa and Yuffie in the elevator lobby.
"No. There were only four of them, and that's the last one," Cloud said as he dropped out of an open elevator shaft.
"Great. I've got some good news. We might've caught a big break with this whole Sephiroth sample thing."
"What do you mean?" Tifa asked as she pulled off her gloves.
"The one Hojo managed to steal is a fake. Aston apparently swapped out the original sample several years ago and sold it off," Cid said with a grin. "So that sample that Hojo has? Pig tits."
Yuffie blurted, "Are you serious!?"
The pilot grinned. "Yeah. Anyway, after explaining what's liable to happen once Hojo finds out about the switch, Aston spilled his guts and gave up his buyer. Reeve's tracking the guy down."
"What about Aston?" Cloud asked as he slid his short sword into the harness on his back.
"Protective custody," Cait Sith explained as he joined them in the lobby. "We're also going to evacuate this place. There's a good chance Hojo will come looking for Aston."
"So you're thinking about using this facility and possibly Aston as bait." Cloud looked thoughtful. "If we can stop Hojo quickly enough.... So who did Aston give the sample to?"
"A Dr. Lawrence Steven. He works at the WRO infirmary, but he's now disappeared."
Cloud's head snapped around to stare at the cat.
Tifa exclaimed, "But we saw him less than two hours ago! He's the doctor who examined Cloud when we brought him in!" She rolled her eyes. "Well, he was supposed to examine Cloud, but he ran off in mid-exam!"
Cait Sith blinked, then went silent for a moment. "Hell's fire. It's not in his WRO personnel files, but it turns out that Steven started working as a regular medical doctor just over two years ago. Before that...." Cait Sith slowly looked up at Cloud.
"Yeah?" Cid prompted.
"Before that, he was a researcher assigned to Nibelheim."
Tifa smacked her fist into her palm. "Well, that explains why he ran away!" She turned to Cloud. "He must've recognized you and panicked, for whatever reasons."
"But when we walked by his office, I didn't recognize him. At all," Cloud said, giving Tifa a puzzled look.
"Maybe you didn't recognize him, but he apparently recognized you!"
"And that caused him to dump everything and run?"
"Well, there's an old saying that the guilty often flee, even when no one pursues," Cait Sith said with a shrug. "Regardless of his reasons, we need to find him because he's the only one who knows what happened to that sample of Sephiroth's cells."
From the concealment of the specimen storage room, Roissy stared at the young man with the blond spiky hair.
He was alive. Specimen C, her prized Project S2 prototype, was ALIVE.
The elation she felt completely eclipsed her pleasure at Aston's ruin and her fury at Steven's backstabbing schemes.
The official reports had stated that both specimens were destroyed during a recapture attempt by the Shinra Army. The loss of Specimen Z, the SOLDIER, First Class, was a major blow to the project, but Specimen C, the actual prototype, had been irreplaceable. The simultaneous loss of both men had spelled the end of Project S2.
Roissy continued to watch as the prototype interacted smoothly with the other members of the WRO team. He was calm, coherent, and decisive. Excellent.
When she heard Specimen C -- Cloud Strife -- mention that he had no memory of Steven, she wasn't at all surprised, given the nature of the project's experiments and his response to those experiments.
Would Cloud recognize her? How would he react if he did? If Cloud didn't remember anything about Steven, someone he had regular contact with, then chances were very good that he wouldn't remember her. But there was no reason to be overconfident, either. It was far better to avoid the possibility of an awkward incident if she could.
Unfortunately, the choice could be taken out of her hands at any moment. Trapped in the storage area with Aston, she had nowhere to go. If Cloud entered the room or she was called out to meet him, there was no way to avoid a confrontation.
But as the conversation in the lobby continued, it seemed that Roissy's recent streak of good luck was holding out.
Cloud said, "Do you need us down here, Cid?"
"Nah. Why don't you guys head on up and start the evacuation?"
"All right." Cloud turned for the stairs, then abruptly stopped.
"Cloud?" Tifa said, looking concerned.
"I thought I smelled something...," he murmured, then shook his head. "Never mind."
The vaguely familiar odor continued to linger in Cloud's nose and nagged at his mind as the evacuation of the ASSRUB facility continued far into the night.
The very faint scent was floral, but not natural, with a hint of animal musk that made the smell subtle, sexy, and complex.
It was expensive perfume, but not as it came straight from the bottle.
This was the scent of a perfume on a living woman.
And although he could not express why, Cloud found it oddly repellent.
It was approaching midnight in Edge when someone knocked on the door to Reeve's office. With a sigh, he put down his mug of coffee.
The man who entered was of average height, with pleasant features and short brown hair, athletically built without being heavily muscled. But as he approached Reeve's desk, Reeve saw something that instantly pushed the man out of the realm of the ordinary and into the very unusual.
"You're a SOLDIER."
The man gave Reeve a wry smile. "Yeah. You can change the clothes, but the eyes are a pretty good giveaway." As he and Reeve shook hands, he added, "The name's Kunsel. I'm the guy who got assigned to run up to Icicle Inn and gather up some records."
"Ah, yes. That was quick work. Do you have them?"
Kunsel unslung his backpack and placed it on Reeve's desk.
"There wasn't much. The place has been deserted for decades. All I found were some old videotapes, audio tapes, along with a few papers."
Reeve sighed. "Well, the tapes were probably the most important things. Good work." He glanced up at Kunsel. "Did you have any trouble?"
"Nothing I couldn't handle," the SOLDIER said with a casual shrug.
Reeve chuckled as he sat down, then waved the other man to a chair.
"I was in the middle of a coffee break. Would you like some?"
"Sure. No, I'll help myself," Kunsel said as Reeve moved to rise. "You look like you've had a long hard day, Mr. Tuesti."
"Call me Reeve, please." He eyed Kunsel over the edge of his mug. "How long have you been working with the WRO, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Pretty much from the beginning, right after Meteorfall."
"So you weren't interested in working for the Shinra Corporation anymore and you didn't become a mercenary like other SOLDIERs."
"I thought about the mercenary bit, but it felt kind of pointless. I wasn't interested in mere survival, you know? As for working for Shinra...." Kunsel's normally pleasant expression tightened. "Well, let's just say that I got really disenchanted with Shinra and the way they did business."
"Oh, I understand completely."
"Yeah, as the former director of Urban Development, I guess you would."
Few minutes of comfortable silence passed as they drank their coffee, then Kunsel quietly said, "There's not many of us SOLDIERs around these days and everyone who's left has basically gone their own way." He shook his head, then added in a wistful tone, "After both Angeal and Zack disappeared, SOLDIER was never the same."
"That's odd. I'd always pictured Sephiroth's loss as having the biggest impact on SOLDIER."
Kunsel snorted. "Sephiroth might've been the famous hero that everyone talked about, but Angeal and Zack... well, they were the heart of SOLDIER. After they were gone, SOLDIER was pretty much the same as any other group of professional mercenaries."
The second name piqued Reeve's interest. "A SOLDIER named Zack, you said?"
"Zack Fair. He was one of my best friends. Angeal Hewley was his mentor." Kunsel cocked his head slightly. "Did you know Zack?"
"I might have seen him in passing once or twice around the Shinra Building, but no, I don't think I ever met this Zack personally."
"Oh, you'd remember Zack if you'd bumped into him. I swear, the guy had the uncanniest knack for making friends in the strangest places."
Reeve took another sip of coffee. "The reason I asked was because a good friend of mine was very close to a SOLDIER, First Class, called Zack."
"There's only ever been one Zack in SOLDIER."
"I see." Reeve looked down at his coffee, then put the mug down on his desk. "You mentioned that Zack disappeared. As one of his best friends, I think you should know that Zack died two years ago."
"No question about it?" Kunsel asked sharply.
Kunsel remained silent for a long moment, then said quietly, "I figured as much. After I learned that Shinra was...." He rubbed his hand over his mouth and sighed heavily.
Reeve watched the other man, wondering how much more he could or should say. Finally, he said, "How much do you know about the Nibelheim Incident?"
"I've heard the official reports. Sephiroth was listed as KIA, killed in action, while Zack and several infantrymen were declared missing in action," Kunsel replied cautiously.
"We both know how accurate Shinra official reports can be," Reeve said with a cynical smile. "The truth is complicated, to say the least, but it can be summarized like this -- Sephiroth went insane in Nibelheim and destroyed the town; Zack and one of the infantrymen tried to stop Sephiroth from stealing an alien specimen called Jenova; between the two of them, they succeeded in killing Sephiroth; for their efforts, Shinra handed them over to Hojo."
For the first time since making Kunsel's acquaintance, the man displayed the abilities that marked him as a SOLDIER. In a blur, Kunsel was out of his chair and leaning over Reeve's desk, his hands planted firmly on the tabletop.
"I knew it. I fucking KNEW it! Zack and that infantryman were the two research samples that escaped Nibelheim three years ago, weren't they!?" Kunsel turned and paced in front of the desk. "On the run for nearly a year and he doesn't try to get in touch with me even once?"
Reeve started to speak, but Kunsel waved him into silence.
"No, I already know why. The stubborn idiot didn't want to get me or anyone else he cared about into trouble," the SOLDIER said in a voice that held equal amounts of affection and exasperation. "And knowing Zack, he probably died doing something unspeakably heroic!"
Despite Kunsel's seemingly cavalier attitude, Reeve could sense the deep underlying grief. No matter how much a person tried to prepare himself, it still hurt when one's worst fears became harsh reality.
"From the little that Cloud told me... yes, he did. The more I hear about Zack, the more I wish I could've met the man," Reeve said.
"Yeah. Zack was... really something."
Still at work in her office despite the late hour, Nyx answered her phone.
"Guess who I just saw!"
As Nyx calmly scrolled through the detailed computer report on Cloud Strife, she said into the phone, "I don't have a clue. So please, enlighten me."
"Specimen C, the Project S2 prototype!"
"Wasn't he reported as being killed, along with Zack, two years ago?"
"Yes, but it looks that someone lied about that."
"Shocking. I wonder who and why."
"Probably Hojo," Roissy said bitterly. "From the moment he found out about Project S2, he was looking for an excuse to get it shut down, probably because he was afraid that it would compete with his precious Jenova Reunion research."
"That sounds typical Hojo," Nyx murmured.
"Never mind that. I had a brief opportunity to observe Specimen C and he appeared to be both combat-capable and mentally coherent. Do you understand what that means? I'll need to do additional observations, of course, but it looks like the imprinting and the data transfer process worked!"
"Is that what you intend to do? Merely observe him?"
"At least for the moment." Roissy's tone abruptly shifted from enthusiasm to anger. "Do you have any idea what Steven is up to?"
"Dr. Steven? Why do you ask?"
"Because I've been trying to call that bastard for the last few hours and I'm not even getting his voicemail!"
"Sorry, but I have no idea where he might be or what he might be doing at this moment."
"Well, if he calls you, tell me."
"Of course. Where are you?"
"I'm in Junon. The WRO evacuated our facility after an attack. They think Hojo's responsible and that he might come back."
"So Hojo's not dead?"
"Well, the WRO thinks he's still alive. But I'm not worried about him. Specimen C and his role as a successful Project S2 prototype is my only concern at the moment. There's one last thing you can do for me. Try to find out where Specimen C has been and what he's been doing ever since his escape from Nibelheim. I need the data to determine the effectiveness of the Phase 2 procedures."
"I'll see what I can do, Roissy."
Nyx closed her phone, then paged through the report on Cloud Strife already on her computer screen, pausing at an email from the previous President of Shinra, dated shortly after the Nibelheim Incident.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
From: President Shinra
To: Dr. Nyx
All phases of Project S2 authorized. Roissy is project head, but I rely on you to keep an eye on things.
Regarding Cloud Strife, no, I don't have any problems with that. I'm interested in results, not a bastard child from a neurotic ex-mistress. He's the best candidate for prototype, so use him. Nibelheim Incident survivors are currently in Hojo's custody, but he'll probably lose interest in them soon enough. I'll have Hojo transfer most of his research to Midgar. He should be out of your hair shortly and Project S2 can proceed unimpeded.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The next series of emails were dated several weeks before Meteorfall.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
From: President Shinra
To: Dr. Nyx
The final reports I received about the recapture fuckup stated that BOTH specimens from Project S2 were killed. Then why the hell did I just see Specimen C today, running loose with some members of AVALANCHE in the Sector 5 Reactor? I tested him with the Airbuster, and he displayed enhanced combat abilities, so it's no mistake on my part. Get in touch with Roissy and make arrangements to restart Project S2 ASAP. I'll deal with Hojo.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
From: President Shinra
To: Dr. Nyx
Enough time has been wasted. Rufus will be brought in from Junon as soon as Project S2 is up and running again.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
From: President Shinra
To: Dr. Nyx
Specimen C currently in custody in Shinra Building. For whatever reasons, he hasn't made an attempt to break free, even though the Project S2 specs say that he could manage it easily. You did mention possible lag time before the prototype displays peak performance. Regardless, send team to retrieve, restrain, and subdue him ASAP. I don't want a working S2 prototype running around loose in my building.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Cloud's file contained no further communications from President Shinra, but the report was thorough, meticulously tracking Cloud's activities from his arrival in Midgar, the events related to Meteorfall, up to and including the battle with Sephiroth's Remnants two weeks ago.
After a brief stopover in Rocket Town for supplies and additional equipment, the Turks and the WRO team arrived in Nibelheim several hours after midnight. The scientists were given a few hours of sleep before being rousted out of bed at the crack of dawn.
The Mansion was dirty, dusty, and deserted except for the rare wandering monster. Reeve had informed the Turks that Cloud and his friends cleared out the vast majority of the monsters infesting the building two years ago. Luckily, few creatures had returned, so the Turks and the two squads of WRO troops that accompanied them had no problems handling the remaining monsters lurking within the old building.
At noon, all the scientists were herded into the Mansion's entrance hall for a lunch break under the watchful eye of the WRO troopers, which gave the Turks a brief opportunity to relax. Elena peered over the balcony, did a head count, then said, "So what do you think, Reno? We haven't had any trouble with them."
"Yet," the redhead said sourly. "There's plenty of time for them to start acting up, so don't let your guard down. Where's Rude?"
"He's down in the basement keeping on eye on the people working in the library. He isn't too happy, either. I don't blame him. That basement is seriously creepy. He tells me there are roomfuls of coffins down there."
"Man, I hate being back in this shithole of a town!"
Looking startled, Elena said, "You've been here before?"
"Oh yeah. Left a seriously bad taste in my mouth," Reno said, his lips twisting into a bitter smile.
Having worked with Reno for two years, Elena understood that his last words were Reno-speak for something that bothered him on a deep personal level. But Reno being Reno, the man would never admit to such a thing.
Without prompting, Reno continued, "The Turks were here for that epic clusterfuck with Sephiroth seven years ago. You wouldn't know her, but Chaise was on-scene for all of it. Rude and I arrived for the cleanup." He gave her a cynical little grin. "Can't let the public know that your famous war hero went batshit psycho and obliterated an entire town. Bad for the company image, you know." He stared up at the dusty chandelier hanging over the main hall.
"I still don't know why, but it was the first and only time I'd ever walked away from an assignment. I could've handled getting rid of the survivors. At least, they would've died quick and clean." Reno mimed a quick pistol shot to the back of the head.
"So what happened to them?" Elena said, barely hiding her shock and surprise.
"Hojo got 'em."
"....oh. I see."
"Yeah. One of the survivors was a SOLDIER Tseng had worked with before. That's probably why Tseng tried so hard to...." Reno shook his head suddenly. "Aw, fuck that. Never mind. Let's just say that I HATE this damn place."
Elena perched herself on the balcony railing and worked on her sandwich as she groped for a less awkward topic for discussion. Finally, she said, "So, who are your picks for potential troublemakers?"
Reno snorted, just to let her know that he could see right through her, before answering her question.
"There are three or four that smell a bit hinky. They're the ones spending too much time fondling Hojo's files. But as for real trouble, just one. What about you?"
She toss him a piece of fruit and gave him a sharp grin. "Pretty much the same. So who's your candidate?"
Reno sprawled back lazily on the stairs and said, "That Steven guy. He keeps trying to sneak off by himself."
"Yeah, I noticed. So what's he up to?"
"Don't know. If he's worked here before, he might be trying to retrieve something he left behind. He sure as hell didn't get on that helicopter and come out all this way just to go sightseeing."
Lawrence Steven had a very good reason for getting on that helicopter at WRO Headquarters -- he wanted to get as far away from Specimen C as he possibly could. At the time, the chance for immediate travel to the Western Continent had seemed like a miraculous stroke of good luck. Once at Rocket Town, he could slip away from the group and find a good hiding place, maybe even visit the Gold Saucer on the way.
What he hadn't expected was the mission being run by Turks -- and what the HELL were Turks doing working for the WRO, anyway? -- and being constantly watched by both Turks and WRO goons.
Even worse, none of the scientists had been allowed off the helicopters at Rocket Town. Now he was back in this armpit of a mountain town called Nibelheim and stuck there good and proper, at least for the immediate future. From his earlier experience in Nibelheim, he knew that getting out of the town wouldn't be easy. The roads were absolutely wretched, infested with monsters, and it was way too easy to get lost without a guide. That made Nibelheim perfect for a secret research lab, but damn inconvenient for him.
And he still didn't have a phone. The local general store did carry a few for sale, but the Turks had warned everyone that no unauthorized communications would be permitted and had gone so far as to confiscate everyone's cellphones. He wouldn't put it past the Turks to do periodic strip and cavity searches to enforce their rules, either.
It hadn't taken long to clear the upper levels of the Mansion. By mid afternoon, everyone had moved down into the basement where all the 'good' stuff was.
Under the Turks' watchful eyes, the scientists were packing boxes of files and disassembling various pieces of lab equipment. Briefly leaving their group of scientists under the watchful eye of a WRO trooper, Elena and Rude decided to take another look around the basement area.
They walked into a chamber with a large motorized winch mounted on the high ceiling. One of the scientists followed them into the room and poked around a bit. Finally he said, "Nothing much in here. Only ordinary mechanical equipment. Nothing worth saving."
"Hey Rude! What do you think that was for?" Elena pointed upward at the winch.
He shrugged. "Hoisting something?"
"Very funny. But what's it doing in here?"
In an apparent effort to impress Elena, the scientist jabbed at a grimy control panel and said, "I think this is the switch that operates it...."
Elena whirled around and snapped, "Don't touch that!"
Unfortunately, her warning came too late. The scientist hit the button and the well concealed trapdoor under Elena's and Rude's feet suddenly sprang open, dumping them into a dark and seemingly bottomless pit.
Hearing the yells, Reno dashed into the room with his nightstick charged and ready for action. At first, all he saw was a terrified scientist and a gaping hole in the floor.
"What the....? Rude!? Elena!?"
There was a faint splash from the depths of the hole, followed by an infuriated female shriek.
"Get us out of here!" she demanded.
"What the hell are you doing down there!?" Reno said, moving to the edge of the pit and peering cautiously downward.
"Don't ask stupid questions, Reno! When I get my hands on that moron up there, I'm going to rip his balls off with my bare hands!" she yelled furiously.
In the dim light from the opening above, Elena and Rude found themselves thrashing around in a debris-choked pit filled chest-high with a nauseating mixture of stagnant water, slime-covered bones, and other unspeakably disgusting types of junk. The stench was overpowering.
"I think we've located Hojo's garbage disposal," muttered Rude.
"God, I think I'm going to be sick. Reno!"
Overhead, the two Turks heard a loud series of clanks, followed by some ominous grinding sounds.
"Shit! The winch isn't working. I've got to find a rope and some guys to help get you out of there. Be back in a couple of minutes," Reno yelled down to them.
He hadn't taken but a few steps toward the door when a loud screech from the pit brought Reno running back.
"What's wrong now!?"
As she frantically scrambled onto Rude's shoulders, Elena screamed, "Something slimy brushed my leg!"
"How can you tell in all this muck?" muttered Rude.
"Elena, you're a Turk, so show some goddamn backbone! Sheesh!"
"Renoooo!" she wailed piteously up at him.
"I'm hurrying! I'm hurrying!"
Before he left the room, Reno gave the quivering scientist his most psychotically pleasant smile.
"You dropped my teammates into a pit. That makes me unhappy. Sit. Stay."
The scientist nodded frantically and planted himself firmly on a stool.
Back in the pit, Rude said, "Elena, do you MIND?"
She reluctantly slid off his shoulders back into the filthy water. After several minutes, she muttered, "What's taking him so long?"
Suddenly, there was a loud scream from above. Elena started to shout up a question but Rude quickly clamped his hand over her mouth. They both froze as more screams erupted, followed by low, bestial howls and a flurry of distant gunfire.
After her initial jerk of surprise, Elena froze, realizing as long as they were trapped in the pit, she and Rude were easy prey for whatever was rampaging around above. Flattening themselves against the sides to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible, Rude and Elena frantically searched for a way out as the sounds of the fighting got steadily closer.
The pit suddenly darkened as something briefly blocked the opening, then the body -- or more precisely, half of the body -- of the unlucky scientist Reno had threatened fell on top of them, followed by a shower of warm blood and entrails.
Elena gritted her teeth and remained silent. The desperate screams and gunfire soon faded in frequency, allowing her to pick out the distinctive crackle of Reno's electrified nightstick. The two Turks exchanged grim looks and redoubled their efforts to find a way out of the pit.
The algae and mold made climbing the walls nearly impossible, but the two of them were not about to let a minor detail like that stop them. Reno was up there, outnumbered, probably alone by now, and fighting things that sounded very, very nasty.
As they continued their agonizingly slow climb, the sound of Reno's nightstick abruptly stopped. Unfortunately, the sounds of the attacking monsters did not. Elena and Rude looked at each other, then continued climbing.
Their upward progress came to an abrupt halt about ten feet below the pit's rim. At that point, the rough blocks lining the pit changed to slick, finished stonework that slanted inward at a steep angle as the pit narrowed at the top, making the last few feet impossible to climb. However, after working their way around the edge of the pit, they managed to locate a small side tunnel -- actually, more of a sewer pipe than tunnel.
Elena had no trouble climbing into the pipe, but it was a painfully tight squeeze for Rude and his broad shoulders. Leading the way, Elena grimly ignored the disgusting goo oozing between her fingers and started to crawl forward as quickly as possible.
Dr. Lawrence Steven was having the worst time of his life. He had barely escaped getting killed by a rogue prototype, he was stuck in middle of the Nibel mountains with no way out, and now a bunch of damn monsters had popped out of nowhere and attacked, slaughtering everyone in their path.
As he sat on an overturned coffin somewhere in the Mansion's basement, he desperately wondered what the hell to do next. Without a phone, he had no way to call for help. Should he stay put and wait for the monsters to leave, or should he make a run for it?
He was still debating his options when the door to the room slammed open. Screaming in terror, he tried to scramble into one of the coffins, but the monsters grabbed him by the legs. Certain he was a dead man, Steven closed his eyes and waited for the monsters to tear him limb from limb.
"Wait. Bring him here."
The distant voice was heavily distorted, but there was something definitely familiar with the high-pitched yet nasal voice.
After being dragged some distance, he was dumped on the ground and released. Steven cautiously opened one eye, then the other.
"So, Dr. Steven. We meet again."
He couldn't see the speaker, who stood in the shadows of the lab room, but he finally identified the voice.
"Hojo! I heard you were dead!"
The former head of Shinra's Science Research Department cackled softly in amusement. "And so I was. So I was."
"W-what are you doing here in Nibelheim?" Steven blurted, nervously eying the slowly swaying shadowy figure.
"Oh, I came back to retrieve some... information. And... equipment."
Hojo's swaying movements were almost hypnotic. Steven blinked, then said, "What for?"
In a perfectly matter-of-fact manner, Hojo said, "Resurrecting Sephiroth, of course."
With those words, Hojo fully emerged into the light. Steven uttered a startled gasp and stared in horror at the bizarre figure standing before him. Hojo still had a bipedal form but his skin was entirely green and scaly. His eyes were huge, bulging, and faceted like an insect's while his body and legs seemed oddly boneless. Tentacles sprouted from his torso with the two largest serving as Hojo's arms.
"Quite an evolution of shape, eh?"
Hojo giggled, sending his tentacles rippling. "A sudden massive ingestion of Mako-infused Jenova cells. My own private cocktail." He waved a tentacle at a pile of disassembled equipment. "Unfortunately, it appears that my enemies have become too well acquainted with this location. Never mind. I already know of a suitable replacement, complete with its own little Mako reactor."
"You... you're trying to bring Sephiroth back to life!?"
Hojo uttered a hiss of annoyance. "Not back to life, for his essence was never truly dead. It merely slumbers in the Lifestream, awaiting a new physical body. A body that I will provide, yessss...."
"But I thought that all your attempts at cloning Sephiroth failed... gawk!" Steven's words ended in a gurgle as Hojo lunged forward, wrapped a tentacle around his throat, and squeezed.
"Because Sephiroth cannot be duplicated! He is unique! That was the essential flaw in my earlier attempts. But reconstructing his body is a different matter. Using the original body as a template...." Hojo's voice trailed off into distracted mutterings as he dumped Steven back on the ground.
"But... but you'd need a sample of Sephiroth's original tissue as a starting point," the terrified man wheezed.
Hojo jerked his attention back to Steven.
"But I already have that. Most of the samples were lost when Meteor destroyed my labs in the Shinra Building. But one single sample survived at the Archival Specimen Storage depository. I retrieved it just today." Hojo held up a slender fluorescent green and yellow cylinder approximately four inches long and an inch in diameter. He fondled the container with his tentacles, his inhuman features contorted in an obscene mockery of parental pride.
Hojo suddenly glared at Steven, who was trying very hard to keep his expression blank. Unfortunately, he failed miserably.
"You seem... skeptical, Steven. You don't think I can accomplish Sephiroth's resurrection?"
"No no! Of course not! I'm not doubting you!" Steven babbled.
"You always were a pathetic liar." Hojo swayed his head back and forth a few times, then added, "So... should I let you live so you can witness my success with your own eyes? Or should I kill you here and now for having the insolence to question my genius?"
Steven scrambled back a few feet, then said, "Wait! WAIT! I know things! Important things that can help you! We... we can make a deal!"
"Oh ho. So you want to... negotiate, do you?"
"Yes! Let me live and I'll tell you everything I know!"
Hojo's tentacles writhed slowly as he pondered Steven's proposal. Finally, he said, "Very well."
Steven started to relax, then froze as Hojo suddenly bared his needle-like teeth at his prisoner.
"Yes, let us negotiate," Hojo cackled, as multiple blade-tipped tentacles rose in front of Steven's panic-stricken face. "Negotiate, as to the manner of your death."
A tentacle slashed downward and blood spurted.
Reno was dimly aware of someone screaming and wondered why the fuck they wouldn't shut up....
The fake specimen container lay smashed and broken, its contents splattered against the grimy wall and floor of the lab.
Hojo ignored the quivering lump of raw flesh that used to be a human being and turned his attention to Reno. After fastidiously flicking the remains of Steven's blood and entrails from his tentacles, Hojo reached into the still unconscious Turk's pocket and pulled out Reno's phone.
Scrolling through the contact list, Hojo cackled softly as several names caught his attention.
"Interesting, very interesting." Looking down at Reno, he chuckled malevolently. "You might be of use to me yet."
The mad scientist's gaze turned in the general direction of the sleepy little town situated below the Mansion, knowing that its stupid residents were still oblivious to the bloody events which had just taken place inside. Hojo smiled slowly, exposing row upon row of small, razor sharp, triangular teeth.
Their blissful ignorance would not last long.
So much involving Sephiroth had started here. The destruction of the town seven years ago had heralded his son's first awakening. It was fitting, then, that this town should again serve as a harbinger of Sephiroth's renewed presence.
After completing the evacuation of the ASSRUB facility, Cloud and the others had separated to get some rest and deal with their own errands, while the WRO continued its attempts to locate the elusive Dr. Steven. It was late in the afternoon on the following day when they regrouped at Reeve's office.
Reeve, a phone tucked in the crook of his neck, distractedly waved Cloud and Tifa into his office where Cid and Yuffie were already waiting.
"So, did you take care of Marlene and Denzel?" Yuffie whispered.
Cloud nodded as Tifa whispered back, "Dropped them off in Kalm so they can stay with Elmyra. We don't want to leave them alone in the bar if things get hectic."
"By the way, this morning, I flew over to the Chocobo Farm and picked up some of our Golds. We might need them," Cid muttered as they all watched an increasingly frustrated Reeve make repeated calls to no avail.
Eventually he gave up, putting down his phone with unnecessary force.
"Reeve, did you finally find out where Steven went?" Tifa asked.
"Yes, we know where he went." Reeve sighed. "It took us a while, but we finally managed to track down the last person to speak with him before he disappeared. It seems that Steven managed to talk his way onboard one of the helicopters headed to Nibelheim."
"But that's a good thing, right?" Yuffie dropped into an armchair. "All we have to do is contact the Turks and tell them to grab Steven so he doesn't run off again."
"Unfortunately, it's not going to be that easy. I've been trying to get in touch with the Turks for the last hour and I haven't gotten any response, either by phone or radio."
"The signal reception near Nibelheim can be notoriously unreliable at times." Tifa walked over to Reeve. "It's something about the mountains. And then there's the weather."
"I know that, Tifa. But I still don't like this sudden silence, especially its timing. Up until this afternoon, the Turks and the WRO squads with them were making their regular check-ins just fine. But now that we need to contact them, we can't? Call me paranoid, but I've got a bad feeling about this."
"Contact someone in Rocket Town and ask them to check things out," Cloud suggested.
"Already done. I'm waiting for their report." Reeve got up and started to pace.
"In the meantime, we might as well head on over there." Cid stood up, looked around. "Even if nothing's wrong, we've got to go over there to pick up Steven."
When Reeve's desk phone rang, he grabbed at it and listened intently.
"Yes? Have you managed to make contact?" Reeve's expression suddenly froze. "I see. Are you sure? No, I understand. Thank you."
As Reeve slowly hung up the phone, he looked at Cloud. "You overheard, didn't you? What he said about Nibelheim."
Cloud made a single sharp nod, his expression impassive.
Cid growled, "Well, my hearing isn't nearly as good as Cloud's, so will someone PLEASE tell me what the hell's going on!?"
Tifa simply stared at Cloud as he made the stark announcement, no emotion in his voice.
"What!?" Yuffie blurted.
"Nibelheim is burning. Again."
(end of Part 2)
Credits: If the Mansion trash pit scene seems familiar, it should be. It was unabashedly inspired by the famous trash compactor scene in Star Wars: The New Hope. ::snicker::
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