~ link to Part 1 (of 2) ~
Cloud, Tifa, and Yuffie quickly worked their way through the northern section of the Mansion's basement. Cloud's eyes lingered briefly on the pair of large tubes standing side-by-side in one of the labs, then quickly shifted his attention before Tifa or Yuffie noticed his distraction.
They ended up in the library. Like the rest of the basement, there were no bodies, but the musty air was heavy with the smell of recently spilled blood. As Tifa gingerly picked up a blood-soaked labcoat, something small and rectangular fell out of a pocket, bounced off her boot, and landed on the floor with a clatter.
She stared at it blankly before realizing what it was -- a small digital audio recorder, the type commonly used for dictation. Tifa picked it up and said, "Guys! Look what I've found!"
As Cloud and Yuffie looked on, she carefully turned the recorder over in her hands. The outside was caked in dried blood, but otherwise, the machine appeared undamaged. She glanced at Cloud. "Do you think....?"
"Let's give it a shot."
Tifa hit the play button and cranked up the volume.
The first ten minutes of the audio recording turned out to be nothing more than an equipment inventory. Just as they were losing hope of hearing anything interesting, there was the sound of stamping feet accompanied by someone swearing vigorously.
"That sounds like Reno!" exclaimed Tifa.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
RENO: "What a fucking idiot! Hey! Is there a goddamn rope in this place?"
1ST MALE VOICE: "I'm not sure. Maybe they have some in the trucks, Mr. Reno."
RENO: "Like hell I'm climbing all those stairs. And I told you, it's just Reno. None of that mister crap. You there!"
2ND MALE VOICE: "Sir?"
RENO: "Run upstairs and see if anybody's got a few hundred feet of rope. If not, go into the town and get some. Considering where we are, someone's bound to have some mountain climbing gear. Get moving!"
2ND MALE VOICE: "Right away, sir!"
1ST MALE VOICE: "What happened?"
RENO: "One of those idiot scientists managed to dump my buddies down a trash chute!"
(distant female scream)
RENO: "What the fuck's going....? SHIT!!!"
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The next few minutes of the recording were filled with the sounds of shrieking monsters, gunfire, panicked screams, the crackle of an electrified nightstick, punctuated by the occasional obscenity from Reno. The sounds of combat eventually faded away, to be replaced by rustling and shuffling noises, mixed with strange squeaks, chirps, and grunts.
They all recognized the next voice they heard. It was high-pitched, nasal, and despite the odd distortion, quite unmistakable.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
HOJO: "And what do we have here? A Turk, I see. Ah, I recognize that red hair. Carefully, carefully! Don't damage him! I want him alive and intact."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There was a brief pause, then Cloud and the others heard the sounds of a struggle accompanied by someone sobbing and whimpering in terror.
As Cloud listened intently, Tifa muttered, "That certainly doesn't sound like Reno!"
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
HOJO: "Wait. Bring him here." (pause) "So, Dr. Steven. We meet again."
STEVEN: "Hojo! I heard you were dead!"
HOJO: (cackle) "And so I was. So I was."
STEVEN: "W-what are you doing here in Nibelheim?"
HOJO: "Oh, I came back to retrieve some... information. And... equipment."
STEVEN: "What for?"
HOJO: "Resurrecting Sephiroth, of course."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Cloud, Tifa, and Yuffie continued to listen to the conversation between Hojo and the increasingly desperate Steven.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
STEVEN: "Wait! WAIT! I know things! Important things that can help you! We... we can make a deal!"
HOJO: "Oh ho. So you want to... negotiate, do you?"
STEVEN: "Yes! Let me live and I'll tell you everything I know!"
HOJO: (long pause) "Very well." (pause) "Yes, let us negotiate." (cackle) "Negotiate, as to the manner of your death."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
They all flinched as the screams started, but soon the sobbing wails and howls of agony faded in volume, as if the recorder was moving away from the source. But although distant, Steven's screams remained clearly audible.
Cloud took the recorder from Tifa, and skipped forward before pressing play again. This time, the distant screams were interspersed with segments of apparent silence.
"Can you pick up anything?" Tifa asked.
He shook his head. "The microphone on this recorder isn't sensitive enough." Cloud repeated the 'skip forward and play' several times until the screaming stopped completely.
"So we don't know if Steven told Hojo where the real Sephiroth sample is," Yuffie said, trying to sound hopeful.
"Oh, I'm sure he told Hojo." Tifa shook her head. "From what I've seen and heard of the man, Steven doesn't have the courage or the willpower to resist Hojo's type of questioning. In fact, I'm willing to bet that Steven told Hojo everything he knew within the first few minutes."
"But if Steven was willing to talk so easily, why torture him like that?"
In a stark voice, Cloud said, "Because Hojo wanted to be sure that Steven was telling him the truth. He's been tricked once before and he doesn't want it happening again. But I think the main reason the torture went on so long is because Hojo simply enjoyed it."
Tifa sighed and brushed her hair away from her face. "Well, this confirms our worst fears."
"At least we know Reno survived the initial attack and was captured alive," Yuffie said.
Cloud gave the teenager a somber look. "That's not necessarily a good thing, especially with Hojo involved."
Yuffie suddenly got a sick look on her face. "You think Hojo's going to... DO... something to Reno?"
Cloud's grim silence was answer enough.
Montessi's mercenary team had arrived in the middle of the night and taken up a position outside of the Healen Lodge complex. Several hours later, the observer on watch received a visitor.
"See anything interesting?"
The observer glanced at the leader of the team, a former First Class SOLDIER named Kurt. "Nope. All's quiet down there," the observer replied.
"Where's the target?"
"According to our informant, Rufus should be in the main building. There are only three Turks on-site."
"How's the map the informant gave us? Everything match up?"
"Yeah, as far as I can tell. So when do we move in?"
"Cool your jets, Luxiere. We'll hit them after the sun sets. Our night vision will give us the edge, especially in the underground access tunnels."
"Not that we really need it. Six SOLDIERs against three Turks? That's overkill. Hell, we could do this job with half the people, no sweat."
"Maybe, but our client wants Rufus Shinra, alive and unharmed. So it's best that we hit hard and fast. That'll reduce the chance of an unfortunate accident damaging the merchandise."
Luxiere leaned back against a tree and said, "It feels kinda weird going after a Shinra, you know?"
"What's weird about it?" Kurt replied. "We're mercenaries. We get well paid to do other people's dirty work. It's basically the exact same thing we used to do for the Shinra Corporation. Only this time, we get to pick the jobs."
"I suppose you've got a point."
Some time past noon, Roissy opened her door of her temporary apartment in Junon and stared with obvious displeasure at her visitor.
"What are you doing here? Well, at least you ditched the embarrassing labcoat."
Montessi shoved her way past her stylishly dressed sister, then turned to confront Roissy. "I want to know what you intend to do with Specimen C."
"So you know about that," Roissy said, closing the door.
"Yes, I do!"
"God, don't start yelling. I've already got a slight headache."
"Answer me! What are you planning to do with Specimen C!?" Montessi demanded.
Roissy rolled her eyes. "Isn't it obvious? I intend to restart Project S2, of course. I know some people who would be very interested in my work."
"Your work... YOUR work!?"
"All right, all right. Our work. Now are you happy? It'll take some time to make the arrangements, but don't worry about that. You just stick to the research and let me handle the rest as usual."
"Do the grunt work, you mean, while you take all the credit!"
"I really wish you would stop twisting everything I say," Roissy said with a sigh. "But let's face it, there are certain things that I can do much better than you. Isn't it time you developed a little maturity and learned to accept that?"
"....not this time," Montessi muttered.
"What?" Roissy asked absently as she poured a glass of red wine for herself.
In a louder voice, Montessi said, "I'm not going to let you use me. Not this time."
"What are you babbling about?"
"Project S2 was MINE, until you stole it from me!"
"Don't go on about that again." Roissy took a sip of wine. "Look, it's not MY fault that President Shinra chose me to take charge of the project. He did it because he felt that you lacked the necessary imagination and vision to run Project S2. Besides, your people-handling skills are appalling. I, on the other hand...." Roissy made a languid gesture.
"This time, I'm going to be the one in charge!"
"Whatever. Look, I'm not in the mood to argue with you anymore. We'll talk about this later."
"No, we're going to settle this now." Montessi pulled out a gun and pointed it at Roissy.
"Is this a joke? Put that thing away before you hurt somebody!"
In an eerily calm voice, Montessi said, "I have my own plans for Project S2, and I'm not going to allow you to interfere."
"What do you mean, your own plans?"
"I'm going to create a second Phase 1 prototype so I can proceed with Phase 3."
"You heard me."
"Don't be ridiculous! You can't just skip directly from Phase 1 to Phase 3! We NEED the enhanced mental stability of a successful Phase 2 prototype before we can proceed with Phase 3! That's why we need to fully evaluate the current state of Specimen C before....!"
"Shut up! You're such a coward, always trying to hold me back and play it safe! Well, I'm not going to let you stand in my way anymore."
Roissy stepped backward, her right hand fumbling for the doorknob behind her as she finally realized that Montessi was deadly serious.
"Wait, just wait! We can work together on this! You can't handle all of this yourself. You need my help!"
Montessi smiled viciously and cocked the gun. "I need NOTHING from you."
Roissy tossed the nearly full wineglass in her sister's face, flung open the door, and ran for her life.
"Security. Where the fuck is security when you need them!?" she gasped as she ran down the deserted hallway. But despite her best efforts to elude Montessi, Roissy soon found herself trapped on a high narrow maintenance platform with nowhere to go.
Without the slightest hesitation, Montessi fired three times and smiled as her sister fell into the water far below.
As Elena reported to Rufus, Cid and his team rapidly checked the newly discovered rooms at the southern end of the Mansion's basement. Once they were certain that there were no enemies waiting to ambush them, they went back to do a more thorough search.
"Anything?" Cid called out.
"It looks like a lot of equipment is missing, but there are no signs of fighting or violence. It makes sense with this place being sealed off," Chaise reported. "How about you?"
"The same. Cait?"
The robot cat peered out of an isolated doorway at the far end of a corridor. "Ummm... guys. You might want to look at this."
"What now?" Cid grumbled as he trudged over, joined by Chaise and Elena.
The door led to a short flight of stairs going down into a dimly lit circular chamber. A large metal-bound clear cylinder -- easily capable of holding a man-sized subject and surrounded by massive equipment consoles and display screens -- dominated the center of the room. Upon closer examination, they could see deep long scratches all over the inside of the cylinder. More old-fashioned computer consoles lined the perimeter of the chamber, while a nearby desk was covered in a chaotic mess of papers, folders, and notebooks.
"Looks pretty much like the other rooms in this area, although the equipment looks a lot older."
Cait Sith stood on the cluttered desk, holding a thick notebook. "That's what I thought at first, until I took a peek into a few of these journals. See for yourself."
Cid took the notebook, and flipped it open to the first page. At first the name didn't mean anything to him, but then it finally clicked.
"Lucrecia Crescent? Sephiroth's mother? This was her notebook? And this is her lab!?"
"Keep reading," Cait Sith said urgently.
Cid started to flip pages and immediately understood why Cait Sith was so concerned. The name 'Vincent' appeared repeatedly throughout the notebook. At first, the handwriting was neat and precise. But as Cid continued to turn pages, the handwriting grew wilder and the words more disjointed, hinting at the writer's ever-increasing desperation. The scrawled words "I'm so sorry" began showing up with increasing frequency.
"What the hell? It looks like she was experimenting like crazy on Vincent!" Cid took a deep breath. "And going more than a little bit nuts herself."
"Who's this Vincent?" Chaise asked curiously.
"Are you talking about Vincent Valentine," Elena said. "He's one of your friends, right?"
"Yeah. He had his own run-in with that nutcase Hojo." Cid continued to flip through the notebook.
"And this Lucrecia, you said something about her being Sephiroth's mother?" Elena glanced back and forth between the pilot and the cat.
Cait Sith said, "That's right. The whole story is pretty complicated, so I'll explain it to you later."
They all turned to see Cloud walking quickly into the room, followed by Tifa and Yuffie.
Cloud held out a blood-covered voice recorder. "You need to listen to this."
"And I've got something for you. Take a look," Cid replied, handing over the notebook in exchange for the recorder.
As Cid, Cait Sith, and the Turks listened to the recording, Cloud, with Yuffie and Tifa peering over his shoulder, quickly skimmed through the notebook.
"Well, now we know that it's definitely Hojo who's responsible for all the shit that happened at ASSRUB and Nibelheim," Cid said after the recording ended.
"And he's captured Reno." Elena's expression was bleak.
Chaise looked equally grim. "Hojo didn't care about what happened to anyone else, but he specifically kept Reno alive and unharmed."
Both women turned to look at Cloud. His reply was brutally frank.
"Hojo may have various reasons for letting Reno live. But in the end, Hojo has only one use for live prisoners."
Something poked Reno hard in the side.
"Go away," he mumbled. For some reason, he really did not want to wake up.
He got poked again. Harder. He curled up and tried to ignore it.
Something grabbed him by the throat and hauled him into the air.
That definitely woke him up.
Opening his bleary eyes, he saw... Hojo? Except this Hojo had green scaly skin, all sorts of nasty tentacles, and shit ugly bug eyes. The memories of the basement attack returned like a punch in the gut.
"Oh fuck...," he managed to choke out.
"Hello, Reno." Hojo leaned uncomfortably close to the Turk and smiled, exposing a mouthful of sharp, needle-like teeth.
Reno had always prided himself on keeping his cool no matter the situation, but this time he was in seriously deep shit.
This was probably going to be bad -- really, REALLY bad.
"So as it currently stands, Rude and Elena are safe, but Reno and everyone else in Nibelheim, including the WRO team, are still missing and presumably in Hojo's hands," Tseng said flatly as he looked out the window of Rufus's office and scanned the forest surrounding Healen Lodge.
He felt tense and edgy. With recent events, there were plenty of reasons for those feelings, but this particular sensation was familiar.
Someone was watching them.
Just as Tseng was about to order Serge and Jade to do a precautionary sweep of the area, Rufus's cellphone suddenly rang.
Rufus glanced at the caller ID, and went very still.
"What's wrong?" Tseng asked.
"It's from Reno. Or at least, his phone." Rufus opened his own phone and calmly answered, "Reno?"
"Hey, boss. Hojo's back." Reno's voice was hoarse, with a distinct hint of unsteadiness.
"I see. How are you doing?"
"Not so hot.... ARGH!!!"
Reno's agonized scream was loud enough to be clearly heard by Tseng, who was standing several feet away. But before he could say or do anything, Rufus flung up his free hand, commanding him to stillness.
Aside from the visible tightening of his grip on the cellphone, Rufus displayed no other emotional reaction as he rose to his feet and stoically waited out the screaming. When Reno finally went quiet, the next voice he heard was both unpleasantly familiar and not unexpected.
"I'd like to invite you for a visit."
"A visit. And if I choose to decline?"
"But I must insist. In fact, I've already arranged your transportation."
At that moment, the entire building shook as a mob of large winged beasts landed on its roof and began to tear their way inside.
"Fuck, fuck, FUCK! Luxiere, get your ass in gear! We're moving in!"
"What? I thought we were supposed to wait for sunset, Kurt!"
"A whole crapload of monsters just dropped out of the sky and it looks like they're going after Rufus!"
"I don't know if they want him alive or dead, and I don't give a shit. He's OUR damn target, so we've got to get to him before they do! C'mon!"
(end of Part 3)
The Full Disclaimer:
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All original portions of this work is considered to be the sole property and copyrighted to the author Madamhydra. No part of this work is to be reproduced, altered, or adapted in any way without the author's express permission.