MadamHydra (madamhydra) wrote,

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COI Redux - part 4 teasers

Due to Real Life(tm) stomping me into the ground with hobnail boots -- ::stress-induced eyebrow twitching:: -- I haven't gotten nearly as far as I hoped on Chapter 4. But for those who are interested, here are two teasers -- one before Rufus' abduction and one after. Hopefully things will settle down after July 4th and allow me to get back to the important stuff... like working on fic, damn it! :P

Oh, and the part of brain chips is not a complete asspull on my part -- I lifted that from Dirge of Cerberus (i.e., from the plot of multiplayer portion of DoC that never made it to the US). ^_^;;

Typical warnings apply -- very rough, yadda-yadda. Enjoy.

::crawls off to deal with all sorts of Real Life crap::

start of teaser 1 - pre-abduction

As the scruffy blond mercenary halted the the truck outside the dilapidated farmhouse, he glanced over at his employer and said, "Maybe Harris should check it out first."

"Fine. Just be quick about it," Montessi snapped. She impatiently glanced at her watch as a second mercenary -- this one a stocky brown-haired ex-SOLDIER -- hopped out of the back of the truck. The two mercenaries exchanged glances, with the driver giving the SOLDIER an affirmative nod.

The SOLDIER quickly covered the distance between the truck and the battered front door, took a brief peek through a window, then stepped inside. A minute or so later, he exited, raised a single finger, then gave the thumbs-up sign.

"Looks okay, ma'am. She's alone." the driver said.

Montessi made an impatient sound as she exited the truck. With her characteristic quick, jerky stride, she stalked over to the house. As she passed the waiting SOLDIER, she snapped, "Wait by the truck. I'll let you know when you're needed."

Harris eyed the scrawny, mean-tempered woman who was his current employer, then shrugged. "You're the boss."

"Exactly so. Remember that and follow your instructions."

As he walked back to the truck, Harris sighed, then muttered, "It's not like we're likely forget, considering the way she constantly rubs it in our faces every time she opens her mouth."

"She pays REALLY well," the driver said soothingly.

"Yeah, I keep telling myself that."


When Montessi entered the house's main parlor, she stopped short when she saw a tall blond-haired woman with wire-framed glasses standing next to a battered wooden table. Even as she opened her mouth to demand the stranger's identity, the other woman removed the glasses and pulled the blond wig from her head, revealing Nyx's dark curly hair neatly bound up in a compact braid.

"Oh, it's you," Montessi said sourly. "Why the disguise?"

"I find a little caution and discretion goes a long way," Nyx replied.

"Well, do as you please, but don't expect ME to waste energy on trivial matters like that."

"Trivial?" Nyx raised an eyebrow. "Before Meteorfall, Shinra's researchers could act with relative impunity. But times have changed. You're no longer operating under the protection of President Shinra and his all-powerful corporation. On the contrary, by abducting Rufus, the Shinra corporation, or at least the Turks, will become your enemy. Under the circumstances, I recommend trying to maintain a low profile and covering your tracks whenever possible, especially if you want to avoid trouble with the WRO and the Turks."

"I'm not afraid of THEM," Montessi said scornfully.

"It has nothing to do with fear, and more with being able to conduct one's research free of interference."

Montessi waved her hand dismissively. "All right, all right. I get your point. Let's get down to business."

"I have the drugs you require, along with detailed instructions as to selection and dosage regimes," Nyx replied, pointing at a small green crate sitting on the floor next to the table. "As you are well aware, SOLDIERs have an impressive ability to adapt to drugs and toxins -- if a chemical compound does not kill them outright, they will rapidly develop a tolerance to it and become resistant to its effects. In the S2 prototypes, this ability to adapt is even more highly developed. The only effective way to overcome this is to constantly change the types and dosages of the drugs used in order to prevent them from building up a resistance."

"I already know all this!"

Nyx leaned forward and said with unusual sharpness, "Then you better make sure that your new research staff understand this as well. Constant vigilance is essential when handling SOLDIERs and even more so with the S2 prototypes. If you want to keep Rufus under control, your staff can NOT afford to become complacent. The last thing you want is to have another lab escape like the one from Nibelheim three years ago."

"Don't remind me of that fiasco!" Montessi snarled furiously. "Thanks to that idiot Steven being too lazy to keep up with the required drug protocol, Zack woke up and escaped with Specimen C!"

Infuriated by the memory, Montessi slammed her fist against the wall, then said grimly, "Well, that's NOT going to happen again. I WILL not tolerate such sloppiness among my staff, even if I have to personally shoot every single transgressor to get my point across!"

Satisfied that her point was made, Nyx then reached down and picked a black briefcase and placed it on the battered table.

"Is that...?" Montessi breathed.

"Yes. This is the neural restraint chip. It is substantially identical to the one already in Cloud, and similar to the ones used in several other Shinra research projects, although with some modifications specific for the S2 prototypes." Nyx unlocked the briefcase, opened it, then removed a small flat plastic holder that was no bigger than a credit or ID card.

Montessi took the holder, admiring the small gleaming electronic chip it contained, then said, "How did you manage to get your hands on one?"

"My contacts managed to locate a few in the ruins of the Shinra Building. Those chips were probably the last production run before Meteorfall."

"And the placement is still in the brainstem area?"

"Correct." Nyx again reached into the briefcase and held up a bulky palm-sized device that resembled a truncated flashlight. "This is the transmitter, keyed to that particular chip. The usual caveats apply, of course. The maximum effective range of the transmitter is five yards. Because of the power output required, extended use can result in the transmitter burning out. Various neurological issues can affect performance, so constant testing and recalibration is required for optimum performance, especially for the S2 prototypes." Nyx paused, then added, "I will remind you that these restraint chips are best used as a last, not first, resort."

Although Nyx's voice was perfectly neutral, Montessi hunched her shoulders defensively and snapped, "Specimen C deserved it every time!"

Nyx merely looked at her, then continued, "Then I should tell you that although that this transmitter is capable of activating the neural chip in Cloud, I very strongly recommend that you resist the urge to use it against him."

"What's the problem?"

"Because it's been three years since anyone last calibrated or activated that neural chip. There's no telling what condition it might be in. The chip could be seriously damaged or even rendered inert, either through external circumstances or by Cloud's enhanced immune system. Even assuming that it does work, there could be unpredictable side effects. If you find that you absolutely MUST use it against Cloud, I suggest that you do so, and then leave the vicinity immediately."

"What for? Once I activate the chip, Specimen C should be incapacitated and quite helpless," Montessi said with a vindictive little smirk.

Nyx allowed a hint of impatience into her voice. "Only if the chip works as designed. Which, as I have just pointed out to you, there's no guarantee that it will. Instead of making Cloud helpless, you might just make him very, very angry."

Montessi continued to admire the neural chip in her hand, turning it so it would catch the light. "You know, I've always wondered, given the existence of this brain chip technology, why President Shinra never authorized its widespread use with SOLDIER or the civilian population. It would make controlling them so much easier."

"It's just not feasible," Nyx replied with a slight shrug. "Part of the problem is cost and supply -- neural chips are very expensive and almost impossible to produce in large quantities. But more importantly, both the implantation procedure and activation of the chip are extremely stressful on a subject. A high percentage of unmodified humans probably wouldn't survive the initial surgery to implant the chip, and even if they did, activating the chip just once would almost certainly destroy their nervous system. While ordinary first generation SOLDIERs have relatively no trouble with the implantation, even they would run a significant risk of permanent neurological damage whenever the chip is activated."

"So that's why Roissy never bothered to put one of these into Zack."

"That's right. Chemical sedation was considered the safer option," Nyx replied as she returned the transmitter back into its cushioned slot. "Fortunately, that sort of permanent damage isn't an issue with the S2 prototypes."

"How soon can I get this into Rufus?"

"You'll definitely want to wait until after the initial rounds of Mako infusions take effect and the augmented healing abilities begin to kick in. Otherwise, he'll probably die from the procedure," Nyx advised.

"Do you think Hojo put one of these inside Sephiroth? I'm sure HE would be able to physically handle it," Montessi idly mused as she continued to gaze at the neural chip, surrounded by a delicate web of incredibly fine glittering filaments.

Nyx shrugged. "Who knows? Not that it matters now. Even if Hojo had implanted a neural restraint chip in Sephiroth, it wouldn't have stopped his rampage in Nibelheim, considering that the only two people likely to have a control unit for that chip -- the President and Hojo -- were in Midgar at the time."

"And why don't those damn transmitters have a longer range?" Montessi sent an annoyed glare in Nyx's direction. "Five yards is way too close for comfort when dealing with a hostile SOLDIER, much less a Project S2 prototype! There has to be SOME way to boost the signal!"

"There's a very fine line between controlling a valuable subject and completely frying his nervous system. A lot of compromises have to be made," Nyx calmly replied, retrieving the chip holder from Montessi and returning it to the briefcase. "I'm afraid that you'll just have to accept that this technology has severe limitations."

Montessi uttered an irritable snort, then took the briefcase from Nyx. "Anything else you want to tell me before I go?"

"I might have a source of viable sample of Jenova cells for you." Nyx picked up her blond wig and slipped it back on, followed by the wire-framed glasses. "I'm hoping for more concrete information in the next few days."

"Good. Keep me updated," Montessi said as she headed for the door.

Once outside, Montessi headed for the waiting truck, and spoke curtly to the waiting mercenaries.

"I'm done here. Harris, there's a green crate inside the house. Load it in the truck -- carefully! -- so we can leave. I need to finish my preparations for my new experimental subject."

end of teaser 1

teaser 2 - post-abduction

When Rufus next became aware of his surroundings, he almost wished he had remained blissfully unconscious.

He found himself encased from neck to toes in a snug full-body straitjacket with his arms firmly strapped across the front of his body and his legs tightly bound together. Numerous straps and buckles ensured that he was utterly immobilized in a kneeling position, and also secured the gag that had been forced between his teeth. He was also completely naked underneath the straitjacket.

Not a good sign.

The hum of computers and equipment surrounded him, while from the corner of his eye, Rufus caught a glimpse of various people in labcoats scurrying busily around the low raised platform where he knelt, secured in place with still more straps. His captors were clearly taking no chances and he wondered why they had gone so overboard with the restraints.

"Doctor, he's awake."

"Good. Ungag him, then get out," a curt female voice commanded.

Someone moved behind him, fumbled a moment, then pulled the gag away.

As he worked his aching jaw from side to side, the footsteps of the other people receded until he was alone with the woman speaker.

"Rufus Shinra, I'm Dr. Damia Montessi."

He lifted his head to see a thin woman with very short brown hair and cold dark eyes. She might have been reasonably attractive if it weren't for the hostile, defensive attitude that surrounded her almost like a visible aura. The doctor stared back at him, her hands crammed into the pockets of her labcoat.

"From what I heard just before I passed out, I gather you're not working with Hojo."

She uttered a contemptuous snort. "Hojo! As if I'd work for that overrated fool!" Montessi cocked her head slightly. "So he's still alive? Interesting. I'd heard he died two years ago during Meteorfall."

"It's complicated, but yes, he's apparently back."

The fact that Montessi was not associated with Hojo was going to be a big problem. The Turks were probably working on the reasonable, but mistaken, assumption that Hojo was responsible for his abduction, which in turn meant that any prospective rescuers were most likely looking in the wrong places for him.

"Well, it doesn't matter if Hojo is alive or not." She stepped forward, grabbed the sturdy collar of his straitjacket, and twisted. It tightened like a choke-chain around his throat as she pulled his face up, then leaned in until their faces were mere inches from each other.

"Understand this -- I'm the only person in control here. I make all the decisions as to your treatment and your fate. Is that absolutely clear, Rufus?"

"Yes," he rasped as the pressure against his windpipe increased.

She gave him a thin-lipped smile as she released her grip on his collar and stepped back. "Excellent. If you keep that in mind, things will be much easier for you."

As he caught his breath, Rufus knew he had to be very careful. Dealing with the mercurial Kadaj had been tricky enough, but this Montessi promised to be far worse. She might be the head scientist in charge, but she was also dangerously insecure, the sort of person who would treat the slightest criticism as a personal attack and would lash out accordingly. If he openly defied her or otherwise antagonized her, she would definitely make him suffer dearly for the perceived insult.

Keeping his tone as neutral as he could under the circumstances, Rufus said, "I gather that from my current condition, you didn't abduct me to have a friendly conversation or engage in polite negotiation."

"Indeed, you are not here because your wealth, connections, or influence. Your only value to me is as the next test subject for Project S2."

"Project S2?" Fortunately, Montessi seemed like the talkative sort of mad scientist who enjoyed boasting about her achievements. If he could keep her talking, he could learn more about her plans as well as hopefully buy himself some more time. Besides, trapped inside a straitjacket as he was, he wasn't in any position to escape.

"Project S2 is the logical extension of the Jenova Project."

The mention of Jenova sent a chill down Rufus's spine and confirmed his worst fears about the nature of the experiments Montessi was planning to carry out on him. But he forced the dread down and locked it away. Fear and panic would be counterproductive.

"The initial purpose of the Jenova Project was to create human hybrids with an Ancient's power, based on Dr. Gast's mistaken belief that Jenova was an Ancient, one of the legendary Cetra." She shrugged. "In retrospect, it was an understandable mistake, since it was later discovered that the entity generally identified as Jenova is actually an Ancient merged with the alien life form which was the true Jenova."

"But that didn't stop the research."

"Of course not! That revelation merely resulted in a minor shift in the goals of the Jenova Project and all its subprojects. Instead of trying to create human-Cetra hybrids, the research was redirected into developing ways of infuse humans with Jenova's power, which ended up being equally, if not more, useful to Shinra. For military applications, at least."

Montessi propped her hip on a computer console. But even as she sat, her fingers restlessly drummed on the computer and her right foot swung in twitchy little arcs.

"Hollander developed Project G, which ultimately ended in failure when the G-type subjects experienced uncontrollable degradation. Hojo led the much more successful Project S which produced Sephiroth. The project was so successful that it lead to Hojo becoming Head of the Science Department."

Montessi irritably twitched a shoulder. "That first project should be more properly called Project S-Zero, because it produced what I consider the zero-generation SOLDIER Sephiroth, who was an outstanding success on almost every level. Except one."

She smiled at Rufus, apparently relishing the opportunity to lecture an appreciative, although involuntary, audience.

"You see, Project S-Zero had one major flaw -- Sephiroth and his abilities could not be duplicated. And believe me, Hojo tried. Sephiroth's birth mother inconveniently disappeared without a trace shortly after he was born. Whether she ran away or was prematurely terminated by Hojo is unknown, but that meant that the most obvious means of creating another Sephiroth was no longer available. Artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, cloning -- you name the technology, Hojo tried it and failed miserably. How infuriating that must have been for him!" she said with a malicious snicker.

"I can imagine," Rufus commented blandly.

"Since Project S-Zero had reached a dead end, Project S1 was created to find a more feasible way of mass producing enhanced combatants for Shinra, using the information gathered from Hojo's earlier work with Sephiroth. Project S1 resulted in the first generation SOLDIERs -- perhaps not nearly as strong as Sephiroth, but still far superior to normal human soldiers. But more importantly, the SOLDIER process could reliably produce a significant number of enhanced fighters. There were limitations, of course. Suitable candidates with the right combination of physical traits and mental stability were relatively rare. And even with the best candidates, the physiological modifications could only be pushed so far."

Rufus already knew quite a bit about the Jenova Project, along with the creation of Sephiroth and SOLDIER, from the Shinra company files, but he gave no hint of it in order to encourage Montessi to ramble on.

"Which brings us to Project S2," she said.

Rufus's mind flashed back to his conversation a few months earlier with Dr. Kilmister, the scientist who had first discovered the link between Sephiroth and Geostigma.

"Mr. President. I would like to have a look at Jenova. Where is it?"

"Unfortunately, I don't know of its whereabouts, either."

"Order your subordinates to find it."

"Let me think about it."

"I hope you make a decision soon. Long ago, Professor Hojo rejected a project I proposed. Even now I'm itching to give it a try. I think we might be able to create something beyond Sephiroth."


He had arranged for Kilmister to conveniently turn up dead the very next day, but the scientist's words had stuck a chord in Rufus, solidifying his determination to find and secure the last fragments of Jenova. Not for Rufus's or Shinra's benefit, but in order to prevent anyone else -- especially mad scientists or Sephiroth's Remnants -- from getting their hands on those fragments.

"You're trying to create someone stronger than Sephiroth," Rufus said flatly.

Montessi rose to her feet and walked forward to stand in front of Rufus, appearing mildly impressed by his deduction. "Exactly. The purpose of Project S2 is to create a second generation SOLDIER -- a super-SOLDIER capable of matching, or even surpassing, the mighty Sephiroth in both physical abilities and power."

She resumed her restless pacing as she continued, "President Shinra, your father, had always been interested in developing better weapons, both mechanical and biological. But after the Nibelheim Incident, Hojo showed no interest in improving SOLDIER. Instead, he become obsessed with his precious Jenova Reunion Theory and his Sephiroth Clones, as he liked to call them. Sloppy terminology, if you ask me," she said with a contemptuous sniff. "Because of Hojo's lack of interest, your father turned to other researchers like myself to pursue the goal of creating this new and improved second generation super-SOLDIER."

"While certainly interesting, this still doesn't explain why you specifically need me," Rufus replied with deceptive calm. "Because if you're planning to put me through some version of the process used to create SOLDIERs, I would like to offer two pieces of information about myself that might change your mind."

Montessi raised a thin eyebrow. "And they would be...?"

"First, Shinra routinely evaluates everyone for Mako sensitivity. If you have a complete copy of my Shinra medical records -- and I assume that you do -- you will see that I consistently scored extremely poorly on that test. One of the doctors even called me outright allergic to Mako. Second, as of two weeks ago, I was suffering from Stage 4 Geostigma, which would imply that I have a rather poor tolerance of Jenova cells."

He shrugged the best he could, considering that he could barely move in the tight straitjacket encasing his body.

"Given that the process of creating a SOLDIER requires both large infusions of Mako and the use of Jenova cells, I would consider myself an extremely poor candidate for such a procedure."

"An excellent try, Rufus, but it won't work." Montessi smiled thinly, then raised a finger. "In response to your first point, Mako sensitivity and Mako tolerance are not the same thing. A person can be acutely sensitive to Mako while simultaneously having an extremely high tolerance for it. Shinra only tests for Mako sensitivity because it's a quick, easy, and relatively safe procedure. On the other hand, the only accurate way to measure Mako tolerance is pump the subject full of Mako and see what happens, which makes the test time-consuming, expensive, and frequently fatal. Besides, for the purposes of my experiments, your Mako sensitivity is actually a very promising sign."

Montessi lifted a second finger. "As for your second point, having Geostigma is not an accurate indicator of a person's tolerance for Jenova cells. The 'wild' Jenova cells which cause Geostigma are quite different from the Jenova cells we scientists use in human experimentation. The latter are usually subjected to special treatments which ensure that the human body accepts the Jenova cells instead of rejecting them."

Rufus made a slight nod of his head, acknowledging the validity of her counter-arguments, then said, "But that still leaves the open question about my tolerance for Mako, doesn't it?"

"You're quite wrong there." She picked up a folder from a nearby table and waved it in his direction. "Based on your genetic profile, our computer models predict that you should be able to endure extremely large doses of Mako without exhibiting undesirable side effects. And before you ask, the accuracy of those computer models were completely confirmed by the experimental data from the first prototype for Project S2."

"And what happened to that first prototype?"

Montessi's dark eyes gleamed. "Are you afraid, Rufus?"

"Reasonably concerned, I would think."

"Don't worry," she replied with a dismissive hand wave. "The first prototype, Specimen C, is still alive and functioning extremely well."

"Specimen C?"

Montessi smirked. "You might know him better as Cloud Strife."

Rufus took a slow, measured breath, then said, "Cloud, a prototype super-SOLDIER. That would explain... a great deal."

"Specimen C was the first working prototype of Project S2 and the initial results were highly promising. Unfortunately, he escaped just as we were preparing to run more detailed tests. Four long years of hard work, lost because of that idiot Steven's incompetence!"

Montessi started pacing again, her labcoat flapping in response to her angry gestures. "Steven managed to ruin everything! The commotion caused by the escape and recovery attempts attracted Hojo's attention, and you can imagine his reaction when he found out what was happening right under his nose!"

"You mean that Hojo was unaware of your research? How did you managed to hide the Project from him for so long?"

"It was pathetically easy! We just pretended that we were working on the Sephiroth Clone project just like he ordered and sent him a steady stream of falsified reports. As long as people weren't careless when Hojo showed up for his rare inspections, he was completely clueless!" Montessi replied with a sneer. "Of course, once he found out about the Project, he was determined to shut it down. Afraid of the competition, no doubt! Hojo talked Heidegger and Scarlet into using the Shinra Army to hunt down and kill the escaped S2 specimens instead of trying to recapture them. Zack died, but Cloud managed to survive and escape, so Hojo made it look like both specimens had died in a botched recapture attempt."

She stopped, then whirled to face Rufus. "I told your father that the loss of Specimens C and Z didn't mean the end of the Project. After all, there was a second, equally viable candidate still alive and conveniently on hand." She gave Rufus that now familiar thin, nasty little smile.

"I assume you're referring to me."

"Exactly so. However, despite my protests, the President still chose to shut down Project S2, at least temporarily. Not from any paternal feelings, you understand, but he was concerned with the lack of conclusive test data with respect to the first prototype."

Rufus saw the malice in Montessi's cold eyes and knew she was hoping to see some signs of shock, distress, or perhaps even outright denial of his father's involvement, from him. But he knew the man far better than Montessi ever could. Refusing to waste a valuable and limited resource -- in this case, Rufus -- on a potentially worthless research project was a decision entirely consistent with his father's personality and far less shocking than the idea of his father shutting down a major weapons project merely out of some deeply buried sense of parental affection.

Rufus now understood why his father had been so willing to overlook his son's many transgressions, including outright betrayal and treason, in the five years between the Nibelheim Incident and Meteorfall. Rufus had funded and aided Fuhito's terrorist organization -- the original AVALANCHE -- in hopes of seizing control of the Shinra Company from his father. Those plans had been uncovered by Veld, the Turks' former leader, but instead of punishing or even killing Rufus for his schemes, his father had simply shipped his errant son off to a very comfortable house arrest in Junon.

No, his father's restraint hadn't been the result of mercy or sentimentality. He had simply wanted to keep Rufus alive and well for Project S2. How typical of the man.

Despite his intent not to antagonize the highstrung and unstable Montessi, Rufus refused to fake the emotional misery that the scientist so clearly wanted from him. So he met her hungry stare with a cool level stare of his own and said nothing.

Montessi finally uttered an irritated huff, then said, "So disciplined. So self-controlled. So very annoying."

When he remained silent, she continued, "But that's why I think you'd make such a promising research subject for Phase 3."

"Phase 3?" Rufus wasn't sure why he was bothering to ask. Still every bit of information was potentially useful... if Montessi's experiments left him with enough of a mind left to remember any of that potentially useful information.

"Ah yes, I didn't explain that part. Project S2 itself has three phases. Phase 1 involves physical augmentation to levels far beyond those achievable with ordinary SOLDIERs. But while Phase 1 is important, the true potential of Project S2 lies in Phases 2 and 3!"

"In what way?"

"Phase 2 involves the transfer and replication of neural data -- in other words, copying the thoughts, emotions, skills, memories from one subject to another. In this case, we attempted to transfer the neural data of Specimen Z, Zack Fair, one of the best first generation SOLDIERs Shinra ever produced, into the body of one Cloud Strife, a common infantryman and failed SOLDIER candidate with a mediocre performance record."

"And the purpose of that would be...?"

Montessi smiled smugly. "It allows us to separate the physical and mental requirements for becoming a SOLDIER."

When Rufus continued to look blank, she sighed impatiently, then said, "I told you before that good candidates for SOLDIER are rare because it's difficult to find people with who meet all the necessary physical and psychological requirements. But if we have the ability to overwrite a host body's mind with someone else's neural data...."

When she looked expectantly at him, Rufus said slowly, "You could pick people with the best physical traits without any concerns about their mental fitness, then simply... replace... their minds with a mind of proven stability, complete with fighting skills and combat experience. Just like reprogramming one of Scarlet's war machines, except you're doing it with living organisms."

"Transferring one subject's attributes to another subject has been attempted before. Hollander tried to use the G-type subjects, but his process only produced inferior degraded copies of the original subjects. MY process is far superior because the resulting product retains the best aspects of both the host body AND the neural pattern donor."

"What happens to the original mind of the host body?"

Instead of answering his question directly, Montessi said, "Just as the human body's immune system naturally rejects the presence of foreign contaminants, the human mind tries to maintain its own integrity by rejecting foreign thought patterns. But as I mentioned before, there are ways to coax a human body into accepting Jenova cells. Similarly, there are ways to... persuade... a human mind to accept someone else's neural patterns."

This time, Montessi's smile had a particularly chilling edge.

"All you have to do is convince your subject that the alternative is far, far worse."

Rufus didn't know what could possibly be worse than being taken over by someone else's personality and memories, but he had the sick feeling that Montessi wasn't talking about mere theory or hypothetical scenarios. His fears were confirmed when she continued her little lecture.

"That's why Cloud was a perfect subject for Phase 2. He was already emotionally fragile and severely traumatized by the events in Nibelheim, on top of his pre-existing psychological weaknesses. It should have been an easy matter to break him down and make him into an empty puppet-like vessel -- the perfect blank slate upon which to superimpose Zack's neural patterns.

"However, things didn't go quite as planned." Montessi uttered an irritated huff. "Cloud turned out to be a surprisingly stubborn subject, and it took quite a lot of time and effort before I managed to eradicate whatever capacity he had for resistance or disobedience. It was a... fascinating... little project on its own."

Rufus had never been a particularly emotional or sentimental person, and he had learned early on to suppress any such tendencies in order to avoid his father's unrelenting scorn. But even so, Rufus felt the muscles throughout his body tense from the effort of hiding his growing revulsion as he listened to Montessi's casual description of how she deliberately raped and destroyed Cloud's psyche. Although the scientist hadn't gone into explicit details, Rufus understood quite clearly what was left unsaid -- Montessi had undoubtedly systematically tortured Cloud for four years with the express intention of breaking him down completely... and she had equally clearly enjoyed every moment of it.

Rufus didn't have any particular feeling, positive or negative, for Cloud, aside for an appreciation for the man's obvious fighting abilities. But it wouldn't have made any difference if Rufus had utterly despised Cloud. In an odd way, it was interesting to discover that he, Rufus, did in fact have limits on what he would do to achieve his goals. Physically killing someone was one thing, but no one should have to endure the type of suffering Cloud did while in Montessi's custody. It was far too easy to picture the terrified teenager Cloud must have been, desperately but futilely struggling to hold on to his sanity and sense of self in the face of the scientist's merciless assault.

It didn't help that he was also acutely aware that Montessi was perfectly capable of doing the same to Rufus himself, whether in the pursuit of science or merely on a vicious whim. Given enough time and the right sort of pressure, anyone could be broken.

"Shall I tell you something else interesting, Rufus?" Montessi's memories of her sadistic experiments with Cloud seemed to put her into a positively mellow mood. When he didn't respond, she smiled and said coaxingly, "Don't you want to know why you and Cloud are so important to Project S2?"

"I'll admit to being somewhat curious." Rufus was pleased that he managed to keep any trace of his disgust and anger out of his voice and off his face.

"It all comes down to genetics. When we started Project S2, we first used test subjects who passed the physical requirements for SOLDIER. Unfortunately, none of them made it past even the first round of Mako infusions." She shrugged. "Gross physical mutations, brain damage, the usual sort of thing. The entire project was about to be scrapped as a failure when one of my associates discovered that individuals with certain rare combinations of genes which would make them perfect candidates for S2 -- extremely high sensitivity combined with equally high tolerance for Mako, as well as superior compatibility with Jenova cells."

"And you're saying that Cloud and I are the only people who have these rare genes." Although it took enormous effort, Rufus managed to keep his tone calm and non-confrontational. While it would have been much more satisfying to vent his true feelings about Montessi and her precious research, Rufus knew that he was in a far too vulnerable position to indulge in such a dangerous luxury.

"Perhaps not the only ones -- statistically, there should be other potential candidates in the human population -- but the two of you are the only -- as well as the best -- candidates that we know of. And do you know why BOTH of you have these rare genes?" She paused, her lips twisted into a smirk and her dark eyes glittering with malice, then continued before he could say anything. "It turns out that the former Director of SOLDIER, Lazard Deusericus, wasn't the only bastard your father produced."

A brief moment of silence, then Rufus said evenly, "So you're saying that Cloud is my illegitimate half-brother."

"You don't look that surprised." Montessi looked slightly disappointed.

"Of course not, given my father's sexual appetites. For all I know, Cloud and Lazard are just two of many illegitimate children he left behind."

Montessi waggled an admonishing finger. "Oh, but you see, Cloud is not just an ordinary bastard half-brother. His mother and yours were sisters, which makes him your first cousin on the maternal side. The only thing closer, genetically speaking, would be full siblings or identical twins. But unfortunately for us, you and Cloud are each an only child, and there are no close maternal or paternal relatives left alive."

She tapped her chin thoughtfully. "A pity that Cloud's mother died in the Nibelheim incident. Combined with your father's sperm, we could've used her to breed even more candidates for the Project."

"In that case, I'm surprised that you didn't consider breeding Cloud or me," Rufus said, in a mild tone that barely hid his steadily growing loathing for the scientist.

"But we did consider it," Montessi casually replied. "The problem was finding a suitable female subject. Without the right maternal genetic component, we'd merely be diluting the desired gene line."

"I would have thought there was an obvious candidate for that role."

"Oh, you mean that half-breed Ancient girl? What was her name? Aeris? Aerith? I thought so at first, too, but it turns out that her genetic profile is all wrong," Montessi said with a dismissive sniff. "Just as well. Hojo and the President probably would've thrown a fit if she turned up pregnant, just in case it interfered with her precious Cetra abilities, although I don't see why it would."

Rufus remained silent for a long moment, then said, "Did my father know about Cloud?"

Montessi burst into harsh, raucous laughter. "Did the President know!? Of course he knew all about Cloud! He was the one who dumped Cloud's pregnant mother in Nibelheim when she threatened to become a public embarrassment for him! And when someone asked him about using his own son as an experimental test subject, did you know what he said? In the President's very own words, 'I'm interested in results, not a bastard child from a neurotic ex-mistress.'"

Rufus's jaw clenched slightly, but his voice remained steady. "He would say something like that."

"You don't seem the least bit surprised."

He finally gave Montessi an icy, razor thin smile of his own. "My father was a cold, ruthless, ambitious man who never allowed anything to stand in the way of getting what he wanted. He obviously thought that Project S2 would help him do that. So the fact that he was willing to use his own flesh and blood to maximize the Project's chances of success doesn't surprise me. At all."

Montessi looked mildly impressed with his response, even somewhat approving. "Fair enough." She hit an intercom button and barked, "Get back in here."

Rufus felt his throat go dry. He had just run out of time.

As several scientists rushed back into the lab, she said, "Unfortunately, Zack escaped with Cloud before we had the opportunity to fully evaluate the effectiveness of Phase 2. However, I'm quite certain that it did work to a significant degree."

Montessi began pacing again as her staff began wheeling in ominous-looking pieces of equipment.

"You see, at the time of the Nibelheim escape, Cloud was essentially catatonic, a mindless puppet who possessed the physical abilities of a second generation SOLDIER but with no will of his own. Various sightings over the following year indicated that he was STILL in that condition right up until Zack's death, which occurred a few weeks before Cloud reappeared in Midgar."

She watched with satisfaction as Rufus absorbed the information. "That's right. In the space of less than a month, Cloud Strife somehow transformed from a comatose vegetable to a fighter skilled enough to successfully participate in terrorist activities, fight his way both in and out of the Shinra Building while easily defeating experienced SOLDIERs and Scarlet's war machines along the way. And in the following weeks, he managed to become strong enough to effectively battle WEAPONs and even Sephiroth."

"And you attribute all this to Project S2? To the presence of Zack's neural patterns in Cloud's mind?"

"How else would you explain it?" she said, looking smug.

Obviously, he couldn't and they both knew it.

Montessi nibbled avidly on her thumbnail. "Believe me, when I finally to get my hands back on Cloud, I'm going to be very interested in finding out just how much of his current mental state comes from the original Cloud, and how much of it is replicated from Zack. Quite a bit of the latter, I should think."

Rufus glanced at the busy scientists and technicians in the room, then turned back to Montessi.

"So, are you planning to give me the same treatment as you did with Cloud?" His voice was cold, devoid of emotion.

Montessi looked surprised. "Oh no. I have no intention of wasting you on a rehash of Phase 2. For one thing, Zack's dead so we don't have a suitable donor at the moment." She suddenly grabbed Rufus's chin with her cold fingers. "You're going to be my test subject for Phase 3."

"And what does that involve?" he said between gritted teeth.

"Assimilation." Montessi nearly purred the word. "The perfect fusion between the human body and materia. Hojo tried it and failed miserably, so he claimed it was impossible. He was only partially correct. It IS impossible to fuse materia into an average human being."

"What happens if you try?"

She released his chin and shrugged indifferently. "Since materia is essentially highly concentrated Mako in solid form, Hojo got the usual results one gets with acute Mako toxicity -- severe brain damage, gross physical mutations, and/or death. However, Hojo gave up too soon. He failed take the logical next step and try using an non-average human being. Or better yet, a super-human being."

Montessi's eyes glittered with a fanatical light. "Think about the possibilities! Materia is the condensed knowledge and thoughts of the Ancients. In their crystallized form, humans can only use the merest fraction of the information they contain. But if we can fuse materia into a human being, that individual could potentially access ALL the knowledge and wisdom locked away inside that materia! No more fumbling around with materia in order to cast spells. And who knows? We might even be able to recover much of the long lost knowledge of the Ancients this way."

"And you honestly believe I'm the right candidate for this sort of experiment?"

"That's right. Like Cloud, you are capable of surviving the physical augmentation necessary to form a compatible host for materia. But unlike Cloud, you have the mental strength and discipline to handle a potentially massive influx of information. Probably."

"What if you're wrong and I can't handle it?"

"I suggest that you try very VERY hard. Otherwise, you're going to end up as a gibbering idiot like Hojo's earlier test subjects, and that really would be a terrible waste of that very fine mind that you have."

Rufus caught a glimpse of technicians wheeling in several carts loaded with a variety of sinister medical instruments and inhaled sharply. In particular, a cart holding several huge syringes -- each nearly the length of his forearm and filled with glowing green liquid -- caught his attention.

"I suppose you have no intention of giving me a choice about this."

"None whatsoever," Montessi said cheerfully.

Rufus could see the researchers began to place the large syringes full of glowing green liquid -- Mako, most likely -- in an arc-like arrangement within a large metal frame.

"Assuming that everything goes to plan and you succeed in transforming me into a non-insane super-SOLDIER with at least some powers of the Ancients. What then?"

"Then you will help me recapture Cloud for further study. I'm far from finished with him," Montessi nonchalantly replied.

Rufus simply stared at her, somewhat stunned by her audacity. "Under the circumstances, what makes you think that I'd agree to cooperate with you in any way?"

Her lips curved into a cold, cruel smile. "Oh, don't worry, Rufus. I have some VERY effective ways of keeping my experimental subjects in line. Cloud learned this the hard way. You will, too, soon enough."

She abruptly stepped back and made a sharp slashing gesture. Before Rufus could react, one of the scientists deftly crammed the gag back in place between his teeth. As the strap holding the gag tightened painfully around his head, Montessi said, "Instead of trying to resisting, you should be thanking me for giving you the opportunity to rediscover the lost legacy of the Ancients."

He could only glare furiously at her. Then his head was pressed down and locked in place with yet more straps hooked to the collar around his throat to force him into a fetal position. He felt cool air hit his back as someone peeled open the back of straitjacket, exposing his spine. Rufus jerked involuntarily as cold fingers touched a spot near the base of his skull

"Is the array fully loaded?"

"Yes, doctor."

"Good. The first one goes here, between the C7 and T1 vertebrae, then one after every third vertebrae," Montessi ordered.

Rufus sensed, rather than saw, the metal frame slide in place around him so that the arc of massive Mako-filled syringes were perfectly positioned above his spine, even as more straps were wrapped around his body, immobilizing him even more thoroughly.

"Due to your sensitivity to Mako, you're going to feel the first few infusions quite a bit," Montessi said. Rufus couldn't see her face, but he was certain that she was wearing a thoroughly sadistic grin.

The sting of the needles went unnoticed as icy green fire poured directly into his spinal column, then flooded outward along the network of nerves. He would have screamed but lost the ability as all the muscles in his body locked into one massive spasm. As both his mind and vision filled with green fire, Rufus felt his consciousness shatter into glittering fragments.

end of teaser 2


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