[ Healen ]
Cid's airship arrived in Healen a few hours after midnight, but portable lights provided ample illumination. Many of the buildings showed signs of heavy battle damage and the bodies of strangely mutated monsters still littered the ground, while teams of both WRO troopers and Shinra security patrolled the area, clearly on edge.
When asked, one of the troopers pointed out the leader of the WRO team, who stood near the main building, his back toward them as he supervised the removal of one of the larger monster corpses with a good-sized excavator.
As Cloud took a few steps off to the side in order to examine the remains of one of Hojo's new creatures, he casually called out, "Stuck with cleanup duty again? This is really starting to become a habit."
The breezy, teasing tone in Cloud's voice was so unusual that it prompted Tifa and several other of his companions to give him startled looks.
Without turning, the man shrugged and replied just as casually, "Well, at least I'm not a walking trouble magnet like you, Za...."
The man suddenly stiffened, then whipped around to look behind him. The WRO team leader was a brown-haired man of average height, average build, and pleasantly attractive appearance. The only thing that distinguished him from thousands of other similarly nondescript men was the glowing Mako eyes that unmistakably marked him as a member of SOLDIER.
"...ack." The SOLDIER's voice trailed off as his gaze settled on the distracted Cloud and the fully assembled broadsword, with its unique width and point, clearly visible on Cloud's back. He took a few steps forward, then said in a uncertain voice, "Do I... know you?"
Still absorbed in examining the creature's corpse, Cloud absently replied in that same uncharacteristic easy-going tone he used before.
"What are you talking about? Of course you know me, Ku...."
It was Cloud's turn to abruptly go stiff and silent before jerking his head to stare at the other man with shocked blue eyes. He slowly turned to face the SOLDIER walking up to him.
As the two men exchanged silent, almost spooked stares, Cait Sith scurried up and hastily said, "Cloud, this is....."
"....Kunsel," Cloud said tersely. "I know."
Oh, he knew the man, all right. The problem was that he knew and remembered too much about this Kunsel person... way too much.
He knew that Kunsel preferred cold Junon beer, liked obscenely hot and spicy food, enjoyed all sorts of booze, except for the nasty green wine -- served with fruit on a stick -- that was a touristy favorite in Costa del Sol.
He knew that Kunsel had a taste for busty brunettes, which meant that Tifa was right up his alley.
He knew that Kunsel was a morning person who liked to sleep with a pillow over his head and wrapped in blankets like a mummy, but could also snap wide awake in an instant.
He knew that Kunsel loved the smell of Aerith's flowers, even if they made him sneeze.
And he knew that Kunsel had refused to believe the official Shinra reports of the Nibelheim Incident and had been willing to risk anything and everything to help his best friend.
But he didn't merely know... things... about the man.
He had memories. Not memories of Zack telling him interesting tidbits about a good friend, but just like so many of his recent dreams, memories from a first person point of view. As if he had been there, living through the actual events....
...which was completely impossible, because he wasn't Zack.
But no matter how much he told himself that, he still remembered sitting up late into the night, lending a sympathetic ear -- and an expensive bottle of good whiskey -- as Kunsel grumbled about a breakup with his latest girlfriend....
He remembered sharing letters from home, joking about his parents' constant urgings to 'find a nice girl and settle down'....
He remembered remember drunkenly leaning against an equally intoxicated Kunsel and facing a grumpy Sephiroth who had been rousted out of bed -- and who did NOT sleep naked, no matter what Sephiroth's crazy fan club said! -- by equally cranky Turks in the middle of the night after a truly epic promotion party for one of their buddies....
....oh, the hangover from that one... but SO totally worth it.
He knew Kunsel, knew the man as a person knows a best friend or brother, right down to the annoying, but endearing little personal quirks....
... and at the same time, he also knew that before this moment, he had NEVER once met the man in person.
Cait Sith blinked, then hastily continued the increasingly awkward introductions. "Kunsel, this is Cloud."
The SOLDIER glanced sharply at the robot cat. "Cloud? That guy you said became close friends with Zack?"
Cait Sith nodded.
Kunsel turned his attention back to Cloud, his gaze focusing on Cloud's eyes. "I thought I knew the entire SOLDIER roster pretty well, but I'm not familiar with your name."
Kunsel's mild tone made it clear that he was not making an accusation, but Cloud still reacted to the other man's words as if they were. He flinched, as if he had been physically slapped, then looked away.
"I was never in SOLDIER." Cloud's tone was flat and stark.
"Then why do you have...."
Cait Sith hastily interrupted again. "He was...." He paused, then glanced at Cloud, clearly uncertain just how much to say. Finding no help in Cloud's blank, frozen expression, the cat finally said, "He was the infantryman that accompanied Zack in Nibelheim and confronted Sephiroth in the Nibel Reactor."
Kunsel blinked, then blurted, "You're the other research sample that escaped with Zack?"
"Yes." Cloud's reply was brutally curt and sharp enough to cut glass.
"So I guess that explains the Mako eyes," Kunsel murmured. When Cloud made a slight nod, he continued, "Reeve said that Zack was killed two years ago. Since the escape took place three years ago, that means the two of you were on the run for nearly a year."
"Then why didn't he...?" Kunsel blurted, then stopped and shook his head. "Never mind."
"'I don't care if you've made an enemy out of Shinra. I'll always be waiting for you to come back. Just make it back alive, buddy. Promise me.' "
While Cloud's face remained tense and shuttered, his voice as he spoke contained a wealth of quiet, but warm affection that was, again, quite unlike the much more stoic Cloud his friends had come to know and expect.
Kunsel stared at Cloud in astonishment. "Where did you get that?"
Cloud blinked as if coming out of a brief trance, then in his usual reserved tone, he said, "Zack got your email messages. He treasured and kept them, even if he never replied. They meant a lot to him, just knowing that even after all that time and everything that happened, someone still cared."
"Of course I cared! Zack was my best friend!" Kunsel snapped.
"Which is exactly why he didn't get in touch with you. He didn't want to get you involved in... well, calling it a mess would be a massive understatement."
Kunsel glared at Cloud, then sighed. "That damn heroic idiot."
For the first time, Cloud's expression relaxed slightly as he heard a familiar mixture of exasperation and fondness in the SOLDIER's tone.
Kunsel clearly wanted to ask more questions, but Cloud's discomfort -- along with Cait Sith's anxiety and the Turks' obvious impatience -- made it clear that this was not the time to further explore Cloud's history with Zack.
Instead, Kunsel said, "I think we've got a lot to talk about, Cloud. But right now, we've got way more pressing business to deal with." He jerked his head toward the two Turks approaching them.
Elena, dressed in work overalls borrowed from one of Cid's crewmen, made quick business of the introductions of Jade and Serge, then moved immediately to the most important issue.
"Any news about Rufus or Tseng?"
The black-haired Jade smiled bitterly. "Unfortunately, no. But we're still looking for any clues."
Elena glanced over at Serge, who, instead of looking like his usual immaculate self, was distinctly torn up and dirty.
"Are you okay?" she asked in obvious concern.
He lifted his left hand to push his glasses up, then winced. "I got mobbed and took a few hits from monsters who packed some nasty poison. But I'll manage, thanks to the doctor that came with the WRO team." He gestured more carefully at the woman who was headed in their direction with a long brisk stride.
"Guys, this is Dr. Nyx. She's one of the scientists I mentioned to you a while back," Cait Sith said. "She's currently the scientific liaison between the Shinra Corporation and the WRO."
The tall, black-haired woman in a labcoat halted in front of Cloud and the others, and gave them a pleasant, if distracted nod. "Hello." She turned to Jade. "I've finished the examination of all the human remains you found. None of them match Rufus Shinra or Tseng."
All the Turks seemed to relax a little.
"The number of pieces made it somewhat difficult, but I've tentatively identified those remains as three of the Shinra personnel you indicated were missing. Which leaves six of your people still unaccounted for."
"Six? And you're sure they're not among the wounded or the dead," Jade demanded.
Nyx nodded. "Quite sure. We've identified all the casualties, based on the list you gave me. Which brings me to the next topic. I've managed to stabilize the most severely wounded, but they'll need to be medevaced to WRO headquarters immediately. Several of these creatures are naturally venomous and the Jenova-induced mutations have made them even more so. They're going to need significantly more medical treatment than I can give them here."
Serge said, "I'll handle that. Doctor, if you'll come with me?"
"That reminds me that I need to take another look at those wounds of yours, Serge. Frankly, you shouldn't even be on your feet, much less running around like this."
"It can't be helped," the Turk replied indifferently.
"Serge, add Rude to that list of people who need to be medevaced," Elena said.
He gave the blond Turk a sharp look, then nodded. "Got it."
Nyx gave Cloud and the others another courteous, but distracted nod, then accompanied the Turk as he headed off.
[ Weapon facility ]
Back in Scarlet's -- now his -- lair, Hojo glanced irritably at the beeping console, then reluctantly turned away from the unconscious Turk on the examination table. As his minions dragged Reno back to his cell, Hojo turned his attention to the monitors and smiled.
His equipment was finally on-line and ready. Now all he needed was Cloud.
The trap was set, had been set from the moment his creatures had descended on Healen. This time, he wasn't relying on brute force. Killing SOLDIERs was not that hard, but subduing them while keeping them alive and intact was always a tricky proposition.
And he very much wanted Cloud alive and intact. Especially after all the trouble that particular specimen had caused both him and Sephiroth.
Yes, Cloud would make a very nice resurrection day present for his son.
Subjects with Jenova-enhanced physiques were difficult to capture and control, but he knew, better than anyone, how to exploit the few vulnerabilities they had.
The next step would take all his concentration. Monsters were easy to control, but humans were much harder, especially when using the very crudest of prototypes.
But with more experimentation, it would definitely become much easier. It was doubtful that he would ever be able to control humans with the ease and precision that Sephiroth could, but then, Sephiroth and his abilities were unique.
[ ???? ]
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. Until Tseng managed to contact the other Turks, they would be 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 in handling this woman. 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 slightest 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 infusing 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 to use it to duplicate Sephiroth 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 creating an improved SOLDIER. Instead, he became 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 validated 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."
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 a mind capable of remembering 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 prototypes, but his process only produced inferior degraded copies of the originals. 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 who had certain rare combinations of genes would make perfect candidates for S2 -- they would have 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 had his own plans for breeding that girl and he probably would've thrown a fit if she mysteriously turned up pregnant on her own."
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 structure 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 unfortunately dead so we don't have a suitable pattern 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 crystals 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 psychic 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'll help me recapture Cloud for further study. I'm far from finished with him," Montessi nonchalantly replied.
Rufus stared at her, mildly stunned by her sheer 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?"
"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 completely.
"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 and tumble into the brilliant glowing abyss.
(end of Part 4)
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