Author: Guede Mazaka
The clones swarmed out after Vincent had left Sephiroth with Smecker’s unresponsive body, as if they knew. They didn’t, but she did and she clearly thought highly enough of Smecker to try a major strike while he was down.
That was a curious reaction, since Smecker never had been a part of Shinra’s military strength, and if Jenova had been keeping close enough watch, she would have seen that years ago. And the clones, though difficult for ordinary soldiers to handle, still were relatively ineffective against the high-ranking officers. Vincent dealt with nearly all of them himself; normally he would have left it to Zack and Sephiroth, but he was…in need of the exercise. The clones looked enough like Sephiroth now to go some ways towards satiating Vincent’s temper.
It was curious how Jenova seemed to like that physical profile—the number of Sephiroth clones far outnumbered the Cloud-like ones, and even those had hair that was more white-gold than shiny yellow. Did she have a reason for preferring silver hair, green eyes, tall-bodied? Was that a clue that she may after all be of human origin?
“Foolish if it is,” Vincent muttered, kneeling besides the last clone he’d killed. He touched his fingers to the pool of ichor haloing its head, then lifted it. A long, thin strand of the stuff clung to his fingers, oxidizing from a shimmering vibrant green to a dark, sooty black.
With a grimace, he flicked it off. The half-dried strand fell across the wide, staring eyes, crushing some of the long silver lashes. It didn’t make Vincent feel a thing, though the likeness was very good.
He hadn’t been able to force Sephiroth aside, though.
Strictly speaking, the part of Lucrecia in the other man didn’t amount to very much either. Sometimes Vincent did wonder if Hojo had in fact used a third party, and spliced Sephiroth out of three contributors, for Sephiroth’s looks were not like Hojo at all and only like Lucrecia when in repose, with the shadows drawing out her in him. The genetics said otherwise, but…
Vincent raised his head. More clones were heading towards this sector…and Shinra could deal with them, he decided. He’d killed more than he needed for sampling, which was his only interest in them.
As for his interest in Sephiroth, whatever it was, it still faded into insignificance beside his determination to see a permanent end to what Hojo had wrought. Perhaps that was the problem—Vincent merely needed some time to regain his perspective. In which case, he would concentrate on the problem of Smecker’s discovery.
* * *
It took a while for Elena and Reeve to fully explain to Kadaj their strategy of decoying Valentine. The difficulty was, Elena thought, that Kadaj understood concrete ideas perfectly, abstract ones in unpredictable ways and degrees, and that he seemed to need extra impetus to work at grasping something he didn’t immediately comprehend. Otherwise he’d simply settle for the simplest, most obvious conclusion.
“But I can find him,” he protested.
“And that’s very good for us. But if Valentine sees us right away, he might ask us what we’re doing, and we don’t want to talk to him,” Reeve patiently repeated. He sounded much more sure than he looked, with his frequent nervous glances towards the large bank of windows. Cait Sith seemed to sense his unease and refused to settle on one shoulder or the other, instead stalking back and forth across them so Reeve had to hold his head slightly forward.
Kadaj’s expression was mulish as he reluctantly slipped off the window-sill and came back towards them. Then he frowned, staring hard at Reeve. He suddenly dropped down to one knee to peer closely at Reeve’s hand; startled, Reeve’s first reaction was to start to withdraw it, but then he stopped himself. A good decision, because Kadaj casually whipped out a knife and used its tip to hook up the cuff of Reeve’s sleeve, pulling it away from the skin.
“You’re almost my color,” he said, holding his other hand up.
He was right. His skin, like Sephiroth’s and like all of the clones’, was that curious near-luminescent, strident white of clouds and snow and other natural phenomena that defied the power of the sun. Or, Elena thought as she looked at the wisps of aerosol pollutants billowing by the glass, the tarnishing strength of chemicals. But Reeve’s skin, while almost as pale, gave off the impression of delicacy, caution. Fear.
Reeve seemed to be conscious of all of that, judging by the restrained, rueful smile he gave Kadaj and the way he slowly pulled his hand back. “Yes, I am. Kadaj, we need to keep Vincent busy, not just find him. He can’t just have to worry about us or about Smecker. He needs a lot on his mind.”
“Oh.” A thoughtful expression, odd on Kadaj’s childlike features, slowly drew together Kadaj’s brows. Then he swiveled on his feet to eye Elena. “What about big brother? Vincent worries about him.”
“Does he?” Elena said. She found it hard to imagine Valentine doing so—not that Valentine thought that he was invincible, for he obviously did not believe he was stronger than everyone else. But he seemed to hold Sephiroth in a particular contempt, never mentioning him unless someone else had done so first. Which led to some awkwardly-constructed replies, as it was difficult to discuss Jenova and not also Sephiroth. “Well, I—we don’t know where your…brother is right now. He reported in a few hours ago that he was following up on the clone attacks, but we haven’t heard from him since.”
Kadaj frowned. He raised his hands and touched his fingertips to his lips, which moved silently. His eyes flicked up and down, as if he’d wanted to speak but had thought the better of it several times. Then he shrugged and tipped his head to the side. “Valentine likes to know about the clones, too. Doesn’t he?”
“He’s…” Elena couldn’t help glancing at Reeve “…interested. He does ask us to do tests on the samples we take from their corpses.”
“Okay,” Kadaj said.
Then he turned into a blur. Elena lunged forward, but the window was already swinging open. She cursed and pushed up on the sill, getting a foot onto it. She was ready to go, but then—she hesitated, watching the small silver figure lightly landing on the lower roof of a neighboring building. Then she turned back to look apologetically at Reeve.
“I’m sorry, but—Kadaj! Kadaj!” She withdrew a little from the window. “He can’t hear me. We’re going to lose him if I don’t go, Reeve. I just sent for a—”
“Oh, no need,” Reeve said, graciously waving away her apology. He stepped forward while fiddling with something in his hands. His eyebrows went down, then shot up towards his hairline; Cait Sith meowed loudly and squirmed close to his neck. “Damn it, Elena, watch—”
Elena had already swung out onto the outside ledge running below the bank of windows. She heard a whoosh, followed by several loud clicks, and something large and white popped through the window where she’d been, hard enough to rattle the panes.
Reeve cursed again—presumably he was somewhere behind that…that…whatever was bulging out the window. It was rounded and cylindrical, and…it was shrinking. But only for a little bit, till it was small enough for the rest of it to ease through. The part Elena had first seen turned out to be a…only a leg, but it’d given a fairly good indication of the rest of…it was round, and had big black sensors where the eyes would have been.
“A moogle?” Elena slowly said.
“You recognize it?” When Reeve emerged after the floating thing, he was wearing a surprisingly unguarded smile. He just seemed thrilled that Elena knew what the shape was supposed to be.
Elena belatedly glanced at the rooftop where Kadaj had been, only to find it empty. She suppressed her disappointed remark when she turned back to Reeve, only to find him with his customary reserved expression. It…briefly made her feel as if she’d erred. “I think Kadaj…he had a stuffed one once, didn’t he? It somehow hit the Head—the old Head—and he ordered Tseng to destroy it and punish Kadaj.”
“He did,” Reeve replied. Absently, but with enough of a shadow in his voice to prove he wasn’t merely focusing on…stepping on the moogle’s back. The little cat had leaped off his shoulder and, apparently without fear of heights, was standing on the moogle’s head. “Paul once let slip that he had to sedate Kadaj for a week afterwards. I’d meant this for Kadaj’s birthday, but…well, might as well test it now. Get on, I did check to see that it does work. I just haven’t tried out its endurance yet.”
As well as Elena knew Reeve’s capabilities, she still…but they were losing time, and the chance to catch up with Kadaj. She got on.
There weren’t any obvious controls, but when Elena looked down, she saw a wire running out of the cuff of Reeve’s right trouser-leg. Then they began to move and she sucked in her breath and reflexively grabbed at Reeve’s arm, caught off-guard and off-balance. She quickly righted herself, but opted to crouch down; an invisible field around them kept the wind from buffeting them, but nevertheless it made her uneasy to stand.
“I think at the very least, Valentine might stop to ask what we’re doing with this thing,” Reeve said. His eyes had gone to a flickering green.
Elena surprised herself by smiling. Then she ducked lower and pointed. “Look, there’s Kadaj. On that ledge.”
Reeve saw and promptly had them descend. Kadaj appeared to be temporarily distracted enough to watch bemusedly, and when they were close enough, he reached out to pat the moogle’s head.
“The clones will laugh,” he grinned. “They’re dumb. Big brother might be mean, but he only laughs when it is really funny.”
“Clones?” Elena and Reeve repeated, glancing at each other.
Eyebrows raised, Kadaj looked at them as if they were uncomprehending children. “For Vincent Valentine. Because he wants to know about them too. My other brothers will keep him busy, and then they can go die, too.” His eyes suddenly flashed and his voice sharpened viciously. “I don’t care—they listen to mother and she hurt Paul.”
“But how are you going to get—”
Kadaj was already off. Cursing, Elena hunkered down and got a good hold on the moogle’s back. “How fast does this thing go?”
“We’re about to find out, I think.” Reeve crouched next to her. The glow of his eyes dimmed, then suddenly blazed as they took off.
* * *
Sephiroth surprised himself by getting all the way back to Shinra Tower without sensing Vincent coming within a mile of him. As far as he knew, the clones who’d mounted the most recent attack had all been dealt with; Zack had recalled the Shinra forces twenty minutes ago. And Vincent rarely bothered to engage them anyway, preferring to leave them to the soldiers or the Turks unless they came directly for him.
Worrying about that, however, would waste the opportunity it opened out, and Sephiroth had no intention of letting any more of those slip past him. After the briefest checks to confirm that Zack was in control of the army, Sephiroth received a message on a secure band that Smecker had been moved. He noted the new location and headed straight for it; he hadn’t yet had time to even look at the security system and the memory of his own confinement had him stopping well in front of the doors to examine that.
He was still at that task when an elevator chimed in the distance. A few minutes later, Rufus himself came strolling down the hall, with what appeared to be an old-fashioned shotgun tucked under one arm. He was moving easily, but when he came close enough, Sephiroth could see the dilation of his pupils: drugs to numb the pain, and more drugs to tamp that down so as not to interfere with thinking.
“You’ll have to excuse my sense of precaution,” Rufus said, nodding towards the shotgun. He leveled a too-cool gaze at Sephiroth. “Valentine wanted to see me after you did, and he took offense to Reno’s request for a reason why.”
“So you’ve got to fend for yourself.” Sephiroth let his sarcasm cover up his sudden anxiousness. Vincent had gone to Shinra? Why? Was he already ahead of them?
Rufus didn’t seem to appreciate the honest observation, but he let it pass for the moment. After taking the shotgun out from under his arm, he rather pointedly leaned it against the wall next to him as he manipulated the security panel to the side of the doors. Then he picked up his gun and moved aside, waving Sephiroth to come up. “I think you’ll be relieved to hear that Valentine wasn’t there to ask me to do anything with Smecker. He wanted to inform me that he may be going into Gainsborough territory, and would appreciate it if we didn’t overreact and nearly spark a diplomatic incident again.”
Gainsborough. Aeris. Sephiroth had only seen her standing behind her father at official parties and meetings, and had never thought much of her. A passive, colorless young woman who seemed far too ethereal in her principles than would have been allowed to survive if she’d been born any lower than she had been. Zack liked her, and Cloud apparently had as well, but Sephiroth had chalked that up to Aeris being attractive without needing to be greedily ambitious, like most of the women they met.
“There,” Rufus said, stepping back. The shotgun was back under his arm before he turned around to face Sephiroth. “We’ve done the best we could to key entry to specific persons, and to exclude Valentine from it. He can’t alter his DNA, can he?”
Sephiroth began to say no, but then thought the better of it. “I don’t know.”
Rufus grimaced, apparently fully appreciating the irony of even taking that question seriously. Shinra’s policy of seeking to always have the edge on their opponents was bearing unexpectedly disadvantageous fruit. “Well, I can say that it’ll slow him down. Probably to the point where he’ll resort to brute force, if I have an accurate estimation of his temper, and any application of that will trigger an instant lockdown.”
Which would not keep Vincent out for good—he’d shown on multiple occasions that he was more than a match for the technology that Shinra could throw at him—but which should at least keep him out for enough time to allow for reinforcements. “Alert system?”
“Hardly anyone even knows that Smecker is…” Rufus pursed his lips “…out of commission, so an equally few number know where he is. It’s been set to inform me and the Turks, Reeve—he wrote most of the code—and you. And Kadaj. The same system is set on the rest of Smecker’s living quarters.”
“Kadaj?” Sephiroth echoed curiously.
Rufus was already pivoting on his heel. He delivered his reply over his shoulder as he walked off. “It was impossible to keep him out, so Reeve finally opted to design around him. I can’t spare many resources to protect Smecker, Sephiroth. If I have to, I will be prioritizing where I send them.”
In other words, they were leaving any response up to Sephiroth…and apparently Kadaj. Sometimes Sephiroth did wonder if all those years drugged senseless had affected Rufus’ mind, with the risks the man thought were acceptable and the ones he didn’t—but that was an academic mind-exercise. Sephiroth pushed it out of his head and went into the room.
Kadaj wasn’t inside, which made that part of the conversation with Rufus that much more bizarre. On the other hand, it was entirely possible that Rufus simply was talking about things he’d been told and not seen for himself, and from that point of view Kadaj’s doings would sound more worrying than they in fact were.
The room itself actually was part of Smecker’s surprisingly extensive living suite, but as far as Sephiroth knew, the man had never used it. Now it’d been converted into a state-of-the-art secure hospital ward, which was the sort of thing with which Sephiroth was very familiar. Consequently he ignored it, and Smecker, for the moment and proceeded on to where the entry to the rest of the rooms was.
The doors had been welded shut. When Sephiroth scraped at the solder, he found that it’d been melted completely across the width of the door-edge, and not merely in a thin layer on the surface of the panels. The same for the entry panel next to them. Wonderful idea from a security standpoint, to have separate entrances, but irritating for someone trying to get into the remainder of the suite. Sephiroth stared irritably at the line of solder, then opted to back away from it and simply go in the other side.
Before he left, he did give in to his curiosity and go to look at Smecker. Security lasers meant that he couldn’t get any closer than a foot to the body, but that was close enough to see the deterioration in the man’s skin tone, the strain in the veins bulging out around the jack sockets in his temples. For once his mouth was twisted in a frown instead of that maddeningly cynical smile.
“Seeing how hard life is, are you?” Sephiroth asked softly. “It’s easy to laugh at other people’s mistakes, but not so easy to do so at your own. At least, that was what I found.”
Then he turned to go, but a flicker of movement caught his eye. And—every muscle in Sephiroth’s body suddenly went tense. His breath stopped up in his throat. Masamune materialized halfway without him thinking it into being, and after his mind did catch up with his reflexes, he slowly let the rest of his sword emerge.
It occurred to him that he’d made a mistake: he’d never really considered the full implications of Jenova jacking into a person, despite his conversation with Thomas. And despite his own experiences, since Vincent had recognized the symptoms and brutally cut Jenova out of him before much had happened.
Sephiroth slowly turned back around. Smecker’s eyes were open, which was not shocking, and they were a brilliant, eerie green that Sephiroth never…no, he had seen that particular shade before. A memory flashed into his brain of his eyes reflected in the side of Vincent’s claw, during his internment.
Smecker was a fit man and had once been deployed with the Turks, but as far as Sephiroth knew, he’d not used a weapon in years. So the weight of Masamune gave Sephiroth some comfort as he regarded the intelligence in those eyes, the mind making Smecker’s pupils move minutely to track every movement Sephiroth made.
“Jenova,” Sephiroth whispered.
A shudder that he hadn’t quite expected went through his body. A far sharper one went through Smecker’s; it was hard enough to jar his arm and the buzzing of a force field suddenly filled the air. The arm hit it and bounced back into place: it seemed Rufus had done a little better in foreseeing matters than Sephiroth had here.
Smecker’s lips parted slightly, but no sounds came out. A furrow between his brows…the features of his face were tugged and pulled into a haphazard expression of dismay, as if total control over his body had not yet been accomplished because parts of it were too alien.
When it did come, the voice didn’t seem to emanate from Smecker, but instead echoed through the room—and through Sephiroth, acting as if he were some sort of…resonator. Amplifier. He recoiled, his grip tightening, and nearly slashed Smecker in two before he regained his self-control. And even then, it was—difficult. Part of him rebelled furiously against the idea that even less of him was under his will, would—would obey his own preferences as to what he wanted to strike a chord within himself, but part of himself…
He’d missed the first part, but that didn’t matter since everything was repeated several times. You are mine. Mine. They are not.
“You didn’t even give up your life to carry me to term,” Sephiroth finally said through gritted teeth.
She was weak. I waited for you. Waited for years and years. Centuries. So long…I waited. And now we are together.
She—it, it, damn it—spoke with such conviction. And such sorrow—that Sephiroth did not expect, didn’t think her capable of. He’d…since she’d been in him he’d been thinking of her as some soulless, renegade program. It was so much easier that way for hating her, but where had that originated? Had he really experienced that himself, or had he merely been told to think that way? Lied to, fooled again, brainwashed—
We must fight. We must kill all those who oppose us, all those who are not us. They do not love us, and they will pay for how they have injured us.
Sephiroth—nearly believed it. But something jarred him out of his sudden daze, something…he stared at Smecker’s face. Smecker, and…and he’d loved Kadaj in his way. Enough to find someone who’d take away the chance that Jenova would take him without substituting her for themselves, as Vincent had done with Sephiroth. Enough to do that even though then, in order to pursue his interests in Jenova, Smecker had had to resort to doing experiments on himself. And for a man of Smecker’s personality, that was the most meaningful choice he could have made.
“I don’t want to end this world,” Sephiroth said. “I…like it that much. I don’t know what kind of world you’ll leave—have you even thought of what world you’ll build in this one’s place? We cannot live on nothing, and I—want to live, mother.”
TRAITOR! TRAITOR! YOU SHALL DIE-- It boomed out around the room and blasted Sephiroth to the core so he reeled, clutching at his head. He nearly dropped Masamune; its tip did swing wildly into the wall, and suddenly a hundred other alarms were going off. Lights flashed and he thought he glimpsed Smecker’s body wrench itself about on the table before it went still again, the wall panels blinking crazily as they undoubtedly loaded Smecker with sedatives.
Sephiroth stumbled back into the hall, dematerializing Masamune as he went. The doors slammed shut just after he’d exited through them and though that meant there’d be some kind of lag before the system signaled for normal operation and allowed entry again, he was glad of it. She might not be able to control him, but she certainly could still hurt him.
She. “You,” Sephiroth muttered, glancing at the doors. He took a deep breath before going on. “Are a bitch. And dead as well.”
He slowly straightened up and started around to the other entrance into the suite, estimating that by the time he got there, he should be able to get in again. As for her…she hadn’t given him a choice the first time. Now he’d gotten one and he wasn’t terribly impressed with her argument. So he still didn’t have a mother worth acknowledging beyond basic reproductive biology. That was fine.
That he’d had a choice on Jenova, however, he did owe to Vincent. Sephiroth grimaced and thought that actually, Vincent was the harder decision to make.
* * *
Paul knew in an abstract sense that his body had been invaded, and that it wasn’t taking too well to that. He also knew that he—or the part of ‘he’ that was currently behaving according to Descartes’ postulate of existence—had been shoved so deep into…wherever he was that he was almost completely detached from sensory input and had no real idea what was actually happening outside. Too bad I’m not a real philosopher, or else I’d be getting a kick out of redefining the concepts of existence and consciousness.
Jenova was around somewhere. She kind of fucked in and fucked out, and since Paul had no sense of time either, he couldn’t really establish a pattern for it. He was, however, aware that he was getting pretty damn frustrated with just knowing that he existed. Fucking Descartes and his fucking smug Meditations really didn’t cover shit: they’d been wrong about how optics worked, and they’d never taken their most famous statement to the next level.
If I know that I exist, is that alone enough to establish my goddamn sanity?
I am not insane. Oh, she was back. And she sounded pissed off, so she’d probably been fucking with somebody else and hadn’t seen it work out. She’d been like that the first…while that they’d been sharing Paul’s head, and then had gradually gone to pretending he was just an annoying parasite—his fucking head, the presumptuous bitch. I am not insane. I think logically. I have tested my deductions and they lead to only one conclusion.
She’d done this before. She’d been in at least two other heads that Paul knew of, and she had to have some sort of mental grip on her clone army, so why she seemed so frustrated over a setback like people not buying into her crap right away was a little puzzling. Maybe your starting assumptions are faulty.
They are not. I cannot be at fault. I CANNOT.
If you say--
Then Paul realized that she’d left again. If he could’ve sighed, he would have. It was hard to tell if the bitch was actually capable of learning and was just allergic to it, or if a learning opportunity triggered some sort of shut-off loop. Though it wasn’t like he had much else to think about or do, or…
…sometimes he wondered if he was dealing with Stockholm syndrome. Then he’d think about it, like he was now, and always conclude that no, he didn’t buy into her conclusion yet. But the longer he was out of touch with the rest of the world, the harder it was to remember what he had to return to that was worth it. It was boring here, and he didn’t feel anything, but…here he didn’t feel anything.
* * *
Kadaj paused, head cocked as if listening to something. Then he turned around and looked solemnly at Elena—she absently noted that he wasn’t much taller than her—eyes wide and somewhat fearful. “Mother was talking to someone. She’s stopped now, but…oh, she’s loud.” Shrug, and a sudden, disconcerting shift to nonchalant. “My other brothers will be angry, because she’s angry. They’ll want to go out.”
“How do you know they’ll listen to you?” Reeve asked.
“They don’t listen to me,” Kadaj said slowly, as if explaining something to a…a…somebody who wasn’t catching on as quickly as he’d like. “They hate me. They know I’m not right and she says I’m a failure and failures should die. So they always want to kill me. That’s why they keep following me.”
So they were going to find some and then lead them to Valentine, if Elena was understanding Kadaj’s intent correctly. It wasn’t the most complicated of strategies, but to be honest, she hadn’t even thought Kadaj was capable of planning, let alone basic strategy. “Okay. So what do we do?”
Kadaj pivoted on his feet to look at her, apparently unconcerned that he was perched on a slender girder hundreds of feet above the ground. “Hmmm. Well, sister, this is where I see a lot of my brothers. I think they’re coming—I think I hear them. They’ll know I’m here soon. I don’t know whether they’ll hear you.”
Something tugged at Elena’s arm and she turned to see Reeve looking meaningfully at her. He nodded to the side and she started to move, but then remembered Kadaj and glanced at him. But Kadaj seemed to be preoccupied with some datascreen he’d gotten to pop up from the floating moogle’s head, so she chanced the side-conversation.
“Kadaj’s been able to take care of himself against the clones before, according to Smecker,” Reeve said. “I’m not sure if he’s able to think of this himself, but perhaps one way we could do is he leads them to Valentine and we fly ahead to pick him up before either the clones catch up or Valentine notices him.”
Actually, with their limited resources, that probably was the only way they would be able to manage. “Should you suggest it or I?”
Reeve rubbed at his chin and glanced past Elena’s shoulder. Then he looked back at her, a touch of surprise in his eyes. “Normally I would say me, but he seems to have gotten fond of you already. I’ve never heard him refer to anyone as family except…well, the obvious. Sephiroth, the clones, Jenova…”
And what did they and Elena possibly have in common? One possibility suddenly occurred to her and she nearly cast a panicked look back at Kadaj. In the end she couldn’t help turning, but at least she managed to do it slowly, as if she were merely considering their options. “It is very odd. I have no idea why he’s doing that—he has seen a woman before, hasn’t he?”
“There were several among the lab technicians and doctors who studied him alongside Hojo. I think that’s it,” Reeve said, voice becoming a bit clipped. He obviously hadn’t approved of Hojo’s work; Elena had never seen Reeve express an opinion on the subject before, but in light of Cait Sith and the moogle, it made sense. “You aren’t the first woman he’s seen, but you’re probably the first one who’s been nice to him. I can’t begin to imagine what impressions Paul might’ve given him about women…”
“Well, that’s probably it.” Elena briskly brushed down her suit and went back over to speak to Kadaj. Reeve wasn’t a stupid man and if he hadn’t yet thought of another reason why Kadaj would feel a kinship with her, she wasn’t going to give him the chance. “Feel free to jump in if I’m doing anything wrong. I still don’t know where I stand with him.”
“No, I think you’re doing fine. You’re doing much better than I have since Paul was…since he’s been incapacitated,” Reeve replied in a quiet voice. When she looked back at him, he gave her a rueful, appreciative smile that was both open and not quite showing her everything.
But not in a bad way, she thought. Just very unexpected. “Thank you. You know, I’m glad I’m working with you on this.”
Reeve’s eyes changed—not in color, or pupil size, or anything quantifiable—and Elena felt one of those odd pangs, like a scratchy pnp-junction wasn’t closing properly and was losing data. She hadn’t had one of those episodes for a while, and she’d assumed that all of those bugs had been ironed out a long time ago.
It wasn’t a critical error, so she made herself put it out of her mind and squatted down to look Kadaj in the eye. “Kadaj? Kadaj, can you still find Valentine? I think this is what we’d like to do…”
* * *
It took a while to even find where Smecker kept his private files. At first Sephiroth hacked Smecker’s regular consoles—and there were many of them, and they were all properly secured, which meant that breaking into them via a handheld, a datascreen and stream-manipulators clipped onto Sephiroth’s fingertips nearly caused him to simply skewer the memory drives with Masamune. Once upon a time it’d been so easy: he’d merely had to adjust his method of thinking to that of whoever had built the system, and the number of ways in which people thought about structure were very limited.
Or so it seemed. One step removed from the hacking process made it so…unintuitive, and difficult to comprehend the change in interfacing, and while struggling with it, Sephiroth could understand very well why Shinra had spent so much time in trying to eliminate that middle step. And then, after all that trouble, he found that Smecker didn’t even keep his private notes in those databases and he suddenly understood the incoherent rage people could develop towards technology, to the point of declaring it the root of all evil.
When he took the time to rationally consider it, it did make sense. Those were all connected to the Shinra network, or at least provided by Shinra, and there was always the chance that Shinra would take them back and have them cracked. As Sephiroth had just done.
Smecker was paranoid in ways even Sephiroth found excessive, so…he did have the skills to cobble together his own, completely independent computer. It wouldn’t be terribly powerful, but if he was only running one simulation or project on it, then it wouldn’t have to be. And it probably wouldn’t look like a computer either, Sephiroth thought as he surveyed the room.
Very little of Smecker’s quarters was recognizable to him except as faint echoes from his childhood history lessons. Knowing Smecker, each piece probably had been chosen as a specific reference, and within that framework the particular piece of furniture that held his private database was probably obvious. But Sephiroth didn’t have the time to do the research into it now, so it’d simply have to be logical elimination.
He excluded everything larger than a cube a foot wide on every side, as that would be too suspect. If Smecker had been attempting to communicate with Jenova, he would also have needed to include some way to connect to the networks, and that also mandated a minimum size. With that range in mind, Sephiroth systematically began to sort the things in the rooms, bringing anything that did seem a possibility to the center of the first and leaving it there.
By the time he reached what was obviously Kadaj’s room, he’d collected a sizable pile. If he’d still had certain mods, he could have scanned them for microchips as he’d found them, but—Sephiroth shook his head. It still seemed to him that technology was indifferent to its inventors and its effects were what people made of them, but…well, it was clear that some technologies weren’t currently safe for him. If he’d still had all his implants, he wouldn’t have had a choice with Jenova booming at him.
He almost left Kadaj’s things alone, thinking that even Smecker wouldn’t dare leave something so valuable and so delicate within Kadaj’s uncomprehending grasp. But then Sephiroth took a second look around the room and noticed a small hump in the bedding material shoved up against the wall.
When he uncovered it, he found a standard entertainment VR generator. Nothing too out of the ordinary, aside from the odd baby-scrawl writing chipped into its plastic casing. Sephiroth sat down on the bed—he was a little startled at how deeply he sank into the mattress—and carefully pulled the generator out. It was big enough to fit in his lap, but heavy: he propped it up against the headboard as he traced his fingers over the writing, trying to see if it was nonsense or if it was one of Kadaj’s off-kilter methods of communication. Some of the scratches formed words he recognized, but they—
--his fingers brushed against what felt like the socket for the jacking wires, only to receive a tingling shock. He pulled back his hand and examined it, but found no burns or other significant damage, and he was about to turn the box and look more closely when someone coughed.
Sephiroth whipped around, Masamune sliding out of his hand, shocked that he hadn’t had the slightest…Masamune passed between the man’s shirt-collar and chin and completely through without leaving a blood splatter on the wall behind, and then Sephiroth understood. He’d just triggered the box.
The hologram standing before him was of a tall, pale-skinned man with severe features and brown hair. Old-fashioned sunglasses hid his eyes. “And who,” he drawled, “ Are you?”
Something in the timbre of his voice…Sephiroth retracted Masamune, but was slow and careful in his movements as he turned his back to the generator. He quietly searched it for and found the power supply cable, making sure he had a good grip on it before he answered. “Sephiroth. I don’t suppose you’d return the courtesy…”
The man’s thin lips creased into a humorless smile. “You’re not the same as that one who’s always around. You have a sense of precaution. Well, as it does seem to facilitate the act of communicating, which is always so difficult for you—” disgusted curl of the lip; the generality seemed to bespeak some old argument “—I may be addressed as—”
“Jenova,” Sephiroth said quickly. His hand tightened on the cable.
That provoked a frown. The man opened his mouth, lifting his hands calmly enough, but then a shiver went through him, nearly triggering a disintegration of the image, and somehow he seemed aware of it. He snarled and ripped off his sunglasses, spinning towards Sephiroth.
Sephiroth yanked the power cord. The man instantly vanished, leaving behind only the generator and the prickling hairs on the back of Sephiroth’s neck. That—had been—too similar. That Smecker had been able to create such a…he’d have had to have some sort of regular contact, some way of getting Jenova’s attention, in order to have gotten the effect of her on Sephiroth so closely. This box had to be it.
Once Sephiroth had disconnected it from all of its cables, he did look at the scratching on it again. And this time, he thought he could almost read a disjointed warning in Kadaj’s words, cobbled together from multiple languages, old and new.
But then, linguistics was hardly the main problem. Sephiroth tucked the box under his arm and left to deliver it to Thomas.
* * *
Vincent wasn’t surprised to find that Sephiroth was ranging a good deal further afield than he normally would, but Kadaj leaving Smecker’s side did catch him off-guard. He usually didn’t bother to track Kadaj anyway, judging that one to be too lacking in patience and forward-thinking even with Smecker directing him. So when wave after wave of clones seemed to zero in on Vincent’s whereabouts, it took him a good deal of time to figure out the cause of it.
They weren’t difficult to deal with, and especially since he wasn’t his original target. The clones seemed to have problems with switching their priorities—which might reflect a lag in communication with wherever Jenova was basing herself—and that distraction nullified their exceptional strength and speed. Which Vincent could match even when they were not distracted. But they were numerous, and it wasn’t long before he was running low on ammunition.
By then he had apparently reached the last three of the current batch and could afford the luxury of a tactical change: he did shoot the first to come at him, but he waited till he could catch the falling body and fling it back into the other two’s oncoming rush. That slowed them so he could safely close the distance between them and smash in their heads with the butt of his rifle.
He only aimed to crush the one’s skull; the other he merely concussed. But as he bent down to check its vitals, its jaw suddenly snapped shut with a loud click of teeth. Vincent knew what that meant now and lunged for its mouth, trying to pry it open with his hands, but he was too late. The clone had already poisoned itself.
And he knew it couldn’t have been conscious. The thick, bitter taste of disappointment rose in his mouth, paired with a kind of grudging admiration. Jenova had gone one better than Shinra and managed to ensure that when her pawns couldn’t act, she could still have total control over them.
Vincent straightened up, his mind moving on to the problem of resupply, and happened to glimpse a silver flicker on the leftmost edge of his vision. He thought it was a clone and ducked around a corner, then scaled the wall and crossed the roof quickly enough to have caught it. If it had been a clone.
Nothing was where he’d seen the flicker, and furthermore, he didn’t smell anything. The clones tended to have a distinctive odor of trace preservatives—they’d armed Shinra personnel more heavily and no longer allowed them out singly to cut down on Jenova’s ability to obtain fresh organs—and decay and something else that Vincent hadn’t yet identified. Something sharp and prickly and associated with mechanical processes, like ozone.
Then he thought perhaps it was Sephiroth, but he could follow Sephiroth’s movements with precise accuracy within the range of a mile, and he didn’t sense the other man anywhere near that. At that point he was puzzled, but the silver tinge did substantially limit the number of other suspects.
Kadaj…Vincent didn’t have his signature memorized, but now that he wasn’t concentrating solely on Sephiroth or the clones, he could sense someone near. The connection was fuzzy, as if…he looked up.
* * *
The fingers tightened around Elena’s leg so much that she didn’t need to remind himself to yelp and drop down. Kadaj was holding on so hard that he was crushing and possibly permanently damaging input sensors there. “What’s wrong?” she hissed.
“He knows I’m here,” Kadaj whimpered, pushing his head into Elena’s shoulder. He let go of her leg when she grabbed his shoulders and buried himself in her arms.
“We’re too far up for even Valentine to jump, and I’m pretty sure he’s working without any kind of transport.” Reeve had shifted to the other side of the moogle to balance the weight and now seemed to be rewiring things with his bare hands. The moogle was still floating peacefully in the sky, so Elena didn’t begin to worry yet about what he was doing, but she couldn’t help but keep an eye on it. “He can’t get you.”
Elena awkwardly patted Kadaj on the back. A tiny mewl near her foot startled her; Cait Sith looked solemnly up, then gracefully climbed to nestle in between her knee and Kadaj’s chest. After a moment, Kadaj snaked out a long white finger to stroke the kitten’s head and slightly relaxed.
“Valentine can’t be as bad as Sephiroth or…or Jenova,” Elena said, trying to contribute as well.
It worked, but not how she’d been expecting it to: Kadaj reared up so Cait Sith jumped from them with a squall, eyes blazing. “Big brother and mother, they both think I’m cracked inside. Valentine thinks I’m nothing.”
“He’s heading for the storage buildings to the west,” Reeve muttered.
Reply to him first, Elena finally decided. “Those are ammunition supplies. He must have started to run low. Kadaj—Kadaj, that’s good. If Valentine’s that busy, then he can’t head back to Shinra Tower.”
“But my other brothers are getting tired of coming out. I don’t know—” Kadaj bent over and squeezed his head with his hands, tears of frustration leaking from his eyes“—don’t know—I don’t hear them. I don’t think they’re going to come anymore. I think they’re tired.”
Elena and Reeve shared a look of panic-tinged dismay. They’d had a perfect view of Valentine’s ruthless, efficient dispatching of the clones and neither of them were anywhere near that level of physical skill. Reeve maybe could have done something with the networks, but from all reports Valentine had a strange immunity to anything originating in those.
“I don’t think Rufus would like losing those ammunition stockpiles, but if I set those building’s generators to produce a big enough EMP…” Reeve finally began.
“No. Reno tried to attack Valentine earlier—I don’t know the details, but knowing him, he would’ve used his electro-rod. And I couldn’t see if it’d had any effect on Valentine, but I know Reno’s in the hospital.” Elena pressed the heels of her hands against her temples, trying to think.
Kadaj wiped the tears off his face. He looked at her, eerily calm again. “You can’t stop him?”
“No,” Elena said. She was a little distracted by a sudden lurch; she instantly looked towards Reeve and he murmured an apology.
Then they started to descend unexpectedly, but Reeve made a calm-down gesture with his free hand. His other hand was still buried within the inner workings of the moogle. “Zack just told me that they’re sending out people to recover the clone corpses and we need to go to a lower altitude. I’ll keep us clear of Valentine, though.”
“All right. I wonder if—” A blur beside Elena made her turn, and then she lunged about, but her fingers just grazed Kadaj’s leg as he disappeared over the side of the moogle. “Reeve! Down, now!”
* * *
The falling speck was too far away for Vincent to make out any details, but he knew who it was. He had several guesses as to why Kadaj would be following him and none of them were particularly flattering to him, but that didn’t matter. Kadaj had only been of importance before because of his association with Jenova and Hojo, and because of Paul’s fondness for him. When Smecker had had Kadaj’s mods disabled, that eliminated any lingering interest Jenova had had in him, and consequently Vincent’s concern over him as well.
Smecker was now unconscious, of course. And if Kadaj was idiotic enough to seek Vincent out and attack him, then Vincent had absolutely no reason to hold back.
He moved away from the window and went back to reloading his guns. The first he did was his rifle, which he set aside with the safeties off.
* * *
Thomas received the VR generator with a dubious look that turned into blackly amused when he turned it on. He turned it off before Agent Smith had finished materializing, snorting. “Damn. Even when he’s in a coma, Smecker is one scary son of a bitch.”
“That meant something to—you?” Sephiroth asked. He frowned as something twinged in his head, almost like the beginnings of a headache.
“Well, for one, Smecker knew a lot more about me than…it’s not really important. But that was a gatekeeper, and I’ve got a pretty good idea about how to get around him to the data,” Thomas said. He pushed the generator to one side of the table and began collecting cables, motherboards, other computer paraphernalia. “Come back in two days.”
The twinge grew into a low aching itch at the back of Sephiroth’s head. He set his molars and did his best to ignore it. “Two days?”
“Unless you think Smecker was really careless about securing his private notes. I think I know what kind of encryption he was using and even if my guess is right, it still isn’t going to be a stroll to crack it.” Thomas dumped his current armful onto the table next to the generator, then picked up a pair of tweezers and a small blowtorch. He hooked a half-dismantled server with his foot and pulled it over for a seat before getting to work. “I’m going to be working nonstop on this.”
The itch began to sound like a muffled murmur, which Sephiroth could still ignore, but which his gut was saying not to. Though he wasn’t sure who it was, and if it was that strange voice that’d been intruding lately, the one Jenova always shut up…a sharp pain alerted Sephiroth to the fact that he’d begun to pull at his hair.
It’d also attracted Thomas’ attention. He frowned and paused with a partially-soldered wire dangling from the tweezers. “Are you all right? Oh, shit—is that crazy Valentine coming here again?”
“Where’s Tseng?” Sephiroth asked, one eye closed as he grimaced. The other one was cracked open and he just glimpsed Thomas’ startled movement. “No, Vincent isn’t coming here. He’s still far off. But Vincent has so ideas about what Smecker was doing as well—I don’t know how far along he is—and you’ll be racing him.”
“Are you going to keep him off my back?” Thomas riposted.
Sephiroth made himself take his fist out of his hair and headed for the door. That voice was too strong for the unknown, too weak for Jenova. Vincent hardly spoke to him aloud and if able to speak to Sephiroth in another way, would almost certainly not employ it, which left one possibility. “I’m one person. I suggest you get Tseng back.”
“He’s one person, too.” When Sephiroth looked, Thomas’ expression was quizzical and irritated, but remarkably free of mockery.
“If he’s here, then it’s two people. Simple addition,” Sephiroth snapped as he left. Whatever was restraining the other man’s tongue, he certainly didn’t feel the same.
* * *
Of course Reeve sent the moogle swooping after Kadaj as quickly as possible, but they’d already been low enough for Kadaj to make the leap to the nearest roof apparently without any harm. He was up on his feet immediately after his landing and since he could—and did, to confusing effect—go in and out of buildings, it was difficult to follow him.
“I can’t find him—damn it. Damn it,” Elena said, frantically scanning the area below them. She noticed an approaching girder and started to turn, but Reeve was already dipping them just under it.
That was fine, but—there was only one place they all were going anyway, and a small craft would take too long to get through. Elena muttered to Reeve to stay over the west side of the storage buildings, then hopped up, grabbed the lower side of the girder, and swung herself onto it. Then she ran down it and into the building, heading in the general direction that she’d last seen Kadaj moving.
She wasn’t as fast as him on the ground, but she was faster than Reeve and she did think she could handle herself in a hit-and-run sort of situation. By the time she’d arrived at the warehouses, Reeve still was a small white dot that she needed visual enhancers to pick out in the hazy sky.
All the Shinra warehouses were the same, and as the Turk Valentine spoke to about the clones’ analysis results, Elena had gotten a few peeks at the man’s firearms. She knew roughly what she’d be looking for and she headed that way as soon as she’d keyed into the place. The security system was still intact, so either Valentine had circumvented it or he’d simply used his status as nominal head of the Turks to get in. For all that he seemed to dislike Shinra, she thought with a snort, he had no problem using its resources.
She heard a shot as she was coming out of the lift on the lowest of the possible levels. It was coming from another two stories up, but she didn’t bother getting back in the elevator. Or disguising her footsteps now; a tiny part of her hoped that maybe Valentine would restrain himself if he thought there’d be witnesses, but mostly it was just a sacrifice of surprise for speed. Her orders were to keep Valentine from Smecker and Kadaj alive, and she wasn’t about to fail.
On the next floor up, she heard Kadaj screaming, incoherent with anger. Her foot had just come down on the last step before the right level when she heard the clang of metal—did Kadaj have his own weapon?
She ran down the hall so quickly that she smelled the soles of her shoes scorching. Elena grimaced, and grimaced again when she had to grab the doorframe to stop herself at the correct place and her fingers crushed into the metal. But then, the other two at least had a sense of what she was, so it wasn’t a secret to them—she worried more about that pained keen that wafted into the hallway.
Standard procedure would’ve had her there with a partner. And with one of them covering the door while the other hacked the entry panel, but none of this was standard away. So she jammed her hand into the sockets the moment their tips had flipped to extend the right jacks, not waiting for a lull in the fighting inside. She did go in with gun drawn, but wasn’t expecting to get more than a wild first shot off.
As it turned out, she didn’t even manage that much. The first thing she saw was Kadaj with blood from his face down his arm to his hand, a red-smeared short-sword in the middle of the room, and a blur of red on the other side of the room. Elena threw herself across the room, sliding in front of Kadaj; she was going so quickly she didn’t have time to adjust her aim, and so her gun was still pointed at the wall when something smashed into her just above her left breast.
Her vision went black. Everything went quiet till she breathed in, and then that was the only sound she heard so it echoed abnormally in her ears. Her fingers and toes up to their bases sparked, spasmed—she felt the weight of her gun drop away—then numbed. She knew her feet were skidding backward and she thought stay standing, and that might have been all that salvaged her balance.
Then the world came back, Valentine’s pale face with wide red eyes first. He stared at her over the barrel of his gun; she stared back, breathing out, and sound returned. Kadaj’s shivering little cry filtered up into her ears.
“What are you doing?” Valentine asked.
Elena swallowed and something crackled in her chest. The fabric of her shirt was beginning to stick to her, wet and clinging. She grimaced and tried to move her hand to press over her breast, but her arms weren’t responding very quickly and it took several seconds to maneuver it up to cover the hole. Its edges were charred, but the interior wasn’t completely cauterized, hence the fluid leakage. “Sir, I’m sorry, but I’m responsible for Kadaj’s life and I can’t let you take it.”
“But he’ll kill you. You have to leave him,” was Valentine’s nonsensical response. He seemed to find it odd as well, for his eyes narrowed and his lips tightened. His expression went blank as he withdrew into thought. “He assaulted me.”
“He’s grieving. He doesn’t know what he’s doing—surely you can understand grief?” Long shot, completely in the dark, but something about it seemed to strike a chord in Valentine. Elena dared to back up till the back of her legs touched Kadaj. “It’s my fault, sir. I apologize. I should’ve kept a closer eye on him.”
Those opaque red eyes regarded her. Then Valentine turned and scooped up another gun from the counter. “I see,” he said.
Then he leaped lightly up, and by the time Elena managed to raise her head, he was out of sight. She didn’t have the energy to lower her head and simply sank to the ground with it still tipped up, breathing harshly.
“Sister? Sister, you’re hurt,” Kadaj said, hands fluttering over her. He was injured—he whimpered more than once as he helped lower her—but he was surprisingly strong, considering his delicate looks. And careful, considering his attitude. The finger he used to probe at her wound was so light she almost didn’t feel it—or perhaps those sensors had shorted out. “Sister, why does your blood have no color?”
She flinched and her head jerked towards the voice and her right leg spasmed to go skidding across the floor. It hit the short-sword and sent it flying…just beneath a raised foot. Then Reeve bent to pick it up. He wiped it down with his coat before coming over and handing it back to Kadaj, who made a delighted noise and promptly made it disappear. But Reeve’s eyes were fixed on Elena.
The sensory connections in her chest were dead except for the most vital ones, the undamaged ones shutting down because they couldn’t handle the overload that the damaged ones had dropped. But somehow she still had the sensation of a tight burning in there, and—and she couldn’t lower her chin even if she’d wanted to.
“I’m…not flesh and blood,” she said. “At least, I didn’t start that way. They built me because I have no pride, except for what I’m told to take pride in.”
Reeve obviously took that in, but his attention had shifted to her chest—well, she could guess why. She let him pry her hand off and gently examine the pierced skin, the broken metal and silica.
“Can I help you with this, or do you like taking care of it by yourself?” he finally asked. His eyes flickered when Elena frowned. “I’m not going to begin treating you like a machine, Elena.”
“But that’s what I am.” Then she grimaced as something in her chest misfired.
“Sister, I’m no machine,” Kadaj said pointedly. He wriggled out from behind her, cradling one arm, and edged around to put his chin on Reeve’s shoulder.
That didn’t seem to suit Reeve too much, but he covered it well and began to stuff scraps of Elena’s tattered shirt into the hole to stop the leakage. “You might have started as one, but…if I’ve learned one thing in my life, it’s to judge based on the present. Here, let’s get you on your feet.”
* * *
Kadaj wasn’t shouting anymore, but Sephiroth went on to check. He relaxed slightly when he saw Reeve ushering a bloody but mobile Kadaj and Elena onto a…giant floating moogle? That man’s sense of humor was nearly as strange as Smecker’s—
--Vincent was nearby. Vincent was on the roof. Sephiroth stiffened, then flattened himself against the wall. He didn’t think it’d do any good, but there was no reason to make it easy, either.
But much to his surprise, Vincent merely dropped past the window onto a ledge a few stories below. He either was ignoring Sephiroth, which seemed extremely improbable, or he’d somehow missed Sephiroth. Either way…Sephiroth held his position.
On the heels of that whisper came a slight whoosh. A few minutes later, when Sephiroth went over to the window, Vincent was already too far away for him to sense.
“Ignored,” Sephiroth muttered. He couldn’t help his lip curling, even though it was a godsend for him. Though he shook it off soon enough, and dropped out the window himself. He’d go see what Kadaj had done this time, then return to decoying Vincent from both Thomas and Smecker.
One person, he thought. It’d been easier when he hadn’t seen the world in such terms.