|Overwriting the System
Author: Guede Mazaka
Kadaj knew what they meant when they said Paul was sleeping. A long time ago, back when he couldn’t put his hands out more than a few yards without touching something clear but hard and unbreakable—no matter how he tried—he’d been given a puppy. He hadn’t known what it was till much later, when he’d had a chance to look it up, but he’d known then that it was soft and warm, and it made sounds that did strange things to his belly that he thought he might like. But then he squeezed it to get the sound again, and it’d made a horrible noise and he’d squeezed harder to get rid of it, and then it hadn’t been warm anymore. It still had been soft, but in all the wrong ways, and when the lab scientists had taken it away they had told him it was sleeping and had to go back to its cage.
Back then he hadn’t known that the word ‘lie’ was what people called not looking him in the eye and pulling back their lips like that, like their mouths hurt—though he had already learned the names for all the different muscles that made their mouths move—but he could tell that something was wrong with what they were saying. The next time one of them had come near enough, he’d lashed out so they had fallen on the floor. Then he’d hurt and he hadn’t been able to do more than whine as the man had been carried away, but later when they’d asked why he’d done it, he’d asked them if the man was still sleeping.
Paul used to say he had a good sense of humor, Kadaj thought, and sniffled. His eyes stung and they were dripping too. At first he let them, but then he remembered that he wasn’t in his own room and he scrubbed at his face with his hand. “Sister?”
“She can’t talk right now, Kadaj.” Reeve’s voice was all thin and flat, the way people got when they were more in the networks than in their bodies. Something sparked, and then he cleared his throat and after that he sounded a little more like Reeve. “Sorry, I had to numb Elena’s voicebox while I work on this part. But she can hear you. I think…if you come over, she can squeeze your hand to answer: once for yes, twice for no.”
Kadaj twisted about on the shelf on which he was lying, then dropped so his chest was flat against the plank and his head was dangling over the edge. He peered into the ragged hole that Reeve had made in the middle of Elena’s chest, the flaps of bloodless skin pinned back from the slightly shining cut edges of the ribs. They didn’t look like bone, or like anything organic. They looked like mods, like big long strips of silica sticking out of her, and when Kadaj looked closer, he saw that two of them even had makeshift jacks jammed into their sides. Green glints blurred towards the black plugs before suddenly vanishing beneath the gleaming smooth surface.
A strand of hair slipped down in front of his right eye and he moved his head to get out of the way, and happened to look up to Elena’s face. She was looking back at him, her pupils widening and shrinking as she tracked his movements. He flexed down on his palms and knees and the shelf dropped till he and she were at the same level. Elena’s head turned to follow him and it was strange, all smooth and even movement till it suddenly stopped. Then Kadaj began to sit up and he realized she hadn’t been strange after all, but instead had been just like him when he was used to everyone else.
He put his hand on her shoulder, then bent down to rest his head on top of that. “Sister. I’m sorry, sister. I ran too far ahead.”
“You did what we asked you to do,” Reeve said, mild but startled. When Kadaj looked up, the man’s eyes were a brown like the brown of Paul’s hair in a dark room.
Something shifted beneath Kadaj’s hand: Elena shrugged again, then slowly lifted her arm in the same inhumanly seamless motion with which she’d turned her head. Past her fingers Kadaj saw Reeve’s gaze move to her wrist in sudden interest. He hissed, then grabbed Elena’s hand so hard that she shook and something in her chest clattered. Cursing, Reeve instantly shoved his fingers back into the hole. His eyes went to a flat green.
A faint grimace was sketched out by the twitches in Elena’s face. Deep in Kadaj’s chest there was a sharp twist and he dropped his head again, pressing it to her fingers. “Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry--”
Kadaj’s head shot up. He stared at a paling Reeve, then at Elena, but the planes of her face had gone smooth and still as metal. When he touched her eyelid, her pupil tracked towards his fingertip but the lid itself didn’t move.
“I’m sorry,” he said, for having to touch her to be sure. He moved his head back onto the shelf, but held onto her hand.
“It’ll just be a few more minutes, and then you’ll—she’ll—be able to talk again.” Reeve reached up to the half-fan of jacks sticking out of the underside of his chin and disconnected one. He jammed the jack back into a plug behind his ear before pulling a thin probe from her chest and switching its jack to the freed-up plug in his chin. “Kadaj? Why do you call Elena your sister?”
Sometimes Reeve made Kadaj uncomfortable. Not the kind of uncomfortable where Kadaj wanted to hurt him, or run away from him, but a different third kind where Kadaj thought maybe he should be giggling but he wasn’t sure if that was allowed. It made him wish again, so hard that his head hurt around his eyes and at the back near the bottom, that Paul was awake so he could ask if he could laugh. “Because she is my sister.”
“Oh. Yes. Well, that’s a sensible answer,” Reeve muttered. Now he was bent down so his shoulders were almost up to his ears and his elbows sticking out at his sides. He did something that made a blue flash in Elena’s chest. “How…how exactly is she your sister? Do you have the same mother?”
“No,” Kadaj snarled. He dropped Elena’s hand and nearly scooted off the other side of the shelf before he realized what he was doing. Then he had to scrabble back on and the shelf thought he wanted it to move that way, towards Reeve, and at the last moment he had to grab its sides and leap to make it fly over the other man’s head.
Reeve gasped, but he didn’t yell afterward. He ducked his head and continued doing what he was doing to Elena till he was done, and then he twisted around to see. By then Kadaj had gotten the shelf to listen to him again and was back beside the other man, only he was too quick so Reeve jumped and was scared for a moment. Kadaj bit his lip, wanting to hit Reeve and himself at the same time.
“I apologize. I didn’t mean to offend you.” In Elena something clicked for Reeve’s attention and in the middle of talking he had to look down. But the wrinkles on his forehead weren’t for the silver sticks and wires sticking out from Elena’s body.
Kadaj blinked. He did what Paul had taught him to do and went over the words again, one by one, checking their meaning against the meanings—the whole fucking encyclopedia, Paulie always muttered, and then he’d snort and tell Kadaj that was wrong, he really meant something called a ‘dictionary’—in his head, but he still didn’t understand what the other man meant. “I’m not hurt. Elena is, because Vincent Valentine is a shit. And Paul is because of mother, who likes hurting people. Mother doesn’t like Elena. Elena’s nice and she didn’t let Valentine hurt me. Mother doesn’t want anyone like that.”
“Mother…doesn’t want…Elena?” Reeve glanced up, one eye brown and one green, and both of them fixed on Kadaj. “Does she want you?”
“No, she hates me.” A sharp thing went through Kadaj’s head, a little like a knife through his flesh, but he knew it wasn’t supposed to be there and he thought very hard till it went away. Then he rubbed at his temple, wishing too that she would just leave him alone. “Big deal. I hated her first. She was mean even before Paul took me to the man who made her stop yelling at me, and now all she can do is hurt me a little but I was already used to that. She never wanted me anyway. Nobody did but Paul.”
Elena’s arm was still dangling over the side of the table, from when Kadaj had dropped it. He looked at it and he felt bad but also scared, with the way it looked all limp and wrong like that puppy had been in the scientist’s arms. But her eyes were moving, and he was smart enough to figure things out, like her arm couldn’t be sleeping forever if the rest of her was awake. So he reached out and put it back on the table, and then its hand curled around so the fingers brushed his wrist as he pulled away.
“Then she isn’t really your mother, is she?” Reeve asked. He sounded confused.
He was confused. He kept looking up at Kadaj when he should have been paying attention to Elena, so later someone wouldn’t have to take her to the labs and fix her again. “She’s my mother. I hate her but you have to have a mother and she’s my mother.”
After a moment, Reeve carefully arranged the instruments he was holding so that he could look up at Kadaj without anything happening. “But how is Elena your sister if Jenova is not her mother?”
Kadaj stiffened at the name. He hated that too, and always tried not to, but he couldn’t help it. Sometimes he wondered if he had to go back and see that man, Thomas-Neo, to make that go away, or if it was a scar on the inside like he had scars on his outside now. He could get the scars on the outside erased so his skin looked like Reeve’s, all white and solid and smooth, but that was one of the things Paul hated, so Kadaj was a little afraid Paul wouldn’t like him if he did that before Paul…woke up. Anyway he wasn’t allowed to get more mods because then—mother. Reeve had asked about her. But why? Now Kadaj was confused.
“Jenova isn’t Elena’s mother,” he muttered. He pressed his fingers to his mouth, thinking again. “She’s my mother, and Elena is my sister. Elena isn’t like Jenova at all.”
Reeve’s eyes went blue, then green, then brown. He chewed at his lip; his mods meant that barely changed color beneath the pressure, right up to where his teeth finally began to draw out a bead of blood. “Is Elena your sister because she’s…like you?”
“That would just mean she’s like me, and she’s not. Sephiroth isn’t her big brother…oh.” Now Kadaj thought he knew what Reeve wanted to know, but he still wasn’t sure how to answer the man. Paul would have known, but Paul was sleeping. Sleeping. “Elena is…Elena is…I’m supposed to be like big brother, but I’m me. She’s supposed to be a…a computer but she’s Elena.” He thought a little more, pushing two knuckles into his forehead. “She’s not my sister, my genetic sister, because that would mean mother could get at her too and I’m glad she doesn’t have that, but…I wish she was. I have all these brothers who aren’t really my brothers even if my mother is their mother, so I just want a sister who’s mine and not hers.”
“So do you mean she’s your friend?” Reeve asked, slow and careful.
Why he was so nervous didn’t make sense to Kadaj, but he didn’t want Reeve to be nervous since that might make him make a mistake with Elena. “And she’s my sister, too. You have to tell friends what’s different with you because they don’t know before you do. She knows what’s different already because she’s different that way, too. She…could have been mother’s daughter, but she isn’t because mother didn’t make her.”
For a long while Reeve sat there and looked at Kadaj, and the whole time his eyes were nothing but brown. Still that nice shade of it, but somehow it made Kadaj nervous this time instead of telling him that Reeve was paying attention to him, and so he looked down but Elena was staring at him too. Her eyes never changed from blue, the way Kadaj’s eyes never changed from green.
At the edge of Kadaj’s vision, Reeve’s hands moved. Elena’s pupils widened, and then she jerked and a wet choking noise came from her throat. Her arm hitched up so it formed a ninety-degree angle, stopped, then hitched the rest of the way so she could grab at her jaw. Then she awkwardly twisted her head back so she was coughing at the ceiling. A little bit of clear stuff splattered onto her lips before her head abruptly fell back.
“It’s just fluid that’s collected in her windpipe. Here, if you hold up her head—” Reeve skimmed back from the table and reached for something.
But Elena had already spat it all out; she closed her eyes, then opened them. Then she looked at Kadaj. “How do you know what I am? Did you…is it something you can see? Sense?”
Kadaj flinched at her sharp tone and she closed her eyes again and grimaced. She started what he thought was an apology, but he was still worried about upsetting her and answered first. “It’s in my head. It’s like this…” he tried to move his hands and make a noise that was like it, but couldn’t get it right “…like…like…”
“No, that’s enough. Don’t worry about it—I think I understand what you mean.” Elena laid back down. A bit of her chest skin rippled and she absently reached for it and tried to smooth it down. Her brow furrowed and she looked at herself, then made another face and put her head back. “I was just afraid you were going to say that it was because of her.”
A tiny, high-pitched, scared noise came from somewhere. Then Kadaj saw Reeve and Elena looking at him, and realized that it’d come from him. His nails hurt and he looked to see why, then made himself stop trying to scratch up the metal shelf. He knew his nails were lower on the hardness scale and could never do that. “Why would it be because of her? Do you…do you hear her?”
“No,” Elena immediately said, frowning. She kept staring at Kadaj and her face changed, the skin around her mouth and eyes flexing. “No, I don’t. I never have, but I’ve been worried about that. I…guessed that if you can hear her, then that’s not a good thing.”
“It’s not.” Kadaj sat up on the shelf so he could look at more of her and check for all the signs that she might be lying. “You never heard her? You don’t know when my brothers are coming? It’s not…in your head?”
Elena shook her head. She wasn’t lying.
“But you’re like us,” Kadaj slowly said. “You’re in our head. We know when you’re coming.”
“I am?” Elena said, her brows jumping. Then she pushed herself up on an elbow and tried to turn, only to throw her arm across the gaping hole in her chest as wires and probes shifted about inside it.
Reeve hastily came back and stuck his hands in the hole, and for a few minutes they worked only on trying to make things okay in her. Their fingers ran into each other once, then again, and finally Elena sank back on her elbows while Reeve worked so quickly Kadaj almost couldn’t follow his movements, his eyes flickering green-brown-green. The other man chewed on one side of his lip.
When he was done, he sighed and began to lean forward. Then he jerked a little before removing his hands from Elena’s chest so hastily he nearly pulled out two jacks along the way. Red patches sluggishly pressed up his cheeks as he glanced at Elena. “I really apologize for having to do it this way,” he said very quietly. “If I could make it easier for you, I would.”
That didn’t make much sense to Kadaj, since he didn’t think Elena was hurting. And since she didn’t have to fix herself, she could relax and was in no trouble at all.
“I’m fine,” she replied, shrugging a bit. She was looking more at the side of Reeve’s forehead than at him. “I’m—well, this isn’t the first time. And this is a lot more delicate than the service I usually get. But…you know, I don’t know many details about how I was made, but…”
“I wish I knew exactly how Paul—” Reeve suddenly glanced at Kadaj, then spoke a little more slowly “—got the way he is now. But otherwise…any mod plus an active connection to an open network makes you vulnerable to Jenova, but it seems like the nature of the vulnerability depends on…on the rest of your make-up. Certain organic manipulations widen your range of vulnerabilities—what she can do with you, basically.”
Elena looked at him, then reached back without turning her head to grab Kadaj’s hand. She didn’t say why, but her grip was very tight and so he moved closer to put his head on her shoulder. It was stiff and pointed against the underside of his chin. “Reeve. I’m not…organic. Not the same way—”
“Well, you are, but you’ve developed along opposing lines.” His eyes had turned bright green and he was looking at her but he wasn’t seeing her. He wasn’t listening to her half-stifled annoyed sound either. “Sephiroth started as a human embryo that had genetic alterations introduced to it. You started as a computer that had organic matter added to it…I think? So…so maybe it’s the organic part that makes the difference. If yours is sufficiently different, or if it’s because your core is fundamentally non-organic, then perhaps you have some sort of immunity.”
“But that hurts.” When they looked at him, Kadaj straightened up and stared right back at them. “It hurt. It hurt a lot when my mods were taken out. I almost wanted them to stop because it hurt so much, but then Paul told me again that I wouldn’t hear her anymore. And I wanted that more—I want to be myself, not her.”
After a moment, Elena loosened her hold on Kadaj’s hand. Her thumb ran across the back of that, then dropped away when he frowned at her. She shook her head before suddenly smiling. “You don’t need to worry about that.”
“I hope so. I hope you don’t either, sister,” Kadaj muttered. He carefully laid back down on the shelf, pulling her hand towards him. When she didn’t take it away, he pressed it to his cheek. “Paul told me a lot of things, but he also said that he wouldn’t let her get him.”
Elena and Reeve looked at each other again. Then Reeve turned away, going back to his work on her chest, but Elena continued to stare at the side of his head.
“Well, we’re going to work hard to wake him up, and make sure nobody else falls asleep like that,” Reeve said. His hands slowed, then resumed their previous speed. “There’ll be no more cavalier experimentation as long as I can help it. I’m so damn tired of…Elena, do you feel anything in your left hand right now?”
She didn’t answer, so he had to repeat the question, and then she said that she felt a tingling. But she still didn’t look like she was listening to him even though she was looking at him, even when Kadaj accidentally bumped her arm. Kadaj didn’t understand it, so he simply watched them.
* * *
Tseng shook Thomas’ shoulder again, then dropped to catch the man under the arms as he startled out of his jacked-in daze, flailed wildly and nearly fell off the table. Coils of wire and pointy hard tools clattered down onto Tseng’s back, but he closed his eyes and ignored that as he helped Thomas to his feet. Then he pushed the other man away from the table and towards the bed, likewise paying no attention to the verbal and then physical protests—both worryingly weak—as he let his memory guide them. The place was even more cramped than usual with the extra servers and computer modules that Thomas had brought to help with cracking Smecker’s VR-generator-turned-hard-drive, but Tseng had been trained to know thousands of yards of hallway by flesh memory—stored in his neurons and not in an implant—so he didn’t find learning this space difficult at all.
“I’m two cycles away,” Thomas finally said.
“I know. I’ve been monitoring.” After shoving the other man onto the bed, Tseng swiped his fingers under Thomas’ nose and then held them up to where Thomas could see. He watched Thomas’ face turn white, then grey and then back to normal before he cleaned the blood off with a rag. “Your vitals have suffered a serious drop in the past hour. Another fifteen minutes and you’re projected to go into a coma.”
Thomas stared up at Tseng. Then he grunted and flopped down on his side; the moment he started to lie down, his muscles suddenly slackened and his surprise at the extent of his exhaustion overlaid every other emotion in his face.
Tseng went back to the work-station and set up the programs for self-supervision. Then he returned to the bed and began to detach the jacks from Thomas, carefully coiling up each wire after he’d removed it before he attached a levitator and let them hang in the air at ordered heights.
“Is that how you talked to your men?” Thomas asked.
A segment of the last wire slipped out of Tseng’s hand and immediately twisted up opposing the way the rest of it was coiled. He bunched up the excess wire in one hand before forcing the segment to unkink with his thumb. “How was I talking?”
“Like you knew what you were doing.” Something plinked onto the floor near the bed, and then Thomas cursed and the bed creaked.
He’d been trying to get himself hooked up to the med station, but his hands were trembling too badly. For a moment he and Tseng both watched that, silently estimating the frequency of the shaking. Then Thomas stretched out and scrabbled a biochem handheld from the boxes beside the bed; he couldn’t get the jack into his temple so he settled for plugging it into his wrist. Meanwhile Tseng scrounged up disinfectant and the surgical kit.
“I’d rather eat,” Thomas said, seeing what Tseng was doing.
Tseng ignored him and got the IV connected to the med station. He dialed for electrolyte replacement, with gradual nutrient injection, before swabbing the inside of Thomas’ right elbow and then inserting the needle. A low hiss came from Thomas, but the other man didn’t offer any more objections.
Nevertheless Tseng eventually sat down on the side of the bed instead of going on into the next room. He picked at one of his jack-scars. “I can’t cook.”
It wasn’t a skill that was needed now, even for operating in minimal conditions. The most basic set of implants for combat operatives included one that allowed a person’s body to extract nutrients from trash; the difficulty now was disabling or otherwise numbing the luxury sense enhancers most high-ranking people had. Even Tseng, with the fossil rituals and skills in his archaic pre-Turk training, didn’t know how a stove was used—in regards to applying its heat to food. The first time that Thomas had turned on his, Tseng had reached for the nearest sharp object. Thomas had thought Tseng had meant to help him by retrieving the knife; Tseng had wondered if he’d offended Thomas somehow, or grossly misjudged the man, and was now going to pay the price.
“Techies are a little crazy about anachronisms when it comes to break-food,” Thomas eventually said. He rolled onto his side and closed his eyes. The grooves running from the outside base of his nose to the corners of his mouth were harshly cut, and a deep pit had formed between his drawn-down brows. He pressed his thumb into the dent, then rubbed it hard over the area. “You get tired of having it piped in all the time. It’s funny, how the human body still wants processes to happen a certain way. If you can’t feel it in your mouth, sometimes the body doesn’t think you’re really eating. You start to get hungry even when your digestive system is so overloaded that you’re risking liver failure.”
“But you don’t mind suffering massive shock due to fatigue and starvation?” Tseng looked at his wrist while he spoke.
Thomas inhaled, then laughed. His head bumped up against Tseng’s hip, and then his hand flopped over Tseng’s thigh. “Well, we like to think we’re just as tough as you soldier types. That’s been the stereotype for as long as…there’ve been computers, I think. Maybe longer. You can’t be good with your brain and your muscles.”
“The brain is a muscle,” Tseng said after a moment. His stomach clenched and he went still, thinking it might be the beginning of yet another allergic reaction to something in the air, but instead the clench turned into a low, rasping noise. He slapped his hand over his midriff, as if that would effectively deaden the sound.
Then he glanced at Thomas, who was grinning. The other man tapped Tseng’s arm, then pointed at something on the floor. “I think I remember leaving a bag down there. It’s blue, one of those vacuum-sealed things, though I don’t know if I closed it right…”
Tseng found it and picked it up. The bag had been closed, but by rolling down the top and not by redoing the seal. Though its contents still appeared to be edible…as far as Tseng could determine. He ran it by an elemental analysis probe just to make certain before he actually took out a piece. The stuff consisted of some stringy yellow strips, all matted together so it was quite difficult to extract only a little of it. It was pliable and relatively soft to touch, though with some texture, and it emitted a smell pungent enough for Tseng to doubt the analysis’ claim that no artificial sensory enhancers had been added. Supposedly it was some kind of protein, with a probable marine origin given the mineral profile.
“Dried cuttlefish. Damn expensive to get now, even though those are pretty easy to make synthetically…” Thomas nudged Tseng’s side. “Try it.”
After a long look at him—Thomas was not smiling, but his face was twitching in various suspicious places—Tseng reluctantly nibbled a bit. He…wasn’t sure what to think of the taste. He ate a bit more and decided further consumption wouldn’t be hampered by his inability to alter his sensitivity to sensory input now, but he doubted he’d become fond of the stuff. “It’s all right.”
“Damn. Well, there’s other…if I could remember…” A flash of pain went over Thomas’ face. He grimaced, his fingers pressing into Tseng’s leg, and then ground his head into the side of Tseng’s thigh. “Fuck. That’d be the adrenaline dialing down…”
Tseng tossed the rest of the cuttlefish piece into his mouth, then got the handheld and double-checked the wind-down cycle for which Thomas had programmed it. He made a few adjustments to stretch it out over a longer period of time, so the changes wouldn’t be so painful, but otherwise let it be. Then he began to tuck it down beside Thomas, but found the other man looking oddly at him.
“Like you didn’t question that I was going to agree with you. That’s how you were talking.” The smile on Thomas’ face now was a little resentful. He flicked a finger at the handheld, then turned onto his back and stared at the ceiling, the occasional stab of pain making the muscle in his jaw tighten.
For a moment Tseng couldn’t make his own jaw move, which surprised him given his experience with listening to things he didn’t necessarily like but which he had to take in and comprehend anyway. Then he managed to breathe in, and pulled his arms back to rest the handheld in his lap. “It doesn’t make sense to us. All the technology is meant to make people more free. Mods and implants mean we don’t need to dance attendance on large machines. We don’t need our hands for that work, so…techs still seem to voluntarily allow themselves to be chained to servers. But of course that is a wrong assumption, too—I have my hands free because only you can do this, but I can’t do anything I wish I could do. I can’t do anything at all right now.”
Thomas shifted beside Tseng, twisting and turning about as the wires trailing from him tightened and slackened against Tseng. Once or twice he cursed and then a wire would suddenly loosen as he untangled it. Then he abruptly sighed; his head landed on Tseng’s leg again, and then he didn’t move at all so Tseng glanced sharply over, worried that the other man may have passed out.
But no, Thomas was still awake, and had an irritated look on his face that wasn’t directed at Tseng, even if his eyes were. He blinked, focusing his pupils, before blowing out a breath and turning his head sideways on Tseng’s leg. “I was pissed off you pulled me out. Once an addict, always one, I guess. Thanks for keeping that from turning into a dead addict.”
Tseng looked at him, then put his hand down and levered it under Thomas’ shoulder. He pulled that up so he could slip down beside the other man. The bed was so small that he couldn’t straighten his legs all the way without forcing Thomas to contort his back, so Tseng simply braced his feet against the far wall. He was settling down like that when Thomas jammed his hand into the back of Tseng’s knee. It wasn’t too hard, but it did hurt enough so that Tseng reflexively jerked his leg up. Then he began to roll over, but Thomas got an arm about his waist and pulled him back, throwing his own leg over Tseng’s and flipping wires about till they were too tangled for Tseng to get free within a reasonable amount of time.
“Lie down,” Thomas said, voice warm against the back of Tseng’s neck. “I was in there for hours…you had to have had a couple spasms when I was too jacked in to bother noticing. Did you?”
During the rearranging, Tseng had lost his grip on the handheld, but it’d landed on the bed and luckily hadn’t gotten pushed over the edge. Now it was nudging his forehead, so he put up a hand to shift it away from him, into a more secure location. “I had a small one when I went outside to adjust a sensor. The ozone levels are up today, and…I’m fine. I…I don’t know when I change my tone. I know when I don’t sound like my training, but not when I do. I find that disturbing.”
Thomas’ hand drifted down over Tseng’s belly, its fingers trailing over the shirt-fastenings before finding the place where one had broken to let the shirt sag open. Two of them hooked in their tips, so cold that Tseng shivered, then settled flat against Tseng’s skin. A nose pressed through Tseng’s hair, parting it for the mouth that eventually rested itself where the back of his neck joined his shoulder. Just lightly, no invitation or demand or anything but a simple signal that Thomas was there.
“You look at Sephiroth and…I don’t know what you knew of him before, but he’s so far from that now and yet you can see parts of the old framework. You can see him reaching for it when he’s trying to get himself under control, even though I’m not sure that’s what he wants now.” Tseng closed his eyes. “But it’s still his default.”
“It’s hard to build new routines. You start with what you know—it’s all you have, even if it is shitty.” Thomas yawned, his body going limp against Tseng. His hand against Tseng’s belly was gaining some warmth of its own. “Look, I’ll tell you when you’re reverting. You just have to know that you can revert, and then you don’t need to worry about forgetting what you want to be.”
As much as Tseng wanted to be reassured by that, he couldn’t wholeheartedly embrace Thomas’ words. He had tried to explain what growing up Shinra—not as one of the Head’s bloodline, but with the presence of the Head embedded in his blood nonetheless—meant, how all-encompassing and more importantly how weighty it was, with all those centuries of experimentation and refinement behind it. And Thomas had tried to understand, but he simply lacked the context: besides being a tech by training, he’d served under Kisaragi and they were a much younger House, with their members frequently tending towards the unconventional so they had little enshrined custom of their own.
Thomas had finally lost his fight to remain conscious, Tseng suddenly realized. He scrambled for the handheld and fumbled with it till the datascreeen with its vital stats popped up before him. Even then his anxiety didn’t go, but remained like ice in his veins till he’d read all the numbers that could be provided and seen nothing untoward in any of them. Tseng only relaxed then, and merely enough so that he could lie there without discomfort forcing him to disturb the other man.
He was tired, and his earlier attack had left him with a sore throat, but he didn’t feel anywhere near sleep himself. Sephiroth’s abrupt appearance with Smecker’s hard drive had led them both to agree to avoid attracting Valentine’s attention as much as possible. They’d already moved to another of Thomas’ hideouts, and for a while the tasks attendant to that had preoccupied Tseng, but he’d long since finished all of them and had had nothing to do then but sit and watch Thomas try to hack the VR generator’s encoding to get access to the drive.
Once upon a time Tseng hadn’t been such a bad hacker himself, but he’d relied on his mods to do that. Computer programming hadn’t been included in his early training, and then later on the brute cracking had always been delegated to in-house techs so he’d never learned how to do that the crude way, either.
If Thomas did die, Tseng was in more trouble than where his emotional and mental stability was concerned. His natural instinct was to work to minimize the risks to the other man, but the fall-out from his Jenova attack had left him incapable of doing much about that. And he could honestly say that his feelings on that subject went past frustration to hatred. He—just—
Tseng made himself exhale, and then he carefully wrapped his hands over Thomas’ fingers. He could do less when he was losing his temper, he told himself. So now he should take a nap, while Thomas was still cycling into deep restorative sleep, and in a few hours he could start monitoring the power grid for signs of clone attacks.
He closed his eyes.
Tseng’s eyes snapped open. He stared about the room, then focused on Thomas’ work-station when it beeped again. A new datascreen had popped up above the rest, faintly red in contrast to their green, and on it a single line of text was blinking. From where he was, Tseng couldn’t read it, but he knew what it meant: Thomas had cracked through the firewall embedded in the VR program, and now only the encryption on the hard drive itself remained.
* * *
Zack kicked up his feet onto the nearest piece of floating furniture, then grinned at the non-expression on Sephiroth’s face. “It ain’t comfort if it isn’t bothering somebody else.”
“I disagree with your definition,” Sephiroth muttered, moving so the other man wasn’t in his line of sight. A cluster of datascreens were gathered together above his head and he slowly turned in his seat to look from one to the other; he could have simply set them to rotate, but he needed the movement to stave off his intense desire to go kill something.
“Doesn’t mean it’s not true, unfortunately.” The tray supporting Zack’s feet slid back into Sephiroth’s view. Then it dropped, but only to be replaced with the man’s face. He at least didn’t wear a smile to fit his jocular tone, but his questioning stare was hardly more preferable. “Sephiroth, what are you doing here? This is my job, remember? I fucked up so now I’ve got to watch the computers and you get to—”
Sephiroth reached out to the interface with the control panel—as he couldn’t simply jack in—and adjusted the screens so they were between him and Zack. Their transparency still meant he could see the other man, but if he concentrated, he could only register the scrolling numbers and maps. “The clones have apparently withdrawn for the night and there’s no reason for me to be outside.”
“So go teach Kadaj some sword katas or something like that. Or take a nap. Or go argue with Rufus. Watching utilities code is boring,” Zack snorted. “Nobody voluntarily does it.”
“I understand it’s very difficult to convince some of the more senior programmers to take breaks, and in fact one or two have petitioned to have their eyes taken out and replaced with code-feeds.” Curiously enough, the former Head had denied that request against his usual preferences for maximizing Shinra’s power without regard to the so-called human cost. Of course the chances for sensory overload and sudden brain hemorrhages increased with that sort of implant, but no more than they did for some of the leisure activities available in districts like the West Strip. “And I know I’m not a programmer.”
Zack sighed. “So you also know that you just tried to feed me a bullshit analogy, right? Seriously, what are you doing here? If you’re looking for patterns or anything, they’ve already written the code to signal when there’s clone movement, or a Jenova attack on the network grids, or hell, even if Valentine’s in a bad mood.”
Sitting down allowed Sephiroth to channel his instinctive stiffening into mainly digging his boot-heels into the floor, but he suspected he couldn’t entirely hide his reaction. “I’m not looking for any of those, Zack. If you’re trying to figure out why I came here, then you’re taking the wrong approach to the question.”
The reply Sephiroth got was mumbled where it wasn’t meaninglessly profane, but he more or less gathered that Zack was now annoyed and about to push the point. He turned around just in time to slap the other man’s hand away from the control interface, but then was surprised when Zack actually started to retaliate. Reflex carried Sephiroth backwards, out of range, and then dropped his arm so two feet of Masamune shot from his palm into the floor, making the metal ring dully as it was pierced.
For a moment he stared at Zack’s wide eyes and frozen, contorted body, but his consciousness returned as the ringing died away. Sephiroth grimaced and jerked his head to the side, then grabbed at the side of his seat with his other hand and used that to brace himself as he freed Masamune’s tip from the floor. As soon as it was free, he dematerialized it and then slouched in the chair. The posture contradicted all his training, and for that matter a good deal of his musculature so it was actually acutely uncomfortable for him, but it seemed more suitable for his mood. Which, he thought, was one of those irrational human perceptions Hojo hadn’t been able to eliminate from his psychology.
“You know, you could’ve just said that you’re hiding out here so you don’t have to…whatever,” Zack finally said. His voice was on the shaky side, but was increasing in volume because he was coming nearer. “Is it Valentine again? ‘cause if it is, I’m sorry I brought that bastard up. I really wish we could do—”
“I’m not hiding.” Tension was knotting Sephiroth’s brows together over his nose and an opposing tension was trying to pull them back towards his hairline. He put up his hands and pressed his fingertips into his temples, attempting to rid himself of at least one side of the conflict. “Don’t nod and go ‘oh, okay.’ I’m—I’m waiting to hear about something and I’m not particularly good with patience outside of a combat situation.”
There was an awkward pause, as was usual when Sephiroth admitted a flaw and then found that that did not make people view him as more like them, but merely as even odder than they’d thought. Then Zack gracelessly cleared his throat and ruffled a hand back through his crest of hair. “Well, I still wish we could just get rid of Valentine. I mean, I don’t even like Reno, but I just saw him and…fuck, did Valentine mess him up. And all he was doing was trying to ask why Valentine wanted to see Rufus, which is his job.”
Sephiroth closed his eyes. Kadaj was back in Shinra Tower, but Valentine didn’t appear to be anywhere near. Smecker was also dimly perceptible now, thanks to the fraction of Jenova invading him, but in the same sense that the moon gave off light—the moon reflected the sun’s rays, and so Smecker merely reflected Jenova. No sense of his own condition was accessible to Sephiroth.
“…defends himself in a fight. I can’t really see how, but he does do that, so it’s not like he’s indestructible. If he were distracted—”
“I don’t want him dead, Zack,” Sephiroth snapped, belatedly understanding where the man’s rant was going. Then he opened his eyes and looked sharply at Zack’s surprised expression.
“Why not? He treats you like shit.” Zack winced a little, but didn’t drop his gaze. “Sephiroth, c’mon. You’re fucked up, but you never were fucked up that way. Um. Shit.”
Before he could start apologizing again, Sephiroth raised a hand and waved that all off. Then he sank down in his seat again, staring at but not really seeing the screens floating about them. “No, it’s a valid point, and anyway I…appreciate your…concern. Though I may be slow to realize what it is, but…” Sephiroth pressed two fingers into the top of his nose “…this won’t be a clear formulation, but hopefully it’ll be coherent enough. Zack. I don’t accept what Vincent does to me as beneficial to my well-being, and I’d rather he stopped. And there is enough evidence that…he somewhat knows how he acts is morally wrong, and possibly also wrong for his own well-being.”
“But he does it anyway, and honestly, I don’t see him as a masochist any more than I see you,” Zack said. He scooted forward on his seat, slid back, and then repeated the motion. “Look, even if he doesn’t enjoy doing it, I don’t think he really hates it either. That gets him closer to sadist than to normal.”
“Maybe not in the classical sense. I never asked Smecker to explain those concepts in a way that wasn’t flippant, and I can’t now.” Sephiroth dragged his fingers down either side of his nose, then took them away from his face as he gave himself a shake. “But anyway, what he’s doing now is a little less important than the evidence that he used to act…differently. That in the past he has chosen to…”
“…act nice?” Now Zack was staring at Sephiroth as if Sephiroth was incomprehensible instead of merely confusing. It was a common enough expression on others, but not on him and its presence on his face was startlingly irritating to Sephiroth. “Fuck, are you hoping that he’s suddenly going to change his tune? Because—”
Sephiroth slashed his hand through the air, and forcefully enough so that Masamune almost began to extend from it again. He immediately dropped his hand to his leg and pressed down hard on it, gritting his teeth as he worked to suppress that impulse.
“He could have been my father,” he eventually said. His voice wasn’t entirely free of his frustration, but it sounded sufficiently articulate to get his meaning across. “He’s not, but he’s had the span of my lifetime to move on from that point and he hasn’t. Therefore I don’t think it’s very likely that he will do so if left to his own devices.”
“But you think he’s persuadable? That’s still being hopeful, Sephiroth,” Zack said.
One long, slow breath and the tension suddenly vanished from Sephiroth’s body, to the point that he barely maintained his seat. He was slouching again and not suffering from any physical discomfort as a result of that, but he didn’t mistake that for an improvement. “Is that what it’s called? I was wondering.”
“I don’t want him dead, damn it. And you’re right, I have a sufficiently robust ego so that I don’t even want him to bring up my mother all the time. He says her name more than—” Sephiroth stopped himself. He took another breath, then irritably pushed himself up and reached for the control interface again. “People talk about falling in love in terms of invasions, of irresistible forces. That was how I initially perceived Vincent, and it’s possible that my lack of any comparison for that…for love is why I assigned that reaction to what he did. But how it happened is really immaterial at this point. I’ve reacted and I can’t take it back. I don’t want to take it back now…irrationally enough, what I want is for him to reciprocate.”
Nothing happened on the screens, aside from the usual background-noise level of failed connections and so forth. They clicked back and forth as Sephiroth moved from sector to sector, flashing so occasionally a glimpse of Zack’s solemn face interpolated itself between them.
“Have you ever mentioned anything like…like that to him?” Zack eventually asked.
Sephiroth grinned humorlessly at the soulless scrolling data. “Zack, I have a hard enough time wording it for you, and I don’t have uncontrollable physical and mental reactions to your mere presence. Go to sleep. You’re pulling a double-shift tomorrow and I don’t want you on my mind along with the others.”
It seemed like the other man was going to protest, but even as he was opening his mouth, his shoulders were slumping and it was obvious it’d be no more than token. Of course that had never stopped Zack before, but this time he just gave up right away. He probably was suffering from more exhaustion than he’d been allowing to show; working inside Shinra Tower wasn’t any less energy-intensive than being in the field, when averaged over time.
Once he’d left, it was very quiet. The data wasn’t much of a distraction from wondering how far along Thomas was in cracking Smecker’s personal files, or from considering possible explanations for why Vincent was so far away. To be honest, the sudden absence of Jenova was also worrying, but Sephiroth was wary of probing too deeply into that after what had happened to Smecker—whatever that had been.
He briefly considered calling for Kadaj, but even if Kadaj wasn’t so confused that he did come, Sephiroth knew he’d only end up getting rid of him as with Zack. And with Kadaj he’d likely be less cordial. It was amusing, Sephiroth thought, how badly he wanted company when he knew he’d find no use for it once it arrived.
Lonely, that was what Zack would call it.
* * *
Vincent had known Sephiroth had been following him, and had also known when the other man had tired of that and gone back to Shinra Tower. He’d heard the man calling for him even when Sephiroth himself didn’t realize what he was doing, and he’d ignored it at the time because…
Gainsborough hadn’t had anything new. It was beginning to make Vincent think that she didn’t have the resources she claimed to, or at least couldn’t access them to any useful extent. And in that case, they were left with the little Lucrecia had admitted to Vincent before her death, and then whatever they could find out through trial and error, and that of course was limited to how many bodies they had. Perhaps more, since unlike his father, Rufus seemed more reluctant to make the necessary sacrifices.
Once in a while Vincent regretted killing Hojo the way he had. If he’d waited longer, or had used a less destructive method, then perhaps they would have been able to glean more from him. But then, perhaps Hojo was like Smecker and didn’t entrust his most crucial findings to any sort of data format that others could access. Recovering knowledge from brain implants was one thing, but recovering it from the brain itself was still an area that technology hadn’t mastered.
“I know very little about what is going on,” Vincent said. He listened to the way his words dissolved the quiet in the room, and then the way the quiet returned.
Sephiroth was sleeping on the bed, and Vincent didn’t have to check the man’s infrared signature or brain-waves, or even lift an eyelid, to know that Sephiroth’s sleep was deep enough to render him completely unaware of Vincent’s presence. Vincent couldn’t prevent Sephiroth’s tracking of him except by keeping ahead, but in close enough proximity, he could manage to create this sort of blankness in Sephiroth’s consciousness. But the range requirement was both impractical and…unpleasant, in certain ways. Being this close meant that Vincent had to face several facts.
“You’re more beautiful than she was,” he told Sephiroth. And that was true, even from the standpoint of an objective observer. Lucrecia’s appeal had lain more in the realm of the mind, in her intelligence and in her unexpected flashes of genuine personality.
But her son—and Vincent hated to admit this—had much more of that married to his physical appearance. Those flashes had been part of why Vincent had continued to return, to fight a fight he knew he wasn’t likely to win: he had thought that they were evidence of a greater whole lying beneath Lucrecia’s…and he could admit it now, separated by the years and the dark…essentially passive nature. He had thought that, if he only found the right act and the right words, he could unlock her and have that burning passion he wanted to see.
They hadn’t had very long: Hojo could be blinded by his research, but his eyes had been sharp when it came to possible obstacles to that and he’d seen Vincent as such. Vincent had never had the time to find out whether he’d been wrong about Lucrecia, and then afterward, after all that he’d suffered and done, it had seemed…it would have been a negation of his efforts to even consider the possibility that she hadn’t been worth it. Even now he could barely bring himself to hold the idea, and on the bed Sephiroth abruptly jerked over, body stiff and trembling, in echo of that.
But what Vincent could admit, with somewhat less reluctance, was that whatever Lucrecia had been at heart, her son not only had all that fervor of which Vincent had dreamed, but also had been forced to release it into the open. By Vincent. And…and Sephiroth had fought it, but now seemed not merely accepting of it, but fiercely determined to hold onto it. He called to Vincent, stubbornly asking questions he obviously didn’t think would be answered. He protected that failed clone of his as if they’d been made relations through the expected way. Lucrecia and Hojo, they’d made Sephiroth in an attempt to eliminate what they saw as the weakness of humanity, but Sephiroth himself was more human than either of them.
“And I don’t know whether I’m human anymore,” Vincent softly said, smiling a little in bitterness. He bowed his head, ignoring the few strands that drifted into his eyes.
He’d kept faith with the dream of Lucrecia that he had had, and in return he’d ended up yet another attempt at excising humanity from a person. And he didn’t know where he fell on the spectrum of success in relation to Sephiroth and Kadaj. Part of why he clung to Lucrecia’s memory, he nearly told Sephiroth, was because that was the last time he was sure of who and what he was, and what motivated him. Now he didn’t know even that; when Elena had spoken to him about grief, he’d looked in her eyes and seen more emotion than he personally had felt, and she theoretically was even less human than he was.
Vincent bent down. He put his hand on the bed and leaned over Sephiroth, looking at the slight twitch of the other man’s eyelid. Then he lifted his other hand and carefully drew it across Sephiroth’s cheek, which was smooth and cool and soft in a way that he objectively knew was appealing to the senses, but which did nothing more but stir those neural connections.
But Sephiroth didn’t merely lie still. He also breathed in a little more sharply, his head moving on the bed so he turned into the touch. His mouth opened slightly, and all those little movements did stir something beyond mere sensory input in Vincent’s head, something that made him clench his fingers back from the other man. Something he didn’t quite understand, but which he instinctively wanted to obey.
“I don’t know what I need to, for stopping her. But I know I didn’t have enough time last time to understand, and that will not be the case this time,” Vincent said. “Hojo took Lucrecia. Jenova won’t take you.”
Sephiroth continued to sleep. Vincent left him there and walked through the tower. He briefly checked on the utilities control room, but stepped out before Zack could see him.
No one was near the room where Smecker was, which Vincent found surprising enough to waste a moment determining where Kadaj was. Once he had, and had decided that Kadaj was too far away to pose a serious threat, he turned his attention to the security system.
It was very good. Rufus had done the best he could. But if Vincent knew little, in relation to Rufus he knew quite a bit and one of the other man’s areas of ignorance was Vincent’s full capabilities. Breaking the system was difficult but took less time than was needed to summon anyone to stop Vincent; by the time he felt Kadaj and Sephiroth waking, he was already inside and leaning over Smecker.
Vincent unplugged everything from the other man except for basic life support, then lifted Smecker’s head so he could reach the temple jack. He pressed the tip of his metal forefinger to it, careful to wedge it inside the socket, and then he closed his eyes.
Jenova protested. And fought. And though Vincent had learned a good deal since Sephiroth and Rufus Shinra, he still found the effort of forcing her out to be draining, and then—he was inside instead, flowing out to fill the places Jenova had left, and his sense of self was dissolving so Vincent panicked and recoiled, heaving himself out and the sudden snap back to the individual hurt.
He was on the floor, his metal hand gouging deep into that, and above him Smecker was wheezing, struggling to move vocal cords that had been inoperative for weeks.
“…not like that,” Smecker finally gasped. “Oh…fuck…no…not again…”
“I let you think for yourself,” Vincent said. His body felt as if all the muscles were half-paralyzed, but he could hear people coming now and so he forced himself up. He needed to leave. “I’m not her.”
Smecker said something in reply, but Vincent was already out of the room. He didn’t bother trying to analyze what Smecker’s words might have been; he had to concentrate on other things now.
“I’m not the same as her,” he repeated to himself. “Not yet.”
* * *
I can’t talk this way for very long, Zack. I’m tired of fighting her—so tired—and I have to leave to talk to you like this, so when I go back I’m weaker there. I don’t know…I’m afraid one day I’ll leave and be stuck here, and she’ll be able to do whatever she wants with my body.
Here? Zack didn’t understand. He wasn’t even sure where he was. There? Cloud?
I have to go.
No, wait! Cloud! Where—where are you? How can I find you? How can—
Zack shot up in his seat to the tune of blaring alarms. He slapped a hand to his forehead and found it covered in a cold sweat, then spun around. Then he spun back, staring out at the flickering datascreens till an explosion of code on one of them got his attention. Reflex had him bringing the screen forward, but it was several more moments before he realized what it all meant: some kind of attack going on in Shinra Tower, at the room where Smecker was being kept.
Halfway out of the room, Zack realized the code had identified the intruder as Valentine and he began to slow. But then he gave himself a shake and sped up again. If Shinra Tower fell, then they’d have nowhere to go, and so Valentine and whatever crazy thing he was up to had to be dealt with first. But after that—
After that, and Zack was sorry but Rufus and Sephiroth would just have to deal with everything else, Zack was going after Cloud. He had been talking to the man, he was sure of that, and now he knew how they were talking. And if they could talk, then Zack could find him.