|Spark of Life
Author: Guede Mazaka
The blood plasticizers had given the flesh a faint, icy bluish hue that blended the skin into the restraints clamped onto the limbs. It made the whole corpse look like a badly-generated model, a wreck of awful coding and chromatographic choices.
“Liver, bladder, lungs and spleen missing. They left the heart,” Valentine said.
Elena glanced at him through her bangs. They might be non-regulation, but then, nothing about the Turks was regulation. And they’d become increasingly useful for shielding her emotions from the rest of the world. She’d worked hard on it, but a blank mask still didn’t and might never come easily to her. So she’d adapted. Compensated.
“Are you making a point or anything, or are you just doing the grocery list?” Reno’s upper lip was curled, but it wasn’t clear whether his distaste was for the mutilated corpse on the table or for Valentine.
Valentine flicked his gaze up to him, then smoothly shifted it to scan the whole room. “Usually heart and lungs are taken together. It’s easier, technically speaking, to transplant them all at the same time than to do one or the other alone. And it leads to a greater profit.”
The body belonged to a low-level soldier. It was one of a growing handful that had been discovered lately, abandoned in the deepest recesses of the slums and missing both vital organs and any kind of hate-filled posting to explain the desecration. So at the very least, it wasn’t done solely to shame Shinra; the killings had to have a practical function. The thought made Elena’s stomach roil, but she studiously submitted it to analysis, as Tseng had always advised.
“Great. Organ-runners. Rufus is gonna love this one,” Reno muttered. He slid his eyes over Valentine with faintly challenging insolence, though he’d abandoned his usual slack posture for tense shoulders and half-raised stick. “What freak’s going to show up next, do you think?”
“Please mention to Rufus, when you see him, that it might to wise to show greater transparency with Shinra’s labs. It wasn’t too long ago that rumors were saying Hojo was butchering Shinra personnel to get enough test subjects,” Valentine said in a smooth, nuanced voice. He didn’t smile, or even give off an air of amusement at the way Reno consequently bristled. He acted as if it were all only part of the job.
It was marginally better that way, since that had been how Tseng had acted, too. If Valentine had been more…more empathic, Elena thought ironically, he’d have been an intolerable replacement.
“Yeah. Okay.” Reno nodded sharply. He half-turned to walk around, never quite presenting Valentine with his back, and he frequently looked back. Bad technique.
“Elena.” Valentine stared impassively back at her, waiting till she’d brushed down her clothes and composed herself. “What’s your opinion?”
She’d used to have a lot, and she’d always wanted to bring it up, to the point that sometimes even placid Rude rumbled a noise of irritation. But she hadn’t cared. Now, however, she found even necessary communication difficult. Everyone just seemed so calm about Tseng’s disappearance, though it was obvious no one had bought the official explanation of a deep, solitary undercover infiltration. Even so, she still was Shinra, and beyond that, she was a Turk. Discipline was everything.
“If they were merely organ-runners, they would’ve taken everything. Especially the heart: it has the highest street value by far.” Her voice was crisp and detached. She would have been proud of it a few months ago. “This is a special order.”
Those red eyes watched her and Elena could feel her skin prickle. Not from the color—that came into fashion every few years—but from their opaqueness. He wasn’t readable. He wasn’t even blank, the way Smecker or lately Cloud Strife could be. He just wasn’t relatable by any human terms that she knew.
“Then find out whose,” Valentine finally said, cool and steady.
* * *
A scrub at the glass didn’t remove a particle of filth from it, so Tseng refrained from further attempts and made do with the smeared reflection he had. He gingerly maneuvered the needle till it was just above one of the many tiny pock-scars that ringed his eyes. Then he punched it in.
It stung sharply and a hair-fine trickle of fluid slipped around his eye-socket. The needle automatically retracted, neatly excising and removing newly-infected flesh with it. He lowered the stiletto punch and slightly turned his head.
Thomas glanced up, then straightened and grabbed Tseng by the chin, twisting and tilting Tseng’s head as he peered at the new wound. His lips were parted enough for his tongue, thoughtfully flicking against the backs of his teeth, to be visible. “Huh. Just standard rejection. The implant’s fine—it’s the implantation equipment that’s being a pain. I can’t get good enough tools.”
“I wouldn’t suggest asking to borrow Shinra’s right now. They found another body and they’ll have to show that their own labs are being closely monitored,” Tseng said.
“I wouldn’t anyway. Ask them for tools and they’d get a much better idea of what you and I are doing.” An edge of pink flesh rounded out from between Thomas’ lips as he sprayed antiseptic over Tseng’s eyebrow, then rubbed off the excess with the ball of his thumb. “I’ve heard of a new black market dealer. Midnite.”
Tseng ran the name through his memory and came up with a few matches. “Kisaragi territory, mainly. He’s a power in the underworld, but a circumspect one. He doesn’t get greedy and he stays away from Shinra.”
“Does circumspect include not shorting customers? I’ve got a minor cash-flow issue.” Thomas took the punch from Tseng and propped the heel of his hand against Tseng’s cheekbone. He quickly cleaned out the other infected scars. His wrist bent inwards so when Tseng blinked, his eyelashes grazed the skin. “Just temporary. That pink bitch took a major banking node offline without so much as an advance warning. Says it’s for security upgrades…sure. Probably needs it. But she could’ve waited till I’d finished shifting my accounts.”
He meant Aeris Gainsborough. Since her father’s death, she’d taken her House into a defensive stance, withdrawing from dubious areas and retrenching within strongholds. Sensible, yes, but easily predictable as well. “From all appearances, he runs a hereditary business—various men of the same name and profession are recorded as far back as the term of the seventh doge. He’d have to be.”
“Huh.” After setting the punch down, Thomas re-examined the side of Tseng’s face. He casually ran his thumb over his pursed lips, then turned it so Tseng saw a gleam of moisture over the ball before it touched his temple.
Tseng backed up slightly against the counter, feeling its edge grind down over his buttock to jut into the back of his thigh where it flowed into his groin. He beveled on one foot so Thomas could fit more easily into the cramped space, and Thomas accordingly relaxed, leaning forward. His thumb traveled along Tseng’s hairline, testing all the scars, before it went a startling circle behind Tseng’s ear; Tseng convulsively pulled up his hands, then more slowly settled them on Thomas’ sharp hips.
If their mouths ever met now, long after the first angry moment of understanding, it was because of Tseng. Thomas never kissed him again, though his thin lips now knew the curve and cut of every other inch of Tseng’s body. Today Thomas’ mouth was wet and warm on Tseng’s jaw and Tseng angled his head away so Thomas slid to his neck. He pulled the other man forward, tentatively pushing his hands up, and earned himself a groan from Thomas.
Somewhat reassured, Tseng allowed himself to press against the other man. This still was unfamiliar, potentially terrifying ground; sex without VR or ocular implants to gloss over things, or biochemical manipulations to see to the progression of the encounter, took much more effort on his part. And many more leaps of faith.
“Back up some,” Thomas muttered, slipping his fingers around Tseng’s throat, stroking it. He nuzzled downwards before he noticed Tseng’s hesitation. “Need to brace yourself. Your knees aren’t going to take this, no matter what kind of training you got coded into you.”
That made things comprehensible, Tseng supposed. He obligingly moved, and while they did briefly separate, it didn’t cause matters to collapse inwards. Thomas followed, smoothing himself all over Tseng so Tseng’s skin flushed with heat, prickled and drew tight over the bones. It heightened what came afterward, made it worth more by the contrast to the loss and had Tseng clutching at Thomas at the end.
“And that’s sex standing up.” For once, the sarcasm in Thomas’ smile was reduced to nearly a shadow. He pushed at the strands of Tseng’s hair sticking to their faces, trying to tuck it back. “It’s awkward.”
“So practice,” Tseng said without thinking. Then he heard himself and barely kept himself from ducking his head; his chin still jerked downwards under Thomas’ tired, amused gaze.
Thomas let Tseng run hands over his back, over the line of irregular pits that lay along his spine. His eyelashes fluttered shut and he hummed low in his throat, something like the odd furry construct Reeve had played about with a while back. “If Midnite turns out fine, we can try it against one of his walls—better support.” His eyes slitted open, sensing the change in Tseng. “He works out of a nightclub’s backrooms.”
“Are you joking?”
The long lashes swept down, then back up to show cool, somber eyes. Then Thomas pushed backwards, pulling at his clothes. His warmth fled from Tseng in a swift, near-painful flood.
“Yeah, pretty much,” Thomas said. “So I’ll set up that appointment. I’ll let you know the details as soon as I get them so you can do all your scouting.”
The other man turned, then ducked out of the room while still pulling his clothes together. Tseng lifted his hands to do the same, then lowered them. After a moment, he thought he’d identified the emotional pang running through him as mixed annoyance and regret. Sex was difficult to relearn, but harder than that was psychological analysis that didn’t start with assuming that the other person was hostile. And Tseng couldn’t seem to ask for clarification on the latter.
* * *
Organ-runners were tolerated in Shinra’s sectors as long as they paid protection and weren’t stupid enough to harvest from a Shinra employee. They scavenged from the thousands of people dying in alleys and tenement slit-rooms and nightclub backrooms, recycling to the living what would’ve rotted or burned away in the incinerators otherwise. Shinra didn’t have the time to do it, and public opinion was such that setting up a formal arrangement was impossible. Of course, public opinion hadn’t ever been enough to ensure enough donated bodies so that the organ-runner niche didn’t need to be populated.
The frenetic, glassy-eyed crowds seething up to Elena’s table abruptly parted to allow a huge man, big and broad as Rude, emerge. He looked like a cut-glass solidified shadow, a glistening black giant.
She instinctively switched to infrared and then to electromag sight, which explained matters. Nearly all of his skin was one continuous implant, a transplanted hide altered to contain billions of nano-chips, an impressive achievement even for this day and age.
He de-opaqued to a more translucent shade that visually coded as closer to normal just after she’d dropped her right eye back to ordinary sight. His head inclined a fraction, and the way the strobes flickered off his eyes was a tell-tale that those were also modified transplants. They were a blank white, with no irises or apparent pupils.
“He will see you now,” he said.
Elena passed on the message to Rude, who was checking on patrols several blocks away. He inquired if she needed him to come down—they were supposed to be partnered, now that Reno was detailed exclusively to bodyguard duties—but she told him not to bother. It was a public nightclub and she was wearing the Turk uniform, which in itself was enough to cause the dancers to fall away before her as she stood.
The simplicity of the entrance on the far side of the room was surprising. Nothing but a door, which was old-fashioned enough to swing away from her instead of sliding open. She flicked through her various light filters and detected a border of odd symbols, which she recorded for later, and a few basic security measures, but nothing like the tech-packed fortress gates to which she was accustomed.
The man inside was nearly as dark-skinned as his bodyguard, though with him it seemed fairly natural. His eyes were a strange pale blue when Elena entered, but they quickly flicked to somber brown. At first she thought he had no ‘plants at all, but then she realized they’d merely been colored to blend into his skin. That was unusual.
“Have you and your partner taken any refreshment yet?” he asked.
“No, thank you. I’m fine,” Elena replied, making her emphasis delicate. The one other time she’d been here, it’d been in Reno’s company and he’d virtually dominated the conversation.
Midnite’s eyes gained a faint blue glow again, but he merely nodded her towards one of the chairs. Those were old-fashioned as well, since their backs were neither generated fields nor hovering bars, but in fact were actually attached to the seats. They were, however, modern enough to be leg-less, unlike the antique monstrosities Smecker kept around.
The chair glided over and Elena carefully sat in it. “Have you noticed any rise in traffic?”
His eyebrows lifted. He didn’t say as much, but he thought she was brusque. Reno’s modus operandi had always been take a drink, shoot the breeze and ask for information at the point in time where it’d be too late for discussion and the information would have to be sent to him. Sloppy and awkward, Tseng had always said, but Reno said if somebody wanted to know every damn disgusting detail about Midnite, then somebody else could do it. And Reno had always gotten sent anyway.
“No.” Midnite took his seat behind a swinging desk, which he pulled around in front of himself. His fingers danced in the air over barely-visible data-screens. “I consider that odd, since the level of fighting has risen.”
“Is there anything else that you might consider odd?” It was a fishing expedition, and since Midnite’s comment had indicated he knew it was so, Elena made no attempt at hiding it.
He watched her for a moment. “There are bodies missing.”
He expected her to ask for more details. Instead she sat patiently and waited for him. Mere weeks before, she would have rushed in and peppered him with demands and queries, revealing more to him than he ever would to her, but she’d finally learned better. At a point between the announcement that Valentine was taking over and Reeve gently telling her that Rufus had ordered no search for Tseng be made, she’d been brought to understand that effort wasn’t everything. Enthusiasm was barely anything.
“Deaths, but the bodies are taken,” Midnite finally continued. “Or they reappear later missing parts, and those parts never make it into the hands of any underground surgeons of whom I’ve heard.”
What was something, Elena had found, was listening, and listening even when her chest had tightened to the point that her heart felt almost pulped. She’d overheard Rufus and Reno—
It’s a relief, actually. Now I don’t have to worry about his loyalties.
Hey, you never had to. Of all the people—
--Tseng could never be doubted. I know, Reno. I know because my family’s been breeding his family to be that way since before humanity discovered genetic manipulation. But what’s been done to him was all off the books, apparently. I don’t know and short of giving him to Smecker for a full dissection, I can’t know.
…hell, you’d be depending on Smecker to tell you the whole truth then anyway. But speaking of knowing…
And while I have a good guess as to what might trigger Tseng, I think it’s better if I refrained from playing on that. Don’t act so outraged, Reno—you’re just as relieved, somewhere inside that selfish mess you call yourself.
Tseng was a good leader. And a friend.
It’s better to leave his memory untarnished in that case, isn’t it?
--that had been when she’d stopped trying so hard, and had begun to let things slip out. She’d never been so dumb and innocent as to think that people couldn’t be cruel and ruthless, not when she was working for Shinra as a Turk, but she had expected a certain concept of humanity. A level of care for others, even if that was reduced to caring how the existence of one might affect the existence of others. She’d wished she could cry when she’d learned differently.
Her eyes were dry now, as always. “What do you know about cloning?”
Midnite’s eyes briefly lost their blue corona. Then he dipped his head, appearing to stare at his hands. “I’d think that Shinra’s internal documentation would far surpass any minute knowledge I might have gathered.”
Elena looked at him. “That could be considered a dangerous thing to say.”
“I know technicalities, technology. I could put together an organic replica of body for you, down to the tear ducts. But I think you’re asking about a higher level than that, and I will tell you this: I do not meddle beyond my capabilities,” Midnite said. He laid his arms on a transparent desk and interlaced the fingers, the angles of all his joints so precise it was almost robotic.
“You’re not known as a humble man.” The mention of tear ducts had turned on a warning light, but now Elena dismissed it. The comment showed that Midnite had a good eye, but it didn’t necessarily mean that he knew as much as he implied.
He blinked once, deliberate and slow. “I am not foolish either.” A pause. “I no longer meddle in such things. Bodies are easy. The minds and spirits are far, far more difficult to manage.”
A very low, very slight hiss intruded. Elena recognized it as the door and ignored it, but Midnite proved that he was far more involved in their conversation than he’d seemed by abruptly looking up and past Elena. He frowned and nodded, and the hiss came again as the door shut.
“I don’t do business with anyone who does,” he added. “When I say that you at Shinra would know more, I do tell the truth. On the streets, no one has enough security to play God without always watching the sky, and this kind of work would require a more single focus.”
So he knew enough to deduce that someone was creating clones, and he knew enough to guess that it was someone out of Shinra—he didn’t quite say ‘Jenova,’ but the name lingered in the air—but no more than that. He could’ve saved the elliptical expressions and told her that straight off, Elena thought.
“Thank you for your time.” She stood and began to brush aside her seat.
“Madame.” Midnite spoke the word with a strange, liquid inflection, pulling up an accent that matched none of the patterns Elena knew. “May I ask—have you considered going back to your source?”
For a long moment, Elena and Midnite’s construct stared at each other. The door had opened again and he was standing just beyond it, his huge frame taking up the whole doorway. She’d already scanned where he had EMP-generating implants, and now turned her left foot so the toes pointed slightly outward, preparing for an evasive maneuver. “That was rude.”
Then she turned, pushing hard onto her left foot to swing out of the way of the construct’s strike. Her hair swept over her eyes as she completed the turn to face Midnite; she’d grown used to that, and then dependent on that to force her to rely on other senses, as she did now. She punched her hand through his shielding fields before they were fully up. Her fingertips caught the edge of his clothing.
She stuttered, then dropped back. A sharp shock hit her in the left ankle and raced up to her knee before the dampeners spread it out into harmlessness. Her flesh still tingled, sparking as the nerves and muscles repaired themselves as fast as possible. Other circuits sprang to life: old ones, behavioral pathways she’d deactivated once Tseng had disappeared. And with one word, she was reduced to a stammering girl. “Ts—tseng-sama?”
* * *
Tseng’s opinion of this Midnite has dropped considerably in the past few minutes. So he leaves Thomas to talk to the man, since commonsense dictates that business be wrapped up before personal matters, and deals with Elena. “Who sent you here?”
She’s had to gather herself quickly, and he’s glad to see that she does, more or less. Her eyes stay wide with disbelief, but her voice is crisp and brisk. “Valentine. I’m following up on bodies missing their organs—the theory is that someone is trying to illegally build clones. I came here because—”
Midnite’s reputation in that arena speaks for itself.
“You’re alive,” is how Elena finishes. She sounds almost reverent.
“I’m carrying out an independent mission,” Tseng immediately says. He resists the urge to glance at Thomas, who’d taken Elena philosophically for the moment, but who will probably launch into an oblique conversation about her later that will be some peculiar mixture of objective and subjective that’ll blindside Tseng. “I still am of Shinra, but I’m not a Turk.” He spots her hesitation. “I am not a Turk, Elena. Consider that my last order.”
Her reaction is odd. She gives a little protesting gasp, which had been expected, but her eyebrow rises ironically, as if the faces of two different people have been pressed together. Then she frowns and ducks her head so her hair veils her. A second later, she shakes it out of her face and purses her lips. “Damn. Sorry, sir. My—” she seems to take a deep breath “—I’m having to rewrite my directives to deal with this.”
Elena stares at him. Surprise, and then a ruefulness he would have thought too old for her pass over her face. Tseng’s aware that the conversation on the other side of the room has dropped out of hearing: either Thomas and Midnite have switched to subaural noise levels, for which Tseng no longer is equipped to detect, or they’re listening. He almost apologizes to Elena for forcing her to speak so loudly she’s had to reveal herself to so many.
“I didn’t know,” he finally does say. “You were…you were very convincing.”
This explains why an inexperienced, gawky personality had been foisted onto them, a part of him absently thinks. And another part, the more recently-aware part, chides him for being doubly blind.
“You…didn’t?” She wavers between the girl—the one always needing help, needing to be told basics and truths that never otherwise would’ve been revealed—and the weary woman he’d barely glimpsed.
There’s none of the construct in her, Tseng thinks. And this thought he turns over for several moments till he understands why he holds to it.
“I was intended to be an internal check. That’s why I was so—I played so dumb. But I never was, Tseng-sa—Tseng.” Elena leans a fraction forward, all earnestness. “I wasn’t that much of a construct.”
He lets his hands dangle over his knees, thinking. Then he turns them palms-up so their fingertips just touch. She sucks in her breath; her pupils expand and her cheeks fill with a slight flush.
“You’re not a construct,” Tseng says strongly enough. He falters a little on the second part, but not enough for her to notice, he thinks. At least not till she re-analyzes the conversation later. “And I was never here. Not to anyone—not even to Rufus.”
She opens her mouth, then closes it.
“I’ll send you the appropriate information once I’ve learned more about the clones. Concentrate about learning about Shinra’s cloning operations,” he adds, getting up.
He doesn’t hear a cheery ‘Yes, Tseng-sama!’ When he glances behind himself, she’s already left. It’s both a depressing and encouraging sign.
* * *
He’d never known. Reno had half-guessed, after all the times she’d refused to eat with them, and Valentine almost certainly knew or else he wouldn’t have singled her out for this mission. Elena wondered for a moment whether Rufus had ever known that his father had felt similarly about Tseng, had even set up a fail-safe just in case.
She wondered longer if things had changed much. Tseng professed to be still loyal, yet he was beyond normal safeguards, doing things about which he wished Rufus to know nothing. Orders had been given not to look for Tseng, but those didn’t countermand older orders given to inform on all peculiar actions taken by him.
Deep within herself, Elena felt a switch flick over. And before she’d known what she was doing, she had reached in and snapped the circuit before the signal could go all the way through.
‘Listen with discretion,’ she recoded.
* * *
“I would love to talk to those who had a hand in her design.” Midnite had paused several times during his and Thomas’ resumed conversation, but he’d saved actually speaking to Tseng till now, when he was seeing them out the door.
“That’s not possible,” was what Tseng eventually limited himself to in his response.
Thomas shifted uneasily between them, hanging back from Midnite, but not quite stepping out of Tseng’s way either. He muttered irritably to himself.
“You remind me of an acquaintance,” Midnite abruptly said to him. “That was why I agreed to help you. The likeness is…striking. And he knew more of cloning and artificial intelligence than I do.”
“Really?” The information absorbed into Thomas for processing and emotional reaction at a later date. He never liked providing much in public; he was saving his energy for jacking in, he said. “Not surprising. I was born into Kisaragi, and they always liked the bio-manipulation better than the implant gear. I’m close to their ideal—visually speaking, anyway. So what happened to this guy?”
Midnite shrugged, slipping back inside. “John left town. He had an idea that this was coming, I believe.”
“Left town?” Thomas asked, incredulous. It would take some doing. The vast majority of people weren’t even aware that land beyond the city still existed.
But Midnite just closed the door, and Thomas made no attempt to block. He was standing too much in the way for Tseng to try to.
“Makes me wonder if that guy’s human.” Snorting, Thomas backed away from the door and moved around Tseng. He took a few steps down the alley before looking back.
Tseng slowly followed. “I think I know who ‘John’ is. And he has left the city. Shinra couldn’t find a trace of him.’
“Would he have helped?”
Constantine, and that peculiar way he’d explained his companion. Before replying, Tseng carefully went over the memory. “I don’t think so. A programmer’s only useful as long as it’s a program. When it becomes human, then—”
“—we can do just as well by ourselves,” Thomas finished. It was generous of him to include Tseng like that.
They walked a little further, till they were deep within the isolated alley. Then Thomas abruptly turned, startling Tseng, and by the time Tseng had caught his breath, Thomas was pressing him against the alley wall and pressing it back out of him. He seized Thomas’ shoulders, let his knees bow apart, and squeezed his eyes shut at the first traces of strain. His hips hitched once or twice, still unaccustomed to encompassing Thomas, and he dug his fingers in deep enough to feel muscle struggle between them, but Thomas never flinched.
“Better?” Thomas murmured, still holding a slack Tseng against the wall.
Tseng coughed, then inhaled properly and exhaled a soft, laugh-like noise. He opened his eyes. “It’s humbling. Elena understood from the beginning what I’m understanding now.”
“Only robots all learn at the same rate.” Thomas pushed his upper body away from Tseng, then had to shove his knee back to keep them from unexpectedly toppling over. He snorted a breath as he tried to disentangle their arms.
He resisted momentarily when Tseng pulled him back, and his mouth was unresponsive for the first second. But then he reciprocated, and they nearly gave up on standing altogether.
“Not that bad, is it?” he asked.
“No.” Tseng pulled at his clothes, feeling the wet stains and hopeless wrinkles. He shook his head, and then shook it again as his hair fell out of its tail and spread fine damp strands over his face. “No, it’s not.”