Author: Guede Mazaka
The light threw a pallid gray-green cast over everything it touched, and where it didn’t touch, the shadows slicked down like a dirty oil sheen on puddles of water. It was easy on Tseng’s eyes, burning and constantly welling up tears, but not on his mind.
“If you can’t get me—”
“In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the middle of a turf war. Actually, we’re in the middle of a couple of them.” Smecker’s dry rasp acted like an electro-grid on Tseng’s ears, making him wince and roll over. The other man was standing over him, and for a moment, Tseng and Smecker gazed at each other. Then Smecker turned and the pale light limned the wire leading to his temple. “You don’t want to stay in Shinra Tower, then you’re going to have to deal with uncertainties in the supply line.”
The mattress beneath Tseng didn’t bob gently or undulate beneath his shift in weight, but instead creaked and bounced. It made him nauseous. He dug his nails into the cloth and felt coiled hard shapes beneath it; the tip of one caught him beneath the nail and drew a bit of blood before he let go. His vision blearily outlined the room, boxy and windowless, filled wall-to-wall with servers and keypads and all the manner of other computer equipment. The world erratically faded out, then in.
“Doesn’t look like he can control his pupil dilation,” Smecker said.
The person he addressed was the back of a head—black hair, short, possibly with longer bangs in front—and a set of hunched shoulders—broad but awkward, narrow width, not used to physical exertion. “Hey, you got Kadaj to me before she got to him, so he was easy. It’s going to take a while to bring this guy’s nervous system back on line.”
“Tseng.” Smecker absently turned over his palm and glanced into it. The low glow of a mini datascreen was briefly visible before he shoved his hand into his trouser-pocket.
Beeps and whirrs and the occasional low pulse, felt only as a vibration, overwrote their words. The static seemed to get worse whenever Tseng tried to listen harder, only to recede when he allowed himself to withdraw inwards. But he wanted—needed to listen. He needed to center himself again, find his sense of balance as well, but not now.
“What?” the other man said.
Sometimes Smecker almost appeared to have some sense of honor. “It’s his name. Thought since you’re going to be spending a lot of time together, you’d better know it.”
After a moment, the other man pushed back from the terminal at which he’d been working. He was lean, angular, pale as Rufus who till lately had only ever been allowed out of the Tower at night or in the close company of his father. Curlicues of scars twisted from his temples down the sides of his face and back along the hairline. “That’s really rich of you. Is it his real name, or is it just like ‘Agent’ and ‘Neo’?”
The rational, profiling part of Tseng’s mind was working well enough to understand those referred to Smecker and the stranger, respectively. It, however, was not sound enough to even begin to guess at why Smecker found the exchange amusing. “It’s his real name, Thomas. Don’t be so bitter—you having a last name puts you one up on him.”
Thomas looked at Tseng then, right when Tseng was wishing he had control of his right hand with the EMP-generator implant, and the world faded out of Tseng’s clenched grip.
* * *
This time Tseng was in an archaic bathroom, like he’d only seen in vid-clips. The toilet was actual porcelain, cracked and white with a dark ring around the inside of the bowl that’s the exact color of what came out of a dead man’s loosened bowels. Sweat was sticking his hair across his eyes and trickling hot liquid salt into his mouth.
“Muscle spasm’s normal for this part,” Thomas said.
Tseng dropped his head onto his arm. His hand was trembling against the rim and the constant jolting did not help his unsettled stomach. “Not as bad this time.”
“You—you were conscious for the other ones?” For some reason, Thomas sounded surprised. If he had been as deep into programming as his implant scars suggested, he should have had some experience with high-level enforcers, who inevitably had some of their training coded directly into their bodies.
“All of them.” The trembling wouldn’t stop no matter how much Tseng concentrated, and when he attempted to signal for calming…he moved his head and looked more closely at his wrist. His breath divided into a thousand long daggers as it slid raggedly over his teeth. “You took them out.”
Thomas put his hands beneath Tseng’s arms. Then he was slamming them back to break his fall on the floor; weak and disobedient as Tseng’s muscles were, he still had Turk training to back him up. And very little of that had been coded, because it’d been traditional to take the time. A symbol of the extra dedication they had to the Head.
He’d always appreciated the inherent respect and honor, but now he appreciated the practicality as well. He hit the floor himself, then crumpled as bolts of pain ricocheted up his arms and shoulders. But he could and did crawl.
“Goddamn it—get back here. Your nerves are still adjusting and if you stress them—fuck it.” A hand touched Tseng’s ankle.
He sent Thomas back into something hard but hollow, because the sound of the other man’s pained groan was drowned out by the low ringing of the impact. The nearly subsonic noise rattled Tseng’s bones and then the rest of his flesh, jolting it out of order. He would have cried out if the muscles in his throat hadn’t begun to tighten and loosen chaotically, preventing voice and even breath.
“Goddamn it,” Thomas snarled. His hand slapped down on Tseng’s side, where a line of implants had once been. Then it slid upward to grip Tseng’s jaw, forefinger and thumb pinching hard inwards to hold Tseng’s mouth open. The man’s lips came down, sealed around Tseng’s mouth, and he forced hot, moist air past the constriction.
His other hand jammed something against Tseng’s temple—into it, and a white-hot spark of pain told Tseng that at least one implant still remained. Tseng’s back bent till he thought his spine would break itself, then abruptly relaxed. He jammed up his arm against Thomas’ chest, but had to stop there because of the pain.
Thomas grunted, but continued breathing for Tseng. His hand slid off the jack into Tseng’s hair and fisted in it, pinning Tseng’s head to the ground. He banged at Tseng’s twitching legs a few times with his knees, then nearly fell over as Tseng twisted hard into him—it hadn’t been entirely involuntary. No one was allowed this near unless they were departing the world in the next five to ten seconds; the only exception was the Head and their heirs. This much touch for this long short-fired Tseng’s sensory input to the point of agony.
The harsh bubbling euphoria of a rapid biochem adjustment cut the pain with an additional heightening of the senses. It gradually soured and dulled, accompanying the bitter return of fine motor control. Tseng let himself go limp.
A fraction of a second before Tseng would have struck out, Thomas lifted his head and dropped the hand he had on Tseng’s jaw down so his fingers and thumb pressed over the arteries. He could have Tseng unconscious in seconds if he wanted to.
He used his other hand to wipe the sweat off his brow, then raised an eyebrow. “What were you? Taichou?”
“Kisaragi.” The ceiling was still spinning, even though they’d stopped moving. The motion was echoed in the way Tseng’s guts wound up tighter and tighter. He coughed, then couldn’t stop himself from jerking upwards.
Thomas blinked at Tseng’s comment, then narrowed his eyes. He let go and was across the room in time to let Tseng lunge for the toilet and avoid spilling vomit over the floor. “Yeah, I worked for them. Oh, right, Shinra calls it captain.”
“I head the Turks,” Tseng muttered. He still did. He was alive and therefore his responsibility had not ended. It was the truth. “You aren’t too informed about current politics.”
“Carrying around a sentient virus for a couple years will do that to a guy. You don’t seem too informed about Jenova. Or the side-effects of getting her out of your system, anyway,” Thomas retorted. He pulled up his knees and let his hands hang over them, then leaned his head against the doorframe. A wire was running from his temple.
Tseng had to put his head down on the side of the toilet. He wiped off his mouth and chin as best he could, staring out till his eyes managed to focus on the wire trailing down in front of his face. He tracked it across the floor, then upwards.
“Your friend Smecker said the same thing, actually. Don’t pull that out yet. You do and you might go into a fit so bad even I couldn’t pull you out.” Thomas’ eyes were a plain dark brown. If Tseng squinted, a hint of green was detectable, but far below the intensity that it should have been. “All those implants got your body used to having itself adjusted. Now it’s learning how to adjust itself. It’s going to take a while.”
“Will it adjust?” For the moment, it seemed wiser to adopt a more harmless pose and gather information. As long as Thomas was at the other side of the room. “I’ve seen others after treatment to get rid of Jenova. They invariably ended up with some degree of disability.”
That interested the other man a great deal, though he tried to hide it. He flipped one of his hands. The green sheen of his pupils bled into the whites. “Well, your friend seemed pretty happy with how I fixed his boyfriend.”
“Smecker is my colleague,” Tseng corrected. His empty stomach heaved again, and when it could not find relief in expulsion of anything, turned on itself and attempted to eviscerate him. He winced and clutched the side of the toilet.
Thomas lifted his eyebrows, then grabbed the doorframe and pulled himself up. “Sleep through this part.”
It wasn’t a request. The reaction of Tseng’s body wasn’t a refusal, no matter how much his mind screamed.
* * *
“Morning, Tseng,” Smecker said. He was sitting on the edge of the bed. No one else appeared to be in the room. “Rufus is fine. This morning I walked in on Reno straightening his coat for him and he ordered a three-week shut-down of what he assumes is my favorite restaurant, plus made sure Reeve’s too busy to make our weekly lunch for a month. Now that that’s out of the way…”
Tseng pushed his back up the wall, its gritty pitted surface rasping his palms. His head felt as if cotton had been stuffed around each thought and he tasted a thick, sour coating on his tongue. He scraped it off with his teeth and looked at his hands, running a finger around each of the dull dark red-brown scabs that capped his knuckles and ringed his wrists. “Does he assume I’m dead?”
“Basically. Reno’s handling all bodyguard duties now.” Smecker watched Tseng without a flicker of emotion; the keen but detached interest in his gaze was steady and unchanging. He had rings under his eyes, and the wrinkles of his face and throat seemed to have deepened. His hands had a slight shake to them that told Tseng the man was slightly overdosing himself on stimulants. “Rude and Elena take care of the other traditional Turk responsibilities—the physical ones, anyway. Reeve got transferred to doing the data-crunching shit for them, hence why he’s so busy. Not a bad choice on Rufus’ part, actually.”
The idea of Reno safeguarding Rufus’ life set sharp needles into Tseng’s nerves, but mainly…if he had had to choose someone other than himself to take on that duty, he supposed Reno would have been it. Rude was too uncreative and Elena lacked the experience and political sense—Reno’s was of the instinctive gutter variety, but it functioned well enough when he paid attention to it—to step up. As for Reeve…Tseng had his concerns over that, but he was more interested in why Smecker was letting himself comment on Rufus’ decisions as if Tseng were his confidant. Smecker was abrasive, but not careless.
“Bodyguard and Turk are pretty much separate groups now,” Smecker said. He had something else to say that he knew would get under Tseng’s skin. “Vincent’s supervising the Turks.”
Tseng angled his thumbnail so he could slice off the scab on the side of his right wrist, where the EMP-generator had been. He hissed, a little at the pain and a little in surprise at the strength of the pain. The implants that had automatically stimulated release of endorphins into his bloodstream had also been removed, he thought. It whetted his temper. “You’ve lost your mind.”
“He needed something to do that connected him to Shinra. And Sephiroth damn well doesn’t count for that. At least, not very well. Vince is actually good at heading an assassin team, you know. Better than you were—you always stopped to think about precedence, whereas he is the damn precedent, so he doesn’t give a shit about breaking it.” The color of Smecker’s eyes was a deep, soft green. He most likely was scrolling through profiles, working on other cases while he casually twisted his scalpel in every crack Tseng had. “Eventually he’ll remember he liked it too.”
“The purpose of the Turks is to do whatever is necessary to protect the life and health of the Head. Valentine has already proven his priorities lie elsewhere,” Tseng snapped. He reached up behind his left ear and ripped off the scab where the direct-line implant to the Head had been. All that was left there as well was a bloody hole in the flesh.
Smecker yanked Tseng’s hand down, then twisted it around as he leaned forward. His thumb had slid over the pressure point that numbed the whole arm, and it ground down there till Tseng dropped his other hand from where it’d almost seized Smecker’s shoulder. “The purpose of the Turks is to do whatever the hell’s necessary, yeah. If you had to fuck up Rufus in order to keep him from getting his mind fried, would you have? No, of course not, because you’ve got a goddamned fixation on him.”
Then Smecker threw down Tseng’s hand and got off the bed, explosively blowing out his breath. He stalked to the far end of the room and shoved at the wall. Part of it retracted and Smecker poked his head through the doorway that resulted.
Tseng centered one hand over the other so that each nail was hooked into the edge of a knuckle-scab. Then he scored them off. Pain felt very different when completely free of drugs—so much sharper, and he remembered the way Rufus paled whenever he had a muscle spasm and wondered if this was the cause of the other man’s short temper. But then, Rufus wasn’t so rooted in gross physical sensation. He’d never been, despite his father’s and Hojo’s best efforts to make him so. “Why are you trying to justify this to me?”
“You know, it’s not that I’m saying that was what Vincent was thinking when he did it. He doesn’t hate Rufus like he did Rufus’ dad, but he doesn’t adore the kid either. But the fact is that he was able to do it and you couldn’t even tell Rufus’ daddy to ease off on the drugs once in a while.” Smecker pushed himself out of the doorway and turned around to shoot Tseng a grimly amused, pitiless look. “Reno did that and you had to put him on sick leave for two goddamn weeks.”
His entire back had been without skin…but the Turks were subject to the Head’s desires, and back then Rufus hadn’t been Head. Back then Tseng had had his biochem levels readjusted to suppress all nausea, and had only switched them back when he’d been poisoned later on and had almost died because the lack of body response hadn’t warned him. “Valentine might not be able to kill Sephiroth should he go mad again.”
“Actually, Sephiroth’s still clinically insane—he’s just controllably so. And that’d be a good point if I were counting on only Vincent to deal with Sephiroth as he’s got to be dealt with in a given situation, but I’m not. Vincent can, however, handle Rufus,” Smecker said. He was studying Tseng again, but less for amusement and more for serious observation. “And the captains too, if need be.”
“So speaks the Head?” Tseng bitterly replied. “Are you drawing from Sun Tzu or Machiavelli?”
Smecker grinned, unsurprisingly enough. He had an odd, extreme appreciation for sarcastic allusions. He’d probably laugh at his own assassin if whoever it was made a sufficiently witty remark, and if they also worked in an obscure historical reference, he might even bend his neck for them. “Tseng. You spent your whole fucking life tied up in the fucking rules. Now you’re dead, and you’re free to do whatever the hell you want. Take a moment to think on that. You’ll thank me later.”
“You expect me to follow a certain course, otherwise you wouldn’t bother with all this. That’s not the definition of freedom,” Tseng said.
“Neither’s mutilating yourself in a pity-fest. Don’t go with seppuku, Tseng—it’s not even got any symbolic power since Rufus thought you were dead in the first place. He’s not the kind of guy that’d give you extra credit for multiple deaths.” With that, Smecker walked through the doorway.
He didn’t emerge again, though Tseng heard more than one voice; Tseng caught himself trying to enhance his hearing before he realized that those chips were gone as well. There must have been another doorway, because a few minutes later, Thomas came into the room and shut the door behind him. He seemed intelligent enough to know better than to leave Smecker alone with his equipment.
He glanced once at Tseng, eyes flicking over Tseng’s bloody hand, but continued onwards to settle himself before a console taking up most of the far corner. The room was so small that when he leaned back, his head nearly bumped the corner of the mattress upon which Tseng was sitting. “Your colleague is a real trip. Smart, but he’s got an amazing way of getting on your nerves.”
“Did you leave any implants in?” Tseng asked. He wrapped his hand over his bleeding knuckles till they stopped and began to scab again.
“The ones for jacking into the networks and a couple I figured were identifier chips to get you into Shinra installations —actually, those I had to replace with duplicates. Everything else had to go—Jenova might have imprinted on them on her way through you. Even if she hadn’t, the more reliant you are on them, the faster you’ll succumb.” Thomas called up a datascreen that scrolled seemingly endless lines of code. Occasionally he paused it and pulled out one line, dragging it to a clip-screen he’d set up to the side. “What’s he up to? Smecker, I mean.”
Tseng found a rag and wiped off the blood. Then he sat back and stared at the far wall, trying to force himself into a trance. Technically he knew how to do it without chemically inducing one, but that method had been so much faster and a Turk had so little free time…he kept failing, and each aborted effort only frayed his temper even more. “You duplicated Shinra identification chips.”
After a moment, Thomas spun around. His smile was a thin veneer of smugness laid over insecurity. “It happens.”
“I know. One of my duties is to track down counterfeiters like you and stop them. It’s interesting that Smecker gets on your nerves, then—that would be deliberate on his part. And he usually respects people with that level of skill,” Tseng said. He’d predicted a hard swallow, then a clenching jaw, and that was exactly what he saw. “He needs something from you.”
“Well, obviously. Unless you’ve got no fucking idea what Jenova is, in which case none of this makes sense.” Thomas recovered some of his earlier cockiness and turned back around. He reached up and shoved a jack into his temple. “You don’t, do you?”
Tseng didn’t answer. The moment the other man had turned around, he’d gotten up and off the bed without making a sound. That part of his training was independent of technological enhancement, he savagely thought. He crossed the room and was slamming his hand on the exact same spot on the wall in the exact same manner as Smecker hand by the time Thomas’ startled exclamation reached him.
The wall didn’t open. And there was no sign—Tseng tried to do an analytical scan, failed, and then snarled when he remembered he couldn’t do that now. When he realized how crippled he was—he whirled around and took one step before a sudden fiery shock sent him to the ground. He wrenched in on himself and the pain abated a little, but any attempt to rise only intensified it again.
He dimly heard footsteps come near, then stop near his head. “Stop trying to kill me. I’m the only person that knows what’s wrong with you.”
Smecker would have begged to differ, Tseng snapped inside his mind. A hand touched the side of his head and he shook it off. The pain got worse.
The cool metal tip of a jack tapped his cheek and he reluctantly made himself hold still. It trailed up to his temple, then clicked into the socket. After a brief flash of even hotter pain, the agony began to recede and Tseng could look upwards. Oddly enough, Thomas wore a wary, pensive expression.
“And currently, you’re the only person I can ask about Smecker. Jenova’s hellish, but she wouldn’t be so bad if people weren’t always a problem,” Thomas muttered. He shoved his hands beneath Tseng and started to pull up, then had to stop to disentangle the wire connecting them from Tseng’s hair. Then he pulled again. “Come on, damn it. Work with me, here.”
After a long moment, Tseng pressed down on his elbows and did the best he could. Their joint effort got him back onto the mattress, where he couldn’t help collapsing without a strong tinge of relief. He closed his eyes and listened to Thomas go back to his corner, then irritably shook his head. He tried to concentrate on entering a meditative state again, finding someplace where he could think and see clearly, but he was so out of practice—damn Smecker for being so perceptive.
The flash of temper sent Tseng completely out of his half-trance. He gritted his teeth and tried again. And again. And again.
* * *
He was fifteen, trying not to pull at the too-tight seams of his suit. As was customary, he was going through his growth spurt without the artificial modulations that others, if they could afford it, commonly used. He was attending to the Head’s wife and the heir, watching her watching Rufus try to grasp holographic toys. Rufus’ tiny face would screw up and redden in frustration, but then smooth out in intense, eerie concentration.
“I worry. The Jenova crisis not only gutted the Turks, but it also set up an enemy for Rufus,” she quietly said to no one in particular. She didn’t look at Tseng. She often seemed to talk to herself, and the Head always accused her of going insane when he was angry with her. “I don’t believe she’s gone. She hates us too much—our family, our House, our world. She hates, she hates…she’s nothing but hatred.”
“Madam?” Tseng turned away from the window.
White face, white hair, white eyes. She was blonde and blue-eyed, but now she always seemed strangely colorless, as if all her intensity had gone into her son. “You will see to it that this does not happen. I know my husband thinks—but you are sworn to this bloodline, Tseng.”
“Madam.” Sometimes she twisted her hands together like this, and it meant she was about to sleep, deeply but uneasily, for the next few days. Sometimes it meant she had to be sedated in the next few minutes in order to prevent her from injuring anyone. Because of this, Tseng had the message box called up on the left side of his vision as he spoke. He only paused because he was not certain whether Smecker or Hojo was to be called.
She calmed and leaned back so her hair spilled over the edge of her seat; Rufus reached up and began to toy with the strands. Her expression was hidden in the pale gold veil. “She’s not dead. In fact I fear she’s eternal,” she said with a long sigh.
And she said no more.
* * *
“But who is this Jenova? Was she a real person or a construct?” Thomas pushed the bowl across the table.
Usually Tseng ate via implant. It was faster and easier to adjust his intake to his current needs using that method. Shinra had always insisted on ancient silverware at formal occasions so he knew what the spoon in the bowl was, but it’d been a long time since he’d had to use it. “I don’t know.”
“That’s been your answer to the last seven questions I had. If you’re just going to stonewall me, you could say so and then I wouldn’t bother you anymore,” Thomas muttered. He picked up his own spoon and ate, quickly and gracelessly but carefully. He was overly thin, and not for cosmetic reasons: his bones jutted beneath his skin, especially at his wrists and the points of his jaw.
“Why are you asking me? You have some way to contact Smecker.” The texture of the food in Tseng’s mouth explosively shattered into overwhelming sensations. Thick, sticky, gummy…if it’d had any flavor at all, he might have passed out from trying to process everything. “He’s not telling you.”
Thomas arched an eyebrow. “Should he know? I’m not really sure what he does for Shinra, but if you’re the head Turk—”
“The Turks were created to protect the Head and the heirs to the House from all dangers, outside or inside. They weren’t meant—” A long, long time ago, someone had warned Tseng against his tendency to speak too bluntly; he had seen it as speaking with clear meaning, but had seen the underlying point and ceased. Now his voice was rusty.
At any rate, he didn’t need to finish. It appeared that Thomas not only could guess the rest, but had also already known it. The other man scraped up the last of his food with a sour chuckle. “Just a samur—sorry, enforcer with a better suit?”
“Shinra’s soldiers don’t wear suits.” Tseng took a few more bites, just enough to quiet his hunger pangs, before scraping the spoon clean on the side of the bowl. Then he lifted it and watched the muscles in his hand. The tendons began to twitch before the pain began, but all in all, it took less than five minutes before he had to put down the spoon.
He looked up then and saw Thomas staring at him. After a moment, the other man gave him a humorless smile. “You’d kill me if you could thought you could hold on long enough,” he said.
“I’d have other things to do first. How long have I been here?” Tseng asked.
Thomas looked at his own spoon. He slowly tipped his head to the side. The spoon also bent, then fluidly swung its bowl around and snapped straight again. A wince crossed Thomas’ face. “Two weeks. You seem like a smart guy, even if you’re not supposed to be. Try this—humanity’s figured out how to manipulate our genes and biochemistry and all that in order to make us prettier, better, stronger. Means I can alter the crystal structure of this metal spoon so it acts more like rubber.”
“But you don’t have implants in your hand.” The spoon went in the bowl. Then Thomas absently put his hand on the edge of the table as he moved to turn and Tseng yanked it across. He dug his nail in a hairsbreadth from the major nerves and flipped it over, looking at the scars. White, hard, some puckered inward and some forming circular ridges.
“Yeah, that’s the thing.” Pain seeped into Thomas’ voice, but he still sounded oddly detached, something like Smecker in a playful mood. “Nature did it first, in a way. Viruses incorporate into our DNA and manipulate our cells into reproducing them at cost to us. You get computer viruses, too…those fuck up your implants. But none of them had brains. They couldn’t control what they did—the environment did. Or their engineers did.”
Tseng bit down on the side of his mouth, but he didn’t let go till the trembling became so pronounced that his grip slackened. Even then, he let Thomas pull his hand away. “I need to go back to work.”
“Then you need to know what Jenova is. So do I.” Thomas pushed himself up from the table as he rubbed his wrist. “But I’m not doing that from Shinra Tower. I tried working like that once—the bureaucracy’s insane. Getting everyone that has to listen to you to actually do that takes too long.”
Rufus thought he was dead, and if Tseng turned up alive he’d have to deal with explanations. If he left here, he probably would have no chance of locating Thomas again; he’d been trying for three times as long as he’d needed to find anyone else, and even then he’d failed—Smecker had found the man, apparently. If he left here, he’d find out whether Smecker was telling the truth about Rufus’ reaction.
Vanity should have been trained out of him long before now. Yet another failure. Tseng suppressed a snarl as he pulled back his hair, then roughly knotted a lock around the rest. “Jenova is mentioned in some of the Shinra databases—”
“Nothing good enough to go on. If there had been, your colleague would’ve found it—he’s a damn good hacker for somebody that’s so anti-modification. First wrinkled old bastard I’ve met that actually was a wrinkled old bastard…makes me wonder what his boyfriend sees in him,” Thomas said. He picked up Tseng’s bowl and his own and took them over to the wall sanitation unit. A brief green flash lit up the room, and then Thomas put them away in cabinets that seamlessly blended into the walls.
“Kadaj is a failed experiment—he was an attempt to recreate Sephiroth. Who I assume you’ve heard of. He’s sociopathic and intelligent, but emotionally retarded. Smecker is a psychologist. He’s interested in such things.” It rankled at Tseng to leave his life’s work in the hands of others, but he was no use as a Turk. He’d proved that over and over, and now he needed to prove first that he could prevent danger from reaching the Head before he felt qualified to return. He should have died.
Thomas turned around. Then he shrugged and slapped the wall so a doorway opened. “Yeah, sure. But I think we’ve spent enough time talking about him. Come on.”
“Why?” Tseng tentatively put some weight on his knees. He’d had to slide along the wall earlier in order to walk; his joints seemed stronger now, but not by much.
“You can only track Jenova so far by jacking into the networks. That’s the frustrating part—she keeps coming out,” Thomas muttered. “And almost nobody lives long enough to talk about it. Come on, we’re going to see what I mean.”
* * *
It was a strange feeling to be outside in an outfit that was not the Turks’ uniform, with all its special customizations and idiosyncrasies. That added to the lack of response whenever Tseng absently tried to call on an implant made Tseng nervous.
He watched well back from the edge of the rooftop as Thomas went right up to it, swinging one leg over and sitting down. The other man peered through the crowded streams of traffic, occasionally have to lean back as a hovercar cut overly close to the building, at the skyscraper across the street. The fifth level up had been blown out so it was possible to see all the way through, but that was essentially useless: everything inside was charred a uniform black.
“Caught the panic signals early this morning and hacked the utilities. The floor blew at 3-oh-3 and—are they taking Gainsborough out?” Thomas frowned and peered over, only to back rapidly up as someone shouted. He paused, then moved forward again when it was clear that the shout hadn’t been at him.
Tseng eased over to the edge. Although the Turks should have been as shadows, the former head had liked having his bodyguards stand prominently around him, so there was the danger of recognition. He was careful to stay deep within the shadows thrown by the buildings around them. “No. They’re taking out someone else that was there…they’d never let the Head’s remains be seen by the public in such awful condition. It’d be a shame to the House.”
“How long till they’re done? I need to get in there,” Thomas said. He’d noted what Tseng had said, but had plainly dismissed it as irrelevant.
“Tradition—” A surprising, incomprehensible surge of anger made Tseng stop to collect himself. He glanced down at the street again and fixed on a car slowing to land near the building. A thought occurred to Tseng and he looked further up the road to see a Shinra vehicle coming in behind. It was stopped by a mass of angry soldiers, but then a pink figure got out of the first car and called them off. “I don’t know. It’s up to Aeris Gainsborough—the new Head—how she wants to honor her father. I don’t know much of her.”
He continued to watch to see who Shinra had sent to express their condolences. The old Head would have sent his wife, and after she’d died, no one at all. But Rufus—
--Rufus had sent Zack, with the entertainment venue manager—Tifa Lockheart—carrying some sort of gift. It was proper and shrewd and Tseng bitterly wondered who it had been that had taught Rufus something about the usefulness of at least a façade of compassion before he caught himself. Doing one’s duty wasn’t supposed to be rewarded with anything, least of all gratitude from the Head.
Thomas had been studying Tseng again, but he turned quickly away and headed for the stairs. “What did Rufus do?”
“He ordered the body incinerated with most of his father’s belongings and the ashes dumped somewhere that he’d never go,” Tseng said. He slowly withdrew, then followed the other man.
“Damn. So why do you care about this guy so much?” After a moment of tense silence, Thomas glanced over his shoulder. “You talk in your sleep. Don’t worry—no secrets told, just a lot of asking about Rufus.”
Tseng stumbled, then nearly went down as his knee abruptly locked up. A hand grabbed his arm and he nearly threw it off out of instinct and pride. Then the parallels—and how shallow they really were—took him in the gut and he chose to cling to the wall instead.
“Okay.” Eyebrows up, Thomas slowly backed away. He shuffled to the other side of the doorway, shoving his hands in his pockets.
They stared at each other. Most programmers grew quickly impatient with anything that didn’t follow the same kind of strict logic upon which coding depended, but Thomas seemed perfectly comfortable where he was.
“I used to do AI interfaces,” Thomas suddenly said. “A couple friends of mine and I, we used to make up constructs, see how human we could get them. It never worked quite right—I should’ve started from the other way around.”
“I’m not a construct.” The man was looking at him the way Smecker looked at people when he was analyzing, Tseng finally realized. He wished futilely that Smecker of all people would stop coming up in conversation and thought—it was happening even more so than with Rufus, which would have been understandable and right in some ways.
Thomas shrugged, eyes narrowing as he stared through Tseng. “No, but you’d make an okay computer program.”
“A computer program never would get you in there,” Tseng replied. He kept a tight hold on his temper. Perhaps he wasn’t accustomed to feeling so much of everything, but that did not mean he would allow himself to be manipulated in such a way. He was a waste and a failure because of what he had neglected to do, not because of what he’d done. And since he was not allowed to atone for that, he’d have to attempt to work off the difference. “We’ll go in a few hours. Everyone will be busy escorting Aeris away and seeing that Shinra’s representatives leave the area without doing anything.”
Tseng carefully pushed himself off the wall. His knees held. He flexed his hand and his fingers moved almost as they had before. “I won’t.”
* * *
The area was devastated. It was even worse than the earlier attacks on the cafés and nightclubs. Even if he’d still had all his analytical implants, Tseng wasn’t certain that he would have been able to pick up anything. He hadn’t the slightest idea what Thomas might be expecting to find.
“Kisaragi’s on the way down, I think. He still thinks like a streetcorner chip-buster. He’ll probably survive, but I think this city’s going from three Houses to two. You?” Thomas squatted in one corner and scratched at the cindery black dust that covered everything. He lifted his fingers to his nose and sniffed; a dented, filthy chrome panel opposite him threw his distorted, dim reflection at Tseng. His eyes flickered green as if he were hooked up. “What? You said I don’t know much about current politics. So I’d better.”
The point of the Turks hadn’t been teaching, or interfering, or…Tseng walked across the room, forcing himself to picture Rufus’ office in the same condition. He wondered if he’d ever see that room again.
In a few places, a thicker, darker charcoal predominated. It still had a bit of moisture left to it so it stuck to the floors and walls. It seemed to preoccupy Thomas the most.
“Do you have a last name?” Thomas asked.
A slight rattle from many floors below reached Tseng’s ears. On the floor that it came from, it would’ve been an explosive, cacophonic sound: he’d delicately stacked up pieces of wreckage in a kind of crude warning alarm. He had to work within the new, smaller boundaries of his senses, but he also knew where the old boundaries were. “Time to go. You have five seconds to finish up.”
Thomas glared at him and began to object, then shut his mouth. He got up and irritably followed Tseng.
* * *
“I thought I was a hero. I had a beautiful girlfriend, amazing powers, the works…but it was all in my head. Well. Not totally.” The green wash of light coming from the screen dappled Thomas’ face with sharp curved shadows and fuzzier highlighted planes. He compressed his lips, then abruptly jerked up a handful of wires. “It still was happening, but I wasn’t doing what I thought I was doing. She’s good at that. Cut the green and blue and splice them to each other.”
The first time Tseng tried it, his timing was off and the spark leaped into his hand. He cursed and did it correctly, then shoved the wires back. “How did you get free?”
“It still depends on belief. I stopped believing, and then I could see what I was really doing. After that point, it’s a lot of fancy uninstalling. The hard part is because she doesn’t just stay in the implants—she can go bio, too.” Thomas shoved his hands deep into the panel. His head slowly bent back so he stared sightlessly at the sky, eyes the green of a mainframe’s inside. “Sometimes you have to destroy some of the nerve cells, too.”
“You seem to be fine,” Tseng observed. He twisted his wrist around, then moved it through a small hand-kata. He almost managed to finish it before his fingertips spasmed. Better.
The glowing eyes slid over to point at Tseng. They still didn’t seem to see him. “That’s because Jenova didn’t want me for my physical abilities. She didn’t bother getting out of the implants. She…got within a block of Gainsborough, then leaped somewhere else. Nobody that died in that, though. Damn it.”
Cloud, perhaps. Smecker knew about him, but what exactly were Smecker’s intentions? Tseng couldn’t take it on faith that they were the same or nearly the same as his own. But he wasn’t up to date on current politics, either. He looked at the spare jack that was dangling down beside Thomas and the hair on the back of his neck stiffly rose. He’d never particularly liked hooking into the networks, and the experience of Jenova hooking into him had left in this crippled, semi-useless state.
“What about you?” Thomas was pulling his hands out of the wires as he spoke. Some of them had knotted themselves around them and he had to pick carefully at them; it almost seemed as if their thin, sharp ends had slithered beneath his skin. “Why not you? You were Rufus’ bodyguard, and if she wanted to get—”
“In name only,” Tseng said, slow and deliberate and aching. He twisted his hands again, faster, and gritted his teeth as his muscles rebelled. “His father favored me, so he didn’t.”
Now Thomas was looking at him with both eyes and mind. The other man began to open his mouth, then shrugged and shook his hands free of the last of the wires. The green color faded from his eyes, leaving them black and tired and ringed with hollows.
Like Tseng’s own, when Tseng glanced at the metal wall beside him. “I come from a family that’s served the House of Shinra for a very, very long time. We’d never be permitted to—we cannot act against the Head. She would have found little use for me either.”
“Never?” Thomas repeated thoughtfully. He picked up the panel cover and began to set it back into place. “No last name, huh.”
“No.” Tseng needed a moment to recall the other man’s. Anderson. And he remembered that Smecker, after all, had a first name even if few people were allowed to use it with impunity.
“It’s not really a big deal. I never liked mine.” A strange, not-quite-sour smile flicked across Thomas’ face. “She gave me a totally new one. I’m not fond of it either, but it fits better.”
He pushed hard down on the panel and it clicked into place so that if one didn’t know, one never would be able to distinguish it from the rest of the wall. He always seemed to move purposefully, directly, as if he were mentally checking off a list in his mind.
“Neo?” Tseng said, and Thomas stumbled a little. “There’s an abandoned database that dates back to the supposed origins of Jenova. I’ve tried to hack it, but I can’t. The building’s very limited access—even Smecker can’t normally get to it.”
Thomas turned around and looked at Tseng for several long moments. “Are you allowed to not like the Head?”
* * *
“Sir, Hojo may think that Rufus is still in reasonably good condition, but I’ve observed—”
“Did you show these observations to Hojo?”
“He refused to see them.”
“Hojo’s Rufus’ doctor for a reason, Tseng. Concern’s appreciated, but I’d really rather hear about what those damn Kisaragi pests have been doing to my border investments.”
“…sir, people are beginning to ask questions. People that aren’t Shinra.”
“About what? Tseng.”
“…we’ve eliminated the Kisaragi threat.”
* * *
“Safeguarding Rufus’ life is still my top priority,” Tseng replied. Something made a sound in the hallway and he walked over to the doorway, where he carefully slid out a probe. It detected nothing so he stepped back inside. “Neo? Why are you—”
The other man shoved aside the last box so it scraped loudly against the floor. He pried up the top and retrieved a bundle slightly longer than his arm. “Don’t call me that. Call me Tom, Thomas—but not that.”
“You said it fit better.” Tseng took the bundle from Thomas and unwrapped one end just enough to see the handle, which was wrapped in cracked leather. The silver ornamentation was black with tarnish, but the gold still shone.
“Never said that what fit better is actually what’s good for you. Are you sure you know how to use that? The steel’s the best—good as Masamune’s, I think—but it’s got no mods. I didn’t have the time.” Thomas ran his hand through his hair, looking drawn and paper-thin. Then he sighed and headed out the door. “Christ. Are you sure you can even get us into this mainframe building? All you enforcers are so reliant on ‘plants—”
The sword fit awkwardly beneath Tseng’s arm. He would have preferred to strap it to his back, but he didn’t see anything suitable. At any rate, he didn’t have the time. Infiltrating with little technological help meant an even smaller window of opportunity than usual. “I was traditionally trained. This meant learning to carry out some of the same tasks without the aid of modifications.”
“And tradition’s always good,” Thomas said, curving the words so they came at Tseng sideways.
A slight, sudden weakening in Tseng’s calf muscle derailed his balance. He reached out and Thomas’ shoulder was there, and they progressed that way for several paces. “Traditionally, I’d be dead at this point.”
Thomas laughed quietly, blackly. His fingers curled beneath Tseng’s elbow, cradling while he helped Tseng push back onto his own feet. “What did Rufus call you?”
Tseng stiffened again, but it wasn’t due to any problem with his body. “Call me by my name,” he finally said. “What he chooses to call me is irrelevant.”
“But do you like ‘Tseng’?” Thomas persisted.
“What else would you call me?” Tseng snapped.
He didn’t get an answer. They hurried out of the building and were on their way seconds before the security forces finally arrived. The transport Thomas had stolen was sitting on a nearby rooftop, and as they flew out of the area, Tseng looked down and spotted a familiar shock of red hair. He caught himself looking for a gold splash as well and was surprised at how resentful he felt, both at himself and at the heads below.
“You know why I left Kisaragi and threw in with…well, not so much Shinra as Smecker and a couple others—anyway, want to take a guess?” Thomas swerved them into the windstream of a far larger mass-transit hover car and let it carry them along, easing off on the engines. “I don’t think now that saving the world means we’re gonna get a brand new one in its place. It’s just going to preserve what’s already here, so better to go with what you can stand.”
“Which others?” Tseng idly asked. He was still prodding at himself, and beneath the resentment was something even more surprising, in its own way. “People you think you can make into programs afterward?”
“I don’t think people can be made into programs anymore. I know they can. And I know that that’s the worst thing you could do.” They quickly cleared the main roads, but it took longer than Tseng expected because Thomas was taking the most circuitous route possible. Sensible of him. He used that as an excuse to not say any more, which Tseng would have thought was also sensible, if someone had asked him a month ago. He was less sure now.
* * *
“My father once told me a story about a bird in a cage. It spent all its life in a cage, and one day, someone left the door open. But it refused to come out.” Rufus closed his eyes and turned his head so Tseng was looking at his profile. “Now, what I don’t remember is whether this was because the bird was so numbed to its existence that it didn’t know what to do, or if it was because the bird liked it there so much. But I remember you were there when he told me. What was the answer, Tseng?”
* * *
Another spare jack was attached to this server as well, and the glint of its tip sneered at Tseng. He kept his hands clenched on the sword handle, concentrating on making tiny movements with its tip, practicing what katas he could in the small space he had.
“Well, you weren’t the only one that tried to get into these. I can see Smecker’s trail, too…and that fucking prick, he tried using my Smith AI to get in. Man, he’s so…oh. Except he wasn’t the one that got the furthest. Oh, shit,” Thomas muttered. His fingers flew over the touchpads and datascreens, hacking at a speed that Tseng had never seen in a human.
No one knocked over the warning traps Tseng had set up this time, but he still had a sense that someone else was in the building. He put one hand against the wall and eyed their surroundings: they were on a metal grate platform, surrounded by tall, broad pillars on every side. When he put his hand against one, he didn’t feel the slight thrum that would’ve accompanied a fully active server.
“Shit. Okay. I’m in, but they just left and I don’t know where…I need five minutes to copy things.” Thomas sped up his pace to blinding. He worked so fast that he didn’t notice when his arm knocked into the spare jack and sent it swinging into Tseng’s leg.
Tseng looked upwards, but all he saw was the featureless gradual curve of the ceiling. He glanced through the grating beneath his feet and saw nothing as well, but he thought…he had no way to tell, no extra senses to call on, but perhaps Jenova had left him over-sensitized.
He picked up the jack, looked at it for a second, and then shoved it into his temple. When he took it out about twenty seconds later, nothing had changed. Apparently Thomas hadn’t noticed, which was fine. He had his own tasks to do, and Tseng needed to go downstairs. “Three minutes to go. I’ll meet you outside,” Tseng said, on the off-chance that Thomas was listening.
* * *
One moment Tseng was silently slipping through the immense power generators that made up the bottom level, and the next he was fighting for his life, barely managing to block blows. He missed one and the silver edge of the other’s gigantic blade slashed through his shoulder.
The pain was incredible, and Tseng couldn’t do anything to deaden it. When he dropped, it was because of that and not because of any attempt to escape. He fell into a thin space between two generators and watched helplessly as the sword came down—
--and caught on a heavy cable strung between the two huge whirring engines. It only stopped the blade for a moment, but that was long enough for Tseng to crawl out and seize his sword. He scrambled onto the ladder and hit the button for retraction; the blond man whirled and raised his sword just as Tseng dropped the sword into a slit vent in the top of one generator.
There was a horrific crunch, and then a bloom of red fire. Tseng yanked up his legs—futilely, he thought—just as the ladder suddenly sped up, pulling him out of the way. It stopped so suddenly that his weakened arm gave and he nearly fell anyway.
“Come on!” A hand grabbed Tseng’s wrist, then yanked him up and over the edge. Thomas stared wildly at Tseng’s bloody shoulder, then whipped around at a heavy thud behind them.
It was Tseng’s attacker, sooty and burned but still hefting his huge cleaving sword as if its weight was nothing.
“That’s not Strife,” Thomas breathed, eyes wide.
“No,” said both Tseng and someone else. Then the blond man’s head and upper torso was obliterated in an explosion of red and white, accompanied by a ferocious bang. The echoes were wet splatters.
Tseng tilted back his head. He remembered he’d done this before, recently, on a rooftop across from a café. But this time it was Valentine’s face floating over him, pale and impassive.
It hurt, but in less than a second, Tseng was up and had grabbed the end of Valentine’s gun, clamping his fingers over Valentine’s hands, so that it was shoved against his chest. He kicked at Thomas at the same time. Thomas ran, and Valentine couldn’t shoot him because he’d have to shoot Tseng first, and the time left before the whole place destabilized was only enough to shoot one person.
* * *
“Still a Turk?” Valentine said.
They stood in a darkened room, watching through the window as Shinra forces cleaned up the mainframe building. The slash over Tseng’s shoulder had settled itself into a dull ache: yet another thing he’d have to relearn how to work around.
“I remember you—you were a good enough killer that I asked once if you’d like street duty, but you said you were fine with being a bodyguard to a child.”
Rufus had shown up this time. He stood near Smecker, who appeared to be arguing with the forensics team that had just come out. “You and Smecker were partners.”
“In a manner of speaking. He’s working on something now. It’s never a good idea to disrupt his plans without first trying to understand what they are, but…your subordinates are still very loyal to you. I think you’d do better work inside than outside,” Valentine told him. The man had a curious way of never moving, of doing without the gestures everyone else used to emphasize their speech. “Rufus does realize what Smecker is doing—I don’t know how long he’ll allow it, or whether Smecker will be smart enough this time to stop short of being kingmaker.”
Tseng moved forward till his forehead was touching the cool glass. He pressed his palm up as well, staring at Rufus who was regarding Smecker with a mixture of wariness and interest. And slowly, very slowly, Rufus happened to turn his head. He stepped abruptly backward and looked down; about six feet away, Reno glanced up and over.
But Rufus was very good at appearing that he was fine now, and eventually Reno went back to herding scientists. Rufus glanced back up at Tseng.
He didn’t make any gestures. A sidelong glance to Valentine showed Tseng that the other man’s eyes were glowing—he was probably messaging Rufus. Tseng eventually pushed up his hand, then moved his fingers in an old gesture of farewell. He doubted Rufus could see it well, but he’d see it well enough.
“I can be nothing but a bodyguard to the Head,” Tseng said, watching Rufus turn away. “Out here I can find out more.”
“With that hacker Smecker found?” Valentine turned away from the window so his face retreated into shadows and only his eyes, now red, were visible. “He’s good, but I doubt he can fight well. I’m told we don’t know how many other clones Hojo might have made—do you consider this hacker essential to your purpose?”
“I’m still a Turk.” Tseng took one step away from the other man, then another.
He wasn’t stopped. When he turned around again, Valentine was gone.
* * *
Thomas caught up with Tseng later, on the streets in a district where Sephiroth naked and screaming could have gone unnoticed. He pushed Tseng into an empty alley, then whirled to stare hard at him. “I don’t like this. I didn’t get everything before the place blew, but I got a lot. A lot that nobody else has. Of course Smecker expects me to tell him about it once I’ve got it put together, but what about all the other people in this?”
“Valentine? He’s still a Turk.” Tseng smiled humorlessly, then winced and grabbed at his shoulder. “I don’t know what that exactly means now.”
“I meant Rufus, actually,” Thomas said. He stepped back, eyes narrowing, and then abruptly leaned forward again. He put his hands up against the wall, arms on either side of Tseng’s head.
A second before their lips touched, Tseng put his hand on Thomas’ side. “I could snap your neck and paralyze you, then take you to have your memories hacked.”
“So why not? Think I’m more useful alive and thinking, like Smecker does?” Thomas murmured.
“I don’t…want to kill you. I’ve talked to you too much,” Tseng said, with difficulty. He squeezed hard at his injured shoulder. A warm, light touch on his upper lip made him lift his head a fraction, and Thomas moved in to slowly press their mouths together. It was immediate and overwhelming and he struggled to keep up with it.
Thomas eased off, running his tongue along Tseng’s lip. He sucked in a breath, then kissed the corner of Tseng’s mouth. His hand rested on Tseng’s waist and Tseng swung one around over his neck. “Shinra?”
“There’s be nothing to go back to.” Duty, but duty was nothing if refused. And duty wasn’t loyalty, Tseng thought. “But this is still to protect him. Because—I never wanted to go back to his father. I do want to go back to him.”
After a moment, Thomas kissed him full on the mouth again. Slow, exploring, and just pushing the line till Tseng had to shove him back—too much, too fresh. He began to say something, then exhaled and turned to lean against the wall. “Okay. I guess we all want to go home. But thing is, we’ve got a big fat spider in it.”
“So how do we kill it?” Tseng asked. He eased himself around—he had to turn with his injured shoulder grazing the wall.
Thomas blinked. He put out his hand to cushion Tseng’s shoulder, then leaned in again. But this time he merely pressed their cheeks together, breathing shortly and raggedly. Then he pulled away. “We’re working on that, in case you haven’t noticed. Come on.” “
“It’ll be nice to have somebody besides the networks talking to me,” Thomas added, almost as an afterthought. But he looked at Tseng quite deliberately, and Tseng found himself agreeing. Time to change, and time to change with someone; he’d thought it’d be best to remain the same, but others didn’t and that had been how he’d fallen out of the way. Now he wanted back in.