Conflicts of Interest Part 2

It's a Great Day... For Science

By Madam Hydra

Last modification date: 10/09/98



All rights and privileges to Final Fantasy VII and its characters belong to Square Co., Ltd. The characters of this series are used without permission for the purpose of entertainment only. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.

All original characters are the creation of the author. All copyright privileges to these characters are reserved for the author.


Author's notes:

WARNING: Violence, Adult language and subject matter.

This is a CONTINUATION - ALTERNATE REALITY Final Fantasy VII fanfic. It contains major SPOILERS for the game.


Text Conventions

( ) are character thoughts

/ / and // // are mental dialogue

[ ] are miscellaneous effects


Part a: Presentiments of Disaster

In Reeve's office, Cid and the others stared at pictures of the WEAPONs, thumbed through printouts, and browsed through computer files. They also received the unwelcome report of a strange red tentacle-like object sticking out of the sand on an obscure little island to the southeast.

Cid muttered sourly. "Ruby."

Red sighed and said, "Well, I guess that settles it. I think we can safety assume that Diamond has also returned. Now to decide our course of action."

Yuffie said, "Do we have to do anything? I mean, they don't seem to be doing nasty at the moment. Why not just leave them alone for now?"

Cid exhaled a big cloud of smoke. "Hate to admit it, but the kid's got a point. It's kinda useless to try and destroy the damned things right now. The Planet's only going to keep putting them back together. We gotta figure out what made them show up again in the first place. You come up with any news or info about Jenova?"

"Not yet." Reeve got up and started pacing. "Actually, over the last several months, I've been steadily gathering every file on Jenova I could get my hands on and trying to find a secure place to put them. At the moment, they're locked up in a big room two floors below under 24 hour guard. But the files are in a real mess at the moment. If you want to find anything specific, someone's going to have the fun job of sitting down and sifting through all those file boxes one by one."

There was a chorus of groans.

Vincent said, "You realize that none of us are really trained for the that sort of information analysis, nor are any of us scientists. We could easily miss vital clues."

The Shinra executive sighed. "I know, but the problem is we're sort of on our own here. We can't rely on Shinra scientists for too much help. Hojo keep exhaustive scientific records, but he was a lousy record-keeper with respect to administrative matters so there's no real way of knowing just who worked on his projects and who didn't. For all I know, a good quarter of the surviving science staff had connections to or actively participated in Hojo's research. Anyone with expertise in this area probably got it while working with the old lunatic."

Yuffie muttered, "Oh, terrific."

Cid flung up his hands and yelled, "Mad scientists! Is that all we've got? A bunch of mad scientists? Isn't there a SINGLE scientist out there who's got their head screwed on straight?"

"I'm currently in the process of trying to find some competent independent scientists or somebody from Dr. Gast's old team, but they're pretty damn scarce." Reeve shrugged and grinned faintly. "I think it's the nature of the business. A person probably needs to be a little crazy to interested in messing around with Jenova. Anyway, I've also sent a technical team to Nibelheim to retrieve any information and equipment still left in the Mansion. I would have done it much sooner but...."

"But if what you've said is true, isn't that rather like giving candy to a child?" murmured Red.

"Or drugs to an addict?" Yuffie chimed in.

"Well, I hired Reno and the Turks to keep an eye on them."


Reeve shrugged. "The Turks are professionals and they have no interest in Jenova or in Hojo's work. Besides, their ruthlessness will hopefully keep those scientists in line."

"I don't envy them that job," Cid muttered.

Red swished his tail thoughtfully before asking, "What about the Mt. Nibel reactor?"

"I checked Shinra's records as you suggested. According to all reports, the reactor was stripped clean long ago when Shinra started their little cover-up in Nibelheim. The advance team on site says that all the pods and the Jenova chamber are now totally empty."

Cid said, "Yeah, but all that equipment's still there. It probably wouldn't take an expert too long to make that place operational again."

"I know. I'm seriously considering getting the Turks to demolish it, although I'm sure Reno will charge me extra for that little service."

"Well, it's nice to know that they've got their uses," Cloud said as he and Tifa entered the room.

"Reeve! You didn't!" Tifa looked visibly upset.

The Shinra exec blinked. "What's wrong?"

"You're not dealing with the Turks, are you? Don't you remember that they're the ones responsible for dropping the plate on Sector 7!? Do you have any idea of how many people died because of what they did!?"

Reeve looked at her soberly and said in a flat voice, "Yes. I have a very good idea."

There was a long pause. Everyone suddenly remembered that Reeve had been the one in charge of Urban Development in Midgar.

Tifa blinked, then said in a somewhat milder voice, "Then why...?"

"Because they're the best people for the job. And it's also a good opportunity to reestablish business relations with them."

As a puzzled look appeared on her face, Reeve quietly added, "Reno's a bit of a sociopath, maybe, but he's a professional and very good at his particular line of work. I'd rather have him working for me than for someone else."

"Someone else?"

"Yes. The Turks could always decide to work for Scarlet."

She grimaced at the thought. "But...."

"Listen, Tifa. I'm not asking you to become cozy with the Turks. Just let them do their job so we could concentrate on the bigger problem."

She threw up her hands. "Fine. I just want you to know that I'm not happy about the Turks getting involved."

Reeve smiled slightly. "Objection noted." He then turned to Cloud. "Good to see you awake."

Cid grinned and added, "Yeah. I was afraid you were going to snooze through this mess and leave us with all the dirty work." On a more serious note, he added, "What the hell happened to you?"

Cloud's face turned bright red with embarrassment. "On my way here, I got a little sidetracked by the scenery. When I got off my chocobo to get a better look at Midgar,... whoosh! Half the cliff collapses and down I go with it."

Red cocked his head and said, "So it was just an unfortunate accident. We were afraid that you had been the victim of an ambush."

Cloud shrugged. "Nothing so exciting. I just ended up standing on the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Man, I know that feeling," Cid mumbled.

Reeve's intercom suddenly made a strident buzz.

"Yes, what is it?"

"Sir, a Dr. Aston wants to report an attack on a Shinra facility."

Everyone in the room suddenly stiffened and started listening very closely.

"An attack!? What kind of attack?"

"The director refuses to say, sir. Says it's confidential, for the president only." His assistant sounded rather miffed.

"All right. Reeve here."

"This is Dr. Aston. ESSARUF has just been raided by some unidentified creatures."

"Hold it, hold it! The what?"

"ESSARUF." The doctor sounded both irritated and offended by Reeve's ignorance.

"What the hell's ESSARUF?"

There was a sigh of exasperation. "ESSARUF stands for 'Experimental Specimen Storage and Auxiliary Research Unit Facility'."

Red's tail suddenly twitched.

"'Experimental Specimen Storage...'? So what attacked you?"

Dr. Aston said snappishly, "If I could tell you what kind of monsters they were, they won't be 'unidentified', would they?"

Reeve gritted his teeth and said, "All right. You were attacked by entities or creatures unknown. Would you happen to have any idea WHY you were attacked?"

"It's perfectly obvious. They were trying to steal something."

Cid rolled his eyes and muttered, "What did I tell you guys about these Shinra scientists?"

Reeve took a deep breath. "I see. Perfectly obvious. And how do you know THAT?"

Dr. Aston sounded as if he was lecturing a group of particularly stupid school children. "When intruders break in, head directly for a specific area, ransack said area, then fly away carrying an object, one reasonably assumes that they were deliberately trying to steal said object."

"And what do you have that can possibly be worth stealing?" Reeve was getting noticeably annoyed with the man. Nobody could really blame him.

Dr. Aston's voice bristled with offended dignity. "We have some extremely valuable and irreplaceable specimens here! Of course, we have a great deal worth stealing...."

Reeve rudely interrupted the doctor's outburst. "Do you know what was taken?"

"Not with absolute certainty. We're currently running a full inventory but the results won't be in for a few hours."

Reeve glanced up to see Cloud holding up a hastily scribbled note which read, 'Ask about Jenova.'

"You won't happen to be storing any samples of Jenova, would you, Dr. Aston?"

The man's reply sounded clearly disgruntled. "No, of course not! We're only an 'auxiliary' facility. Major specimens like Jenova would have been under Dr. Hojo's personal supervision and control. But we do store some specimens from the secondary projects like SOLDIER and other similar...."

"So you DO have some specimens with Jenova cells."

"Didn't I just say that? But we're not authorized to do anything with those specimens. They just sit here in archival storage. A waste of perfectly good research material, if you ask me...."

Reeve's thoughts were moving at a terrific pace. He flicked a quick glance at Cloud for confirmation. Cloud nodded grimly.

"Where are you located, Dr. Aston?"

"In the mountains east of the old reactor at Fort Condor. It's the old Mako reactor that used to have a huge bird perching on it."

"I'm familiar with the site. I'm sending a team out to take a look around. I expect you to extend them EVERY courtesy. They should be there in a couple of hours. Don't touch anything!"

"If that's the way you want it. There are some wounded personnel but we can leave them right where they are...." They could just picture the man callously shrugging at the prospect of leaving injured people untreated for hours.

Reeve closed his eyes, counted to ten, then said very calmly, "Take care of any casualties, of course, but don't touch anything else unless you absolutely have to. Reeve out."

"Sheesh! What an asshole!" said Yuffie as she idly juggled a few shuriken.

Red growled softly, "I do not like the smell of this. The timing is just too convenient." At the same time, Vincent emerged from his corner, adding his silent agreement.

Almost a bit too quietly, Cloud said, "It reeks of... Hojo."

Tifa automatically protested, "But he's dead!"

Cloud's only response was a long, steady look.

"You got any particular reason or are you just shootin' in the dark?" Cid watched Cloud carefully.

"I'm not sure. It's just that.... I just keep thinking back to that fight on Sister Ray. How he controlled those monsters like extensions of his own body...."

"You think that he somehow managed to survive and he's trying to do... what?"

"I don't know, Cid."

Tifa said, "Cloud, it could be someone other than Hojo. Maybe it's some of his assistants or coworkers."

"I know."

Cid said, "But you don't think so."

"No, I don't."

"How come?"

Cloud shrugged helplessly. "I'm not sure. It's... just a gut feeling."

Reeve didn't miss the quick exchange of looks between Cloud, Red, and Vincent. At first, he didn't quite get the significance, then he realized that of all of his friends, those three were the ones with the closest contact with Hojo -- at one time or another, they had all been subjects of Hojo's twisted experimentation.

Cloud suddenly shook his head. "All this guessing is useless. We need to get down to that storage facility and look around."

"Are you really feeling up to this?" Tifa gave Cloud a worried look.

He gave her a wry grin and said, "Don't worry. I'm fine."

Cid snorted and said, "Hell, Tifa. He just bumped his head. It's not like he's damaged anything really important."

Cloud gave Tifa an 'I told you so' grin. "Thanks for the concern, Cid."


As the others left the office, Cloud lingered behind to speak to Reeve.

"What's up, Cloud?"

"The doctor in the infirmary...."

Reeve looked a bit surprised. "You mean Dr. Stephen?"

"I think that's what his name tag said. Did you know that he was one of Hojo's primary researchers?"

The Shinra exec's narrowed. "What? How did you know?"

"I've... met him before."


"At Nibelheim." Cloud's voice was flat, drained of emotion.

There was a long pause, then Reeve said softly, "I see."

"Dr. Stephen was intimately involved in a lot of Hojo's Jenova research. He probably knows something useful. The odd thing is...."


"Well, Tifa and I ran into him as we were leaving the infirmary and he seemed positively terrified. He took one look at us, screamed, then locked himself in his office. And from all the noise, I think he was doing his best to barricade his door."

Reeve looked very surprised. "Really? When the last time Cait Sith saw him, he certainly seemed his usual smug, obnoxious self. That was less than an hour ago. What could have scared him so badly in such a short period of time? A visitor? A message, maybe?"

Cloud shrugged. "No idea."

Reeve made a quick call to Security, but soon hung up frowning. "Well, there's no record of visitors and if Dr. Stephen got a message, it didn't come through official Shinra channels. That doesn't mean much. He could have his own private phone. By the way, he's not in his office."

"Huh? That's really strange, considering the way he was acting."

The intercom chirped. Reeve drummed his fingers on his desk as he listened. Turning to Cloud, he said, "Damn it! One of the security guards reports that she saw him getting aboard the transport carrying the technical team to Nibelheim."

Cloud frowned and turned to stare out the large glass window in Reeve's office.

"I'll tell Security to send him back as soon as the plane lands."

Cloud was silent for a long moment. "No, wait." He turned to face Reeve. "He must have gone to Nibelheim for a reason. But what?"

"To escape?" Reeve scowled. "No, that doesn't make sense. There's no need to go all the way to Nibelheim for that. Why coop himself in a plane where we could easily track him down?"

"Maybe he HAD to go to Nibelheim first."

"You think that he went there to do something? Or maybe retrieve something?"

Cloud said, "Could be. There's no way to be sure. Although...."


"There might be a way to scare him into doing something careless. If you get Reno to tell the team that the Turks are planning to demolish the Mansion and the Reactor after they're done...."

Reeve slowly grinned and said, "He'll think this is his one and only chance. He just might get careless. Cloud, sometimes you can be incredibly sneaky."

The only response he got was a faint grin and that familiar shrug.

"You're right. It'll be a good way to panic Stephen into doing something stupid. It might even work on some of the other scientists. I'll let the Turks know."

"Thanks. See you later." Cloud left to join the others at the Highwind.

After talking to the Turks, Reeve's thoughts returned to Cloud. He hoped that his friend would be all right. Cloud seemed oddly disturbed by his brief encounter with Dr. Stephen. Then again, Reeve was in no position to judge how odd or how normal his friend's reaction to the doctor might be. He knew almost nothing about Cloud's experiences after the burning of Nibelheim except that Cloud had been Hojo's prisoner and experimental subject for a long time. There was so much he didn't know about his young friend's complicated past and there had been a good seven years of his life basically unaccounted for....

Reeve suddenly paused. That wasn't really correct. Even if Cloud hadn't been a SOLDIER, he had been a Shinra trooper for nearly two years. There should be a detailed personnel file on Cloud, especially if he had applied for the SOLDIER program.

Surrendering to a sudden burst of curiosity, Reeve asked his assistant Max to locate and pull the personnel files of one Cloud Strife, Shinra trooper, private second class.

Max was not happy and whined, "But sir, if he left Shinra over six years ago, his files would be in the inactive archives in the basement."

Reeve said irritably, "Aren't we supposed to be able to pull up even the archived files on the computer network?"

"We're supposed to, but Meteor wrecked a good part of the system. And since the inactive files are a pretty low priority item, no one's gotten around to fixing the access problems."

"Then go down to the basement and pull the hardcopy files."

"They may take hours to locate," his assistant moaned.

"Listen, Max. Part of your job description is 'go-fer'. Now, I'm telling to 'go for' those files and spare me the complaints."

"Yes sir." Max sounded resigned. "When do you need them, sir?"

By this point, Reeve was feeling a bit guilty for brow-beating his hapless assistant over something that was just a curious whim. "It's not desperately urgent. Just get those files for me within the next couple of days. Oh, and while you're at it, pull the files on a SOLDIER named...." He frantically racked his memory but couldn't come up with a name. "The SOLDIER who accompanied Sephiroth on his last mission to Nibelheim about six years ago."

"Yes sir. Anything else?"

"Nope, I think that's it."

"I'll get right on it, Mr. Reeve."


Part 2b: Research Doctrine

It was a short flight to the ESSARUF facility. The research complex was well hidden in a little valley located surprisingly close to Fort Condor. With the majority of the facility being located underground, the tall chainlink fence and a single, small, three-story building were the only hints of human presence. But according to the information hastily dug up by Reeve, the underground installation was actually quite large.

The director of the facility was also a surprise. Instead of the thin, scrawny scientist-type they were all expecting, he was a large, hulking man who rivaled Barret in size. He looked more like a scruffy dockworker than a senior research scientist.

Aston glared at them and sniffed, not at all impressed by what he saw. In a gravely voice, the director growled, "You're Reeve's 'investigation' team. I'm Dr. Aston, the director of this facility."

Cloud stepped forward. "Yes, doctor. Could you show us where those creatures...."

Dr. Aston rudely interrupted by saying, "I'm a very busy man. Dr. Montessi will brief you." With a ham-sized fist, the director gestured sharply to the person standing next to him before stomping away.

Dr. Montessi fit the typical stereotype of a scientist much better. She was a pale, painfully thin woman with darkish blond hair and a nervous, twitchy manner.

Cloud sighed, then tried again. "Dr. Montessi? About those attackers...."

They were all surprised when the woman suddenly gave Cloud an incredibly intense stare. Her gaze moved slowly down his body, then just as slowly back up.

Cloud tensed and his eyes narrowed. Instinct told him that this woman was a danger -- not necessarily the immediate, life-threatening sort -- but definitely still a danger. Struggling to control an irrational surge of hostility, he addressed her with uncharacteristic icy tones.

"Do I KNOW you?"

Dr. Montessi ignored his question. Instead, she edged even closer, invading Cloud's personal space. In other situations, he would have held his ground but something about her gaze made his skin crawl. Perhaps it was the look of intense, but dispassionate interest. He could have been a rock or a plant or a....

Unnerved by his train of thought, Cloud abruptly recoiled and retreated a few steps. Tifa immediately stepped between them, blocking Dr. Montessi's attempt to approach even closer. In a very firm voice, she said, "Doctor. Would you be so kind as to show us where the creatures went and what they did?" It wasn't really a question but rather an order. Standing behind Tifa, Cid gave the doctor a cocky smirk.

A look of annoyance appeared on Dr. Montessi's face. She distractedly muttered, "Certainly, certainly. If you would just follow me...." But even as she spoke, she was trying to peer around Tifa and Cid in an effort to get a better look at Cloud. Finally, Tifa grabbed the woman's arm and dragged her toward the building.

Cloud ignored their departure. Instead, he turned his back and stood staring out across the stony ground with a slightly nauseated expression on his face. Red sat down beside him and watched him with concern. Cait Sith bounced once or twice before cheerfully saying, "Hey Cid! Why don't you and the guys take a look inside? We'll scout around up here."

It wasn't the most subtle of hints, but Cid gave Cait Sith a slight nod. Before leaving, he muttered, "Hang in there, kid," and clouted Cloud on the shoulder.

After the others disappeared into the building, Cloud muttered, "I hate it when people do that."

"Do what?" Cait Sith asked, cocking its head slightly.

"When they look at me like I'm... like I'm a goddamn THING... not a human being but just another curious lab specimen." He made the last word sound like an obscenity as his voice shook ever so slightly with suppressed emotion. Was it only one day ago that he was feeling reasonably happy?

Red uttered a sympathetic rumble. From personal experience, he had a very good idea what Cloud was talking about. He had felt much the same way himself after being captured by Hojo. But he had been much luckier than his young friend in one critical aspect -- no matter Hojo had done to his body, Red's mind had been his own. Cloud had not been nearly as fortunate. To say nothing of what Sephiroth did to him later on....

"Damn it! Every time I think that it's all behind me, the past always manages to rear its ugly head."

Red gave Cloud a reassuring nudge with his head and said, "The past may be a terrible burden but it also gives us the strength and knowledge to deal with the future."

Cloud smiled down wistfully at the great red beast as he ran his fingers through Red's neckruff.

"Strength...." Cloud's voice trailed off, then he continued almost in a whisper, "When I was growing up, I hated myself for being so weak -- weak in so many ways. I thought that being strong would be the answer to all my problems. All my needs." He shook his head slowly. "I was such a fool. I had no idea what I was asking for. Strength has its own price. And sometimes the cost can be almost unbearable."

Red somehow sensed that Cloud was not talking about purely physical strength, but rather another sort of strength entirely.

Cloud shook off the pensive mood and headed off across the rock-strewn ground. "Come on, guys. Let's take a look around and see we can find anything useful."


Tifa gritted her teeth as Dr. Montessi ignored her repeated questions. The scientist seemed totally caught up in her own thoughts. It wasn't too hard to guess what -- or rather, who -- Montessi was thinking about. The way that woman had stared at Cloud, as if he was some fascinating bug or whatnot....

Finally, Tifa lost her temper and yelled, "Dr. Montessi! Will you PLEASE pay attention!?"

The doctor started, then sullenly muttered, "Well, if you insist...."

As they walked through the facility, the attackers' path was blatantly obvious. The creatures left behind them an unmistakable trail of mayhem and destruction -- deep gouges, scorch marks, blood splatters....

"How many people did you lose?" Tifa asked.

Dr. Montessi shrugged indifferently. "Ten technicians and two scientists died. About the same number were wounded to varying degrees. Three people missing."

"What a cold-hearted bitch!" Yuffie muttered.

Tifa wondered if there had been something about working for Hojo that turned people into soulless, uncaring scientists or whether those types of people were just naturally drawn to Hojo. But it was a pointless and unanswerable question -- sort of like the question about the chocobo and the egg....

Cid whispered to Vincent, "Man, if any of those scientists Reeve sent to Nibelheim behave like this bitch, those poor Turks are really going to earn their fee."

The dark man walking beside the pilot said flatly, "Hojo was like a contagious disease. His fanaticism corrupted... everything."

Cid silently wondered if Vincent had been referring to Lucrecia. But Vincent's old love was a topic that was definitely off-limits for casual conversation.

They passed through two large metal security doors that had been shredded like paper, then down several flights of stairs. A quick trip down a hallway, then they descended still more stairs.

"Don't you have any elevators in this joint?" Cid grumbled.

Yuffie smirked. "Come on, Cid. Don't tell me you're getting tired climbing down a few puny steps."

The pilot glared at the ninja girl, but before he could come up with a scathing retort, Montessi said, "Yes, there is a main elevator. However, the creatures severed the cables when they used the elevator shaft as part of their invasion route. Four technicians died when the car dropped fifteen floors."

They ended up in a lobby area. On one side of the lobby, the elevator doors had been entirely torn away, leaving a gaping entrance to the elevator shaft. On the other side of the lobby was a massive security door that had been eaten away by some powerful acid. Just beyond the door was a large, sterile-looking chamber filled with floor-to-ceiling cylinders. Surprisingly, the destruction on this floor was strictly limited to the lobby area. Nothing beyond the security door appeared damaged.

Before Cid walked through the security door, Dr. Montessi suddenly turned and snatched the lit cigarette out his mouth.

"Hey! What the hell...!?" he sputtered as she chucked it into a red sealed container in a corner.

"No smoking in Secured Storage. Can't you read?"

Yuffie sniggered. Looking around, Tifa asked, "So what happened here?"

Montessi shrugged. "This is the high security archive. The monsters came down the elevator shaft, tore open the door, opened one of the cylinders, removed the sample inside, and left the same way."

"How does the bloody system work?" asked Cid as he made his way into the spacious room.

"Each sample is locked in an individual security container, each with its own keypad." She pointed to a cylinder. "To open any container, you have to enter the proper authorization code. If you try to force open the container, you'd probably destroy the sample inside."

Tifa said, "So who has the codes?"

"It depends on the sample. Some samples can be accessed by a variety of people but others could only be accessed by the Director of Scientific Research himself."

As Yuffie wandered around the room, she said, "You mean that old freak Hojo."

"Yes." Dr. Montessi's response was decidedly frosty.

Checking around the room, Tifa said, "Only one container opened. So the creatures had to know the specific code for this specific container."


"So who had the access codes to the damned thing?" Cid rapped the empty container with his weapon and got a dull thunk from the thick plastic.

"We're checking on that information."

"Can't you just look it up in your friggin' computers?"

Montessi shrugged away Cid's question. "The master access list is restricted. Dr. Aston's eyes only."

"Well, if only one cylinder is opened, you have to know what was taken," Tifa said irritably.

"Of course."

Cid spun around and glared at Montessi. "So why don't you just tell us what the HELL's missing instead of making us wait for the bleedin' inventory!?"

In a monotonous voice, Montessi droned, "Because standard operating procedure clearly states that should any security breach occur, a full inventory is to be conducted forthwith to ascertain which, if any, materials have been...."

Cid finally lost it. "Cut the bureaucratic bullshit!!!" He stalked over to Dr. Montessi and snarled, "Tell Aston to get his butt down here A-S-A-P with the info on WHAT the hell was in that goddamn container and WHO had the fuckin' codes for it! And if he ain't down here in five minutes, I'm goin' to come lookin' for him and man, is he goin' to be sorry!"

At Montessi's dumbfounded look, he bellowed, "TELL HIM!!!"

With the lethal blade of Cid's Venus Gospel flashing only inches from her face, she stuttered, "Y-y-yes. R-r-right away." She ran for the intercom.

Tifa edged up to Cid and said, "Well, that's one way to do things."

He glared angrily at Montessi's back. "Listen to the voice of experience, kiddo. If you don't cut through this sorta crap, the red tape will bury you alive. I had to go through all this shit before with the space program. I didn't take it then and like hell I'm going to take it now."


It was exactly five minutes to the second when a visibly irate Dr. Aston appeared in the doorway. That was fortunate because Cid was not in a generous mood. Dr. Montessi took the director's appearance as an excuse to make a hasty retreat and bolted out of the chamber.

"Your conduct is totally outrageous! I was in the middle of a very delicate...."

"Cut the crap and just give us the goddamn information," said Cid in an even voice that was more intimidating than his earlier shouting.

The director pulled out a computer printout. "I have it right here." However, instead of handing it over, he smugly added, "But it's highly confidential. I can't possibly release it to you without written authorization from the head of scientific research or the corporation president."

Cid was not the only one losing patience with the whole affair. Yuffie pounced on the director and mugged him, snatching the printout out of his hands while simultaneously clobbering him over the head for good measure.

"What a shit-for-brains!" With her back to the others, the ninja flicked open the printout and started reading before Cid or Tifa could take it from her.

"Yuffie!" Tifa objected. Ignored by the ninja girl, she then looked at Cid who merely grumbled, "Damn brat! She beat me by THAT much...." He held his thumb and forefinger a hair's width apart.

"Blah blah blah... top level... eyes only... yadda yadda yadda... authorization only... Well, Hojo was the only one with the codes to open this baby up." Yuffie continued to mumble to herself as she quickly worked her way to the bottom. Suddenly, she went dead silent.


The ninja girl didn't answer.

"What's up? Gimme that!" Cid snatched the paper from Yuffie, who didn't bother to resist as she let him yank the paper from her hands. Cid quickly skimmed down to the bottom of the page.


"Cid, what's going on!?"

He looked at Tifa with a sour, somber stare. "God, I should have known. No one would bother breaking into a joint like this for some ordinary piece of crap. Read the bottom."

Vincent took the paper. The pertinent lines read:

CODE AUTHORIZATION: Director of Scientific Research, Hojo


SAMPLING DATE: Day X, Month Y, Year Z

"Oh no." Tifa's face went absolutely white.

For a brief instant, Yuffie thought that her friend was going to faint. The ninja girl muttered softly, "Guys, I hope you realize that Cloud's probably going to go totally ballistic when he finds out."

Before they could figure out how to tell their friend about this nasty bit of news, a soft, delicate female voice murmured, "Excuse me. I have some good new and some bad news."


Part 2c: Experimental Results

Cloud and his companions began a systematic search of the area around the facility. Cait Sith and Red weren't concentrating too hard on finding anything. At the moment, they were a bit more concerned about Cloud.

He had a pretty good idea what was going in his companions' heads. Cloud appreciated their concern but they really didn't need to worry. While Montessi's weird behavior had been really unnerving, it wasn't anything to flip out over. He was about to tell his friends just that when they encountered a technician carrying a small hand saw.

Cloud said, "Tell me. Did you see any of the attackers?"

"Hell, yes! Ugh! Butt ugly critters! I'll probably have nightmares for the next week."

"So what did they look like?"

"Well, they were.... I mean, they sorta.... They had these big...." The tech waved his hands expressively but couldn't quite find the right words. "Hey, it'll be a lot easier just to show you."

"You mean you managed to kill one of them?" Cloud looked a bit surprised.

The tech gave them a cocky grin. "You betcha! We may not be some hotshot combat team like you guys but me and my pals ain't totally helpless. We managed to overload the generator for the electrified fence and fried one of the bastards big-time. C'mon!"

As they walked toward the back of the building, the tech said, "I saw you guys talking with Dr. Montessi. Wow, what a creepy chick! And you should meet her sisters...."

"....sisters?" Cloud stopped dead in his tracks.

"Yeah. Montessi's got two of them. The guys around here call them the 'Three Weird Sisters'. You see, the locals around here have a folktale about three crazy witches that...." The tech suddenly noticed Cloud and the others staring blankly at him.

"Oh, well. Never mind. Anyway, you've already met Montessi. She's the twitchy one. There's Savois. A real ice queen AND a titanium-assed bitch all rolled in up in one. Brr! And then there's Roissy. Now she does the sweet and innocent bit pretty well, but trust me, the lady's sharper than the damn scalpels she uses to hack up her specimens. Can you imagine that? Hey, are you okay?"

Cloud decidedly did NOT look okay. And yes, he could 'imagine that'.... An image of a pretty, brown-haired scientist wielding a bloody scalpel in her delicate white hands sprang to life all too easily in his mind. When he realized that Red and Cait Sith were giving him worried looks, Cloud hastily brushed off the tech's question.

"Oh, I'm fine. Go on."

The tech shrugged. "Anyway, these three docs may be sisters but I swear that they hate each other's guts. At least, Savois and Montessi have a big feud going with Roissy. When they met, man, you'd better duck for cover! She-cat city! Oh, here we are."

Walking around to the rear of the building, they found the slightly charred body. The monster had a torso and legs of a large predatory cat, a serpentine head, and was completely covered in scales. The creature also had multiple long, muscular tails that were twice as long as the main body. It reminded Cloud of the guard animals that used to roam around the Mako generators in Midgar, except this creature was well over two times bigger than Red XIII. Looking at the oversized fangs and the razor-edged scales covering the body and tail, it was blatantly clear that the creature was designed for killing and nothing else.

As they warily moved toward the creature's body, Cloud asked, "Was this the only kind of monster you saw?"

The technician smirked at their cautious approach. "Most of them were like this. I thought I saw a few smaller flying critters but I can't be sure." He playfully wiggled one of the still extended claws back and forth. "C'mon! Don't look so worried! We toasted this guy but good. Actually, I'm planning to grab some of these claws for souvenirs." He lifted his saw and went to work.

But at the first saw stroke, the paw suddenly twitched.

Cloud whipped out his sword and shouted, "Get back!"

It was too late for the tech. A single flick of the creature's paw tore the technician in half. Rolling to its feet, the monster lashed out with its scaled tails, using them like razor-coated whips. Cait Sith's Mog tumbled backwards toward safety while Cloud and Red both jumped clear.

The monster's speed was phenomenal. If it weren't for Red's natural dexterity and his own enhanced agility, they would have been cut down instantly. As it was, it was all he and Red could do to dodge and fend off the beast's whipping tails. Mounting an offensive attack was out of the question.

Behind him, he heard Cait Sith yell, *SLOW*.

Watching the time spell take effect, he thought, (Great. Now it's only moving THREE times as faster than any of us!) But there were openings. Now if he could just....

In a low rumble, Red cast a *SHIVA* summoning. As the pale blue entity gracefully blasted the creature with freezing cold and ice shards, the monster's movements slowed down drastically. Cloud wasted no time and landed two massive blows in quick succession. One slash severed the thrashing tails. The other blow sliced through the monster's spine. The deadly creature screamed, then collapsed to the ground, twitching and thrashing. He took no chances and decapitated the beast with one final sword stroke.

Gasping for breath, Cloud got to his feet and said, "Good work, guys."

Red cautiously sniffed the creature's corpse. "Definitely unnatural."

Cloud stared at the body for a long moment, then hesitantly reached out to touch it. He hastily snatched his hand back and absently wiped it on his pants.

"That... thing's got Jenova cells." He eyed the corpse uneasily.

"You can tell?"

Cloud nodded slowly. "It's... I can't really describe it,..." He stared down at his hand. "But... but I can sense it. That creature's been either created or modified with Jenova cells."

Red sighed. "That's not much of a surprise."

"No, it isn't."

Cait Sith nudged the beast's head with his Moogle's foot. "Plenty of firepower here but it doesn't exactly look like the brainy sort. It definitely doesn't look smart enough to break into a secure facility and steal a very specific item on its own. So how the hell did it or its fellows know exactly what to take?"

"It doesn't need to know anything." Cloud's voice was very soft and very even.


Cloud turned and started to walk away. "If it was created by Hojo using Jenova cells, it wouldn't need any brains. Hojo could do all its thinking for it. It's really just a flesh and bone... puppet."

Red and Cait Sith exchanged long looks before following Cloud.


In the heat of battle, Cloud and the others failed to notice the two women watching them from the top floor of the building. In her usual nervous manner, Dr. Montessi glanced at the woman beside her. "You can see that I did not exaggerate, Savois."

"Yes. You're quite right. His mental facilities appear to be in excellent working order." Dr. Savois lowered her binoculars.

"Unfortunately, he seems to have experienced some memory lapses. He didn't recognize me at all."

"A trivial matter. Clearly not enough to hinder his ability to function." Savois stared at Cloud, constantly analyzing his every movement. She murmured, "I need to review my data but I do think that this specimen has turned out to be a definite success."

"Are you certain?"

Savois glanced at her sister. "You saw the personnel files. Prior to treatment, Cloud -- otherwise known as 'Code C' -- would have been quite incapable of fighting with such expertise. How that young man ever managed to join the regular army...." Savois sniffed in contempt.

Montessi objected in skeptical tones. "How can you possibly be sure that his fighting abilities are solely caused by our treatment? You must remember how strongly he rejected the implantation. Besides, he was subjected to essentially the same Jenova and Mako treatments as regular SOLDIER candidates...."

Savois gave her younger sister a steely look. "I am well aware of what the SOLDIER process is capable of doing -- it enhances stamina, strength, and other physical attributes. I also know what it canNOT do. By itself, the SOLDIER process does not provide the candidate with the skills to make optimum use of those enhanced physical abilities. That was the whole goal of our research, to overcome that limitation."

Montessi gave her older sister a sullen stare and persisted. "Still, it's been over a year since he escaped. With extensive training...."

"Hardly. That young man was already showing substantial improvement less than a month after his escape."

"What!? Less than a month? You knew he was alive all this time!?"

"Yes. My sources informed me of a blond-haired intruder who broke into and out of the Shinra Building just over a year ago. It occurred at the exact same time as President Shinra's murder."

Savois' sister could only fume wordlessly.

"Given that three to four weeks passed between his escape and the Shinra Building incident, I must agree that training and practice could explain some of his improvement. But certainly not all of it. And there are other signs -- indicators that are perfectly obvious to a competent observer."

Montessi stiffened at the barely hidden insult.

Savois took a sharp breath as she watched Cloud sheath his sword with his usual flourish, then smiled to herself. Oh, she knew exactly what -- or rather, who -- she was looking at.

(It's not just his fighting skills. It is the other little things.... Do you see, Montessi? The way he moves? The body language? The mannerisms?)

She had seen it all before, every nuance, in the videotapes of both practice sessions and actual combat. Aloud, Savois said, "Have you told Roissy?"

"Of course not! The only thing she'd be interested in is finding out whether he's FULLY functional or not." Montessi sneered and added, "The sex-crazed bitch...."

Savois ignored the last comment and said, "Good. We'll try to keep this little discovery to ourselves. If our sister's lover hadn't been so stupid, Zack and Cloud wouldn't have been able to escape in the first place. Such sloppiness is unforgivable. Over two years of my work, lost because of Dr. Stephen's carelessness and incompetence."

Montessi sharply corrected her sister. "Over two years of OUR work. And I still think that Sephiroth would have been a much better donor candidate than 'Code Z'."

"Sephiroth was unique -- too unique for our purposes. He might have been a brilliant general and a tactical genius, but I always considered him dangerously unstable. And events proved me right. Who wants an army of mentally erratic geniuses? Zack was an excellent specimen in his own right and infinitely more stable than Sephiroth."

As Cloud and his companions headed toward the building, Savois gave her sister an icy stare. "It is unfortunate that you behaved so oddly when you first saw him. Now it's going to be impossible to approach him without making him suspicious."

"Considering that I had thought that 'Code C' had died over a year ago, I'd consider my reaction to be relatively restrained...."

Savois interrupted by saying, "Excessive excitement, no matter what the cause, is unbecoming in a scientist. It indicates a certain lack of self-control."

As Savois left the room, Montessi snarled silently at her sister's back.


There was a barely noticeable break in Cloud's walk but Red picked it up instantly.

"What's wrong?"

"I've got the feeling someone's watching us."

Red casually looked around. "I see nothing but you're right. My neck hairs are prickling."


Part 2d: Pitfalls

The Mansion was dirty, dusty, and basically deserted except for the rare wandering creatures. Cloud and his group had managed to dispose of most of monsters already. The few remaining creatures posed no problems for the Turks, especially since Reeve had given the Turks a very comprehensive briefing on the monsters lurking around the Mansion.

Despite his vocal complaints about the job, Reno had really thought that the Shinra exec had been exaggerating about the scientists. However, the leader of the Turks soon found out that Reeve had understated the problem -- and understated it badly. Reno had obligingly played along with Reeve's suggestion and informed the scientific team about the supposed demolition of the Mansion and the Reactor. The poorly disguised expressions of horror on several of the scientists' faces told him that Reeve had been right on the money. More than one of these guys had their own dirty secrets stashed away in the place -- secrets that they were now desperate to recover. Reno wondered just how much freelance and unauthorized research had been going on behind Shinra's and Hojo's back.

Barely half an hour had elapsed before Elena caught one of the scientists trying to cram a thick notebook into his jacket. After a brief but surprisingly fierce struggle, she successfully pried the papers from the scientist's bony fingers and tossed it into a secure lockbox. And that wasn't the only incident....

During the lunch break, all the scientists were herded into the entrance hall, giving the Turks an brief opportunity to relax. Elena peered over the balcony and said, "Reno, I seriously think that we're going to have to strip-search every single one of these guys before we leave."

He gave her a sour look. "Tell me about it." Reno examined a fresh set of tooth marks on his hand. "Man, can Reeve pick them! The most disinterested Shinra scientists he could find, my ass!"

"What happened to your hand?"

"I caught one of the geeks slipping some computer disks down her blouse. When I tried to get 'em back, the bitch fucking well bit me!"

Knowing Reno, Elena could just imagine his retrieval method -- probably something involving grabbing and groping. In mock sympathy, she cooed, "Poor baby! Did the big, bad scientist hurt you? Besides, don't you know how dangerous it is to get between a dedicated scientist and her research? Remember, a lot of these guys worked with loony old Hojo."

Reno muttered, "I hope she's not rabid."

"Where's Rude?"

"He got the short straw. He's down in the basement keeping on eye on the library. He wasn't too happy, either. Said that all that weird equipment's giving him the creeps."

Elena perched herself on the balcony railing. "But honestly, where are these guys digging up all these items? How did all this stuff get hidden to begin with?"

Reno sprawled back on the steps. "My guess is that a lot of these guys had their own private research projects going on -- stuff that they didn't want Hojo to know about. You'd be surprised by the amount of infighting and backstabbing that goes on when you get a bunch of intellectuals together. 'Information is power' and all that crap. You hide your work so your rivals can't steal it or take credit for it."

Elena looked astonished. "How the hell do you know that?"

Reno flushed and mumbled something under his breath.

"What's that about your parents, Reno?"

He mumbled a bit more.

In disbelief, Elena said, "Your parents and both your sisters were all science professors at Midgar University!?"

He glared at her, his face nearly matching the color of his hair. "Yell to the world, why don't you?"

"Then what the hell are you doing as a Turk? How come you're not...."

"Because I couldn't take the bullshit academic politics they were always playing, okay!?"

Elena sniggered.


After the initial few incidents and minor beatings, the scientists finally got the message: "No pilfering." The upper levels of the Mansion were soon cleared. All that was left was the Mansion's basement.

Under the Turks' intimidating stares, the technicians were soon hauling away the first load of disassembled lab equipment from the basement library. While the techs were hard at work, Elena and Rude took the opportunity to take a better look around the area.

"What's this?" Elena walked into a side room that was basically empty except for a motorized winch mounted on the high ceiling. One of the techs followed them into the room. After poking around a bit, he said, "Nothing much in here. Only ordinary mechanical equipment. Not worth saving."

"Hey Rude! What do you think that was for?" She pointed upward at the winch.

He glanced upward and shrugged. "Hoisting something?"

"Very funny. Why put it there?"

Trying to impress the pretty lady, the tech said, "I think this is the button that operates it...."

Elena whirled around and snapped, "Don't touch that!" Unfortunately, it was too late. The tech hit the button and the trapdoor under Elena's and Rude's feet suddenly sprang open.

"IIIEEEEEE!!!!!" as they plunged into the dark pit.

Reno charged into the room with his Nightstick charged and ready.

"What the....? Rude!? Elena!?"

There was a faint splash from the pit, followed by an outraged female scream.

"Get us out of here!"

"What the hell are you doing down there?"

"Of all the stupid questions! When I get my hands on that moron up there, I'm going to rip his balls off with my bare hands!" she shrieked.

From the faint light from the opening above, Elena and Rude found themselves thrashing around in a debris-choked pit filled chest-high with a nauseating mixture of stagnant water, slime-covered bones, and other disgusting types of junk. The reek of decay was overpowering.

"I think we located Hojo's garbage disposal," muttered Rude.

"God, I think I'm going to be sick. Reno!"

"Shit! The winch isn't working. I've got to find a rope. Be back in a couple of minutes."

He hadn't taken but a few steps when a loud screech from the pit brought Reno running back .

"What's wrong now!?"

As she frantically scrambled onto Rude's shoulders, Elena screamed, "Something brushed my leg!"

"Elena, show some goddamn backbone! Sheesh!"

"Renoooo!" she wailed piteously.

"I'm hurrying! I'm hurrying!" Before he left the room, Reno smiled nastily at the quivering tech. "You dropped my teammates into a pit. That makes me unhappy. Don't force me to come looking for you." The tech nodded nervously and planted himself firmly on a stool.

In the pit, Rude muttered, "Elena, do you MIND?" She reluctantly slid off his shoulders back into the water.

"What's taking him so long?" She would have chewed her nails except her hands -- and nearly every other part of her body -- was covered with muck.

Suddenly, there was a loud scream from above. Elena started to shout up a question but Rude quickly clamped his hand over her mouth. They both froze as more screams erupted, followed by low, bestial howls and a fusillade of distant gunfire.

She realized that they were sitting ducks stuck in the pit. If the attackers saw them, they were as good as dead. Flattening themselves against the sides to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible, Rude and Elena frantically searched for a way out of their predicament as the sounds of the fighting got steadily closer.

The pit suddenly darkened as something swept across the opening, then the body -- or more precisely, half of the body -- of the unlucky tech fell on top of them, followed by a shower of warm blood.

Elena gritted her teeth and remained silent. The desperate screams soon faded in frequency, allowing her to pick out the distinctive crackle of Reno's Nightstick. She and Rude exchanged grim looks and redoubled their efforts to find a way out of the pit. The algae and mold made climbing the walls nearly impossible but the two of them were not about to let a minor detail like that stop them. Reno was up there -- alone and in trouble.

They almost made it out of the pit but twenty feet below the rim the pit abruptly narrowed inward and the rough walls turned into slick, finished stonework. There would be no climbing those last twenty feet. However, after backtracking a bit, they found a open side tunnel -- a sewer pipe, really. Elena didn't have too much trouble moving in the tunnel but it turned out to be a painfully tight squeeze for Rude and his broad shoulders. Leading the way, Elena grimly ignored the unmentionable goo oozing between her fingers and started to crawl as quickly as possible.


It was not Dr. Stephen's day. It started out well enough when he found the specimen 'Code C' dumped on his examining table like an early birthday present. But then everything turned sour.

'Code C' -- he supposed it had a name but he couldn't remember trivial details like that -- was clearly in a state of major cognitive dysfunction. It was displaying clear signs of paranoia, delusional behavior, homicidal mania,....

In short, 'Code C' was a raving lunatic.

Dr. Stephen noted that the specimen's mental condition apparently hadn't improved at all over the last year or so. Luckily, 'Code C' had suffered that convenient brain seizure. Otherwise, the maniac would have undoubtably killed him and the world would have lost a great scientist.

Panicking in his desire to get as far away as possible from 'Code C', he ended up stowing away with the Nibelheim team -- in retrospect, not the best decision. However, he had thought he was safe... until the monsters attacked, mercilessly slaughtering everyone in their path.

He had ended up cowering under an overturned coffin in one of the basement rooms, but the monsters eventually managed to sniff him out. They were ready to tear him limb from limb when a distorted, yet familiar voice said, "Wait. Bring him here."

Clawed arms dragged him from his hiding place and dumped him on the ground in front of the speaker. The man's figure was shrouded in shadow and there was something wrong about the way he moved....

"So, Dr. Stephen. We meet again."

"Hojo! I heard you were dead!"

The notorious mad scientist hissed softly in amusement. "And so I was. So I was."

"What are you doing here in Nibelheim?"

"Oh, I came back to retrieve some information. And I was thinking about using the equipment here to restart my most significant project."


In a perfectly matter-of-fact manner, Hojo said, "Reconstructing Sephiroth, of course." With those words, Hojo fully emerged into the light. Stephen couldn't suppress a startled gasp at the bizarre figure standing before him. Hojo still had a humanoid form but his skin was entirely green. His eyes were huge and faceted like an insect's while his body and legs seemed oddly boneless. Tentacles sprouted from his torso with the two largest serving as Hojo's arms.

"A bit of a change, eh?"


Hojo giggled, sending his tentacles rippling. "A sudden massive ingestion of Mako-infused Jenova cells. My own private cocktail." He waved a tentacle at the disassembled equipment in the library. "Unfortunately, it appears that my enemies are all too familiar with this location. However, I already have one in mind, complete with its own little Mako reactor. Courtesy of Scarlet."

"But how.... I thought that all the samples of Sephiroth were transferred to your labs in the Shinra Building. Those floors were destroyed by that huge Meteor thing."

"So they were. But there was one single sample left, just where it should be. The ESSARUF depository. I retrieved it just today." Hojo held up a fluorescent pink cylinder that was about four inches long and just over an inch in diameter. He cuddled the container with an obscenely parental sort of glee.

Dr. Stephen was a careless man, as Dr. Savois had so recently noted. Without considering the consequences of his words, he blurted out, "But that's can't be the real.... Eep!" He hastily clapped his hand over his mouth but it was much too late.

Hojo wrapped a tentacle around Stephen's throat and dragged him forward. "What do you mean 'can't be the real'? Answer me!"

"Nothing! Nothing!"


"Urkkk...." Noting that his prisoner's face was turning purple, Hojo eased his grip on Stephen's throat ever so slightly.

"It's... not... the... real... sample...," wheezed the terrified scientist.

"How can this be!?"


"By whom? Who has it!? Where is the sample now!?"

"Don't... know.... where...."

Hojo smiled ominously at his prisoner. "Well, let's see if I can't improve your memory." A blade-tipped tentacle hovered briefly in front of Stephen's terrified face, then slashed downward.

There was a spurt of blood.

Stephen started screaming... and continued for a very long time.


Part 2e: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Before they could figure out how to tell Cloud about their unhappy discovery, a soft, delicate female voice murmured, "Excuse me. I've got some good news and some bad news."

They all whirled to face the speaker. Cid snapped, "You bloody well better explain yourself, lady."

She gestured and they followed her out into the lobby. The woman was quite beautiful in a delicate, fragile sort of way. She had a petite build and long, brown hair caught up in a ponytail.

"Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Dr. Orienne Roissy."

Cid lit up a fresh cigarette and gave her a cynical stare, apparently unmoved by her startling physical resemblance to their dead friend Aeris. "Yeah, whatever. Now what is this crap about good and bad news?"

She twisted her hands nervously. "The good news is that whoever stole that sample has junk. The stolen sample contains nothing except... porcine mammary tissue."

"Huh?" Yuffie looked confused.

Cid blinked, puzzled over it for a moment, then started to howl with laughter. "You mean.... you mean that the thief's got nothing but PIG TITS?"

Roissy blushed furiously. "Y-y-yes, if you must be THAT crude about it."

Tifa snapped, "Then where the hell's the real sample!?"

The doctor looked away and said wistfully, "Stolen. It's been missing for over a year."

"Who stole the damned thing?"

She meekly said, "I did."


"While I was working under Hojo, I found about the most recent sample of Sephiroth's cells. I couldn't just leave that sample in Hojo's hands. So I managed to get a hold of the authorization codes and substituted the... I switched the samples."

Yuffie whispered to Tifa, "She probably wanted it for her own wacko experiments!"

Roissy heard the ninja girl's snide remarks and cried out, "That's not true!"

Yuffie mockingly drawled, "Sure. Right. Like stealing one puny sample would have stopped Hojo. From what I've heard, he had gobs of Sephiroth's cells lying around. Fortunately, all of them went POOF when Meteor took the top off the Shinra Building."

Cid finally managed to stop laughing and said, "So you've got it?"

"That's the bad news. I HAD it, but I don't have it any more."

The pilot abruptly scowled and shouted, "Then where IS the damn thing!?"

"I don't know." Before Cid could yell at her again, she hastily added, "I should explain. I took the sample with me to Nibelheim. That's where I was assigned. But I was forced to hide the sample when Hojo suddenly decided to pay us an unexpected visit. Unfortunately, before I could retrieve it from its hiding place, the sample was stolen by an escapee from Hojo's lab." Roissy sighed regretfully before continuing with her story.

"The specimen and its companion were later hunted down and killed. But as for the sample...." She held up her hands helplessly. "Who knows where it might be now?"

Cid said, "Whoa here! When you say 'escapee' and 'specimen', are you talking about a human being or something else?"

The doctor blinked in bemusement. "A human, of course."

"Of course," Tifa echoed sarcastically.

Yuffie started to kick an inoffensive table leg. "No need to panic, she says. Great! Now we find out there's a chunk of Sephiroth floating around god-knows-where on this bloody Planet! The guys who took it could've stashed that stupid sample damn well anywhere before they got killed!"

"True, but in this case, I'm almost positive that they would have kept the sample with them at all times. If you could find the escapees' bodies, you'll probably find the sample...."

"You said yourself that it's been over a year! How do you know the stupid thing even exists anymore?"

"I can't be absolutely certain, but you have to understand that these types of sample containers are designed for archival use. They're very, very durable. The same thing goes for the contents. The samples were specially treated to remain stable for literally decades. Unless it was subjected to extreme conditions such as cremation or such, the sample should still be intact and viable."

Vincent spoke for the first time. "Why haven't you tried to retrieve the sample yourself?"

Dr. Roissy looked at them helplessly. "But I had no idea where the specimen went or where it died. Only Hojo had that information and I couldn't just ask him about it. He would have demanded to know the reason for my inquiries. And after I was transferred here, I never had the opportunity to go back to Nibelheim to look for the information."

Tifa sighed. "Okay. So who else knows about the substitution?"

"My friend, Dr. Stephen knew about it. But he doesn't know all the details."

"I'm not saying that I believe this load of crap but let's assume that you're telling the truth...."

"I AM telling you the truth! I took the sample, then someone took it from me! The creatures that broke in here don't have the real sample and I don't have it!" Dr. Roissy looked like she was about to burst into tears.

Cid muttered in exasperation, "Yeah, yeah. Whatever. So what can you tell us about those escapees?"

"Uh, let's see. Timewise, it happened just over a year ago. I hardly had any contact with the specimens. I only recall that one of them was a black-haired SOLDIER designated as 'Code Z' and the other was a blond Shinra trooper labelled 'Code C'...."

Roissy blinked as she watched everyone's jaws drop in stunned disbelief. Even Vincent looked visibly startled. Nervously chewing on a fingernail, she whispered, "Uh, did I... say something... wrong?"

Vincent murmured, "Is it possible...?"

Cid was too stupefied to reply and could only shake his head.

Yuffie said very carefully, "Hojo's lab. You were talking about the one in the basement library of the Shinra Mansion. In Nibelheim. Right, doc?"

"Um, yes. But how did you know?"

Tifa frantically shook her head and blurted, "No! No way! Didn't she just tell us that both escapees were killed?"

Vincent said grimly, "So Hojo lied. No surprise."


As Roissy watched Cid and the others, she hid the incredible surge of elation. The dark man called Vincent was right. What a fool she had been for believing what Hojo told her. She should have verified the reports herself, but she had been so rattled by the sample's loss that it had completely slipped her mind.

However, it seemed clear from these fools' reactions that at least one specimen was still alive -- and possibly both. That meant that the last existing sample of Sephiroth's cells was practically as good as hers.

Then she'd show her sisters just who was the greatest scientist....


Vincent had been just as surprised as everyone else at the verbal bombshell Roissy had dropped. Given the timeframe, the location, and the chances of not one, but two people managing to escape Hojo's clutches, it was a virtual certainty that Dr. Roissy was talking about Cloud and his friend Zack. The likelihood of it NOT being Cloud and Zack was practically nil.

However, he had been listening very carefully to Roissy's voice. Throughout most of the conversation, he had sensed that the doctor was telling at least the partial truth. But when she said that she'd had little contact with the escapees or that she couldn't remember their names, Roissy was definitely lying. She knew exactly who they were.

The big question was whether Roissy knew that Cloud was still alive and whether she knew that he was right here, right now.

Before he could pursue the thought any further, a faint scraping sound caught Vincent's attention. He took a silent few steps to the side, lifted Death Penalty and fired twice into a ventilation grating. The body of a small creature flopped out of the shattered air duct.

Cid finally managed to shake off his astonishment and blurted, "What the HELL!?"

The creature was the size of a small dog and looked like nothing more than a four-legged mouth packed with jagged black teeth. The greenish blood oozing out of the corpse slowly began to eat its way into the floor.

Vincent held up his hand and cocked his head. "There's something else here. And there's more than one."

Cid smacked himself on the forehead. "Stupid, stupid, stupid! We assumed that all the shit-assed creatures were gone!"


Just inside the building's entrance, Cloud and his companions suddenly heard the sound of gunfire echoing up a nearby air shaft. Charging inside, he said, "Red! Where are they? Can you locate them?"

A few quick sniffs was all Red needed. He ran over to a stairwell and shouldered the door open.

"This way!"


After motioning for silence, Vincent listened intently as he prowled around the lobby area, trying to pinpoint the source of the suspicious noises. He ended up near a storage closet down the hall, Yuffie close behind him. She waited for Vincent's nod, then flung the door open. At first glance, the only item of interest was a corpse of a pudgy man lying in the shadowy closet. He caught a suspicious ripple of movement in the darkness, then suddenly shoved Yuffie out of the way as a bunch of small flying creatures suddenly exploded out from their concealment behind the corpse. They streamed out of the closet and flew wildly around the lobby, attacking everyone in sight.

The beasts were small, about the size of bats, but were equipped with oversized claws and fangs. And when Dr. Aston staggered back into the lobby at just the wrong moment, everyone realized that the creatures were also extremely poisonous. Two quick bites and the director was instantly thrashing on the floor with blood-flecked froth spewing from his nose and mouth.

Cid shouted, "Watch it, guys! Don't let 'em hit you!"

The creatures' small size and speed, combined with the relatively confined space made the fight much more difficult than expected. And there was the little matter of their magic reflection ability. The scorch marks on Yuffie attested to that. The ninja girl had tried blasting them with lightning and ended up nearly frying herself as the spell got bounced right back in her face.


"Ow! Shit!" Fortunately, she wasn't too badly injured but it definitely hurt.

Cid and his companions were slowly winning the battle but there were plenty of close calls for everyone. Despite her best efforts, Tifa received a slight claw scratch that sent her to her knees, shaking in agony.

"Tifa!" Yuffie scurried over to her side.

The pain was excruciating but she could still move and think... barely. "Not... too serious," she wheezed. "Yuffie! Watch... your back!" as one of the venomous little beasts nearly slashed the ninja girl's ear.

"Just take worry about yourself, Tifa!"

As Yuffie provided cover, Tifa concentrated desperately on using her materia to stop the poison's spread and heal herself.

Just as Cloud, Cait Sith, and Red burst onto the scene, Yuffie frantically screamed, "Duck!"

Cloud didn't bother asking questions and hit the ground rolling just as Conformer whizzed just over his head and sliced one of the flying creatures in half.

"Watch it, guys! The damn things are poisonous! And they reflect magic!"

His duck-and-roll maneuver brought him within a few steps of the elevator shaft, but Cloud was too late to save a dark-haired woman from toppling into the open shaft as she awkwardly tried to dodge one of the creatures. There was something about her appearance....

Cid shouted, "Cloud, get her! We need her alive!"

He nodded and peered inside the shaft to find Roissy desperately clinging with one hand to an thin electrical cable. Her superficial resemblance to Aeris gave him a nasty shock. He didn't know whether he was disappointed or relieved when a closer look told him that she was definitely NOT Aeris. As Cid guarded his back and fended off any swooping creatures, Cloud jumped for the service ladder and quickly climbed down toward her.

Shaking with terror, Roissy could feel her sweaty hand slipping off the cable. Suddenly, a strong, warm hand closed securely over her fingers. She looked up with a gasp of relief. Her expression of happiness grew even more as she recognized the blond man who had just saved her life.

"You... you're alive... and you're here! I thought you were dead! Hojo said you were DEAD!"

Cloud gave her a bewildered look. (What is she talking about?) Then an oddly familiar odor tickled his nose. It was actually a pleasant floral scent but it set his stomach churning.


Then something clicked in Cloud's brain, like a key turning in a lock....

Roissy was so caught up in relief and excitement that she nearly missed the sudden change of expression on her rescuer's face. But she choked in fright as Cloud's mildly puzzled expression was abruptly replaced by a look of searing hatred which seemed to burn in his Mako blue eyes.

He gave her a vicious little grin....

....pried her fingers off the cable....

....and let go....


Cloud blinked at her sudden scream. He could have sworn that he had a firm grip on her, but then the woman's fingers somehow slipped from his grasp. He made a desperate last lunge but just missed. Cloud could only stare helplessly as she plummeted toward the bottom of the shaft far below, still screaming.

The others heard Roissy's terrified cries just as Cid nailed the last creature to the floor. He whirled around to looked down the shaft, fearing the worse. To the pilot's relief, Cloud was clinging precariously to the ladder, his hand still outstretched in a futile last grab.

"Shit, Cloud! I thought.... Oh fuck!" as Cid recognized the rapidly receding figure of Roissy. "Cloud, you okay!?"

He looked upward at his friends who were now clustered around the elevator doorway. "She.... Damn it! I thought I had her!"

Red shook his head. "Don't blame yourself, Cloud. I know you tried your best."

Yuffie muttered, "Do you think she could have survived that fall?"

Cloud said, "I don't know but we can't leave her down there." He was about to climb down to the bottom when Cid said, "Cloud, we've got something really important to tell you. Yuffie, get down there and check on Roissy."

"Why me? Why do I have to go?" whined the ninja girl.

Cid scowled at her and said, "You goddamn know why we've got to talk to Cloud! Anyway, aren't you always going off about how young and spry you are? So get your butt in gear!"

"All right! All right!" After Cloud climbed out, the ninja girl nimbly jumped in and slid down the service ladder, muttering dire things.


Reno could hear someone screaming.

And they wouldn't shut up.


Part 2f: Back to the Fire

Red said, "Cloud, can you tell if...."

He bent down and held his hand close to one of the dead creatures, but he was careful not to actually touch it. He glanced at Red. "Yeah. Just like the whip-cat outside. They've got Jenova cells, too."

"Whip-cat?" said Cid.

Rising to his feet, Cloud said, "We ran into a nasty monster above ground. I'll explain later. You guys needed to tell me something?"

Tifa mumbled, "Uh.... Well...."

"What is it?" He gave her a worried look. She looked rather pale and shaky. He remembered that she had been on her hands and knees just a few minutes ago. "Tifa, are you all right? Are you hurt?"

"Uh... no, I'm fine. It's just a scratch...." However, she wouldn't met his eyes.

No one immediately replied. He looked around at his friends. Vincent and Cid looked him straight in the eye with grim but sympathetic looks. Tifa bit her lip and stared silently at the floor.

Finally, Vincent simply handed Cloud the computer printout. "What was apparently taken."

From their odd behavior, Cloud already had a horrible suspicion about the theft. He thought he was prepared for the worst but actually seeing the the name at the bottom of the printout made him feel like someone had slammed him in the gut. After reading the printout one more time, he folded it with slow, exquisite care before handing it back to Vincent.

"I... see."

Cid said, "Listen, it gets shitloads weirder." He rubbed the back of his neck. "But I'm not sure if that's good or bad. That lady at the bottom of the shaft...."


"I don't know just how much of her story we can believe but she told us that the stolen sample was a fake."

That shook Cloud out of his fragile calmness. He blinked a couple of times before shouting, "A fake!?"

Cid scowled. "Yeah. According to her, the real sample's been missing for over an year. She stole it, then it got stolen from her."

Cloud took a deep breath. "So where the hell is it NOW?"

"Nobody knows. Supposedly, some escapees from Hojo's Nibelheim lab took it." Cid coughed and shuffled his feet nervously. "A black-haired SOLDIER and a blond guy in a trooper's uniform...."

Cait Sith nearly toppled off his Mog while Red gaped in disbelief.

Finding out that a part of Sephiroth still existed had been bad enough, but now Cloud's face turned stark white.

Tifa glared at Cid, who shrugged helplessly. There really hadn't been any nice or gentle way to say it.

In a strangled voice, Cloud whispered, "What... did... you say?"

"Roissy -- that's the lady's name -- claims that...."

"....Zack and I took it. Is that it?"

Cid glanced at the others uneasily and muttered, "Well, unless there was another pair of guys matching that description who escaped from Hojo's basement lab in Nibelheim at the exact same time...." He definitely didn't like the glassy look in Cloud's eyes. Cid had known people with similar blank stares -- it usually meant that the person's brain had basically shut down due to overwhelming shock.

They'd all explored Hojo's little lab setup in the basement library of the Shinra Mansion... read both the labels and the scratches on the sinister glass cylinders in the basement library.... They all knew the very basic story. Cloud and Zack had been captured after Sephiroth's destruction of Nibelheim. Shinra had handed them over to Hojo for use as experimental subjects. The two of them had later escaped. Zack had been killed by Shinra troops. Cloud had managed to elude those same troops and ended up in Midgar.

That was basically it. Cloud never talked about those events except for some very occasional references to Zack. The pilot had guessed that his experiences with Hojo had been bad, but Cid was only now getting the vaguest inkling of just HOW bad things had been....

Tifa quietly murmured, "Cloud, do you remember anything about a sample container?"

"I don't... recall...."

Cloud shook his head slowly. He whispered, "I remember so little about... that time. It's all a big blur. I only have these nightmarish impressions -- flashes of people, places, and... other things. Nothing... coherent...." He looked up at them. "Zack could have carted off half the library for all I know. I was so totally out of it."

"So you have absolutely no idea if Zack took the sample or what he might have done with it? Hidden it, maybe?" said Red.

"No. No idea. Even after that trip through the Lifestream, the stuff at Nibelheim are still pretty hazy. And I barely remember anything after Sephiroth torched the town. I don't even know how long I's been wandering around Midgar before Tifa found me at the train station. It could have been weeks. It could have been just days."

Cloud stared blankly at the floor. In a distracted voice, he murmured, "All I know is that... Zack was always... with me. Zack never left... me alone."

"Cloud...." Red stared worriedly at him.

// We're friends, right? //

"We were... friends."

Alarmed by the increasingly vague tone in his voice, Tifa grabbed Cloud's shoulders and shook him sharply.


He blinked, then grabbed at his head as if fighting off a sudden headache.

"Damn it...." It sounded more like a whimper than a curse.

"Come on. Stay with us, all right?"

While Tifa tended to Cloud, Cid turned to Cait Sith. "Can you dig up any stuff about escapees from Nibelheim?"

"I'll check on that. Hold on. It may take some time."

"Right." Cid glanced over at Vincent and Red. "Well, it looks like Cloud's going to be no help at all." That comment earned him a nasty look from Tifa. The pilot raised his hands defensively and quickly said, "Calm down, girl! I don't mean it in a bad way. I'm just saying that it's pretty clear that Cloud doesn't know a damn thing about that sample."

Red cocked his head thoughtfully. "If this Dr. Roissy is telling the truth about Zack taking the sample, he must have had some idea of its contents. Otherwise, why bother to take it?"

"I believe that most of what she said was the truth. As she knew it."

They all looked at Vincent. "Most?" said Cid.

"Yes. But I also have a feeling that she knew much more about Cloud and his friend Zack than she led us to believe. She was flat out lying when she said that she didn't know their names."

"Heh. I sure didn't buy that bit about trying to keep that sample from Hojo's clutches. I bet she was up to her pretty little eyeballs in all this Jenova shit." Cid lit a cigarette and started puffing. "The brat's probably right. Roissy wanted that stupid sample for her own crazy research but Zack snitched it right out from under her nose. Man, she must have pissed!"

By this time, Cloud had managed to regain some of his composure.

"That may explain why she seemed... sorta familiar."

Red's ears perked up. "Do you remember her?"

"Not really. But there's just something about her.... And not because she looked sort of like Aeris, either."

"Noticed that, didn't you?" said Tifa with an odd note in her voice.

Cloud gave Tifa a mild look. "The resemblance is pretty obvious. It just gave me a bad start when I got my first good look at this Roissy woman."

There was a long pause, then Cait Sith perked up and said, "Sorry, guys. I don't have anything at the moment. I checked through President Shinra's files but came up empty. Not surprising. Hojo didn't report a lot of things, the secretive old bastard. I'm going to search through those boxes of Jenova papers I've got on this end but that's going to take hours. And I've got more bad news, guys."

"What now!?"

"I can't get a hold of Reno... or anyone at Nibelheim."


Cid turned to Cloud and said a bit sourly, "You know that this means."

Cloud had a resigned expression on his face. "Yeah. If Reeve can't find anything, the only place left to go for answers is Nibelheim." He sighed heavily. He didn't like it at all but he was well aware what had to be done. "Besides, we need to find out what happened to the Turks."

"Rescuing the Turks. Feh!"

From the bottom of the elevator shaft, Yuffie shouted, "Hey guys! Get Tifa and a stretcher down here quick! She's still alive. Well, sort of. She's in a real mess. Her head looks like a splattered egg."

Tifa grimaced at Yuffie's words.


Hojo ignored the quivering lump of raw flesh on the lab table as he considered the information so thoughtfully provided by the unfortunate Dr. Stephen. 'Code Z' was dead and no sample container was found by the Shinra troopers. Even the idiot military couldn't have possibly missed such a conspicuously marked item. Obviously, his next step would be to capture and interrogate 'Code C' as to the sample's whereabouts....

Hojo chuckled sourly. "It all comes back to the Failure. Again! 'Code C' strikes again!" He stared down at the remains of Dr. Stephen, lying on the examining table. Miraculously -- or rather, unfortunately -- Stephen was somehow still alive.

"Now, how to get his attention?"

The mad scientist's gaze turned in the general direction of the sleepy little town situated below the Mansion... its stupid residents oblivious to the bloody events which had just taken place inside. Hojo smiled slowly, exposing row upon row of small, razor sharp, triangular teeth.

Nibelheim was dead quiet now.

Soon it would just be... dead.


After the medical personnel managed to haul the critically injured Roissy out of the elevator shaft and into the infirmary, Tifa set to work trying to put the doctor back together. Finally, she sat back and sighed wearily.

"Well? Good or bad news, Tifa?" Yuffie asked impatiently.

"I've managed to fix most of her physical injuries. But like I said before, head injuries are tricky, even with healing materia. And while it's not quite as bad as a 'splattered egg'," she glared at Yuffie, "it's still pretty damn bad. There's no way to tell if she'll recover from the trauma or how much brain damage she might have suffered."

Cid pounded his fist on the wall. "Shit! That means that we might never know all the details about that friggin' sample!"

Cloud said, "We can't wait around here any longer for her to recover consciousness. We've got to get over to Nibelheim right now and find out what's happened to the Turks. If something's taken them out,..."

"Yeah. I don't like them much but they can handle themselves pretty well in a fight."

"That would indicate that there is something seriously wrong in Nibelheim." Red looked at the others and added, "Should we leave someone to keep an eye on Roissy's condition?"

Tifa stood up and said, "I don't really see the point. The medical staff knows what it's doing. And if there's trouble in Nibelheim, we may need everyone. That includes Barret."

She turned toward the handful of medical personnel hovering in the hallway outside Roissy's room. "You WILL let us know if her condition changes, won't you?" Tifa's narrow-eyed stare and her blatant adjustment of her fighting gloves made it abundantly clear that she was not making a suggestion.

"C-C-Certainly, madam," mumbled the senior physician. Dr. Montessi, who was also standing in the hallway, merely gave them a curt nod.

Before they could make any more plans, there was a sharp buzz on Cloud's phone.


"Aw shit, man. I... I'm not sure how to tell you this, Cloud...."

"Barret? What's wrong!?"

"Uh... Aw, the hell with it! Cloud, I just got a report. And it looks like...."

"Yes...?" It was like pulling teeth.

Cid snapped, "Barret, just spit it out, okay?"

"It looks like Nibelheim's... burning."

In a perfectly even, flat voice, Cloud said, "Nibelheim."

His friends stared at him with varying degrees of concern and worry, but they found the utter lack of emotion on Cloud's face infinitely more disturbing than any expression of rage or pain could be.

(end of Part 2)


In parts 3-4,
- MORE mad scientists galore....
- a hot time in old Nibelheim again....
- who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man....

-------------------------------------------- /\/\/\/\/\/\/\/:E


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