I Know What's Beneath
the Snow Fields -Chp.21
"Ooohh boy..," sighed Vincent.
The elevator halted abruptly, then chimed as its metallic doors withdrew on the 68th floor. He had reached famous ShinRa Laboratory. Vincent stepped out very cautiously, like a cat unfamiliar with new territory. He found himself, much to his confusion, drifting down a winding corridor in search of some reception hall. A scientist pushing a cart of test tubes nearly rammed into him, yet sped away as if not seeing him.
His feet wandered down the corridor until finally he discovered the wanted reception hall. Several desks cluttered this vast room, with all sorts of scientists bustling about in a hurry. Some bent over microscopes; others raced around collecting or delivering papers, while the rest wrote furiously about their observations. Nobody paid any attention to the lost Turk.
Looks like a flea-market in here, Vincent reflected scornfully.
After great effort and amazing patience, Vincent finally induced one of the busy scientists to spare one minute of his precious time. He asked politely for "Ms. Lucrecia", and was informed he could find her in the Specimen Observatory further down the hall.
"Now go away! Shoo!" the huffy scientist dismissed.
So Vincent trotted down the hall, looking all around himself in wonder. Two women scientists who were chattering away stopped as he passed them, and followed him with their curious eyes. He obviously did not belong here.
Vincent turned around the endless corridor, when coming face to face with two large, glazed doors. A plain sign reading "ShinRa Specimen Observatory" had been neatly inscribed on top.
His searching eyes scanned the interior through the glass, hoping to find Lucrecia without actually venturing inside. Unfortunately, she was no where to be seen. Taking a deep breath, Vincent pushed his way into the ominous observatory.
It was a small, square room squeezed into one corner to the story. Two large specimen tables with over-hanging neon lights occupied the centre. Endless rows of towering bookshelves ran all along the walls, crammed with files, journals, and books. There were two elderly scientists mumbling between themselves over a specimen, but stopped short on spotting the intruder.
"My word!" exclaimed one of them to his colleague, "What's that Turk doing here??"
Vincent nodded his head respectfully at the two, then wandered between the rows of bookshelves in search of Lucrecia. He checked one row after another, losing hope with every passing bookshelf. Until finally, he found her. She was standing on a step-up ladder next to a shelf, completely engrossed in reading a large file.
All her soft hair had been heaped into a charming, loose ponytail behind her delicate neck. She wore no lab coat this time, thereby showing the slimness of her body, especially her supple waist. Her shining eyes devoured the pages of the file. She didn't even hear Vincent walk up to her.
He forced out a cough, which immediately grabbed her attention. The minute she noticed Vincent near her, Lucrecia stared blankly at his face, obviously shocked to find him here. Her nervous hands slammed the file shut, then hugged it against her chest. The two were silent for a minute.
"M..Mr. Valentine..," she faltered at last.
"..uh..Ms. Lucrecia," he interrupted, more nervous than her, "..forgive me..but, last night when you..uh...ran off, you dropped this..,"
He fumbled at his breast pocket as Lucrecia hopped down from the ladder to face him properly. He handed the two folded papers over to her, unable to speak anymore. Lucrecia examined the papers after unfolding them, then shot her eyes up to him in alarm.
"Sorry," he apologized softly, "I accidentally stepped on the sketch and ruined it. Now it looks like an ugly woman with a turban."
He had, of course, braced himself for her worst reaction, maybe even another slap on the face. Lucrecia stared at him as he finished, then suddenly burst out laughing.
"But that's what it's *supposed* to be," she explained, "It is an ugly woman with a turban!"
When he finally understood her, Vincent mumbled, "Oh..sorry..."
She looked up at him through her smart glasses, still retaining her kind smile. Vincent fidgeted anxiously as a heavy silence weighed him down; he felt he should say more to her. Unfortunately, his mind had blanked out the minute he had opened his mouth.
So, his mission now completed, Vincent decided to leave.
"I apologize for bothering you, Ms. Lucrecia," he muttered, turning away from her awkwardly, "Good day."
Lucrecia instantly covered her mouth in embarrassment for being so loud, but stepped infront of Vincent to block his way. After propping her cumbersome file on one of the shelves, she looked up at him so as to say something. However, every time the poor woman tried to begin a sentence, her tongue stumbled over the words nervously. Finally, she broke down in annoyance.
"Listen," she sighed in defeat. She pulled off her glasses and looked straight into his eyes, "I've been meaning to apologize for...for what I did..the other day in the Reactor. That was NO way to show gratitude for saving my life."
Vincent did not answer.
"And I'm most, most ashamed that I slapped you, Mr. Valentine," Lucrecia said with flushed cheeks, "I hope I didn't hurt you?"
"Oh no, not at all," he automatically lied. Vincent thought a minute, then added, "Truth is, Ms. Lucrecia, I can't blame you for getting angry with me. But it's not like I could've warned you beforehand that I was going to shoot..uh..see,I..."
Words failed him again. Vincent ran his fingers through his black hair, berating himself for speaking so inconsiderately to her. Luckily, Lucrecia wasn't offended at all. In fact, she smiled more kindly than before.
"I understand," she replied, extending her hand, "And please, just call me Lucrecia...er..sorry, I only caught your last name back there..,"
"Oh, my name's Vincent," he said as he shook her hand firmly.
"I tried finding you out so I could apologize..but I must confess, Vincent, I got too embarrassed to actually walk up to you. I'm very sorry for being such an ungrateful.."
"Hey, it's alright. What matters is we're both alive and well."
Lucrecia silently nodded her head in agreement. Her bashful eyes turned away from him, seeming to hesitate about some important matter. Vincent, on the other hand, had nothing more to say. He looked around himself once or twice, then finally broke the silence.
"Well, I shouldn't keep you from your work any longer, Lucrecia. Good bye."
With a most respectful bow, Vincent brushed past her towards the exit. Lucrecia apprehensively watched him walk away until she finally called him again. Vincent turned around in confusion as she trotted up to him. Her beautiful face expressed intense nervousness.
"Um...Vincent," she faltered in a low voice, "I'm having my coffee break now. Would you..would you care to join me?"
Vincent blinked in more confusion at the kind invitation, yet made no reply.
"Unless of course, you're busy!" she argued, waving her two hands infront of her, "I don't want to drag you with me if you don't.."
"Oh, no. I..I'd love to join you."
The two new friends spent a full hour in the ShinRa cafe, chatting casually about themselves. Vincent dodged all personal questions aimed at himself; he was, by nature, fiercely private, and preferred not to "blurt it all out", even to someone as friendly as Lucrecia. Nor did Lucrecia dream of intruding. When she had noticed Vincent's reluctance to answer any personal questions, she cleverly steered away from the subject.
Instead, she began to timidly speak a bit about herself. Occasionally, she hesitated, not wanting to bore Vincent with those frivolities, but he always urged her to continue. Indeed, his eyes lit up with great interest as she spoke.
He found her overly modest about her position, and quite respectful to all her colleagues (especially her superiors). Nevertheless, Vincent could see in her a rare insight and intelligence which most her esteemed colleagues dismally lacked (males included). And her shy, humble nature only added to her charm.
Lucrecia finally explained that after graduating from Junon City University, she had applied to ShinRa. Inc in order to finish her postgraduate work. Luckily, Professor Gast had accepted her as a lab-assistant, and she had entered the company about a year ago.
"So, you're doing research now, are you?" Vincent asked, eyeing her curiously over a cup of coffee.
"Y..yes," she stammered in a low voice, "To be a full-time scientist, I need to present a research paper to the Midgar Institute of Biological Engineering. Professor Gast has been quite kind and patient with me. He even helps with my research paper sometimes."
Vincent did not interrupt her, but stared very keenly at her nervous face.
"I need to thank you again, Vincent," she said as she looked at him directly, "Those two papers you returned to me were notes for my research paper...I spent three days non-stop just trying to gather them."
"This research paper of yours must be hard work. What's it about?"
Lucrecia fidgeted in her seat, unsure whether he would understand all the technicalities, but he gently encouraged her to tell him. She yielded.
"Actually, I'm working with a team of scientists on this new project called the 'JENOVA Project'. It's hard work, naturally, but very exciting! Especially working with all these famous scientists."
Vincent immediately recalled that strange name scribbled over her sketch. He had thought "Jenova" was some woman's name.
"No, no," Lucrecia laughed, "JENOVA is a project funded by ShinRa Inc. It's a living entity we named after Professor Gast's dead wife."
Vincent did not understand.
"Okay, look," she explained, dragging her chair closer to him, "A year ago, Professor Gast and his research team picked up strange signals during an archeological dig in the North. According to the readings they got, some life form was buried under the rocks. When they excavated the site, they found this..this living organism frozen in the snow."
"'A living organism frozen in the snow'?" he repeated, puzzled by her meaning, "How could it survive such harsh climate?"
"That was the mystery! Primary analysis indicated this creature was thousands of years old, yet still alive. It had different molecular and cellular structure unlike anything else. It was, to be simple, an alien life form."
"'An alien life form', eh?" he wondered. He suddenly remembered something, "Say, is JENOVA that same discovery Professor Gast made some months ago? He wrote in one of his journals that when he exposed living human tissue to the cells of that..er...'life form', it altered the human tissue without changing itself."
Lucrecia gaped in surprise as he finished, then exclaimed, "How..how did you know that???"
"Oh..uh..," he faltered confusedly, "I..happened to read one of his reports a couple of months ago. I...sorta..like reading about those kinds of things..."
The conversation inevitably turned to science. Vincent explained that he spent most his free time in the library, reading anything he came across. Lucrecia was fascinated to know he had read several publications on "that alien life form", even though parts had been "too scientific" for him to fully understand. Nevertheless, he had thought the discovery quite intriguing, especially the part about tissue exposure.
"Of course, YOU know much more about this," Vincent smiled amicably, "Whatever I understood from it, I thought interesting. It must be great doing actual research on such a fascinating discovery."
"Y'know, you're amazing," Lucrecia blurted out, staring right into his face with a smile, "I mean, here I am, chatting with you, a Turk, about the project, when some scientists in the lab haven't even read one report! Are you sure you're a Turk and not a scientist in disguise?"
Vincent assured her he had "no head for science", but merely enjoyed reading about it. They chatted some more about the discovery and the lab, until Lucrecia stopped short.
"Oh..oh my God!" she muttered, a mischievous smile playing on her lips.
She sprang to her feet instantly, then pulled him up by the arm, crying excitedly, "C'mon! I want to show you something! C'mon!"
She pulled him out of the cafe, her heart fluttering with excitement.
Vincent let himself be led along endless corridors and up the staircase. He wondered what "something" Lucrecia was so eager to show him, yet did not ask any questions. She took him through a metallic doorway down the hall, into a small, dim room. Before he realized where he was, Vincent found himself infront of a preservatory tank.
This huge, round tank dominated at least two-thirds of the room, with three stiff pipes boring straight into its top. Countless buttons, levers, and rubber tubes adorned its bulky structure. One square window marked the centre of this impressive tank. A dazzling purple light illuminated from the inside of this impressive tank, yet the fog on the window obscured the interior.
Lucrecia dragged Vincent infront of the square window. Wiping the mist off the glass with her sleeve, she beckoned for him to come closer.
"Go on," she encouraged in a whisper, "Look inside."
Vincent glanced suspiciously at her excited face, then peered through the glass. His eyes widened in shock: it was that "ugly woman with the turban".
"That's JENOVA, the alien life form," she whispered, still excited.
JENOVA looked like the bust of a woman wearing a draped headdress. Her round, waxen face and empty eye sockets aroused strange disgust in Vincent, intensified by those awkward tubings protruding under her grey body. One of her breasts bore a circular, dark blue marking, while her body hung over a thick rope of wires. Two heavy wings sprouted out of her back, filling the entire tank. Vincent had never seen such a hideous creature.
He turned back to Lucrecia.
"They actually brought JENOVA to Midgar two months ago," she explained, "We haven't stopped analyzing her ever since she came."
"She's hideous," Vincent commented when his voice returned.
"Heh heh..yeah, I thought so too," she smiled happily, "But if you look at her everyday like I do, you get used to it."
Vincent wanted to ask her something, when suddenly a raging voice shouting "LUCRECIA!!" startled the two from behind. The poor woman immediately turned around in alarm.
"Oh!!" she exclaimed nervously, "..P..Professor Hojo!!"
Professor Hojo, a bony young man in a loose lab coat, stormed from the doorway up to the two intruders. His lean, drawn face expressed immense fury, further emphasized by his incredibly high forehead. All his black, sleek hair had been pulled back into a tiny ponytail, yet three strands dangled infront of his rat-like face. He wore a pair of black glasses over his long nose.
The man brushed past Vincent most rudely, and stood directly infront of the trembling Lucrecia.
"I..I'm very sorry, Professor Hojo," the poor woman apologized humbly, "I was only..."
Hojo folded his thin arms across his chest, loudly berating Lucrecia for "trespassing into the preservatory". Lucrecia apologized meekly for every rebuke she received. She hung her head as Hojo shook his long finger in her face to scold her "stupidity and carelessness".
Vincent, thinking this insolent man had gone too far, decided to interfere.
"It was my fault, Sir," Vincent interrupted him in the middle of the reproof, "I asked her to show me the preservatory tank."
Lucrecia looked at him in alarm on hearing the lie. Hojo, who hadn't noticed Vincent up to now, looked up and down at his tall figure, then turned to face him. He twisted his thin lips into a scornful grimace, his arms still folded. Vincent kept his clenched fists down by his side, and stared challengingly back at the Professor.
"You're a Turk, eh?" Hojo asked. His mocking eyes scanned Vincent again.
"Yes, Sir. I am," he replied sternly, as if to actually say, "you got a problem with that?"
"State your business, then. What, pray tell, do want with a preservatory tank?"
The question was perfectly legitimate. Vincent fumbled for a reasonable excuse, yet failed to find any. Hojo tapped his arm in certain impatience; he obviously didn't find this Turk's presence very pleasant. Fortunately, Lucrecia intervened in time.
"He..he's a friend of mine, Professor," she explained hurriedly, "I just wanted to show him the preservatory tank before.."
"This isn't a public house for idle chit-chat, woman!!!" Hojo thundered, stamping his foot angrily, "You take your friend out of here this instant and report back here!! We still haven't finished all the tests!!"
"Ah..y..yes..Professor. Right away!"
Before Vincent knew it, Lucrecia dragged him out the preservatory room and down the corridor. He glanced behind just as they turned around a corner: no mistake; he had distinctly seen glaring straight back at him.
"Who was that?" he asked as they descended the staircase towards the elevators.
"That was...Professor Hojo," she explained in embarrassment, "He's a scientist on the 'JENOVA Project' too...one of the leading ones, in fact."
"He has no right to yell at you like that."
"Actually, he does. It was my fault. I..I forgot he had ordered all un-authorized personnel off the tank premises."
"And I still say he was rude."
"Well, Professor Hojo can be a hot-head sometimes," she smiled, trying to soothe his anger, "Thanks for sticking up for me, by the way."
Neither spoke another word until they reached the elevators. Vincent reluctantly pressed the button, then turned to face Lucrecia again. She fidgeted a bit, still embarrassed with the last scene, but finally managed to look up at him.
"Anyway, Vincent," she concluded by extending her hand to him, "I apologize again for the other day, and thank you so much for retuning my two papers. They're very important to me."
He shook her hand again, but this time kept a hold on it.
"Lucrecia," he asked in a low voice, "Can I see you again?"
She started at the question, then faltered slowly, "Of course..V..Vincent..if you want to.."
"How about tomorrow?"
"I'm sorry..I can't. I have to work with Professor Hojo all day tomorrow in the lab."
Then the day after?"
"You're very persistent, aren't you," she smiled bashfully, "Okay, I'll be free in the afternoon."
Vincent, quite pleased with another chance at meeting her, boarded the elevator when it arrived at last. He turned around to bid her a final farewell.
"Say, Vincent?" Lucrecia called before the doors shut.
"I..I'm very happy we're friends now."
He only managed to smile back at her. The elevator doors quickly closed on him again.