I Know What's Beneath
the Snow Fields -Chp.58
This was her clone.
What did that mean?
Despite all her pitiful attempts, poor Aeris could not grasp that one word. It sounded so simple, but now her whole world seemed to hang on its meaning. The premonition was far too strong. In her frantic anxiety, she fixed on Professor Hojo (even though her own mind implored she cover both ears and look away).
A new light had been shed upon her mysterious origin. Now it emerged as a most ugly truth: the real Aeris had always been dead. That girl over there, held by a stoic Davoren, was only her clone.
Silence weighed a ton upon all those present. The two ex-Turks simply gaped at a loss for words. Vincent stood rigidly overwhelmed. Indeed, it took some struggle just to grapple this new revelation.
Hojo still faced away from the prisoners. However, his head remained twisted aside just to cast that insolent glare on Vincent. His superior air snubbed him to the dirt.
"..clone..," Vincent mumbled the distasteful word.
"Yes," affirmed Professor Hojo, "I have created a clone of that Cetra female. This is her."
To further assert his claim, the cruel scientist returned his attention to Aeris, who gave a violent start as he slowly approached her. This gaunt waste of an old man only towered a few inches above her. But his sheer presence, with those reptilian eyes, pierced her to the core. He now stood right before her.
Hojo derived a cruel pleasure from studying her meek figure. Heedless to her alarm, he lifted Aeris' delicate chin with one scaly hand for a closer inspection; so close she could smell his foul breath.
"A true beauty, eh?" leered the monster at her while addressing Vincent behind, "She's the *perfect* image of 'Aeris'. Everything has been duplicated to the last gene...a flawless re-creation of the last Cetra."
The sight of Hojo's filthy touch on Aeris' lovely face angered Vincent more than those words. Luckily, Hojo flung her back against Davoren's chest, then faced the prisoners again.
"Oh, come now!" he laughed, "Surely you didn't think this was the *real* Cetra-female!"
Vincent reflected a moment. His memory raced back to that first night this girl had come crashing into him, lost and frightened out of her wits. It had never made sense. For this girl to rush out of nowhere, when in fact she should be lying dead at the bottom of a lake.
"I admit...at first, I doubted this girl could be the same Aeris," mused Vincent more to himself, "Aeris had been stabbed clean through the chest by Sephiroth's sword. There simply was no chance of her survival."
His gaze narrowed, "However, how could this girl be a clone? My knowledge of genetics is quite limited, but I do know you cannot clone someone without a sample of original cells."
"Who says I didn't have an original sample?" sneered Hojo through a hideous grin.
Though Vincent's interest heightened to ominous dread, he nonetheless listened on. All eyes followed Hojo as he began to pace around again.
"Back when I still worked for ShinRa Inc., the company had once managed to capture that Cetra female," he recalled, "I took a sample of her cells: a fully-detailed genome analysis, with ample quantities of cells frozen in bio-stasis for...'special purposes'"
He propped one hand on his hip as his pace deadened to a halt. His cracked glasses flashed yellow malice at Vincent alone.
"Naturally, I intended to use the real female for this experiment. However, she was later rescued by her friends, and much to my further annoyance, killed. This meant I had no Cetra anymore...that is until I remembered those cells."
"So you cloned her," Vincent spat resentfully.
Vincent felt his blood boil under his cool visage. This monster stooped to any level for his experiment, even if it meant disgracing the dead. It all made sense now. Professor Hojo had no Cetra, so he created one, and kept her thus until needed.
Then this girl was not "Aeris". It was not the same vivacious girl whose smile had always uplifted those around her; not the same who had bravely sacrificed her own life for the Planet, or who was lain to rest at the bottom of a crytal-blue lake.
No. Vincent had not come for Aeris. He had come for her clone.
"...c-clone..??" fumbled a soft, weak voice. All sight instantly shifted around to Aeris. She had hitherto remained stone-silent.
The pitiful girl stood petrified with fear. Behind her, Davoren kept a loose grip around her without any expression. Her eyes, a turbulent green sea of confusion, gaped wide at Professor Hojo. Her frantic heartbeats clogged her ears. Too many emotions skittered about her bosom.
She only understood one thing: this mysteries word "clone" bore enough significance to shatter her.
"..but...what...what does that mean??" she pleaded. Only Professor Hojo could answer.
"It means you are not the real 'Aeris'. You're just her image."
Anxiety sickened her senses to near faintness: an image. How often in her darkest nightmares had that word chased her until she woke up crying? Whenever she had peered into that horrible mirror, she never found herself, only an empty silver facade.
Aeris' ordeal swelled further amidst this mad whirlpool. Her clasped hand trembled above her heart.
"An artificial memory was developed for you," continued Hojo, "For example, you can read, speak, and express ideas. It makes everything easier. But you have no personal memory of your past, because you never had a past."
Her identity hung by a very fine thread, one which would be cut any moment. Hope clashed against hope as she battled for an alternate explanation; some way to prove this news false: she couldn't be some filthy copy of another person! It was impossible!
When reason failed, she clung to denial.
"No!! That's not true!!" she cried, "I...I'm not an image!"
Hojo's icy gaze belittled her, "You are an image my dear. I created you. I breathed life into your body."
"No! No! I AM Aeris!!"
"You are not."
"I AM!!" she shrieked just to block out his hateful hiss, "I have a scar on my chest!! When I first met Vincent, he had to change my dirty clothes! He saw it!!"
"...'scar'?" echoed the baffled Hojo. He glanced at Davoren for an explanation.
"I believe she is referring to the tube marks...from the Accelerator, Professor," guessed the gunman.
Aeris blinked, completely dumbstruck by this strange observation. Neither words nor concept took meaning in her stunned mind. Regardless, Professor Hojo expelled one contemptuous snort, then turned his head back towards Vincent.
"Mr.Valentine," he demanded loudly, "You say Aeris was stabbed through the chest with a sword."
"Have you seen this girl's 'scar'?"
He paused before muttering, "...I have."
"Tell me, Sir, is her 'scar' from a sword?"
Here came the moment of truth. The entire Reactor braced itself for the answer. Everyone's focus centered on him: Hojo poised upfront in mighty haughtiness; both prisoners and the boy mute in the background; and Davoren's frigid gaze fixed on the scene. Vincent alone would finalize this tedious matter.
But inside, the man only felt Aeris's turmoil. She just wanted the truth.
"No," Vincent forced out softly, "Her 'scar' was far too small...too neat to be from a sword. It looked more like...a closed slit."
Aeris' blood ran cold, with wretched eyes still locked on Vincent. Her fate was sealed now. The proof had worked against her.
Vincent's eyes darkened to an embittered glow, but it remained cast down. He had spoken true, however much he despised it.
Hojo, on the other hand, beamed delightedly at his easy victory. He returned to Aeris. His gaze mocked her pain outright.
"You see, my darling," he chuckled, "you were developed inside a special amnionic incubator known as a 'Growth Accelerator'. While you were developing, tubes were hooked directly to your body: muscles, heart, brain, spine, lungs. Those tubes administered chemical substances that sped your growth rate to adulthood. Of course, those tubes left marks ALL OVER your body, but soon faded away."
So many revelations overwhelmed the poor girl, "..b..but.."
"that 'scar' on your chest has already disappeared. It just took a bit longer to fade. After all, you are only ten months old in *real* time."
The final blow. Aeris' face paled to ghostly whiteness. Horror seized her by the roots. It mocked her whole existence as one hilarious joke. Could she really be a misshapen creature of no substance?
She still clung to the futile hope this would all be a nightmare. She couldn't bear this: not the fiendish Professor dissecting her ugly past before her own eyes; not Vincent listening to every loathsome detail. She wanted everything to just disperse into the night.
But the thoughts hammered her non-stop: no wonder she couldn't remember "her" past. Those precious memories belonged to another person...a *real* person. She was just her clone...a clone...not real...a clone...
"..I...I don't believe you!!" Aeris exploded in a passion against the Professor, "This can't be true!! It can't!! I don't..have any memories..but..but..I couldn't have been living a lie this whole time!! I AM Aeris!! All of what you say are lies!!! LIES!!!"
The Professor would not tolerate her pitiful outburst. In one violent swing of the hand, he struck Aeris across the face, so hard it knocked her to the ground with a sharp shriek. Vincent's muscles tensed under stifled rage. Yet now she lay sprawled upon all fours, down by Hojo's dirty shoes, while Davoren stoically watched on.
"You are a hollow piece of cellular *garbage* I constructed for an experiment!!" snarled the vicious scientist over her sobs, "That's not your face! That's not your body! That's not your life! It all belongs to another person!!"
His brash voice stabbed her heart like daggers, every word a curse upon her existence. The pitiful girl struggled to get up, with her loose hair dangling in thick curls on one side. She dared not glance up: she feared to see Vincent....how hideous she must appear to him now!
"'Aeris' isn't even your name! You HAVE no name!!" bellowed Hojo mercilessly, "Your specimen code is A-25! A random letter and number! Nothing more!!"
The longer he beheld this broken-hearted girl, the greater Hojo's irritation grew. To degrade her further, he thrust one heavy foot against her shoulder, then shoved her hard to the ground, where she lay curled up on her side. Poor Aeris never resisted, not even opened her tearful eyes.
"You belong to *me* and no one else," the Professor staked his claim for all, especially her, to hear, "Mine and mine alone! I brought you into existence for one purpose: the experiment! otherwise, you're worthless! Garbage!! An image!!!"
He had destroyed her beyond redemption. His terrible voice had shattered her entire dreamworld to broken fragments. It all collapsed around her. Now cruel reality laughed loud at her misery. All gone...nothing but darkness.
She was a clone. She had robbed another girl's identity to suit herself, when in fact she had risen from some horrid machine stuffed with tubes. What an abhorrent creature she was! She *deserved* every torture she got!
"...for an experiment..," Aeris acceded to defeat.
Another easy victory. Most contemptuous of her sad ordeal, Professor Hojo stepped away from Aeris. Both arms were tied like a knot behind his back. His stone-hard visage never winced.
Davoren automatically pulled the shattered girl up to her shaky feet again. However, this time he held her closer against himself. Devastated to numbness, Aeris simply nestled her pale face against this man's chest, and started into nothingness, as if watching "her" life fade to oblivion. Hot tears flooded her eyes.
"..th..then..all this time...I've been pretending to be someone else?" she whimpered.
The girl cringed further against the gunman, "When I thought I was real...when I looked into the mirror...but saw no one there...it's because I was the image?...for an experiment?"
"I see you understand at last," commended Hojo scornfully.
Pain heaved upon her all at once. A cascade of bitter emotions to drown her forever. So much grief, all too heavy for this fragile soul to carry. Now she understood: she was nothing but Hojo's rag-doll, a toy for him to enjoy however he pleased.
And of all people, Vincent had witnessed her pathetic degradation. No doubt she disgusted him now, an empty piece of garbage like herself; she disgusted herself!
At last, Aeris burst into loud, hysterical tears. Her pitiful wail filled the Reactor.
This ridiculous display enraged Hojo more than the first. He swung around to strike Aeris again, this time with redoubled force. She hid her face immediately. However, the reaction came at once: Davoren not only stopped Hojo's hand midway, but had also hugged the frightened girl tighter against himself. The Professor glared in a mixture of anger and surprise.
"Pardon me, Professor," intervened Davoren, "If you strike her again, you could damage her skull."
He was, after all, in charge of the Professor's specimens. But whether that reason alone had motivated Davoren or not, he held Hojo's icy glower with perfect composure. Aeris was nevertheless terrified into silence. She peeked over her trembling shoulder at this monster.
Though resentful, Hojo conceded to his henchman's reasonable protest. He wrenched his hand free as he returned to face the prisoners. Soon, his bad mood uplifted at once.
"Well, Mr.Valentine," he mocked cruelly, "Perhaps now you see your stupidity for protecting such a miserable wretch..... hehehehe..."
Vincent had borne himself with stiff calmness throughout the entire scene. But now, dark hatred overcast his whole face; a harsh crimson glare under knit brows. If looks could kill, Hojo would have dropped dead.
There seemed nothing more to say. So, the scientist turned to leave.
"Professor!" cried Rufus' tense voice suddenly. Hojo automatically stopped. He cast a long, indifferent look behind at the boy. In a sudden wake of realization, Rufus had ventured some steps ahead of the two ex-Turks (who were quite alarmed by his bravery). He now stood near Vincent's side. Both anxiety and dread troubled his face.
"Ho, Mr.Rufus. You've been very quiet all this time," remarked Hojo, "What is it?"
"Those two men told me...that I was supposed to have died in some explosion," fumbled the boy with eyes hard-set on the scientist, "Am..am I like that girl? Am I a 'clone' too?"
The Professor let out an insolent guffaw, "No. You are Rufus ShinRa, former President of ShinRa Inc. The fact that you have a memory proves it (however enfeebled it may be). You should have perished in that explosion, but I saved you."
"If that's true, then WHY?"
The question certainly opened another mystery. Vincent's ice-cool gaze beheld the young man from the side for a moment, then returned to the Professor.
"Yeah!" voiced Reno from behind, "You blabbed on about your screwy experiment, but never mentioned Rufus once! If he's not part of this, then why'd ya.."
"Oh, but he IS very much part of this," interrupted Hojo. His vicious gaze shone brighter on the confounded boy, "Rufus ShinRa is the one who links this whole experiment together. He holds the key to its success."
"What the hell does that mean....'key'?" demanded Rude coldly. He mistrusted that look.
Vincent reflected upon himself in rigid silence.
But Reno reached one possible answer. It literally startled him to fury, "Ah! Y-you bastard! So *HE'S* the guinea pig!! You're gonna infuse all that cell shit into RUFUS!!!"
Perhaps yes, perhaps no. In either case, Hojo left them with an enigmatic smile. He would not reply.
The Professor decided to end this discussion. With incredible nimbleness, he leapt back up onto the metallic balcony high above, as Satan would ascend his hellish throne. He left everyone to wonder below, while he stood cross-armed at the balustrade.
"I've wasted enough precious time on you miserable lot," sneered the scientist, "...Davoren!"
The gunman understood the command. He snapped his fingers once.
Vincent anticipated instant danger.
The prisoners suddenly became too aware of their situation. That snap had signaled their execution, whereby all four mercenaries now shuffled to obey. Soon, they prepared to fire.
Poor Aeris raised a pitiful cry of horror. Maddened to more tears, she tried to rush towards Vincent, if not at least reach out towards him: she saw him dead in a pool of blood...just like that night! The same murder all over again!
But every effort proved futile. Davoren easily swept her against her will, and dragged her away with him. Vincent's intense gaze rested on her alone.
No sooner had the gunman began his retreat, then Rufus called after him, "Davoren, wait!!"
But Davoren ignored him without even glancing behind. Instead, he coldly ordered, "Don't shoot the boy. Take him back to his cellar when you're done."
"Yes Sir!" snapped the obedient guards.
The brusque dismissal troubled Rufus' even more. Something seemed horribly wrong here.
It didn't matter now. Gruesome death awaited them, with both ex-Turks searching in vain for some possible escape. Under such grim doom, Vincent's quick mind raced to formulate any plan... some distraction...perhaps then he could make a break for it.
Suddenly, his focus narrowed over on Rufus again.
"Run for it," he muttered to the two confounded men behind. The move indeed shocked everyone enough to win Vincent a few precious seconds. With such deadly-swiftness, he struck hard against the base of Rufus' neck, knocking the stunned boy unconscious almost instantly.
Vincent hardly waited for the reaction: not for Reno to yell "HEY!!" or Davoren to swing around at peak alarm. All his demonic speed exploded at once. Vincent darted away from the scene, at the same time slinging the lifeless boy onto one shoulder.
In short, he had kidnapped Rufus.
All Hell broke loose. The uproarious mercenaries opened full fire after this slippery fugitive. Insane gunshots blasted the floor under his feet; they sparked off the iron railings into the cold air. But over all this crazy bombardment, Vincent perused one headlong dash straight for Davoren. His stern resolve never wavered off the mark.
The incredible charge caught Davoren completely off guard. He was so stunned by Vincent's mad speed (and of course the unconscious Rufus), the gunman hadn't time to even yank out his own gun. Likewise, Aeris gaped wide-eyed.
It only took another blink before Vincent was right infront of him, still lunging at full force. Davoren simply blanked out.
Yet far from any attack, Vincent instead made one unbelievable leap high, high over their heads up into the air, with angry mercenaries still rushing after him. Davoren barely recovered his shock, at least fast enough to narrowly evade the wild gunshots. He hid Aeris safe within his trenchcoat. His suspicious glare followed Vincent upwards: why hadn't he attacked?
The frenzied bullets zinged after their graceful target, even as he flew up the iron pipes faster than a monkey. He held onto Rufus with his metallic claw.
Hojo's erractic screams for blood mixed into the chaos. Vincent nevertheless leapt up straight past the metallic balcony, then flipped across onto a rusted pipe. It shattered just after he rebounded off it, whereby he flipped again further up onto a bulky tank fitted against the brick wall. He landed right on top.
From their positions down below, the mercenaries blitzed the rusted tank in hopes of killing their enemy, while Professor Hojo fumed inside his lair. Yet Davoren still clung to his suspicion. On noticing *which* tank Vincent had chosen, he immediately foresaw the fatal danger.
"STOP SHOOTING, YOU IDIOTS!!" he bellowed in alarm, "YOU'LL HIT THE GAS TANK!!!"
Vincent exerted full strength to spring high up out of harm's way. Another moment, then one ear-splitting explosion rocked the whole Reactor by the very foundations. The tank, now a roaring meteor of fire, plunged downwards, destroying many pipes and two monstrous girders in its path.
It all crashed like Heaven's rage down upon the balcony, which sparked a second explosion more thunderous than the first. Soon, everyone found themselves under the shadow of a collapsing platform.
Aeris' entire body froze solid; her mind went numb.
However, Davoren reacted at once. Before poor Aeris realised anything, she felt him shove her as far away as his might allowed. Through wild debris and raucous clamour she tumbled until one deafening crash ended the chaos.
Heavy swirls of dust choked the air amidst the crackling fires. Aeris sat sprawled back upon the ground, trembling wildly as she beheld such total destruction. She had been pushed away from danger. There was no sign of Davoren. Most probably, he had fallen beneath the rubble.
"AERIS!!!" she heard someone cry her name aloud.
The frightened girl shot her eyes far up towards the ceiling. There, she spotted Vincent dangling from a stiff crossbar, with an unconscious Rufus held under his armpit.
"RUN AWAY!!NOW!!!" Vincent shouted at the top of his lungs.
Rattled by frantic terror, Aeris' mind fixated upon the command. She didn't spare another thought, but seized upon that desperate urge: escape!
Therefore, she scrambled back to her feet, and turned upon her heels. She never looked back.
In one clever sweep, Vincent had escaped that execution and broken Aeris' captivity. He had taken the chance Davoren would protect "Hojo's specimen" as duty dictated. Now both captors lay below mountainous rubble, and the girl free again.
Only two mercenaries had survived the explosion. Though chaotic, they both persisted hard: one man shot at Vincent. The other, on noticing the girl, tried to capture her.
However, Vincent had already swung off the crossbar onto a higher delivery pipe, where he unholstered his gun at once. His ruthless rebuttal came too swift: he first shot the guard chasing Aeris. Next, he turned his deadly aim towards the last guard: one bullet clean through the skull, and the mercenary crashed to his death.
Vincent did not wait to count the spoils of this victory. What mattered was reaching Aeris now that she has fled the scene, and getting her out of here. He found neither Reno nor Rude anywhere below. With luck, they too should have escaped.
In the meantime, he had this boy. Vincent dragged the lifeless boy down the pipe, where the journey ended at some ventilation grate. He tore off the grate, stuffed Rufus inside, then slipped in after him. Grabbing the unconscious boy just above the waist, Vincent began a noiseless crawl through the air-duct. Soon, darkness engulfed both figures.
Though Death lingered master above this devastated site, Life miraculously still throbbed below. By shoving a giant girder away, Davoren at last crawled out of the rubble. He staggered up to both feet.
"Ah wonderful," he grumbled as he beheld his now tattered trenchoat, "That's another one ruined."
Davoren appeared dirtier, with his face smudged by dirt, but otherwise, he had emerged unscathed. He reluctantly slipped off the ragged garment, and dumped it aside. He straightened his fine suit, then cast a long look in search for someone.
Those two explosions had destroyed the place. At least three bridges and an entire platform had collapsed here, besides the beam-joists which had supported those structures: twisted pipes, metal and stone; so much burnt garbage. Silence haunted these ruinous hills.
A stiff rattle not too far away attracted Davoren's immediate attention. He scurried up the mountainous debris towards the source, where the balcony lay demolished. He arrived just as Professor Hojo stood up from under some stone slab.
No beggar could match Hojo's rags. His green skin twitched from stern rage. The hideous monster scanned the dismal surroundings. When he found nothing, his glare shot straight to Davoren.
"Where is the girl?" he barked at once.
"I pushed her away before the platform collapsed. She must've run off," came the calm reply.
The Professor scoffed out his irritation, then checked his glasses; one lens was cracked beyond recognition.
"Don't worry. She can't get too far," assured Davoren knowingly, "Well Sir, I'd better go catch her again. You can have your fun mutilating Vincent."
Davoren watched the monstrous creature prop his specs back on in haughty composure. His distemper seemed to have subdued.
"I have her location. I can track her down faster," Hojo hissed. His vicious eyes flared yellow towards the gunman, "*You* kill Valentine, and bring me his bloody corpse."
Fair enough, as far as Davoren saw, "Okay. Suit yourself."
"...those two other men..kill them too before they become a nuisance."
Everything thus settled, Davoren marched away to fulfill the command.
"...and Davoren?" called Hojo suddenly.
He stopped to peer over his shoulder at the scientist.
"When you find Rufus, kill him too."
No answer. Instead, that last order struck Davoren into what appeared as blank shock: his pink eyes had tensed to a bright gleam, his body so rigid.
"...but...why, Professor?" he asked. His voice sounded dry.
"I've already taken what I need from the boy. He's useless now. Kill him."
For a moment, Davoren plunged into deep thought. Something flashed across his face; an intense emotion which dispersed too fast to be identified.
"....yes, Professor," he muttered.
However, Hojo had not liked that look, much less that awkward pause. It struck Davoren dead on: he suddenly reeled over against a murderous pain in his lungs, so violent he crashed down with a stifled grunt. There he lay convulsing on the debris. His eyes squeezed tight. Both hands clutched his heaving chest.
"What was that?" inquired Hojo in a tone cold enough to shatter ice.
Davoren could barely open one eye. He lay at the scientist's feet, struggling to hold that stern glare while suppressing a fierce coughing fit. Indeed, Hojo's glare alone seemed to pin him under an invisible, brutal force.
"There was resentment," Hojo hissed, "I saw resentment in your eyes, Mr.Davoren...possibly *betrayal*?"
He emphasized the ominous word by pressing fresh pain upon Davoren's ravaged lungs. The man writhed violently.
"..ugh!..y-you know I would..n-never betray you, Sir..," Davoren hacked on his own blood. It hurt him to even speak.
His assurance passed by unanswered.
"It's just...ah!..it's just..I've always b-been ordered to keep the boy alive...for you to suddenly order me to kill him..it..."
Professor Hojo had heard enough. He released Davoren from pain with one scornful kick against the head, which rolled the gunman onto his other side. Davoren's hoarse gasps wheezed through his chest. It took another moment of struggle before the ordeal eased.
"You have your orders. Go," dismissed the scientist.
"..of course..Professor..," gasped Davoren respectfully. He climbed back to his feet. He steadied himself with a good shake of the head, then made his way downhill. Soon, Davoren left.
Hojo found this second reply more to his liking: nothing pleases tyrants more than the full submission of people once themselves in command.