I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.77


Vincent awoke with a start. He'd been having a nightmare. At first, he thought he was trapped inside that coffin at Nibelheim again, or in some sort of stuffy black box. Soon however, his vision adjusted to the dim light. Much to his confusion, he found himself huddled in the corner of the same old vent;  just a blood-spattered, limp wreck slumped back against the cold duct wall. Aeris sat curled up between his legs, snuggled safe in his arms. Her head rested against his feverish chest. She was sound asleep.
 
Vincent rubbed his eyes. He struggled to re-organize his shambolic mind: there was that messy battle, the daring stunt across the pit, the escape, then... that's right. They'd taken refuge in this vent. He must have lost consciousness soon afterwards. Vincent couldn't quite recall when or how he slipped into oblivion. To him, fainting was one privilege he'd long denied himself, not until he'd fully attained his goal.
 
That goal he now held close. For all the brutality and violence suffered tonight, he only had one reason for coming: her. Indeed, Vincent peered down at the slumbering Aeris. She'd wept a great deal, as he last remembered. The tears still stained her pallid cheeks. Needless to say, tonight's events had shaken her to near madness, especially her witnessing first-hand that gritty, decisive war. Thankfully though, the cry had flushed out the shock from her system, and mollified her to an unsettled sleep, at least for now.
 
Nor would Vincent even consider disturbing her yet. Her drained spirits needed refreshment. Besides, he felt too weak to move. Instead, he sunk further back against the icy wall, and set his tired mind adrift a sea of aimless contemplation, sailing wherever the winds blew.
 
Just a few more minutes. He wished to linger in this silence just a while longer.
 
He felt so exhausted... so sick. Every inch of his body ached. Every joint, from limb to vertebrae, felt rusted stiff. Vincent's memory hung in tatters, so much like his appearance and health.
 
He had difficulty tying the battle sequence together into one thread. By now, all the blows and agony, the exquisite taste of pain mixed with blood had been dulled to a hazy recollection. He remembered being chased through the labyrinthine duct system. They'd found sanctuary in this dead-end hovel. He remembered comforting the distraught girl. The rest fizzed out. He must have settled himself thus against the wall with Aeris wrapped in his protective embrace, then lost consciousness under the lull of her sobs. Time eluded Vincent. He knew not how long they'd sat here; certainly more than an hour.
 
One thing, however, struck him quite distinctly. He remembered kissing the tearful girl. Vincent paused, bewildered. The more he dwelt upon the memory, the sharper it became until he lived every detail again: yes, he remembered that blissful moment of peace, just the two of them hidden here deep in darkness. The thrill of his lips upon hers. All those tingly sensations... their *strength*...
 
Why? What on earth had possessed him to suddenly bend over and kiss her? He couldn't understand.
 
 Maybe he didn't want to understand.

 ...fear?...
 
All his life, he'd followed cool sense and precise calculations. Obey orders without question or judgment. Choose reason over emotion. Reason clarified his vision, whether he peered through the sight on his gun, or beheld himself in the mirror.
 
Only once had he slipped to utter helplessness. Only once had emotion eclipsed reason. It happened thirty-one years ago, when he gave a woman his undying love and devotion; forever hers, even after she'd crossed to the nether world.
 
But now. Right now, what did he see?
 
Vincent saw himself sitting slouched back against a wall, a tiny speck lost inside a huge maze, battered on both physical and mental front. He saw Aeris asleep, unaware of his thoughts. He remembered Lucrecia; his beloved Lucrecia, still fresh in his mind after so many years.
 
Vincent saw the guilt that fettered him to the ignoble past. He saw the sins that sullied both hands, most horrid the one he committed against *her*.
 
...monster...
 
...this is your punishment...
 
To trudge across barren wastelands under her melancholy gaze. Guilty. Guilty. Her death, his fault- his crime, his sin!

Then why...?
 
Vincent picked his brains in vicious self-examination. He demanded answers without even knowing the questions. Too many forces tugged at him from too many sides. He grew irritated, listless. He seemed to grope through a fog of premontion in search for something. He couldn't describe it. He couldn't understand it.
 
...it's because you don't want to understand it...
 
    ...doubt...
        ...anger...
            ...fear...
 
...are you afraid?...
 
Yet when he had Aeris there, cornered, her frightened face cupped between his hands, something there triggered an impulse within himself, and he kissed her. He'd felt it, hot, unreasonable, and inexplicable. It was this passionate desire to seal her safe from harm as intensely as he'd sealed her mouth.
 
...you're afraid...
 
No. More than that. Much more. In that one moment, he'd wanted to...
 
A sharp pain pierced Vincent's skull right on cue, scattering his thoughts in a dozen directions. He pressed his temples to restrain the rampaging headache. The coughs reverberated within his tight chest, but he never let one escape. It hurt. Inside, he burned like a furnace. A secret part of him, however, felt grateful for this agony; at least it provided some distraction from those obsessions.
 
Luckily, the seizure soon passed, and Vincent breathed free once more. Again, he returned to the pitiful girl clasped against him. Vincent spent a rather pensive minute studying her upclose. He traced the torture marks along way. He noted her sickly condition; her dirty face, and rumpled clothes which covered that frail, meek, little body underneath.
 
He frowned gravely: all the beautiful life he'd watched blossom out of her, Professor Hojo had drained dry. He'd reduced her to the same miserable creature she was the night she escaped...

The realization suddenly slapped him smack into the present: Hojo! He'd practically forgotten the Professor! He'd been engulfed by the smoke (or steam screen), during which they'd quickly slipped away, hoping to lose him amidst the entangled ventilation network. Lose but not escape. Hojo had probably overcome that door obstacle in zilch minutes. Vincent easily pictured the demented scientist on the prowl for them. Meanwhile, they'd dawdled here for God-knows-how-long. Why, Hojo could be *anywhere* by now, maybe even waiting outside their hideout! Vincent pirked up his ears to the suspicious air. He thought he heard a noise- just his paranoid imagination, or a real threat?
 
He didn't care to find out. Craven or prudent, either way Vincent decided to flee- flee the laboratory, the Reactor, this whole nightmare of painful truths and rude awakenings. Besides, he couldn't fight anymore than keep a steady focus, and even that seemed on the wane. Against Hojo, he wouldn't last three seconds .
 
Time to go then. Despite his rheumatic agony, he managed to sit upright, still supporting Aeris against himself. The girl gave a weak moan of protest at the movement. Her hazy green eyes happened to open halfway. But under exhaustion's weight, they closed again, having understood very little. He flopped Aeris onto his back, whereby she unconsciously hugged his neck and burried her heavy head against his shoulder in submission. Everything set. Vincent checked before venturing outside the shelter. Several paths diverged from this junction point. He took the grimmest one.
 
Good news: though the short respite had wasted some time, it had also re-vitalized his body, hopefully enough to see them through. Overall, he'd stopped bleeding. In fact, the less serious wounds had already begun to heal. Alive. He was still alive (well, not dead anyway). And most importantly, he'd retrieved Aeris. She was latched on his back, safe and sound.
 
Bad news: Vincent hadn't the foggiest clue how to exit this blasted rat maze, nevermind this madhouse. Worse, he realized he'd no more ammo, just that last cartridge loaded in his gun. His metal arm needed emergency repair. Plus there were the more serious injuries, broken side, and rising fever which chewed at his mind like a rabid beast. Plus he had the girl to consider. She was ill and traumatised; not forgetting of course their relentless predator in the background.
 
Figures. The bad always outweighed the good. Vincent muttered a curse as he scrambled onwards.
 
He followed a haphazard course through thick veils of gray and black. They explored frosty conduit burrows with tiny iciles dangling overhead. They wandered down dirty ghettos full of denizen ghouls, who from the shadows watched those two strangers pass by. No start or finish to these narrow caverns. More pipelines. More intersections. Same impenetrable darkness.
 
Time dragged on. Five minutes turned to ten turned to forty, still nothing. The eerie suspense wound Vincent's nerves tighter. He could not dispel this terrible premonition. Nor would the fever ease off. It grilled him over a voracious inner fire. Indeed, the strain, the sheer act of respiring, showed on his face, in particular those brilliant crimson eyes.
 
All the while, Aeris kept silent. She didn't stir either. She just kept her head low and her arms around his neck. Vincent knew she'd fully awakened now, but in her fear and timid confusion, refrained from any speech. Instead she nestled closer for security (not to mention warmth).
 
Vincent didn't mindl. On the contrary, having her near set part of his mind at ease. He only wished he'd kept his overcoat, at least have something to wrap her up in. Like this, he felt her every breath on his neck, as gentle as a ghost's. For some reason, it sent a chill down his spine.
 
Way led onto way. Vincent relied on intuition more than anything else; this place was too complex to map out. Plus they hadn't the time. He remained on high alert. The air grew so cold it stung his skin numb. The silence made every movement sound so loud until Vincent was certain Hojo could hear them- he felt ready to explode! Were there no exits out of these claustrophobic tunnels?!
 
Regardless, he kept moving, and the clock kept ticking. By chance, they came across another intersection of paths, when Vincent suddenly stopped short. Was that...? It was! He felt a breeze whiffing by. Very faint, but it meant one thing: an exit vent was near!
 
Vincent quickened his pace. He entered the passageway he believed would lead to the source, and hopefully to salvation. Onwards he shuffled, around a corner. They reached a slanted airshaft, in which Vincent used the equally spaced iron rims to clamber upwards. Once at the top, he crawled straight ahead. Sure enough, he perceived a rectangular grate neatly fitted into the flooring.
 
First, Vincent peeked between the bars onto the world far below. He could not quite determine where they've arrived. It appeared to be some hall. A very, very grand hall. There were two platforms, the smaller decked over the much larger one, both supported by an intricate construction of tall girders, scaffoldings and ceiling-high glass pillars. At this altitude, Vincent estimated about thirty meters from here to the first platform, another twenty to the lower one.
 
The coast was clear. They still dwelt in laboratory terrain, but that hardly mattered. One good kick downwards dented the grate; two more broke it free, sending it plummeting down to oblivion.
 
After he'd secured the girl, Vincent slipped through, and dangled loose from the outlet high, high above. Having already spotted his next "footing", he used his own weight to oscillate back and forth, back and forth, whereby he let go for momentum to carry them across open space. He landed on a sturdy metal beam, then crouched down in place to regain balance. He hopped further down onto the scaffoldings. He scurried along the delivery conduits, only to jump onto a lower pipe. Therefore, by a series of well-planned leaps, they made their way down this craggy architecture until they finally landed safe on the upper platform.
 
No sooner there, however, than the weary man collapsed onto one knee, almost crashing aside had he not steadied himself in time. Before, it would have cost no effort. Now even simple acrobatics taxed his muscles beyond endurance. It wouldn't be too long before his strength gave out altogether.
 
Vincent shook that worry off. Right now he had more pressing concerns to deal with. He looked behind towards the girl, who'd clung to him throughout the whole trip downwards, and still did.
 
"Aeris, can you stand?" he asked softly.
 
She nodded twice without lifting her head. Vincent climbed onto both feet again, doing his best to assist Aeris as she slid off him. Still, the girl needed another kind reassurance to relinquish his shirt and stand unaided. He held her steady for a moment or so just to make sure she was absolutely okay. Strangely, Vincent found himself studying her care-worn face a little too closely. He seemed to search her for some secret. In response, Aeris shyed away from him, becoming so acutely self-conscious that she dropped her eyes aside to avoid his.
 
The question hung between them: now what? Vincent surveyed the open terrain. He wracked his brains for an answer.
 
Offhand, he guessed they'd dropped into some specimen-preservation centre. On this floor stood several stately stasis-tanks dressed in their best electronic finery. Expensive computer equipment littered the hall. Wires and cablelines wrapped around this technology like gnarly vines. Yet what struck Vincent most was the glass colonnade around them. It resembled a massive, petrified arbour where giants once roamed. The interiors of these pillars were divided horizontally into separate compartments, each chamber filled with a discoloured liquid (probably the preservatives). Every glass columns took root from the ground floor, and passed both decks upwards. They all upheld the delivery network against the vaulted ceiling above.

So far, nothing.

"Wait here," he ordered. Aeris complied without argument.
 
Vincent stepped across towards the balustrade to view the lower platform. Very large indeed. However, it served no more than another junction point between different laboratory wings. There were six big entrances. So, which path should they choose?
 
He knew the lab's layout very dimly. Add to that they had Professor Hojo hunting for them. Not good. On the positive side, he possessed a keen sense of direction. And perhaps with an extra dose of luck, he could retrace his path back to the main reception hall, then from there make it back up to the surface.
 
A plan had just begun to materialize when Vincent heard a sad murmur behind him, "'It's useless'."
 
He turned his head towards Aeris again, puzzled. He beheld the lonesome girl over there, who lingered lost in a private reverie, having betrayed her innermost throughts without realizing it. The comment had escaped her unintentionally. She didn't even imagine he'd hear her. But he had. And now, upon noticing his attention fixed on her again, Aeris fumbled in evident confusion, as if he'd caught her off guard.
 
"..the Professor..," she stammered, "..that's what he said. Nothing will change the truth. 'It's useless'," she grew more disconcerted, "..I..I had plenty of time to think about it. I'm beginning to realize how right he is... about me. About everything..."
 
Vincent could make neither head nor tail of her fragmented sentences. Inside, however, he felt that same premonition tingle his spine. He turned to face her, standing tall and thoughtful despite injury. He waited for her to speak.


-End of Chp.77