I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.42

Time itself stopped. The black woods held its breath to contain the shock. Vincent stared back at the gunman in horrified disbelief, his senses struck dumb by the news. He pulled his gun back an inch, but kept it aimed on its mark.

Davoren pushed back his snow-white hair before resuming coldly, "The Professor somehow got hold of Sephiroth...the *real* one....still trapped in that cocoon. He wants to bring him back."

Absolute, dead silence.

"..you and I...that little girl..he's planning on using our spiritual energies to breathe life back into the body...sacrifice us for him. And it's all to complete Sephiroth's ultimate dream: Planet annihilation."

When thus finished, Davoren gazed at his captor with perfectly stoic pink eyes. He seemed to expect some reply or reaction. However, words failed Vincent. His heart pounded loudly in his ears, thereby redoubling the pain in his hot chest. He could only stare down at the gunman, stunned and shocked.

Sephiroth's death alone had saved the Planet. Life, the precious lifestream itself, had been spared by killing that murderous madman. But if through some miracle (or experiment), Sephiroth returned, what would happen? Bloody carnages wherever he drifted; chaos and destruction with every footstep, until he'd wipe the Planet clean from existence. To Sephiroth, it would be so easy, hardly worth the flick of his finger.

So, what should...what COULD be done? Hundreds of ideas raced around, all crashing into dead-ends. In truth, Vincent was overwhelmed. Against the frightening possibility of a Sephiroth revival, unleashing all that terror once again, the man couldn't settle on one thought.

On noticing his friend's apparent anxiety, Davoren released an annoyed sigh, as teachers do when students don't grasp a subject.

"Aw geez, Vincent! You're so damn serious all the time!" exclaimed the gunman with friendly reproach, "You actually believed all that corny Sephiroth bit?! That was supposed to be a joke! Joke as in funny ha-ha!"

For a moment, Vincent did not understand. He gaped blankly at this carefree prisoner, completely dumbstruck by his good-humour. A "joke"? Held at gunpoint, and Davoren could still "joke"? And about *Sephiroth* no less!

Suddenly, Vincent's whole face darkened to an angry scowl. With full force, he ruthlessly struck the butt of his gun right against Davoren's head. The violent blow knocked the prisoner to the side, where he clumsily crashed onto his elbow. His head almost touched the ground; some white hair strands even dangled against the dirty snow. He did not speak.

Vincent's piercing eyes narrowed in icy contempt as he watched the man slowly steady himself again. Davoren slumped against the knotted tree. A cold, hard visage had replaced that good-humoured expression. His eyes remained shut, even with the gun only an inch away from his forehead.

"You've tried my patience long enough for one night, Mr. Davoren," stated Vincent restrainedly, "What is the 'experiment'? Tell me, *now*!"

"And what'll you do if I refuse, Vincent?" the gunman challenged, more sad than daring, "What, you're gonna blow my brains out like last time?"

No answer.

Davoren forced his eyes open again. He slowly ran them over the black, shadow-infested surroundings until at last, he met Vincent's cool gaze.

"Heh...your face...it looks exactly like it did that night..," the gunman noted humourlessly, "..and now that I mention it, this place.. looks a bit like that apple orchard..."

A heavy pause lingered in the chilly air. Both men gazed fixedly at each other, neither moving a muscle.

"What is the 'experiment', Davoren?" Vincent insisted again, his voice strangely softer this time.

"I'll never tell you. If you think I'll just blab it out, then think again. The disclosure of confidential material to unauthorized personnel is an unforgivable act of treason, namely to my superiors."

In other words, he would not reveal anything unless the Professor himself ordered him to. Davoren would not turn traitor on any account.

"You're awfully loyal to someone who has ruined your body for his own purposes," remarked Vincent under his breath.

"Not loyal...slavish."

Another long, painful silence.

Much to his annoyance, Vincent noticed himself gasping very softly for a whiff of air. The fever seemed to grow more intense with each agonizing minute. Though Vincent stifled many coughs, and fought valiantly to dispel the nauseating dizziness, he knew he couldn't resist forever.

But he couldn't afford a fit right now. He must somehow hold the illness back, at least until he escaped this crazy deathtrap.

"However, you'll find me fair man," conceded the gunman suddenly, his face brightening with a mysterious smile, "I won't betray my master, but for old times' sake, I'll let you in on a little secret. I'm being serious now, I swear!"

Vincent nevertheless gazed very, very mistrustfully down at this man, but did not interrupt. The gun stood ready between them.

"You've been having terrible coughing fits for a while, right?" Davoren began as he eyed his captor curiously, "What do you suppose they are, anyway?"

Vincent only tensed at the mention of the dreaded illness.

"Well, I'll tell you. It's not a disease, it's the brain device."

"....'brain device'?"

"Yes. When he...Professor Hojo altered our bodies thirty-one years ago, he surgically implanted this tiny device in our brains. It's a small thing, really....flat, about the size of a pea."

Davoren took in a deep breath before continuing, "When it's inactive, nothing happens to you. But when it's activated, ah! It sends out all these crazy 'impulses' that mess around with your body, especially your lungs. Please don't ask for a technical explanation. I haven't a clue about all the neurology and electric jargon involved."

Vincent reflected a moment then asked coolly, "And Professor Hojo is the person who activates this device, I presume?"

"Correct. He's implanted the activator...or 'remote' into his own brain. So, he activates our brain devices mentally....with just one thought, completely at whim."

No reply.

"If you get out of line, he just cranks it up a notch, and you get a nasty fit. You splutter out blood, get a fever, throw up, or plunge into a coma. It all depends on how bad he makes the attack. If he makes it strong enough (I mean STRONG), you get severe brain fever."

Davoren paused to note the effect this news had on his silent captor. His bright pink eyes gleamed mockingly back at Vincent's icy, mistrustful gaze.

"See, the Professor wanted to make sure we all remained somehow yoked under his command, no matter where we went, no matter how much time passed. He wanted to make sure when it was time to complete the experiment, we'd be in his control (or at least under his thumb). We all have some brain device in our heads, but each serves a different function."

"What do you mean 'different function'?"

"You and I got one. It's to keep us under his control . A-25...that's the girl's specimen codename, she has one too in her brain. Not for the lungs, of course. It would have killed her instantly. She's not...abnormal like us. Hers actually is a kind of tracking device. The Professor can track her down mentally, but not everywhere. She has to be really close by, or out in the open, like here."

Davoren tiredly rubbed his temples as he concluded at last, "The boy has a brain device too, but it's activated with a damn brain scanner, not mentally like the rest of us. He's a rather....special case. See, we all have a little brain device inside our heads, each for a different purpose. It's a really complicated web, but everything adds up to the experiment in the end, just like a jigsaw puzzle."

Silence once more.

Vincent brooded over this new information: it all became so clear now. As long as Aeris had remained safe in the apartment, the signal could not be received; so they had no idea where to find her. Yet the minute she had stepped outside, Hojo had picked up her signal, and pin-pointed her location. Davoren wasn't psychic. The Professor had merely informed him of the girl's location. That explained how he had discovered her that miserable day, and how he found her again tonight.

"So, what you're saying, is that the Professor has been mentally causing my fits...to bring me under his control?" Vincent inquired, wearied of the lengthy interrogation as well as his illness.

"Hmmm...I suppose you could say that. He knows you'd never just give in to him like I did. The plan was he'd weaken you with coughing fits....make you so sick and helpless, so that when I found you, you'd be an easy target."

Vincent made no comment about the underhanded scheme, at least not aloud.

"Well, easy for *HIM* to say! I'm the one who does all the hard work here. But I didn't find you that quickly, and when I did, you beat me. Yes, your resistance and endurance have both FAR exceeded the Professor's expectations. You certainly got the old coot fuming around, screaming for your head. Heh heh..you two never got along that well, did you?"

Vincent frowned at Davoren's pleasantry, but remained morosely silent. His thoughts searched for a proper meaning to this madness: the interrogation had certainly enlightened him to many truths, yet had also created more questions without any answers. It all centered around an "experiment", into which all the puzzle pieces fitted to form a whole picture.

But what was this picture? None of the pieces made sense, just confusing, irregular shapes.

So brutally, so suddenly, the fit cut off his train of thoughts: it would no longer be suppressed.

A most violent, sudden surge of pain ripped clean through Vincent's lungs. The ruthless attack had completely caught him off guard, being ten times stronger and indescribably fierce.

In the worst possible timing, Vincent had finally lost control over the brutal illness. He staggered heavily to the side, coughing the life out of his ravaged chest while fighting for air. Hot blood gargled up his throat. The fever and dizziness instantly drowned his senses. He could not breathe, see, or steady himself anymore.

With a vicious sneer, Davoren embraced the opportunity.

The gunman immediately sprang to his feet, at the same time yanking out his grey gun from its holster. With one ruthless swing, he struck the butt of his weapon right under Vincent's chin. The savage blow sent Vincent sprawling onto the stony ground, where he tumbled over a few times, still coughing violently.

He had no strength to wrestle this fit or repress the pain. They both wreaked vengeance against his battered body. He lay there so helplessly on the ground, hacking and heaving in coarse, loud gasps.

The agony stretched into an eternity. Chaos swam around his numb head. He wondered why he was still alive; the gunman should have killed him by now.

At long last, the attack eased off a step to gloat over its success. Vincent found himself writhing weakly on his back, each gasp a stab to his bleeding lungs. The gun had somehow slipped out of his fingers, probably when he had been knocked down. His sore, wounded limbs burned in feverish flames. He felt faint to the point of nausea.

When his eyesight finally returned, Vincent found Davoren looking back down at him.

The triumphant gunman stood tall, vindictively watching his fallen enemy struggle in misery. His cold face expressed nothing but cruel delight. His shiny grey gun hung tightly by his side.

Indeed, the tables had turned most cruelly against poor Vincent once again. He lay at Davoren's complete mercy; a word which held no meaning to that man whatsoever.

A heavy silence.

"A few days ago, you had this murder of a fever, huh? Bet it even knocked you out cold for a while," Davoren remarked amusedly, "That was the Professor's way of helping me out. He gave you that nasty attack...just messed you up right to the point of brain fever. He wanted to make sure *next* time we met, you'd be in really, really BAD shape, like you are right now. I got...additional back-up this time."

Vincent only forced his head away in contempt.

"Aw, don't be so mad just because I fight dirty. Heh heh...well, I'd say I pretty much have you cornered: the girl from one side, those mercenaries from another, me another, and then the Professor hanging like a plague on top of you. Tonight just isn't your night, is it Mr. Valentine?"

No reply; Davoren didn't expect any.

A stampede of loud footsteps quickly rushed towards the scene. Though they had most certainly retreated, the three mercenaries hadn't abandoned their leader just yet (not with such a generous reward at stake). Instead, they had fallen back some distance, and anxiously awaited a gunshot, a cry for help, or any sound in fact. On hearing the loud skirmish, they had instantly raced over again, guns out and ready.

They found their leader standing tall over the fallen enemy, his back fully turned to them. The three men gaped a moment at the sight, then instantly thronged behind Davoren. They howled out rowdy cheers and relieved swears: victory had chosen their side! What mattered their dead comrades? The reward would compensate the loss!

Their joyous excitement, however, quickly died down with one wave of Davoren's hand. The three silent men lingered behind like hungry wolves, turning from Davoren's stubborn back then down to Vincent, who lay heaving in pain on the ground. None of them spoke a word, but anticipated the command to kill this prize prey.

All this time, Davoren had kept his eyes fixed down on Vincent, who in return, kept his diverted to the side. Both their faces maintained a hard, unnaturally stoic expression.

"Where is the girl, Mr. Valentine?" demanded the gunman icily.

Vincent understood why his life had been prolonged: Davoren still hadn't captured Aeris. No one except himself knew for sure where she had disappeared.

However, he remained silent.

"Where is she, Mr. Valentine?" repeated Davoren.

Still no answer.

The brutal kick came right into Vincent's side, just below his rib cage. He rolled sharply to the side as he fought to suppress the violent pain. He gnashed his teeth, and squeezed his eyes so tightly. Davoren watched on a moment or two before delivering another powerful kick, this time against Vincent's head.

With a sharp grunt, poor Vincent unresistingly rolled onto his stomach. He writhed on the ground, one hand clutching his injured side as though he could perhaps tear the pain away. His gasps grew coarse again. A stinging numbness buzzed around his head.

Davoren stood emotionlessly over the suffering man, while the three uneasy mercenaries fidgeted behind. When Vincent still insisted on his silence, the gunman squatted down beside him. Very callously, he lifted Vincent's head up by the hair, then twisted it up so that they could see each other.

"I'll ask you one last time, Vincent: where is she?" Davoren whispered softly. A vicious pink fire lit up his eyes.

Nevertheless, Vincent would not speak.

Scoffing contemptuously, the ruthless gunman flung Vincent's head back against the stony ground. The battered man lay flat on his stomach. His limbs trembled from fever and illness. He could hardly breathe.

Davoren stood up again. He forcefully implanted one foot against Vincent's back, taking no heed of the man's irregular gasps.

"Alright, girl! I know you can hear me!" he ordered in a loud, clear voice, "Mr. Valentine has done a marvelous job protecting you, and that's to say the very least. I truly am impressed! Unfortunately for him, he's fallen under my shoe, and here's my gun, pointed right at his head!"

In saying that, Davoren aimed the deadly weapon at its intended mark. Vincent had no strength to move.

"It's make no difference to the Professor," Davoren assured with a sneer, "He doesn't care if I bring back Vincent dead or alive, and sure as Hell, I don't care either. However, *IF* you'd prefer him alive, then come out and we'll....negotiate his life."

A long, dead silence answered the proposition.

Vincent kept his scornful eyes lowered to the very ground. His chest heaved up and down, trying to squeeze in a breath under Davoren's heavy foot. The terrible gunman scanned the black surroundings suspiciously. He kept his gun rigidly fixed on his victim's head without wavering.

No one appeared; not a sound stirred.

"Uh...Mr. Davoren, s-sir?" suggested one of the mercenaries hesitantly, "...maybe she ain't here...maybe..she ran away..."

"Yeah! She probably did!" voiced another mercenary, rather stupidly, "This bastard sure kept us busy long enough for..."

"Run away?" snorted Davoren in a spiteful but calm voice. A most sinister smile curled his lips, "Run away, and leave her precious guardian angel alone in the hands of a devil like me? I think not. She's here, no doubt about it."

The mercenaries fidgeted in an uncomfortable silence, casting nervous glances at each other then at their leader.

"I...I don't think she's here, Sir," ventured one of the men, trying his best to sound brave, "We all got caught up with chasing this freak around. The girl must've taken off by herself in the middle of the fight..."

Davoren gave all three men one sharp look behind his back to strike them silent again. Frightened by the malicious stare, they fumbled awkwardly in their spots, but dared not open their mouths anymore.

Vincent hadn't lifted his vacant eyes from the ground during this entire time. His face, haggard from illness and exhaustion, remained expressionless.

The gunman glanced around one last time, then announced sternly, "I'll give you to the count of three to come out, my dear, then I'll shoot him."

Vincent shut his eyes. He knew the threat would go unanswered. The mercenaries spoke the truth: Aeris had fled the park long ago. She would never return. To be sure, Davoren was mistaken in his notion. He was only talking to the empty woods.

"One," began the countdown.



Still nothing.


Tense apprehension, anxious expectation, but no gunshot.

Strange, a heavy silence had followed instead of a loud bullet. Vincent slowly re-opened his eyes, confused by this unnatural stillness. He still lay pinned under Davoren's foot; the gun still pointed at his head. Then why hadn't there been an ear-splitting gunshot? What did this silence mean?

His eyes happened to stray over to one of the trees right across the road. Vincent stared in absolute shock, as if struck by lightening. He had found the reason.

There stood Aeris, breathless and on the verge of tears. She hadn't run away after all.

-End of Chp.42