I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.47

A ghostly silence haunted the eerie battlefield. It floated through the darkness, brushing past frozen tree branches or rolling over the brittle undergrowths. The bullet-ridden trees mourned the cruel disfigurement of their beautiful trunks. The cold corpses lay wherever they had fallen, life having parted the flesh long, long ago. Nothing moved; night oppressed all.

At last, the sole survivor of the bloodbath stirred. The mercenary slowly re-opened his bleary eyes. He found himself lying face down in the frozen stone ground, his arm twisted by his side.

No sooner did he attempt to move than a fierce pain tore at his bloody arm. Instantly, a thousand curses and angry oaths exploded against the wound. The man writhed around onto his back as he groped this battered limb. His eyes happened to glance up.

He froze solid on finally noticing a tall, black figure towering over him, with a keen pair of ruby-red eyes set fixedly on his face.

The wounded man stared back a moment in blank shock, still dizzy and quite confused. However, frantic fear instantly seized him when he recognized Vincent ("the freak with the claw"). The man feebly edged away by beating his two feet back, yet the effort crumbled to a painful grunt. Obviously, it hurt him to even move. So, he curled up on his side in quiet, nervous anticipation.

In return, Vincent gazed down at the frightened man in ominous silence. His face, haggard and filthy, bore an incredibly stoic expression. Not a twinge of emotion marked his calm face, not even the mildest displeasure.

On returning to the park, Vincent had found the wanted mercenary sprawled unconsciously along the side of the gravel road. His less fortunate comrades, the two other mercenaries, lay dead some distance away.

Soon, the wounded man had begun to wake up, whereby Vincent decided to start the interrogation. Therefore, he had stood patiently over the mercenary until at last noticed.

For a long time, neither man spoke.

Vincent coolly looked over the cowering mercenary: the man appeared around his mid-thirties. A hideous scar ran clear across the bridge of his crooked nose. He had light flaxen hair closely shorn, and wore one bandoleer across his broad chest. A thick trail of blood streamed down his dirty face, marking where the gun had struck.

The mercenary curled further under such cold inspection. He peeked up at Vincent from the corner of his eye, clutching his wounded arm in a protective grip. He dared not open his mouth.

Vincent deliberately drew out his black gun, and aimed it straight at the hapless mercenary. The man stared wide-eyed at the muzzle. Sweat broke out.

"Where has he taken her?" demanded Vincent in a cool, toneless voice.

The mercenary blinked in total confusion, as though he hadn't understood the simple question. He tried to grunt out some muddled reply.

"Where has he taken her?" Vincent repeated.

"I..I don't k-know..," fumbled out the frightened man at last.

Vincent only narrowed his cold eyes at the unsatisfactory answer. The gun remained fixed on its deadly mark.

"..I..I don't know nothing, man! I don't!!" insisted the frantic mercenary again, "If y'mean where Davoren took that little girl, I swear I don't know!!"

"You're lying."

"Like shit, I am!! I ain't lying!! I don't know nothing!!"

Vincent did not reply, but instead listened stoically to the incensed mercenary rant over the same claim. The man grew increasingly violent as he struggled to sit up. His thick brows knit through the sweat. Hatred raged in his fearful expression.

"I tell ya, you freak-assed bastard! I know nothing! Nothing!!" he spat in hot scorn, "I know nothing!! Not about Davoren, that girly, or..."

Suddenly, a loud gunshot turned the man's angry insistence to a shrill scream of agony. He crashed back against the ground, howling like a madman while clutching his thigh. Dark blood spurted through his fingers; the bullet had hit quite deep.

Rather than argue, Vincent had simply shot the man's thigh point blank.

At least three whole minutes passed before the mercenary managed to reduce his wild screams to angry groans. He lay slouched on his side, one leg drawn up while his weak hands blocked the blood flow. Both eyes were squeezed shut.

"Where has he taken her?" reiterated Vincent in the same flat tone.

"..argh...Goddamn shit...I.. ugh..," spluttered the wounded man. He grit his teeth, then writhed flat onto his back with another curse.

Vincent waited another moment. When his question passed by unanswered again, he aimed the gun at the man's other thigh. Luckily, the mercenary acted just in time.

"Alright!! Alright!! Shit!!!" he screamed, waving one hand out to signal his surrender. Pain and terror shook his body. He was breathing hard.

At last, Vincent lowered the weapon, and waited in silence. His stone-hard gaze fixed down on the moaning victim. His face remained devoid of any emotion.

After another disgruntled curse, the wounded mercenary began in a shaky voice, "..look...it's..it's this run-down hideout...some junky old lab facility...w-way over in that ghost sector...s-sector seven."

No comment; only the same dispassionate gaze.

"..it's...(ugh! Shit!)....," he grunted through heavy gasps, "The lab facility is hidden under some demolished, old house. You wouldn't think it at first, but the lab's actually under the house... under all the damn rubble 'n junk."

Vincent weighed down each word, but said nothing to interrupt.

The mercenary gulped some air. Sweat mixed into his blood. A sickly paleness discoloured his anxious face.

"S-some days ago...about a week ago, Davoren sauntered into our hang-out," he writhed out weakly, "..said he had this special job for us.. some kinda 'kill and retrieve' mission. He wanted men... lotsa men for the job!"

Vincent did not speak.

"Well, I never heard of him before, and sure as Hell, none of the other boys did. So I wasn't too ready to strike a quick deal with him. But then, the guy said he'd pay us real nice if we took up the job immediately....he said he needed the men now....offered us a friggin' five million gil!!!"

The mercenary squeezed out another horrible oath as the pain stung his limb again. He rattled on with a nervous chuckle in his tremulous voice, "You can imagine, we all laughed in his face! I mean, shit! Five million gil?!! Sure, we get expensive missions once in a while, but FIVE MILLION?!! No one ever offers **THAT** much money!!! We all thought he was bullshitting us!!"

He glanced at his silent captor, then gasped out, "..but then, the bastard pulls out his fancy cheque book, and damn! He actually writes down 'five million gil'!!! He wasn't screwing around!! He goes flashing the paper around for everyone to see, saying he'll give it to whoever kills you first. So of course, I jumped at the job!! Hell, we all did!! We just figured he was some hired hitman who needed back-up... or mebbe a wealthy business man on a vendetta. I didn't care! I just wanted all that money!!!"

Vincent listened to the story, growing all the more thoughtful: he agreed Davoren could pass for a rich business man or an assassin. And to be sure, the payment had sounded far too good to be ignored, yet if only true. The clever gunman had merely tricked these fools for his own purposes. Not only had he known Vincent would kill them all, he never had such money from the beginning.

"Davoren...he then led us all over to that damn run-down old lab house...and ordered us to stay there for a while. He said he'd tell us when to attack. We just needed to wait for the right time. I dunno...he seemed to be getting his orders from some 'Professor' or something like that, but that wasn't any of our business. We just waited like he said," here the mercenary stifled a violent grunt, then hurriedly added, "..tonight, Davoren finally signaled the go-ahead. He gave me the orders, and we all moved out."

The mercenary paused a moment as his hard gasps overpowered his hoarse voice. He squeezed out at length, "..but if you go to that lab house now, you won't find anyone there. They...they all m-moved out. Davoren and his Professor-boss...t-there was this other mercenary group too....they weren't with us and we didn't know them....they also moved out with Davoren. Everyone left."

"Where?" demanded Vincent calmly.

"I haven't a shit-ass clue!! I dunno where the Hell they went or why! They just moved out! Gone!!!"

He looked up at Vincent to check his reaction, and shivered on feeling those horrible crimson eyes burn into his face.

"That's all I know!! I swear to God, man!!" exclaimed the frantic mercenary in pain, "I know nothing more! Shit, if Davoren even finds out I told you all this, he'll friggin'..."

"You were the leader of your group, correct?" commented Vincent very meaningfully. He assumed so based on the fact that Davoren had given him the orders.

"Ah?! Uh..y-yeah..I...," the man stumbled in bewilderment.

"Tell me where has he taken her."

"I just told you! I don't know where they went!! They all left that damn lab house!!"

"You're not answering my question," warned Vincent with such unnatural coolness.

"I am, dammit!! I tell ya!! I don't know!! I don't!!!"

"You say you were leader of your group."

"Yes!!! But..."

"Then you'd obviously know a bit more than you otherwise claim"

"I..ugh...I d-don't..."

Vincent did not wait to hear the rest. He aimed the gun at the man's forehead, and prepared to fire.

Wild, almost insane, terror contorted the mercenary's face as he cringed away on the ground. His bloodshot eyes were wide with fear.

"S-SOME SHINRA LAB!!! A LAB!!!!" he instantly shouted at the top of his lungs, "A SECRET SHINRA LAB HERE IN MIDGAR!!!! THAT'S WHERE THEY ALL WENT!!! SHE'S THERE!!!!!"

"...another lab?" asked Vincent. He still kept the gun aimed.

"I don't know!! Shit!! Shit!! I don't know!!" raved the distraught man, confused by his own violent outburst, "I heard this f-f-from the other mercenary group...they mentioned some secret lab..with all the state-of-the-art science technology and equipment... it used to belong to ShinRa...it's still somewhere a-around Midgar, even after the company went down. It's the secret lab! That's probably where Davoren took her!!"

Vincent said nothing, but instead cast one long, dubious look at the sweaty man.

"I *swear* I don't know where this lab is!!" bellowed the man against the cold scrutiny, "Our mission was only to kill you!! We weren't told anything more!! I just happened to overhear this!! I swear! Dammit, I swear!!!"

A prolonged silence followed this intense cross-examination. The mercenary broke off into a heavy bout of gasping, moaning whenever stung by pain. Vincent stood tall over him with the gun still pointed.

So far, the interrogation hadn't been too successful. When he had discarded all the useless information, Vincent found he hadn't much, at least not enough to answer his simple question. He reviewed his interrogation of Davoren. He scanned through every word spoken in hopes of somehow stumbling across some hint or clue. Unfortunately, Davoren hadn't revealed anything.

"...who is 'the boy'?" inquired Vincent all of a sudden.

The mercenary blinked stupidly back up at his captor.

"Wha?!..b...boy??!" he re-echoed, bewildered by the question.

Indeed, while recalling that last interrogation, Vincent had remembered Davoren mention some "boy".

"What...what boy?!" cried the mercenary again in wild alarm.

"A boy on...a 'brain scanner'."

"What the Hell?! I...I don't know no boy!!"

"And yet, Davoren mentioned one," interjected Vincent rather sternly, "Who is he?"

"B-boy? I...," the man fumbled like a madman, evidently wracking his brains to answer the riddle, "I tell ya, I never...ah!! He...he p-probably meant that loony Rufus kid!!!"

"...'loony Rufus kid'?" muttered Vincent under his breath. His ruby-red eyes narrowed down so sharply on the man below.

"Y-yeah! He's an absolute crack-head of a bastard! Totally nuts!!" spluttered the mercenary, "He goes into all these weird spasms.... just way outta control! I dunno, he's always garbling out this shit about burning up or getting blown apart."

Though Vincent made no comment, his eyes gleamed in deep interest

"NO ONE can hold that stupid kid once he starts talking crazy like that. He gets too violent and won't listen to anyone! But for some reason, D-Davoren....he's the only one who can calm the kid down again. He just knows how to handle him..."

Another heavy silence followed. Vincent asked no more questions.

The mercenary lay sprawled on his side, exhausted and completely crushed. He lifted his weary eyes one last time to Vincent, as if raising them up to the merciful heavens.

"T-that's all I know," he whimpered out in such a pathetic moan, "I swear, man...I told you everything.....p-please..don't..don't kill me..."

Vincent hardly flinched a muscle. The gun remained fixed on the man's forehead. His cold eyes lingered on the mercenary's pleading anxious face.

He believed him now. Vincent had squeezed all information out until nothing more remained. Yet in the end, he hadn't found any answers, only more questions. This whole "experiment" remained enshrouded deep in mystery. But more importantly, Aeris had disappeared, with only a scrap of information of her possible whereabouts: a ShinRa lab in Midgar.

Slowly, Vincent lowered his gun down to his side, then turned to walk away. The cross-examination had ended; he would spare this man's life after all.

Vincent limped away with his entire back turned towards the mercenary. In return, the humble man huddled his head down in silent thanks, all the while watching his merciful captor stagger away.

However, his frantic fear soon returned to scornful hatred. The treacherous mercenary tactfully reached for something hidden along the side of his bandoleer. In an instant, he yanked out a small revolver, and aimed it straight at Vincent.

He wasn't fast enough. Before the mercenary could even reach for the trigger, Vincent suddenly swung around again and shot him point blank, straight through the skull. He had foreseen this treacherous stupidity.

Vincent coldly flipped the gun back into its holster. He did not bother inspecting the dead corpse, not even a contemptuous glance. He resumed his slow journey down the winding road.

Bluntly speaking, he did not know where to go now.

His heavy feet dragged across the ground. His whole face darkened to morose gloominess, almost bleak despair. Soon, Vincent strayed into an entangled web of deep thought and musings. They all clashed against each other for some answer.

A ShinRa lab in Midgar...but *where*? The city was far too huge for a simple search. And this lab, if indeed it be top secret, would be quite impossible to find. Then what to do? The desperate question instantly crashed into a dead-end. In truth, he did not know.

During his unfruitful meditation, Vincent stumbled across that name "Rufus" again. He found himself revolving that particular name over and over in his mind. It sounded quite familiar, as though he had somehow crossed that name several times before. Yet for a long moment, memory failed him.

At last, the answer came in the form of a huge, rather impressive red banner. On it read the words "New Age President of ShinRa", followed by the bold, confident signature of "Rufus".

Of course. Rufus ShinRa, the President's only son.

Vincent lingered in complete surprise: he distinctly remembered hearing that Rufus had died just over a year ago. One of those dangerous WEAPONS, while attacking Midgar, had in fact blasted the ShinRa Headquarters, with President Rufus at its very centre. The young man *should* have perished.

But then, had Professor Hojo somehow.....

Vincent's mind seemed to drift in the same mad circles: the "boy", according to the treacherous mercenary, usually raved about "burning up or getting blown apart". Was this the same explosion that had supposedly killed Rufus? Could this be the very same Rufus ShinRa, only the second worst enemy of Avalanche?

And even if it was, what possible connection had *Rufus* to any of this madness? As far as Vincent could guess, the young man couldn't have any part in the mystery, so why should the Professor drag him in? Aeris, Davoren, Hojo, himself, and this new surprise, where was the connection? Nothing seemed to have any logic or meaning!

It all ultimately led up to the "experiment". Davoren had described it as a complicated jigsaw puzzle, which in the end formed a whole picture.

But for the last time, what was it?

Vincent's thoughts returned to this mysterious lab again. It seemed the only place to lay all his suspicions and vexatious questions to rest.

Yet he still hadn't the vaguest idea where this secret lab might be found. Vincent had broken off his affiliation to the company thirty-one years ago. To be sure, ShinRa Inc. had changed dramatically during that long time. Its technology had reached the very pinnacle of achievement. Services, facilities, all fields of modern science and industry had been incredibly developed.

Therefore, it wouldn't be too improbable that within the long space of time he was gone, some "secret laboratory" had evolved somewhere. The question repeated: where?

He obviously needed someone who had had a more recent involvement with ShinRa Inc. than himself.

In desperation, Vincent turned for help. Cloud first popped into his mind: the man had been in ShinRa's service for a few years, perhaps he had heard of such a "secret lab".

But Vincent instantly abandoned the idea. Cloud had only been a mere trooper. Such information would have been strictly confidential, *well* beyond his reach. Besides, Vincent did not want to involve any of his friends in this danger, not while they could remain safe from harm and out of his way.

Then who, for God's sake? He needed someone who would have easier access to ShinRa's classified information, data, and facility locations. Any whisperings amongst the higher hierarchy of the company's important executives, this person would have heard it. Any business conducted, this person would know of it. But who?

Suddenly, Vincent knew exactly who to ask. It would be neither pleasurable nor easy. It would take many, many inquiries and diligent searches. Yet if he wanted a final answer to this ominous "experiment", he would take this last chance.

His thoughts returned to Aeris. If he ever wanted to pull her out of that tortuous nightmare.....to shelter her again in warmth and safety, then he would take this last chance.

-End of Chp.47