I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.54

The Mako Reactor.

If desolation ever had a face, then this place fitted the description perfectly. It stood barren, utterly abandonned to decay. The ancient fortress, built of metal instead of stone, mourned the demise of a glorious era, when emerald-green life had flowed through its veins. Alas, no more. Time had stripped away all its dignity.

The Reactor was a labyrithine cavern of brick and metal. The fortified walls reached up to black obscurity high, high above, its iron roots grappled deep into the ground below. The large platforms extended out like shelves. Hefty girders supported their majestic weight, while metallic bridges cross-linked them to ominous passageways through the walls. The empty staircases winded down through the ruinous site. Their railings had been broken, some steps even torn off.

Indeed, the ravaged Reactor resembled a junkyard museum. Myriads of pipes clung onto the crumbling walls as if to dear life. Large pumps shot up along the brickwork high to the darkness above. The smaller, more timid ones formed a network of connections, all fitted around the dead electricity cables.

Yet this hungry horde of metal would have more. The main Mako ducts arched magnificently overhead like flying butresses. Sooty air-ducts snaked all along, held in place by russet crossbars. Some ended at stiff iron grates, other hung onto the ceilings in wretched misery.

Dull droning echoed through the dank, cold air; a discordant chorus of machines humming away. There was only a tinge of light to liven this dingy fortress, thanks to those dusty glass laterns of pale-yellow. Otherwise, darkness reigned supreme.

The place was dirty, haunted. The remains of a fallen empire; this knotted jumble of metal bars and twisted pipes. Nothing more.

Rufus wandered through these desolate ruins, totally oblivious to the surroundings. Instead, quiet insanity had plunged him into another trance. He walked without any particular destination, perhaps not even aware of his own movements.

All he felt were them; those horrid ghosts who raged inside his head. They burned him up, but left him so cold.

The young man drifted across the iron bridge, his dull eyes rolling over the black pit below. Suddenly, it came again. So violent, Rufus stiffled a hideous grunt, at the same time clutching his head from both sides. His temples throbbed in agony. Already, he was gasping for air.

"There he is! Up there!!" cried a faint voice far below.

"Move it! C'mon!!" barked another gruff voice.

Rufus heedlessly continued his journey to nowhere. However, his gait soon crumbled to unsteadiness until at last, drained and delirious, he collapsed to his knees. The sharp headaches never disappeared. They simply squeezed further into his skull.

"...they're inside...here...inside...," he raved to himself, "...so many...it hurts...ah! It hurts too much!...there's just the fire...."

The tomeneted prisoner groped through this madness, grasping for sanity yet finding none. At last, he found the iron balustrade. He climbed back up his wobbly feet, just as another headache stormed his brain. Again, he clutched his head, this time only with one hand. His entire arm clumsily held onto the rail for support.

He didn't hear the loud footsteps stampede up the winding staircase. Soon, two guards, the same who had called for Davoren, stormed across the bridge towards him. On finding the distraught boy thus, they both paused to catch their breaths. They seemed to have been running around for a long time.

"Ah, stupid brat!" muttered the angry mercenary as he wiped the sweat off his face, "How the hell'd he get outta his damn cell?"

"..I..I must've forgotten to lock the door after Mr. Davoren left," the lean guard faltered, "When he gets these spasm attacks, he tends to...roam around... he must've opened the door by accident, and wandered...."

"I thought you turned that weird machine down or sumthin'!"

"I did! That don't mean the attacks stop *altogether*! He still..."

"Argh! Whatever!!" the furious man threw both hands into the air. He obviously didn't care for a proper explanation.

All attention turned to the madman, who remained utterly oblivious of their presence. Rufus still supported himself up against the railing, head bowed down into one hand, with loose hair strands all around.

"Fuh! Let's just get this bastard back to his cell before ol' Davo blows his top," decided the distempered man. He approched the lunatic.

The other guard, however, drew back in alarm.

"H-hey, man!" he warned outloud, "You shouldn't walk up to him like that! No tellin' how he'll react. He can get pretty violent!"

The stark warning sounded ridiculous to the other man. He merely dismissed it with some violent curse. He continued onwards until he stopped directly infront of Rufus. A most contemptuous scowl twisted his bristly face.

Yet Rufus made no indication he even saw this man. Indeed, he resembled a wild animal, tense and quite unstable.

"....maybe we should call Mr. Davoren again," suggested the nervous guard, "..he always knows how to handle..."

The foul-tempered mercenary completely disregarded the reasonable suggestion. He roughly grabbed the front of Rufus' sweater, then yanked him up to the very tips of his shoes.

The savage man rattled him a few times just to assert his authority. Rufus struggled, not against this abusive treatment, but against the insane pain throbbing inside his head. His eyes were shut tight.

The other mercenary only looked on in extreme uneasiness.

"Y'know, I've just about HAD it with this damn retard 'n his crazy talk!" spat the incensed guard, "Whatta load of crap!!"

The boy forced one eye open. He looked straight at this man, but seemed to see another person; a phantom conjured up by sheer insanity.

"...when I woke up...he wasn't there...," Rufus whispered softly to the confounded guard, "..he didn't even...know I was alive....but that's okay... I never expected him to remember anyway....."

The move come so unexpectedly, just as madness seized full control. In a sudden wake of violence, Rufus shot one foot hard into the man's inner thigh, delivered at such an angle it reeled the howling guard aside. Rufus followed up the kick at once. Clasping both hands together, he swung them up clean into the underside of this man's chin.

Both mercenaries were stunned, one with horror, the other with blunt pain. The hard-hit guard clumsily staggered backwards to absorb these blows, at the same time dropping Rufus from the iron grip. The insane boy collapsed against the balustrade again.

The madness had only wanted release, even though it now left him depleted of all strength. He found it impossible to even balance himself.

"ARGH! YOU LITTLE BASTARD!!" roared the mercenary for vengence. Acting on fury alone, he grabbed the boy more savagely than before, then rammed his whole fist into his stomach.

Rufus choked aloud on the murderous pain. The jagged knuckles had went clean into his guts.

Still holding onto his hapless victim, the enraged men punched one side of Rufus' face, then struck down against his head, all the while hurtling out every curse known. Rufus succumbed to this ruthless bombardment without resistance. He simply had no more to offer.

"Hey! Hey! Whoa!!" shouted the alarmed the mercenary, "You kill this kid, 'n Davoren will friggin' MURDER us!! Stop!!!"

"You really piss me off, you shitty asshole!!" bellowed the guard, deaf to his friend's urgent pleas. He aimed one huge fist straight for Rufus' face, "I swear, I'll beat ya to a bloody..."

Suddenly, one loud clamour from above interrupted the brutal scene.

All sight instantly shot to the overhead ventilation duct, just in time to witness the iron grate crash down under one forceful kick. Much to their astonishment, some man gracefully swung out of this new entrance, and landed on both feet for all to behold.

He stood slouched up in a very relaxed battle-stance, only a short distance away: his shoulders drooped slightly forward, legs set apart, and a long metallic staff held slanted behind. A crooked smile twisted his lips aside, one so full of scorn.

It was Reno.

The two astounded mercenaries gaped at this unexpected sight. Still held thus captive, Rufus could only blink in wide bewilderment at the brave (or foolish) man.

"Who...who the hell are you?!!" exclaimed the tan-skinned mercenary.

"Would you believe, I'm the air-duct inspector," announced Reno in a complete show of bravado.

"IT'S AN INTRUDER!!! GET HIM!!!!" thundered the other guard.

The raucous battlecry stirred up instant chaos. The tan mercenary automatically bared out his loaded assault rifle, just as Reno's whole demeanour turned dead-serious. In the blink of an eye, he lunged straight for his enemy.

A loud hailstorm of bullets tore through the air, with the angry assailent roaring for blood. However, Reno had already swung behind the guard in an incredible manuever. The single attack was fatally swift. Reno encircled the man's neck with one arm, then jammed the nightstaff clean into his back.

It ended in an instant. The brutal surge of electricity ripped through the man's entire body, wild sparks mixed into his insane screams. Reno then ruthlessly swung his stunned victim across the iron balustrade. The latter stumbled over the railing, and plunged down to his doom.

"DAMN YOU!!!" bellowed the other mercenary. He flung poor Rufus aside, at the same time yanking out his own gun.

But before a single shot could be fired, Reno had already acted. He quickly twirled the metal staff right up against the man's wrist, which effectively knocked the weapon out of his grip. The guard was absolutely shocked: everything happened too fast!

His surprise doubled when two strong arms suddenly cut his breath short. Rude, who had snuck up from behind, held the struggling man upright in a tight headlock. With one powerful twist, he cracked the whole head aside. The mercenary's struggles ceased at once. His neck had been broken.

Rude dropped the dead man to the ground.

"Took ya long enough!" greeted Reno, slinging the nightstaff onto one shoulder, "I was beginning to think you got lost."

Rude gave him a sour look of disapproval. "What's the idea crashing into a fight like that? Are you crazy? Those men had guns."

"Well, that bastard was throttling him! Crashing through the air-duct was the quickest way!" Reno gave his reddish-pink hair a fine backsweep before adding "...besides, it made a cooler entrance than yours."

Rude dared not discuss his difference of opinion. Instead, both men turned their attention around to Rufus.

The young man gaped back in pure astonishment. He sat slouched on the floor, having just been shoved against the iron balustrade. He did not speak a word.

"Mr. President...are..you alright?" asked Rude at last. He gently touched Rufus' arm to help him up.

Shock turned to stark alarm. The boy instantly struck that friendly hand away, then scrambled up to his feet. He retreated a few steps from these two men, who couldn't help but give him an odd look.

His anxious eyes darted between his two saviours: Reno was slovenly dressed in a black pair of jeans and a short, open jacket. His shirt was (of course) untucked, with an unbottoned collar and sleeves rolled up over the jacket's. Rufus paused to note Reno's unique hair-style before turning to the other man. Tall as ever strong, Rude wore simple winter pants, with a brown leather jacket zipped half-way.

The young man spent a rather long time absorbed in mute scrutiny, which put the two men at further discomfort.

"...who...who are you?" he asked them at last.

An awkward silence followed. The question had caught them both completely off guard.

"Heh, are we THAT hard to recognize without our suits?" joked Reno, "It's us, Sir!"

Rufus gave him a blank look.

"Reno, remember?"

No reply.

"..and..uh...Rude," he paused, himself growing a bit uneasy. Indeed, neither name seemed to stir any memory.

They lingered in silent embarrassment. Reno scratched the back of his head, unsure what to make of this situation. Rude looked over the boy in evident discomfort.

"Don't you...recognize us, Mr. President?"

"..Mr...President...??" echoed Rufus, perplexed by the title.

"Yeah. President!" confirmed Reno impatiently, "Y'know! Of ShinRa Inc.! And we were your Turks, the.."

"My what??"

Both men exchanged a significant glance before Rude re-tried, "Sir... don't you even *vaguely* remember us? Not even our faces?"

Rufus' expression told it all: he obviously did not.

This scene was the epitome of awkward encouters: Rufus haggard by depravity, the two men searching in vain for an answer from his face. Rude took his friend aside for a private conversation.

"Think it's really him?" he muttered nervously.

"Of course it's him!" insisted Reno outloud, gesturing towards the young man, "Look! same exact face! Same voice! Same everything! It IS Rufus ShinRa!!"

They both peered over at him a moment just to make sure, then resumed their discussion.

"But if it is him, how'd he survive that blast?" mused Reno. He folded both arms as his gaze strayed downwards, "It's impossible. No one could've walked outta THAT mess unhurt, let alone alive. And why the hell is he HERE, at the lab?"

Rude rubbed his goatee in deep thought, "..maybe...somebody saved him after the explosion, and brought him here..."

"...e..explosion?" interrupted Rufus suddenly.

Their solemn attention turned back to the boy. Confused apprehension marked his entire face as he glanced between them.

"..and how do you...know my name?" he asked further, yet edging one step backwards. He had become suspicious.

Rude looked to his friend to answer, but Reno only frowned: this conversation was getting no where.

"You're telling me you don't remember ShinRa Inc.? Nothing at all?" he interrogated rather sharply. His keen sea-green eyes fixed into his.

Rufus said nothing.

"No Avalanche, no Turks, no Mako, no 'Promised Land', nothing??"

The boy blinked back in a whirl of amazement.

"You're very strange," he commented bluntly, "I didn't understand a single word you said."

The simplicity of this answer struck Reno point blank, in which he could only gawk wide at Rufus. Rude was quite shocked too.

"...you're not the guards...I don't know you..."

The matter thus settled, Rufus simply shuffled around to leave.

"What about old man ShinRa?" demanded Reno after him, "Now you GOTTA remember him! He was your father!"

The word brought Rufus to a halt. He tiredly turned his head back to these persistent strangers. His dull eyes sunk into morbid confusion as his thought strayed far away.

"...there is this...man...," he murmurred, as if lost in a dream.

"...'man'??" repeated Reno.

"...he follows me around...he doesn't have a face...and when I'm there, with him, I can see myself...and be myself at the same time. Davoren says it's only a nightmare, but..sometimes...I feel that it's not at all...that man... he told me he was my father..but..I never..."

His sad voice trailed off into another blunt headache. Rufus pressed his throbbing temples to stiffle the pain, or perhaps shove some violent emotion away. Both men, on the other hand, beheld this bizarre sight in a mixture of amazement and worry. In truth, they couldn't make much sense of those mad words.

Rude tugged once at Reno's sleeve, then muttered aside, "You suppose that explosion...sorta...messed up his mind?"

In other words, had Rufus ShinRa lost all sanity in that hellish fire? It seemed quite so, judging from his unpredictable mood swings and odd behavior. Yet Reno only narrowed his eyes more keenly. Some bothersome thought troubled him.

Rufus looked at the two men again.

"You'd better run away," he warned them tiredly, "...he'll know you're not the guards...he'll discover you're here."

The riddle baffled both men further, especially this ominous "he" person. However, a sudden rush of footsteps and rough cries from behind effectively raised their alarm peak-high: that brief skirmish had attracted plenty of unwanted attention.

-End of Chp.54