I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.68

If ever a presence evoked such dread, Hojo's well exceeded any other. All around, ghosts and ghouls crowded the shadows to behold their king, a devil worst than Satan himself. The creature stood poised at the very end of the side-bridge. His lanky frame could barely be distinguished from the darkness. Yet his round specs, like two brilliant flashlights, gleamed yellow malice from one side to the other; from Vincent and the boy, over to Davoren.

Nobody knew when or how Professor Hojo had crept here, nor did the scene require much to understand: just the sight of the gunman, with his weapon flung upon the floor, explained it all.

Apparently, the sly Professor had foreseen such treachery. Indeed, that peculiar "resentment" he caught in Davoren's eyes had long played upon his suspicions. So strong, Hojo hadn't pursued Aeris as believed (he could capture her anytime), but instead, lurked the shadows while observing the battle from afar.

And much to his displeasure, his suspicions proved correct.

"I might have expected you'd eventually betray me, Mr. Davoren," Hojo hissed severely, "But never had I dreamed it would be for THIS!"

The monster, already fuming rage, emerged from the darkness, out where everyone could feel his odious aura. His hard glare warned of dire punishment. From his place, however, the gunman only gazed back in a mixture of indifference and fatigue.

"You are mistaken, Professor. I am still your slave. You can kill me if you want, or spare my life," Davoren's eyes strayed far into sorrow as he added tiredly, "..it never mattered to me. Ever since I lost him..it never mattered."

Beyond that, he could say no more; the words got caught in his throat. Gone that smiling confidence and brutality. All drowned by lonesome despair. As he appeared now, even breathing seemed a heavy burden.

In the end, nothing had changed. Davoren may have succumbed, but he still considered himself Professor Hojo's property; a lowly dog who simply did not care how his master treated him.

Unfortunately, the Professor was neither amused nor pleased. He regarded this as outright treason, and would not forgive. For by discarding his gun, Davoren had openly defied orders. Hojo could take his life, but he could never make him fight again

He could never make him kill the boy.

For a long moment, Hojo stood there arrogantly posed while pondering this problem, never once lifting his glower off the traitor. Irritation crumpled his whole face. Even his high forehead pinched over into a tight knot. He may have appeared wasted: his clothes, especailly the labcoat, were ragged; his raven-black hair dangled all about in chaos. But no one dared demote the eeriness this withered creature emanated. That alone seemed to hold this entire scene in aching suspense.

Whatever verdict Professor Hojo reached, it certainly would not be merciful. He tied his two scrawny arms behind, then paced forward. His slow footsteps drummed the beat of Death. All eyes followed.

"Honestly, Mr. Davoren," he snorted with enough venom to poison the man, "I always thought you were a sentimental idiot, even back then. I cannot understand why everyone admired you so much. The 'great' leader of the Turks, more prone to petty emotion than reason!"

A dreadful premonition spiralled up through the air. Vincent remained stern in place. Anticiaption darkened his demeanour, more so as he gripped the gun tighter. To be honest, he knew not what he'd do if the Professor tried to harm Davoren. Rufus lingered tensely behind. Quite obvously, he feared for the gunman.

To contrast, Davoren showed the least concern. Let Death take him, or may he live forever in contempt. Either way he didn't seem to care. He stood slouched up upon two weak feet, still clutching his injured arm even though he hardly noticed the pain; the mental anguish felt far more bitter.

Since he lost "him", it never mattered. The loss had carved a wound deep into his heart, where everything drained away: not just strength, but emotion, will, and integrity.

The side-path merged into the main bridge. It led upon the wide space separating Vincent and Davoren. The callous Professor stepped here, so that between them, both men could see him in full view. Hojo confronted the traitor straight out, almost pouncing on him. For now, he ignored the two men in the background.

"And this only proves my point! Look what you betray me for! A bumbling lunatic!" snarled the scientist, gesturing indignantly towards Rufus. "That you would develop such a pathetic...'soft spot' for this wretch! UGH!"

His open brashness outraged the listeners more than Davoren himself. Rufus scowled. His fists tightened to restrain his anger and rising anxiety. Though Vincent's visage remained stone-hard, inside boiled deep hatred.

Nevertheless, they remained silent. Davoren let the brazen scientist snub him to the dirt; the experience certainly was not new. He accepted it all with vaccant eyes cast downwards.

Hojo could have killed him there and then, However, the slimy-skinned monstrosity, after another violent oath, suddenly wheeled half-way around to face the other two men.

Events brought them to a second encounter. He returned Vincent's glare with twice the spite: this stubborn man was rapidly becoming a thorn in his side. Only two ways to remove him: Death or relinquish Aeris. (And since Hojo would never even consider the second option, that left Death for Vincent). Not only had he won the battle, he also reduced Davoren to this incompetent state.

His attention then flashed onto Rufus, who though a bit shaken by that viciousness, still maintained a firm stand. It flustered Hojo to know his henchman dared betray him for this "lunatic", when in fact he had only been assigned to keep him alive. However, the Professor's fury slowly abated to contemptuous thoughtfullness. Indeed, those reptilian eyes seemed to hone in on a secret deep within Rufus; somewhere beyond the boy's reach.

"Yes..this wretched boy," he mused aloud, "He suffers from severe emotional trauma and amnesia, with occasional mental instabilities. In any case, it is quite unlikely he will ever recover."

He added, rather mockingly "Such a shame. He would have told you some interesting facts. This boy is actually an accomplice to my experiment."

At first, Vincent thought he had misheard the word: an "accomplice"? As in a partner in crime? He glanced quizzically towards Rufus. The confused boy only gaped back at the Professor; he didn't understand either.

"Feh! Don't go dragging him in too, Professor," spat Davoren restrainedly. He cared nothing about his own fate, but wouldn't allow anyone to involve the boy. "Rufus wasn't even born when you started this mess."

"No, of course not."

Hojo haughtily adjusted his specs, tilting his chin up for added effect. Upon his lips hovered a mysterious smile. "But you will soon discover, Sir, both father and son have much to do with this experiment."

His riddles stirred more dread. Vincent's sharp gaze narrowed upon this devil in search for answers: what did he mean? How could two ShinRa generations have any share in this madness? On the other side, Davoren waited in anticiaption. Obviously, the same questions pestered his mind.

But most anxious of all was Rufus. For some reason, that strange word troubled him to the core.

It amused the cruel Professor to torture his listeners with suspense. He strolled over to the iron balustrade at perfect ease. There, he gripped the railing with one hand, and whimsically gazed into the black abyss below as if into the distant past.

"JENOVA Project consists of two parts, the first being Sephiroth's birth," he spoke deliberately into the pit, "That part, as you recall, was conducted in Nibelheim. Old President ShinRa fully supported it. Oh yes, he provided us with all the necessary equipment, safety, and funding."

Nothing new, but the tension grew so heated, it burned their nerves.

"And..he also supported the second part...*my* experiment... 'Genesis Retrial'. It was a secret only he and I knew: I would take the Project to a higher level, and he provided me with everything I needed," Hojo's smile widened as he peered askance to Vincent, "...even human test subjects."

It spelled one word: conspiracy.

The sudden revelation struck both Vincent and Davoren harder than lightening. They gaped amidst a whirl of pure shock, having heard the Professor, but failed to fully comprehend. They'd been locked in darkness for an eternity, and now a burst of light had exploded full into their eyes. They've only just begun to see.

"Then..President ShinRa..*knew* you'd alter our bodies?" Davoren blurted in astonishment, "He sent to us Nibelheim...on purpose??"

"It was a set-up," breathed Vincent sternly. His pulse raced to absorb this blow.

"Quite so. President ShinRa..heheh..'donated' you both to science," chuckled the Professor at their conternation. "He then had all your records destroyed, all traces erased, and you became the experiment's property."

The truth stood out bare and ugly, yet nobody could grasp it. Vincent's mind rushed back thirty-one years. There, President ShinRa greeted him with a cheerful guffaw, between his fingers a cigar. The uncouth, corpulent man would waddle around excitedly, always busy, always scheming.

Scheming ways to strengthen his empire. If sucessful, "Genesis Retrail" would spawn a creation far superior than any Sephiroth...just the power President ShinRa would love to control. He had always lusted for money and power, as much as Hojo lusted for science. So, they'd combine their interests: he provided Hojo with the means, and Hojo provided him with results.

Hojo had needed human test subjects, and President ShinRa sent him two subjects. Both Vincent and Davoren had long fallen victims to a conspiracy. Only now did they realize it. Thirty-one years ago (such a long time!), they walked into Nibelheim: two men unwarily delivered to become "correcting fragments". All Hojo had to do was receive them.

Vincent still remembered that day ShinRa bid him farewell before his departure. No, he didn't see what ulterior motives lurked behind those piggish eyes. Human life was cheap to ShinRa, and now they truely realized how cheap.

It took Vincent another moment before the truth finally sunk in. On looking across to Davoren, he found the man at a complete loss.

"Time passed," the Professor resumed. He strolled along, running his fingers over the railing in smug confidence. "I became busy testing and analysing Sephiroth, as well as accumulating data on the Cetra. I was preparing for 'Genesis Retrial'. But shortly before I finalised my results, the President was murdered. Then as you know, Rufus ShinRa assumed presidency."

When he stopped, it was a short distance away from Vincent. However, Hojo's shrewd eyes dwelt upon the boy behind. "We held a secret meeting. I fully revealed the details of my experiment to Rufus: theory, results, data, and the ultimate outcome. As I expected, he became much interested."

First came the father. It was the son's turn next.

"He provided me with everything I needed to take this experiment to its final stages. In fact, Rufus ShinRa granted me full use of this secret laboratory and all other services the company could offer."

Rufus' face paled. He stared speechless at the Professor, his "accomplice", as he heard this dark piece of *his* past unfold.

"Without him, I could never have come this far," the amused scientist admitted. He looked around between the two men for a reaction. "Hehee...I even showed him the files on you gentlemen. It listed all your abnormalities, my personal observations, relevant data and analysis. He saw and knew everything about the experiment!"

At first, Vincent could not guess how Rufus had known the experiment's name or why he'd feel he had seen his face before; they had never met. Now it made sense. While that scanner-machine searched for some 'information', it had spilled vague memories upon his mind: his past, the explosion, and the experiment. Endless texts, photographs of the specimens, complex diagrams...all memories of 'Genesis Retrial'.

Hojo scoffed outloud, with an arrogant gesture obviously meant to deride Davoren, "Any pity on Rufus would be wasted; he showed none for you. He could very well had terminated my experiment..possibly had me charged for a string of nonsense. But no. Instead, he supported me. It didn't bother him what I had done to three men in the past or how I used them, just as long as I achieved success."

Rufus would have spoken out had he the strength. He struggled to comprehend this atrocity which now lay at his feet. He tried so hard to remember. Nothing. That memory was forever lost.

But, his sad face admitted this somwhow to be true. If he could not recall, he certainly felt the smudge on his consciousness. Just like Davoren had said: it didn't matter whether he remembered or forgot. He was like them, guilty of so many crimes, even this one. No doubt those truthful words stung him now, more bitter because Davoren himself was standing there. Perturbation, anger, and shame all overwhelmed this boy. For once, couldn't he see himself for what he truely was?

Perhaps Davoren too felt the sting of his own words upon Rufus. He watched the boy in a solemnity tinted by gentle concern. Vincent studied Rufus a moment, then returned to Hojo. He felt a keen revulsion sicken his stomach.

Father and son think exactly alike, Vincent thought to himself, they're both greedy jackals.

The second President had merely sought to finish what the first President started, and reap the rewards for himself. Power and wealth held such allurement to the ShinRa's. Both generations were accomplices to this experiment.

However, something strange suddenly caught Vincent's attention. "..'three'?" he echoed in puzzlement. Hojo had said "three men"

Davoren too noticed the mistake. "There were only two. I was the first, Vincent the second."

"No," argued Hojo. He smirked over his shoulder at the baffled gunman, "you weren't the first. Another man was before you."

His riddle mystified the listeners in an air of premontion. They waited as though for a time-bomb to explode. Hojo, still focused on Davoren, turned to face the confounded man. His aura reeked of something heinous. Everyone, especially Vincent, discerned its foul stench.

"I couldn't perform such delicate alterations fresh upon the human test subjects," spoke the monster to Davoren alone, "I needed a specimen to..'practice' on first, just to make sure I get the all the procudures right."

Indeed, a cold, sinister meaning played behind those words. Vincent tensed as he felt it crawl up his spine. For some reason, he didn't want Davoren to hear the rest, as if it would destroy him to dust. But by then, it was already too late. The perplexed gunman said, "I was never told of this."

"And for a good reason," replied Hojo, "That man was your brother."

-End of Chp.68