I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.72

She ran, but knew not where. Nor did she even care. Escape. Escape from the Professor. Right now, only that mattered.

Aeris had long lost herself to this cavern of corridors: no light to disperse these shadows haunting the frosty air. If she passed the same hall twice, she wouldn't have known. All paths simply whirled into one endless maze.

Don't stop. Run. Run. It didn't matter...just as long as *he* never catches you.

Heavier grew the darkness until it suffocated her senses mad. Her loud footsteps echoed through these hollow halls. She was alone. There was no one, yet everywhere she turned, those evil eyes seemed to chase her close behind. They relentlessly clawed at the hem of her dress just to savour her paranoia.

Where to go? Caught in a nightmare, where could this frightened soul possibly hide?

Nowhere. In her blind desperation, poor Aeris didn't even notice that loose stone; not until her foot tripped over it, whereby she crashed hard against the floor with a little shriek. There she lay sprawled flat, distraught by wild fear more than any pain.

Heaven only knows how long she had been running or how far her legs had carried her. She could have rushed past madness itself, yet no distance seemed safe enough... not with the Professor.

Just the mention of his name set her thoughts in fresh turbulence. But now, the exhausted girl found it near impossible to rise again. Inside, her mind begged: get up! Hurry! Run away! Alas, she could only manage to lift her head, using one bruised elbow to push herself up.

She gaped around, dazed, confused. Indeed, for the first time, Aeris took time to actually notice her surroundings; or at least, whatever could be distinguished.

Apparently, her flight had taken her deeper through the jungle to the intersection of several corridors. Each entrance yawned open to reveal an even darker void inside.

Poor Aeris realized she was crying again. Most likely, she had been crying the whole time. Too tired to resist these many tears, Aeris let them flow, and instead mustered up enough strength to climb onto her knees. There she sat slouched upon the dirty floor. The tranquility here chilled her to the core. Even her sobs, so wrangled by misery, never exceeded the ominous silence here.

She knew not where she was. She expected no one, waited for nothing. It seemed in her greatest hour of need, God had abandoned her.

Aeris had already bowed to the inevitable when by pure chance, she just so happened to glance aside. Suddenly in that moment, her breath, her tears, her entire soul froze dead still.

Behind her, Aeris knew there stood a big doorway; she had in fact stumbled through it just minutes ago. Thanks to some dusty lantern, one could even trace its frame upon the floor; so much like a long strip of light carved through darkness. Aeris herself sat here within the parameters of this shelter.

Moments ago, there had been nothing except her shadow. But now as she sat, Aeris gaped blankly upon another shadow which somehow, had crept all the way from behind right up to her side.

The shadow stretched far just to fill the doorway end to end. No doubt, it belonged to the man standing behind her.

When God abandoned her, the devil had certainly wasted no time in claiming her. Nobody here: just her and Professor Hojo.

If the sheer thought of him frightened her, then his presence stirred up enough terror to overwhelm all senses.

I don't want to go back there!

She had no choice.

I..I want to run away..so far away from here.

Pain all over her body. Her own screams echoing through the emptiness. Cold. Afraid. More pain. More torture. All these feelings rushed past her mind.

Run. Escape....hope you'll somehow wake up, and find yourself safe in bed...pray it's just another bad dream.

Then again, it hardly mattered anymore. The Professor had found her.

Torn thus between two impulses, the wretched girl hesitated to flinch even one finger. Instead, Aeris spent almost an eternity just staring at the shadow there by her side.

Yet the figure remained stiffly poised behind her, ever silent. He too was waiting. He was waiting for her.

Aeris never knew how she gathered the strength to rise, for her pulse had reached such frantic levels. But somehow, she found herself on both feet again. Another moment, and she turned around fully. The girl stood in place, hands loose by her sides, body stone rigid.

She had stood like this before. In the darkest depths of her fears...just her and the Professor, between them the mirror of truth.

Now the horror exceeded any nightmare. Her perturbed green eyes fell directly upon the silhouette of a most grotesque creature, black in all its glory except for those bright specs. Hojo stood rooted at the doorway, just a short distance infront of her, and even closer to derangement; so much one could see his eyes spark raw insanity.

"It doesn't end here," he finally choked out, almost desperate to believe his own words.

Aeris blinked back in confusion. Rightly so, she guessed something must have went "wrong". Whatever had happened, Aeris knew she alone would bear the brunt of Hojo's frustration. His malice, unlike anything else she'd seen, made her blood curdle.

Hojo stumbled forth one step. The longer he beheld her there, paralysed in his shadow, the more emotion rattled his voice. "It doesn't... it *can't* end..I must finish my experiment...he thinks he's destroyed me...but no...he is mistaken..."

Though Aeris understood nothing, she'd still beg for mercy, no matter how difficult it was to speak. "..P..Professor...please don't..."

"I can still salvage this experiment...my experiment ...as long as I have you... yes...yes...it can still be saved..."

Mad. Utterly insane, beyond logic or pity. The madman staggered another step closer. Aeris sprang two back, more frightened, when the idea snapped out at once: she'd rather make a dash for it than return to him!

Yet before she could even act, Aeris heard Hojo's stern voice bark out, "You know escape is futile, girl. I'll only find you again."

His words warned her of dire consequences; strong enough to rivet Aeris in place again, if only to reflect long and hard upon herself: yes. It was futile. If she ran, he'd catch her for sure. And besides, where could she possibly go?

Aeris glanced towards the nearest corridor, then quickly to the Professor: trapped! Hojo stood there blistering under irritaion, just waiting for her next move, silenlty warning her not to try anything stupid. No doubt, he could read her every thought.

Run. No, I can't. I'm afraid. I...I'm so afraid...

Surrender then. There's no escape. You're all alone. It's useless. You'll never escape, not in your dreams or in reality.

Aeris knew. Still, she would take her chances.

So before sense could prevail, Aeris instantly turned her heels to the wind. She ran, and ran. Through this nightmare, all sanity disintegrated to the heat of escape. No time to think. No time to listen. Just run.

Faster and faster, Aeris raced her own heartbeats down the hall. Around that corner, through another corridor, panting all the way but fiding only more darkness.

Where to go? How much longer? It didn't matter! Just run!

Something ominous swooped in from behind. It reached out for her. Still she ran faster. Still she persisted.

Then it was over: Hojo caught her.

Aeris shrieked as she felt his claw clamp upon her arm, so tight it could have crushed her bone. Stirred up to a frenzy, the girl struggled for her freedom, while Hojo, already fuming mad, teetered forth to overpower her. In the skirmish, however, neither noticed that grim flight of steps; not until poor Aeris lost her balance backwards, thereby sending herself and the Professor tumbling together down the stairs in a whirl of chaos.

Aeris heard herself scream all the way. So many violent forces ripped at her body non-stop. Everything just rolled round and round...and round...

All the pain suddenly caught up with her the moment she slammed onto the floor. It left her sprawled numb upon the ground, at the base of the staircase.

She could see nothing. The madness still buzzed about her like wild flies, but not enough to deter her desperate attempts. Indeed, Aeris immediately scrambled onto all fours to make another break for it.

No such luck. She hadn't reached beyond three inches when that same grip fell upon her again. And against all cries, it reeled her back in towards a beast, whose eyes glared yellow fury upon her.

"NO! GET OFF ME!! NO!!" she wailed outloud. Aeris tried to shove him away. She thrashed her legs about. Regardless, Professor Hojo ruthlessly brought her under control: he pressed her flat to the ground, then by scuffling on top of her, finally managed to pin her upon her back.

Her terror tripled. Louder grew her cries. When she still struggled to push him away, Hojo effectively pinned both her hands to the floor like a crucifix, thereby bringing his wasted face closer than Aeris even wanted.

"I MUST FINISH MY EXPERIMENT!!" roared the madman.


"It doesn't...it CAN'T finish here!! Not like this!! Do you understand?!! It can't!! It can't!!"

It was useless. Poor Aeris could no longer hear anything save the gasps and sobs heaving out of her bosom. If her heart pounded any faster, no doubt it would explode. Half of her wished it would. Death was better than this!

But even that option had been denied her, as the Professor gripped her more tightly in a fluster of delirium. "That boy had the key...but it's YOU!! You are the centre!! As long as I have you, then my experiment can be saved! It can still be-"

Suddenly, Hojo stopped short. It seemed his senses had detected a very, very familiar presence nearby; a presence most unwelcome judging from the way his face crumpled into a frown. Indeed, Aeris, by now reduced to tears, didn't understand this awkward pause, or the Professor's odd behavior. In her confusion, the trembling girl twisted her head aside to see.

It took Aeris some moments to actually focus her bleary sight. At the entrance of the main hall, where darkness hung thickest, she spotted a brilliant pair of crimson-red eyes. There, one could barely make out the frame of a very tall figure, human but not without a strong aura of a demon.

It took the distraught girl another moment to realize who it was.

"How now, Mr. Valentine?" Hojo spitefully greeted the intruder. "Defied Death yet again?"

Vincent made no reply. Instead, he took one step forward, if not to distinguish himself from the shadows, then at least to prove he was no ghost.

"Hmph!" the vicious creature snorted unimpressed, "If you've survived, then I'd assume that idiot Davoren is alive too."

"You've tortured that man long enough. Now leave him be," Vincent retorted with ice-cool composure. He'd let no one, especially Hojo, go near his friend.

From his stoic demeanour to Hojo's yellow, reptilian eyes, between these two burned such hostility, no one could have withstood its heat.

And Aeris lay petrified at the heart of this fire. Inside, the surge of emotions made breathing all the more difficult. Disbelief, confusion, soon to be swept aside by intense anxiety.

She couldn't comprehend from where he had appeared. For all his incredible stealth, he could have materialized from darkness itself. Close but not quite. Vincent in fact had spent a long time searching through the West Wing, when by luck he discerned a loud skirmish not too far away.

Next flash, and he was on the scene, just in time to interrupt Hojo's mad rave. It took him much restraint and prudence not to attack all at once, especially since the sight of Hojo perched upon a sobbing Aeris boiled his blood. He hadn't even drawn out his gun...yet.

Once again, their paths had clashed. This time, fate had chosen the most dreary place: a broad platform on which several mammoth-sized girders based their support, some already slanted under the curse of decay. All around this bleak cavern, devils hung from the pipelines above, so curious to follow the spectacle below. They could smell a storm brewing up. All it needed was a tiny spark.

Indeed, the ruby-eyed demon, certainly no stranger to their evil circles, had now challenged their leader.

But to Aeris, her turmoil rested solely on Vincent. He stood there, ravaged bloody, but still dignified.

He had come after all, just as promised. However, far from any joy, Aeris instead welled upon another tearful breakdown.

No. This wasn't what she wanted...not to witness him get murdered again...not for her, some filthy clone!

He shouldn't have come! He shouldn't have come!

Most probably, Vincent could feel the sting of her thoughts within himself. Whether he did or not, he certainly knew how to keep his resolve unaffected. His steely glare rested squarely upon Professor Hojo, who had more than enough contempt to match.

"You think it's over, don't you?" he blurted suddenly.

The odd question baffled Vincent.

"That bastard thinks he's ruined me...he thinks by destroying himself with the Merger Grade-1, he's destroyed 'Genesis Retrial'!"

Vincent's perplextion only deepened further. "..what?"

"One year ago, Rufus ShinRa had headed a team of experts. They were to construct a special materia for me...a Merger Grade-1," the madman seethed back, "It's designed to select the best genes out of different cells...and merge them all into one. Only HE knew the whole blueprint designs for that materia! Somewhere in that foggy mind of his, Rufus had it all locked up!!"

By the end, Hojo had released both Aeris' hands to straighten himself up, even though he still would not shift an inch off her. His claws clenched tight upon his knees, perhaps pretending to crush Rufus' skull. Beneath him, Aeris lay trembling in silence.

On the other side, Vincent had to filter out Hojo's madness just to understand his words; and even then there were missing pieces he just had to assume. This "Merger" materia could fuse different genes into the best combination. It was the key to creating a superior being with the perfect genetic make-up.

But now all was gone. Rufus had not only somehow destroyed the materia, but also himself. That way, Hojo could never have that vital 'key'.

And so, "JENOVA Project: Genesis Retrial" could never go to completion.

In a way, Vincent had to admire the boy. Single-handedly, he had wrecked three decades worth of work beyond hope; and no doubt did it smiling to the end. So much like his father. They both knew how to get whatever they wanted, no matter the odds.

Vincent returned to the present. Infront, he beheld a man wasted to a half-crazed neurotic, still clinging to the ashes of a burnt dream; or rather, still clinging to Aeris.

Hojo, no less aware of his own desperation, tragically hung his head as both shoulders sagged under an invisible weight. For a moment, he forgot both Vincent and Aeris to the inner aches of his frustrations.

To be sure, by destroying that materia, Rufus had hit him where it hurt most.

"..it was vital for my experiment..ah...my experiment..," the heart-broken scientist lamented, "..that bastard...he thinks he's destroyed it...by destroying the Merger, he thinks it's..."

Bitterness choked him until it rattled his scraggly frame, so violent Hojo had to repress it by sqeezing his eyes tight. From afar, it almost seemed as though he were crying.

Vincent reflected long before he calmly stated, "...then it is over, Professor."

"IT IS NOT!!!" Hojo exploded too readily. He smashed his fist right next to Aeris' head, causing the distraught girl to cower away with a shriek, just as the ground itself cracked under his knuckles.

"It can still be saved!!" he blared all his rage at Vincent. "I can make another materia! What's to stop me?! I have this lab! I have this entire Reactor!! I'll just start again!!"

But Vincent too had lost his patience.

"Professor Hojo, listen to yourself!" he argued, "You've become so obsessed with 'Genesis Retrial', you can't even see logic anymore!"

He reasoned outloud, "There is nothing more to be done. You can NOT construct another materia from scratch. All Reactors have ceased operation. There is no ShinRa Inc. to hide behind, or any Davoren to do your dirty work. It's over."

Gone. Destroyed. All that remained now was to accept the plain truth, something Professor Hojo seemed most spiteful to do. His expression never wavered off a scowl as he listened.

Vincent needed another moment to soothe his irritation. Venturing another step forward, he renewed his appeal, "Now Professor Hojo. I beg you, release Aeris. Let me take her with me, and you have my word, I will leave as quietly as I came."

No reaction. Hojo's jaw remained compressed in thought.

"Please, Professor. She is of no more use to you."

His offer met with stiff silence. As he sat there, Hojo took his time before he'd grant any answer. His narrow, intelligent eyes measured up Vincent, just as they had the first day they met. No one could guess what ran through that shrewd mind of his.

Vincent waited. He was careful not to get his hopes too high. But then, he much preferred a peaceful solution over a battle.

Aeris understood very little of what was happening. She remained cringed in place, prisoner between this gargoyle's two legs. Her mind, just like her eyes, were sealed tight. It seemed the only way to stop this torture from robbing her last morsel of sanity.

Longer and longer extended the wait.

Finally came the verdict: Hojo's expression twisted into mockery, his grin sinister enough to chill any heart.

"Heh..heheh," he callously chuckled at the confused Vincent, "You still don't understand 'Genesis Retrial', do you? Rufus may have held the key, but this girl..."

His attention fell upon Aeris, who cowered further as she felt his hot hand fondle her neck, "..this Cetra-female... this beautiful clone...she's the one who will open the door."

Indeed, Vincent did not understand, which only spurred his suspicions more: yet *another* insidious riddle to be solved.

"'Genesis Retrial' is an experiment aimed to transcend man beyond all boundaries that make him 'human'," the scientist patronized with a simplistic explanation. "To create a being in the image of man, but with potential of a God... a *better* Sephiroth."

He elaborated "All the fragments merge into one body: your raw powers of Chaos, Davoren's invincibility, the age factor, JENOVA cells, Cetra blood....Merger Grade-1 materia assembles them all into one."

"I see," Vincent concluded dryly, "Rufus wasn't to be your test subject after all. You intended to merge all those 'fragments' into your *own* body."


The derisive retort rather caught Vincent off guard again: not in Hojo? Then where would the "fragments" be fused?

The Professor easily caught that question in Vincent's sharp glare, but delayed his reply as his expression darkened again. This time, to a pensive, almost wistful, moroseness.

"It's the child," he muttered to himself.


"The child..another child..just like my son, only better"

The revelation collided head-on into Vincent's senses, plain and ugly. He stood there in a whirl of shock...still grappling, still tingling, for comprehension.

Suddenly, it all became crystal clear.

"Then..," he whispered hoarsely,"...Aeris is to be this new God's..... mother."

Of course. This was a retrial. She was Lucrecia's replacement.

Only by chance did Aeris snatch that strange word "mother". At that one moment, her entire body went cold. With scarcely understanding anything, the girl turned her dazed stare up, where they met Hojo's stern visage, ever fixed upon her alone.

Mother? But how...what mother??

"Her womb," Hojo spoke, "her Cetra womb is the core of this experiment. Once her ovum has been fertilized, JENOVA cells will follow their usual course. The other cells are then injected into the zygote...and the materia will fuse them together," his voice trailed off to a very subdued growl, "..and when the child is born...my experiment will be a success."

One bombshell after another. Everytime Vincent thought he had attained the truth, a bigger one burst right in his face.

Finally the explosions had cleared away all mystery to reveal the picture; a picture crafted either by a genius, or a twisted madman. Vincent could not decide which.

And now, there was nothing left to say.

Still, poor Aeris could not make sense of Hojo's gibberish. For what felt an eternity, she remained frozen in vaccant stupefaction.


The word entangled her emotions into a flurry...rising, rising within her wide, intense green eyes.

Child? The Professor's...

 "..ah..," she numbly faltered out, "..then..I..I am to bear y-your.. your..."

Hojo needn't complete her sentence. His silence was answer enough. All at once, she grasped the truth.

Aeris' face paled to horror, the kind only conjured up in the worst nightmares. It shot up her spine to seize her very soul. So this was her true fate: to bear the Professor's...

"UGH! NO! NO!!" she struggled in a frenzy, "YOU CAN'T!! YOU HAVE NO RIGHT!!!"

"'No right'?" echoed Hojo. Irritated threefold, the monster overpowered her again. With one claw, he crossed over both her wrists, then pinned them together just above her head. "I *created* you! I have EVERY right!"


Enough was enough. Aeris let out a painful shriek as Hojo tightened his grip harder upon her wrists; so ruthless, it cut off her voice into sobs.

"You may scream all you like," he mercilessly hissed, "But the fact remains: you are still a clone of another person. An aggregate of cellular garbage!"

And when, in desperation, she turned her tearful face aside, Hojo hammered it clear into her ear, "The only purpose of your existance is to serve this experiment!!"

She lay there, paralysed under his might. Her world had already been shattered. Now it seemed he'd also crush the broken pieces to fine dust. Let her cry. Let her shut her eyes away from this reality. She knew he'd always win.

She was a clone; some rag-doll whose womb determined her value...no, her very existance.

Let it be then. Aeris had given up.

From his place, Vincent had to enforce a cool head, even though every muscle seethed under rage, especially as he beheld Aeris' degredation.

"Genesis Retrial". Its very name evoked a swirl of emotions: disgust. Anger. Sadness.

Its tyranny spanned two generations...where to begin? When Hojo first concocted this madness, or when old President ShinRa "donated" them, no better than guinea pigs? Lucrecia's sad death? Donal's brutal murder, or the sight of a devestated Davoren in tears? Maybe Rufus' involvement?

But this exceeded anything Vincent could stomach. More than immorality, it bordered close upon utter perversion.

"And in the end, is THAT all your 'experiment', Professor?" he grinded out his outrage, "To defile a young woman's body with some demon?!"

"Don't be so sanctimonious! You're the last one to lecture me on ethics, Turk!" Hojo indignantly spat right back.

Such brashness scathed Vincent into silence.

"The greatest scientific achievements were made by those who dared defy ethics for knowledge!" snarled the beast from the very depths of his chest, fury hotter than fire, "I have toiled more than thirty-one years for this! Thirty-one years of blood and sweat...playing second-fiddle to that fool Gast, when in fact I was far more superior! Every resource, I used! Every obstacle, I crushed! I'll never stop..no... NOT UNTIL THIS EXPERIMENT IS COMPLETE!!!!"

By the time he had finished, Hojo was gasping through a froth of purple saliva, some of which had spattered down upon Aeris' cheek. His wrinkled face showed determination at its most fierce.

What little sanity Hojo had posessed was forever lost. Perhaps he really could somehow save his work. And why not? No level was low enough to deter him.

In return, Vincent merely gazed back upon this man, unmoved by his dogmatic rave or that harsh glare.

"You can do whatever you want, Professor Hojo," he yielded at last, "I didn't come to fight or even stop you. That was something I should have done long ago, back when it mattered," he paused, then added dispassionately, "But I'm too old now. I'm too tired to care anymore."

His front hardened to ice. "I only came here for Aeris."

Hojo scoffed. "You came for a nameless lab specimen!"

"I came here for *Aeris*," Vincent insisted, almost in anger. He reiterated, emphasizing himself with one finger. "I'll ask you one last time: return that girl to me *now*, and I will leave."

Their glares lingered in silent deadlock. Hojo was not impressed, nor Vincent the least intimidated.

Aeris, who hitherto had remained stiffled under tension, brought her wretched sight upon Vincent again. She had seen him stern before, but never to such intensity as now.

"Huh!" the sour Professor finally dismissed. Ever defiant, he crouched closer upon the trembling Aeris, and staked his claim. "I created this specimen. I *own* her, body and soul. And she belongs in this laboratory...here to fulfill her purpose," Hojo hissed the ultimate slur straight at Vincent, "The only way I relinquish this girl...is by Death!"

It was useless. All negotiations had crumbled. Somehow, Vincent was not surprised.

Death. Aeris' eyes widened with fear at the word.

Either him or Hojo.

He coolly slipped off his tattered long-coat, then discarded it aside. Without a second thought, Vincent twirled out his gun.

No other way: Death.

"So be it," he accepted. At once, the man assumed a hard-line defense, weapon ready for whatever may follow.

Had he seen Aeris now, he'd have beheld a soul terrified beyond any description, staring at him as though he'd stabbed her heart. Indeed, that probably explained why he avoided her eyes.

"Ahah? You actually intend to fight me? In YOUR sorry state?! Hahah!!" laughed Hojo, greatly amused.

His mockery bounced off a marble-hard visage. Vincent stoically stood his ground in wait.

He certainly needed no reminder about his ruined condition. On one side, the illness had boiled up an inferno within. He knew it would get worst...a lot worse. On the other hand, that last battle had drained him, no small thanks to Davoren. Countless injuries, torn clothes, holding up his strength when in fact he should have collapsed long ago.

Yes. What he intended was probably more stupid than courageous. But it didn't matter one bit to him.

Damned if he'd abandon her now. Damned twice if he'd let Hojo poison her body for some derranged experiment.

The question then came out of no where: who is "her", Vincent? Aeris, or...

No time for that, he instantly supressed it: he couldn't afford any cracks in his concentration. Not now.

In the end, Hojo was quite pleased with Vincent's decision: nothing would gratify him more than to personally shred this annoying pest, piece by bloody piece.

The scientist majestically stood up. At the same time, he dragged up Aeris halfway, then literally flung her aside out of danger. The poor girl rolled across the floor until she sprawled to a halt upon her stomach.

Aeris dizzly struggled to recover herself, or at least, lift her head far enough to follow the scene. From here, she watched the sneering Professor Hojo advance two steps towards Vincent, then stand at perfect ease. Even his hands were dug into his pant-pockets just to snub Vincent further. Vincent, however, showed no reaction.

Hot tears flooded her eyes anew. She wanted to scream...warn him...beg he leave before this nightmare swallowed him too.

Wasn't once enough?! She had lain like this before, completely helpless as Death swept him away. The memory flashed across her mind a hundred times; each time more horrific than the last.

She wished to God she'd never met him! She had been so stupid to escape...to snuggle into another girl's life, when in fact she was just a hollow image. No. His life wasn't worth all this! It wasn't even for her!! She didn't want to see him die!! He should have escaped! He should have escaped!!

Inside she wanted to scream, yet all she managed was an anguished "..n..no..," barely audible upon her lips.

But events had long spiralled out of control. Just one demon against another, he with the sharper instincts stays alive. In this pin-drop silence, the invisible crowd of ghosts and shadows, the entire Reactor in fact, waited. They waited for Hell to explode.

Next heartbeat, and it did.

-End of Chp.72