|The Architecture of Networks
Author: Guede Mazaka
Today was one of the better days. Better, of course, meaning that when Rufus woke up, he was able to climb out of bed without forgetting that he customarily set it to hover four feet above the ground, or having his entire body seize up in an excruciating, paralyzing desire to dial his biochemistry to ecstasy and die a miserable, flopping death while plugged into a top-line VR machine.
“Up and at ‘em already? I kind of miss how you slept in all the time.” The red bristle Rufus had mistaken for a decorating mistake turned into Reno’s head. Then it became Reno getting off the floating shelf and agilely leaping down in time to hand Rufus his clothes. He yawned as he held out Rufus’ shirt. “By the way, they got rid of the server worm, but Tseng’s pretty pissed at how Zack did it. He went off to yell at him for letting strangers into a mainframe.”
Rufus stopped with his shirt half-buttoned to call up a datascreen and check: yes, the exorcists Constantine had recommended had been paid off and sent on their way. His father would have ordered them assimilated or killed afterward, but then, his father had gotten smeared all over the best dining room in Shinra Tower.
“Also, Smecker wants to see you at your earliest convenience.” Reno stretched out his natural drawl, yawning again. Despite that, his eyes as they roved over Rufus were quite alert. “Coat.”
“I know what it is, Reno.” The weight of the fabric pulled at Rufus’ shoulders and set up lines of strain that ran through every half-healed sore on his body, but he forced himself to bear it. He’d spent far too much time in casual or no dress, and so the first step to refurbishing his in-House reputation had to be appearance.
The suit was retro along the lines of Smecker’s tastes, ancient-lover that he was, but Rufus preferred that in this case because of the impassive, aloof impression the whiteness presented. He straightened one lapel and his vision blurred.
When it had cleared, he found himself half-bent at the waist, breathing harshly through his mouth. His right hand was gripping something as if to break it, and fingers were threaded through his hair. “Sssh, hold your head down a sec and it’ll clear,” Reno was murmuring.
“Perhaps if I had a hang-over,” Rufus snapped, tearing himself free. He stumbled, brushed up against one of the floating ledges, then righted himself. His face was hot and his fingers were itching for a weapon, any weapon. Anything to give him back some defenses. He couldn’t run a House this way—he couldn’t survive this way.
“You were a lot more grateful before,” Reno muttered.
Rufus made himself turn calmly around, at normal speed. “What was that?”
He and Reno met each other’s eyes for only a few seconds before Reno ducked his head, being elaborately casual about scratching the back of his neck. He swung his cane out from under his arm. “Eh, nothing. Was going to ask if you wanted this for the day, but I guess the shotgun would go better with your outfit.”
“Probably.” The implied apology didn’t soothe Rufus’ pride completely, but he couldn’t afford to antagonize his own bodyguards. “Rounds first. Smecker can join us, since that’s convenient.”
Reno made a bad show of hiding his grin. He’d never bothered to disguise his dislike of anyone who made a point of showing up the gaps in his intellect, and that was Smecker’s specialty as well as favorite hobby. “Hope he likes walking, then.”
He went out first, one hand rising to touch just behind his right ear: syncing to the network. It was a precaution, and also a backhanded way of giving Rufus the moment of privacy he needed to grab what looked like a biochem handheld. It actually was a portable digital assistant with wireless, which was a clunky dinosaur in the age of implants, but which had been a necessity ever since Rufus had woken up from his first encounter with Valentine. The bastard had disabled everything allowing Rufus to tap into the networks, and the subsequent bouts of implant withdrawal had prevented Rufus from having new ones put in.
He didn’t doubt that that had been deliberate. But what Valentine’s motives had been, however, were still a mystery to Rufus…and one that he needed cleared up quickly, so he could move onto other problems.
“Hey, boss?” Reno called. “You want me to call Tseng back?”
“No.” Rufus caught up to Reno when they’d reached the elevator. He was already slightly short of breath again, but thought he hid it fairly well. “Let him see to whatever he’s seeing to.”
Reno’s eyebrow rose at that, and Rufus was reminded once again that whatever flashes he recollected of the other man, he didn’t actually know Reno very well. He merely had the fragmented recollections of a long lean flex against him, the drawl and the feeling that Reno wasn’t nearly as stupid as he usually seemed.
“Tseng’s a good guy,” Reno finally said in a neutral tone. “He stood up for you against your father a few times.”
“Did he?” It’d be news to Rufus. It was all news to Rufus, with just enough familiarity to shove contempt in his face.
The elevator doors opened. Shrugging, Reno strolled inside and made his two-second check for dangers look like he was merely showing off his ass. Which he probably was, too. “As much as anyone could. You’re gonna have to excuse us for liking our brains unexploded.”
“It’s understandable.” Rufus walked in as soon as Reno had turned around, signaling it was fine. Understandable, which was why he still settled to the side and slightly behind Reno. It was an unconventional position—a train of lackeys made a better presentation—but it was safer.
He’d like to trust his impressions, but that was impossible when every one since the age of sixteen was tainted with the distortions of drugs. Perhaps Reno was truly loyal, but until Rufus had definite proof, he couldn’t give the other man a chance to prove to the contrary.
* * *
Are you able to speak?
Of course I’m able. Are you able to comprehend stupidity?
Do you understand who you are and where you are?
*sigh* I see. My given name is Sephiroth. I am in my suite in Shinra Tower, restrained to my bed.
Do you understand what you are?
…that is an interesting question. Reword it. I don’t think my answer to the original could be encompassed by your dim, fleshy grey lobes.
* * *
Smecker ran into them after Rufus had finished touring the barracks, which was fortunate. The soldiers might have had the best biochip enhancements money and power could obtain, but at heart they were simple with simple desires. Whoever could continue paying them in the coins they appreciated—credits, sex, animal pleasures—had their undying allegiance. There’d be no serious worries from that quarter, and Rufus came away with the secret feeling that his ascension might not be as troublesome as he’d feared.
“Checking in on the street? Or as close as you get to it,” Smecker said by way of greeting. His pupils were slightly dilated, and the dark bags beneath his eyes told Rufus it was from stimulants, not psychotics. “And Reno…how’s the Turk business now? Still breaking heads?”
Reno snarled, but restrained himself. Thankfully, because they were passing by a set of low-level offices and every face behind the glass might be focused on their datascreens, but doubtless they were avidly watching via side-monitor.
“I take your sarcasm to mean you’ve got something.” It rode on Rufus to let the insolence go, but there’d be no point in trying to intimidate Smecker. No one ever had managed to, not even his father, and Rufus had gotten the idea more than once that that was because Smecker was perfectly capable of cutting loose and freelancing if he didn’t like the situation. Therefore, no point in losing a decent resource, and the attitude was tolerated. “Am I finally to be permitted to check on my general’s health?”
“You say that like you actually give a shit. I have to say, you’ve got the acting part down cold.” Smecker swung to Rufus’ other side, hands jammed in his pockets. He whistled tunelessly for a second. “You can talk to Sephiroth if you want, but it’d be pretty pointless. Vincent’s the one you need to convince.”
A blind man could’ve spotted that in how Sephiroth had turned on Valentine at the banquet—a man recovering from a near-fatal attack of implant shock could have. That knowledge didn’t make Rufus wish any less that it’d been otherwise. “So my general’s somehow gotten himself a keeper?”
“Watch your possessives.” The word ‘kid’ obviously was on the tip of Smecker’s tongue. He looked like he was savoring his ability to let Rufus see that without actually lowering himself to saying it. “Sephiroth never really was Shinra’s, so it’s a damn good thing somebody’s gotten a handle on him. Anyway, Valentine qualifies as his own catch. And he’s willing to negotiate.”
“I’d like to evaluate Sephiroth for myself,” Rufus carefully said. His temper was fraying, and with it, his muscle control. His left calf was beginning to spasm and the more he willed it to stop, the worse its tremble became.
A blonde with a generous bosom and tiny silver implants curling prettily about both her temples came towards them. She kept her eyes demurely lowered and passed to the right, but somehow managed to entangle herself in Reno. A breathy little squeak slipped out of her as she leaped back, almost but not quite daring to brush up against Rufus. Reno quickly whisked her away, though not without getting a good handful of her ass.
Rufus opened his mouth to reprimand the man, but then Reno stumbled. He knocked up against Rufus, cursing and flailing, and it took them till the elevator to sort out all the limbs. Its railing was a godsend; Rufus stiff-armed Reno off a good two feet away and leaned against it. The ride to the top floor hopefully would be long enough for him to regain his composure, and for his leg to regain some stability.
“Speaking of, you need to see a doctor about that,” Smecker muttered, nodding towards Rufus’ leg. He slid his eyes to Reno. “Nice catch.”
Thankfully, Reno chose to look at Smecker. It hadn’t occurred to Rufus till now that Reno’s amazing bout of clumsiness had covered up the collapse of Rufus’ leg.
“Bet that hurt, Paulie,” Reno drawled. “What the hell do we pay you for? Can’t you deal with it?”
Rufus gritted his teeth. He refrained from thinking about whether that was to steel his patience or to clamp down on his strange impulse to thank Reno. “We pay him to be a psychologist, not a surgeon. Just as I pay you to be a Turk and not my administrative stand-in.”
A flash of hurt went through the only one of Reno’s eyes that Rufus could see. Then the other man turned around completely, amusement sliding over his face. “Sorry, sir. You’re right, and good thing, too.”
Smecker flicked a look at Reno that could have shorted out an entire sector grid. Then he gathered himself up, deliberately diminishing Reno to the stature of mere pest, and faced Rufus. “It’s not imbalances in your brain biochemistry at this point from the detoxing. Those should’ve all equilibrated by now, so…”
It was entirely possible that Rufus was looking at some degree of physical disability, with some degree of permanence. Absolutely wonderful, as he didn’t—he was wasting his energy. “Hojo was my personal doctor. How far did my father get in finding a replacement?”
“About as far as my desk. I’ve got a bunch of psych profiles waiting to be reviewed—put them all on hold, since I figured you’d care more about the people trying to kill you now than the people that might fuck up your drug dosage later.” The pupils of Smecker’s eyes were still dilated, but the effects of the stimulants had worn off enough for Rufus to see something of how fatigued the man was. He didn’t seem to be impeded much by it, even though he was far less implanted than the norm.
So living with a minimal amount of them could be done, Rufus noted. He pretended his fingers weren’t now trembling.
“Any good ones?” Reno asked. It was insolent of him and he knew it, as borne out by how he looked over for Rufus’ reaction.
Rufus let the gaffe pass.
Smecker’s eyebrow lifted a fraction. He probably was having a field day with this, drawing all sorts of sordid conclusions. Wrinkled, disrespectful bastard of a dinosaur—but successful at it, Rufus reminded himself. He kept his chin up and made his own observations.
“Good for your father, yeah. I’ll delete them.” The elevator chimed, signaling a stop, and Smecker pushed off the railing to stand in front of the doors. “I’ll send you my own recommendation. Oh, and if you really want insight into Sephiroth’s head, I’ll send you a vid, too.”
He was in the process of walking out when Rufus called to him: “Can I ask a favor of Kadaj?”
The other man didn’t stiffen, but there was a slight, brief unevenness in how he turned around. In Smecker’s tired, aged eyes was a very young wariness. “What?”
* * *
Do you know who your mother was?
I understand…it was a woman by the name of Lucrecia, who worked in Shinra’s research and development lab. If by mother you mean the person that donated the egg.
What about your father?
A man named Hojo.
You were gritting your teeth. Why?
Obviously, because I hated him and consider him my father in the most perfunctory way. Pity genetic analysis is so precise now, or else there might be some comforting doubt.
Why do you hate him?
Because he hated me. He did everything he could to make me the best physical and intellectual specimen of humanity possible.
I don’t understand.
Specimen. You know, the more intelligence you breed into a child, the younger they are when they realize they’re merely a trophy to you. He’s dead now, and I regret I wasn’t the one that killed him.
Why didn’t you kill him?
…you’re becoming interesting.
I didn’t because he was also reasonably skilled at psychological conditioning, and that prevented me from contemplating the idea in detail when I was young enough to not care much for basic necessities. When I was older, there was his employer’s—and mine—wrath to consider. And when I was skilled enough to not consider that a concern, there was pitiful trickery. He put self-destruct implants in me that were set to go off if I harmed him.
That sort of thing was Hojo’s one true genius. For everything else, he had to feed and steal off the minds of others, but he was very good at coming up with ways to cripple you. He did the same to the Shinra heir—the brat started out with a fairly promising intellect, but Hojo kept him pumped full of every mind-altering drug obtainable and then inserted shock implants into certain major nerve channels, just in case Rufus’ tolerance levels ever allowed him to rise to sanity again.
What do you think of Rufus Shinra?
A visual improvement on the father. Otherwise, more of the same. I killed his father, by the way.
I understand he was happy about that.
Who are you, exactly?
Answer me. Answer me, damn it. Answer! Hojo’s dead and I’ve ripped out those implants, so don’t begin to think that you can—
Please restrain yourself. We have several more sets of questions to cover.
* * *
The R&D department had always been one of Rufus’ least favorite areas. He all but knew it was due to the implantation sessions where Hojo had done his damnedest to wipe out Rufus’ mind, but lack of clear memory forestalled absolute certainty. Intellectually, he had no problem with the work done there, or the results, and he even admitted to a certain love of the specialized heavy artillery the labs turned out. But he detested the area.
He disliked most of the staff as well. They’d seen him at his lowest and unlike the rest of the House, the vast majority of them had spent more years under his father than Rufus had been alive. Convincing them to switch loyalties would be most difficult here.
Reno was attempting to maintain a blank expression, but his lip repeatedly began to curl. The Turks had a history of contempt for the scientists, regarding them as cold-fish hermits that had an inflated sense of what their work was worth. After all, they got to wear gloves. “Fucking bastard. Bullshit that Heidegger’s in the middle of bomb-testing—he always was prompt as hell for your father.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Rufus spotted a lowly-looking assistant perk up. He waited till the man was about to touch the implant in his ear, then slipped the handheld out of his pocket and casually sent a scathing message. He felt the left side of his mouth twist up at the way the man blanched and ducked into a pile of gleaming microchip panels. “Watch your mouth, Reno. Technically Heidegger’s scope of powers include the Turks.”
“Bad idea, if you ask me.”
Rufus put away the handheld before anyone could notice his crutch and went back to gazing over the room. It was large and composed of cold white and steel, and even the green datascreens with their scrolling lines of data seemed blanched of all lively color. His palms hurt and he belatedly forced his fingers to uncurl. This time, he was coming as sovereign, not as experiment. “Why?”
“Tseng’s kind of a history nut like Smecker, you know? You didn’t—” Reno wisely stopped himself from pursuing that tangent “—he’s obsessed with samurai. His Japanese ancestors. He used to talk all about inner and outer guards, and how they should be separate so the disgruntled army couldn’t kill their lord right away.”
“Tseng chooses interesting discussion topics,” Rufus dryly replied. He wished he remembered. He wished that the many lesser scientists and technicians in this room would stop gazing at him slantwise, cool and clinical, as if inside their heads they too considered themselves the kind that could think casually about overthrowing their leader.
Heidegger finally bellied out of a door in the far end of the room, his arrival signaled by roaring and snorting. The backs of his hands were carefully smeared with soot, but the hand he extended to Rufus had clean nails. “Sorry, Rufus. I was in the middle of—”
“Excuse me?” Rufus let his hands stay at his sides. He didn’t bother arching an eyebrow.
The effort would have been wasted, since Heidegger clearly doesn’t understand. The man drew himself up, oversized belly quivering; with all the ways to erase body flaws now, he still managed to be grossly, disgustingly fat. “I was in the middle of a delicate test. Just want to make sure our boys have the best weapons.”
“Before that,” Rufus said. He allowed a slight snap to creep into his voice. A shuffling noise came from behind him, and he tensed up before he realized it was Reno.
Heidegger took the tensing for something else. “I’m not sure I’m getting you, Rufus. Too used to your dad, I guess,” he replied, voice lower but much more discourteous.
“I am your Head.” Rufus whipped his hand from his pocket and jerked his arm to the side, then swung it quickly upward as the shotgun materialized in his hand. He felt an excruciating pain rip from his palm, where the shotgun implant was, all the way up to his shoulder, but ignored it in favor of pulling the trigger.
Heidegger’s fat face disappeared in a miasma of tiny red dots. Then they fell, and Rufus was clamping his teeth together so they wouldn’t rattle. Doing the same to his knees as he forced himself to slowly lower the shotgun. Resisting the shotgun’s recoil had all but dropped him to his knees.
He was distantly pleased to see that the gun’s latest modifications had worked: the shot had taken Heidegger and completely pulverized his skull, but hadn’t traveled an inch beyond.
“Having a nice observation? I hope it’s educational, sir,” Reno snickered. He moved around to prod at Heidegger’s headless corpse with his rod, occasionally glancing up at the pale, shocked faces all around the room.
“Learn some sanitary habits, Reno.” Rufus took a step back and let the shotgun melt away. He nodded at the nearest person. “Clean that up. I am reorganizing Shinra’s administrative structure—from now on, all research will be handled separately of street operations. Scarlet will take over Heidegger’s research oversight duties. Tseng will handle the Turks, and…Sephiroth will remain general. All three report directly to me, and should be considered of equal rank.”
It was building on water, but Rufus didn’t have a chance. At least he was already gritting his teeth.
He spun on his heel and walked rapidly out of the room. Reno caught up with him just as Rufus pushed open the door to a little-used storage room and collapsed in the doorway.
The other man caught him under the arm and dragged him the rest of the way in, then kicked the door shut. “Whoa, whoa, hang on…”
It started in the tips of Rufus’ fingers and center of his jawbone, but the shaking rapidly expanded to encompass his whole body. His teeth clattered together and his hands spasmed wildly as he tried to hold onto Reno’s arms.
Reno swore, sucked in his breath and unceremoniously tipped Rufus onto the floor. He straddled Rufus, ducked a swinging arm, and pinned Rufus to the ground till the shaking finally subsided. For a moment afterward, they stared at each other, faces mere inches apart.
“Scarlet?” Reno finally said.
“She’s competent, if ridiculously over-ambitious. She won’t waste resources as extravagantly as Heidegger did.” Thinking about who else of the old guard that could be eliminated helped to salve Rufus’ pride a bit. He knew he couldn’t get up yet without falling again. “Reno. Let go of my wrists.”
It was quite dark in the room, and of the few implants that Valentine had left in Rufus, the ocular ones that enhanced Rufus’ night-sight had not been among them. He could only make out the flash of Reno’s teeth. “Hell, I thought you were starting to like me. Least, not going to kill me, right? Since you’re getting all chatty about who stays and who doesn’t.”
“I may reverse that decision if you do not get off me this instant,” Rufus snapped. His mouth was dry, and it dried out a little more during Reno’s slight hesitation.
Reno sat back. His hands dropped again to feel over Rufus with surprising detachment. They started to glow as the analyzing implants in his palms scanned Rufus for injuries. “Want me to call back Smecker?”
“No.” Rufus stared at the soft light, watching as the details of Reno’s cuffs and forearms slowly came into focus.
More light abruptly came on, and Rufus looked up to see that Reno had lit up every implant capable of it. The man had a spiral of them around his temple, and more along his cheekbones and just beneath his thin brows. Lines of them glowed dully through his shirt and traced over the backs of his hands.
“Want me to let Tseng know he’s finally been promoted?” Reno asked, leaning down.
“Did you do this before because you were ordered to?” escaped Rufus’ mouth. He pressed his lips together against the fervent swearing that instantly tried to follow it.
Reno stopped. His long bangs straggled down and feathered over Rufus’ forehead. He slowly brought up his hand to run his fingers across Rufus’ forehead and down the side of his face, lingering on the slight puckering where Rufus’ temple implants had been. The touch needled warmly when it crossed the scar tissue, and tingled elsewhere. “You look different without all that. Never saw somebody with so little metal. Well, not counting Sephiroth, but you can’t touch that bastard.”
“You can’t touch me, either.” Rufus tilted his head. He wondered what his father had meant to do, letting him fuck all his bodyguards—emphasis on the ‘guard’ then—and swallowed thickly when Reno’s fingertips ran from Rufus’ chin back to the point of his jaw. A tiny explosive had used to rest there, nestled beneath the bone.
He remembered a choking grip on his throat, the air cold on his naked body, and confused fear giving way to understanding fear as thin metal points delicately sliced the explosive out of him. He remembered Valentine’s red coat had drifted between his sprawled legs and the drugs had made his skin so sensitive that the touch had nearly made him pass out with sensory overload.
“Nobody touches the Head. Yep, that’s my job.” The quiver in Reno’s voice might have been a chuckle. He dipped his head to obscure the noise in Rufus’ throat, then paused. Formed his mouth in a circle over the scar tucked beneath Rufus’ jaw and sucked so Rufus’ hands rose, gripped hard on Reno’s shoulders.
Damn them—Rufus wanted to remember. Before, not—not that, with Valentine, with himself helpless and weak and coming to his first full awareness of that in years. His breath caught in his throat and his legs went stiff so that he almost thought another spasm was coming on.
Reno thought differently and froze where he was. Then he snarled, and his hands were suddenly feverish and urgent, pressing and twisting away their clothes as if he could eat up Rufus with his bare fingertips. “Fucking bastard. What about Sephiroth?”
Valentine? he might as well have asked. Rufus jerked his head, angry himself, and shoved hard at Reno’s shoulders. The other man went down so quickly that Rufus lost his grip and snatched after, but got handfuls of Reno’s hair instead. He wrapped his fingers in it and curled them as the flat of Reno’s tongue stroked the heat pooling in his groin up to the rising head of his prick. Rufus let his head loll and his hips rise and fall; Reno didn’t ride the rhythm, but obligingly set it. “His reputation…admitting we’ve lost him…too great a blow to morale. And his abilities…have to salvage him, if possible.”
His hands slid up and down Rufus’ thighs, rumpling over the trousers bunched at the knee before gliding over the double line of tiny puckered scars that ran along each leg. He liked cradling Rufus’ hips, seemed to get something extra from gripping Rufus’ ass hard because his throat tightened and he moaned so everything vibrated and Rufus lost control of himself again. Reno swallowed, Rufus dimly noted.
Swallowed and licked his lips, nuzzling his way back up Rufus. His erection pressed a groove along Rufus’ right side, and before Rufus knew it, he’d turned to cup his hand over it. He had no idea if he’d done this—he probably had, given the levels of inhibition-loosening chemicals they’d filled him with—but he was about to do it now. He slipped his fingers over Reno’s waistband, curled his thumb briefly over the flat belly.
The other man made a belated attempt to move away, but Rufus had him by the balls and Reno always succumbed to that. Or so said a disjointed fragment of memory, and Reno’s sudden slump confirmed it. Weakness, Rufus’ mind said, but he didn’t file it away immediately because he wasn’t done.
When he was done, he laid back. He was thinking of dealing with his clothes when Reno pushed himself onto his knees and took care of all of that, practiced flicks of the hand saying this happened fairly often. Then Reno leaned over, and Rufus stared at the specks of silver studding the underside of Reno’s eyebrows. He could feel the warmth of Reno’s mouth hovering over his own. “Did you always take the liberty?”
Reno paused. His face blanked. Then he grinned humorlessly. “Well, I tried to a lot. ‘s the truth.”
He leaned back and helped Rufus up.
* * *
So you believe you are human.
I know I’m human. I know that despite my so-called father’s best efforts, I still consist of flesh and bone infused with the imperfect construct we call a mind. I’ve had it violently confirmed. I’d do the same courtesy for you if you had the courage to step out from behind your voice.
Do you know who Jenova is?
Get out here. Or leave me be.
Do you know who Jenova is?
Fine. If you insist on this damned charade…Hojo mentioned her. She worked for Shinra as well—she nearly orchestrated a successful rebellion, somehow. She was his goddess.
She managed to imprint her mind and personality into the network and escaped, though her body was destroyed. Many of her discoveries were used to create your enhancements.
Wonderful. I see I am remarkable, after all—I’ve more meddling creators to hate than most.
This left…unique vulnerabilities to her in you. And in several others on whom those techniques were used.
She appears to have made a resurgence, and is attempting to bring down the House of Shinra again. She would require a body for this.
Even more fascinating. Perhaps I’ll offer.
* * *
Tseng and Smecker were waiting for Rufus in his father’s old office. He’d ordered every inch of decoration ripped out till it was nothing but a skeleton of girders and wiring as soon as he’d been able. Now the walls and floors had been recovered, and some furniture installed, but Rufus hadn’t had time to get around to the finicky details of interior decoration.
He might put it off indefinitely, he thought as he considered the room’s starkness. This might be fitting—it certainly was nothing like before.
“Nice place. I really like what you’ve done to it,” Smecker said, gazing idly about. “Felt like you needed a clean start that badly?”
On second thought, ordering around decorators would keep Reeve busy and relatively out of the way of the other departments, Rufus thought savagely to himself. That man had a habit of coming up with moral objections, or at least his father had complained about it often enough for it to stick in Rufus’ memory. Smecker had a habit of exquisitely irritating timing, so Rufus needed to come up with something to divert that as well. “What did Kadaj say?”
Smecker stopped acting the prick and leveled a cool, precisely modulated gaze at Rufus. Then he pulled out something from his pocket and dropped it on Rufus’ desk. The implant hit the wood with a faint plink, the sharpness of the sound dulled by the blood clots sticking to it. “Kadaj’s very happy to be allowed to kill without getting sent down to the labs for reprimand afterward. But I’m curious—what the hell is the point of keeping all these gun-boys around if you’re just going to fire someone else’s? Unless you still haven’t gotten rid of your lousy habit of not remembering not everything’s yours.”
“But very little here isn’t,” Tseng said, quiet but with bite.
“Thank you, Tseng.” Rufus picked up the implant and scraped off the blood crust with his thumbnail. In his peripheral vision, he glimpsed Rude’s head bending into the doorway to say something to Reno, and Reno laughing and retreating into the hallway. He pressed his lips together to avoid any other dangerous outbursts. “And thank you, Smecker. I believe this will be the only time I ask.”
The coolness of Smecker’s gaze didn’t disappear, but the nature of it changed from assessing, as one would an opponent, to judging, as an observer would the fight. “Not bad, Rufus, but I wouldn’t test Sephiroth’s loyalties that way. Or Zack’s or Cloud’s, for that matter. That shit only works on people with twisted senses of priorities.”
It was obvious enough that Smecker was fully aware of the irony of his words, so Rufus refrained from commenting on it. The other man began to leave, then turned back and held out his hand. After a moment, he dropped it and smiled without a hint of true apology.
“Right, Valentine took those out. Let me see your handheld.” Smecker took it and jacked himself into it. His eyes glowed briefly as he transferred data to it; Rufus idly glanced at the doorway, but Reno had apparently wandered off with Rude. Who was his regular partner, after all. “There,” Smecker said. “One doctor’s recommendation, with a bonus slice into Sephiroth’s head.”
Tseng watched Smecker go with his jaw set at an interesting angle. “Kadaj’s a failure.”
“He seems to do well enough at keeping Smecker grounded here,” Rufus said. He looked over the implant one last time, then tossed it to Tseng. “Have our systems been repaired since the worm breach?”
“Yes.” Pause. “We could have—”
“Yes, you could have, but then I’d have no one to keep an eye on my generals. Sephiroth’s been out for nearly two weeks now, Cloud is proving…abnormal, and I understand Zack has been expressing dangerous sympathies.” Rufus passed around his desk and called up two datascreens full of information on network security. He rubbed at the lingering soreness around the shotgun-implant in his palm. “Keep rotating a companion for me, and be ready to take over the barracks if necessary.”
After a moment, Tseng nodded. He retreated to a seat by the wall and jacked himself into the servers. “And Corneo?”
“If the body shows up anytime soon, I’ll have to have words with Smecker regarding Kadaj’s training. Otherwise, let Gainsborough wonder what happened to his spy,” Rufus replied, linking his handheld into the desk system. He called up the profiles Smecker had given him.
When Tseng didn’t immediately leave, Rufus looked up from his work. The other man still was sitting by the wall-server, and he straightened when he noticed Rufus. “Should I call back Reno, sir? Did you want a specific person assigned to you?”
Tseng, Rufus noted, was too observant for a true servant, though he was more circumspect about it than Smecker chose to be. And Tseng also was even more of a question-mark in Rufus’ mind; Rufus couldn’t force himself to completely turn his back on the man. But expressing preferences would be a greater mistake, Rufus finally decided.
“No,” he said. “Random rotation.”
* * *
Jenova is an infection in the Shinra networks. As long as you remain isolated from them, your vulnerabilities to her cannot be exploited.
You tell me this after I mention allying with her? You’re either deeply stupid or deeply uncaring.
Anyway, I am not currently isolated. I never required a physical jack in order to tap into the servers.
That is due to certain modifications made in you by Hojo. That allows you to connect to the public systems, but would not allow you to tap into the core. It also provides you with some immunity, should Jenova attempt to collapse the networks again.
How very special of me.
Inaccurate statement. Similar modifications were made in Vincent Valentine and Rufus Shinra. Also in several high-ranking officers, though that was successful to a lesser extent.
It is believed that Hojo may have been copying Jenova in trying to create his own separate, independent network.
He always did remain fond of the concept of God, however outdated that is now. But he’s dead.
Regardless of Hojo’s state of being, the system he attempted to set up is still in effect. Its aim was to seek out Jenova and assimilate her into its foundations as part of its expansion, and it is still trying to carry out that mission. It would not allow you to ally yourself with it—it would assimilate you as well. Valentine was able to reprogram some of his own modifications—
Where is he?
--and temporarily block the ones in you and several others from Jenova’s reach--
Where. Is. He.
Do you have any particular feeling towards Vincent Valentine?
A great desire to know his current location.
Valentine does not know for certain whether it will be possible to eliminate both Hojo and Jenova’s programs without killing you.
Fair enough. I admit, I’m surprised he didn’t when he had the chance. He does not seem stupid.
Are you happy about that?
I’d like to know where he is.
Would you be happy if he never returned?
Would you be happy if he did return?
I don’t remember ‘happy’ being in Hojo’s list of desirable development characteristics.
Do you believe you’re incapable of happiness?
How would you define ‘happiness’?
We will accept your definition for the purposes of this discussion. Do you believe you can be happy?
…I don’t know.
Do you believe Valentine knows?
Ask him yourself.
We suggest you ask him.
I suggest you—
You. Where have you been, and what was the point of the asinine question-and-answer session I’ve just been forced to endure? What kind of psychosis did Hojo install in your mind, you…don’t. Don’t you come near me again…don’t. Get b—
*short, sharp fight merging into longer, rougher embrace*
…where were you? Do you know what happens when I’m left alone now? I can hear her. I can’t hear you. Where were you?
When are you taking me out of this room?
When I think you’ll listen, and not try to kill me.
I’m not capable of killing you, as you’ve proved several times.
Are you listening?
You know, I listen to her because so far she’s the only one out there talking.
* * *
Well, that was an interesting development. Apparently Sephiroth took better to that kind of relationship than anyone had thought, given the right personality to manage him. Smecker had been right—Valentine was the one Rufus would have to deal with.
It looked like Rufus would also have to delve into the archives and see just how Smecker and Valentine had been like when they’d partnered up in the Turks. They worked together far too well when it came to breaking down a mind like Sephiroth’s.
“Sir?” Reno edged in the door. He nodded to Tseng, who’d begun to stand up. “Reporting for duty. Mind if I brought dinner with me?”
Tseng had his hand on his jack, but didn’t yet move to unplug himself from the system. “You’ve already pulled a shift today, Reno.”
“Yeah, well, Elena got caught up tracking a Kisaragi freak in Sector Ten, and Rude was helping her. I don’t mind,” Reno said, sliding in.
An objection was on the tip of Tseng’s tongue. Rufus kept it there. “It’s fine, Tseng. I’ll see you in the morning.”
The other man wavered, staring a touch too hard at Rufus. Then he nodded and went out of the room. Reno let Tseng get the door and sauntered across the room to drop a steaming bag of food on Rufus’ desk. “Enough for you. If, you know, you can bear to eat such retro shit.”
“Reno, you always were a presuming little bastard, weren’t you?” Rufus muttered, sitting back. He was walking on the very edge of the knife here and he still didn’t know how it might turn. He was taking a guess, a risk.
With a grin, Reno straddled Rufus’ lap and ran his fingers over Rufus’ jaw, both a check on the scars and a caress. “Yeah. You remember?”
“No.” Rufus felt his jaw tighten.
The look on Reno’s face sobered, his fingers slowing. Then he shrugged and resumed pressing his hands down Rufus’ front, palms tingling as the implants in them scanned the muscle and nerves. “Well, I don’t change much, so that’ll help with me. Let me see what else I can do, hmm?”
“I…suppose,” Rufus said, more quietly than he’d intended. He lifted his hand to Reno’s shoulder, and pulled down.
He would not be able to remember everything, and as much as he feared giving up on the wrong points, he had to start conserving efforts. Rufus took a deep breath, and took a step into the present.