|How to Survive a Coup
Author: Guede Mazaka
Paul wasn’t in that all good a mood when he woke up. First off, he needed to figure out whether he really was being tortured with a series of explosive implants seeded throughout his skull, or whether he was just hung-over and slumped over his desk again.
Slumped over his desk, yeah. Hung-over he wasn’t so sure about, now that memories of the previous day were coming back. He groped around till he found his brain biochem handheld, then felt along the edge till he got to the jacks. Which were already plugged in. So Paul checked his temple sockets and yeah, he’d been hooked into some cycle all night. No wonder he felt like hell: he could program the damn thing to suppress hunger pangs and sleep deprivation, he could dial up thousands of ways to die euphorically, and he could even make sure it didn’t accidentally give him a fatal imbalance. But for some reason, he couldn’t get the fucking piece of shit to automatically turn off whenever his brain waves hit delta.
Then again, he wasn’t sure that they ever fucking got that slow. His dreams sure as hell didn’t feel like it.
Someone pinged for him. He flicked up every ‘Do-Not-Disturb’ sign and message he had while he fiddled with the settings. After a couple seconds, he decided gradual segue to alert on a two-hour scale would work. Technology could do a lot, but it still couldn’t replace real neurons in an adult human being without fucking up memory and sometimes bodily functions. The little bits of gray stuff eventually got exhausted by all the crap people pumped into their systems. Started getting ragged and nasty about taking their higher doses.
Ping ping ping--Paul flopped back in his chair and let his eyes click to net-sight. His nice, almost twentieth-retro office instantly disappeared and was replaced by a stark gold and green web. It looked a little like he was an atom between layers of old-fashioned integrated circuit board. “What?”
“Finally,” snapped Scarlet’s voice. Part of the network distorted as she tried and failed to materialize as a curvaceous, tempting blonde. “Damn it, Smecker. Must you always be such a dinosaur? Would it kill you to work in at least a skeleton VR set-up?”
“There wouldn’t be a point, anyway. Even if I gave a shit about appearances, I still wouldn’t give a shit about you. This way, everyone just gets straight to their point, and we don’t have to put up with each other for as long.” Honestly, she’d been here only five years less than he had, and she still thought he was going to get distracted in her tits. As far as Paul could tell, the philosophers who’d claimed technology was bounded not by the physical, but by the mental were the ones who’d been right. “What?”
Eventually she settled for just messing around with the lines, bending them hard from their normal perpendicular angles and then letting them spring back. That actually did have the real-world effect of fucking with the perimeter security on Paul’s network space, but calling her on it would just prolong the agony.
“Sephiroth’s gone missing,” she finally said. “The last time he was seen was just after he delivered his report on Valentine. You’ve got the best insight into his head—where is he?”
“Decompressing, maybe? I’m his head-minder, not his mommy.” Right. That had been why Paul had set his brain for deep trance last night: Valentine and Sephiroth were off playing at court-the-sociopath, and all hell was about to break loose. “Beat it, Scarlet. You’re not here because you want to know where King Blade is. You’re here because you want to have a scapegoat for when you say he’s gone nuts and ask if you can torch the city.”
The very wires vibrated with her angry shriek. “My Sister Ray is fully directional and—”
And Paul wouldn’t have a way in if he didn’t have a way out, plus broom and dustpan. He firewalled the hell out of Scarlet—which looked like a literal wall of fire, complete with writhing victims and blackened skulls in the embers, so what the fuck was she on about his non-visual side?—and double-locked all his drives. Then he snapped out of it.
The office faded into view. Paul sighed as he took out his jacks and got out of his seat. He’d been hoping nuclear winter would hold off till the ozone went down enough for that filter to not be needed, but nope. He was going to have to go out, damn it.
* * *
Shinra had a good grip on six of the thirteen sectors, but its traditional territory and stronghold had always been unlucky thirteen. It was a little tidbit of irony that always brought a sour smile to Paul’s face—he studied history, so he knew the folklore behind that number. Everyone else just thought it had to do with the first Shinra head having thirteen children, and the present line being descended from the one that managed to kill everyone else first.
Familial blood, hell. The city was split three ways between the great Houses, each with their pack of lesser Houses begging at their feet, and even though there were a massive bureaucracy in place, the only real signs of governmental administration that most people knew of are the Council and the Doge. And only because they were pretty damn useless: half the Council members belonged to one of the Houses in some way and the other half liked living. The Doge was always elected from beyond the Houses, but whichever poor sap got the position just sat there and looked pretty.
It was a fossil position, left over from the early days of total integration, back when the networks were rogue states and everyone who knew a little programmer-talk could come up with his own protocol. Somebody had to say what went, and that was the doge. Now that all the groundwork had been laid and everyone was busy fighting over it instead of innovating, the doge didn’t have much to do. But still no one would get rid of him; he was so useless but so entwined into the core hardware of the city that it couldn’t exist long without one.
That was another bit of irony that Paul liked to chew on, all considering. Way back when, people had thought that advancing technology would first wipe out all the brands of doctor, from surgeon to shrink. And now, here was Paul sitting pretty as head mind-stalker of Shinra, coddled and protected and respected, and there was the Doge, hiding himself behind a brilliant wall projection. “Poor bastard. He gets entry to everywhere, but does he get to enjoy it? Hell, no. Either the Doge can’t take the condescension or he knows fucking well that he’s not supposed to be here, that he’s just freeloading.”
“I don’t know why I eat lunch with you,” Reeve muttered, taking a long swig of his drink. Jacks fanned out from his bobbing chin like a spiked goatee, needling enhancers into every molecule of food that hit his tongue. His eyes were always permanently dilated because he never was completely unhooked. “This place goes to atomic lengths to make every gastronomic experience heavenly, but you still manage to sour it.”
“Just call me your free reality-check, Reeve-san.” Use of that honorific was cutting close to insulting at their level. Paul did it mostly to watch Reeve twitch. This poor bastard was a rebel at heart, but suited up till he was nearly strangling in conservatism. “How’s things in administration? How’s the kid? Over his little fuck-the-employee phase yet?”
Reeve’s eyes momentarily flickered and actually looked at Paul. With horror, of course. Though the other man recovered fast and didn’t go so far as to look around since his ocular and aural implants could work up an extrapolation of his surroundings faster than doing that would take. “Rufus is fine. He’s back to Reno. Speaking of…I ran into Tseng yesterday in the inner network.”
“So what?” As boring and pathetic as the Doge was, Paul never could look away from a ruin. He stared till the other man caught him, then grinned as the Doge flinched and ducked his head. Nondescript-looking man, even with all the ways people could cut themselves pretty nowadays. His skin had the translucency of thick paper, so Paul figured him for pretty damn advanced in years, too.
“So he was poking around the Turk archives,” Reeve whispered. He’d been talking under his breath to begin with, so he’d just dropped into subvocal range. His voice went slightly vibrato as their personal encryptors kicked in. “Not the ones he’s allowed to see. The ones only the Head gets—you know, what debts are owed, the really high-profile assassinations…some of the Jenova info.”
Eventually the Doge peeked up again. He flinched a second time under Paul’s casually blatant consideration, but not quite so far down this time. Paul smiled in return. Kept his lips down over his teeth so it looked nice, and turned back to Reeve. “No shit. Well, Tseng would’ve been just old enough to be a runner around when Valentine and I were ghosting the lines. Not that I remember him.”
“You wouldn’t. He started out working in Lady Shinra’s chambers, and everyone knows the easiest way to make you stay away is to have women around.” Finally Reeve’s sense of humor cropped up, and he was using it to needle. At least he was showing some balls. “Actually, I don’t think it’s his initiative.”
“Rufus wants Valentine? Surprise, surprise—somebody must’ve shown the brat old image files of Vince,” Paul snickered. He chopsticked up a last piece of food and popped it into his food. For once, he didn’t swallow right away, but instead went through the prescribed routine of rolling it around his mouth, then pressing the tip of his tongue into it so the most sensitive nerve cells would be fully stimulated. Nice. “I bet that bothered Tseng more than getting kicked out of bed in favor of lazy-ass Reno did. He’s so goddamned preening about his sniper skills.”
Reeve went back to looking prim. His right eye drifted from dark brown into the purple range; he was downloading something big. “He’s a skilled killer. He’s a Turk.”
“Reeve, there are people who kill, and then there are killers. Remember. It’s my job to remind everyone else that there’s a difference.” And Paul was done here. He keyed in his half of the bill to the restaurant’s server, then started unplugging himself. “We still having that goddamn party in the Head’s penthouse again?”
The other man’s voice temporarily returned to its normal rich baritone. “Of course. Face must be kept. If we canceled, how could we ever hold up our heads among the Council?” Then he dropped back into crypto. “Hopefully Sephiroth will finish ripping through the slums—you heard he was down there, right?—in time to show up and stare down his nose at everyone. Otherwise Zack would explode between being ignored by Strife and turned down by Gainsborough’s pretty daughter, Kisaragi would get drunk out on the street instead of inside where we can get him to gamble away more territory, and Shinra would miss out on a chance to one-up Rufus by chasing Scarlet into the closet.”
Paul had to press a hand against his stomach. “Don’t complain about me turning your stomach and then go and suggest something like that.”
“Well, it’s the truth. Anyway, at least she’s looking for it, too.” At which Reeve looked vaguely ill himself. “Be happy. Before she gave up on Rufus and started batting her eyes at the Head, he was talking about getting more involved with Hojo’s rejects.”
“Like hell,” Paul snarled. He forgot to control himself just a little, but his mods smoothed his voice enough to cover for him. Except for Reeve, who might take Meyer Lansky as his hero if he ever got that far into history, but who wasn’t that bad of a psych-reader himself.
But Reeve kept his peace, more or less. He had to get in a jab, but he wasn’t going to go talking around. “Always wondered why you haven’t gone rogue before. He it?”
“Maybe I just like the entertainment here better. Somebody’s always plotting to kill somebody else, but at least they always do it in style,” Paul replied. “Want to hit the neo-Cathay place next week?”
“If it’s not a smoking black hole in the ground? Sure. I’ll even go so far as to let you drag me to the Syn-blues concert afterward.” Reeve waved goodbye, but his aim was slightly off. Both his eyes were purple now.
Paul shrugged and headed for the grav-lift.
* * *
Halfway to his quarters, Paul stopped. Nothing was showing on normal, infra or UV sight, but he knew better than to take that as proof. He ducked into a maintenance room and leaned against a warm, contently humming server.
A couple seconds later, Vincent nearly scared him into jumping over the fucking thing. Paul staggered, caught himself and pushed at his hair. “Goddamn, don’t do that.”
“You’re slower,” Vincent observed.
And he was about as tactful as always. Frankly, Paul had always thought it was a fucking wonder Vincent had ever managed to have a conversation with Lucrecia without offending her sheltered sensibilities, let alone get her into bed. “Thank you very much, Vince. Yeah. I’m thirty years older. People do that.”
“People get implants.” Unlike the last time, Vincent had come with a detectable smell on him. He wasn’t squeaky-clean from guilty scrubbing. He smelled like sex and blood and Shinra.
Paul glanced at the ground, then boosted himself onto the server. No point in staying on his feet if he knew his knees were going to blow it on him. He checked on the time while he was at it, too—he had a little bit of free time before he’d run noticeably behind on schedule. “And they forget that installing pacers that’ll get your heart up to light-speed is a fucking stupid way of prolonging their stamina in bed unless they also get a system that’ll bring their lung-power to the same level. What’s your point?”
“I met Rufus.” The way Vincent said that could’ve meant anything from ‘I’m pretty damn impressed’ to ‘and I accidentally smeared him on your carpet, see you later.’ He flicked up something for Paul to catch. “He has more to him than I would have expected, given his parentage. But he’s…very young.”
Of course Paul didn’t actually touch the fucking thing: that was what palm-plants were for. He cupped his hand under it and waited till it’d stopped bobbing up and down before he bothered analyzing it. Anyway, he had a pretty good guess as to what it was. “He made you an offer, annoyed you, and so you ripped out some of the control bugs his daddy had set in him? Did you hit the ones that’ll blow Rufus into itty-bitty bits if he pisses off Father dear too much?”
The right side of Vincent’s mouth curled. It wasn’t because he was happy or amused or anything straightforward like that. “Have you ever fucked him?”
Okay. That was a turn sharp enough to set Paul back for a second. Then he let his jaw drop and indulged in a dry laugh. “He would be my type, wouldn’t he? Except for the need-me-need-me bullshit. And that’s not all artificially-cultured addiction, you know. Some of it’s natural.”
“I noticed. I came back at an interesting time, I see,” Vincent said. “Rufus, Sephiroth…everything set to break.”
“Yeah…so what the hell are you do—” Paul stopped because he no longer was in a conversation, and even monologues were supposed to come with audiences. For a second, he wished Vincent was back just so he could shock the frustrating bastard.
But there was a pretty good chance that that wouldn’t work. At least, so said the half-melted bit of silicon and metal floating above Paul’s palm. He hadn’t seen an implant that badly trashed—by human means, not by way of mass destruction—for a while. A long while.
Fuck, he was getting behind. He needed to get his ass in gear.
Smecker! Smecker, get here NOW!
“And not the least because the bank is calling,” Paul muttered.
* * *
Normally Rufus spent his time drugged out of half his mind, and sexed out of the other half. It’d been so goddamned long since Paul had seen any sign of intelligence in the brat that just hearing complete, coherent sentences come out of his mouth was enough to make Paul go for a chair.
There wasn’t one, of course. Fucking modern furniture—there were ultra-chic floating shelf-things, which Paul resigned himself to using. He surreptitiously dug around in his pockets till he found his mini biochem-adjuster and got it plugged into a wrist socket. It wasn’t nearly as strong or as fast-acting, but it’d have to do. In the meantime, he supposed he could try to appreciate the objective points of Rufus’ rhetoric.
The other man had just finished throwing his bodyguards into the hall—literally in Reno’s case. It’d almost made Paul feel sorry for that jackass, since he’d been trying to get Rufus’ wounds to stop bleeding. “You probably should lie down, Rufus. Losing those implants disrupted the hell out of your overall balance and the crash is coming any second now,” Paul said, more out of habit than anything else.
“You’re just saying that because you want your ass covered if they come back in and I’m on the ground unconscious,” Rufus savagely spat. Half his blood-dotted robe fell off his shoulder, exposing a swath of flesh that reached from there nearly to his navel. Little gouge-wounds pocked the area along his collarbone, down his breastbone, and maybe on his back, but when Rufus whirled around, he also yanked up the robe so Paul couldn’t be sure.
Paul started to lean back and his goddamned seat slid forward so he almost fell over it. He didn’t know how to make the damn thing not to do that, so he had to settle for ramrod posture. In two seconds his back was overloading the amount of painkillers his mini could shock his body into making; he switched to enhanced sight in an effort to distract himself. Damn, was there a mess on the walls. Blood traces from months ago. “Also because I’m supposed to know a couple things about brains, and you are going to crash if you don’t get your fucking heart rate down.”
“Do you know what happened here?” Suddenly Rufus was all ice, drawing himself up very tall and arrogant. He momentarily became something fey and ominous, something Paul would actually back off from…but then he snarled and sent three shelf-seats slamming into the wall. “How did he get in? Someone let him—who let him? Who’s behind him? What are they trying to make me do?”
Classical episode of paranoid schizophrenia, at least on the surface. Knowing what Paul did of Rufus’ background, Paul couldn’t just leave it at that. He almost put his arm on his knee and leaned on it, but then remembered the fucking seat. Fucking furniture. “Who?”
“That is exactly--exactly what I want to know,” Rufus hissed. He spun around again, looking like a very prettily-engineered, very mad dog draped in a blanket. His eyes were glowing blue when they locked onto Paul. “This is my father, isn’t it? He couldn’t just put those damn things in me—he had to show me he could take them out, too. He’s in control—he’s always in control, pulling the strings, making us dance. Well, what happens if the strings…snap?”
There was enough sanity showing up between the hysterical outbursts for Paul to be grudgingly impressed; he’d always figured that if Rufus had ever fought free of his father’s meddling, there’d be nothing useful left. But no, it looked like the kid still had wits in there. Too bad implant imbalance had him and was swinging his mind all over the place.
“Rufus?” Paul carefully said.
Rufus jerked himself to a stop and looked at Paul. “What? What bullshit of his are you going to try and feed me this time?”
Oh, yeah, that was nice. When Paul had to be one of the few people that actually didn’t fuck with Rufus’ cracked little mind…not that way, anyway. The current Head might be great at keeping hold of what was his, but what little subtlety he’d had had died off a long time ago.
“I’ve just got a suggestion.” Paul slowly lifted his hands and smiled as nicely as he could. “One…two…three…four…”
Yeah, he’d been reading the strain in Rufus’ eyes right. The other man was trying to ask what Paul was doing by two, but a spasm prevented Rufus from speaking. He choked, staggered aside a step, and tried again. His mouth worked soundlessly as another, larger seizure took him.
He fell over at seven. The doors instantly were slammed open from the outside, and as Paul dropped to his knees beside Rufus, he could hear Reno yelling for him to get the fuck away.
“Shut up, dickhead. Or do something useful, like getting me a drug line.” A quick check at Rufus’ pupils said the man still had some awareness, which was surprising. Maybe the Head’s implants had been for screwing with Rufus’ physical health as well as his mental health.
At any rate, that meant Paul didn’t have to stay too long. He yelled at whoever went behind him to pin down Rufus’ flailing limbs and got his hands beneath Rufus’ head, which he tilted so Rufus wouldn’t choke on the drool. Egotist probably didn’t have much practice swallowing in difficult situations.
Reno came back with the drug jack and nearly jammed it into Rufus’ temple before Paul snatched it away from him. “You fucking idiot! What’s it set on?”
“Wha—” Reno started, snarling.
“Handheld,” Tseng succinctly, helpfully said. He shoved said object at Rufus, then nodded sharply at Reno so the flighty dick took over keep-Rufus-from-choking duties and let Paul code in the right biochemistry.
Paul got that done without even having to look at what he was entering, since this wasn’t too different from all the other times Rufus had nearly crashed his biochem levels to death. He tossed the handheld back to Tseng when he was done, then wiped his hands on the floor and got up. “Keep him quiet till you absolutely have to bring him up to the dinner tonight. And fucking listen to me about that for once.”
Tseng nodded. He let Paul get almost all the way to the door before he called out. “Smecker-san. Does Valentine intend to bring down the whole House?”
“You’re asking me? For fuck’s sake, I haven’t seen the guy in thirty years,” Paul snapped back. “He’s not exactly the normal street-aleck you usually want me to dissect.”
Actually, he was being truthful. Not that Tseng seemed to believe him, but Paul couldn’t have given less of a fuck. He turned to go again.
“Are you an anarchist?”
Rufus was conscious again. Barely able to lift his head, and his eyecolor was changing so rapidly that the shades all blurred to an eerie flat gray.
“Does your principle of just independent action encompass destruction?” he croaked. His face stretched into a grotesque, half-insane grin. “Or are you going with the winner? Smecker?”
Paul, frankly, was fucking glad years of working in this madhouse had perfected his composure. He glanced at Tseng. “Up the tranqs, or he’ll go under again.”
“I will not! I’m fine! Fine! I’ve spit out Hojo’s goddamn trickery in my father’s interfere—”
They finally muffled Rufus. Or Rufus had passed out again. Either way, Paul was going.
* * *
“Jesus Christ, today’s been horrible.” Paul finished resealing his security systems, then wandered over to his couch. He flopped onto it lengthwise and closed his eyes.
After a minute, he reached out and was handed the jack to his music collection. He inserted it into his temple socket, opened his eyes, and promptly rolled them.
Kadaj snickered, a high sound that skated just on the pleasant side of whining, and collapsed the mini-hologram of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Then he pulled himself over the top of the couch and straddled Paul. He’d just washed, apparently, because half his hair was sticking to his face and the other half was floating in his face. “No Japanese wisdom today?”
“No. They were all about Zen and being calm in the face of the tsunami, being the tree that bends before the wind and springs back up after it.” The beginning strains of a lively old jazz song tapped lightly at Paul’s synapses. Nice, but a little too fast; he switched to some of the slow whale dirges that had been popular last year. “I’m too pissed off for that.”
“You’re old, too. You have wrinkles and age-spots.” The other man flicked his fingers over said things as he mentioned them. Of course, he had the clear, translucent, moon-pale skin that Sephiroth and Vincent also had. And he was nearly weightless, so even Paul’s fucking body couldn’t manage a protest. “Everyone gets implants to smooth and erase those.”
Paul closed his eyes again and snorted. “Yeah, and they do it more and more so by the time they die, it looks like someone’s dipped them in wax. Fuck that.”
“Fuck it.” Kadaj bounced a little and that, Paul’s back did feel. But the other man was snuggling down before Paul could shove him off, his breath tickling the underside of Paul’s chin. “I like it. You ruin everyone’s day just because they see you and they remember they’re only faking youth. You’re horrible.”
“You’re pretty fucking insulting yourself,” Paul muttered, opening his eyes and ruffling the restless man’s hair. He dug around with his other hand till he pulled up a two-way jack. One end went into the socket in his other temple. Then he smoothed his hand down Kadaj’s back.
That was something Kadaj always liked, sending him into little wiggles and purrs that usually led to a nice long bout of sex. But not right now, Paul regretfully thought. Instead he pulled his hand back up and pushed aside the hair from Kadaj’s temple to expose the single implant in the other man’s body. He circled it with a fingertip.
“Neh, you need that again? You’d have passed me by if you hadn’t thought of that,” Kadaj said. His lips were in a cute pout, but his voice had deepened slightly into a fully-aware, fully-intelligent bitterness. Then he tilted his head and naked insecurity filled his eyes. “But brother can’t do this for you, can he? Even if he wanted to? No one else, right?”
“Nope. You’re a one-of-a-kind fuck-up in that respect,” Paul said. He pushed at Kadaj’s hair again, and this time the other man held still so Paul could stick in the other jack.
Kadaj smiled, and it was equal parts arrogance and tremulous gratitude. “So someone cared when I came to be. Maybe my mother?”
“Hell, who knows? It’s not like I was there…” Paul heard his voice recede from him as he let the impulses slide from him to Kadaj, and then back. It was…
* * *
“I think this has to be one of the most awkward parties I’ve ever gone to,” Paul sighed. “And hell, I’ve been to ones where somebody died during every course.”
The really funny thing about House warfare was that etiquette demanded invitations be sent to the opposing Houses for any significant galas, like the unveiling of new products by a House’s gun-manufacturing front company, and that representatives from said Houses actually show up so everyone could glower and plot instead of, say, actually eating. It was a little like the old, old custom of Prohibition-era gangsters lavishing fortunes on the flowers they sent to their assassinated enemies’ funerals, and just as funny. Normally.
“Don’t say that,” Reeve nervously whispered back. “The way the mood is, I’m afraid just that would start something.”
“What? An observation?” Paul gazed around the room. He wasn’t exactly hopped up on nerves, but then, he wasn’t exactly relaxing either.
Rufus was somehow up and mobile, and had managed to pull himself together enough that his behavior was unremarkable. Occasionally a tremor in his hands would give him away, but Tseng and the others were good enough at covering for that that Paul thought he was the only one who’d caught it. He actually stayed quite close to his father, who was alternating between being disgusting with Scarlet and being insultingly familiar with Aeris Gainsborough, who’d come as her widowed father’s date.
Stupid man. He was pissing off Zack, and maybe Zack tilted a little too far on the goofy side, but he still was an effective captain. Which reminded Paul…he looked around till he saw Strife, whom to his surprise seemed to be talking up a busty brunette waitress instead of tagging close to Zack.
“Great party,” said a slightly quivering voice.
“You think?” Paul modulated his sarcasm because he recognized it as the Doge. He turned around and smiled genially. “I don’t know about the theme…”
The Doge seemed absurdly flattered that someone would even respond to him; his eyes lit up. “Oh, I think it’s very interesting. A throwback to…what was the period…the Hollywood Golden Age?”
“I’m not sure if the implants really go with the Humphrey Bogart suits, but I have to give people credit for the effort.” Just not good credit, but Paul didn’t feel the need to explain that to the Doge, who now was glowing. Literally—the man had lost control of his body enhancers in his excitement over a real conversation.
Reeve was eying them oddly, and in another second Paul either would have to include him in the talk or—
--never mind. Sephiroth finally had shown up, via melting the doors so they dropped out of their frames into piles of white-hot slag within seconds. He somehow managed to stalk through them without catching his billowing trenchcoat on any of them. He didn’t have to worry about the crowd: holding out a nine-foot sword tended to do that.
“Sephiroth, what is the meaning of this?” bellowed the Head.
“Sir, I’d like to request indefinite leave. For you.” And with that, Sephiroth took a swing at the Head.
He was enraged, which was obvious because he let the Head deflect enough of the blow with plasma shields so that he only sliced off half the man’s left arm. That was plenty in terms of what it took to send the crowd, none of whom were any strangers to violence, scattering, but it was an awkward coup. Son of a bitch—Vincent had unbalanced Sephiroth a little more than Paul had counted on. Plus Valentine had probably stayed the hell away, which meant Sephiroth hadn’t had any opportunities for working his anger down to manageable levels.
“You’ve gone mad! Mad!” screeched the Head. He ducked, fell heavily to the floor and scrambled back up just as Sephiroth, who hadn’t moved at all, scythed Masamune around and took another shot.
This one would’ve been a clean chop to the head except for the unfortunate way the surging of the crowd interfered, pushing mindlessly towards the Head so the brunt of the blow was taken by some poor bastard that’d come in with the Kisaragis. By then the Head had managed to get to a weapon, and he whipped around to aim…one of Scarlet’s specialty guns. Double sons of bitches: those things could plausibly take out the whole top of the building. Goddamned woman had never heard of graduated firepower.
The seething of the crowd had interfered with Paul’s ability to keep tabs on people despite his best efforts and top-flight implants, but he glimpsed Tseng shoving a shotgun-waving Rufus out of Sephiroth’s way and into range of the Head. Where Paul was, the crowd had just reversed direction, and was about to carry him and the screaming, terrified Doge around the Head and to Sephiroth’s back, which ostensibly was safer.
Sephiroth paused, which told Paul the other man hadn’t actually lost it—he’d just chosen the wrong fucking day to finally have his emotional repression routine stop working. The Head stabbed the gun wildly in Sephiroth’s direction. “You ungrateful piece of shit! I should have let Hojo do more on you! I should have let him infect you like he did Vin—”
Right about then, a coincidence occurred. The Head’s gun suddenly went off, and somebody tripped the Doge so he went skidding right in the path of it. He never had a chance.
Luckily for everyone else, the Doge might have been reduced to little more than a figurehead, but he still had one important aspect: he was linked to the network foundations. The shock rattled right through him and out into the lines where it quickly dissipated.
The lights flickered out, then back on. Everyone simultaneously grabbed at their implants and dropped to the floor, screaming or gritting their teeth and swearing that this might be working but goddamn it, they were getting too old for this.
Well, everyone except the Head, Sephiroth…and Rufus, Paul noted with surprise.
Sephiroth seemed to have been temporarily shocked into rationality. “You killed the Doge,” he said. “We’ll be thrown off the network.”
“Yeah? Yeah?” The Head was damn near foaming at the mouth. “Well, first—”
First he’d drop dead from simultaneous gunshot and sword wounds, it appeared. Shaking, Rufus slowly lowered his shotgun and turned to give Sephiroth a long, considering look.
“I—my father’s committed a horrible sin,” Rufus said. He was whispering brokenly at first, but he gradually steadied himself, though he never quite made it to complete calm. “And he’s been rightfully punished for it by his House. I renounce him and his work, and call immediately for an election of the new Doge.”
“You think the city will go along with that? You think we’ll go along with it?” Gainsborough’s Head incredulously began to stand. He sat back down pretty damn fast when Sephiroth turned to him.
“You will. Shinra will not fall merely because you’ve stripped branches from it, and you cannot afford a divided city now.” Hello, Vincent. He walked in without looking to the right or to the left of Sephiroth, and he spoke carelessly, as if the city could fall and it wouldn’t be so much as a hair in his coffee.
Gainsborough was old enough to know who he was. So were a few others. The ones that didn’t still felt the weird cold Vincent brought in with him and sensibly took it as a warning. In contrast to before, they calmly and quickly got the hell out of the room.
“Is that…” Reeve apparently was too frozen to move.
“Huh. I knew I should’ve dug deeper into Hojo. Whatever he and Lucrecia got up to, they went a lot farther than just biological implants and genetic manipulation,” Paul muttered. “But fuck, the bastard’s mind was like wading through pond scum. Kept figuring I’d do it when I was in a good enough mood…”
Sephiroth went even paler than he’d been, then suddenly flamed up. He swung Masamune around into attack position. “I scoured the city for you. For what you did to me, I—”
The fight was short, sharp, and mostly unintelligible to Paul; his ocular implants weren’t good enough to keep up with the speed. But when it was over, Vincent was standing over a kneeling, disarmed Sephiroth, and had Sephiroth by the throat. They were snarling at each other, but what they were saying…
“I need to see you in the hall. Now.” Rufus yanked Paul along without waiting for a reply.
* * *
“So I’ve got no choice?” Rufus hissed. He stalked about his father’s office, occasionally knocking things off shelves and stomping through their shards. Apparently earlier’s little DTs spell hadn’t completely worn off.
Paul said to hell with dignity and slouched in his seat. “Well, obviously your other option’s to go it alone. People usually don’t give a shit about the violence, but some things you just don’t mess with. Like the Doge. The House of Shinra’s currently pretty fucked and hanging on by the skin of its teeth, and everyone else is pretty happy about that.”
Rufus went another circle around the big antique desk, which was so old it was made of real, honest wood. He gave its leg a kick that made Paul wince slightly. “Is he sane?”
“Which one?” Paul muttered. He didn’t wait for Rufus to throw something at his head. “Not really—either of them. But Sephiroth…apparently has control points after all. And Vincent is by no means mindless. There’s a way to work with them so they stay in Shinra, and my advice is that you find it. And find out what Vincent was saying about the city having shit coming at it.”
Given the way Rufus was grating his teeth, the question also should have been was he sane. But fuck, Paul was tired, and he’d already done what he could. He got up, paused, and when Rufus didn’t raise a hand to stop him, walked out.
Reeve was waiting for him. “They’re not done yet. Upstairs. It’s going to be a mess.”
“It already was a mess. Weren’t you watching how Rufus was stalking his dad, watching for a clear opening? Or how Zack kept fingering the guns Scarlet brought to show off and imagining crosshairs everywhere?” Paul kept on walking and waiting for it.
“The Doge was a decent man,” Reeve finally said. He wasn’t looking directly at Paul, but Paul didn’t need implants to extrapolate the accusing look. “You know that download of Renaissance tracts you sent me? I started reading it the other day. I’m in the middle of Machiavelli.”
The halls were almost empty so Paul made good time, but not nearly good enough. He picked up the pace. “Yeah? Good taste, then.”
“You think?” Reeve deliberately pulled ahead and then turned around to block Paul’s way. “You spend a lot of time getting into sociopathic minds. Literally and figuratively.”
“Doesn’t mean I like it.” Paul slid to the side. When Reeve didn’t move with him, Paul went ahead and walked around the other man. He heard Reeve scramble to keep up, but didn’t slow. “Here’s a refresher aphorism, Reeve: the difference between sociopaths and Machiavellians. Sociopaths do it because they want to see what happens. Machiavellians do it because they don’t want to get killed by the sociopaths.”
The Doge had been a decent man. He’d probably had sins in his background, but he’d been relatively innocent by the standards of Paul’s world, and he’d died because goddamn it, Paul lived in his world and he wasn’t ready to give it up.
Kadaj was waiting by the door. He usually was when it was this bad—after all, that’d been how Hojo had made him. That fucking scientist had gotten better after a while, had gotten good enough to repeat some of his and Lucrecia’s joint work on Vincent and Sephiroth, but not so much that he could get it all into one person. So Kadaj was brilliant, but physically weak and emotionally high-strung for a supposedly amoral creation. Irony. It bit like nothing else.
He held out the double-headed jack to Paul, completely ignoring Reeve. “Do you need it?”
“Sampling psychotics from the source?” Reeve said, disbelieving and disapproving. Then he sighed. “Well, at least that means you can’t do it without help.”
“Fuck off, Reeve. I’ll see you next week for lunch.” Paul had the door slam shut and the security smash down around the place. He glanced at the jack, then pushed it away. Before Kadaj could take that too far the wrong way, he grabbed Kadaj’s wrist instead. “No, I just want to get brainless the old-fashioned way. Come on.”
Kadaj brightened up. Only person in the whole building to do that, Paul bet. But what the hell. What the hell, really—considering what and who everyone else was. It was a fucking pain being the only sane person around, sometimes.