|Testing the Stream State
Author: Guede Mazaka
Sephiroth put his head back down and let Masamune dissolve. “How did you get in here?”
Kadaj was unnervingly silent. He’d gotten a floating shelf from somewhere—Sephiroth had never really paid attention to furnishings and Vincent apparently disliked that style—and was crouched on it, hovering above the bed so his head nearly touched the ceiling. Then he suddenly moved forward, but as Sephiroth was sitting up, Kadaj was already shifting back, slinking along the silver plank.
His head slowly turned to the left and then continued almost to the point where his spine would’ve had to break. Then he adjusted the rest of his body so he could twist to look at the gash Masamune had left in the ceiling. “I’m scared, big brother,” he whispered, reaching out to touch it.
“What?” Sephiroth reached for the clunky handheld he had to use now for getting into the servers. After plugging the jack into his temple, he scanned for Smecker’s whereabouts and state of being; it wasn’t that late for Kadaj to be wandering around bored. For that matter, Kadaj generally restricted himself to mocking the street-level soldiers or the doctors, not invading Sephiroth’s private quarters…
“He’s in the network again. He can’t hear you.” Kadaj abruptly threw himself around, barely avoiding a fall. He twisted completely around and collapsed liquidly on his belly, his hair flashing down over his face so only one bright green glow-point showed through it. “He can’t hear me. And I’m scared.”
That…translated to Smecker had jacked in, probably hooked himself up for sustained hyperactive brain biochemistry, and then promptly tuned himself out of the physical world. It wasn’t anything new. No matter how much he disliked it, Kadaj should be used to it by now…and if he wasn’t, then why he was bothering Sephiroth about it was illogical even for him. “Go find a doctor. Go find Reeve if you’re still scared of those—he knows enough about what Smecker does to his neurochemistry to disconnect him.”
A few strands of hair flew up as Kadaj loudly blew out his breath, making a rude buzzing noise. He rolled to hang his head over the edge. “I’m not scared of those…sons of bitches.”
He pronounced the profanity with a slow, careful precision that let Sephiroth catch every nuance of the perfect reproduction of Smecker’s tone. Sephiroth allowed himself to smile thinly at it as he watched the stats scroll down his handheld’s screen: Smecker was in his quarters and had normal bodily signs, but he was carrying out an unusually high level of interaction with some of the secure networks. “I know you’re scared of me.”
“Maybe,” Kadaj grudgingly muttered. His arm softly dropped down to swing back and forth. The movement of his shoulder sent it brushing up against his hair and gradually pushed more of it into his face. “Reeve doesn’t know what Paulie’s doing, though. Sometimes I don’t think Paul knows either.”
“He is, however, the certified counselor. I don’t pretend to know how you think.” The spot directly centered between Sephiroth’s shoulderblades suddenly pulled tight, tensing his shoulders and upper arms along with it. He froze, trying to sense the source of his sudden nervousness. Then he reached up and yanked the jack out of his temple. “What are you doing here, Kadaj? Vincent’s on the other side of the floor.”
There’d been very little interaction between the two, but Sephiroth had suspected for a while that that was deliberate on Kadaj’s part. He received his confirmation in the way Kadaj briefly averted his face.
Then Kadaj turned his head back, shaking it so his eyes stared out from behind his tousled hair. “I think he’s listening for her.”
Her—Sephiroth tossed his handheld to the side and jammed his fingers into the mattress, preparing to get up.
“No, for her. Listen for her,” Kadaj snapped. He must have been anticipating Sephiroth’s reaction because he moved faster, going from prone to crouched back on the shelf, legs gathered beneath himself and fingers crooked out so the dim light caught their nails’ edges, before Sephiroth had even gotten one leg bent. “She doesn’t want him. But he took me to the man who blocked her voice from me, and they were talking and the man said he could make Smecker deaf too and Smecker said no. I remember. They thought I was still asleep but the doctors put me to sleep so much and I hated it, and if I try hard enough, I can wake up faster.”
Even now, with her call stifled enough for him to think rationally about it, the mere mention of her name was still enough to trigger every nerve in Sephiroth’s body. He wanted to act immediately, but Kadaj’s convoluted way of speaking held him up, desperate as he also was to know everything. He knew what little edge he had against her and he knew it depended on his ability to remember exactly why he disagreed with her. And for that he needed facts, proof, concrete examples.
“I’m scared.” Kadaj suddenly folded again and pressed himself so tightly to the shelf that it dipped a little. Then it slowly began to lower, till if Sephiroth wanted he could have reached out and touched the other man’s shoulder. “Brother, I don’t know. I don’t know what he’s listening for, and I don’t want her to hurt him.”
“More like he’ll have her hurt him, if I can remember anything about how he works,” Sephiroth muttered. He crumpled up a sheet around himself and pulled himself to the edge of the bed, reaching for his boots. “Go back to sleep. You woke me up now.”
He dragged the boots over, then reached for the rest of his clothes. Then Sephiroth sucked in a breath and jerked back his hand a fraction before the shelf would’ve swung into it. If he’d been any less aware, Kadaj would’ve had his head sliced off for that.
“No. I don’t want you to do that either,” Kadaj said, low and hissing and shockingly intense. The shelf had stopped at a fifty-degree angle to Sephiroth, but now it continued its swing at a menacingly slow pace.
It stopped when its end was pointed directly at Sephiroth’s chest, and on it, Kadaj was rising at a deliberate speed, all calculated grace and threat. His head tipped back till his face was clear of the silver strands, and nothing stood between Sephiroth and the determined fury burning in Kadaj’s eyes.
“I’d win,” Sephiroth said after a moment.
“But I can hurt you. A lot.” The tone was childish, too nakedly angry and almost shrill with it, but something about its phrasing was convincing. Kadaj sank back on his haunches, one foot slightly in front of the other. His head dipped to one side, then the other. And then, in one of those shifts that happened so fast it was nauseating, Kadaj’s face crumpled and his body went from attack-in-waiting to utterly defeated. “Brother, please. He’s the only thing nobody else has that I do.”
The large eyes of young ones in most species, Sephiroth remembered, were specifically designed to provoke a sympathetic reaction. And a large segment of his childhood had been specifically devoted to ensuring that that instinct had been written out of him. “You’re a fool to be talking to me about this. I don’t care much for either of you.”
“But you listen. You do and he does, but I can’t talk to him now because he’s not listening,” Kadaj plaintively said.
Sephiroth stared at him for a long moment. A suitable response finally formed in Sephiroth’s mind, but as he was delivering it verbally, a hard shiver went through him. He swore and closed his eyes, then opened them to see Kadaj already flipping off the shelf.
“Take that with you,” he snapped. He ducked beneath it and snatched his clothes to him, then began to dress as quickly as he could. Vincent had changed direction to come towards them, and his speed had also suddenly picked up. “You talked to me. So don’t get in my way.”
“All right, big brother.” An odd kind of quietness that bordered on demureness permeated Kadaj’s tone.
But he left while Sephiroth was stepping into his boots, and so Sephiroth neither got the last word nor was able to see just how Kadaj had circumvented the security in the first place. He stood in place, holding his half-fastened clothes to him. Then he shook off his annoyance and resumed dressing.
* * *
It’d been one hell of a long prelude, and when Paul said prelude, he meant prelude. He was pretty sure that Rufus thought they were well past the opening stages of the war, but he had his doubts about that. The casualties still were mostly in terms of property, and he honestly thought that Jenova might still be feeling out her way.
She might also be a moron, seeing as she’d taken so much time to set up Sephiroth and a few others as moles and then apparently not called on them at all. By now it was clearer than a shot of adrenaline to the heart that Sephiroth had been triggered early and completely by Vincent, and Jenova hadn’t had a part in that at all, even if she’d made a half-assed attempt at getting in on the aftermath. For somebody with her resources and sheer hatred, she had one fucking bizarre idea of guerilla warfare.
And those lousy clones didn’t count—they’d been getting better, but half their bodies still deteriorated within days of their death. All in all, it made Paul really wonder just what the hell kind of mind Jenova had.
“You’re not fucking helping,” he sighed. He yanked out his temple jack before Agent Smith could come up with a suitable retort and watched the smug bastard dissolve. Then he spun around in his chair and got up from his desk.
Kadaj wasn’t in the next room where Paul had left him napping, but that wasn’t real surprising; Kadaj slept in two- or three-hour intervals and had gotten used to wandering by himself when everybody else was sleeping, or getting fucked, or whatever it is they liked to do on their free time. He knew by now where not to go, and he usually was back in time to poke at Paul about lunch or dinner.
It did, however, look like Reeve was also still up, and he usually dialed himself for an REM break right about now. Maybe he’d gotten something from the Turks.
“No, it’s just all the processing,” Reeve said once Paul had tracked him down. He was literally plugged in up to his eyeballs and could barely move for all the cables. “There’s a load of thirty clones that just came in and Elena instituted a whole battery of lab tests for those.”
“Elena’s running the show now? I know Reno’s off watching the Shinra ass nowadays, but…”
“Well, Sephiroth backed her up on that. And maybe you get your epinephrine rush from telling him to fuck off, but I prefer to take my stimulants in a more risk-free environment.” A slight grimace crossed Reeve’s face as he said that. He was looking more than a little roughened up, the stress visibly overloading his cosmetic mods: there were wrinkles around his eyes and dark sags in his neck, and the inside of his ear was shiny with too much oil. “Have you talked to him lately?”
Paul poked around till he’d found the old-fashioned chair Reeve kept for him. It took a couple of minutes to get all the crap off of it. “Yeah, if you mean my regular check to see if we’ve still got a controlled psychopath.”
Reeve’s lashes fluttered. He shook his head, then looked at Paul, but just started batting his eyes again. With a curse, he lifted his hands and rapidly shut down a couple datascreens. He yanked out four or five jacks for good measure before turning back to Paul and finally delivering a decent glare. “When I’m not looking at corpses, I’m talking to some very uneasy and very highly-trained killers. The outlook from where I’m sitting is not good.”
“You should know better than to talk to me if you want reassurance,” Paul snorted. Something pinged inside his head, and a moment later an alert about utility network anomalies popped up in his left field of vision. He saved the coordinates before deleting it.
“I’d settle for just knowing what’s going on.” After replugging two jacks, Reeve tiredly resumed his work. He spun his chair around so he was facing his fish tank; for once, the glass was less than spotless and showed a few green spots. “I need to source a new snail for that. I didn’t check the ammonia levels for too long and the one I had died off.”
Paul got back up and went over to the tank. He dug out the glass scraper from behind it, then carefully lifted the lid and reached into the water with that. “There’s a lot going on. You want to know just the rumors, I’d be here all day.”
“The bodies. You might as well start with them, since they’re what’s giving me the headache.” Reeve shifted a little so that he could watch.
Familiar little paranoias. As if Paul hadn’t been the one to help him find the guides on keeping fish low-tech style, but Paul guessed Reeve was holding onto whatever he could get at this point. God knew that the amount of biochemical manipulation the man was doing had to be fucking with his sanity. “Better keep it to a headache, Reeve. As far as sociopathy is concerned, Shinra’s been skating on the edge of critical mass for years. I’d really hate to move you to the can-kill list for Sephiroth.”
“You’re being remarkably calm about that. You know that if things keep going as they are, the attrition rate for our forces is going to match the rate at which the docs can patch them up again and send them out?” Reeve said.
“I worry about minds, not bodies. You do the number-crunching.” Paul pulled the scraper out to wipe off the green scum at the end, then poked it back in to finish the job. “What are they looking at with the clones? I thought everybody was all relieved when we found out they’re crappy hack jobs?”
Maybe Reeve couldn’t glare and work at the same time, but that didn’t make him an idiot. “Are you sure about that? When you ask me about bodies right away?”
“Don’t be a smart-ass, Reeve. Why the fuck does Sephiroth suddenly have a corpse-fixation? I thought he’d be working on where the damn things are coming from, being Mr. Unconquerable General,” Paul snorted.
The other man seemed to take that spin and retreated back into his web of cables, hands flying around in the air and eyes a pair of kaleidoscopes spinning lightning-fast. “I think it’d be interesting if you asked him that. At the very least, you might get the straight answer, because I don’t have one. He just told me what analyses he wanted.”
“And you have no opinion whatsoever on those analyses,” Paul drawled. He pulled out the scraper and wiped off the end one more time, then shook off the excess water before he put it away. The fish darted to and fro in a moment of panic before slowly resettling into their calm, languid trips in circles.
Reeve’s facial muscles twitched a few times as he tried to grimace, but he couldn’t quite spare enough control for it. His orchestrating hands slowed a little. “He’s not checking for resemblances to himself, or to Cloud Strife. Which I thought was a little odd, but…I don’t pretend to understand how Sephiroth’s id and ego function. Does seem unusually interested in their internal make-up. Especially the reproductive region.”
“Not the size, is it? Much as I’d like more signs that Sephiroth’s got normal obsessions…”
“No…viability. That’s the other thing…he wanted to know right away if we ever got in a female clone. I don’t—well, he had on a stone face the entire time, but I think it bothers him that they’re all male. More than it bothers him that half of them look like him, apparently,” Reeve said thoughtfully.
“Maybe he’s gotten used to the idea that he’s not an only child.” Idiot that he was…Paul seriously thought that in Sephiroth’s head, Kadaj was identified as ‘other’ the way normal people identified lower animals as ‘other.’ So Kadaj couldn’t function in regular society and Sephiroth could—when he was in the fucking mood, anyway. Blood was blood, and all the intelligence that could be engineered couldn’t change that.
Would’ve made family reunions something Paul didn’t have to worry about a lot sooner if that hadn’t been the case. But never mind that. According to Reeve, Sephiroth was on the track of something, but he still was looking for physical causes. Which meant Reeve didn’t have anything Paul could use.
Paul put one hand on the wall for balance and pivoted to pick his way out of the trailing cables, only to have his foot come down on something that squirmed. He swore and jerked it back up, and some black thing blurred out from under his shoe into Reeve’s lap. Reeve grabbed for his face-jacks and then for it, eyes rolling a bit as he briefly went close to overloading. Then he slumped down, head dropping back so he was staring at the ceiling.
His vital signs were coming out okay, but Paul went over for a visual confirmation anyway. “Reeve?”
“…need to reprogram learning loops,” Reeve muttered. His hand slowly stroked the clump of fur in his lap. “Some of the cyborg techniques on those clones…it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. Crude, but…I’ve been working on replicating them in the little spare time I have. Figure out the method, figure out the supply list, figure out how to cut that off.”
“Fabian would’ve approved. Don’t know if Cato would’ve. Adopt too many of the enemy’s tools and you might as well invite the fucker in for tea, for all that you’ve done to keep him out.” Paul bent down and looked a little more closely. After a second, the thing twisted around to reveal two bright, changeably-shaded eyes and a splotch of white around the nose. “Nice cat, though.”
Reeve’s fingers curled a little, then spasmed back straight. He hissed softly beneath his breath and patted at the kitten, which had begun to make another run for it. “Shhh, Cait Sith…not you that’s irritating me.”
“…Gaelic, now?” Paul said.
“You might like the Romans, but they didn’t offer a whole lot of help when faced with the irrational,” Reeve muttered. “I need to crash in about fifteen minutes. Anything else you wanted while I’m still conscious?”
Paul shook his head, momentarily forgetting how jacked-in Reeve was. “Nah, I’m fine. Happy recovery time.”
An ironic snort was all Reeve had the time or energy for, but his little cat sprang up onto his desk and watched Paul walk out. Creepy thing—well, now Paul knew what Reeve’s response to intense, ongoing stress was like. The nice-guy mask disappeared and a more bitter, darker persona emerged…still a workaholic, though. Not too much of a leap; Paul left it for later, for his own scant spare time.
* * *
Kadaj was back in and playing with the VR when Paul got to their living quarters. He rolled over the floor a couple times, getting all tangled up in the cables, before freeing himself with a few quick boneless twists. “Paulie…big brother came to see you.”
Paul eyed a fresh long scratch on the wall. “No kidding. You two didn’t get into some kindergarten brawl, did you?”
“Kindergarten?” Frowning, Kadaj got up on his hands and knees. Then he bounded up to perch on the back of the sofa, twisting and craning his head around to stare up into Paul’s face. “He wasn’t mad at me. I just annoy him. He said that Vincent hadn’t come back all night, though, and that if Vinnie didn’t, he might just give Neo a call.”
“Neo? The fuck does he have to do with anything?” That stopped Paul in his tracks. He hadn’t thought that Vinnie had been paying enough attention to notice—Tseng. Damn it, once a Turk, always a fucking stupid Turk. If Hojo had been looking for a model for breeding out the self-preservation instinct, he couldn’t have done better than to look there. “He said that name?”
Humming softly to himself, Kadaj did a light roll over to land on his belly on the sofa cushions. He popped the VR lenses from on top of his head back over his eyes, kicked his feet up in the air, and did a very, very good impression of a man-child.
Paul bought fuck all of it. Usually he would’ve smiled in at least appreciation of the little fucker’s bravado and cunning, but today he was just…well, definitely feeling the effects of artificial stamina. His muscles hadn’t seen much use over the past few days, but they were sluggish and slow to respond, and his brain just felt as if it’d swollen up on acid. “Kadaj. What the fuck is your brother up to? Neo’s a nice guy, remember—he helped you.”
“He cut me.” Kadaj lifted the lenses off his face and stared up at Paul, eyes wide and solemn. He flicked at his temple and then at the point of his jaw and at his collarbone.
“Yeah, so what? You wanna see Sephiroth cut him back? You do realize that your goddamn nutcase of a brother prefers stuff minced, not chunked…and I’d prefer Neo in one piece,” Paul sighed.
He already knew how much effect that was going to have on Kadaj; the thing about underdeveloped social skills was that it made Kadaj fairly impervious to having his pride dinged. Though Kadaj did care about Paul’s opinion, God help him—and that was probably what had Kadaj sitting bolt upright like a cat, right down to the way he tucked his hands up against his feet.
“Why do you need him? I thought you said he was a useless unobservant piece of shit when it came to telling you what was going on now, and that you had…” Kadaj paused to rewind his memory; he liked getting quotes word-perfect “…better sources for what happened before. In order to avoid history, you must first be a good historian.”
Paul blinked, then snorted as he rounded the couch. He sat down and lifted his arm for Kadaj, who was already crawling onto his lap. “That was from one of my really juiced-up spells, wasn’t it? Makes no sense even to me.”
Kadaj shrugged and played with Paul’s tie. He was studiously pretending not to be plotting something. “Are you going to see him to get these done, too?”
His fingers raced up the tie, then danced over the mods set into Paul’s temple and around his eyes. Frowning, Paul ducked his head, then pulled Kadaj’s wrist away. “Weren’t you just saying how much you didn’t like Neo for that? I don’t like getting cut up any more than you do. Got enough fucking scars, and since I don’t go for the plastic skin—”
“You don’t mind sticking a lot of pointy things in you,” Kadaj said mutinously. He ducked his head so his hair hid his face, rubbing at the tiny scars his mod-removals had left. “I have marks, too. I thought you said you didn’t mind them.”
“I don’t.” Paul put his hands on Kadaj’s shoulders and tried to make the other man look at him, but Kadaj twisted and drooped and shook his head till Paul finally gave up. Hell of a fucking time for Kadaj to develop an interest in his looks—usually his physical insecurities were more like what Sephiroth got to do that he didn’t. “What? It’s not like yours are going to go away if I get some. Besides, what Neo did put you in bed for five days. If I took that long of a vacation, I’d come back to…hell, I don’t even know if there’d be rubble left.”
Kadaj’s face fell. He squirmed in place for a few seconds before abruptly curling around and down, head snugging up to Paul’s knee while his back reproachfully turned to Paul’s face.
Things weren’t making sense. And, after a couple minutes of intense juggling, Paul decided that that wasn’t because he couldn’t find the simplest explanation to fit all the facts. Sometimes Occam’s Razor worked, and sometimes poor old Occam suffered from living in a much easier world, where fear of hellfire kept more people from slinging around red herrings. “Okay, so Sephiroth was around, but he didn’t really say a damn thing about Neo, did he? Kadaj? Are you stalling me? Is your brother off doing something ass-backwards-stupid that I’ve got to deal with before we have to lock him back in his room?”
“No.” Kadaj rolled over and looked up with big pleading eyes. “No, no, no, no…you can see, you can see. He’s just arguing with Vincent.”
Paul stared hard at him. Then he sighed and slung one arm over the back of the couch, tilting his head back to look at the soft colors of the ceiling. “Which is a whole other book of psychoses right there…”
“You’re going to go jack in again, aren’t you?” Kadaj mumbled, pressing his face into Paul’s stomach. His hand restlessly kneaded at Paul’s side, pulling the shirt out of the waistband and then clutching at the flesh beneath: that hurt enough to make Paul look down and note the loss of body fat that should’ve cushioned the pinch. “You’re always doing that. You know, sometimes I think you might be dead and I pull up your eyelid, and it’s scary because your eye is moving but I don’t see anybody.”
Oh…Jesus, it would be something like that. “You know how to check my vitals without touching me.”
At first Kadaj frowned, but then his face smoothed. He cocked his head and peered at Paul as if he were looking through Paul’s eyes at something roughly in the middle of Paul’s skull. “Who are you looking for?” he asked plaintively. Tears welled up at the corners of his eyes and he abruptly dipped his head, rubbing roughly at his cheek. Then he threw himself off the couch and towards the far door with obvious anger. “I’m not in there. I’m not boring.”
“No, you aren’t, but you’re not the center of the world either,” Paul snapped. He sat a little too long before getting up, and he had just risen to his feet when he heard the door-locks go.
Paul stood there, then exhaled sharply and shook his head. Fucking brat…sometimes he just didn’t have the patience to deal with Kadaj’s mood-swings, and he didn’t have the sociopathy to drug it out of the other man. Though he did have to wonder about Hojo’s sexual pre—nah, his conceptions about gender—at times like this. Guy knocked up a woman but made nothing but male clones. Come to think of it, that probably could be chalked up to the God-complex.
“Bet fucking God was really happy for the thunderbolts when Adam went off in a snit, though,” Paul muttered. He rocked on his feet a couple times, then went over to the nearest wall-unit and checked his bio-stats. They told him a more precise version of what his aches and pains already had: he was trashed, but not unconscious yet.
It was probably why they’d invented computers, he thought as he started hooking himself into the networks. Wasn’t like people didn’t know how to read pain—they just got too used to ignoring it. Whereas computers never could find their way around an error, run-time or compilation, without somebody putting their digits in order.
* * *
“Because he’s not an idiot. You may want to chop his head off most of the time, but Smecker is one of the few people who consistently gets his estimations right,” Sephiroth said, pacing back and forth. He turned and the floor moved beneath him, and in righting himself, he noticed he’d been rubbing at his wrist.
Zack was looking at the same spot with a curled lip when Sephiroth checked. “That Valentine’s work?”
“It’s irrelevant. We’re talking about Smecker. He’s still looking for Jenova in the computers, and I’m trying to think of why.” Sephiroth turned around and tipped his wrist into a less greenish patch of light, then shoved his hand into his pocket. It probably wasn’t the first time, even if he’d never paid much attention to them before, and it explained some anomalies in people’s behavior towards him. He might need to get gloves. “Jenova wants bodies. She wants to be organic. Her base is still in a server somewhere, but what she wants is to move out of there. So why…Zack?”
The other man blinked rapidly and looked up with a guilty expression, then covered up another yawn. “Sorry. I just…”
“…having nightmares?” Sephiroth abruptly said. He felt something pinch around his head, between the skin and the bone; there were so many angles to account for and apparently his skills at juggling them had suffered during his…confinement. “Are you hearing things? Anybody in particular?”
Zack stared hard, his pupils expanding and shrinking.
Sephiroth was momentarily distracted from the Smecker-issue. “Who is it?”
“I don’t know,” Zack said after a long moment. He twisted his fingers together, then yanked hard at them so some of his knuckles audibly popped. “I really don’t, Sephiroth. Wish I could place it, because…I think they’re calling for help. And I almost know…but I don’t. Wait—you’re hearing it?”
“At times.” Damn, damn and damn. Of all the times for Smecker to finally cross into suicidal. Usually he had better—then again, he did like his jokes, Sephiroth savagely thought. “Well, good. You’re a contact Smecker doesn’t know about.”
Frowning, Zack pushed himself off the cot on which he’d been sitting and walked over. He made an obvious attempt to position himself to have another look at Sephiroth’s wrist before settling back against the wall. “What?”
“I was talking to Smecker about a way to try and track the signal—the voice. But he’s been telling me he hasn’t gotten anywhere.” Sephiroth raised his eyebrows. “I think he has, but not in the direction that I asked him to look at. I think he’s trying to track Jenova down.”
“Well…so’s everyone else,” Zack slowly said.
“There’s tracking and there’s tracking. You know that.” Something tingled at the edge of Sephiroth’s awareness, but when he checked it, he didn’t find anything. He cursed Vincent while he was at it—if the man wanted to put Jenova out, then he could at least leave a way to contact him when something like this came up. “The sensible way would be to pin her location down from far away and then close on her with overwhelming force. Smecker tends to walk into situations by himself and not armed.”
Zack grunted, then shoved himself off the wall and roundly swore when the main gist of it got through to him. “Stupid son of a bitch. But—wait, why? He’s fucking weird but he seems to really like living. And really, really likes it when nobody can tell him what to do. This sounds like he’s walking into a brain-washing.”
“That was what I was trying to discuss,” Sephiroth icily said.
The other man ignored that and continued to chewing on his nails. “You…um, well, you seem to get along better with Kadaj now, and he spends the most time with Smecker…”
“He already invaded our chambers and brought this to my attention. Bright enough to spot it, but not bright enough to give me any really usable information,” Sephiroth replied.
Zack wasn’t paying attention again. His eyes had tightened their focus till Sephiroth doubted he could see anything closer than the tip of his own nose. Then their pupils widened again and refixed on Sephiroth. “‘Our’? Man, I think we’re missing the head-doctor even more than you think.”
“Vincent uses those rooms as well. Other than that, I fail to see the point of your insinuations.” Sephiroth’s temper was beginning to wear rather thin. He’d gone to Zack for a fresh perspective, not for an analysis session. What was it about people that made them concentrate on anything but the problem currently most likely to get them killed? “Zack, Smecker has access to almost every security level, plus intimate knowledge of practically everyone’s neuroticisms, habits and personalities. If Jenova took him over, it’d gut us.”
Couple of blinks. It didn’t seem like Zack was quite ready to return to logical thought, but he was struggling. “Well, seems like a pretty damn good tactical move to me, then.”
“From her point of view. What about—” Sephiroth cut himself off. He stood very still and concentrated very hard—and then a splitting pain seared through his head. His mouth opened, but he suddenly couldn’t control it and over the blinding agony he felt a little spit seep over his lip. Disgusted, he wanted to reach up to wipe it away, but his hands seemed glued to his skull, nails gouging deep into the skin. He was going to pass out—
--and then as suddenly as it’d come, the pain was gone. Sephiroth found himself on his knees, Zack swearing over him as the other man fought to hold him upright by the elbows. Once Zack noticed Sephiroth’s changed condition, he dropped down and flung his arms around Sephiroth. “Oh, thank fucking—”
“Get off.” Sephiroth shoved Zack back, then clawed to his feet. The aftereffects of the attack made him a little dizzy, but he figured out how to compensate quickly enough and lunged for the door. “Get soldiers. Find Sme—check Smecker’s quarters. If he’s not there, he’s already gone. Find Kadaj.”
“What was it? Was it her? Was it Jenova?”
“Get going,” Sephiroth snarled. He went another step, then started to turn, but thankfully Zack muttered a ‘yes, sir’ just in time and Sephiroth could keep going, legs wobbly and mouth bitter with the taste of a new revelation: he wasn’t so cut off from her after all.
…had it been her?
Kadaj, Sephiroth thought, and got nothing back. His foot came down incorrectly and he fell against the wall. Cursing, he pushed off and Vincent. Vincent!
Something very distant stirred, reared back, and then before Sephiroth could even brace himself, stabbed right through every barrier and into the deepest, rawest places of his mind. He screamed against it, desperate not to lose himself again, not like—
--Zack’s voice slowly became comprehensible, though harsh and distorted. Sephiroth slumped against the wall, then rolled over and vomited. He wiped off his mouth before turning his head. “I’m—I’m going out. To get Kadaj and Smecker. You—stay here and—and proof a room. Armor it up, make sure no electro…electromagnetic waves of any kind can get in. Like…the one they put me in. When I was insane.”
“Don’t argue, damn it,” Sephiroth snapped, forcing himself up. He saw an elevator just ahead and threw himself at it, getting the doors shut again just before Zack could get to him. Then he dropped down on the floor again and let his head fall back against the wall, pressed his hands to his cold, wet forehead.
* * *
In all senses of the words, it really had been a bad idea. Paul had known that every step of the way.
Because it was the natural state of man to be curious about everything he shouldn’t be, from the Garden of Eden right down to the latest fads for seeing just how far the human sensory system could be pushed. And yeah, he meant man. Fuck blaming it all on Eve—it wasn’t like she and Adam had been two entirely different species, and of all people, the first perfect specimen of God’s creation had to have had perfect balls. Must’ve been later, when old age had shriveled them, that he’d started blaming things on being a pussy-whipped idiot.
Didn’t she have a human origin, somewhere down the line? Well…no, it actually made more sense if she hadn’t. Yeah, so old Shinra records said there’d been a researcher named Jenova. It wouldn’t be the first time that somebody had let their God-complex bleed into naming.
Anybody human would’ve been able to parse all that cursing, or build up a translator quickly enough. It was only computers…computers that had taken so fucking long to grasp the concept of the vernacular. And even now they still weren’t so good; programming languages had evolved into close to normal languages, but of the very most regular and grammar-perfect editions only.
Better philosophers than some megalomaniac psycho of an alien lifeform had asked that question, and never really come up with an answer. Might as well stick with Descartes, narrow and practically useless as his version had been.
She wasn’t really an alien lifeform, was she? As in different-world alien? Because much as Reeve would love that, that would be such a fucking cop-out. Almost as bad as the idea of an especially virulent piece of AI malware that some disgruntled tech had released and then forgotten about, left to execute decades into the future and then to fail as soon as its code was cracked. Here Paul had been, all wondering and almost excited at the thought that somebody’d finally erased the computing-human line, that somebody had finally finished breaking down the human psyche and then remade it, just to have proof of their work, and…no, come on. So many years of working in his field and hoping to have an answer, hoping to have it all make sense, have all of manhood’s little foibles and errors and fucking stupid weaknesses explainable beyond ‘we’re human, goddamn it’, and…
Because I wanted to say fucking hi, bitch. Say hi back.
Or ignore me. You fucking poseur, you’re going to lose. You’re going to lose so very very fucking badly and you’ll never see why, it’ll never even occur to you to think about why because you don’t know what it’s fucking like to be //angry//.
I do not lose.
Of course you fucking will.
* * *
“Make him wake up! Make him—”
Kadaj’s arm, lengthened by a good three feet of metal, flashed out to the side. Then he froze, staring into the gleaming barrel of Vincent’s gun.
Pinned beneath him, Neo let out a huge sigh. In the corner, Tseng restlessly moved his good hand from squeezing his bleeding shoulder to the hilt of his own sword. He looked furious and it honestly was the first time Sephiroth could ever remember seeing an expression on him.
Vincent stared down at Kadaj, who looked defiantly back. Then his eyes flicked to Smecker’s limp form and Kadaj panicked, screeching and leaping so Sephiroth barely managed to lunge out and grab him in time. He dragged his brother back and hit sharply at Kadaj’s nape, then stuffed the suddenly half-conscious man behind him. “Don’t shoot him,” Sephiroth hissed.
“He’s infected.” Eyebrows raised, Vincent didn’t waste a moment by assuming Sephiroth meant Kadaj.
“That can be fixed, obviously.” Sephiroth almost glanced away at some scraping sounds, but held himself still. He didn’t care if Tseng dragged Neo out of the way, as long as they didn’t leave the room. “He walked into this. He has something planned.”
“Get her out of him!” Kadaj was back to full conscious, but at least he’d regained some sense with it as well. He hit and scratched at Sephiroth’s back, but he wasn’t stupid enough to get between Sephiroth and Vincent. Then he grabbed Sephiroth’s waist and glowered at Neo. “Get her out!”
Neo coughed a couple more times, rubbing at his bruised throat. “I can’t. I can’t do it when she’s…when she’s actively in somebody. I have to catch them when she’s out.”
Sephiroth reached back with his right hand and pried Kadaj off of himself. Then he looked up and snorted when he found the gun-barrel in his face.
Vincent betrayed a similar feeling when he noticed the short-sword prodding at his ribs. As if Sephiroth was going to rely on only Masamune; he knew his own capabilities and he knew that they were seriously diminished from their peak right now.
“She was in me when you took care of me,” Sephiroth quietly said. “You managed it.”
“You’re somewhat more…resilient…than Smecker.” Head tilted, Vincent leaned in slightly. He spoke in subvocal tones, so low that a mod-less Sephiroth could barely hear, and Sephiroth doubted that anyone besides maybe Kadaj could’ve heard either. And Kadaj wouldn’t be quite capable of making sense of it, even if he weren’t still shrieking. “How did you get here?”
Sephiroth swallowed a more hysterical reply. “No thanks to you. You know what you can do to me—you’ve made sure I know my dependencies. But I’m a living being, Vincent. I grow. I adapt. I can get stronger.”
“You’re not strong enough right now,” Vincent murmured, voice edged.
The air was bone-dry, parching Sephiroth’s lips. He licked once at them and wasn’t surprised to see Vincent not look. “Then it’s your best chance to kill me, isn’t it? If that’s what you want.”
Vincent’s face tightened. That was the extent of the preliminaries before his mouth was suddenly crushing Sephiroth into a slack-bodied, drop-kneed, moaning puppet. His fist knotted in Sephiroth’s hair as Sephiroth lost focus and let his sword dissolve away.
Then Sephiroth was slammed down on one knee, choking, while beside him Kadaj was going into a fresh set of hysterics. He ripped the collar of his coat open, forced his breathing to slow, and then looked around.
“He left,” Neo intelligently informed him. The other man absently raked one hand through his dust-covered, sweat-matted hair, then seemed to remember something and sprang up cursing. He darted into the next room, only to come back and drop down besides Tseng with a crude-looking first aid kit. “What the fuck was that about?”
“Smecker did something. I don’t know whether it was very stupid or very smart, but…I’m going to give him time to show us which one. So stop screaming. Kadaj,” Sephiroth barked. “Kadaj. Vincent is not going to kill him. We’re taking him back and we have to lock him up so he—”
“—doesn’t turn into you?” Kadaj said. Apparently in all innocence, though Neo laughed and Tseng might’ve succumbed to a sour smile. Kadaj looked wonderingly up at Sephiroth, then suddenly cannonaded into Sephiroth’s chest, nearly knocking them over. His arms went like a vise around Sephiroth’s ribs and then he smacked his face into Sephiroth’s throat for good measure. “Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, big brother.”
Sephiroth lifted his hands, lowered them, and finally lifted them again to retie his hair, which had fallen half-out of its tail. Neo openly stared, even when Sephiroth glowered at him, until Tseng flinched. Then he looked down. “Brothers? Guess you can’t be totally lab-spawn…can’t even imagine what your parents must’ve been like,” he muttered.
Kadaj screwed up his face against Sephiroth’s neck. “I’m going to kill her.” He said it with concentrated, determined fury, but so softly that at first Sephiroth wasn’t certain he’d heard right. Then Kadaj lifted his head and looked Sephiroth in the eye, about as together as Sephiroth had ever seen him. “Mother hurt him. I hate her now.”
“I’m sure you do,” Sephiroth said after a long moment. He pushed and pulled till Kadaj got the idea and then stood up, leaving the other man on the floor. He went over and cautiously looked Smecker over from a few feet away.
“We have some restraints you can borrow if you need them.” Tseng’s first verbal contribution.
“I might have to.” Smecker seemed peaceful enough, whereas even during his unconscious periods, Sephiroth didn’t remember a moment of calm. He’d thrashed and twisted, he had thought, and some of the things Smecker had said to him had hinted that that wasn’t a false memory.
Neo coughed. “So…what was that argument you and Valentine were having about? It got my place trashed, so I think I’m entitled to know.”
“I think I am, too, but you would have to ask Vincent,” Sephiroth said. He turned away and went to collect Kadaj. “All I want to know is what would make Smecker think that he could meet Jenova on level terms. What does he know?”
“I think I hate him, too.” When offered it, Kadaj clutched Sephiroth’s arm to himself as if it were a toy and he were physically about ten years younger. It kept him still, so Sephiroth didn’t protest. “Mother and he both think we’re nothing.”
Sephiroth glanced at him. “Watch your mouth, Kadaj. And pay more attention—I don’t think Vincent’s that stupid now. Nor do I think you have room to talk, given Smecker’s condition.”
Kadaj shut his mouth, and kept a silent vigil beside Smecker all the way back. The way he watched Smecker, it was like he thought the world was lying right there. Sephiroth couldn’t look at him after a while, and instead wandered the halls, listening to nothing and having another first: right now, he envied Kadaj’s situation.