The Aurora Project Chapter 2
"Dammit!" Cid's yell echoed across the ruins of Midgar. Heads turned, merely to see the thin man violently prying his foot out of a giant pile of wreckage. Tifa's laugh rang out.
"Cid, you silly man. Are you stuck again?"
"Watch it, Lockheart." He made a menacing gesture with his spear. "Or I'll get you stuck."
Red bounded from piece to piece of what seemed to be machinery left over from the fall of the upper plate. "Here," he said, grabbing the offending piece of sheet metal in his teeth and pulling. Cid wrenched his leg free with a stream of curse words. Red grinned.
Cid glared down at him. "How come you find this so easy?"
"Simple," Red laughed. "My weight's more easily distributed than yours cause I have four paws instead of two feet."
"Yeah, Cid," Tifa called from ahead. "Why don't you try crawling on all fours?"
Cid growled. "Why don't you try running, Lockheart? Cause once I get up there..." He carefully began to pick his way toward the front where Barrett and Tifa were leading the expedition. Red laughed and fell to the back to accompany Cloud and Vincent, who were holding the rear, keeping an eye out for any of the rumored monsters.
"Seen anything, Red?" Cloud asked. "Or smelled anything?"
"Nope." Red shook his head, braids swinging. "At least, nothing malicious. I've been picking up faint scents of humans and a great deal of Mako. But nothing alive or urgent."
"Good." Vincent carefully picked his way among the rubble, balancing with his clawed hand when needed. The good arm stayed close to the gun tucked in his belt.
"What do you think'll be in the Shinra HQ?" Red asked, jumping nimbly as the metal bars beneath him began to collapse. "What could be left?"
"Lots of stuff," Cloud said. "As bad as the city is, the HQ was relatively well built. Probably no people; probably monsters; and probably real interesting junk."
"The basement is most likely untouched as well," Vincent added, then stopped momentarily at the look on Cloud's face. "What?"
"You're kidding," Cloud said. "How much of a basement?"
"A fairly extensive one." Vincent's face wrenched a bit at the memory. "Full of Hojo's more ... private labs, as well as a decent amount of storage space. It was very well protected and probably withstood most of the attack."
"I don't believe it. An entire basement full of Shinra?" Red shook his head in exasperation.
Cloud sighed, and opened his mouth to vent his feelings; but anything he could have said was well expressed by Cid's violent "DAMMIT!", as another pile of metal gave way beneath his feet.
The remains of the Shinra Headquarters were quite impressive. Most of the 70-story building had crashed to pieces, but remained, scattered, in surprisingly intact pieces around the area. Cloud sighed. "Vincent says there's a basement which probably stayed intact throughout the destruction. My guess is this entire place is teeming with monsters."
Red nodded. "It feels like it."
"Then how about this?" Cloud asked. "We'll split into two groups. Two of you will come with me to check out this basement. The other three will explore the remaining wreckage. We'll meet back here at the end of the day, unless there are problems, in which case, call PHS."
"I'll go with you, Cloud," said Tifa. "I want to see the storerooms."
"Vincent?" Cloud asked, but the dark man shook his head.
"I will show you the entrance," Vincent said slowly, "but I have ...no desire to see the basement again. I will explore the upper floors."
"Then I'll go with you, Vince," said Red. "I don't think I want any more of those labs, either."
They soon split off; Barrett traveled with Cloud and Tifa, while Cid followed Vincent and Red: "There's no way I'm going down into the basement where I can trip on more shit," he said, with a laugh.
"Take care," Cloud said. "We'll come back here at dusk and set up camp."
Vincent, Red, and Cid climbed upwards into the first large piece of building. The interior was dimly lit, and covered in dust. A few bodies lay scattered around, and even the fierce Red winced a bit. So much death, he thought. Such a price.
"Shit," Cid muttered. "This place is smashed to bajeezus and back. There's not going to be anything in here."
"Perhaps." Vincent walked carefully through the wreckage and peered up a staircase. "That's what we want to make sure. We should find the upper floors - that's where the libraries were, as well as the upper labs and all the bureaucratic stuff."
"How do you know so much about Shinra?" Red asked.
"Hey, he used to be a Turk, y'know," Cid said. Red shot him a look.
"Not only that," Vincent said smoothly, unperturbed, "but I've done a lot of research on this place in the past month."
They continued on; crawling, at times, when necessary (Cid swore some more), but walking when they could. The first chunk of building proved decently empty; the second, however, was a little more successful.
"Damn!" Cid whistled at the sight of all the Materia lying on the ground. The room glowed faintly green with the shimmering energy. "Some storehouse must have broken. There's at least a dozen in here!"
"Good stuff, too," Red said, nosing it. "This one's been mastered."
They picked them up and tested them, one by one. It must have been some Shinra Executive's personal collection, for they were all the basic spells in mastered condition: Fire, Ice, Lightning, Earth, Restore, Revive. They had grabbed seven or eight when they heard a slight rumbling from the door behind them.
"Red?" Cid asked. "Your tummy growling?"
Red turned slowly to face the gaping black door. "Nope," he said quietly. "Something else."
Vincent turned as well and drew out his long gun. "Must've been drawn by the Materia," he said, also quiet. For a second, nothing happened; the three stood, poised to attack, eyes fixed on the door before them.
Then suddenly a pair of creatures sprung out at them, landing on four clawed feet and growling menacingly. They were huge, scaly beasts, covered in thick brown scales with blackened horns. Red barked once, a quick call to battle, and leapt in, piercing the closest beast with both his fangs and the deadly points of the Limited Moon.
Their fighting style had not waned in the month they had been apart. They had adapted a system of taking quick turns in battle. This way, there was no chance of damaging a lingering ally with a huge Fire spell; there was also a chance for each member of the fighting party to heal or recover. As Red bounded back out of the enemy's reach, Cid followed up with a swing of his giant spear. Vincent had retreated to the back and took aim upon the beast once Cid had backed away. Red dove in again, fiercely slashing the creature, who fell at his attack. The second one swung and hit Cid in the upper arm with a long, heavy tail; Cid swore loudly and cracked the beast upside the head with the butt end of his spear. Vincent, from the back row, sent a healthy amount of Cure in Cid's direction while Red, wary of the second beast, summoned Lightning from the sky onto the beast's head. Cid followed with a blast of Fire, and Vincent's expert aim brought the creature to the floor.
Red stretched and panted a bit. "Everyone alright?"
"Damn," Cid said. "Let's grab this Materia and get out of here."
Vincent twirled his gun around his finger in an absent habit and tucked it back in his belt. "Be alert. I'm guessing there are many such treasure troves in this building that have attracted weakened, starving beasts. Watch our backs."
They continued on. The next building was merely full of what had been the weight room; one sniff from Red and they moved past it. Climbing through the rubble, using Fire when necessary to light up darkened passages, they found a couple cabinets stocked with health items: Hi-Potions, read the labels. Hi-Ether. They also found a trunk full of newly-born materia, shining with promise and utterly empty of experience. "Let's give this to Yuffie," Cid said with a grin. "I'm sure she'll love having to train it herself."
The next building held a slew of dead bodies no one wanted to truck through. Vincent shuddered. What is happening, that even I become averse to death? They finally reached the largest, still-standing piece and went inside.
Cloud, Barrett, and Tifa had cleared away some of the debris and found a gaping hole beneath where Shinra HQ had once stood. "Scary," Tifa said. "To think there was an entire set of floors beneath the tower."
They dropped down quietly, and Cloud lit a long piece of wood on fire to guide them. The basement stank of disuse, but was - as Vincent predicted - relatively intact. Here and there large holes in the ceiling let in pieces of fading sunlight. They traveled down a large hall, and found a strange diagram at the end.
"Bingo!" Barrett was pleased. "Here's a nice map. Labs, floor A. Storerooms, floors B, C, D. Damn! That many storerooms?"
Tifa made a face. "Probably full of stuff Shinra didn't want anybody to find."
"Like what?" Barrett asked. "Dead bodies?"
"Shh!" Tifa shuddered. "Stop that!"
They descended a nearby staircase into a strange world. Long, twisting pieces of pipe and glass tubing arced over strange vats and half-partitions. Odd capsules stood in long lines, some full of unrecognizable, dark liquids. An eerie half-light permeated the room, a veritable maze of consoles, desks, tables, and Mako pods. "Hojo," Cloud whispered.
He followed a small clearing in the mess that may have served as a hallway. Surrounding them were rotting and dripping vials and tubes, obviously neglected for quite some time. One large vat had broken open, and whatever clumpy life form had been housed inside it had met its demise on the floor, drowned in its own ooze. Cloud carefully sidestepped it, then froze. In front of them had been a sound.
Tifa's head snapped up from the grotesque form on the cement. "Cloud?" she whispered.
Cloud never turned his head. "There's something up there," he said. Barrett came to stand beside Tifa. "Let's go," Cloud whispered, raising his sword before him.
They tiptoed through the eerie lab, wanting to regain the power of surprise on any enemy before them. Around them, the sounds of liquid dripping on the cold floor made Tifa shiver. Oh, come on, she told herself sternly. Focus!
Cloud turned a corner and stopped abruptly. Before him lay a puddle of blue-green ooze, spilled across the floor. Half of a broken vat still held the remainder of the fluid, and from it lapped a very odd creature looking like a genetic cross between a dragon and a dinosaur. It heard Cloud's last footstep and looked up, narrowing slender eyes, glowing blue fluid dripping from its jaws. For a moment, no one moved. Then the creature leapt up with a growl, clawing Cloud across the arm before he swung his sword and knocked it back into the puddle. It slipped a little, looking for traction, then hurled itself at Tifa. A well-aimed Fire spell from her gloved hands caught it across the stomach and threw it backwards. Barrett fired a round from his gun-arm, raking a line of holes across the black flesh.
Undaunted, the creature leapt back to its feet, pacing back and forth in the blue slime. Cloud tucked his sword away and concentrated, calling forth the spell of Flare. The creature shrieked as it felt itself wrapped in the fiery sphere. As it landed, Tifa ran forward and quickly pummeled the beast, feeling the solid edges of her gloves strike its wounded flesh. It snapped at her as she retreated; she slipped and would have taken quite a beating if Barrett's gun-arm hadn't thrown it off of her with the force of the bullets.
And yet, the monster stood. "Flare didn't kill it?" Tifa asked in disbelief as Cloud slipped in the blue ooze and missed. "Careful!" he shouted. "We'd better stick to magic!" Tifa summoned a powerful Lightning spell, temporarily stunning the creature for another round from Barrett. Cloud sighed, then concentrated again, casting Freeze on the creature. This time, it fell to the ground, unmoving. Tifa threw Lightning at it for good measure, and the body disintegrated.
"Damn!" Barrett ran his fingers over the Materia in his gun-arm; finding Restore, he cast a nice healing spell over them all. "Was that one of Hojo's?"
"I don't know," said Cloud. He was still tense from the battle. "Let's continue on. Be ready."
They carefully sidestepped the blue puddle on the floor and continued down a darkened hallway. In one room off the hallway stood a bunch of specimens of animals, apparently stuffed. A small shuffle in front of them drew everyone's attention.
"Cloud? Do you see that?" The doorframe was bathed in a strange silver glow.
"Yeah." He tightened his grip on the sword. "Be ready."
They entered the room in a rush, weapons raised - but stopped in surprise. Before them was a strange figure - seemingly human, though male or female, they couldn't tell. It was clothed in loose-fitting, standard issue lab garb, yet bathed in a shimmering silver light. Its eyes glowed, golden spheres in a thin face. It was perched atop a pile of cabinets, watching them.
"Who are you?" Its voice clearly identified it as female.
"Who are you?" Cloud asked. "We don't want to hurt you, if you can understand us."
"Understand you?" The glowing figure shifted around on the filing cabinets. "Who are you?"
"Well ... " Cloud looked at the others for guidance, then shrugged the typical shrug. "My name is Cloud, that other man is Barrett, and this young woman is Tifa."
The girl before them just stared. "Your name is?" Tifa ventured.
She continued to stare. "I don't have a name."
"You what?" Barrett began, before Tifa hushed him.
"I don't have a name," she said straightforwardly. "I'm a project."
Cloud took a step toward the girl, tentatively. "Will you come down and talk with us? We're not going to hurt you."
"At once." The girl leapt nimbly, reminiscent of Red, and sat down on the floor in front of them. The silver glow around her faded, though her eyes still shone faintly with golden light.
Cloud gestured to Tifa, then turned around, picking up the PHS and pressing the Call' button. After a ring or two, he heard Cid's gruff voice: "Yeah?"
"Hey. Just checking in. What have you guys got?"
Cid grunted. "Some Materia ... some potions ... some monsters. Nothin' real exciting. There ain't shit here."
"Well, then, come down here. You won't believe what we found."
Cid cursed. "Where are you?"
"Basement, first floor. Red should be able to smell us out. Hurry!"
Meanwhile, Tifa had sat down in front of the girl. Her face was blank of emotion or thought as she stared at Tifa. Her skin was very white and thin, and she had black hair chopped short - rather unevenly - to about her ears. Large chunks of it fell into her golden eyes. Finally, Tifa had to say something.
"So what are you doing down here?"
The girl's eyebrow raised slightly. "What do you mean? I've always been down here."
"Here? In the labs?"
The girl nodded. "I'm a project."
Tifa bit her lip. "Alright." She didn't quite know what to say to the figure before her. "Were you born here, then?"
"I've always been down here," the girl repeated.
Barrett eased himself down onto the floor. "What sort of project, girl?"
She cocked her head, looking at him for a brief second. "Where are you guys from?"
"What?" Barrett was caught off his guard.
"You're not white coats. You're not blue suits. I've never seen you before." The girl straightened her head, black pieces of hair falling in her eyes.
"Where did you come from?" No answer.
"Do you know - " Tifa's question was cut off by the sounds of footsteps and a sudden gasp behind her.
"The Aurora Project?"
Vincent's voice was hushed as he walked forward from the shadows. Behind him, Red and Cid materialized. He crouched in front of the girl, who just looked at him as she looked at everyone else. Glowing eyes met: red and gold.
Finally, she looked up. "He knows what I am," she said, as in explanation.
"What's that?" Tifa asked.
"The Aurora Project," Vincent and the young girl spoke in unison.
She then looked at him, her eyes clear. "How do you know what I am?" she asked. He was kneeling in front of her, and she met his eyes with no pretense - almost as if her thought was not her own.
"I remember you ... and I read about you ... this past month ... wait!" He reached out and tentatively touched her face. Tifa stifled a gasp; never in the time she had known Vincent had she ever seen him voluntarily touch someone. The girl simply looked at him, resigning herself to being poked and prodded once more. Gently, Vincent brushed her bangs away from her face. Beneath the ragged black hair lay a thin band of metal with some sort of jewels embedded in it. Vincent pried it from her forehead. The girl blinked.
"What is that?" she asked, with a little more life in her voice.
Vincent held it in his hand, almost shaking in fury. "Look here," he said, turning to Cloud and prying away a piece of the metal. The tiny cusps didn't hold jewels; instead, they held smoothed and rounded pieces of yellow Materia. Cloud narrowed his eyes. "Is that ...?"
"Manipulate Materia," Vincent said.
There was a strange silence. Then Cloud looked at the figure on the ground and sighed. "What is she?" he asked.
But before Vincent could answer, the girl had moved in front of him once more, staring into his face. "I remember you," she said, on the verge of emotion. She reached out with a hand and touched his hair. Tifa stifled yet another gasp; but Vincent did not flinch, or even blink. He just looked at her with something resembling compassion - as strange an emotion as that was to find on the face of Vincent Valentine. She was very close to him, almost in his lap, and gestured to his glowing eyes and then her own.
"Hojo put beasts in you," she said matter-of-factly. "You came to the lab and screamed."
"Yes," Vincent conceded after a long pause, "that was I."
Footfalls echoed in the room, and Red approached the girl. "Wait. You were with Hojo when I was captive here ..."
Her eyes widened at the sight of the beast. "You are ..." Then her eyes focused on something and she almost gasped. She reached a hand out unashamedly and touched one of Red's many tattoos - XIII, it read on his shoulder. She stroked it. "You're number thirteen," she said. "You ran away from Hojo. Look."
She pushed up the sleeve of her oversized t-shirt. Around her shoulder were very fine tattoo marks. As Red looked closer, his eyes caught numbers, scattered from about one to twenty, and letters - some sort of coding?
She peered at her own shoulder and then pointed out a number. "Number thirteen," she said, showing the beast her shoulder. Above a thin scar from a needle was tattooed: XIII.
Red gasped and stepped back. "What's that?"
"Hojo took a sample from you and put it in me."
"What?" Red was furious. "We're not even the same species! I knew he'd taken my blood, but I thought it was for research, not for ..."
She rolled her sleeve down. "He took some and put it in me. He did the same thing for almost all of his subjects." It was just a fact, like everything else she had said.
"Wait a second ..." Cloud had a thought. He walked toward the girl and gestured to her sleeve. "May I see?"
"Of course," she said automatically, rolling up the sleeve again and waiting.
Cloud scanned the row of tattoos. Varied numbers from one to twenty, interspersed by some strange notation of letters. He squinted. Two right next to each other caught his eye: C:I and C:A. His eyes widened in surprise. "What about these two?"
She looked down to where he was pointing. "Cetra," she said, like it was nothing.
"You're makin' this up, girl," Barrett growled. "Cetra, now?"
She nodded, her wide eyes staring down the large black man. Somehow, her open stare made him uncomfortable.
"Well, wait," said Cloud, drawing his fingers away from the girl's shoulder without touching her. "I and A ... the only Cetra Hojo ever came into contact with ..."
Tifa gasped. "Ilfalna and Aeris," she said, her voice hushed.
Cid spat on the floor. "Holy shit."
Vincent nodded. "I believe so. All of Hojo's records ... agree with what the girl has said."
He stood up and slowly backed away from the girl on the floor. She remained, sitting, her knees drawn up to her chin.
"Girl, you have Cetra in you?" Barrett demanded gruffly. She nodded. "And you have some of ... some of Red in you?" She nodded again. "Well, what else?" he prodded.
She tilted her head. "I was formed from a combination of cells from Cetra, cosmoe, and a variety of humans, bathed in Mako directly from the Lifestream." She recited it as if it were a recipe, making Tifa twinge in disgust. "Later in my life, I was injected with additional samples, here." She gestured to her shoulder. "I currently carry inside of me a mix of twenty-three different bloodlines and the magical powers thereof."
"But you're human!" Tifa stepped forward and crouched, looking at the girl. "You're a person, too."
"Yes, I am human," the girl replied, seemingly not noticing the emotion in Tifa's voice. "Among other things."
Tifa's eyes were full of sadness. "At least tell us your name."
The girl straightened her head. "I am the Aurora Project," she said simply.
"Can we call you Aurora?" Cloud asked, kindly. He reached down and placed a hand on Tifa's shoulder.
"Of course." The girl nodded decisively.
Barrett let out a huge sigh and sat down on an upturned bookshelf. "It's about time to camp for the night, Cloud. Looks like we're stayin' down here for now."
They had set up a tent and dragged out the sleeping bags. In the center of the dimly lit room burned a small fire, lit by Materia and fueled by the bookshelf Barrett had found. They gathered around it to cook their rations for dinner, and more for the light than anything.
At the edge of the fire's glow lay the young girl - Aurora. She had almost immediately curled up into a ball and drifted off into sleep. They noticed that the silver sheen returned to her when she slept, covering her body with a faint light. "Some sort of shield?" Red had guessed. "A protection?"
Now everyone's eyes kept returning to her. Finally Cloud became too curious and asked: "Vincent, what is she? What have you found in your research about her?"
Vincent bowed his head, shading his features with his long, dark hair. "The most eccentric and strange of all of Hojo's experiments ...and yet, perhaps, the most graceful."
This enigmatic answer was not enough for Cloud. "But what was she ... well, made for? Is all that stuff really in her?"
Vincent sighed. "She truly is a composite. From what I discovered in Hojo's writings ... well, she is a one-of-a-kind experiment. As she told you, she came from an altered human embryo; injected with the strengths and blood of different species - human, Cetra, cosmoe - it's a surprise she came out so ... normally. She was never a child; Hojo sped up her development to an age where she could be appropriately ...tinkered with and observed."
"What?" A look of utter revulsion came over Tifa's face.
"Well, Hojo made her as a unique specimen with which he could play games." Vincent's face echoed Tifa's disgust. "With so many samples combined, her response to anything was very likely to be unique and interesting. He would give her bits of everything else he found - hence, Red and Aeris - to see how she reacted. His notes spell out in detail everything that ...he gave her."
"Where are the notes?"
"Library at Nibelheim." Vincent smiled wryly. "I never thought my research would have proved so ...useful."
"So," Cloud asked carefully, "what do you remember about Hojo's experiments?" Vincent gave him a strange look and he shrugged. "I just want to make sure we're not going to wake up in the middle of the night with knives at our throats, or on fire. I have a feeling this girl's going to be coming with us, and I want to know what to expect."
Vincent shook his head, a strange smile playing across his dark lips. "Well ...very close to anything you can imagine has been injected into that poor girl. Mako, of course. Liquid Materia. Lifestream. Dragon's blood." He stood abruptly. "Excuse me." Cloud gestured, but with a leap Vincent was gone, into the dark shadows of the room.
"Must have hit something close there," Cid said, lighting a cigarette.
"Vincent likes the shadows," Red said. "He'll be alright. I think it's just ...the fact that the girl knew him."
Tifa turned to Cloud. "I'm assuming we're taking her with us."
Cloud shrugged, a helpless look on his face. "I guess. I don't know what else to do with her. She can't stay here by herself any longer; someone has to tell her that Hojo is dead, and no one will care for her anymore. And it's not like she can go back to her family somewhere. I think we should keep an eye on her."
"Mako." Cid whistled. "Materia. How do you get that in somebody?"
"If you're Hojo, you don't care," said Red. "You just ...do it and watch what happens."
All eyes turned to the girl. Ageless in her sleep, covered in her shimmering silver cloak, she seemed other-worldly, strange. A footstep behind them made them all turn; Vincent's dark head peered in the door.
"One other, very important thing," he said. "There were two things Hojo was fanatically careful to never mix into Aurora's blood: Sephiroth and Jenova."
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