"Vincent. We found something. I think you'll want to take a look at this."
Absently flipping the cell phone closed, Vincent Valentine stood and stared off into the darkness. "We found something." What could that mean? Remnants of Jenova? Another piece of Hojo's insane experiments? Cloud wouldn't call without a good reason, he thought. Wrapping his tattered red cloak around his thin frame, Vincent set off into the mist-enshrouded night.
They rendezvous at one of the numerous partially-destroyed laboratories that riddled Midgar. Cloud and Tifa were waiting outside.
"So, what's this all about?" Vincent asked. "It's not like you to be so mysterious, Cloud."
"We found something, like I said," answered Cloud. "Or rather… someone."
Vincent frowned. "What do you mean?"
"There might be someone else infused with the Chaos entity," said Tifa softly. "But we aren't a hundred percent sure."
For a moment, no one spoke. "Where?" came the soft question. Cloud and Tifa silently turned and headed into the ruins, Vincent a red-and-black shadow behind them.
It was hard going. Much of the building had been blasted or collapsed, and there were no longer any stairs. Cloud led the little group to the edge of a rift torn in the floor and began sliding down the rope anchored to one of the still-standing pylons. Tifa, her eyes worried, and Vincent, mouth set in a grim line, followed him.
Nanaki was waiting for them below, just outside a ragged gap in the concrete wall. He nodded in greeting. "Everything's quiet. No traps or alarms so far," the great red cat said.
Cloud nodded back at Nanaki, glanced at Tifa and Vincent, and entered the room.
It was roughly circular with numerous computer panels winking, whirring, and humming. In fact, the walls were covered with lights, buttons, charts, and monitors with data streaming across them at lightning speed. Vincent noted absently that there was surprisingly little damage, despite the ruined and battered state of the building outside. However, it was the centerpiece of the room which caught his attention.
In the center of the chamber was a tall, glass tube filled with some kind of clear faintly glowing liquid. Narrow metal panels with flashing lights and numerous wires running in and out flanked the glass tube like a pair of grim sentinels… or vice clamps. Floating in the tube was a young woman, eyes closed as if she was asleep. Her ghostly pale arms and legs were limp, head thrown back to expose a slender white throat while a barely modest wrap of what looked like bandages covered her chest and hips. A small transparent mask attached to a tube covered her nose and mouth to provide oxygen. Wires ran from her arms and temples into the machines surrounding her. However, the most striking aspect about her was her hair. The left side was white as snow, short, and messy, but the right side was black as ink, long, and straight. A red mark, similar to Reno's tattoos, slashed down her left cheek, just under her eye.
For a moment, Vincent simply stood there, then slowly circled the glass cylinder, glancing at the computers and monitor screens as he passed. Tifa looked concerned, her dark eyes following Vincent while Cloud simply waited, knowing that when he was ready, his somber friend would speak.
Vincent paused and glanced over at Cloud. "This is the 'something' you mentioned, I presume. How did you find her? And what is she?"
"Cloud, Nanaki, and I were looking through the ruins, searching for any survivors or remnants of OMEGA," Tifa said. Vincent suppressed a shiver at the mention of the super-weapon, the "harvester of souls" that had nearly destroyed their world only a few short weeks ago.
"When we came near this building," she continued, "Nanaki got nervous, because he could smell something strange. Naturally, we came down to investigate and found her." She nodded towards the floating woman.
"There wasn't anything left that could tell us what she's doing here, why she was left here, or even how long she's been here," said Cloud, picking up the thread of the story. "Anything useful is busted beyond repair."
"What about these?" Vincent asked, gesturing to the computers lining the walls.
Cloud shook his head. "We tried them. They're full of data, plenty of statistics and records of things outside this lab, but no records about her."
"It's like she's being fed information, but not sending any back out," said Tifa quietly.
"Hmmm…" Vincent's eyes ran over the data banks thoughtfully. Tifa was right; the data stream was one-way, and no feedback aside from a simple life-sign monitor. "So," he said, "what makes you think she's been infused with the Chaos entity?"
"This," said Cloud, walking over to the life-sign monitor and tapping a few keys. "How old would you say she is? Twenty-two? Twenty-three?"
Vincent nodded slightly, a slight frown on his face. "About that. Why?"
"But if you look at this tissue reading, she's chronologically about sixty-seven years old." Cloud's blue-green eyes met Vincent's red ones as a look of understanding flashed in them.
"You believe that, in order for her to be frozen at one age like this, she went through the same experimentation I did," said Vincent quietly.
"That's the theory," said Tifa, "but we don't know for sure. She might not be a host for Chaos, but even if that's the case, we have no idea what kind of changes have been made to her."
"She could have been down here for years, slowly aging," Cloud added, "or she might have been constructed here, but who knows? There's nothing left to tell us."
Nanaki's fur bristled. "All I know is that something doesn't smell right down here," he growled. "It reeks of old blood and experiments."
Suddenly, a silver glow lit the room from above. They all jerked, startled at the sudden illumination.
"Where on earth…?" Cloud started to say.
"It's the moon," Vincent replied, looked upwards. "The moonlight is shining down a shaft into the cylinder."
Tifa gasped. "Look!" she whispered, pointing at the cylinder. Vincent and Cloud turned their attention to it as Nanaki blinked in surprise.
The woman in the tube was moving. Very slowly, she flexed her slender fingers, and lowered her head. As she raised her head once more, opening her eyes to look up at the moonlight, Tifa stifled another gasp. The woman's eyes were different colors. The right eye on the side with black hair was the blue-green color that anyone obtained when exposed to Mako for long periods of time, like Cloud. But her left eye on the white-haired side was the same ruby-red shade as Vincent's eyes.
She blinked in the silver light, apparently oblivious to their presence, and then slowly raised one arm to reach up towards the moon. Her fingers made small stirring motions, dipping like birds in slow motion, and a small smile of blissful contentment tugged the corners of her mouth. Then her gaze fell on the four friends and her strange eyes went wide as she lowered her hand in surprise. There was no fear in her stare, only curiosity.
"You brought back moon?" the woman asked. Her voice was high, closer to a child's pitch than that of a mature woman, and her sentence was structured like a child's. Despite being muffled by the mask, glass, and liquid, her words were understandable, but with a strange lilt which gave her an unusual accent.
"Excuse me?" said Cloud, a bit surprised himself.
"What do you mean?" asked Tifa.
The woman blinked. "Moon not come for long time," she said. "Big dark came, make all dark, very dark. Wait and wait, but no moon. Now moon back and you come. You bring back moon?"
"May have been all the dust and clouds kicked up from when you fought OMEGA, Vincent," said Cloud softly. "That probably blocked out the sky for a while out here."
"Big dark gone, good to have moon back," said the woman, smiling.
"What is your name?" Tifa asked.
"Yes, your name. I'm Tifa. This is Cloud, Nanaki, and Vincent. What's your name?"
For a moment, the woman seemed to be thinking, eyes lowered. When she raised them again, the smile was back on her face. "Hikari. My name Hikari." She looked at the others, and reached out a hand to touch the inner wall of her glass home. "Tifa," Hikari said, looking at Tifa. "Cloud. Nanaki. Vincent!" She smiled, looking proud that she'd been able to name them all correctly.
"That's right, Hikari!" said Tifa, smiling in encouragement. "Now, Hikari, can you tell us how long you've been here?"
Hikari blinked. "Always," she said simply.
"Was there anyone else here with you?"
This time confusion clouded Hikari's face. "Else?"
"Yes," Tifa prompted, "were there others with you?"
"Some come, some go, I not always see," said Hikari with a shrug. "Do things I not know, look at funny metal things there, make noises and words I not know, then go away again. Sometimes come back, sometimes don't." She paused. "No one come back long time now, not even Miss Lucy."
"Who's Lucy?" asked Cloud.
Hikari's eyes lit up. "Miss Lucy good! She come and talk, but not talk things I don't know. Sometimes not talk, just look and those times, she made water in the eyes. But she not come in long time."
"'Water in the eyes'?" Nanaki repeated, looking bewildered.
"I think she means that this Lucy came and cried," said Cloud.
"'Cried'?" Hikari repeated. "What is 'cried'?"
"Whatever was done to her, it appears to have affected her mental operations," said Vincent quietly. "Her mind may be irrevocably damaged from experimental tampering."
"But we still have no idea what kind of experiment it was," Cloud replied.
Hikari pressed her palms against the glass, her eyes flashing from one person to the next, trying to follow their conversation.
"We can't just leave her," said Tifa.
"Leave?" asked Hikari, eyes wide. "You… you leave?" Her words trembled slightly at the end.
"Don't be afraid," said Cloud. "You can come with us, as soon as we figure out how to open that tank."
Hikari's eyes lit up with childlike joy and she nodded excitedly.
"Cloud," said Vincent quietly, "are you sure that's a good idea?"
"What do you mean?" asked Cloud, frowning slightly. "We can't leave her; who knows how long this place will hold up?"
"I know, but if she is a host for Chaos then she will be extremely dangerous without Protomateria to contain it. Believe me, if Chaos breaks free, we four will not be able to control her."
"That's just a risk we'll have to take," Cloud answered, eyes filled with determination. Tifa smiled, nodding in agreement. Vincent frowned, sinking back into the shadows. He didn't like it, but was reluctant openly oppose Cloud.
"Hikari," said Cloud, turning towards her, "were you ever let out of that cylinder?"
She shook her head. "No, always in. No little blink-blink to hit for opening."
Cloud sighed. "Of course, it never can be simple."
"Maybe it can be," said Vincent. He drew out his triple-muzzled handgun, Cerberus, and aimed at the glass tube. Perhaps she can't survive outside the tank, he thought. That would solve things neatly. "Crouch down as low as you can," he ordered Hikari. She hunched low, curling up as tight as she could and tucked her head under her arms.
BAM! BAM! BAM! Three shots fired in quick succession shattered the side of the glass cylinder, and the clear liquid gushed out.
"Well, that was easy," said Tifa.
"Too easy," Vincent replied. Why was it so easy to break through? he wondered. With such a potentially dangerous experiment, why wasn't the glass stronger? Where are the security measures? Unless the upper building's destruction short-circuited them…
Almost on cue, the alarms began to wail like demented souls.
"Now what?" Tifa asked, looking around sharply.
Before Vincent could answer her, there was a sharp sizzling sound and Hikari screamed.
Volts of electricity were pouring into her through the wires attached to her arms and temples, leaving her writhing and screaming in agony in her slowly draining tank. In a single swift motion, Vincent leapt for the wires and yanked them from the wall with his gloved hand. Hikari slumped in the remaining liquid at the bottom of the tank. Cloud smashed more of the glass, widening the hole Vincent had made with the Cerberus until he and Tifa could lift Hikari out. She was trembling with pain and residue shocks from the electricity, the pupils in her eyes dilated to their fullest extent.
Tifa gently touched her pale shoulder. "Hikari? Can you hear me? Are you okay?"
Hikari took a few shallow breaths and nodded. "Ouch," she said.
"A few hundred volts and all she says is 'ouch,'" said Nanaki, shaking his head.
Hikari looked at him. "What, did I use wrong word?"
Cloud and Tifa burst out laughing with relief. Tifa patted Hikari's arm, smiling. "No, Hikari, that was the right word," she said with a smile.
"Can you stand?" Vincent asked, glancing around swiftly. The alarms had stopped blaring, but he didn't want to wait around for any more security surprises. He glanced at Hikari, hiding his surprise and unease that she had survived leaving the tank and the electricity.
"Yes, I walk," she answered, slowly getting to her feet. Cloud and Tifa steadied Hikari as she wobbled for a moment, then balanced. However, she moved in an odd manner, on tip-toes like a dancer, as if she wasn't quite fully anchored to the ground.
Vincent nodded. "We should get moving then." He wasn't sure why he'd cut the power like that. He'd simply reacted. That made him... uncomfortable.
Hikari reached out and touched his sleeve as he passed. Vincent stopped and looked at her.
She stared right back and said, "You save me from bright-pain-death. I thank you… Vincent."
He inclined his head in silent acknowledgment, and led the little group back towards the surface.
Moments later the chamber was empty, save for the slowly whirring computers, the slight drip-drip of clear liquid from a shattered glass cylinder, and a lonely stream of moonlight.