Hidden Light

Tattered Clues

Hikari did not leave the house after that. Tifa and Cloud cut back as much as possible and kept any trips into town as short as they could. Barret, Nanaki, and Vincent were permanent fixtures, and Marlene and Denzel tried to keep Hikari occupied. But Hikari was not as buoyant as before, constantly glancing out the windows and tensing whenever she heard the door open. She struggled to keep this to herself, but Vincent could tell she was still scared and upset. Most of their evening conversations had little talking; Hikari spent much of that time silently shivering. It made Vincent feel frustrated and helpless. Their enemy was out there, but who were they? Where were they coming from? Where did they go? When would they come back and what would they bring to claim their prize?

With so little knowledge of their enemy's capabilities, they decided it was best to hunker down and wait, to lure their enemies to them. But soon everyone was second-guessing themselves. Barret considered sending Marelene and Denzel away with Tifa to the WRO so they would be out of them way when things got messy. But, at the same time, without the children to keep her occupied, they weren’t sure how well Hikari would be able to deal with the tension building up in the house like a poisonous gas.

“Maybe we should all head out to the WRO,” Barret muttered one afternoon as he sat on the front porch, eyeing everyone who passed with suspicion. “Money’s getting’ tight with all of us hangin’ around here all day, and they’ve got a hell of a lot more protection and firepower there.”

Barret was right; the WRO would probably be safer. “The problem is getting there,” said Vincent softly from the deeper shadows of the porch. “The Shera is too big to land in town and any landing site Cid picks will probably be attacked.”

“Moving targets are harder to hit,” said Barret.

“Are you willing to bet Marlene’s life on that?” It was a low blow, but it did stop Barret’s grumbling.

As soon as she was sure Vincent and Barret were done talking, Hikari crawled backwards away from the window she’d been listening under, rose, and tip-toed deeper into the house. Denzel and Marlene were drawing pictures at the kitchen table. Hikari smiled and sat down with them, but her mind wasn’t really focused on the bright colors. She kept thinking about what Vincent and Barret had talked about. Her friends tried not to talk about their concerns or worries when she was around to keep her from worrying, so Hikari started eavesdropping on conversations, trying to understand their state of mind.

Things very bad, Hikari thought as she outwardly smiled at something Denzel said. If stay, the bad mens will come and Vincent and Tifa and the little ones and everyone will be hurt. If try to go, the bad mens will come and Vincent and Tifa and the little ones and everyone will be hurt. Go and stay... both bad. Both ways, friends get hurt. Because Hikari is here.

“Hikari! Hikari! Look at what I drew!” Marlene cried, holding up her drawing. Hikari shook her head to shake away the sad thoughts and looked. It was a sprawling picture of a little grey house with colorful stick figure people decorating the front lawn. “It’s a picture of all of us!” Marlene said proudly. She started pointing out all the little figures, ending with the four in the middle. “That’s me and Denzel,” said Marlene, pointing to the two shorter figures. “The one in the middle is you, and that’s Vincent! It’s a family portrait!” Marlene finished proudly. The middle figure with half black, half white hair was holding the hands of the children. A bright red figure holding an oversized handgun stood next to them.

Hikari lightly touched the drawing with her fingers. A family... Tears welled up in her eyes and Hikari backed away from the drawing, afraid she would ruin it.

Marlene looked worried. “Hikari? What’s wrong? You don’t like my picture?”

The tears spilled out faster as Hikari shook her head. “No, Marlene, picture is pretty, very pretty. I... I...” The remaining words were swallowed by sobs as Hikari collapsed into a chair and covered her face with her hands.

She heard the patter of Marlene’s feet, the creak of the front door opening, and then the clanking approach of boots. Leather creaked as someone crouched beside her. “Hikari, what is it?” Vincent asked.

Hikari could only shake her head from side to side, her face still covered. All wrong! she thought. Shouldn’t be this! Don’t want them hurt! “Sorry,” she choked out through the tears. “Sorry... so sorry...”

Marlene wrapped her arms around Hikari in a tight hug and Vincent placed his hand lightly on her shoulder, but the tears would not stop. So sorry...

After that day, Hikari didn’t cry anymore. She wasn’t as animated either, but she did start asking questions about Edge and the places beyond it. She asked for a map of the world and spent hours looking at it, asking questions about distances and how people traveled places. The children were especially happy to tell Hikari about airships like the Shera, boats that carried people and their belongings across the ocean, and chocobos, the huge yellow birds that were the primary mode of transportation in more rural areas. Hikari seemed fascinated and Vincent was glad that she had left her depression behind.

At the end of the week after Hikari's breakdown, everyone was home when Vincent’s phone suddenly rang.

“Vincent Valentine,” a familiar feminine voice said.

“Hello, Shelke,” said Vincent, his smile hidden by his collar. “How have you been?”

“Very busy tracking down information about Hikari,” replied Shelke. “Thanks to my ability to net-dive, Reeve Tuesti and Yuffie Kisaragi requested my services. We have recovered some data.”

Vincent tensed. “Data? What is it?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tifa and Cloud look up expectantly.

“I will send the data via video-link. Please go to a room with the necessary equipment.”

Vincent looked at Barret. “Got a vid-feed in the back,” said the big man. “We can hook up your phone there.”

As Cloud and Tifa followed Barret out of the room, Vincent paused, seeing that Hikari had not moved from her seat on the floor with Marlene and Denzel. “One moment, Shelke.” He lowered the phone from his ear. “Coming, Hikari?” Vincent asked.

Hikari’s eyes flickered to Vincent, then refocused on the floor. “No… will play with Marlene and Denzel. Hide and seek?”

Marlene clapped. “Yay!”

“Sounds good,” said Denzel with an indulgent smile at Marlene.

Vincent looked at Hikari questioningly. She stood and looked towards him, but her mismatched eyes did not meet his. “Do not think it good to see yet. Not know what done to Hikari, so not know if would see something to make bad things happen again. Like at dancing place.” She smiled, but it seemed brittle, and not like her at all. “Hikari can wait.”

“All right,” Vincent said. “Nanaki is on guard outside. We’ll take a look at the data Shelke found and let you know what’s in it.”

Hikari nodded. She stepped closer and wrapped her arms around Vincent in a sudden embrace. He awkwardly patted her on the back with the back of his right hand which was still holding the phone. He paused. Hikari was trembling slightly. “Hikari?”

Her face was buried in his shoulder, voice muffled by the cloth. “Thank you, Vincent. For everything.”

Unsure of how to respond, Vincent patted her back again and said, “You’re welcome.”

Eyes still downcast, Hikari let go and turned to the children. “Play now? You hide, I seek?”

As the children jumped to their feet, Vincent followed the others into the darkened vid-feed room.

Barett’s vid-screen was old and jury-rigged into working order, like almost every other piece of working technology in Edge. Vincent placed his phone into a slot on the side of the machine, and the screen flickered as the signal rerouted. Static resolved into the image of a slender young girl with a neural network set clamped to her temples. Although she looked to be about eleven, her pale blue eyes were older than her slight frame would suggest.

A slight smile crossed her face as the signal between the vid-screens stabilized. “Hello, Vincent Valentine.”

“Hello, Shelke,” he replied. “I see Yuffie and Reeve roped you into our search.”

“Their abilities proved inadequate to the task,” Shelke replied serenely. With her unique ability to net-dive and sift through reams of information, somehow Vincent wasn’t surprised that Reeve had found a way to bring Shelke on board.

“Hey, who are you calling inadequate?!” came Yuffie’s outraged voice from off-screen. A moment later, the ninja stuck her head into view from the side and waved. “Hi guys! We found some intel! Finally!”

“Will you please refrain from such displays and allow me to transmit properly?” asked Shelke, a hint of annoyance in her usually calm voice. Yuffie stuck her tongue out at Shelke before pulling out of view. When she was sure there would be no further interruption, Shelke turned her attention back to the monitor. “It seems that Rufus Shinra was telling the truth. Or at least, partly.”

“Which part?” asked Cloud.

“It is highly unlikely that Rufus Shinra had any knowledge of the experiments that led to Hikari’s state,” said Shelke. “The information was mostly wiped fifty years ago, and the few fragments that remain are hidden behind layers of security and dummy corporations. The company that originally funded the project was driven out of business by Shinra’s monopoly, although it managed to hang on longer than some others.”

“What company?” asked Barret.

“Limelight Industries.” She paused.

Barret frowned. “Sounds vaguely familiar… but when Shinra got its grubby paws on the Mako, I’m not surprised they made sure this Limelight Industries vanished.”

Shelke nodded. “That made it difficult to retrieve this information, even for me.”

Something felt wrong to Vincent. Shelke did not normally circle around the subject like this. “What did you find, Shelke?” he repeated.

She hesitated for a fraction of a second, then an image appeared on the screen. It was a photograph of a girl with the name “Eva” written in curvy script at the bottom. She was perhaps five or six years old with mid-length, wavy hair that was an odd shade of mousy grey. The picture had been snapped while she was walking along the top of a stone wall. Her arms were outstretched to keep her balance as she wobbled on tiptoes. She was smiling at the camera, her violet eyes wide and bright.

Vincent knew that smile. It was Hikari.

Shelke’s voice sounded far away as she spoke: “Ten years before Shinra Manufacturing Works discovered Mako energy, scientists at other companies were already aware of the Lifestream and some of its properties. Experiments in genetic manipulation, mutation, and sensitivity to the Lifestream’s energy were underway. They needed test subjects. Children were tested to see if they had any kind of extra sensory perception, unusual abilities or talents. Even those with odd appearances were considered. Children who were labeled as ‘BALANCED’ were particularly prized by a project at Limelight Industries called ‘In Extremis.’ From what I can gather, the basics of this project were very similar to those employed to create Sephiroth.”

The silence in the wake of Shelke’s quiet statement was deafening. Then, Tifa whispered, “Hikari is a prototype of Sephiroth?”

The photograph of Hikari as a child was replaced by Shelke’s slight frown. “In a way,” she said. “This was before the discovery of Mako, so she was not infused with it, and before the discovery of Jenova, so she lacks the Jenova cells. The records of what was actually done were erased. But initial reports indicate they were trying to create something akin to a SOLDIER or perhaps to make an artificial Cetra, since the Cetra were sensitive to the will of the planet. The baseline they used for their experiments was comprised of human children. Hikari seems to be one of them. The experiments for the ‘In Extremis’ Project started with at least fifty such children. However, there is no mention of anyone other than Hikari in the remnants of subsequent reports. It is possible that she is the only survivor.”

She hesitated again. “There is one other thing I managed to salvage. A few fragments of a security tape.”

Vincent gritted his teeth. “Show us.”

Shelke’s face vanished, replaced by a grainy black and white video from a security camera. It was fixed at a high angle, giving a panoramic view of a lab similar to the ruined one they’d found in Midgar. Hikari was strapped spread-eagled to some kind of metal contraption that stood upright in the middle of the room. Her hair was the familiar mishmash of black and white, and she wore a short hospital gown. Her head hung low, the high angle of the camera making it impossible to see her face.

A figure walked in from the bottom of the screen. It appeared to be a woman with long hair pulled up in a high ponytail. She wore a lab coat, but her back was to the camera. She walked up to Hikari, looked around quickly, then pressed several buttons on a panel.

The clamps around Hikari’s limbs sprang open and lights started to flash. Vincent could imagine the wail of alarms. Hikari sagged into the woman’s arms. Awkwardly, the woman shrugged off her lab coat and draped it around Hikari’s shoulders. Then, keeping a supporting arm around Hikari, the woman turned and led her slowly out of the camera’s sight. As she turned, the light fell across the woman’s face. Vincent’s heart lurched.


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