9:22 PM, H. J. Shinra Memorial Hospital
John Doe had not awakened in over a hundred and sixty-eight hours. That was seven straight days of deep sleep. He hadn't shown any sign of consciousness, either— no responses to external stimuli at all. So far as Luke— Lucrecia Crescent— could tell, the man was in a vegetative state.
She peered down at him. He had long dark hair, pale skin. Standing up, he would be tall. Long arms and long legs, with big feet and hands. His fingers were pale, long and slender. Surgeon hands. Piano-player hands.
She picked up his left hand, taking out a magnifying glass and a long, thin pair of tweezers from her lab coat's pocket. Latex gloves on, she inspected under the fingernail of his smallest finger, looking for foreign skin or hair. Otherwise known as the subtler, easier to miss signs of a struggle.
She found nothing. However, she did find a scar on the finger. Looking closer, she noticed upraised hairline scars on each finger of his left hand. The thin white lines went from the tip of each finger, through his palm—
All the way up to of his left elbow.
Five perfectly straight white lines. Not a single line crossed or even touched any other line, not even where they terminated. The lines from his middle and ring fingers just barely dusted over the blue vein on the inside of his elbow.
The lines were thinnest at the elbow, too, and widest at the tip of each finger. That indicated that the first incisions had been made at the tips of the fingers.
There were no signs that the scars had stretched. So he'd sustained the injury after his growth plates solidified, and hadn't gained or lost significant amounts of weight.
How could something like that happen? Who could draw a perfectly straight line with an X-Acto knife or whatever on human skin? An extremely experienced and skilled tattoo "artist" perhaps? Had it been an accident with a machine?
She heaved a sigh, looked at the clock. She had four more patients to see, and two hours to see them in, before she needed to head into the lab. Her newest "darling" had been sitting for nearly two hours. She'd hypothesised a growth period of four hours.
Letting it grow unexamined for longer than that could be dangerous.
John Doe was taking up too much of her time. She couldn't really help it, though. The chiselled planes of that angular face seemed so familiar. She was sure that she had seen someone, somewhere, with a nearly identical nose¬— too small to be a beak, too hard and deadly-looking to be aquiline.
Stop that. Stop that right now. He's a patient. He probably wouldn't appreciate you thinking about him that way.
She withdrew a thin flashlight from her coat pocket. She bent down and peeled open one of his eyelids. The eye this action revealed was brown. Had he been awake, it could have been beautiful. Probably expressive.
She clicked the flashlight on, shining it directly in his eye. The response was minimal— his pupil contracted only when the lens almost touched the eye— and unsatisfactory.
She didn't know what had caused this. But she knew for certain that he was in deep. The very first medical reports had showed signs of illness, or recovery from one— fever, laboured breathing, rapid pulse. His sinuses had been clogged, too, and his white blood cell count had been ridiculous.
But within twenty-four hours, all of that had gone away. Cleared sinuses, body temperature of 98.6 Fahrenheit. His breathing was smooth and deep. On the cardiograph, his pulse was as sedate and rhythmic as a young pianist's metronome. The white blood cell count was now almost normal. Slightly higher than what was considered the norm, but that might just have been his normal level.
By all rights, this handsome young man should have been awake and active. Smiling and laughing, explaining to his bosses that he had just come down with a bad virus. He should have been out of the hospital six days before.
And yet, here he was. Comatose for no apparent reason.
She eyed the little electrical device clipped to the bed. It connected to over a dozen electrodes on his body. Those electrodes produced charges, essentially vibrating, that reached the muscles. Those vibrations would stimulate his muscles, which would ensure he maintained some semblance of strength when he first woke.
She looked around her, then at the flat stomach, gorgeous abs, strong arms, shoulders, and legs. Her precious little vegetable was a fit one, wasn't he? No-one was watching. It would be so easy to—
Oh, whoops. Clumsy her. How had her fingers just slipped and upped the setting on the stimulator? Oh well. He certainly didn't look unhappy about it.
She filled out the clipboard hanging over his bed. Most of what she wrote was medical jargon— what she was currently giving him, how much he got, exactly how he had responded to the stimuli, and by what she had upped his stimulator setting. Of course, what she wrote almost didn't matter. The markings on the clipboard were the stereotypical doctor's scrawl. Hers was slightly rounder than most, but it was clearly the work of a harried person, scarcely legible.
She changed the IV bag and continued on her rounds. As she moved, she ran through a mental tick list.
Drugs? No. The toxicology screen had come back negative. Whatever had put him in this state, it hadn't been drugs. It had been something else. Probably that mysterious illness.
External trauma? Couldn't be. He didn't have a scratch on him, aside from those scars.
Internal trauma? Perhaps. But they hadn't seen any signs of that, either.
He was a mystery, their John Doe.
Luke was only caring for him because the previous doctor hadn't known what to do. When it became evident that he wouldn't wake up in the next few days, the doctor had wanted to remove his feeding tube.
The desire was understandable. He had been caring for a catatonic John Doe: sucking up tax payer dollars and the hospital's resources on somebody who might never wake up.
But Luke had seen an opportunity. An unconscious, unnamed young man. Nobody had come looking for him. He hadn't worn any sort of identification. He wasn't going to be missed.
The perfect patient for an experiment.
Of course, the previous doctor would never have countenanced that. But not many people in this hospital knew exactly where Luke's expertise lay. She'd made certain of that. All they knew was that when people in the hospital got stuck for ideas, they came to Luke.
Most of what Luke did was experimental. But her science was sound. She was extremely effective. Despite her stuck-up manner and the disturbing but subtle ethical conflicts in half of what she said, Luke was a damn good doctor.
It was a common joke in the break room that Luke would create a cancer vaccine. Then, her fellow doctors laughed, she would start using Lucrecia Crescent again and never look back at their little hospital (not so little, though, was H. J. S. Memorial, another part of the joke, a part Luke never got).
Well, they had the first two parts right. Someday, Luke was going to: 1. Leave this shithole of a hospital behind and 2. Take back her real name, or at least change the spelling from Luke to Luc.
She hadn't adopted the name "Luke" on her own. It had come from people shortening her name, and she found it rather irritating.
On the rest, though, they were completely wrong. Luke wasn't working with cancer. Nor was she working with anything else the average staff at the hospital would be familiar with.
She was working on a highly mutagenic and dangerous virus. The Omega Strain. Its symptoms were numerous and varied. Some of them— for example, cardiac arrest, muscle atrophy, decay of the immune system, spontaneous creation of cancerous cells— were horrific, even lethal. Some, however— like the fact that the Omega Strain ate other viruses and bacteria— were quite beneficial.
The only problem was that whatever else the strain did, it tended to cause psychosis.
She stopped by her next patient's room in the Intensive Care Unit. This one was female, a twelve year old girl. The little girl breathed, with difficulty, in a room made out of white paper and plastic. Unlike most ICU patients, the completely sterile environment wasn't for Marie's protection.
It was to prevent her from contaminating other people.
Exactly how the girl had come across the near-extinct bacterium that caused Ifalna, Lucrecia wasn't sure. The Ifalna bacterium had nearly died out. Those that remained swam in specific, well-marked creeks in Mideel.
In the back woods of Mideel. A place Marie's parents said neither she nor they had ever been. In the end, the only means of prolonging the girl's lifespan had been to inject her with the Jenova, a virus invented by the incredibly brilliant Doctor Hojo.
Marie's own immune system had been forfeit— not that it mattered. Jenova ate just about everything that came into contact with the girl's bloodstream. Well, every living thing.
Of course, as a virus, it "lived" to reproduce. It had replicated itself within her. At one time, Luke had thought that Jenova had tied itself forever into Marie's DNA. Coming into contact with anything carrying Marie's DNA, be it blood or saliva, would transmit the virus.
That had been a lie. A miscalculation. A horrendous one.
Three innocent people— Marie's family— had died to Jenova. Because Luke hadn't known, at the time, that it could mutate into an airborne pathogen. Three people dead, and over a dozen had become seriously ill, until she'd given them something to help them sustain Jenova and their own lives.
God, Hojo had the perfect cure for every virus on his hands, and nobody could use it because it might save the patient, but it would kill everybody else.
Blonde hair and the bluest eyes Luke had ever scene. And the sweetest smile. Sometimes she thought that the world could go to hell, as long as this little girl got to play outside someday.
On those days, she told herself it was just the exhaustion and the idealism talking.
"How are you doing, Marie?" She asked from inside her paper HASMAT suit.
"I'm feeling okay today," Marie told her. "Can I have a bird?"
"I'm sorry, sweetie. You know the answer to that."
"Because I could make other people sick like me."
Marie eyed her. "What if I said I didn't care?"
Luke shook her head. "I care. I think we're done for today, don't you?"
"You're punishing me. You're a mean, hateful woman." Marie's eyes were black, now. They always turned that colour when the ruined parts of her brain, overrun by Jenova, went active. "I hate you."
"You'll see the sunlight soon, sweetie. I promise," Luke replied, moving into the sterilized tunnel. There, she would be bleached and the paper disposed of safely.
Patient number two, after John Doe. This one was also conscious. He was her incubator for a new strain, though nobody knew it yet.
"Hello, Mr. Veld. Are you feeling all right?"
"Just fine," he told her, smiling.
She drew a blood sample, smiling back. She'd take this to the lab. He was her control subject for the new project. Either he or the Petri dish would yield a brand new, bioengineered virus.
If her calculations were correct, then the microbe organization of this strain would be practically nonexistent. It would be an unruly, unpredictable mess of microbiology.
Her pet name for it was Chaos. It was more her baby than anything else.
Two more to go. Those visits flew by. They were legitimate patients. Nothing unusual wrong with them at all. One was due for surgery soon— she couldn't remember why, she could barely remember his name— and the other had come down with something at first unidentifiable.
The labs had identified it though, not through symptoms but through blood tests and lab work.
She'd kept the patient. She was primarily a researcher, but a doctor, too. And what would a doctor look like without patients?
Luke headed to a very discreetly hidden set of stairs. It said simply "STAIRS" on it. It wasn't until you got two floors down that the first ID scanner showed up— but it was foolproof. It didn't want her ID badge, her iris, her fingerprints, or her saliva. It wanted a sample of the very first bacterium she'd ever created.
Said sample lived in her saliva. Well, in her mouth, actually. In her tongue, in her saliva, in her gums and lips.
The disease was purely cosmetic. She'd taken away all its potential teeth. She'd made damn sure of that. She'd wanted it, embarrassment of embarrassment, to enlarge her breasts. But for some reason, it had targeted her lips. It had gone after her tongue, next, and her gums. The cavity of her mouth had widened. For no apparent reason, her teeth had grown. They were practically fangs, now, though she kept them trimmed, just to look normal.
The lips it had given her, however, she didn't much mind. And how often did she show people her tongue?
She wiped the scanner clean with a tiny packet of bleach wipes dosed with an enzyme that signalled the virus that its life was over.
Smiling, she unlocked her lab and headed to her microscopes. She now had two vials of blood. One had John Doe's blood, taken specifically to test with the Omega Strain. The other was Veld's.
The synthesisers and blood-borne agent detection systems whirred to life. She ran her precious blood samples through, waiting patiently for the chemical read-outs.
She began to list her newest findings. On the 3x5 inch note cards she preferred for private note-taking, her penmanship was classic. Flowing, smooth and neat— spidery.
The phone rang.
Luke had no idea how long it had been since she had come up for air. The movements of the Omega Strain inside its Petri dish were almost like a dance. The effects of the micro-organism on John Doe's white blood cells were more entertaining to her than any movie or book.
Microbiology was her life. More than that, it was her entire world. Who cared what new novel E. O. Carol had come out with, when Alexander Gast had just published a new essay? Why go see Seven Circles when the Nibelheim Institute was sending her a new specimen? Who cared about that new Wutaian all-female rock band when she had a distantly Wutaian lab partner?
Irritated, Luke answered the phone on the fifth ring. "Luke Crescent," she told it, her voice clear and strong and not at all irritated.
"Ah, Lucrecia," the voice on the other end intoned. "You answered before the eighth ring. Is the work boring?"
She eyed the chart in her hands. "Not at all," she remarked. "I was expecting your call a couple of hours ago."
False. She'd been expecting a call two hours earlier. After twelve hours with one of her precious viruses in him, and being fed intravenously a mixture of virus chow and vaccinating elements, she was expecting John Doe to show signs of returning to consciousness. Or to show signs of going deeper into that coma.
This was now fourteen hours with no response at all.
She didn't like it.
"Ah, I see. So you don't mind having a partner, Doctor Crescent." The voice cooled, using her title and last name to distance the speaker from her further.
That was right. She'd nearly forgotten. Her lab partner was a family man. Sort of. He had a wife and two sons. A responsible elder son— probably in his late twenties, given Grimoire's age— and a rebellious teen. She'd never met the twentysomething, but the last time she'd seen the teen, he'd been wearing red contacts, dreadlocks, multiple earrings¬— and he'd been deathly ill.
He'd wanted to refuse treatment, she recalled. He would have been beautiful, if not for the muscular atrophy from illness and malnutrition. Grimoire had begged his son to eat, to take the medications.
And the boy had refused. She'd heard nothing more of him after Grimoire had ranted about it to her.
"I have found that working alone can be difficult," she admitted.
Grimoire sighed. "Lucrecia, I'm not calling about business."
She played coy. Slightly flirtatious. It made him uncomfortable. "Then what are you calling about, Doctor Valentine?"
On the other line, something rustled. Measured, rhythmic footsteps. Probably, Grimoire was pacing. "I haven't heard from Vincent in over a week and a half. Usually, he calls once a day to let me know how Dorian is doing."
"I'm sorry. Is it possible he had to go somewhere? Or perhaps he'd had enough of Dorian. The boy seemed difficult when I met him."
"Vincent's patience with his little brother is almost endless. I called the house. Jean says Vincent left the house to drop by his apartment and get something Dorian wanted, then never came back."
"How do you want me to help you?" Lucrecia asked, thinking back to the handsome man with dark hair, a toned body, and an angled face two floors above her.
"Do you know if anybody was brought to the E. R., probably without identification, with a strong resemblance to me? He'd have to have been in an accident of some sort. Vince is just so responsible, you know."
"No, I don't. I'm sorry, Doctor, I—"
"Has anybody been brought in with no identification?"
She thought back to the young man, thought back to the last time she'd lied to Grimoire, and said, "Yes."
"Dark hair? Dark eyes?"
"Well, yes, but that's half of the people in this city. Grimoire, I don't think…"
"Did he have any specific markings? Like, scars, or a birthmark?" Grimoire's voice was desperate. "Humour me, Crescent. Please."
"There was one. Well, five. On his left arm—"
"—from the tip of each finger to the elbow."
"Oh my god," she said. "Is that him?"
"Oh my god. I'm so sorry."
Her mouth went dry. She was going to lose her specimen. "He's in a vegetative state, Grim. I don't know what's wrong with him. I've had him for about six days, and I'm trying to figure it out."
"You haven't infected him with anything, have you?"
"God, no, I didn't." But she was planning on it. God damn it, why had Grimoire had to call tonight? "You don't need to worry. I'll find out what's wrong with him. And I'll fix it."
"I'm hopping the first flight home. This conference in Wutai is worthless. Whatever they tell you about Hojo, don't believe. He's an ass."
That gave her maybe twelve hours.
As soon as she set down the phone, she turned to the Petri dish containing what should have been Chaos.
Under the microscope, it was evident that the Chaos bacterium had, indeed, grown. She eyed Veld's Chaos, and then the Chaos from the Petri dish.
Veld's incubated bacterium was just a bit too orderly. The little cells moved in a pattern. It was almost disgusting, to her. The entire point of the Chaos bacterium was to create something unpredictable, something dangerous, but also controllable— for the right price.
She could sell it to Shinra and spend the rest of her life in a lab, researching it. Researching Chaos and Omega and the Galian Strain and the Gigas Effect and— and, maybe, if she was lucky, Jenova.
She pulled syringe out of a refrigerator. The plunge went down, squeezing a few drops of a specific enzyme into the dish containing Veld's blood.
Within seconds, the bacterium stopped moving. It lay down and died. She squeezed a few more drops into the vial, then capped the vaccine and stored it in her pocket.
She smiled at the perfect bacterium. The chaotic one. "Good morning, baby."
With a click, the lab room door closed behind her.