Fugitive by TransmuteJun
Summary:

The first story in the On the Run series.

 A man finds himself alone in a world he doesn't know.


Categories: Battle of the Planets Characters: Other Canon Character
Genre: Angst, Character Study, Drama, Epic, Hurt/Comfort, Tragedy
Story Warnings: Blood, Guts & Gore, Death, Drug References, Mild Adult Situations, Mild Language, Mild Sexual References, Mild Violence, Strong Language, Torture, Violence
Timeframe: Sequel
Universe: Canon
Challenges: None
Series: On the Run
Chapters: 15 Completed: Yes Word count: 32029 Read: 49148 Published: 08/05/2008 Updated: 08/15/2008
Story Notes:

This story was inspired by many things, not the least of which was my wonderful Gatch friends. Special credit should go to Ebony Swanne, who pushed me to write a series long before I thought it was ever possible.

And a very big thank you to Springie and CloudDancer, who were my wonderful beta-readers!

1. Chapter 1 by TransmuteJun

2. Chapter 2 by TransmuteJun

3. Chapter 3 by TransmuteJun

4. Chapter 4 by TransmuteJun

5. Chapter 5 by TransmuteJun

6. Chapter 6 by TransmuteJun

7. Chapter 7 by TransmuteJun

8. Chapter 8 by TransmuteJun

9. Chapter 9 by TransmuteJun

10. Chapter 10 by TransmuteJun

11. Chapter 11 by TransmuteJun

12. Chapter 12 by TransmuteJun

13. Chapter 13 by TransmuteJun

14. Chapter 14 by TransmuteJun

15. Chapter 15 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 1 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 1

It was dark.

He blinked, confirming that his eyes were indeed open, but the man did not perceive any difference. All he saw was blackness.

He attempted to wave his hand in front of his face, only to discover that he could not, in fact, move either of his hands. They appeared to be pinned beneath him. Now that the man thought about it, he was having difficulty moving any part of his body.

A sense of panic began to take root inside of his brain, but he ruthlessly cut if off before it could overwhelm him. He needed a clear head if he was going to get out of this.

What, exactly, ‘this’ was, was something he had yet to discover.

Slowly, methodically, the man tested every muscle in his body, beginning with his head and moving downward, analyzing which parts of him were capable of movement. It wasn’t very many.

He was lying on his back. His eyes and mouth could move, but he was unable to turn his head. His arms and chest were immobilized, and his hands were underneath his buttocks, allowing his fingers to move only slightly by pressing into his own flesh. His legs felt pinned, but just as he got to his ankles, he realized that his feet seemed to be free.

Carefully assessing the degree of movement of which he was capable, the man began to rock his ankles back and forth, and then flex his feet at the heel. Slowly, but surely, whatever was holding him down gave way, and after some time he found that he was able to move his legs enough to touch them together.

A sense of urgency possessed him, although the man was not certain why this was. He did his best to restrain it, in order to prevent the panic from returning. But he let just enough of that impatience through to keep himself motivated; to force himself to keep going, even when his muscles ached and begged for respite.

Soon, he was able to wiggle his hips, and it was then that he worked on freeing his hands. Once he had accomplished that, the man’s attempt at freedom progressed much faster; his arms and hands working in concert with his legs and feet.

The moment his fingers were freed and he was able to touch his surroundings, the man realized that he was encased in some kind of dirt… earth… sand…?

Had he been buried alive?

The thought caused the man to hyperventilate, and he nearly passed out again, but he forced himself away from that natural reaction, and toward his escape, once again.

It didn’t matter why he was here.

It only mattered whether or not he could get out.

The man had no awareness of the passage of time, but he forced himself to remain aware of the progress he had made, centimeter by centimeter, pushing away the earth surrounding his body. Eventually, he was able to wiggle his upper body, and it was then that the man began scooting forward: pushing his body in the direction of his feet. He hoped that since his feet had originally been capable of movement, that there was something there: a small space, a room, a path… anything

Anything other than this sense that the weight of an entire mountain was about to come crashing down on his body, snuffing out the life within him in a single instant.

The man did not know much about his current situation, but the one thing he was certain of was that he wanted to survive. It was a primal instinct: an urge to reach for life, rather than accept the seemingly inevitable and give in to death.

Deep in his heart, the man understood that this was something he could never do. The need to survive seemed to resonate through to his very bones.

His heart leapt as he realized that he was, indeed, moving forward. In excruciatingly small increments, his entire body was headed in a direction… hopefully the direction of freedom.

The man knew a moment of pure joy as he suddenly felt his knees rising, with no resistance above them to force them down. But he did not pause for celebration. He continued at his task with renewed vigor, freeing his legs, his hips, his waist and hands, his chest… and finally, his head.

The man nearly wept as he felt a cool breeze cross his face, and looking upward he saw pinpricks of light that he quickly recognized as stars.

He couldn’t have felt more free if he had been up in the sky amongst those stars, soaring like a bird.

As his eyes adjusted to the faint moonlight, the man came to realize that he was outside. Though he was loathe to think about where he had just been, he forced himself to look behind him, only to see a towering pile of dirt and rubble.

He had been buried alive.

At least, this appeared as if it had been an accident. The rubble suggested that a large structure had been demolished, and he had likely been caught unawares, although how such a thing had happened, the man did not know.

He scanned the area, spying a tiny point of light in the distance. Having no better destination, he pulled himself up on unsteady legs, and he began to walk.

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The first few steps he had taken had been quite wobbly, but by the time the false dawn appeared on the horizon, the man had been walking normally for quite some time. In fact, he seemed to be walking better than normal; his body pushing itself to the limit, then asking more of him, and suddenly finding itself capable of going on.

The dim illumination in the East was like a spotlight to the man, who had known only darkness, and he could clearly see the outline of a small building ahead of him. A residence of some sort? Encouraged by the thought of seeing another human, the man continued onward.

As the sun began to rise some time later, the man was close enough to the structure to see that it was, indeed, a farmhouse. In the distance, the man was able to hear the deep lowing of cattle, wakened by the crow of a rooster, and this was soon accompanied by the clucking of chickens.

Despite the exhaustion now washing over him, the man continued onward, forcing one foot in front of the other, step after step, each movement bringing him closer and closer to his destination. And when the sun was two fingers high in the sky, he arrived.

A few chickens ran around a dusty farmyard, and the bark of a dog told the man that his arrival had been noted. The man did not slow, but continued making his way to the farmhouse even as the dog rounded the corner of the small structure, coming into his view.

The man only had time to blink at the animal before the woman accompanying the canine appeared as well. She took one look at the man and nearly dropped her basket of eggs in surprise.

“Hurry up!” she hissed. “Get inside! You can’t stay out here!”

Chapter 2 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 2

The inside of the home was plain and mostly bare, but clean and well-cared for. A fire burned merrily in a stone hearth, and a large pot was bubbling over it, despite the more modern cooking unit only a few feet away. There were six windows, all open, but the woman pushed past the man and into the house, quickly closing them.

The man carefully closed the door behind him, the now-quiet dog remaining obediently in the yard.

“How long have you been walking?” the woman asked the man, even as she moved toward the pot on the fire.

“I… I’m not sure.” The man replied slowly, his voice cracking, as if he were unused to speaking. “All night, I guess.”

“Then, you must be hungry.” the woman replied practically. “Sit.” She pointed to a chair at a battered looking table.

The man blinked in confusion, but seeing no better course of action he did as he had been told. A moment later, the woman plunked down a plate of something in front of him, along with a spoon. It appeared to be some kind of gruel.

“I know it’s not much,” the woman apologized, “but it’s all we’ve got. They’ve taken everything else. If I could, I’d give you an egg, but we’re below quota this week as it is.”

The man shrugged, picking up the spoon and digging into the food in front of him, then touching it tentatively to his lips. Realizing that it was indeed food, he put the entire bowl of the spoon into his mouth, letting the gruel run over his tongue. He took a long, careful swallow.

“It’s delicious.” he told the woman. “Thank you.”

The woman appeared pleased with his comment, and brought him a glass of water to accompany his meal. It hadn’t been until he had started eating that the man had realized how hungry he was.

As he ate, the man watched the woman move about the room. Her actions were quick, and efficient, as if she had little time to waste, yet at the same time there was an air of anxiety around her, accompanied by a nearly tangible sense of anticipation.

“What’s up, Ramjet? I heard you barking.” The voice belonged to another man, and came from outside the home. The woman rushed over and opened the door, admitting a man dressed in overalls around whom the dog was gamboling. The new arrival looked the man over, while the woman rushed to explain.

“He just walked up, about fifteen minutes ago.” she said. “He says he’s been walking all night.” She closed the door, the dog remaining outside as before.

“I don’t doubt that.” said the other man, sitting at the table across from his ‘guest’.

“This is my farm.” he addressed the man. “We want to help you, but you need to do as we ask, without any questions, okay?”

The man nodded at the farmer, spooning the last of the gruel into his mouth.

“Thank you.” he said simply.

“It’s basic decency.” the farmer grunted. “My wife and I are of the same mind in that. It’s not like we haven’t done this before.”

The man was about to ask a question when he heard a low hum suddenly start up.

“They’re coming.” the woman said sharply, picking up the plate and spoon and catching the man’s eye.

“You’ll have to follow my husband.” she told him.

The man nodded, acknowledging that he had little choice in the matter. He raised an eyebrow in surprise as the farmer opened up a control panel in a seemingly innocuous wooden wall board, and pressed a button.

A large section of the floor opened up, pulling back to disclose a small, steep staircase going down.

“Get down there, and don’t make a sound.” the farmer ordered. “There are no lights, but we can’t risk any. I’ll get you out once they’ve gone.”

The man moved without a word, quickly and gracefully climbing down the steps. Before he had even reached the ground below, the section of flooring above him had closed.

Although the farmer had said that there weren’t any lights, this wasn’t completely true. A small red light illuminated the darkness, and the man could see that he was in a chamber about seven feet square. A pair of beds occupied most of the space, and the man sat down on one. He noticed a small speaker in the wall next to the pillow, so he lay down close to it, gratified to hear a series of barely audible sounds that were clearly coming from the room overhead. The faint sound of a barking dog came through.

“They’re here.” the woman’s voice said.

“Not as many as usual.” the farmer noted.

The sound of a loud banging was heard, and then that of a door opening.

“Good day, Sirs.” said the woman. “It is early, yet. I thought the delivery wouldn’t be made for another six hours.”

“We are not here for the delivery.” grunted an unfamiliar, male voice. “We’re just checking the area.”

“Checking for what?” the farmer asked.

“There was an… accident, last night.” the harsh voice explained. “A building collapsed. We are currently assessing the casualties, but in the meantime, we are checking to see if there were any survivors who might have… wandered off…”

“We haven’t seen anyone.” the farmer lied. “You know we would have notified you immediately if we had.”

“Yes, I can see that you have adapted well to the new regime.” the voice acknowledged begrudgingly. “Very well. If you see signs of anyone, you must contact us without delay.”

“We will.” the farmer replied calmly.

“All the same, I’ll just have my men look around.” the voice continued.

“Of course.” the farmer responded pleasantly. “Whatever you need.”

The sound of heavy footfalls passed overhead, clearly crisscrossing the room above. After a few moments, the harsh voice spoke again.

“We’re done.”

The footfalls moved away, and the sound of the door closing emerged from the tiny speaker next to the man’s ear.

“Just wait until they’ve gone.” the farmer instructed.

A minute or two later, the small light on the wall turned green, and the section in the hidden chamber’s ceiling opened up. The man could see the woman’s head above him.

“It’s clear, now.” she said. “They didn’t detect you. Come on up.”

“How?” the man asked, the word encompassing a myriad of questions.

“Drithinium shielding.” the woman smiled, patting the walls. “Their sensors can’t penetrate it, and they think there’s nothing below ground, here.”

“You’re lucky.” the farmer said as the man emerged from the floor. “If you’d been the next one…”

“The next one?” The man was confused.

“You’re not the first, and God willing, you won’t be the last to seek our help.” the woman explained. “But we have to be careful, and make the Snakeheads think we’ve accepted their rules. Every so often, we have to give someone up, so they keep trusting us.” Her voice trembled, as she said this last.

“The next one who comes; we have to send him back.” the farmer said grimly.

“I… I guess, it’s my lucky day, then.” the man said wryly.

“It’s a surprise for us too.” the woman said. “We’ve never had anyone close to your classification, before. The highest until now has been a three stripe…”

“Hush, woman!” the farmer interrupted her. “He doesn’t need to be reminded of the reality of his situation. Although,” he turned to the man, addressing him, now, “I’m guessing it was only that ‘accident’ last night that enabled you to get away. There’s probably a lot of high level security for men like you.”

“Like me…” the man wasn’t sure what to make of that.

“Your stars.” the woman explained. “We know what that means.” She pointed at the man’s chest.

Curiously, the man looked down at his body. He hadn’t paid any attention before to his attire, but now he saw that he was dressed in some kind of baggy, red, one piece garment. At least, it had at one time been red. Now it was dirty and torn, covered with dark and dusty dirt stains.

The area on his chest to which the woman was pointing had a series of numbers on it, and above that, five once-white stars clearly stood out.

“I knew about the stars, but I’ve never seen so many.” the farmer admitted, a frank curiosity crossing his face. “You must have been high up in the Federation.”

“I… I don’t recall.”

“Of course you don’t.” the farmer replied, wiping the curiosity from his face. “That’s as it should be.”

“Let me help you get cleaned up.” the woman offered, attempting to smooth over the awkward moment. “You can use the bathroom over here, and change into these.” She pulled a small pile of clean, folded garments from a cupboard.

“Thank you.” the man said again, accepting the clothes with a gracious nod. “I appreciate your help, Mr. and Mrs….”

“It doesn’t matter.” the farmer said quickly. “As you say, it’s better that you don’t recall. The less we know about each other, the better.”

The man nodded, grasping the reality of the situation in which he found himself. Part of him regretted this necessity, but the majority of him was relieved.

The truth was, he didn’t recall.

He stepped into the bathroom the woman indicated, closing the door and staring into the mirror above the sink. It was as if he were looking at a stranger’s face. The high cheekbones, the defined facial features, the brilliant blue eyes that stared back at him; they were all unfamiliar, as if he were looking at a stranger.

He ruefully ran a hand over his head, stubbled with rough auburn growth. Clearly he had been shaved bald not too long ago. It all fit.

The shaved head, the dirty red garment he wore, the men looking for him, the number on his chest…

He was a prisoner.

Or, to be more precise, he had been a prisoner. It appeared that he had been given a chance at freedom. Why these people were helping him, he wasn’t certain, but he appreciated their assistance, all the same.

But why had he been a prisoner? As hard as he tried, the man could not remember being in prison, or how he had come about such a sentence. In fact, he could remember very little, not even his own name.

Just who was he?

He knew of amnesia, of course, but not about the specifics. Had something happened to him to wipe his memories clean? Had this happened to him in the prison?

A sense of frustration took hold of him, and the man in the mirror scowled. He jumped back, surprised at the menace he saw on that face.

His face.

He forced himself to calm down, then went about taking off the dirty red clothing he wore, concentrating on the simple task of cleaning himself up. A razor and soap had been placed with the clean garments the woman had handed to him, and he made good use of the simple toiletries.

The day’s worth of stubble on his face was shaved off, although he left the small amount of hair on his head alone. Hopefully, it would grow back soon. The man used a washcloth and the soap to give himself a makeshift bath, grimacing as he noticed the many bruises and scars that seemed to crisscross his body. On the insides of his arms, he noted a tiny network of lines and spots, indicating that he had been subjected to numerous injections at some point in his past.

He wondered what it all meant.

The clothing he had been given was plain and simple: unremarkable in its bland coloring and style. It was a little big, but fit the man well enough.

When he was finished, the man picked up the red garment, bringing it out to the main room with him.

The farmer was gone, but the woman was still there.

“You certainly look much more human, all cleaned up.” she smiled at him, taking the red garment from his hands.

“I feel much more human.” the man replied, watching curiously as the woman threw his former clothing onto the fire, where it quickly burned to ashes.

“Let’s hope that’s the last you see of anything like that.” the woman commented, to which the man simply nodded.

“You must be tired.” the woman continued. “You can rest, but it has to be in the safe room. I’m expecting the Snakeheads to come back for their delivery in a few hours.”

“Snakeheads?” the man asked.

“Oh.” the woman was taken aback for a moment. “I hadn’t thought about that. Five stars and all; you were probably in there since the beginning of the Occupation.”

“Yes.” replied the man, figuring it was the best explanation he could give.

“We call them ‘Snakeheads’.” the woman explained. “They don’t like it of course, so we don’t use the term in front of them. It’s because of those green masks, with the red eyes and the fangs. They look like nasty snakes.”

“I see…”

“When you leave, you’ll find things very different from what you were used to, before.” the woman warned him. “They’ve made a lot of changes. You’ll have to keep your head down until you figure things out.”

“Not that you wouldn’t be doing that anyway.” she added quickly.

“Thanks for the advice.” the man smiled thinly.

The woman nodded, opening up the floor section again to allow him to enter.

“I’ll check on you in about eight hours.” she informed him. “But after you’ve rested, you’ll have to be on your way. It isn’t safe for you to stay here.”

“I understand.” the man nodded.

He climbed down the steps again, the floor section closing back up over him. He found his way back to the bed on which he had sat earlier, laying himself down upon it and quickly falling into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter 3 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 3

The man opened his eyes sometime later, sensing, rather than hearing, the floor panel slide open above him.

“It is time.” the woman’s voice drifted down to him. “Come on up here.”

He sat up, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands, then rubbing his face. Slowly he rose, moving over to the steep stairs and emerging into the large room above him.

The woman gestured to the man, indicating that he should sit down at the table, and brought a plate of stew over to him when he did. She followed this with a spoon and another glass of water, for which he gave his thanks.

“You’ll have to eat quickly.” she told him. “You’ve been here too long already.” He noted that she did not bother to close the floor opening.

“I understand.” the man ate the simple meal with as much haste as possible. Once he had finished, the woman indicated that he should return to the chamber below the floor.

This time, the woman followed him down the stairs, and when they were both standing on the floor, she pulled a small canvas satchel from her shoulder and handed it to him.

“There’s a little food in here, and a flashlight.” she informed him. Then she pulled something out of her pocket.

“This isn’t much, but it’s most of what we have left.” she explained, pushing something into the man’s hand. He looked down to see a small roll of money.

“Many places don’t accept the Federation currency anymore.” she said. “But hopefully this will get you by, for a bit.”

She bent down, sliding her hand behind the narrow stairs and touching the wall there. A panel of the wall slid back, revealing a dark tunnel beyond.

“That tunnel goes to Egly, on the outskirts of Paris.” the woman informed him. “It’s about one hundred and twenty kilometers from here. It’s a long way, but you’ll be able to stay out of sight until then.”

“I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.” the man said. “If there’s ever anything I can do in return…” His words trailed off, as he realized how meaningless they were.

“There is something.” the woman said impulsively, grabbing at his hands.

“What is it?” he asked, startled.

“Fight.” she answered, with an intensity that surprised him. “Fight to return things back to the way they used to be; to get rid of the Snakeheads and their Purple Clown.”

“I…”

A strange silence hung in the air between them, as the man searched for the appropriate response, and came up lacking.

“I’ve never said that, before.” the woman admitted after a long moment. “But you, with your five stars… I know you can make it happen.”

“If I can, I will.” the man promised, realizing as he did so that he was taking this request with the utmost seriousness.

“Bless you…” the woman brought his hands to her lips, then quickly dropped them.

“You should go, now.” she said quietly, indicating the open wall panel beside her. The man stepped into the tunnel, and was enveloped in the darkness as the entrance began to close behind him.

“Good luck…”

The woman’s final whisper echoed in his ears, even after the door had shut. The man fumbled in the bag, finding the flashlight the woman had mentioned, and turned it on.

The weak light showed him the rough-hewn walls of the passageway, and he stared curiously as he walked along. The path was clearly man-made, stretching in two directions, but how long it had been there, he couldn’t tell. He moved off in the direction the woman had indicated. The path was absolute, although not always in a straight line. At times, it appeared to curve or turn, although never at a sharp angle.

It was some time after the man had begun his journey that he came across a few lines of graffiti on the walls. Reading it, he began to understand that this tunnel had once been an escape route for Resistance members during the Nazi occupation of France during the second World War.

France… why was he in France? Was he, himself, French, or had he simply ended up here as a prisoner? The man found that he could easily interpret the French words scribbled on the rock wall, and their pronunciation came easily to his lips. He knew French then; perhaps he was indeed French.

From time to time he came across other writing scribbled along the walls, and even less frequently, the remains of someone who had met an unfortunate end here. Rather than disturb him, these corpses gave the man confidence.

He would not be one of them.

He would escape, and live to see the light of day again. The thought gave him renewed hope, and he continued on.

As it had been when he had walked to the farmhouse, his body seemed to push itself beyond the limits of normal endurance, going on even after he thought that he was about to expire from exhaustion. When he finally collapsed on shaky legs, the man sank to the floor, gratefully stretching out his limbs for a rest. His stomach rumbled, and he searched inside the bag, pulling out a small, hard loaf of bread, and a wedge of cheese. He tore off a third from each, chewing slowly to savor the small nourishment.

As he ate, he played with the flashlight beam, examining his surroundings. The rock in front of him appeared to be the same as the rest of the endless corridor, but something caught his eye.

There was a crack.

The man got up, moving over to the other wall, shining his flashlight in the area. He ran his fingers over the stone.

Nothing.

But then, he saw it again. Amazed, he gaped at the straight line, far thinner than a human hair, running perpendicular to the floor. He followed it upward, seeing that it turned at a sharp right angle, now parallel to the ground. It turned ninety degrees again, moving back to the floor.

It was a door!

The man was astounded that he had even seen such a thing, in the dim light, with his casual glance. The door was extremely well camouflaged, and obviously was not supposed to be visible to the human eye.

And yet, he had seen it.

The man’s lack of knowledge about himself hit him harder than a ton of bricks. Exactly who was he, and why was he able to see such things?

But there was no one there to answer these questions.

He briefly considered trying to open the door, then realized that a hidden portal such as this likely led to more ‘safe houses’ such as the one he had come from. How many of these entrances had he already passed by, on his journey? He would never know. No wonder they were so cleverly disguised!

Still, the idea of being near the door unnerved him, and the man moved away down the corridor, walking again for some time before he stopped to rest.

He turned off the flashlight to conserve the batteries, and found the darkness to be absolute. But rather than reminding him of his entrapment in the dirt and debris of the prison building, it was comforting to him, as he felt completely disguised by it. The sensation of air moving across his skin was enough to keep the memories of the rubble away, as the man fell asleep.

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When the man awoke he felt refreshed, although he had no idea how long he had slept. He had no watch or other device to keep track of the time, nor could he see the sun.

He walked again, for as long as he could, stopping to rest and eat once more only when he felt as if his limbs would give way from exhaustion. He was grateful to the woman for telling him how far away his destination was, else he would have been wondering if he were trapped down here, forever.

After his second rest, the man began walking again, and after what seemed like a long while, he came across an obvious exit; the first such he had encountered in this passageway.

A large archway had been cemented over, preventing its use. A message had been hand-painted on the wall next to it. Unlike the graffiti the man had seen earlier, these words were in English, rather than French. The man found that he easily understood this language as well, although it wasn’t surprising, since this was the tongue with which he had communicated with the farmer and his wife.

The man read the message on the wall twice, his heart plummeting as he did so.

You are at Egly.

Snakeheads here.

Keep Moving.

Below the message were two arrows pointing in opposite directions. One was labeled, ‘Paris, 40 km’ and the other ‘Marseille, 500 km’.

The man let his frustration overtake him for only a moment, and then moved on again. He was glad that he had saved some of his food, and conserved the use of his flashlight. Hopefully, he could walk the remaining distance to Paris before he had to rest again.

On he went, each step feeling like a hundred, the pain in his muscles flaring up every so often, and then receding for a short while. Each time he felt as if he would have to drop, the man somehow managed to eke out just enough more energy to take a few steps, and then a few more, so that he was constantly moving forward, the monotonous corridor swimming before his eyes. Finally, he had to stop again, his legs literally collapsing beneath him. He wanted to yell and curse, but did not, uncertain of how far his voice would carry in this strange place. The man knew that he had to be close to his destination, and could only hope that he would find an exit shortly after he awoke.

When the man opened his eyes again he felt rejuvenated. He sensed that he had dreamed of things past, and that they had given him comfort, although he did not remember what had passed through his mind while he had slept. Still, it gave him hope that he might eventually remember who he was, and what series of events had led him to this God-forsaken place.

He finished the last of his food, then pressed onward, his legs refreshed and eager to move. His flashlight began to flicker occasionally, and he could only hope that its batteries would last until he found a useable exit.

After what seemed to be a relatively short walk, the corridor changed. It was no longer a regular path, but appeared more disorganized, twisting and turning, constantly changing direction. For the first time, the man saw offshoots from the main corridor, although these all led to dead ends. More graffiti in the French language was painted on the walls, much of it centuries old. The man was treated to social commentary about various members of the French Royal Family, the leaders of the Revolution, politicians of the nineteenth century, and the Nazis. Occasionally, various quotations would be etched into the walls as well, one of which struck the man as particularly poignant.

Insense que vous etes, pourquoi?

Vous promettez vous de vivre

Longtemps, vous qui ne pouvez

Compter sur un seul jour?

which translated as:

Insane that you are, why?

Do you promise yourself to live

A long time, you who cannot

Count on a single day?

The man thought about this statement as he marched. Perhaps he was insane. Certainly he had convinced himself that he would live, and not die, despite his lack of knowledge about himself, and the strange place through which he was currently traveling. But could he truly depend on living to see another day? These Snakeheads would send him back to prison, if they knew he was alive. And based on the evidence he had seen on his own body, it was clear that he had not been well treated there.

The man began to see various piles of bones littering the corridor, and pushed off into the dead-end offshoots of the main tunnel. It was these sightings that helped him realize where he was.

He recalled that Paris sat above a network of underground tunnels, created at first by the Romans, and expanded throughout the ages. Throughout history, the tunnels had become a haven for revolutionaries and dissidents, as well as the Resistance during the second World War. This last explained why the tunnel he had traveled through connected with these.

The tunnels also contained catacombs, and it was through these areas that the man now walked, his light fading to little more than a dim memory as the batteries were drained of the last of their power. Centuries of Parisian dead were here, much of the skeletal remains separated and neatly stacked in patterns. The further he went, the more bones the man saw, until finally he came upon a wall of them, a row of skulls running across the middle, their empty eye sockets seeming to watch him as he moved forward. None of the skulls had jawbones, and as such had an almost alien appearance, adding a degree of menace to their gaze.

Yet, the skulls remained in place, and his sudden fear that they would rise up to greet him receded. The man slowly shuffled forward, discovering more neat stacks of bones: arm bones, leg bones, ribs, and more skulls. As with the corpses in the corridor, he repeated to himself that he was not one of them. This grim reminder of mortality instilled in him the intense desire to survive.

Do you promise yourself to live a long time, you who cannot count on a single day?

He could count on a day. Many days. Weeks, month, years… he was close to an exit. He sensed it with ever fiber of his being.

“Greetings.”

The man whirled about, startled, searching for the source of the voice. Irrationally, he thought for a moment that it had come from the skulls themselves.

“I apologize for frightening you.” the voice said. It was clear now that the speaker was a woman, and she stepped out into the little light there was, turning on a flashlight of her own. She was of an advanced age, and carried herself with dignity befitting a Queen, despite the dank, dirty environment in which she was clearly living.

“I had to make sure you weren’t one of them.” she explained.

“Them?”

“The Snakeheads.”

“Oh.”

It occurred to him that she was speaking in French, and he had been responding in the same way. That in itself was odd, because as far as he knew most people did not speak other languages anymore; not since English had been declared the official language of the Federation.

Perhaps, with the advent of these Snakeheads, things had changed.

“You came from the passageway?”

“Yes.”

“And where are you headed?”

“I… I don’t know.” the man admitted.

“You must go and see Jerome.” she informed him. “He will help you.”

“Jerome…” the man repeated uncertainly.

“Yes, Jerome.” the woman replied exasperatedly. “He is at L’Oiseau Blanc. It is a café near Saint Sulpice.”

“Saint Sulpice… the cathedral?”

“Yes. Pass underneath the organ, and you will find L’Oiseau Blanc.”

“Thank you.” The man nodded.

The woman stared at him for a moment, then let out a rush of breath in a frustrated hiss, moving away and beckoning toward the man with a crooked finger.

“I can see that you have nothing.” she sighed. “Come with me. You can rest, and go in the morning.”

“Morning?”

“Yes, it’s night now. Can’t you tell?”

The man shook his head, bewildered.

“Ah… I guess you can’t, after all.” the woman said, somewhat more kindly. “I’ve been down here so long, I take certain things for granted.”

“How long?” the man asked curiously.

“Since the Snakeheads came.” the woman replied. “They have no use for someone like me. Too old, too weak… I’d rather be here, living on my own terms.”

“I can understand the appeal.”

The woman turned sharply, staring intently at the man.

“I guess you can, at that.” she grinned toothily. “You’ve been a prisoner, haven’t you?”

“I…”

“I can tell by the hair.” she shrugged. “Or lack thereof. You should grow that in as quickly as possible. It’s a dead giveaway.”

“I was planning on it.”

“Good. You seem to have some sense.”

He nodded again, uncertain as to how he should respond. The woman led him to a small offshoot of the main passage, then pressed her hand on a skull lining the corridor, causing a heretofore hidden door to open.

“You can stay here.” she said, gesturing inside. “There’s a lantern, and a map to help you find your way out.” He stepped inside, looking around the tiny chamber.

The woman reached into her pack, reluctantly pulling something out.

“Here.” she said, thrusting a small loaf of bread toward the man. “Take it.”

He politely refused, using his hands to gently push it back toward her.

“I think you need it more.” he replied. “Keep it.”

The woman stared at him for a moment in stunned silence, then put the food back inside of her pack.

“You are different.” she said slowly. “You must see Jerome. Tell him Chantal sent you.”

“I will.” the man nodded.

“Godspeed.” the woman replied, closing the door behind her.

The man’s flashlight was nearly gone, but it lasted long enough for him to light the lantern. A cracked square of mirrored glass hung on the wall, and the man stared at his stubbled head, running his hands over the rough hair growth, desperately wishing that it were longer. There wasn’t much he could do about that however, and so he put the vain hope aside.

He studied the map for awhile, memorizing the path he would need to take when he awoke. When the man could keep his eyes open no longer, he laid himself down, pillowing his head on the now-empty canvas bag, and fell asleep.

Chapter 4 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 4

For the first time in days, the man stirred from his sleep, only to see light. He had forgotten to turn off the lantern, but he appreciated the luxury of illumination upon waking.

To his surprise, there was a bowl of oatmeal sitting nearby. Steam still wafted from the dish; it must have been placed there not long before. Perhaps that was what had roused him.

Despite that, the man was grateful for the sustenance, and took only a few moments to consume the food. He scribbled the words ‘Merci beaucoup’ in the dirt of the floor with his finger, placing the empty bowl next to his message.

As he turned back to pick up the lantern and the map, the man caught a glimpse of himself in the cracked mirror. He turned, gaping at the image presented there.

He had hair.

The previous night, he had had only small, rough patches of hair, but now, a full mane of auburn waves grew nearly to his shoulders, covering his head and framing his face in tangled disarray.

What had happened to him?

Amazed, he put his hand to his head, tugging on the strands, feeling the pain as he did so.

It was his hair. But how had it grown so fast?

He realized that he had no beard either. His facial hair had not grown, yet the hair on his head had somehow accelerated, achieving a year’s growth in one night’s time.

The man began to wonder if he was entirely human; to have such a thing happen. Still, it was to his advantage, so he forced his natural revulsion at this turn of events aside, and exited the room.

There was no one in sight, but the man was not distressed. He had a map, and fresh light, and his stomach was full.

He was going to survive.

For the first time since he had awoken in the rubble of the prison building, the man felt a sense of optimism, that everything would work out, and that a long future lay before him.

There were many more offshoots now from the main passageway, most of which were not dead ends, but clearly routes to other areas of the Paris Underground. The man avoided these paths, continuing along the course that had been laid out for him on his map.

At long last, he came across a tall archway. Written across its lintel were the words:

Vous quittez maintenant les Halls des Morts

Prenez garder les Snakeheads

Donc vous ne reviendrez pas trop bientôt.

Which translated as:

You are now leaving the Halls of the Dead

Beware the Snakeheads

Lest you return too soon.

The man took the warning as it had been intended: a caution, not a threat. Seeing a small alcove in the wall, he turned off the lantern, placing it inside. Rather than being plunged into darkness, he discovered that there was a small amount of daylight filtering in from above him, and he waited for a few moments to let his eyes get used to the new level of illumination. Once he had, the man clearly saw a set of stairs beyond the door, and he carefully made his way up, ascending in a tight spiral, turn after turn, making his way toward the surface.

The daylight suddenly became much brighter, and the man waited again so that his eyes could become used to it. Cautiously, he inched forward, eventually coming across the final exit.

A small hole in the crumbling wall was letting in fresh air and sunshine. With infinite care, the man eased his way through, noting the large pile of broken furniture that effectively camouflaged the entrance to the underground. He was in a narrow alleyway, barely wide enough for two men to stand shoulder to shoulder, and the man inched his way down to the street, carefully peering from side to side before emerging and walking amongst the local citizens.

The man could not recall if he had ever been to Paris before, but something about the city struck him as odd. No one looked at the sights as they walked along, much less at anyone else. Everyone kept their heads down, staring at the sidewalk as much as possible. The man was walking amongst a crowd of people, yet he had never felt so anonymous, or so alone.

Of course, this was to his benefit at the moment, but the haunted, nervous demeanor the Parisians displayed unnerved the man, and he found himself copying their manner of keeping his eyes on the ground, glancing up only when necessary,

Almost immediately, he discovered why the people were acting this way. Groups of men in green uniforms patrolled the streets, eyeing civilians with suspicion, and proudly displaying their weapons. Cruel expressions marred their coarse features, and the man could easily understand why no one wanted to attract their attention. The soldiers’ green masks truly did resemble snakes, and the man felt an instinctive revulsion at being in their presence.

Fortunately, it was a relatively short period of time before he found his way to a Metro station. Moving inside, he studied the map on the wall for a moment, determining where he needed to go before approaching the agent sitting in the ticket booth.

“A ticket to Saint-Sulpice, please.”

“Three dollars.”

The man pulled the appropriate bills from his pocket, careful not to let the agent see how much money he had in his possession, then passed his payment through the grille at the front of the booth.

“No good.” grunted the agent, pushing the bills back at him.

“What’s wrong?”

“The Metro is run by the ‘government’.”

The agent spat out the last word distastefully, as if it made him ill to speak it. “We can only accept the new currency.” he explained. “You need to make an electronic monetary transfer.”

“New currency?” The man was flustered for a moment, until he recalled the farmer’s wife telling him that many places would no longer accept Federation money.

“I don’t have any new currency.” the man admitted. “No electronic transfer access.”

“Then you’ll have to walk.” the agent replied, turning his back on the man.

“Thank you.” the man said politely, as if the agent had actually been helpful, before leaving the station.

It was just as well. He could walk in the sunlight, and he would not have to go back down into the dark underground, even on a train. Checking the street signs, the man began to walk.

Despite the circumstances, the man found that he was enjoying the day. The sun shone brightly, and the sights of the city were somehow comforting, even if he had to keep his gaze down to avoid the frequent Snakehead patrols. His journey took him just over an hour, and the man found himself regretting that it was over, as the spires of Saint Sulpice came into view.

The man entered the cathedral, the cool air coming off of its stone walls in a wave. He allowed himself the luxury of a few moments to wander through, entering a small chapel on the right. The chapel’s walls were covered in exquisite murals, and one in particular caught his attention. A bare-chested man was attempting to attack an angel… but rather than fight back, the angel held him gently, accepting his anger, the Godly creature’s demeanor almost… comforting.

The man gasped in awe, amazed by the beauty encompassed within the mural.

“There are some things they cannot take from us.” came a quiet voice behind him.

Slowly, the man turned, only to see a priest standing behind him, looking up at the same painting.

“I’m sorry?” the man asked.

“Faith.” the priest answered, smiling kindly. “As long as we have faith, deliverance is always at hand.”

“Suppose we choose to deliver ourselves, rather than wait for deliverance?” the man responded, mildly amused.

“That too, requires faith.” the priest replied, his eyes sparkling with vigor. “Faith that the evil can be overcome, when confronted with the justice and might of those who follow what is right.”

“But faith is not enough.” the man countered. “It is a necessary component for victory, yet we must always be watchful for evil.”

“You speak the truth.” the priest agreed. “In the Garden of Eden, it was the Serpent who offered up the temptation of the Forbidden Fruit. As punishment, he was forced to crawl on his belly and eat the dust for the rest of his days. Yet still, the Snake raises his head to tempt us to evil, if we do not have faith that justice will come.”

“I will be wary of such temptations.” the man promised.

“Good.” the priest smiled warmly. “Now, my son, may I be of assistance?”

“No, thank you.” the man replied. “I am simply enjoying the peace of this place.”

“Remember that peace is relative.” the priest advised him. “But I hope that you enjoy your respite here. If I may ever be of help, please do not hesitate to come. Ask for Father Richlieu.” He stepped back as he spoke, his final words so faint that the man barely caught them.

“Beware the Snakes…”

Before the man could respond, the priest was gone.

The man continued his tour of the cathedral, making his way through small chapels, and marveling at the stained glass windows lining the walls. He approached the altar, then turned back to look across the nave.

Above the doors through which he had entered was a magnificent organ.

Pass underneath the organ, and you will find L’Oiseau Blanc.

Clearly the man was supposed to leave, passing back through the door and out into the Place Saint Sulpice. He moved across the floor, taking one last look at the church before heading outside to the square. A number of cafes surrounded the Place, and on an otherwise unremarkable corner sat L’Oiseau Blanc.

Forcing himself to maintain a measured pace, the man walked slowly, meandering about the square, stopping to admire the Fountain of the Four Bishops in its center, and acting as if all he were interested in was taking in the sights. Seemingly almost by accident, he looked up, finding himself in front of the café.

The man entered, noting the sprinkling of customers who were having a light lunch in the main room. The man walked up to the bar, setling himself down on a stool.

“Do you accept Federation currency?” he asked the bartender.

“It depends.” the barkeep replied in a non-committal tone as he focused on cleaning a pile of glasses behind the counter. “What do you wish to order?”

“Croque Monsieur et frites.” the man said. “And I was hoping that I might be able to speak with Jerome.”

“There is no Jerome here.” the barkeep responded, not looking up from his task.

“Chantal sent me.” the man said quietly, desperately hoping that he had not made a mistake in his approach.

“I will ask the cook if he will take your Federation currency.” said the bartender, and he turned and left, passing through a small door at the back of the bar.

The man sat nervously for a moment, then calmed himself down as he realized that if he were going to be arrested by Snakeheads, it likely would already have happened.

The barkeep returned, bringing the man’s sandwich and fries.

“Ten dollars.” he said. “We will accept your Federation currency.” The bartender passed the man a napkin, then walked away.

The man unfolded the napkin to place it on his lap, and was surprised to see a message written upon it.

Jerome Mardi

Mardi meant Tuesday. The man glanced over at a newspaper on the bar, noting that today was Friday. He would have to wait four days. He sighed, wondering what he would do until then. Still, it was better than wandering through those dark, lonely tunnels.

He finished his meal, leaving a ten dollar bill on the counter underneath his plate, then stood to leave.

“A bientot.” he said to the barkeep, as he passed by. The bartender nodded.

A bientot… Until later… his message had been received.

He would return on Tuesday.

Chapter 5 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 5

The man walked out into the bright sunlight, looking around the Place Saint Sulpice. He wasn’t entirely certain where he should go. The first thing that came to his mind was to go back to the Catacombs, but being in the sunshine and fresh air now he found that particular option distasteful. Instead, he decided to wander around the area. Despite having to keep his gaze downward, he still wanted to experience the city for himself.

After walking for a few blocks he came across the Jardin du Luxembourg park. A small, ornate building that had once been a minor palace sat upon the grounds, which had originally been part of a system of elaborate gardens for the structure. The man appreciated the many wooded areas, and the sound of the wind rustling through the trees.

In the center of the park were large, grassy open areas, surrounded by wide stone walkways. The warm scent of flowers enveloped the man, and he found himself enjoying his walk through the beautiful grounds.

It was here that the man saw the first signs of what he would consider ‘normalcy’. A young mother sat on a wooden bench, watching her child playing on the grass in front of her. The little girl looked to be about five years old, and her cheeks were rosy as she laughed in the open air.

The man smiled at the sight, moving on through the park and enjoying the natural beauty around him, eventually coming to the Eastern edge of the park. Continuing on, he wound through the city streets, eventually coming to the Place du Pantheon. A large library, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, presided over the area, and the man was intrigued. Perhaps inside, he could learn more about this new society, into which he had been unexpectedly thrust.

He briefly thought about entering, until he discovered that it closed early on Fridays, and that the door was locked. Shrugging, the man decided to make his way back to the park. It was too beautiful a day, and he had been underground for too long, to let the sunshine go to waste.

As he wandered down a side path, the scream of a child caused the man to freeze in his tracks. He found his feet slamming on the pavement as he raced in the direction of the sound. The child screamed again, and the man rounded the corner of a wooded area only to discover a horrifying sight.

Three Snakeheads surrounded the little girl the man had seen playing earlier, their rifles pointing at her while the child’s mother protested vigorously; tears running down her face as she grabbed on to one of the soldier’s arms. The green-uniformed men laughed cruelly at her feeble attempts to resist them.

The man found himself suddenly panicking as he momentarily found himself uncertain of what to do. He wanted to help the woman, yet if the Snakeheads saw him, they might take him back to prison.

The child screamed again, the sound full of raw terror and despair, and the man’s decision was made. He skirted the grassy area, choosing a location close to the woods where he would have the least open distance between himself and the soldiers, and he prepared to strike. He was just about to intercede when another sound tore through the air.

“Stop!”

The newcomer’s voice rang loud and clear, demanding that anyone who heard it pay attention to its message.

“She’s just a child! Don’t you have any hearts at all?”

The Snakeheads turned toward the sound, distracted from their intended target for a moment. The mother took advantage of the unexpected opportunity, grabbing her child’s arm and taking off down the path unnoticed.

The source of the commanding voice turned out to be a young woman who was striding angrily across the grass, her red hair streaming like a banner behind her.

“Leave her alone!” the woman cried, although she had clearly seen the mother’s departure with her child. “She’s nothing to you! She’s hardly a threat!”

The man felt ashamed that he had hesitated, even for only a few seconds, to help the mother and child. This woman was smaller than he, yet she was clearly putting herself in harm’s way, distracting the soldiers long enough for the others to get away.

But the distraction didn’t last for long. One of the Snakeheads looked back, only to see that the child was gone, even as his comrades moved angrily in the woman’s direction.

“You’ll pay for that, bitch!” one of the soldiers shouted, racing toward the woman. She stood frozen for a moment before turning to flee, but her long hair betrayed her. The Snakehead reached out, catching the shining red strands in his fist and yanking her backward, so that she fell to the ground. The other two Snakeheads had arrived at the same spot, and they leered at her, speaking in a language that was neither French nor English, but one the man understood immediately.

Spectran.

How or why he knew this alien language, the man was not certain, but the curses and vile epithets coming from the Snakeheads’ mouths echoed through his brain, and he was momentarily stunned by the viciousness of their words.

Unfortunately, those words made it all too clear what they planned to do with the young woman.

Already, they were dragging her off to the wooded area in which the man was standing. Quickly, he concealed himself behind a tree, waiting for the opportunity he needed, because there was no doubt in his mind this time.

He knew what he had to do.

The moment the soldiers were clearly within the woods, they dropped the woman back onto the ground. Her head hit a rock, and there was a sickening crack, even as the man leapt out from his place of concealment.

Moving faster than the man had thought was humanly possible, he rammed his fist into one soldier’s jaw, while simultaneously knocking another’s rifle out of his hands. The man whirled, thrusting the heel of his foot into the disarmed Snakehead’s stomach, causing the soldier to double over and fall to the ground.

The last Snakehead lifted his rifle and aimed, but before he could get a shot off the man had sent a perfectly executed roundhouse kick into the soldier’s neck, shattering his windpipe.

The man stood in a defensive position, looking around and assessing the area for further threats. After a moment, he realized that none of the Snakeheads were moving.

He had killed them all, in less than five seconds.

The young woman was also unmoving and silent, and the man feared that she might have been killed as well. At the least, she might be unconscious, and badly hurt. But these fears were eased as the red-haired woman groaned, sitting up slowly and putting her hand to her head.

“Are you all right?” the man asked solicitously. “How badly are you hurt?”

The woman did not answer him right away, but leaned on a nearby tree to support herself as she attempted to stand.

“Are you sure you should be doing that? You just took a nasty hit to the head…”

“Are you kidding me?” the woman asked in disbelief. “You just killed three Snakeheads! We have to get out of here, or we’re going to find ourselves arrested!”

“Uh… yeah…” the man mumbled, stepping over a tangle of prostrate green-uniformed limbs to approach the woman. “I didn’t think of that.” He offered his arm for support, if the woman so chose.

She did. Gratefully leaning on his arm, the woman began to walk away. It was clearly a significant effort for her to force herself to move. A feeling of awe and respect rose up in the man. Despite her injuries, this woman was doing what needed to be done. She had stood up to the Snakeheads to save the child, and now she was doing what she had to in order to protect herself.

The least he could do was make it easier for her.

The man placed one arm across the woman’s back and around her waist, supporting most of her weight, then used his other arm to prevent her from falling forward. More carrying than supporting her, the man helped the woman walk away, staying within the trees as much as possible to avoid being seen from the main walkways of the park. Their pace was slow, and the man could only hope that they were moving quickly enough.

A few minutes after they had left the scene of the woman’s attack, the man saw Snakeheads running through the gardens. He motioned to the woman to get down, and quietly they lowered themselves to the ground, intently watching the soldiers as they passed, to see if they would notice anything amiss.

The Snakeheads moved on, unaware of the two people hiding less than twenty feet from the path. Once the soldiers had gone, the woman let out a sigh of relief.

“Thank you.” she whispered. “I appreciate your help.”

“I just did what was right.” the man replied quietly, looking down at the ground in embarrassment.

“Thank you all the same.” the woman insisted. “I can make it from here on my own.”

“Are you sure?” the man asked, concerned. “Those Snakeheads are going to search the area when they find their comrades. You need to get out of here.”

“I can take care of myself.” the woman insisted, but when she tried to stand up, a wave of dizziness overcame her, and she collapsed back down to the ground.

“Let me get you somewhere safe.” the man insisted.

The young woman reluctantly capitulated after a brief hesitation.

“All right.” she sighed. “You can take me to Saint Sulpice.”

“That’s a good idea.” the man agreed, helping the woman to her feet. She looked sharply at him, but gave no further response. The man took this for tacit compliance, and once again half-carried her, until they were along the edge of the park, and exiting the woods. Once they reached the street, he attempted to make his physical support less obvious, as he escorted the woman the few blocks over to Saint Sulpice.

As they entered the square, the man saw the mismatched spires of the stately cathedral, and knew that they were now safe.

It was almost like coming home.

Chapter 6 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 6

The moment the unlikely pair entered the cathedral, Father Richlieu came running over to meet them.

“Kristin!” he cried, his face a mask of concern. “What happened?”

“I fell.” the woman responded curtly.

The priest sent anxious glance in the man’s direction, as if looking for reassurance. The man could only smile weakly in response. Kristin gently pulled herself from the man’s grasp, and leaned on Father Richelieu, whispering something into his ear and allowing him to escort her off to a side chapel, leaving the man standing awkwardly by himself in the vestibule. Not really knowing what to do, the man sat in one of the pews nearby, waiting to see if the woman would be all right.

He hadn’t known her for very long, but then, with his memories gone, how many people did the man truly know? He felt a connection to the woman… Kristin… that compelled him to remain and ensure that she was well. The way she had stood up to the Snakeheads, willing to risk her own safety on behalf of someone else, had touched a chord within the man.

After about a quarter of an hour, Father Richlieu appeared at the man’s side.

“Will you come with me?” the priest asked, to which the man quietly nodded, standing up to follow where he was led. He was guided to the side chapel that Father Richlieu and Kristin had entered earlier. Inside, the woman was sitting in a pew, her glazed eyes and sagging posture clearly communicating her physical exhaustion.

“This is Mademoiselle Kristin DuMaurier.” the priest introduced the man to the young woman. “I am very grateful to you for helping her in the park.”

“I just did what was right.” the man repeated his earlier words.

“Not many would, in these troubled times.” the priest smiled. “You confronted the evil, secure in the knowledge of what was right.”

“It wasn’t like that…” the man protested weakly. “She was in trouble… she needed help…”

“Kristin needs your help now.”

“She does?”

“I don’t need his help.” Kristin interrupted. “I can take care of myself.”

“No.” Father Richlieu insisted. “You can’t.”

“What’s wrong?” the man asked, concerned.

“I suspect that Kristin has a minor concussion.” the priest explained. “She needs someone to take care of her for a couple of days. She requires rest, and needs to be monitored, in case her symptoms get worse. This dizziness of hers frightens me. I’m afraid this might be something more serious, but she refuses to go to the hospital…”

“You know why, Father.” Kristin interrupted, although it clearly pained her to speak. “The Spectrans monitor the hospitals and investigate all suspicious injuries.”

“I realize that.” the priest replied in a soothing voice. “That’s the only reason I agreed to let you go home. But you need someone to look after you, and I have other obligations I cannot put aside.”

“But I don’t know this man!” Kristin protested. “He’s a stranger!”

“And yet, there’s something about him, isn’t there?” Father Richlieu insisted. “When I saw him here this morning, I knew that he was special. I can’t explain why, but I trust him.”

“In any case,” the priest continued, “we can easily solve the problem of his being a stranger. Let us be introduced. What is your name, my son?”

The man shuffled his feet uncomfortably, staring at the floor as he spoke in a mumbling voice.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? I don’t understand.”

The man looked around nervously, his eyes darting back and forth, searching for signs of anyone who might overhear. He moved closer to the priest, as speaking softly as he could.

“I woke up a few days ago, and I didn’t remember anything.” he explained. “I don’t know who I am, or how I got there, or anything about my past.”

“I see…” Father Richlieu nodded understandingly. “You have been granted a second beginning. Watch over Kristin, and consider the possibilities of what you might do with this new life. I trust you to know the path of righteousness, my son.”

“Thank you.” the man replied, confused.

“You have proven yourself worthy of that trust.” the priest smiled kindly. “You have helped Kristin. Now if you can only help her a little more. I presume you are able to do so?”

“I am waiting for someone.” the man revealed. “But I won’t be able to see him until Tuesday.”

“Tuesday…” the priest nodded knowingly. “I understand. Well, then nothing should be preventing you from caring for Kristin until then?”

“As long as she is fine with it.”

“Kristin?” Father Richlieu turned to regard the young woman, who was fighting unconsciousness where she sat.

“I… all right.” she reluctantly agreed, pulling herself out of her dazed state. “I guess it’s for the best.”

“Good.” the priest replied. “Then let this young man escort you home.”

Kristin nodded, that small effort seeming to take all of her strength. The man rushed over to help her up, finding that he was forced to all but carry her.

Father Richlieu exited the room, coming back quickly with a small bag.

“Take this, my son.” he said, handing the bag to the man. “It may come in useful. Now please take Kristin home. As you can see, she needs rest. She lives at 18 Rue Servandoni, only two blocks from here. Can you find it?”

“Yes.” the man nodded. “I can find it.”

“I will help him.” Kristin whispered.

“You rest.” Father Richlieu instructed her. “I will come by tomorrow, to see how you are doing.”

“Thank you, Father.”

88888

Rue Servandoni was indeed only a block east of the cathedral, and just north of the Jardin du Luxembourg. Number 18 was an unassuming building that had clearly been converted into small apartments. It had a quiet, yet respectable, air of shabby gentility about it.

Kristin’s unit was on the top floor, and there was no elevator. When the man saw the stairs, he knew that there was no way that the young woman would be able to manage them. He gathered her up in his arms, carrying her up the three flights until they were at her door.

The man looked down at Kristin’s face. Her eyes were closed, an expression of complete and utter exhaustion written across her delicate features.

Carefully, so as not to wake her, the man put his hand into her coat pocket, quickly feeling the sharp, grooved press of metal. He closed his hand around the object, drawing it out, and was fortunate enough to find the correct key on the ring on his second attempt. Holding Kristin, and attempting to unlock her door, was something he was finding difficult to manage.

He had just unlocked the door and was turning the handle when he heard the sound of footsteps behind him.

“Who are you?”

A whining, sharp voice came from behind him, and the man turned his head slightly to see an older woman with a thin, pinched face regarding him.

“I…”

The man looked down, realizing that the entire situation had the appearance of being highly suspicious: he was carrying Kristin unconscious into her apartment, and he had just had to pickpocket her to obtain the keys. He thought of a reasonable explanation as quickly as he could.

“I am her brother.” the man lied. “Kristin came to meet me for lunch, and I’m afraid she had a little too much wine. She’s not used to it, you see.”

“Oh, I see.” the woman replied, her tone still somewhat suspicious. “Her brother, you say. How did you contact her? She thought her family were all dead.”

“Father Richlieu brought us together.” the man said quickly. “I was thrilled to regain contact with her.”

“Hmmph.” the woman appeared satisfied with his hastily-concocted story.

“I am Madame Mincan.” she introduced herself. “I run this boarding house. Let me know if you need anything.” Although her words were friendly, her tone made it clear that she did not expect to be bothered further.

“Of course.” the man replied, quickly ducking into Kristin’s apartment. “Thank you.”

Madame Mincan snorted and disappeared down the dark stairwell.

The man closed the door, sighing with relief, his eyes scanning the small apartment. The main room had a small sofa, a bookcase so full it was nearly bursting at the seams, and a tiny desk and chair. To the side lay a barely adequate kitchenette. Two other doors led off of this main room: one to a bathroom, and one to what was clearly Kristin’s bedroom.

The man walked into the room, noting the cozy feel it had, despite the peeling plaster and faded wallpaper. He gently laid Kristin down upon the bed, carefully removing her shoes and coat before covering her with a blanket.

The man softly closed the door behind him, slowly lowering himself down onto the couch. The sun was beginning to set, and the promising Spring day was coming to an end. He was tired, but somehow, not ready for sleep. Turning on a light, he moved over toward the bookcase, examining the titles upon its over-full shelves.

Kristin appeared to have a variety of tastes. There was a wide range of classical literature, as well as a few modern novels, and these were interspersed with various non-fiction books on the subjects of computer programming, sewing, travel, cooking, history, politics and languages.

Tentatively, the man pulled forth ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, intending on reading the novel, but found himself instead looking out at the street below. Night was falling, and Rue Servandoni was filled with people walking home at the end of the workday, returning to their apartments and loved ones. The scene should have been peaceful, but instead it filled the man with a sense of unease. Not one person spoke to another, and there was no air of pleasant expectation, such as one might expect at the end of the workweek. Everyone stared at the ground, and passing Snakehead patrols seemed to go out of their way to intimidate people by taking up the entire sidewalk, forcing Parisians to walk through the streets and the gutters.

It was not a world the man knew, and not one he cared to know.

Eventually, tiredness overtook him, and the man turned off the light, making himself as comfortable as he could on the ancient couch, and falling asleep.

Chapter 7 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 7

The man awoke to bright sunshine streaming onto his face. His mild annoyance at being roused so early was erased by the sheer pleasure of waking up to natural light. He blinked, enjoying the slight disorientation that accompanied his coming out of REM sleep.

He had been dreaming… dreaming of the world as it had been, before the Snakeheads had come. He had been high in the clouds, soaring in a small plane, surveying the Earth as it could be: beautiful… peaceful… free…

The man did not know if the dream was a memory of his past resurfacing, or simply a wish for what could be. But he did know that the thought of flying, of being one with the sky, held an enormous appeal. Perhaps he had been a pilot, before he had been arrested.

Was that why he had been a prisoner?

No further answers were forthcoming. The man sighed, scrubbing his face with his hands, rubbing at his eyes and wiping the last remnants of sleep from them. He moved on silent feet over to Kristin’s bedroom door, easing it open without the slightest sound.

The young woman was still sleeping, her red hair splayed across the pillow as her chest gently rose and fell in a peaceful rhythm. Not wanting to disturb her, the man closed the door, leaving Kristin to her rest.

The man went back into the main room, spying the bag Father Richlieu had given him the day before. He had been so tired the previous night he had forgotten all about it. Opening the bag, he found a change of clothes inside, along with an electric razor.

The man was grateful for the gift, and picked up the bag and its contents, heading into Kristin’s tiny bathroom. He hesitated only for a moment before turning on the shower, then stepped into the cold blast of water that came from the ancient, shuddering pipes. No matter the temperature, it felt good to be clean.

Borrowing Kristin’s soap and shampoo, the man vigorously washed his skin and hair, rinsing the dirt and grime of the past few days down the rusty drain. Curiously, he looked over his body, recalling the numerous bruises and scars he had seen only a few days ago.

All he saw was clear, unmarked skin. All signs of mistreatment were gone.

The man was surprised, but not unnerved. He chalked this up to yet another mystery about himself that would have to be solved. And the number of those mysteries was mounting.

Stepping out of the shower, the man felt human again, and he gratefully donned the clothes that Father Richlieu had provided. As with the ones given to him by the farmer’s wife, the garments were plain and unremarkable in design and color.

Lastly, the man turned his attention to the mirror and his face. He had again grown a beard, although not as much as he might have expected. Using the electric razor, he was able to remove the stubble, revealing the face underneath. Curiously, he stared at himself. It was the first chance he’d truly had to examine his face in proper light, since his rushed time in the bathroom at the farmer’s home.

His appearance with a full head of hair was completely different from that when he had been nearly bald. Longish, damp, auburn strands ran in every direction, even when he picked up Kristin’s comb and attempted to make them lie still. Deep blue eyes stood out more than ever, orbs of brilliant cerulean against pale, unblemished skin. The man’s facial features were refined, almost delicate, yet when he clenched his jaw at the thought his expression became coldly menacing. He appeared to be young, perhaps in his early twenties, at the oldest.

How had he come to experience so much, at such a young age? He felt as if he was a hundred years old, but his outward appearance clearly belied that assumption.

Sighing, the man returned to the main room, stopping briefly to check on Kristin again. She had moved slightly in her sleep, but still appeared to be resting peacefully.

In the tiny kitchenette, the man searched for food. He found a few general supplies, including some eggs, cheese and tomatoes. Without understanding how he had obtained such a skill, the man quickly beat two of the eggs into a yellow froth, poured them into a frying pan, and made an omelet seasoned with salt and pepper. Kristin had no coffee, but the man found a selection of herbal teas, and while the eggs were cooking he brewed a pot of peppermint tea.

A soft murmur came from the bedroom, and the man turned off the stove, moving over to knock politely on the door.

“Come in…”

The man entered to find Kristin still lying in bed with a somewhat shell-shocked expression, as if she were attempting to recall exactly how she had arrived there.

“You passed out, shortly after we entered the building.” the man explained. “I had to carry you upstairs. I also ran into a Madame Mincan…?”

“My landlady.” Kristin sighed. “Always sticking her nose into everyone’s business. What did you tell her?”

“I said I was your brother, and told her that you had had too much wine to drink.”

“What?” Kristin sat bolt upright, before putting a hand to her head and sagging back down to rest upon her pillow. “You said I was drunk? And that you were my brother?”

“Yes.” the man confirmed. “It was all I could think of on the spur of the moment. I said that we had met for lunch and you had drunk too much wine, and since you were unused to it…”

“I apologize.” he said, seeing the distraught expression upon the young woman’s face. “I wish I could have come up with a better explanation.”

“It’s all right.” Kristin sighed. “I suppose that’s better than telling her I was attacked by Snakeheads. I would hate to think how quickly I’d be investigated if that got out. But I already told Madame Mincan that my family was dead.”

“I know.” the man smiled ruefully. “I told her that I was lucky to find you.”

“Well, that’s almost the truth.” Kristin sighed. “I was lucky that you found me, when you did.”

“In any case, I hope that you are feeling better this morning.” the man said, eager to change the subject.

“I am, somewhat.” Kristin said. “At least, I was feeling better until I tried to sit up.”

“And then you were dizzy again?”

“A little. And a mild headache too.”

“Do you have any analgesics?”

“Yes… there’s some ibuprofen in the bathroom cabinet.”

“I’ll bring you some.”

The man got up and fetched the medicine, stopping briefly in the kitchen before returning to Kristin’s room.

“I brought the ibuprofen, and some breakfast as well, if you’re up to it.” he said.

“Oh… that smells wonderful.” Kristin smiled. “I didn’t realize how hungry I was, until I saw this. And tea as well! Thank you.”

“I hope you enjoy it.” the man replied, moving to leave.

“No, please stay.” the young woman shyly requested. “I… I’d enjoy the company.”

“Okay.” he said, sitting awkwardly on the edge of the bed as Kristin swallowed some of the ibuprofen with the peppermint tea. He had set the tray of food down next to her, and now watched as the young woman pulled herself into a semi-reclining position.

“An omelet?” Kristin smiled, taking a forkful and putting it in her mouth. “Mmmm… delicious!”

“I’m glad you like it.” The man felt his cheeks warm slightly, pleased with the young woman’s praise.

“I wasn’t sure how it would turn out.” he admitted.

“You didn’t taste it?” Kristin asked. “Haven’t you eaten anything?”

“It’s your food.” the man responded. “I didn’t think it was right to steal from you, especially since you were so ill.”

“It’s not stealing if I give you permission.” Kristin said sensibly. “Have some.” She took another forkful and held it out to him.

The man felt somewhat foolish eating in this manner, but obligingly leaned over and accepted her offering.

It was good. The man smiled, in spite of himself. It seemed that he had some useful talents after all.

Talents other than killing.

Images of the previous afternoon flashed through his mind.

One green-uniformed man, falling to the ground… two men… three…

“More?”

The sound of Kristin’s voice brought his mindset to the present.

“Please.”

The young woman fed him another bite, then ate one herself, alternating between the two of them until the entire omelet was gone. She sipped slowly from the mug of peppermint tea, a soft smile of genuine pleasure on her face.

“I don’t remember the last time I was brought breakfast in bed.” she said. “And I’m feeling much better now.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” the man replied.

“I know I was somewhat mistrustful of you yesterday, but…”

“I understand. It is a harsh world, and strangers can be dangerous.”

“I appreciate that.” Kristin smiled. “Thank you. I seem to be saying that to you a lot.”

“I’m just doing…”

“I know, I know.” she laughed. “You’re just doing what’s right. Father Richlieu was correct. There is something special about you.”

“I appreciate the Father’s confidence, but I’m not so sure about that.”

“I am.” Kristin replied seriously. “You said you didn’t have a name. Is that right?”

“Yes.” the man nodded. “I woke up a few days ago, buried alive in a pile of rubble. I didn’t remember anything about who I was, or how I got there. Since then, I’ve learned only one thing about myself.”

“What’s that?” Kristin asked curiously.

The man hesitated before responding. He felt a connection with this woman that he couldn’t explain. It was something new, and therefore fragile, and he didn’t want to risk shattering it. Yet, at the same time, he knew that he owed her the truth.

As always, he decided to do what was right.

“I was dressed in a prisoner’s uniform.”

“A… prisoner…? Of the Snakeheads?”

The man nodded, the shocked expression on the woman’s face causing his hopes to plummet. Kristin couldn’t deal with this.

“I guess I’ll be leaving now.” he said, moving to rise.

“Why?”

The man had been in the process of standing up, but a soft hand on his arm stopped him. He stared at Kristin, confused.

“Don’t you want…?”

“No.”

No?”

“I want you to finish your story.” Kristin said simply. “I’d like to know.”

“You’re not… afraid?”

“No.” she shook her head. “If you were going to hurt me, you would have done so already. And if the Snakeheads were holding you prisoner… they must be afraid of you.”

Afraid? Of me?”

It was something the man hadn’t contemplated before.

Five stars…

“Yes.” Kristin confirmed, speaking her thoughts aloud. “If you were a prisoner, and you escaped, they must be looking for you.’

“I don’t know.” the man replied. When Kristin looked at him quizzically, he attempted to explain.

“The rubble I awoke in… it was a prison building. I suspect they think I was killed in its destruction.”

“Why was the building destroyed?”

“I don’t know. The Snakeheads claimed it was an ‘accident’, but I’m not sure it was.”

“Then, it must have been something embarrassing for them.” Kristin surmised. “They must have been… attacked?”

“But by whom?” the man asked. “Who would attack them?”

“That’s what we’re going to find out.” Kristin grinned.

88888

When Father Richlieu arrived an hour later, the man was in the kitchen washing the breakfast dishes. A polite knock on the door made the man jump; he had been lost in contemplation of the conversation he had had with Kristin. They had discussed what little they knew of the ‘accident’ at the prison, and the man had related his experiences since waking up in the rubble. By then, Kristin had become tired with her exertions, and the man had left her to rest while he went to clean up.

“Good morning, Father.” The man greeted the priest. “I must thank you for the change of clothes.” He gestured to the garments he wore.

“Good morning, my son. You are most welcome. And how is Kristin doing today?”

“She is much better.” The man replied. “She woke up with a mild headache, but took ibuprofen and that eased the pain. She ate breakfast, and appeared to be more lucid. She is resting now.”

“Wonderful!” Father Richlieu smiled. “May I look in on her?”

“Certainly.” The man raised his arm to indicate the bedroom door. “I don’t think she is asleep. But may I ask a favor of you, Father?”

“What is it?” the priest asked curiously.

“I was hoping to visit a local market. Would you mind staying with Kristin for about an hour?”

“Of course not!” the priest said warmly. “You will find a small market up the street, about two blocks to the north.”

“Thank you.” the man said gratefully. “I will not be long.”

“I will await your return.” the priest bid the man farewell.

The man left the apartment, taking Kristin’s key with him. He walked north on Rue Servandoni and easily found the market that Father Richlieu had mentioned. Inside, he confirmed that the vendors there would accept his Federation currency, and then set about purchasing a selection of foods: fruit, vegetables, bread, cheese, and meats. The man did not have any kind of plan, but merely selected things that appealed to him, hoping that he would be able to prepare them instinctively, as he had the eggs.

Although Kristin had given him permission to eat her food, the man felt guilty doing so, when she was also providing him with a place to stay.

Upon returning back to the apartment, the man heard voices coming from the bedroom.

“I’d like to know more about this ‘accident’ at the prison.” Kristin was saying. “What really happened, and why?”

“I agree, it’s something worth investigating.” the priest replied. “Are you positive that he doesn’t remember anything further?”

“I don’t.” the man said, walking into the room. “But certainly if I did, I would be happy to tell you.”

“I appreciate that.” Father Richlieu replied, turning to look at him. “Can you at least tell me where this prison is located? There are a number of them, out in the countryside.”

“I’m not certain.” the man admitted. “All I know is that the farm house I chanced upon had access to an underground tunnel between Paris and Marseilles. I do not know how long I was walking in this passageway, but I had to rest twice during the journey to Egly.”

“I will make some discrete enquiries.” declared the priest.

“Thank you, Father.” Kristin said.

“So I gather you have not remembered your name yet, either?” Father Richlieu asked the man.

“No.” he admitted. “It is a constant source of frustration for me, not to know who I am.”

“Well, we can’t just keep calling you ‘him’!” Kristin laughed. “You should have a new name, at least, until you find out your real one.”

“I agree!” the priest concurred. “But what should it be?”

“Luc!” declared Kristin, with a sudden burst of inspiration. “I shall call you Luc. Does that meet with your approval?”

The man thought it over, repeating the name in his head. The name sounded right: short and masculine, with a hard consonant at the end. And somehow, it sounded even more right when Kristin said it.

“I like it.” he smiled.

“So do I!” agreed Father Richlieu. “You have been named after one of the four apostles, my son.”

“I suppose I can live with that.” Luc grinned wryly.

“I can see that you are in good hands, here.” the priest said to Kristin. “I will come again tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Father.” the young woman said. “For everything.”

“You are very welcome, my dear.” Father Richlieu patted her hand kindly before moving toward the door. Luc followed the priest out into the main room.

“You are taking good care of her, Luc.” Father Richlieu said, his eyes glancing at the foodstuffs the man had left on the kitchen counter. “For that, you have my gratitude.”

“I’m just doing…”

The man stopped himself from uttering the words he had repeated for the past two days. With his new name had come a new realization, and a new truth.

“It is my pleasure.” Luc replied.

Father Richlieu smiled, then bade Luc goodbye before leaving the apartment. The man went back to check on Kristin, but the young woman was fast asleep. Smiling to himself, Luc began to put the groceries away.

Chapter 8 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 8

Kristin slept for most of the day. While she rested, Luc took the opportunity to wash out the clothes he had worn on his journey to Paris with some soap, in the bathroom sink.

He also spent some time reading the Count of Monte Cristo. The depiction of Edmund Dantes’ time in jail, and his attempt with the Abbe Faria to dig a tunnel to freedom, struck a chord within him.

Kristin woke briefly in early evening to eat a sandwich Luc had made for her dinner. This time, he had made one for himself as well, and they ate together, making pleasant conversation. Kristin claimed that she was feeling better, but was tired and had a slight headache. It seemed like a fast recovery to Luc, but he didn’t know much about concussions. He figured that all of the rest she had gotten had been helping, or perhaps her injury hadn’t been so bad in the first place.

Kristin took more ibuprofen, and went back to sleep. After cleaning up the dinner dishes, Luc turned on a small broadcast transmission device he had found in the kitchen. Strangely enough, he found that he was only able to receive two stations. One was a blank screen playing instrumental music he did not recognize, while the other was broadcasting what appeared to be the evening news, in English. The man listened carefully, curious for news of what was going on in the world.

The broadcast was similar to what Luc thought it should have been like, save for the announcer’s wooden expression and tone: descriptions of local events, weather forecasts, results of sporting competitions, and the like. The major difference was that political news primarily centered around the Planet Spectra. Quite a bit of time was spent discussing the Spectran Leader’s recent visit to Earth, and the new laws being proposed by the Terran administration were apparently also being approved by the Spectran government. Major political positions on Earth all seemed to be held by Spectrans, and it appeared that despite a weak show of ‘democracy’, the Planet Earth was effectively being governed as a Spectran dictatorship. New laws were announced without mention of discussion, lobbying, protests, voting, or referendums.

The broadcast put the man on edge, so he eventually turned it off and went back to his book. Although the Spectrans were regulating broadcast entertainment, it appeared that they had not infiltrated books, as of yet.

It was a small comfort.

The following morning, Kristin awoke early, asking to go to Sunday Mass at Saint Sulpice. Luc’s reservations about her seemingly fast recovery rose to the fore again.

“I think Father Richlieu would have my hide if I let you leave the apartment.” Luc laughed.

“But I’d like to get out!” Kristin pleaded prettily. “I feel much better. I have to go to work tomorrow anyway, so isn’t it better to have a brief excursion now, to test the waters?”

“No.” the man replied firmly, holding up a hand before the young woman could make further protest. “I said that you’re staying here, and that’s my final decision.”

Luc almost felt as if he were ordering the young woman around, and was shocked that such an authoritative tone had come so naturally to him. However Kristin’s crestfallen expression tugged at his heartstrings, so he relented somewhat.

“I’m sorry.” he apologized. “I’m here to see that you get well, and I’m going to do my best to ensure that happens. But you do seem to be getting better.”

“I feel just about normal, except for a mild headache.” Kristin replied. “I must be a fast healer.”

“You’re not going out.” Luc repeated warningly, then offered an olive branch. “But if you stay well today, I guess you can go to work tomorrow. I wouldn’t want you to lose your job.”

“Thank you, Sir!” Kristin mock saluted.

“You’re welcome.” Luc laughed again, then attempted to change the subject. “What is your job, anyhow?”

“I work at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève.” Kristin replied. “I categorize new arrivals, and maintain library records. I’m still learning everything, but it’s a good job, and I am lucky to have it.”

“You’re still learning?” asked Luc, confused. “How long have you had this job?”

“About five months.” Kristin answered. “When the Snakeheads attacked, I was a student at the Universite d’Orleans. The entire city was destroyed, and I became a refugee, like so many others. Fortunately, I crossed paths with Father Richlieu, and he has helped me get back on my feet. He even assisted me in looking up my family… they lived on the outskirts of Rennes.”

“You said your family was dead.” Luc reminded her, his voice quiet.

“They are.” Kristin confirmed, a sad expression on her face. “Our home was hit by a Snakehead missile during the attack, and my family was inside the house. There were no survivors.” The young woman hid her face in her arm, her grief clearly evident.

Luc was angry with himself for causing Kristin such obvious distress. How could he have been so thoughtless? Awkwardly, he reached out, and when she didn’t protest he pulled her into his arms, rocking her gently.

“I didn’t mean to bring up… I didn’t think.” he admitted, holding her against his chest. “It is terrible, what you’ve had to endure.”

“I don’t blame you, Luc.” Kristin sniffled. “I blame the Snakeheads. They attacked us, dragging the Earth and the Federation into a war we didn’t want. They are the ones lording it over us, killing anyone who attempts to disagree with them, much less fight back. It’s not your fault they’re here.”

Why are they here?” the man asked, somewhat unnerved by the venom in the young woman’s voice. “I don’t recall those events. This is all so… unexpected… to me.”

“You’re lucky you don’t remember.” Kristin said grimly. “It was terrible. The Snakeheads attacked every continent on the Earth, all at once. Of course, they sent G-Force to defend our planet, but they had just one ship, and the Snakeheads had so many…”

The young woman shuddered, and Luc instinctively held her more tightly, in a vain attempt to comfort her.

“You don’t need to tell me this, if it causes you pain.” he murmured.

“But I want to tell you.” Kristin replied, taking a deep breath to calm herself before continuing. “You need to know what happened.”

“All right.” Luc said reluctantly.

“I guess G-Force destroyed a couple of their large mecha.” Kristin said. “I’m not entirely certain because at the time, I was fleeing Orleans, which was under attack by a different mecha, and I wasn’t watching the news reports. It was only after I had reached Paris that I found out why G-Force had taken so long to get to France.” She paused briefly in her recitation.

“Afterward, the Snakeheads did their best to prevent any information about their Invasion from getting out.” she continued, “but people talked amongst themselves, passing on what they knew. The Snakeheads themselves confirmed the worst news: that the G-Force warship had been destroyed by one of their mecha, and that the entire team had been killed.”

All of them?” Luc asked, amazed. Kristin nodded solemnly.

“I recall, before the war, seeing them on the broadcasts. They always seemed so strong… so invincible… I just never imagined that they could be defeated. Not all of them…”

Luc could sense Kristin’s sadness. He too had always thought of the G-Force Team as invincible, and had just assumed that they would always be there to protect the Earth. The fact that they no longer lived explained why the Snakeheads were meeting with such little resistance to their Occupation.

“I have heard people say that it was here, in France, where the Phoenix went down.” Kristin continued. “But the Snakeheads wouldn’t confirm that. All they would do is show its destruction over and over again on the news broadcasts. I got so sick of seeing it explode that I just stopped watching altogether.”

“I can understand that.” Luc said, still rocking her in his arms.

“Of course, once G-Force was gone, there was no one left to stand up to the Snakeheads.” Kristin explained. “I guess a few people got ‘smart’, mostly the politicians, and fled the planet in the first few hours, before the Snakeheads took control of the rest of the Terran Sector. The Federation now operates from Riga, but of course, Earth is no longer a part of it. We are now a part of the Spectran Empire, instead.”

“How could this happen?” Luc protested. “Didn’t the people of Earth fight back? Even without G-Force, surely the UN or other Terran military forces...”

“Yes, there was some resistance, at first.” Kristin nodded. “But the Snakeheads just obliterated a few major cities, without warning. And after that, everyone pretty much just gave up.”

“Gave up?” the man was astonished.

“Most people don’t like the Snakehead occupation, but they’re too scared to fight.” Kristin explained bitterly. “To them, their freedom isn’t worth their lives.”

“But, it is… for you…” Luc said with sudden insight.

“It is.” Kristin smiled weakly. “Father Richlieu has assigned me various ‘tasks’ from time to time. It’s why he recommended me for the job at the library.”

“The library?” the man was confused.

“Yes!” Kristin laughed. “The Snakeheads don’t really understand books, you see. All of their information is on computers: disks, files, chips, servers, data streams. They see paper books as being antiquated technology, and so they assume that the information inside of them is antiquated as well.”

“We’ve encouraged their belief that paper documents are ‘outdated’, of course.” Kristin went on. “It prevents them from destroying books, and has the added benefit of keeping their attention away from the libraries, which they consider useless.”

“So…” Luc struggled to come to grips with what Kristin was telling him. “What really goes on, at your library?”

“Mostly the kind of things you would expect.” the young woman smirked. “But access to the Spectran computer net can be very handy… if it is used sparingly.”

“You have access to their computer network?” the man asked, astonished.

“In a limited way, officially.” Kristin nodded. “Unofficially…” She let her words trail off suggestively.

“I see.” Luc said, acknowledging what remained unspoken. But he remained confused on one point.

“You’ve told me a lot about this.” he pointed out.

“I know.” the young woman replied. “Enough to easily get me arrested, and killed, if you told the wrong people.”

Why? Why me?”

“Father Richlieu trusts you. To be completely honest… I do too.”

“You do?”

“There’s just something about you… the way you killed those Snakeheads to save me: a complete stranger. Yet you have been so considerate of me here… gentle, even. You know how to kill, yet you have great respect for human life…”

“You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?” Luc asked wryly.

“Yes.” she smiled. “That you’re just doing what’s right. But it’s that innate sense you have, of what is right, and your insistence on following that course of action, that makes you so special. It’s amazing how that kind of honor is rare to find, these days.”

“I appreciate the compliment, but I still don’t understand.” Luc shook his head. “Why are you telling me all of this… risking your own safety…?”

“The day that I was hurt, Father Richlieu told you that you had been granted a second beginning… a new life. He thinks that you were sent to help up. That you may be in a position to help us…”

Five stars...

Just a few days ago, the farmer’s wife had said, “You, with your five stars… I know you can make it happen.”

“Uh… there’s something I should tell you.” Luc confessed. “Something I forgot to mention, when I told you about my escape.”

“What’s that?” Kristin asked curiously.

“My prison uniform, that I was wearing when I woke up; it had five stars on it.”

“Five stars?” Kristin sat bolt upright, nearly spilling her tea in her surprise. “Five? Are you certain?”

“Yes.” the man was confused by the intensity of her reaction. “I guess it means that I worked for the Federation? The farmer’s wife thought it meant that I could fight the Snakeheads.”

“It means more than that!” Kristin replied gleefully. “It means that you had a very high rank within the Federation. There aren’t that many five star prisoners. One and two stars are for administrative people, former military officers, that kind of thing. Former politicians, such as governors, presidents, prime ministers, are three star prisoners. Scientists, people who performed research for Galaxy Security, are four star prisoners. Five stars are reserved for high level military officers, generals and the like; the people whom the Snakeheads would consider to be the biggest threats.” She regarded Luc contemplatively.

“I should have known, the way you fought those Snakeheads. You were special. You are special. It’s quite possible that if you could remember who you are, that you could make contact with other former military. People who are loyal to you. People who can help us fight.”

“I’ll do what I can.” Luc promised.

“You will?” Kristin’s face lit up.

“Ever since I awoke, things have just seemed wrong.” Luc said slowly, clumsily attempting to put his thoughts into words. “Not just unfamiliar, but as if things were not the way they were supposed to be. All I remember is life under the Federation, and to see things as they are now…”

“I need to do whatever I can, to drive the Snakeheads out.” he declared. “Something in me demands it.” He looked at Kristin cautiously, wondering if she thought him crazy for saying such things.

“I understand.” she smiled, taking his hands in hers. “You’ve expressed how I feel… as if something in me is demanding that we fight, even if others are afraid.” She smiled, squeezing his hands gently.

“So, what do we do now?” Luc asked.

“The first thing we need to do, is to find out who you really are.” Kristin declared.

Chapter 9 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 9

Late that afternoon, Father Richlieu visited, and Kristin and Luc informed him of their earlier conversation. After only a brief hesitation, the priest instructed Kristin to use her computer access at the library to determine Luc’s true identity. It was a risky move, as she would have to search through sensitive databases, but one they hoped could help their cause enormously. And so, not without some trepidation, the next morning Luc found himself escorting Kristin to work.

As they passed through the Jardin du Luxembourg, they both glanced nervously at the patch of woods where Luc had killed the Snakeheads only three days before. There was no sign that there had ever been a disturbance there, yet the memories sent a chill down Luc’s spine.

Kristin sighed audibly with relief when they exited the park, before Luc spoke and turned her attention to other matters.

“What will we tell your co-workers?” he asked nervously. “I’m sure you don’t show up every day with a strange man in tow.”

“Hardly.” Kristin smiled. “We’ll use the same story you told Madam Mincan.”

“That I’m your brother?”

“Yes. We just found each other, and you’re staying with me until you find a job.”

“They won’t mind that I’m coming with you? Perhaps I should wait outside.”

“No, it’s okay. They won’t mind.” Kristin assured him. “Besides, I might need you to answer some questions for me, as I’m doing my search.”

It was as Kristin had predicted. No one so much as raised an eyebrow at her companion, and only one person even bothered to ask who he was. Luc was surprised at the level of disinterest from Kristin’s co-workers.

“Don’t they care?” he asked, astonished.

“You should be happy that they don’t care.” Kristin pointed out. “But it’s a sign of the times. No one wants to appear too interested in anyone else’s business.”

They arrived at Kristin’s office, and she indicated that Luc should sit in a chair, as she closed the door. The man sat nervously, feeling as if all eyes were on him as the other library administrators snuck occasional glances at him through the large glass wall of the office.

“Since it’s Monday morning, I have tasks I need to perform right away.” Kristin explained. “I know you’re anxious, but it will seem suspicious if I don’t attend to my assigned duties first.”

“I understand.” Luc nodded.

The man gave all outward appearances of waiting patiently, but inside he had butterflies in his stomach. Even watching Kristin working intently at her desk didn’t calm him. Every so often she would look up and send him a reassuring smile, and Luc would find himself smiling back. But the warm feeling this exchange brought only lasted until the young woman lowered her head again, and he then he would find his nervous anticipation returning.

At long last, she pushed away from her desk and stood up, indicating silently that he should follow her. Quietly, but confidently, Luc walked a few steps behind Kristin, out of her office and down the stairs, into the main library itself. According to the plaques on the walls, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève was apparently a part of the University of Paris, and the building itself was steeped in history. The main room was a long chamber roughly the size of a football field, and at least three stories high by the man’s estimation. Large, arched windows lined the walls, letting in an abundance of natural light, while the floor was covered with shelving units and a few randomly placed long tables for reading and study. The room gave the appearance of being a sort of ‘homeless shelter’ for books, with shelves and racks stuffed haphazardly into any available space.

“The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève has been accepting books that have been recovered from libraries destroyed in the Invasion.” Kristin explained quietly. “The problem is that we don’t have the storage space for all of these new items. That’s what keeps me busy: cataloguing all of the new arrivals.”

“Looks like a big job.” Luc said, as they made their way through the twisting path around racks of books spread across the large chamber. There was a slightly musty scent to the air, and the man found it somehow comforting.

In the very back corner of the room was a secluded area, presumably for quiet study. A computer terminal was located inside one of the individual private reading sections. It was here that Kristin sat, indicating that Luc should join her. She leaned over to whisper quietly in his ear.

“This terminal has been rigged by… friends… to have a Level 8 clearance. Hopefully, that will be high enough to find out what we need to know.”

Luc had no idea what a ‘Level 8’ clearance entailed, but he trusted in Kristin’s judgment.

The young woman logged into the terminal using an ID composed of seemingly random Spectran alpha-numeric characters. She then proceeded to log into other systems, inputting a series of usernames and passwords with blinding speed. Before Luc had blinked twice, she had located a listing of Spectran prisons within a three hundred kilometer radius of Paris. Surprisingly, there were nearly a dozen of these institutions. Luc wondered why the Snakeheads needed to imprison so many people.

Whispering softly back and forth, Kristin narrowed down the results, based on Luc’s description of his journey to Paris. There was only one prison located anywhere near the straight line between Egly and Marseille.

Slowly. Kristin accessed the inmate records of the Spectran Penal Complex 624-Alpha, but when she attempted to search for inmates of star ranking, she came up against a brick wall.

“It needs another password.” she muttered. The man sighed regretfully.

“I guess we can’t…”

“Don’t be so negative.” Kristin grinned. “I’m better than that!”

With lightning speed, the young woman opened another window, accessing a search engine and attempting to locate the identities of the officers who were in charge of the prison. Once she had their names, she searched for news articles about these men. Luc had no idea what she was doing, but remained silent as Kristin copied some apparently meaningless information into a notepad program.

The young woman then went back to the first window, typing in a userid and a password.

Access Denied

But that didn’t phase Kristin. She tried again, and again.

On her fourth attempt, she was able to log in.

“How did you do that?” asked Luc, amazed.

“Simple.” Kristin smirked. “I picked one of the lower officers whose biography indicated that he came from a ‘prominent’ Spectran heritage. That strongly suggests that he was promoted based on his family connections, and not his intelligence. Then I attempted to log into his account, using the names of his wife and children as passwords. That didn’t work, so I used the birth date of his son.” She gestured triumphantly at the screen.

“Bingo.”

Luc stared in amazement at the young woman. She made it all sound so obvious, yet he would have been completely lost.

“Kristin, you’re amazing.”

Kristin’s only response to the whisper in her ear was a slow, deep blush suffusing her face, and she smiled shyly at Luc before turning back to the computer display.

“Now let’s see what we can find.” she giggled, in a failed attempt to maintain a businesslike manner.

Carefully, Kristin combed through the prisoner records. She briefly explained to Luc that she didn’t want to perform a proper search algorithm, as a record of that search would likely be logged into the penal system’s security records. So instead, she went through the list alphabetically.

There were approximately one hundred prisoners of star ranking listed, both men and women, and not all of them were current inmates. Based on the color-coded listings, many appeared to have died while incarcerated, or been transferred to off-world penal colonies.

Examining the available data, they discovered that each record included two pictures of the prisoner in question. The first image was always of the inmate with a shaved head, wearing the red one-piece uniform that was uncomfortably familiar to Luc. The second images all seemed to have been taken around the time of incarceration, as these pictures showed the prisoners with full heads of hair, and in some cases, facial hair as well.

Kristin went through record after record, and they found nothing. When they were more than halfway through the database, Luc began to get discouraged. Was he even in here? Perhaps he had been mistaken in his recollection of what had happened during his escape…

“I found it!” Kristin whispered gleefully.

The man stared, amazed, at the images on the screen in front of him. The first picture appeared as he remembered the face in the mirror at the farmhouse. Clouded blue eyes stared blankly at the camera, clearly unaware and uncaring that an image was being captured. The second picture had clearly been taken while the man it depicted was lying down, unconscious. Long, tangled auburn hair spilled onto some kind of metallic table, framing a pale face littered with numerous bruises. The inmate wore no shirt, and similar cuts and bruises were visible on his chest and shoulders.

“It’s… that can’t be me…” Luc whispered quietly, but it was obvious both to him and to Kristin that it was.

“Your name is Mark Turner.” Kristin revealed. “And you apparently held the rank of Commander, but it doesn’t say in which military branch…” Her fingers flew along the control panel while her brown eyes scanned back and forth across the display screen in an attempt to find out more.

“There isn’t anything else!” she exclaimed, amazed. “The rest of the information appears to be classified. I can’t access it…” Kristin continued to scroll down the page, until she found one more notation at the bottom of the record.

“It says…” she whispered, her eyes darting quickly as she read the few lines written in the Spectran language. “It says that you were killed seven days ago, along with several others, in an attack on the High Security Facility within the Complex. But what attack? And by whom?”

Kristin’s brow furrowed slightly in concentration as she searched for more information.

“I can’t believe it!” she said at last, falling back in her chair, mentally exhausted. “A Level 8 clearance isn’t sufficient to access these records. Your data, information about the attack… they all require a Level 10 clearance.” Kristin turned to scrutinize the man sitting next to her.

“Just who are you, Commander?”

Having her address him that manner sparked a sense of recognition in Luc’s mind, but as soon as he tried to grasp at it, the familiar feeling was gone.

“I don’t know.” he answered honestly.

Kristin looked back at the computer screen, an expression of indecision on her face.

“I can try to get proper clearance to access the records,” she explained, “but it’s very risky. That kind of thing is likely to be noticed. Apparently, only the Prison Commandant has access to that information, and…”

Kristin’s face froze as a bright red warning block flashed across her screen. Quickly, she reached over, pulling the power cord from the control panel, and the screen went black even as she hissed at Luc.

“We need to go, now.”

Chapter 10 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 10

Luc stood up quietly, following Kristin as she threaded her way through the haphazard stacks of books in the library and back out to the main entrance. She exited the building, waving in an overly cheery manner at the security guard at the front desk.

“We’re off to lunch!” she said brightly, but her hand gripped Luc’s arm like an iron band. Carefully, she steered him down the street, and in the direction of the park.

“The officer whose account I was using attempted to log in while I was online.” Kristin explained in a scared whisper. “The system refused him access, and I was warned that someone may be attempting to hack into the account.”

“I think it’s better if I don’t go back to work today.” she concluded in a tight voice.

“I agree.” Luc replied. “Let’s see if we can contact Father Richlieu, and let him know what we discovered.”

“That sounds like a good idea.” said Kristin.

They walked hurriedly to Saint Sulpice, their eyes fixed on the ground as they made their way along the narrow streets. But when they got to the cathedral, Father Richlieu was not there.

“He must be out, visiting his ‘parishioners’. “ Kristin said, frustrated. “I guess all we can do is go home, and hope he’s back in a little while. He usually doesn’t like to stay away from the cathedral for too long.”

Luc wasn’t certain that going back to Kristin’s apartment was the best idea, but he had nothing else to suggest. As they entered the building, Madame Mincan was there to greet them.

“So, I see that your ‘brother’ is still visiting.” she smiled nastily. “So lucky that you found him, Kristin.”

“I agree.” the young woman replied hastily, clearly unnerved by the unexpected malice in the landlady’s words. “I am very lucky.”

“We both are.” Luc added, escorting Kristin quickly to the stairwell and away from the Madame Mincan’s nasty implication. But something bothered him about the entire encounter. What if the landlady wasn’t just being nasty? Something about her tone set Luc’s teeth on edge, and his mind screamed at him that something was definitely not right.

The moment they had entered the apartment, Luc turned to Kristin, his expression deadly serious.

“We need to go.” he said sharply, unconsciously echoing her words of less than an hour before. “Grab a few clothes, and I’ll take some food. We have to get out of here as quickly as possible.”

The tone of his voice was commanding, and clearly brooked no refusal. Kristin stared at Luc wide-eyed for a moment, before nodding and rushing off to do as he had requested. Luc grabbed his few possessions, stuffing them into a bag along with the food and a pair of flashlights he knew were in the kitchen. Kristin came running out of her bedroom less than sixty seconds after she had entered, a backpack in her hand.

“Where now?” she asked nervously, her hands trembling.

“Out the window.” Luc said, pointing toward the curtained opening. “We can’t let Madame Mincan know that we have left the building.” Kristin nodded, her face as white as a sheet.

Quietly, Luc opened the window, sticking his head out and looking upward. A drainpipe ran along the side of the building only a meter away. The roof was approximately four meters above the windowsill, and the man felt certain that he could make it.

Luc pulled his head back inside, turning to Kristin.

“Do you have any rope?” he asked her. “Something strong.”

Kristin nodded, running into the kitchen and pulling a large loop of clothesline out of a drawer.

“This will work.” Luc said approvingly, tugging firmly on the line to test its strength. “I’m going to climb up to the roof, and then I’ll pull you up to join me.” Kristin’s face went white as he told her of his plan, but she made no protest.

“Good girl.” Luc said encouragingly. On impulse, he leaned over, brushing her face with his lips.

“Everything will be all right.” he promised her.

Kristin smiled at him, the worry disappearing from her face as she lightly touched the cheek he had kissed.

“I know it will be,” she said, “as long as I’m with you. I trust you, Luc.”

The man turned, his heart feeling lighter despite the danger of the task that lay before him. He looped the clothesline around his wrist and tied a slipknot, leaving the other end with Kristin. He pushed the straps of his bag and Kristin’s backpack up his other arm and over his shoulder, then sat down on the windowsill, swinging his legs over the edge and sliding in the direction of the drainpipe. Experimentally, he pulled on the metal tube to test its security, and once he was satisfied he took a leap of faith, jumping off of the sill and holding onto the thin metal pipe for dear life. Certainly a fall to the pavement twelve meters below could kill him.

With expert skill he hadn’t known he possessed, Luc shimmied up the drainpipe, his feet instinctively searching for footholds with each step. Within moments he had reached the roof and he gratefully clambered onto it, amazed at the minimal level of effort the entire endeavor had taken. Adrenaline was pumping through his body at an incredible rate. It took Luc a moment to recognize the sensation, and another moment longer to realize that he was familiar enough with the feeling to have missed not experiencing it in some time.

But all of his exhilaration disappeared when he saw the look of terror on Kristin’s face as she looked up at him from the window. Clearly this was not something she relished doing, but she was making the effort because he had told her to do so.

And Luc wasn’t about to let her down.

He tied the clothesline around his waist, then laid down flat on his stomach, letting his arms dangle over the edge of the building. Kristin’s anxious expression calmed somewhat when she saw him smiling encouragingly at her.

“Tie the line around your waist.” Luc instructed, and she did so. He then pulled on the rope, telling her how to use her feet to climb up the building, Batman-style. Kristin nodded, and gripping the rope with white-knuckled fingers, stepped off the windowsill.

Terror-filled eyes stared up at Luc, as she swung in the air for a few seconds, before the man’s words penetrated her brain, and she was able to brace herself against the building with her feet, as per his instructions. Beads of sweat appeared on her forehead as Luc belayed her, supervising her top rope climb up to the roof.

Kristin had only taken a few steps when the man spied a flash of green out of the corner of his eye.

Snakeheads.

Three green-uniformed soldiers were walking in front of 18 Rue Servandoni. Luc was wishing he could hear what they were saying when he suddenly found his ears picking up their conversation.

“Is this the place?” asked one, speaking in Spectran.

“Number 18.” confirmed another. “We have to speak with a Madame Mincan.”

“Is she the one who called in the report?” questioned the third.

“Yes.” nodded the second soldier. “Some suspicious fellow just showed up a couple of days ago, claiming to be a tenant’s brother. The Mincan woman sent his image from the security cameras to our offices, and our orders are to bring him in for questioning.” The Snakehead passed an image display pad to his comrades, but Luc was unable to see what was on it.

Kristin gasped quietly, but it was enough to bring Luc’s attention back to her. She was nearly at the top of the roof, and she sighed with relief as he grabbed her arm, pulling her up and over the edge of the roof. Quietly, he related what he had heard, even as the Snakeheads entered the building.

“Madame Mincan.” Kristin repeated angrily, as she caught her breath. “I’ve always disliked her, but I never suspected that she was an informant.”

“Informant?” Luc asked, as they moved across the roof to the other side of the building, the clothesline still tied around their waists.

“Yes.” Kristin replied. “Some Terrans have become informants for the Snakeheads, in return for small privileges and luxuries. It makes life more difficult for the rest of us, as we never know who might be… Oh!”

This last exclamation was said as Luc grabbed her hand, wrapping the slack in the clothesline around both of their wrists. In front of them was a nearly two meter gap to the roof of the next building, and it was immediately clear to the young woman that Luc intended on jumping across.

“I… I can’t…” Kristin shook her head, backing away, but Luc pulled her against him.

“You can.” he assured her, gently stroking her face from temple to chin with his fingertips. “I’ll help you.”

“I… I trust you, Luc.” Kristin nodded, repeating her earlier words like a mantra.

“We have to hurry.” Luc told her. “They’ll realize we’ve gone any second now.” He backed both of them up a few steps, then took off at a run for the edge, holding Kristin’s hand tightly while she did her best to prevent herself from tripping as she tried to keep up.

“Now!” he shouted, as they reached the end of the roof, and the two of them leapt into the air. For a moment, they both seemed to hang, suspended in the space between the two buildings, and then they landed; Luc on his feet, Kristin stumbling as Luc caught her in his arms. She smiled up at him, clearly relieved, and that that was enough to make him pause, his breath catching in his throat.

Cautiously, he looked over the edge, seeing the Rue Ferou below.

“Look, Saint Sulpice is up there.” He pointed about two blocks up the street. “We can make it.”

“I know we can.” Kristin said confidently. She squeezed Luc’s hand tightly, as he lowered himself over the side of the building and down onto a small balcony that hung out over the narrow street. She jumped down into his arms to join him.

The door off of the balcony was old, and Luc easily pried it open with the help of a small pocketknife that Kristin produced. Luc smiled gratefully at her as she handed it to him, marveling at the instinct that had told her what to grab in the few seconds she had had before leaving her apartment.

The balcony door opened into an ancient hallway, and they managed to slip inside without being seen. Kristin found a stairwell, and before long she and Luc were on the street, rope removed from their waists and walking as quickly as they dared to Saint Sulpice.

They entered the cathedral, their eyes scanning the length of the nave, but Father Richlieu was nowhere to be found. A quick search of the side chapels confirmed that he had not returned from wherever he had gone. Finally, another priest hurriedly informed them that Father Richlieu was not expected to return until late the next day, before he ran off to perform other tasks.

Upon hearing this news, Kristin looked up at Luc, her face a mask of despair.

“What are we going to do?” she asked, tears brimming in her large brown eyes. “We can’t stay here, we can’t go home, we…” her voice choked off a sob, and Luc pulled her against his chest, stroking her hair and speaking soothingly to the distraught young woman.

“It will be all right.” he whispered in her ear, feeling her body relax slowly within the circle of his arms. “I’ll take care of you. I promise.”

“I know you will.” Kristin replied, and her relieved tone told Luc that his words had had their desired impact.

“I am supposed to meet someone tomorrow.” Luc told her quietly. “But maybe he’s there already, or maybe we can find a way to meet up with him early.”

“Someone who can help us?” Kristin asked hopefully.

“Yes.” Luc nodded. “It’s not far. Come on.”

Taking Kristin’s hand, Luc gently led her out of the cathedral and into the Place Saint Sulpice. Moving around the Fountain of the Four Bishops, he made his way to L’Oiseau Blanc.

“A café?” Kristin was confused. “Your friend is here?”

“He’s not exactly a friend.” Luc attempted to explain. “Just someone I’m supposed to meet.”

Fortunately, the café was not busy, as the lunch rush was over and only a few businessmen remained inside. The young man and woman stepped into the darkened room, and Luc immediately approached the bar. He recognized the bartender from his previous visit.

“We need to see Jerome.” Luc said, in a low, urgent voice.

“You’re early.”

The barkeep’s response was curt, yet extremely quiet, and he masked his words with the clink of drinking glasses. But Luc refused to let himself be put off by the man’s cold tone. Not when Kristin’s safety was at stake.

“It’s urgent.” he hissed. “We need to see Jerome, now!”

The bartender glared at Luc, then turned and walked away in a cloud of stony silence.

Luc’s heart fell. Was the man not going to help them? Where else could they go? Perhaps back to Chantal…

Just as Luc was convinced that they would have to go elsewhere, the barkeep returned, his expression only slightly more accommodating. He indicated with a sharp crook of his finger that they were to follow him, and then led Kristin and Luc to a dark, windowless corner of the room. A small door was hidden in the shadows.

The bartender unlocked the door, revealing a narrow stairwell beyond. He gestured impatiently inside, and Luc and Kristin stepped across the threshold, only to hear the sharp click of the lock behind them the moment they were through the door.

Nervously, Kristin clutched Luc’s hand, not making a sound as they proceeded slowly up the battered steps. At their end was another small door, identical to the one through which they had entered the stairwell.

Keeping Kristin behind him, Luc cautiously placed his hand on the knob. It turned freely.

They opened the door, stepping into the dimly lit room beyond.

Behind an ancient desk sat Father Richlieu.

Chapter 11 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 11

“Father?” Luc was confused.

“Oh, Father Richlieu!” Kristin rushed over to hug the surprised priest. “I am so glad to see you!”

“What is it, Kristin?” the priest asked, bewildered. “What are the two of you doing here?”

“We are looking for Jerome.” Luc explained. “I was supposed to meet with him tomorrow, but we ran into some trouble today, and when you weren’t around I thought he might be able to help us…”

“Ah…” Father Richlieu smiled. “Then you have been doubly successful, for you have found Jerome.”

“We have?” Kristin was confused.

“I am Father Jerome Richlieu.” the priest explained. “And I gather you, Luc, are the young man who was sent by my mother?”

“Your mother?” Luc’s head was spinning with these strange circumstances.

“Chantal.” Father Richlieu replied. “She prefers to live in the Catacombs, rather than under the scrutiny of the Snakeheads. Occasionally she sends those she deems worthy to me, for assistance.” The priest studied Luc carefully, then smiled softly before speaking again.

“There are not many whom she considers worthy.”

“Then, I am honored.” Luc responded.

“So, tell me of this trouble you encountered today.” Father Richlieu turned to Kristin.

Quickly, Kristin related the information they had discovered about Luc’s identity, as well as the classified nature of the majority of his file. Then she described how her infiltration of the Penal Complex system had been discovered, and their subsequent escape from her apartment, including the role Madame Mincan had played, and how Luc had brought them to L’Oiseau Blanc.

“So, you are taking care of Kristin.” Father Richlieu smiled kindly at Luc. “I am pleased to see that my faith in you has not been misplaced. It is even more important now, as I have a task for you.”

“A task?” Luc was surprised.

“Surely, by now, a man as intelligent as you are has figured out what I do.” Father Richlieu replied, amused. “That is, if Kristin hasn’t informed you already.”

“You… you are in charge of the resistance, against the Snakeheads?”

“That’s rather grandiose.” the priest chuckled. “I’m more of a… local coordinator, actually.”

“Your influence certainly seems to be more than ‘local’, Father.” Kristin laughed.

“Only to a small extent.” Father Richlieu clarified. “There are others like me, within the city, and we co-ordinate with each other from time to time; pooling our resources for the greater good.”

“And the ‘greater good’ you are working for is the defeat of the Snakeheads?” Luc asked.

“Again, you have made more of me than I deserve.” the priest replied humbly. “I do not have the ability to achieve so lofty a goal, although I would gladly work toward such a thing, if I could. No, my work, such as it is, simply aims to improve the lives of everyday people, by making the Occupation more bearable for them.”

“That is noble work as well, Father.” Kristin pointed out.

“And you are the one who inspired me to embark upon this path, Kristin.” the priest told her. “The day you walked into Saint Sulpice, lost and frightened; with your pale skin and red hair, you reminded me of my sister’s family in Ireland. They were killed in the Snakehead Invasion, but I knew that your presence there, in the cathedral, was a sign. I was unable to help my own family, but I could help others…”

“And I was very grateful for your help.” Kristin replied, a tear in her eye.

“You have repaid me many times over, my child.” Father Richlieu declared, embracing the young woman. “How many times have you assisted me in my work, making my burden easier to bear?”

“It is not your burden alone, Father.” she said gently. “We all bear this burden, but it is one of love.”

“I am glad that you feel that way, Kristin.” the priest said, patting her hand. Then he turned to regard Luc.

“But the question is, do you wish to help us bear this burden, Luc?”

“I do.” Luc nodded emphatically. “I wish to fight against the Snakeheads.”

“Well, this is fortuitous, then.” Father Richlieu replied. “I had been debating whether or not to assign a certain task to you, but your arrival here today, not to mention the need to get you out of the city, has convinced me that you are the one for whom this is destined.”

“Destined?” Luc shook his head. “I think you’ve got me confused with someone else, Father. I am not a man of destiny.”

“Most men of destiny do not know it, at the time.” the priest replied sagely. “It is only in hindsight, that we understand what role they play. Regardless, with your military background, I suspect that you are the man for this job.”

“What is this task, Father?” Luc asked.

“One of my ‘associates’, in Monmartre had an operative arrested last week.” Father Richlieu explained. “Apparently, this man has been sent to Penal Complex 624-Alpha.”

“That’s where Luc was held.” Kristin pointed out.

“Yes.” the priest nodded. “Amazing co-incidence, isn’t it? Although not entirely. 624-Alpha is where the Snakeheads send the prisoners who require the most ‘supervision’, and I’m gathering that this operative, while not important in their eyes, would cause enough of a disturbance to require this level of observation.”

“You want me to get him out of there?” Luc asked, astonished.

“That’s the general idea, yes.” Father Richlieu nodded. “Despite your lack of memory, you do seem to be recalling things when you need to, and your knowledge of that facility would be invaluable in this operation.”

Luc’s first instinct was to refuse. The thought of returning to the prison he had gone through so much to escape from was unappealing, to say the least. Yet, Father Richlieu had helped him and trusted him, despite the holes in his past. Besides, it was clear that the priest’s work related to resisting the Snakehead Occupation, and that was something with which Luc agreed wholeheartedly. If the release of this prisoner was important to the priest, then it was a worthwhile mission for Luc to undertake.

“I will do my best.” he nodded in acceptance.

“I knew I could count on you.” Father Richlieu smiled.

“I do have one question, however.” Luc continued. “After I complete this task… what then? Where do I fit into your… organization?”

“You don’t.” the priest sighed. Seeing Luc’s astonished face, he rushed to explain.

“At least, not here.” he said. “I wish you could, but clearly the Snakeheads are now looking for you here. After you finish with this task, you cannot return to Paris.”

“No!” Kristin gasped. Luc felt a sudden warmth rush through him at her distress, but it instantly dissipated as he too felt alarm at the thought that he could not come back.

“Where will I go, then?” he asked uncertainly.

“To Corsica.” Father Richlieu replied. “There is a large group of resistance there, and they are somewhat more…vigorous… in their reaction to the Snakehead Occupation. I suspect that you could be of great help to them.” Luc nodded silently, understanding what the priest was trying to say.

“And I could help too.” Kristin declared.

Both men turned to look at the young woman, astonished by her outburst.

“Kristin, Corsica is not a place for you.” Father Richlieu attempted to explain. “It is quite dangerous there, and the civilians in that area are fighting…”

“I want to fight too.” Kristin interrupted, her manner calm, but firm. “I appreciate everything you have done for me, Father, but I want to do more. I need to do more. It is all well and good to ease others’ burdens, but that is not a solution to the problem. I want to work on the solution.”

“No.”

Luc shook his head, walking over to Kristin and placing his hands on her shoulders.

“You are safer, here, with Father Richlieu.” he told her.

“That’s not necessarily true.” Kristin reminded him. “The Snakeheads likely suspect me, now, and I cannot return to my job or my apartment. But I could be of help to you, with my knowledge of the Spectran computer net. I know how to obtain information, access databases…”

“You don’t understand.” Luc sighed, leaning forward until his forehead touched hers. “I don’t think I could live with myself if you were hurt…”

Kristin placed her palm on Luc’s cheek, silencing his words as she communicated her emotions to him through that simple touch.

“I’ll be hurt, if you leave without me.” she whispered.

The moment between the young couple was broken by an awkward cough. Luc and Kristin turned, startled, only to see a red-faced Father Richlieu smiling at them.

“Well, it seems as if that’s settled.” the priest noted.

Chapter 12 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 12

Less than an hour later, Luc found himself sitting in the back of a truck filled with medical supplies, Kristin by his side. The driver was making a legitimate delivery to Penal Complex 624-Alpha. How Father Richlieu had convinced the man to allow two additional pieces of ‘cargo’, Luc didn’t know, and he suspected it was better for all of them if he didn’t ask. The driver had purposely turned away as they had boarded the truck, and Luc had known better than to try and attract his attention. They had no way of knowing how far they had traveled, since the interior of the truck was dark and windowless, but Luc was able to see from the watch on his wrist that perhaps thirty minutes had passed since they had begun moving. Surely they were out of Paris, by now.

The timepiece had been a parting gift from Father Richlieu. The priest had also given Kristin a number of explosives with remote detonation devices, and a Snakehead computer pad. This last had been most eagerly received by Kristin. Where Father Richlieu had obtained such a piece of alien technology was a mystery, but Kristin had been very grateful. They had both embraced the priest warmly, and when he had said that he would miss them, they had acknowledged the same emotion for him as well.

Their mission was to assist a man named Frederic Boucher. He was a two stripe prisoner at 624-Alpha, and would therefore be housed within the general population. The means and manner of their ‘assistance’ was entirely up to them. Luc and Kristin spent the next few hours discussing various possibilities. Kristin was able to call up a layout of the prison complex on her pad, and they studied it together, attempting to determine the best locations for entry and exit. The driver was supposed to drop them off at the facility’s infirmary, but what they did from there was still under debate.

After a while they ate a small meal from the food Luc had taken from Kristin’s kitchen. They spoke quietly of other things, to take their mind off of the grim task at hand.

The interior of the truck grew warm, and Kristin leaned back against its metal wall, closing her eyes for a moment. Luc put his arm around her shoulders, and she gratefully laid her head on his shoulder, her face the picture of contentment. Luc studied Kristin for a moment, taking in her flawless skin, her delicate features, her dark eyelashes curled against her cheek. He reached out, brushing a strand of shining red hair off of her forehead with the lightest touch. In response, she murmured softly, opening her eyes to regard him with an amused expression.

“I’m sorry…” he apologized. “I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s all right.” she smiled back at him. “I don’t mind.”

The truck hit a bump in the road and the cargo area jolted for a moment, pushing Kristin further into Luc’s arms. He felt her body press against his, and the next thing he knew, he was kissing her.

Somehow, it seemed right that she was in his arms, as if she belonged there. This feeling was only confirmed by her reaction to his kiss. Her lips softened and she sighed contentedly, accepting this new intimacy between them with an eagerness that surprised him. The taste of her was fresh, and intoxicating… the taste of the freedom he longed for. He groaned, drinking deeply of her innocent sweetness; threading his fingers through her hair and bringing her even closer to him, their mouths joining in an intimate dance.

At that moment, Luc felt that he could live forever, with Kristin in his arms.

But the moment ended as the truck came to a sudden and jerky stop, throwing them both against the wall of the cargo area.

“Have we arrived already?” Kristin asked worriedly, pulling away.

“I don’t think so.” Luc replied, checking his watch. “It’s too soon, yet.” He motioned to Kristin to get down, and as she crouched behind a stack of crates, he nodded approvingly.

A shot rang out against the back of the truck, and before Luc could react, the door at the rear of the vehicle was wrenched open, and he found himself staring face to face with a Snakehead soldier pointing a rifle at him.

“Well, look at this…” the Snakehead smirked. “It seems that this driver was keeping things from us.”

“I don’t have much use for lying, Terran scum.” came another voice with a Spectran accent. Luc could not see its owner, or the driver, as they were not part of the limited view he had outside. But he froze as he heard the driver’s pleading voice.

“I had no idea! I swear it! They must have snuck aboard!”

They?” the Snakehead in front of Luc asked. “There’s only one man in here. Or perhaps I’m mistaken…” He moved to enter the truck.

In a flash, Luc’s foot shot upward, slamming into the soldier’s nose and sending sharp shards of bone into his brain even as Luc grabbed the Snakehead’s rifle. He stepped out of the truck, taking aim at another green uniformed guard who was staring at him, astonished. Luc pulled the trigger, shooting the Snakehead between the eyes before the soldier could raise his weapon.

The driver fell to his knees, gibbering madly while Luc quickly surveyed the area for more soldiers.

“Please don’t hurt me! I had to tell them I didn’t know you! There was nothing I could do…”

“I’m not going to hurt you.” Luc said kindly, holding out his hand to the driver to help him up. “But you need to tell me how many more Snakeheads there are around here.”

“It was just those two.” sobbed the driver in relief. “They stopped me here to check my cargo. Apparently they were just a random patrol, and new transfers to this facility, so they didn’t realize that my papers were in order. I got nervous, and they got suspicious.”

“I don’t blame you.” Luc replied. “But at least you don’t have to worry about them now.”

“But, what about when they don’t report in at the Penal Complex?” the driver moaned. “Then I’ll be suspected, and they’ll detain me for questioning, and…”

Luc tuned the man’s complaints out. But as he examined the bodies of the dead soldiers, an idea began to form in his mind.

88888

A few minutes later, Luc and Kristin, wearing the uniforms of the dead Snakehead guards, sat in the Spectran patrol vehicle that the two soldiers had been using. Kristin was stuffing her Snakehead garments with spare clothing from one of the supply boxes, to disguise her feminine curves, while Luc figured out how to operate the vehicle. He didn’t feel comfortable with mechanical things like Kristin did with computers, but the simplistic control panel wasn’t too difficult to figure out. It only took a moment before the patrol vehicle lurched and began moving, the driver following close behind in the delivery truck. Their maximum speed appeared to be about fifty kilometers an hour, but the patrol vehicle was apparently electrically powered, and was eerily silent.

“Do you think anyone will find those bodies?” Kristin asked nervously.

“Not for a few days.” Luc assured her. “They’re hidden pretty well, in those bushes. No matter what happens, we’ll be gone from the area before the Snakeheads can even begin searching.” Kristin nodded slowly as she finished adjusting her uniform. She now resembled a rather rotund Snakehead, but at least her appearance was more masculine than feminine, as long as she kept her mask on.

“At least I have access to their files.” she said, paging through the information on the Spectran data pad that the guards had left behind. “Our names are Parni and Kero. Apparently we are new transfers to Penal Complex 624-Alpha. We’re partners, so all of our duties are assigned together.”

“Sounds good to me.” Luc grinned.

“Hmmm… it looks like all of the Snakeheads are assigned in teams of two.” Kristin related her discovery. “So it won’t be unusual if we go everywhere together. Oh, here’s something interesting…”

“What’s that?”

“This shows the daily schedule for the prisoners and the guards. Parni and Kero are assigned to duties with the lowest level prisoners… which works well for us, since that’s where Frederic will be. “

“Now that is convenient.” Luc smirked.

They spent the rest of their thirty minute journey to the prison deciding on how to best complete their mission. Their plan of action had just been finalized when the prison facility came into sight. It was comprised of a number of buildings surrounded by an intimidating exterior wall at least twelve meters high. Carefully, Luc drove up to the main gate, slowing as a Snakehead stepped out of the guard booth and waved him down. The delivery truck stopped as well.

“See anything?” the Snakehead asked in Spectran.

“No.” Luc replied in the same language, before Kristin could speak. Surprisingly, he found it coming easily to his mouth, just as it had to his ears when he had heard the Snakeheads in the park. “We just came across this delivery truck. The driver required an ‘escort’.” Luc laughed harshly, and the Snakehead guard joined him.

“Fine.” the guard smirked. “Finish ‘escorting’ him, and then continue with your duty roster.”

“Acknowledged.” Luc responded, nodding curtly as he pulled away, waving at the driver behind him to follow.

“I didn’t know you spoke Spectran!” Kristin observed.

“Neither did I.” Luc grinned.

Kristin used the map of the Penal Complex to guide the driver to the medical building, then Luc parked the patrol vehicle and they stepped out.

“Let me do the talking.” Luc suggested. “I love your voice, but it’s a dead giveaway that you’re not a man.”

Kristin only smiled and nodded in response.

According to the duty roster they had discovered on Parni and Kero’s data pad, their next assigned task was guard duty at the low security meal distribution facility. Luc and Kristin used their map to make their way to the appropriate building, and went inside. A large group of Terrans in red, one-piece garments were eating at long tables in a cafeteria-style setting. All of the prisoners had stripes on their chests: either one, two, or three of the distinguishing marks.

A pair of Snakeheads approached them as they entered the room.

“Who are you?” one of them greeted the newcomers. “I don’t know you!”

“We’re new.” Luc replied smoothly. “We’re here to relieve you. Do you want your break or not?”

This was enough to convince the Snakehead, who signaled to his partner. The two soldiers departed, not even bothering to look back.

“How can they be so complacent?” Luc wondered aloud.

“Probably because they don’t suspect anyone would be so stupid as to break in here.” Kristin hissed. “But frankly, right now, I don’t care.”

“You’re right.” Luc nodded, although something inside of him was appalled to see the lax attitude of the soldiers. He supposed it was likely his unremembered military training that took offense to such a thing, but he forced himself to shake the feeling off. These guards were his enemies. “Let’s just look for Frederic.” he suggested.

Kristin nodded, and they began slowly circling the room, imitating the pace and demeanor of the other guards, while carefully scanning the sea of prisoners in front of them. They had both committed Frederic Boucher’s face to memory from an image that had been provided by Father Richlieu.

“He’s not here.” Kristin reported a few minutes later.

“I don’t see him either.” Luc sighed as they finished their first circuit of the room and began another. “I thought he was a two stripe prisoner?”

A loudspeaker on the ceiling crackled to life.

“Group One, return to your cells.” came an announcement in badly accented English. Luc and Kristin watched, amazed, as the prisoners obediently stopped eating, stood up, and filed out of the room. The pair of imposter soldiers imitated the actions of the other Snakehead guards, herding the inmates out of the area. To their surprise, another door on the opposite side of the room opened, and more prisoners came into the meal distribution facility.

“Group Two, you have fifteen minutes.” the same loudspeaker announced. Bored-looking Snakeheads wheeled out trays of food, slapping them ungraciously onto the tables. The inmates silently passed the food down, using the same bowls and spoons that had been left behind by the previous group.

These inmates also had one, two or three stripes, and Luc quickly realized that the Penal Complex was much larger than they had realized, to house so many prisoners. He and Kristin circled the room, again scanning the inmates’ faces, but there was still no sign of Frederic Boucher.

Group Two left and Group Three entered the meal distribution facility, and by now Luc was beginning to get discouraged.

“We’re never going to…” he began grumbling, but stopped as Kristin placed a soft hand on his arm, whispering so low that only Luc could hear.

“I’ve found him.”

Chapter 13 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 13

Slowly, Kristin and Luc walked around the edge of the room, doing their best to give the appearance of surveying the crowd of inmates, while in reality focusing their attention on a single man.

As they passed close to the prisoner’s position, Luc nodded once at Kristin, signifying that he agreed with her assessment that this was Frederic Boucher, and that she should proceed with the next step of their plan.

Slowly, they walked by their target, only the barest flicker of Kristin’s hand indicating that anything out of the ordinary was occurring. Unseen by anyone but its intended recipient, a small square landed in the lap of Frederic Boucher.

Curiously, the prisoner palmed the unexpected item, then to Luc’s horror, he saw the man pass it to the inmate sitting next to him. Kristin’s sharp intake of breath told Luc that she had also witnessed this unanticipated result of their attempt to contact their target.

Forced to maintain their cover and continue patrolling the room, Luc and Kristin moved further away from the man, and so could not hear the hurriedly whispered words Frederic exchanged with his companion.

By the time the imposter Snakeheads reached that side of the room again, the announcement system had come to life once more, sending Group Three back to their cells and then admitting Group Four. While patrolling the room yet again, Kristin whispered quietly to Luc, allowing her words to be swallowed up in the din created by the prisoners’ mealtime.

“Do you think he got the message?” she asked nervously.

“We have to assume that he did.” Luc replied logically. “We have no other choice. It’s too late to make another attempt to contact him.” Kristin nodded, although she was obviously not completely reassured.

There was no chance for further conversation, as a small ruckus broke out among the inmates. Luc and Kristin were required to rush to the scene, pulling two arguing prisoners apart. By the time the matter was resolved, both of the offending prisoners were being taken away for ‘further correction’, and the announcement system was telling the other inmates to go back to their cells. The moment the prisoners had left, the Snakeheads still remaining in the room began to sit at the long tables, while still more soldiers began to clear the now filthy dishes the prisoners had used.

One green-uniformed guard approached Luc and Kristin from behind, clapping them on their shoulders.

“Thanks for your assistance, just now.” the Snakehead said. “It’s good to know that not all of the new transfers have the IQ of a snarkback!” Luc smiled weakly, as if he actually knew what a snarkback was. Kristin nodded nervously, keeping her head down as she stood behind Luc.

“Just doing our jobs.” Luc muttered.

“Come, join us!” the Snakehead said, clearly inviting them to sit down. Luc did so, not seeing any other alternative, and Kristin reluctantly followed.

“I’m Tarro,” the Snakehead introduced himself, “and this is my partner, Brinat.” They looked to Luc and Kristin expectantly.

“I am Parni, and this is Kero.” Luc said, using the names of the guards they were impersonating. He was grateful that Kristin had thought to look up that information on the computer pad.

“It’s amazing how quickly they’re bringing in the new men.” Tarro noted. “It’s been barely a week, and we’re nearly back to full strength.”

“A week?” Luc asked cautiously.

“That’s right, you probably haven’t heard yet.” Brinat said. “They’ve been keeping it quiet.” The gleam in the Snakehead’s eyes made it clear that he enjoyed having information that others did not.

“Keeping what quiet?” Luc asked, since it was clearly expected of him.

“The reason we need so many new transfers.” Tarro replied. “There aren’t many of us original soldiers left. Do you know what happened to the guards who were here before?”

It was evident that Tarro and Brinat were dying to spread their gossip, and Luc was only too happy to listen, rather than talk. He smiled when Kristin shook her head, taking the arrival of a tray of food as an opportunity to cover her lack of speech.

“It was during Lord Zoltar’s recent visit.” Brinat blurted. “He came here, you know.”

“I thought he left the planet earlier than scheduled?” Luc asked, recalling the news broadcast he had seen at Kristin’s apartment. “How did he have time to come here?” He put on a suitable display of astonishment for the benefit of the two Snakeheads.

“He left early, because of what happened here.” Tarro grinned. “Lord Zoltar was going to interrogate a high security prisoner personally, and all of the soldiers that were not assigned elsewhere were ordered to the Audience Hall to witness for themselves the power of the Great Spirit, acting through his Chosen One. But just as Lord Zoltar entered the Hall, the building exploded!”

“Exploded?” Luc was amazed. “Why?”

“The Commandant won’t officially say,” Brinat divulged in an exaggerated whisper, “but we were there. We saw it. It was a missile that hit the facility. It shot right into the center of the building, and two seconds later it detonated.”

“It was an attack on the Penal Complex.” Tarro added.

“How did you manage to survive?” Luc asked curiously.

“We were at the back of the room.” Brinat revealed. “We were blown out of the exit by the force of the explosion. I guess that’s how Lord Zoltar survived as well, since he was at the other end of the Hall, on the speaking platform.”

“Are you certain he survived?” Luc questioned.

“Of course!” Tarro replied scathingly. “Not twenty minutes after the explosion, he was broadcasting back to us from his spacecraft to assure us all that he was safe. But we lost a lot of soldiers in that attack.”

“But… who would attack a Penal Complex?” Luc asked innocently.

“You’re not long off the Homeworld, are you?” Brinat laughed harshly. “You actually believe all of those news broadcasts telling you how the Terrans have joyfully become a part of the Spectran Empire and how the Federation has given up!”

Luc and Kristin looked down at their laps, doing their best to give off an air of shamefaced embarrassment.

“Well, they didn’t actually tell us who attacked.” Tarro admitted, shooting a reprimanding glare at his partner. “But Brinat is right, all the same. The Spectran Empire has enemies, and there are still those who resist our might, and refuse to accept that Earth has been conquered.”

“I think it’s those Terran rebels.” Brinat added. “None of these Terrans are of any value. We should execute them all, if you ask me.” This last was said in a self-important tone, as if the Snakehead did, indeed, expect the leaders of the Spectran Empire to come asking for his opinions at any moment.

“Come on, Brinat,” Tarro disagreed. “if we did that, then who would work the mines for us? Spectra wouldn’t be able to ship out nearly as many resources if we didn’t have the Terrans to labor for us.”

“True, but why even bother to have a place like this?” Brinat shot back, gesturing around the room as a way to indicate the entire facility. “For what useful purpose do we have to keep these miserable criminal wretches alive?”

“You’d have to ask Lord Zoltar that question, to know for sure,” Tarro replied, “but maybe it’s just to keep the other Terrans happy? There could easily be even more rebels, if we went and executed all of the Terran prisoners. And some of them are giving up valuable information under interrogation.”

It was clear to Kristin and Luc that this was an oft-discussed topic for the two Snakeheads. Luc was astounded that the two soldiers could sit there speaking so casually of Terran lives. It was as if they didn’t even consider Terrans to be sentient humanoids. Luc had a difficult time comprehending such a callous, superior attitude. He didn’t like the Snakeheads, but he didn’t automatically condemn the Spectran people as a whole, based on the behavior of their soldiers. He eventually had to mentally throw up his hands in despair.

Luc fervently hoped that this point of view was unique to these two soldiers, but as he looked around the room, he had a sinking suspicion that it was all too common.

None too soon for Luc and Kristin, the mealtime was over, and Tarro and Brinat bid them goodbye. Luc was not sorry to see them go. Kristin placed a soft, understanding hand on his shoulder.

“We are ‘off-duty’ right now.” she said quietly. “Perhaps we should ‘take a walk’?”

Luc nodded solemnly, following her from the room and out into the open air. They walked in silence over to the main low security housing facility. Inside, the cell block was relatively quiet, as the prisoners were in the dark, and supposed to be sleeping. Luc could only hope that Frederic Boucher was preparing for what was to come.

Luc and Kristin carefully noted the positioning of the back wall of the building and the exits. As they walked by the control panel for the cell doors, Luc stopped on the pretense of adjusting his rifle, allowing Kristin to study the setup of the input systems.

Once they were finished with the cell block, they headed over to the Snakehead barracks, again checking the placement of entrances and exits in that building. After this, they went back outside, hiding in the shadows of the wall that surrounded the Penal Complex.

Until this moment, Luc’s mind had been preoccupied with the tasks at hand: infiltrating the base, locating and contacting Frederic Boucher, and scouting the layout of the Penal Complex. But now, with nothing to do but wait, he couldn’t help but dwell on the position in which he found himself.

In the blackness of night, the prison had a menacing quality that was unsettling for many reasons, not the least of which was that Luc himself had been an inmate here not long ago. It occurred to him that there were people at this place… not too far from his current location... who could answer all of his questions about himself. Who was he really? What type of Commander’s rank did he hold? And what had he done that had been of such significance that he had earned himself a five star inmate status?

Of course, to find out these answers was also to risk recapture, and above all, Luc knew that he needed to be free. In his heart, he recognized that it could easily have been his incarceration that had caused his memories to disappear. The mere thought of being locked up, unable to see sunlight or move about of his own volition, frightened Luc, more than anything else he had encountered since he had awoken buried in the rubble of the prison facility. It was more than the Snakeheads. To his surprise, Luc realized that he wasn’t afraid of them, as individuals.

He was afraid of what would happen to him, if he became their prisoner again.

When he thought about this, he wasn’t able to pinpoint the source of this fear, only confirm that it existed. Why was he so terrified? What had they done to him, when he had been here, before?

He desperately wanted to know, but deep down, he realized that it was better that he didn’t. Whatever had happened to him, his mind wasn’t ready to deal with it. Reluctantly, he turned his focus back to the task at hand.

Luc and Kristin waited until the majority of Snakehead guards had retired for the evening, and then another two hours afterward, to be certain that there was the least chance of someone noticing what they were up to. They huddled together in the cold dark of the Penal Complex grounds, their arms around each other both for warmth, and for the comfort of having another presence close by.

At twenty minutes to midnight, they circled the outside of the low security inmate housing facility, placing many of the explosives and detonators provided by Father Richlieu, then doing the same at the exterior wall that surrounded the entire Penal Complex, at the point closest to the cell block.

Ten minutes before midnight, Kristin used their ‘borrowed’ Spectran data pad to hack into the computer net for the Penal Complex, accessing the security system for the entire facility.

“Ready.” she whispered.

Luc nodded curtly, counting down silently on his fingers.

Three… two… one…

Luc detonated their explosives as Kristin simultaneously instructed the security system to open all of the doors in the low security cell block. A massive fireball lit up the entire Penal Complex, and for a moment the only sound was the crackling of the flames, the crumbling of stone and creaking of metal. Then a roar erupted from the cell block, as the prisoners inside realized that their way to freedom was no longer barred. Within seconds, a flood of red-clothed humanity came pouring through the smoking hole left by the explosions.

Luc and Kristin stood off to the side, unable to do anything but wait, and hope that their message had been read and understood by its intended recipient. They placed themselves in the shadows, behind the exploded wall and away from the obvious exit created in the exterior wall surrounding the Penal Complex.

All too soon, they heard shouts in the Spectran language, originating from the direction of the soldiers’ barracks, but coming closer to their position. It was much too soon, and there was no sign of Frederic Boucher.

But even as their hopes were beginning to fall, a man garbed in a sooty, red garment approached them out of the smoke-filled night.

“Frederic! I’m glad you made it” Luc whispered, relieved. “We need to go.” But Kristin gasped as another prisoner stepped out from behind the first.

“Not without Scott.” Frederic replied, his voice firm and his eyes hard.

Luc glanced over at Kristin, whose confused face held no answers. They hadn’t been anticipating anything like this, but there was no time for debate.

“Fine.” Luc replied, even as he began to move away from the scene, indicating that everyone should follow Kristin. The young woman moved steadily through the Penal Complex, staying to the shadows. Directly behind her, Luc saw her jump as a series of violent screams, accompanied by sharp bursts of gunfire, came from behind them.

He was just about to say something to reassure her, when she moved on. Luc swelled with pride, watching her renewed sense of calm. She was the very picture of grace under pressure, putting aside her fears and working to complete the task at hand. He was incredibly grateful that this intelligent and courageous woman had agreed to accompany him on this mission.

He knew that he could never have done this, without her.

Within a few moments, she had led them to the patrol vehicle that they had used to infiltrate the complex, but the instant they arrived, Luc realized that their intended course of action wasn’t going to work. They had been planning on one rescuing prisoner, not two, and the cargo area in which they had planned to hide Frederic was clearly too small to accommodate his companion as well.

He looked back at the two inmates, who immediately understood the problem.

“That one.” Scott said, pointing at a nearby transport vehicle.

“I can operate that, but I don’t have a passcode for it.” Luc explained. “I won’t be able to get it started.”

“Not a problem.” Scott smirked.

“Vehicle acquisition is one of Scott’s specialties.” Frederic grinned.

Luc nodded, and watched in awe as Scott was able to break into the transport in less than ten seconds, using only Kristin’s pocket knife. He then reached beneath the dash, his eyes scanning the underside of the control panel for only a moment before he adjusted something. The transport hummed as the control panel came to life.

“All yours.” Scott grinned.

“Thanks.” Luc replied.

“We’re even as long as you get us out of here.” Frederic said.

“That’s the plan.” Kristin noted dryly. “I presume you two have a passing familiarity with these?” She passed them the Spectran rifles she and Luc had been carrying.

“Some.” Frederic replied, taking the weapons from her while Scott positioned himself at the rear of the vehicle.

Luc took control of the transport, moving it toward the main gate. They had some distance to drive, as the gate was located at the opposite end of the complex from where they had set off the explosives. This had been done to throw off pursuit, but necessitated an element of risk: that someone might question the unauthorized movement of the vehicle. Luc drove as calmly as he could, nervously looking around to see if anyone noticed their passing.

Kristin muttered nervously to herself as her hands flashed over the Spectran data pad.

“They’ve already locked down the system!” she whispered frantically to Luc.

“What’s the problem?” Scott asked harshly from the back.

“Nothing she can’t handle.” Luc assured the man, before turning to Kristin.

“You can do it.” he told her. “I have faith in you.”

Kristin’s fingers flew frantically over the pad, as she attempted to override the security system, to allow them to depart. Luc turned the final corner, and the main gate lay ahead of them. He accelerated the vehicle, picking up as much speed as he dared.

“Now would be good…” Frederic muttered, as he saw them fast approaching the still-closed gate.

“Almost there…” Kristin spoke through gritted teeth, while Luc held his breath.

The transport moved toward the exit, its velocity increasing. Luc prepared to ram the gate.

“Got it!” the young woman cried, and sure enough, the gate panel began to rise. They shot through the open space, managing to clear the rising door with barely an inch to spare as they drove through.

“Damn!” crowed Scott, laughing with the excitement of their narrow escape.

“We’ve got company!” Kristin shouted, pointing behind them to two Snakeheads who were running out of the guard booth, shouting and giving chase to the fleeing transport.

“We’ve got it.” Frederic replied grimly, leaning out the rear window with his rifle and taking aim at one of the two soldiers. Scott mirrored his actions, and they both fired simultaneously. Their two pursuers immediately slumped to the ground, and all shouting ceased.

“Clear.” Scott reported.

“I’ve closed the gate.” Kristin added. “With all of the confusion, it may take them awhile to realize that anyone has left that way, but the missing guards may be our undoing.”

“They won’t even discover those guards are gone until they finish dealing with the escaped prisoners.” Luc reassured her. “At least we know those two are not going to be setting off any alarms.”

“Right.” Kristin replied, a note of relief in her voice. “Did we really do it?” she asked incredulously.

“I think we did.” Luc said, amazed to realize that it was true. They had successfully completed their objective.

“Don’t celebrate yet.” Frederic interrupted. “How far do you think we’re going to get in this piece of crap the Snakeheads call a transport?”

“We don’t have far to go.” Luc replied, heading for a familiar light that lay ahead of them in the darkness.

Chapter 14 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 14

Luc drove for another ten minutes, then reached a junction in the road.

“Everyone out.” he ordered.

As they exited the vehicle, Frederic and Scott looked around curiously.

“Where the hell are we?” Frederic asked.

“The middle of nowhere.” Scott replied dryly. “There’s nothing here!”

“That’s the idea.” Luc informed him. “We can’t let the Snakeheads discover where we’ve gone.”

Leaving the others at the side of the road, Luc turned the transport into the intersection, then programmed the control panel, jumping out as the vehicle accelerated, speeding off down the roadway at its maximum velocity. He pulled in his knees to his chest as he hit the ground, rolling through the dirt until he came to a stop in an undignified heap.

“Luc!” Kristin cried, running up to him. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” he replied, coming to a stand. He winced a little as his calf twinged, and was glad that Kristin could not see his face clearly in the darkness and bear witness to his white lie.

Luc turned to watch the transport vehicle racing away. It was now just a dim light in the distance.

“What did you do that for?” Scott asked, as Luc and Kristin returned to the two recently freed inmates.

“He’s laying a false trail.” Frederic answered before Luc could respond. “Don’t you know anything? No wonder those idiot Snakeheads caught you!”

“They only caught me because one of our group decided he’d be better off as an informant.” Scott growled. “If I ever catch that little weasel, I’m going to reach down his fucking throat and rip his heart out.”

“You can’t go back to Rouen!” Frederic protested.

“No.” Scott agreed grimly. “But I will have my revenge, you can be sure of that.”

The silence that followed this statement hung heavy in the air, but Luc attempted to smooth over the awkward impasse by getting back to the situation at hand.

“We’re going toward that light, up there.” he told everyone, pointing into the distance in a different direction from which he had sent the transport vehicle. In the dim moonlight, he was barely able to see the faces of the others. But he trusted that they would follow his instructions, and he began to walk away. Sure enough, the others followed. He felt Kristin’s hand slip into his, and he squeezed it gratefully.

“We haven’t been properly introduced.” Luc said. “I am Luc, and this is Kristin. I gather you two are Frederic and Scott?”

“So much for the niceties.” Frederic laughed. “Yes, we are. And I want to thank you for agreeing to take Scott, as well. He is… was… my cell mate, and I don’t know if I would have survived in that hellhole, without him.”

“I could say the same.” Scott said gruffly to Frederic.

“But I think the real question isn’t who we are,” Frederic continued, “but why you are doing this for us.”

“Actually, our assignment was only to rescue you.” Kristin clarified. “You were the one who insisted on someone else coming along for the ride.”

“And quite the ride it was, too.” Scott commented to her. Then he turned to Luc. “What the hell were you thinking, Luc, bringing a woman into that damned place?”

Luc felt Kristin stiffen next to him, and responded before she could.

“Kristin has a number of useful skills I lack.” he stated firmly. “We make a good team.” Kristin squeezed his hand again, and Luc smiled in response.

“Uh huh… a ‘team’.” Scott smirked. “If that’s what you want to call it. In any case, I’m out of that place, and that’s what matters, so thank you both.”

“Who sent you?” Frederic asked Luc.

“Father Richlieu, in Paris.” Luc told him. Frederic nodded thoughtfully.

“I know of him.” he said respectfully. “And I am grateful for his assistance. And both of yours.”

“You are most welcome.” Kristin replied graciously.

“So what was with the massive explosion?” Scott asked curiously. “It worked, but wasn’t it something of an overkill?”

“We needed a diversion.” Kristin replied. “A cell block full of prisoners running for freedom fit the bill. And hopefully, many of them will make it.”

“If they don’t get shot by the Snakeheads.” Frederic added angrily. “Those bastards are always looking for any excuse to use inmates for target practice.”

“The prisoners knew the risks.” Kristin stated evenly. “We didn’t force anyone to escape, merely gave them an opportunity. I hope they all do get away, even though I recognize that’s unlikely to happen. Still, I feel proud that we gave them a choice.”

“You’re right.” Scott said approvingly. “That’s a hell of a lot more than the Snakeheads ever gave us.”

“We almost didn’t come, you know.” Frederic revealed. “Scott felt certain that your note was a trap.”

“So what convinced you?” Luc asked curiously.

“You used paper.” Frederic smiled wryly. “A handwritten note, in French, on paper. No Snakehead would ever think of that.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.” Luc laughed aloud.

“Still, it was a thin thread to hang our hopes on.” Scott remarked.

“We’re free, aren’t we?” Frederic pointed out.

“Yeah, in the middle of nowhere.” Scott laughed. “What is this place we’re heading to, anyway?”

“It’s a farmhouse.” Luc told him. “The people there will help us.”

“How do you…?”

Frederic’s question was interrupted by the sound of a barking dog. A moment later, the animal appeared, standing directly in their path.

“It’s okay, Ramjet.” Luc said soothingly. “We’re friends.”

The dog did not approach, but ran back to the farmhouse. The four people picked up their pace, following the animal to its home.

“What is it, Ramjet?” came a man’s voice from inside the building. Luc could see that the front door had been opened a crack.

“We need to speak with you.” he said, approaching the house.

There was a brief pause, and then the door opened. Luc stepped inside, nodding at the farmer and his wife. They were dressed in their nightclothes, and clearly surprised at the sudden appearance of four people on their doorstep.

But there was something else… their faces were tight, and pinched. Fearful.

Why were they so afraid?

Suddenly, Luc realized that he and Kristin were still wearing their Snakehead uniforms. He reached up and pulled the mask from his head, approaching the farmwife and smiling at her.

“It is I.” he said quietly. “I am doing what you asked of me.”

The farmwife gaped at Luc for a moment, and then a look of comprehension appeared on her face.

“I didn’t recognize you, at first.” she said, her tone clearly relieved. “Your hair…”

“It would take too long to explain.” Luc cut her off. He didn’t want to think about the unnatural way his hair had re-grown overnight.

“What do you want of us?” asked the farmer, peering curiously at Luc.

“We need to access the tunnel.” Luc told him.

“I don’t know if we can do that…” the farmwife said regretfully.

“These men can’t go back.” Luc insisted. “We went to some trouble to help them get out.”

“I understand.” the farmer nodded. “You may enter the tunnel from here.”

“There may be more coming tonight, or this morning.” Luc told them. “I hope that you help as many of them as you can.”

“We will do our best.” the farmwife promised. “But you understand our limitations.”

“I do.” Luc nodded. “We won’t be staying long. No one must know that we were here, not even any other prisoners who may show up.”

“You can count on us.” the farmer said, holding his hand out to Luc. Luc grasped it firmly, cementing the agreement.

The farmer’s wife was already moving back to the floor panel, revealing the underground chamber. Luc pointed to it, indicating that Kristin, Frederic and Scott should enter, then followed them down. He began removing the rest of his borrowed uniform, and Kristin followed suit.

“You should both take off those clothes.” Luc told Frederic and Scott. “They’ll only cause you trouble.”

“What are we going to wear, then?” Frederic asked. Kristin tossed a shirt at him, followed by a pair of pants. She had pulled them from her uniform, which now sagged without the extra padding.

“Wow…” Scott whistled admiringly at her. “I never would have suspected what lay beneath that green suit.”

Kristin blushed, turning away, despite the fact that she was fully dressed underneath the green Snakehead garments. She extracted another shirt and pair or pants, tossing them in Scott’s general direction.

The Farmer’s wife came down the stairs as they were changing.

“I put together some food for you.” she said, offering a small bundle to Luc. “And I can get rid of those.” She picked up the discarded red prison garments.

“Thank you.” Luc said, taking her hands and bringing them to his lips.

“You are most welcome, Five Stars.” she smiled. “I hope I may see you again, some day.”

“I hope so too.” Luc replied. “And under better circumstances.”

Everyone had finished changing, and Luc and Kristin stuffed their discarded Snakehead uniforms into their bags. The farmer’s wife opened the entrance to the passageway.

“Egly is closed.” Luc told her. “But the way to Paris is still open.”

“Thank you for letting me know.” she said, as they walked through the door. “Godspeed.”

“To you as well.” Luc replied, as the door closed behind them.

They found themselves immediately plunged into blackness, but Luc pulled out the two flashlights, turning one of them on to provide some illumination.

“Take these.” he told Frederic, handing the former prisoner the package of food from the farmwife and the other flashlight. “Paris is in that direction, about one hundred and sixty kilometers from here, all underground. When you get there, look for Father Richlieu at Saint Sulpice.”

“What about you?” Frederic asked, confused. “Where are you going?”

“The other way, to Marseille.” Luc sighed. “We can’t go back to Paris. The Snakeheads are looking for us there.”

“How did you know about this place?” Scott asked shrewdly. “The farmhouse, the tunnel…”

“This is how I escaped from Penal Complex 642-Alpha a little over a week ago.” Luc smiled. “Only, I was alone.”

“You were an inmate?” Frederic was instantly suspicious. “I’ve been there for three months. Why have I never seen you before?”

“I was probably held in a different housing facility.” Luc said simply.

“But the only other housing facility is…” Understanding dawned in Scott’s eyes. “That farmer’s wife. She called you ‘Five Stars’…”

Luc did not reply, but only looked back calmly at Scott for a long moment.

“Who are you?” Frederic asked, finally.

“I wish I knew.” Luc sighed. “But I suspect it’s better that you don’t.”

“You’re probably right.” Scott replied. “I guess we should get going.”

“So should we.” Kristin said quietly. “We have nearly four hundred kilometers to travel.”

“We’re not going to do it all in one day.” Luc grinned.

“I hope not.” Kristin smiled back. Then she turned to Frederic and Scott.

“Good luck.” she told them. “Please give my love to Father Richlieu.”

“We will.” Frederic promised.

“I hope we meet again.” Scott said to her, inclining his head respectfully.

“I hope so too.” she smiled.

“As do I.” Luc added.

The four people nodded at each other, then turned in opposite directions; the two former inmates heading roughly north, toward Paris, while Luc and Kristin headed south, toward Marseille. After a few minutes, Kristin looked back.

“I can’t see their flashlight anymore.” she reported.

“Then they’re making progress, just as we are.” Luc replied.

“This place is eerie.” Kristin commented. “Are we really going to be down here for days?”

“Four hundred kilometers is a long way.” Luc shrugged. “It will depend on how fast we can walk, but yes, it will be days.”

“I’m glad you’re with me.” Kristin said, threading her fingers through Luc’s. “It would be pretty scary being down here by myself.”

“I was down here, by myself, when I walked to Paris.” Luc reminded her.

“How did you manage it?”

“I just reminded myself that I was free. I wasn’t a prisoner any more, and I was going somewhere else. I just wasn’t entirely certain what I would find.”

“You found me.” Kristin smiled. “And I’m glad you did.”

“I am too.”

They were both tired, given the number of hours that they had been awake, but they walked for awhile longer, until they were both ready to drop from exhaustion. Luc’s leg was paining him slightly from the fall he had taken as he had jumped off of the transport vehicle, and he was glad to stop moving. They collapsed onto the cold stone floor, Luc pulling Kristin into his embrace. She laid her head on his chest and snuggled into his body before dropping off to sleep. Luc stayed awake a moment longer, appreciating the warm closeness they were sharing, until he could no longer keep his eyes open.

Chapter 15 by TransmuteJun

Chapter 15

Some hours later, Luc awoke to find Kristin still in his arms. She had shifted during their rest, and her leg lay on top of his. He quickly realized that his body had responded to her close proximity and he closed his eyes again, enjoying the sensation, despite an innate understanding that nothing could come from it; at least, not right now.

He supposed that he had been with at least one woman in his life, but he could not recall. Everything he was feeling for Kristin was new, and overwhelming. He didn’t know if it was something he had felt for others in the past, but he was coming to realize that he treasured these emotions, and didn’t want to risk them by rushing into something neither of them was ready for.

Kristin stirred, and even in the darkness, Luc could tell from the change in her breathing that she was awake.

“Good morning.” he smiled, leaning down to brush his lips against her hair.

“Is it really morning?” she asked, yawning.

“Close enough.” he replied, checking his watch. “We’ve been asleep for about seven hours.” He turned on the flashlight, so that they could see their surroundings.

“Can we eat now?” she asked, her eyes twinkling.

“I think we have enough.” Luc smiled, opening the bag and pulling out their food while Kristin brushed her hair.

As they shared their makeshift breakfast, Kristin smiled shyly at him. They didn’t take long to finish, and then they were walking again. Fortunately, Luc’s leg seemed to be healed, as it was no longer bothering him.

“We have enough food for nearly a week, if we ration it.” Luc told Kristin. “When I walked to Paris, I pushed myself as hard as I could, but if you want, we can take things a little more slowly.”

“No, I think I’ll be happy to see the sunlight again.” Kristin replied, slipping her hand back into his. “Let’s keep moving as much as we can.”

“That’s my girl.” Luc said approvingly, and he felt his skin warming as Kristin squeezed his hand.

“I like the sound of that.” she breathed. Her words were so quiet that if they had been anywhere else, Luc might not have heard them. But against the complete silence of the underground passageway, they rang in his ears, and touched his heart.

“Luc,” Kristin said softly, “there’s something I need to tell you.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

Kristin took a deep breath, clearly preparing what she wanted to say in her mind.

“When the Snakeheads invaded, they attacked Orleans.” she began. “I saw the downtown area go up in flames, and I knew that I had to get out of there. I didn’t even stop to grab anything; I just ran. Fortunately, my campus was on the outskirts of the city, and wasn’t hit right away. That’s what allowed me to get away. I wasn’t the only one fleeing, and with the crowds of us running, the mecha decided to take shots at us. There were some UN tanks shooting back, but they weren’t really putting up much of a defense, and from what I could tell, they were getting obliterated just as easily as we civilians were. I didn’t know what to do, so I kept running. I shut everything else out of my mind, and concentrated on just running as far as I could, as fast as I could.”

“Eventually, I had to stop, of course.” she continued. “But when I did, I realized that I was out in the country, on one of the back roads that led to Paris. There wasn’t anyone else around, but everywhere I saw signs that there had been. The doors were open on the houses I saw, curtains swinging in the breeze. Children’s toys lay scattered on lawns. Everything was abandoned, just as I had abandoned my dorm room back at the university. It was so quiet; even the animals were silent. It was as if the countryside were filled with death.”

“Did you see anyone who…?” Luc couldn’t bring himself to answer the question.

“Yes.” Kristin nodded. “Every so often, there would be a smoking crater in the ground, and I would know that was where a missile had hit. And sometimes, I would see bodies… a few UN soldiers… and there was a child…”

“It’s okay…” Luc murmured, stopping for a moment and pulling her into his embrace. “You don’t have to tell me this, if you don’t want to.”

“I appreciate that.” Kristin sighed. “But I need to explain to you what happened.”

“Okay.” Luc replied, as she pulled away and began walking again. “Just know that you can stop whenever you want.”

“You can see that I was scared out of my wits.” Kristin said, ignoring Luc’s offer. “All I knew was that I had to keep going, although why, or where, I didn’t know. But eventually night began to fall, and the darkness was like it is in this tunnel: absolute. Occasionally I could see some kind of light that someone had left on in their haste to flee, and I just walked toward that. But I was exhausted, and when I came across an abandoned car, it was too tempting to resist. I climbed inside and fell asleep.”

There was a long pause, and just as Luc felt certain that Kristin wasn't going to say anything more, she began speaking again.

“I awoke to a hand covering my mouth, and my arms being pulled above my head. Two Snakeheads had found me, and they weren’t being friendly. They…” Kristin’s breath caught in her throat, and Luc took her hand in his, squeezing it gently.

“They were tearing at my clothes.” Kristin admitted quietly, biting her lip so hard that it nearly began to bleed. “I knew what they wanted, and the thought of just letting them do it repulsed me. I was scared out of my wits, but somehow, I found my leg moving, and I kicked the one in front of me where it would hurt him most. I don’t know how I was able to do it, but I was also able to yank my arms free from the one behind, and when the second Snakehead let go, I grabbed his rifle. He had left it on the floor of the car, and I just pointed it at him and pulled the trigger.”

“The noise was so loud.” Kristin whispered. “I saw him fall back, and I just lay there, shocked at what I had done. But then, the other one grabbed me once more, and I turned, pulling the trigger again, and he just… collapsed.” She turned to look at Luc, tears shining in her eyes. He opened his mouth to remind her that she didn’t need to continue, if she didn’t want to, but anticipating his words, she laid a finger to his lips, silencing him.

“I had never killed anyone before, or even imagined doing so.” she went on, a sob catching in her throat. “I felt like a horrible person, for resorting to such a thing. But part of me also felt good… and that made me feel even more horrible. I got out of the car, intending on running away from there as fast as I could, but I saw the transport that the Snakeheads had been driving. It was still operating, and I just figured that if I were already damned for killing two men, then I might as well be damned for stealing too. I got in, and took off as fast as I could. I abandoned it on the outskirts of Paris, and wandered into the city, eventually finding my way to Saint Sulpice.”

“You had every right to kill those monsters.” Luc reassured her. “They probably would have killed you, after…” he found himself unable to finish his sentence.

“I know that now.” Kristin said. “I’ve seen what they’ve done to the civilians here, and the way they ‘patrol’ our cities. Rape is the least of their crimes. They take what they want, hurt people for their own amusement, and particularly enjoy torturing children. They revel in the fact that we are afraid of them.”

“I don’t want to be afraid.” she declared. “That is why I was helping Father Richlieu. I felt that if I were fighting them, then it made up for the way I had to cower in the streets, and obey their harsh rules. And then, one day, I just couldn’t take it any more. I saw three of them terrifying a small child, and knew that it was only going to get worse. I was able to distract them long enough for her to get away, but then they turned on me…”

“You know what happened, that day.” she said to Luc. He nodded solemnly.

“I am glad that I was there.” he replied.

“What you don’t understand is how terrified I was.” Kristin attempted to explain. “My anger made me able to stand up to them, but when I heard what they intended to do to me… I froze. A paralyzing fear just grabbed hold of me and I couldn’t move. They dragged me into the woods, and something in my mind told me that this was my punishment, for killing those two Snakeheads on the day I had fled Orleans…”

“But then you came.” Kristin said gratefully. “And before I could blink, they were all dead. You had killed them, but you weren’t ashamed. You were only concerned for me. And how did I repay you?”

“You took me into your home.” Luc answered.

“I didn’t want to.” she reminded him. “Father Richlieu convinced me to. But I want you to understand why I was so reluctant…”

“I can understand.” Luc said. “I was a stranger.”

“No, that’s not it.” Kristin shook her head. “You were a man. You had come to my rescue, and apparently wanted nothing in return. But I had known what those Snakeheads were after, and I was scared that you… I know it’s foolish. Obviously you would never do anything like that. But at the time, I wasn’t thinking clearly…”

“I don’t blame you for that.” Luc replied gently. “You didn’t know me, and what you assumed was understandable.”

“But that’s the thing.” Kristin said. “I felt as if I did know you. Father Richlieu was right. When you came out of nowhere, like an Angel of Death, felling those Snakeheads in seconds, it was utterly…” She searched helplessly for words.

“I can’t describe it.” she confessed. “But there was something special about you. And the next day, after I had rested, I saw it, in the way you tried so hard to take care of me. And every day since then, I’ve seen it in the way you act, and the way you look at me.”

“You’re the one who is special, Kristin.” Luc insisted. “What you see is the way I feel about you.” She smiled, and Luc thought that he had never seen anything more beautiful.

“On the truck, yesterday, when you kissed me…” she continued in a soft voice. “My body reacted, but my mind was amazed. After what I had been through, I didn’t know that I could actually want a man to touch me again. And then I realized that it was because it was you who was touching me. That it was because of the way I felt about you.”

“I feel the same way.” Luc replied. “I didn’t mean to kiss you; it just happened. But when it did, it seemed right. I know that doesn’t make any sense.”

“No, it makes perfect sense.” Kristin smiled, and she stopped walking again, leaning up to kiss his cheek.

Luc’s response was to brush his lips against hers, and she giggled softly, kissing him back. Reluctantly, he pulled away.

“Much as I’m enjoying this,” he told her, “I think we need to keep walking.”

“I know.” she replied, as they started moving again. “I just needed to do that.”

“I’m glad you did.” he grinned.

“I’m glad I told you.” she returned. “It’s been on my mind for a few days now. I have wanted to explain why I was so rude to you, at first, but things have happened so quickly…”

“We have time now.” Luc said, squeezing her hand.

They spent the rest of that day, and the following few days, talking as they walked down the seemingly endless passageway. Eventually, they came across offshoots at St. Etienne, and Avignon, but they stayed on the path to Marseille. From there, they planned to find a boat to take them to Corsica.

After five days, the passage ended at a dead end. The wall was inscribed with a single word.

Knock

They did so, only to hear the sound echoing off of the stone corridors. But a few minutes later, the wall began to move, and an opening appeared. Cautiously, Luc looked through, only to find a burly man holding a rifle at his head.

“What is your name?” he asked in French.

“I am Luc, and this is Kristin.” Luc replied calmly in the same language. “We are trying to get to Corsica.”

“I see.” the man grunted, lowering his rifle. “I am Georges. I apologize for the rude greeting, but I have to ensure that no Snakehead ever lives to see where this tunnel ends.” He beckoned to them, and they stepped through the doorway.

“I understand.” Luc nodded, while Kristin remained silent. “Can you tell us the best way for us to book passage to Corsica?”

“Since you are here, I presume the Snakeheads are looking for you.” Georges observed, as he closed the secret door behind them. “That means that you cannot take the government-run ferry. They monitor all comings and goings from the island. However, I can take you to my brother, Andre. He operates a small boat, and can take passengers for a fee.”

“We would appreciate an introduction.” Luc replied.

As it turned out, Andre wanted a steep price for their passage, and they did not have sufficient funds. Searching through their bags for anything of value they could trade, Andre’s eyes opened wide when he caught sight of the Snakehead uniforms they carried.

“Where did you get those?” he asked, awed.

“I killed the soldiers who wore them.” Luc replied honestly.

“My apologies.” Andre bowed his head respectfully. “It is clear that you must go to Corsica. I will take you to the town of Calvi, and introduce you to the Mayor, there.”

“Thank you.” Luc replied gratefully.

Their journey on the Mediterranean Sea was swift and pleasant, taking place at night beneath a calm, starry sky. Luc sat on the deck with his arm around Kristin, looking up at the heavens.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s so beautiful, and yet, from that place of beauty also came an Invasion of menace, and hatred.”

“As with everything, there is both good and bad.” Kristin pointed out. “The Spectrans are not the only ones out there. Riga is there, and with it, the rest of the Federation. We have to believe that one day, there will be peace; not just here, on Earth, but across the Galaxy.”

“I have already found peace.” Luc replied, smiling at her. “I’ve found you.” He leaned over to kiss her, and as he did, he was filled with a sense of completion.

The place where they were headed was home. And it would be their home, because they would be together.

And in the end, that was what mattered most.

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