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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.”
“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 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.