Part OneEditONE DAY BEFORE THE PULSE
ZURICH, SWITZERLAND FEBRUARY 28th 2009
Whether or not he knew it, Daniel had saved her life.
It was Daniel who was always telling her about the churches and abbeys of Italy. When they were children, before he had let known to either mama or papa, that he was going to join the priesthood, he'd show the picture of some of Italy's churches and how when he became a Jesuit, he would go visit them all. Xenia Larissa Ivanov was never one wh
o saw religion like her older brother. She was too much her mother's daughter for that but she loved her brother and even though she couldn't fathom this desire of his to serve God, she supported him because he was her brother and she loved him.Daniel had always been the sensible one, the calm in the middle of the storm. When Vasilly and Katherina had their quarrels and these were the kind that would have neighbours cursing, cause dogs to start barking and birds to migrate south for winter, Daniel would always assure her that this was how you knew their parents loved each other. Indeed, such incendiary fights would follow equally incendiary love making which would send Xenia running to the skating rink and well Daniel to the church.
Xenia always feared that he had made the choice to soon but since he was thirteen, he had wanted nothing else. It was as if the word of God had entered his soul and never left it. She watched him become isolated as his choices made him something of an outcast, the older he became. Indeed, most fifteen years old wanted to try out for the football team, not go to bible camp. Xenia couldn't understand what it was that moved him so but sometimes she envied his clarity. He knew what he wanted, he knew his purpose in life and nothing swayed him.
If nothing else, Xenia relied on Daniel’s faith as the one constant in her life.
So when she was getting ready for the International Skating Union's World Championship in Zurich, a four day break to Tuscany didn't seem like such an awful idea. Her trainer and manager Tolya Neverov threw a fit of course because he disliked the idea of wandering about the Italian countryside alone and worse yet, prey to those young Italian men who would undoubtedly find a beautiful Russian-American girl to be irresistible. After convincing Tolya that she had grown up in California and couldn't imagine young hormonal Italian boys to be any different from the Californian variety, he relented.
So she thought.
The next day as she got ready to board the Cisalpino service to Italy, she found herself greeted by a man in his thirties, with Teutonic features, blue eyes that were almost grey and light blond hair. He wore a well cut grey tailored suit and he greeted her politely as if he had been expecting her on the platform.
"I am Lukas Gisler," he introduced himself, his accent short and clipped even if his voice was somewhat soft, almost whispery. For a moment, he reminded her a little of Daniel. "I am here on the behalf of Tolya Neverov. He would like me to act as your escort to Italy."
Oh no, he didn't. Xenia thought, her jaw dropping open with shock. "He didn't do that." She blurted out in disbelief, blue eyes wide with astonishment. "He seriously did not get me a body guard."
"I am private security yes," he nodded, watching her reaction closely but showing none himself. "He did not tell you?"
"No, he did not tell me…" Xenia sputtered as the train bellowed a signal for all passengers to board. Stealing a look at all the people boarding the locomotive, she knew she had to join them or be left behind.
"Look I didn't get you a ticket and I've got reservations on a first class berth…" She started to walk past her. "I'm sure Toyla meant well but I don't require your services."
"I have a ticket," he replied, completely unperturbed by her reaction, having been warned to expect this. "It is even in first class. Next to your compartment I believe." Lukas offered her a faint smile. "We should board," he gestured her towards the steps.
"No we shouldn't..!" Xenia exclaimed when the train bellowed again, followed by the sound of locomotive engines revving to life. "Oh Jesus! I am going to kill him!" She cursed and then remembered Daniel would be telling her off now for taking the Lord's name in vain. Growling, she brushed past him, swearing so colourfully (but not about the lord) that it made her male companion stifle a bemused laugh.
Americans, he chuckled quietly to himself.
Scribe31oz 00:05, May 18, 2010 (UTC)
Completely unhappy about having a companion, Xenia spent the first leg of her trip to Milan arguing with Tolya on her cell until he promptly reminded her that he was her father's oldest friend and while in his care, she was like a daughter to him. Even if she was 27 years old. Unable to refute that sentiment, Xenia finally submitted to her fate and emerged from her berth some time later, to find her 'bodyguard' in the next cabin, reading a book patiently.
"I'm going to dinner," she looked at him through the half open door. "I suppose you can come along…if you want."
Setting down the book, which Xenia noted to be a leather-bound copy of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, he stood up and looked at her. "I do not need to be at the same table to do my job," he explained. "If you prefer to dine alone…"
"I invited you didn't?" Xenia rolled her eyes. "I figure you're in the same boat as I am so we might as well make the best out of a bad situation."
"I did not think it was that bad," his eyes danced as he looked at her.
"Oh don't try to charm your way into my good books Mister," Xenia snorted and turned on her heels to walk down the narrow passage between the wall and the other berth. Still, he had a lot of cute to drive that charm and she wasn't immune to good looking, blond men with a hint of mystery about them. Besides, there were worse ways to travel to Italy she supposed.
"I would not dream of it," he remarked closing the door to his berth before trailing after her.
A short time later, they were seated across each other in the first class dining car, having placed their orders where her glass of wine was a sharp contrast to his club soda.
"You're not drinking because you're on duty?" She questioned.
"Something like that," he answered, aware that her petulance was a by product of her lingering annoyance at his presence. Either that or she was always this high strung. A frightening thought. "You never know what dangerous types might try to charm a beautiful American on a train. I would be remiss in my duty if I was inebriated when I was supposed to be keeping you safe."
"You speak very good English," she pointed out, taking a sip of her merlot. "Where did you learn?"
"At university and later in the military."
"Oh you're an army guy?" she pointed out. No wonder he had that tough, James Bond look about him.
"For a few years," he answered her questions, "In Switzerland, all young men must serve."
"Really?" Xenia started at him in surprise. "You got drafted?"
"It is called conscription and its something we're proud to do. A coming of age so to speak," Lukas explained.
"So you were in the army and you decided to go private to guard figure skaters?" She challenged, aware she was being a little bitchy but he was here on Tolya's dollar so if he couldn't be dodging bullets he could at least dodge some prickly questions.
"I was in the SIS for the rest of the time," he laughed, recognising the tactic and seeing no harm in giving her some answers.
"The SIS?" She looked at him puzzled. "I don't know what that is."
"Strategic Intelligence Service," he answered. "Like your CIA."
"Get out!" Xenia exclaimed. "You…were a spy?"
"Just a low level operative, shuffling papers. It is not as glamorous as your CIA." He assured her. "Switzerland doesn't have many foreign enemies. Being neutral rarely requires us to employ the cloak and dagger."
"Sure," Xenia stared back at him with clear scepticism in her eyes. "Even if you were carrying out secret espionage missions, you couldn't tell me or else you'd have to kill me, right?"
"Well you are somewhat irritating" he retorted with a perfectly straight face. "I could do that anyway."
Xenia burst out laughing. "Touche."
ARNO RIVER, ITALY
MARCH 1ST, 2009 – 4.00 PM
“You surprise me.”
Xenia lifted her gaze from the book in her hands to stare at Lukas in question. They had left Milan and were now crossing the Arno River past Arezzo. Once again in the dining car with Lukas, Xenia had to admit she was surprised by what good company he was. Despite his manner, she liked his dry sense of humor and his ability to remain unflappable no matter how obnoxious she was, reminded her of Daniel. Furthermore, he also spoke Italian which was also to her advantage allowing his role of body guard to evolve into charming travel guide.
“I do?” She inquired with interest as she lay down her book on the table, a travel guide to Florence which was her ultimate destination.
“Yes,” he nodded, having sat silently across her for the last half hour, alternating his attention from the beautiful scenery outside and his charge who seemed engrossed in her reading. “I was certain that when we were in Milan I was going to be following you to all the fashion houses and forced to wait while you tried on many clothes.”
Xenia laughed at that and said smugly, “but instead I dragged you off to the Basilica of San Lorenzo?”
“Exactly,” he returned her smile with one of his own. “Therefore I am surprised.”
“Well it’s nice to know that I can be surprising,” she gave him a playful wink and then sobered. “Actually, it’s my brother’s fault. When we were growing up, it was a dream of his to take a tour of Italy, to visit all the old churches.” Most teenaged boys had looked forward to spring break and Cancun; Daniel wanted to go to Vatican City. She wondered how he survived high school without getting his ass kicked. “He told me about the Basilica at San Lorenzo, how it built around AD 370 and was renovated in the 1600s by the Byzantium Emperors. He’s never been there but how he described it was so beautiful…” her voice drifted off in affection. “Daniel is like that, he sees beauty in things that no one else does. I suppose that’s why he is a priest.”
“Your brother is a priest?” Lukas exclaimed with a smirk, “Another surprise.”
“Oh? Because I’m such a bad seed?” She teased.
“Obviously,” he winked back, taking a sip of his water and then setting down the glass.
Xenia stared at Lukas a moment, thinking about Daniel and Lukas, noting their similarities. “You remind me of him a little.” An affectionate gleam filled her expression. “You have a soft spoken way about you that’s very like my brother.”
“I will take that as a compliment,” Lukas returned her gaze with one of his own. “Although you do not remind me of anyone I know.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere,” Xenia deadpanned.
“I mean that as a compliment,” he answered not at all fazed. “You are unique.”
“Unique as in should be in a museum?” She challenged, not about to let him off the hook just yet even though his description was pleasing.
“Unique like a snowflake as in one of a kind. Beautiful and fragile,” Lukas commented before turning away, feeling somewhat uncomfortable that the conversation had taken such a personal turn.
Suddenly, the train jerked forward violently. Everything that was resting on the table before them went tumbling towards Xenia, not that she noticed since she was flung back hard into her seat and saw Lukas holding on tightly to the table to keep from going over it as well. However, no such restraint held the other people in the carriage as she saw the rail card tilt forward, sending them crashing towards her. She and Lukas had been sitting near the entrance to the carriage.
“UNDER THE TABLE!” She heard him shout and half stunned, Xenia slid beneath the heavy table, holding on to the thick iron base that was riveted to the floor. Lukas joined her amidst the sound of screaming, metal groaning and the roar of a catastrophic crash. Even as she held on, she felt the floor beneath her heaving as if the wheels had come away from the tracks. Trying not to scream, she felt Lukas hand over hers as they maintained a death grip to the table base.
We’ve crashed, she thought as she felt herself jostled around in their small space violently. A draft of air rushed across her face and she looked up to see part of the carriage had broken away and the open space was not the sky but the river they were plunging into. Other passengers were falling through the opening, hitting the water from the great height. Eyes wide with horror as she realized the train carriage was falling into the River Arno, she looked up at Lukas and saw the same understanding.
They hit the water at full force and the booths that flanked them on either side cushioned the impact even as the table they had been holding to snapped from the floor on impact. It ripped itself out of their arms and tumbled out of reach as other parts of the carriage connected with the bottom of the river. The booth on her side crushed her body but the pain was incidental with the adrenaline coursing through her lungs. She saw a flare of red near his face and thought that this was it, she was going to die.
Oh Papa, Daniel, she started to weep as she was forced against his body sandwiched by the booths on either side of them. There was a moment of clarity and then the sound of rushing water filled the compartment. They were sinking! The train had landed on the river bed at angle with their end on the bottom. Other people were struggling to escape, those who like them had not been killed by falling debris on the way down. She could hear their fists smashing against the glass, trying to break through.
The speed in which the water rushed throughout the carriage from multiple entry points was stunningly fast. In seconds, she and Lukas were underwater, with what pockets of air they had immediately snuffed out, forced to the surface in loud, disorientating bubbles. Staring at him wide eyed, certain they were going to die together. Trapped between the two berths surrounded by crushed metal, the only way out was through the glass windows that others had not broken through.
Xenia struggled, refusing to die, even as her lungs started to strain as the water made her protestation strangely muted. Lukas however, seemed oddly calm. Suddenly, she saw him pull out something from his jacket. A gun! He had a gun! Of course he would, he was a bodyguard. He reached for her cheek and made her turn away from the glass. Realising what he was about to do, she turned away and heard the muffled sound of a gunshot as he fired the weapon against it. The glass cracked, creating spidery web fractures across the surface.
Lukas grabbed her arm and pulled her with him as he swam towards the glass, using the butt of the gun to break through the fragments, giving them an exit. Feeling her lungs bursting from oxygen deprivation, Xenia allowed him to lead her through the jagged opening, feeling a sharp pain on her arm when skin met a shard. She uttered a soft cry that only forced water into her mouth, a red tide of blood following her. She saw the alarm on his face but then he continued swimming, focusing on getting them to the surface.
Holding on to him as she kicked free of the train carriage, Xenia saw the debris still falling around them. Broken pieces of glass, metal and luggage hurtled through the murky water. Lukas somehow kept them from being hit and she narrowly avoided being struck by a girder that sunk into the depths beneath them. She saw other carriages, similarly crushed against the river bed, a terrible vision of blood, metal and death. Forcing herself not to scream when she saw the bodies floating past her, Xenia closed her eyes and continued to kick, forcing away the images as she allowed Lukas to lead her to safety.
It seemed like they were swimming forever and her lungs felt like they were going to burst from the want of oxygen. Lukas’ grip was still strong on her arm and she clung to it like a life line, forcing her eyes open to see bubbles rushing in the direction they were headed. Lifting her head, she saw the shimmery reflection of the sky and kicked harder.
They broke the surface of the water gasping loudly.
However, they were far from safe.
Aside from the debris, a slick patch of oil across the water had ignited creating walls of flame and smoke. There was a cacophony of voices, crashing against each other, screams, cries of anguish, confusion, a whole gamut of emotion that generated all sorts of noises. For a few minutes, she noticed none of these, trying to catch her breath. Lukas was holding her, making sure she was not separated from him. There was a cut over his eyes she had now noticed, blood gushing down the side of his face. Xenia saw the body of a woman floating past, her hair swirling around her like seaweed. Xenia struggled not to scream.
“Come on,” he ordered her as he started to swim them away from the smoke and flames and she had presence of mind to follow him because she too wanted away from this carnage. Thrashing through the flotsam, she felt herself gag as she saw corpses floating past her, their wounds gapping on their bodies. Lukas led them through this human debris, navigating through the flames which managed to burn despite the water, ignoring the injured who were crying out for help because his first priority was to get her to the shore safely.
Eventually they arrived at the river bed, crawling exhausted up the embankment, through mud and rotting foliage. It was a swim which normally would not be as exhausting had become an ordeal in light of what they had just survived. Lukas helped her out of the water, taking her away from the muddy embankment. Xenia still wasn’t sure what happened, how the train had somehow derailed from the bridge and toppled into the river. Along the shore, other people were emerging from the drink as they were, just as battered and bruised.
“Are you alright?” He demanded, his blue eyes scanning her body and noting the cut on her arm.
“My ribs,” she stuttered a reply, borne out of shock over what she had just experienced but also from the cold. It was cool in Italy this time of the year and the sun would be setting in less than two hours. Overhead, she could see the diminishing day through the cover of clouds.
“Let me see,” he reached for her, wasting little time with the social niceties as his hand probed beneath the dusky pink croquet blouse she was wearing. She shuddered at little at his hands gently examining her side and winced when he touched the tender area half way up her ribs.
“Is it a sharp or a dull pain?” Lukas demanded upon seeing her reaction.
“Dull,” she answered.
“Can you breathe?” He fired at her again.
“Yes,” she nodded, suspecting that it was important she answered promptly. As an Olympic level athlete, she knew such questions were to be taken seriously. “I’m only out of breath because of the swim.”
“Good,” he nodded relieved and moved to the cut on her arm. The glass shard she had brushed against had cut through her blouse, leaving an angry gash on her upper arm. “We need to dress this and stop the bleeding.”
Xenia didn’t speak, her gaze shifted to the terrain around them. The scene at the river bed looked like the aftermath of a war. The surface was covered in wreckage from the train, objects were still surfacing while one of the last cars in the train was still sinking into the murky water. How she and Lukas had survived was a miracle when so many others, men, women and children bobbing on the surface, had not. Tears filled her eyes and she started sobbing, seeing the empty eyes staring into nothingness, faces of people she did not know but mourned because she almost shared their fate. She crossed herself, issuing a silent prayer for them. She wished Daniel was here, he’d know what to say.
“What happened, Lukas? Was it a terrorist attack or something?” She looked at him as he was wrapping her arm with a piece of shirt he had ripped away to provide her with a makeshift bandage. His own face was still dripping with blood. The cut above his eye was gushing red down his temple and cheek, as if he were crying tears of blood.
“I do not know,” he said meeting her gaze. “There was no explosion, nothing. We just lost control and stopped.”
Xenia winced a little when he knotted the strip around her arm, a soft hiss escaping her lisp, despite her attention fixed on their surroundings. They were in the heart of Tuscany, surrounded by green hills, verdant paddocks that seemed surreal when held in contrast to the carnage on the river. Passengers were crawling through the mud to get out of the embankments just as she and Lukas had done. They were sobbing, screaming and others were simply shell shocked, sitting at the shore, staring.
“I am sorry,” he apologized for hurting her. “I need to bind it tight, to stop the bleeding…” he explained.
“I understand,” she said quick, lips quivering from the cold. “They’ll be coming soon won’t they? The authorities? To help us?”
“Of course,” Lukas replied, noticing the quiet beyond their immediate area and feeling the sense of isolation that Xenia must be experiencing as well. “Come, let us get away from the water. We need to get you out of this cold.”
“You’re hurt too,” she pointed out, reaching for his brow.
He flinched as she made contact with his skin, catching her wrist with hand. Xenia was surprised how warm his skin felt considering they were both cold and water logged. For a flicker of a second, she saw the confident man he had been since their first meeting waver slightly as their eyes touched. However, the urgency of their situation propelled them past the moment.
“It is nothing,” he shrugged it off but still kept her hand in his.
ARNO RIVER, ITALY
MARCH 1ST, 2009 – 6.00 PM
Two hours had passed and no one had come.
The sense that something was terribly wrong had begun to take hold of the group of injured and weary survivors awaiting the arrival of rescue and emergency medical response authorities to help them. The temperature had also dropped drastically and the chill that had bit Xenia’s skin when she first emerged from the water in the wake of the crash was not causing her to shiver visibly. The sun had disappeared behind the green hills and taken the heat with them.
Lukas stayed close to her for awhile before the wait for the authorities had stretched past and hour and he left her to go see to the state of the passengers. Most were still gathered near the river, though most had moved away from it far enough to avoid seeing the carnage in the water. Occasionally, something would break loose from beneath the river bed and surface with a sudden splash. Sometimes, it was stray pieces of luggage or other objects from inside the train. And sometimes it wasn’t.
The number of bodies that were floating aimlessly on the river was becoming more than some could stand and it was even more chilling that in their death, the carrion eaters began to circle, looking for food. Lukas had managed to take charge of some of the group, getting them out of sight of the river but close enough to hear rescue workers when they finally arrived. The passengers were a mixture of locals and tourists and thanks to his multilingual abilities were able to communicate with them.
When the second hour had come and gone, those huddled around the fires they had built as shields against the cold began to get restless and Xenia who clung to Lukas’ side, could see the slight shadow in his gaze that had little to do with the fire dancing in the specks of his blue eyes. He was worried but trying not to show it. As they sat next to each other in front of the fire, his arm around her shoulder, giving her his warmth, she could feel the tension in his shoulders, the slight set of his jaw.
“Lukas,” she said softly, “why aren’t they here yet?”
Ensuring that he was not being heard by the others, he glanced her way furtively and answered, “I do not know. They should have been here by now. The Cisalpino is not some country service; it’s a modern rail system with the appropriate technology to show a derailment. Even so, we are two hours late arriving at our destination and no one has noticed? I find that disturbing.”
When he had put it in those terms, Xenia tended to agree just like she knew the cause of the crash also disturbed him. She replayed it in her head, no explosive sound before hand, not even the slightest tremor in their journey across the bridge, if anything the ride had been amazingly smooth. It was just as if they stopped in their tracks and the sudden lock of wheels had created a whiplash effect that traveled through the carriages.
“LOOK!” Someone shouted in the darkness.
Lukas was on his feet in a second with Xenia following him closely, hurrying towards the voice. Soon that exclamation was joined by others, followed by a ripple of relieved voices as they saw approaching in the sky a number of fast moving objects that from a distance could have been helicopters. Xenia felt her heart flooding with relief. People had stood up and were pointing to the approaching aircraft, hugging each other, weeping in relief.
His expression was anything but pleased. In fact, he was staring at the three approaching blips with concentration as if he were trying to determine what they were.
“Lukas what is it?”
“Helicopters make sound,” he said promptly. “Do you hear blades?”
Xenia froze and turned sharply to the craft closing in on them. He was right. At this distance, they should be hearing the whirring of chopper blades but instead there was this low drone that reminded Xenia oddly enough of a floor buffer. “Then what….?” She asked, looking ahead once more.
All of a sudden, the craft came into view and suddenly Xenia was a little girl, being smuggled away, with Daniel singing softly in Russian the lullabies their mother would sing them, soothing her in the dark.
Sleep, my lovely baby, lullaby.
Quietly the bright moon looks into your cradle.
I shall tell you stories, and sing you a song;
so shut your little eyes and doze, lullaby.
The memory was shattered by the appearance of the three crafts. She knew instantly what they were. There wasn’t a human on the planet that didn’t know the Visitors and their ships on sight. Like the rest of the horrified survivors of the train wreck, time seemed to slow as those dreaded ships closed in on them. Muted horror gripped the crowd as they stood there rooted to the spot, unable to believe what their eyes were seeing, even as the ships started to land.
"We have to move now!" Lukas ordered, grabbing her arm to pull her away from the landing site of Visitor ships. The two sky fighters were accompanied by a third, larger ship that slowly began to descend onto the clearing now far from the river's edge where the survivors were concentrated. It was Lukas' sharp demand that snapped everyone else out of their fugue as shock and disbelief was quickly replaced by terror.
Terror which escalated the instant the hatch opened, spilling out Visitor shock troopers in their polished jack boots and dark helmets. People started screaming as they ran like ants that had been scattered by a large rock dropped in their midst. Those who were able bodied tried to retrieved their injured loved ones while others, with nothing to hold them back began running for the darkness, trying to outpace the Visitor shock troopers who shouted after them, their eerie voice echoing through the night.
Lukas ignored this as he prompted her into movement by dragging her towards the embankment framed by tall grass and reeds. To dazed to anything but follow his lead, Xenia allowed herself to be dragged along as he led them away from the others. Its every man and woman for themselves, she thought distantly as she tried to ignore what was happening behind her. What was behind her would do her no good except paralyze her with fear.
What was behind her was the chaos of terrified people running away into the night in a desperate bid to escape, mixed with the eerie reverberation of Visitor voices and eclipsed by the sound of discharging Visitor weapons and agonized screams. She didn’t need to look to see those who had lingered too long or had been too frightened to move or offer resistance were quickly herded into one place as shock troopers pursued those who had fled like they had. When she did chance a look over her shoulder, Xenia wished she hadn’t for all she saw were people being brought down like gazelles in the savannah, the smoke of Visitor blaster fighter hissing of their bodies.
The scene was enough to make her scream except that Lukas wouldn’t allow her to panic, wouldn’t give her time to linger on those behind them. He was too fixed on keeping them alive and his quick thinking had given them a head start. They had moved a few second earlier than anyone else and to this effect they had become lost in the herd. The Visitors were rounding those who were closest. However, instead of running farther away, Lukas led them not into hills but instead towards the water.
“What are we doing?” She demanded out of breath, not about to question him but needing to know.
“There’s not ground cover for miles,” he retorted abruptly as they climbed over the embankment.
“YOU!” A Visitor shouted at them from a distance. Xenia’s stomach knotted into a ball of fright but once again, she was in the hands of someone who was not about to let her fear doom them both.
Lukas didn’t answer her or the enemy because he was dragging her faster across the mud into the foliage framing the river, using the vegetation to hide their return to the river. Xenia shuddered at the icy cold but did not protest his actions. They waded into the water, bathed in darkness and as Xenia saw the Visitor appearing over the embankment, she wanted to shout a warning to Lukas, to tell him of the enemy’s approach.
“Float,” he whispered as the water swirled over their shoulders.
At first she thought he was crazy. Float? Was he serious? And then it dawned on her why he had led her to the river instead of fleeing with the others. Obeying immediately, she tried to relax her body, letting herself drift. As he did the same, they journeyed aimlessly with the current and Xenia clamped her eyes shut trying not to see what was floating with them. It was hard enough not to gag but Xenia knew if she looked, she would scream and the fate of the dead bodies from the train wreck, unclaimed and beginning to bloat would become hers and Lucas. Right now, she focused her thoughts singularly on the part she needed to play for both of them to stay alive.
Her hand in his, they remained together, their bodies appearing seemingly lifeless, listening to the lapping water, allowing it to muffle the more sinister sounds elsewhere. She did not know if the Visitor who had seen them earlier was still there but seconds became minutes and there was no indication that their ruse had been discovered. The cold was intense but manageable and for once Xenia was grateful for having grown up in the far north and spending half her life in an ice rink, it made her capable of handling this.
Eventually the voices died down, the screams diminished and Xenia heard the sharp thud of a hatch closing, followed by the low drone that had started this nightmare to begin with. Only when they heard each engine being initiated did Lukas finally move, giving her leave to do so. Only when Xenia saw the gleaming bodies of the three ships lift into the air, kicking dirt and litter in all directions, did she finally let out of a gasp of relief that the danger had passed.
“Oh God, Lukas!” She exclaimed, breathing hard, allowing everything she had seen to finally catch up with her. “They’re back! What are we going to do?”
Lukas didn’t answer because he didn’t have an answer himself. With the appearance of those ships, Lukas knew that the world beyond this place and this train crash had changed and he had no idea how to proceed. Aware that the young woman in his charge would be looking to him for strength, he focused on what he could manage as opposed to what answers he couldn’t give her. “Let’s get out of this water,” he said wanting to be away from all these corpses as much as she, though he was better at hiding it.
“God yes,” she nodded, registering the bodies around them. On her own steam, she saw along with him to the shore, her stomach turning at the flotilla she had to pass to get there. Fortunately, the darkness kept her from seeing everything but it was enough. One too many faces drifted into view and when they did, their images were burned into Xenia’s memory. She saw Lukas’ eyes fixed on the shore and wondered how he managed it, how he was able to not feel so afraid.
When they finally reached the edge of the water, it was all she could do to stop herself from throwing up. Crawling against the muddy ground, she reached the top of the embankment and finally stopped, rolling into a sitting position as she hugged her body, trying to dispel the cold but also the ordeal they had just gone through.
”Are you alright?” He asked, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her close to him, in an effort to share heat but also to offer comfort. Death was something that had become part of his life. The experience of his life in the military and in the SIS gave him some calluses but she was new to all this and in light of what they had just seen, she was probably coming to grips with the fact that life as they knew it was over. Everything was changing.
“Yes,” she nodded, staring at the ground, shaking. “I’m fine…just give me a minute. I’m just trying to deal with this.”
”I know,” he said sympathetically. “After twenty three years, they have returned and we are not ready for them. Not in the slightest.”
Xenia’s eyes lifted to his. “We’re not?” She had hoped that perhaps the world governments had some secret plan to fight the invaders.
“Not if the red dust no longer works,” Lukas replied. “We believed that the dust would protect from these aliens but now it seems they have found a way to survive it.”
She thought of Daniel, her father, of Toyla, the people she cared about. She needed to get back to them, she needed to know if they were safe. “What are we going to do now Lukas?” She asked, praying he’d have the answers. “Where can we go?”
“I do not know,” he said hugging her closer. “I honestly do not know.
ARNO RIVER, ITALY
1st March – After 6.00 pm
They couldn’t stay where they were for much longer.
The temperature was dropping and they were both soaking wet. Lukas could see Xenia shivering and her shock was not just physical, it was mental. Both their worlds had shattered and while he was more adaptable due to the things he had seen in his life, she was not.
Xenia was an Olympic ice skater, one of the best in the world. Ranked number four, she was nicknamed ‘the Swan’ by the press because her signature piece was a routine modelled after the ballerina Anna Pavlov’s own performance of Swan Lake. On the ice, she was the most graceful thing anyone had seen. Even one as hardened as he who had no interest in such things would always find a reason to pause and watch the televised broadcasts of her in competition.
When the opportunity had come his way to take this job, Lukas couldn’t deny the secret thrill at being able to meet her for the first time. And while he feared that the reality would not be able to compete with the fantasy he built up in his head about her, he needn’t had worried. The first time he looked into those blue eyes that sparkled like sapphires in the sunlight, Lukas knew that it was the fantasy that couldn’t live up to the reality. Of course, he maintained his professionalism; he was what he was and as much as the girl affected him and with her breezy smile, her delightfully grounded nature and wonderful sense of humour, Lukas never forgot that he was there to keep safe.
Even from him.
“Xenia,” he nudged her gently, liking how she felt beneath his arm, how nicely she fit against him. “We cannot stay here, we need to start moving.”
Lifting her gaze towards him, Xenia nodded quietly, disappointed at having to move out of his embrace because for a brief moment, the world where the Visitors had returned seemed very far away. Shifting out from under his arm, Xenia started to stand up. "Where shall we go now?"
"If the Visitors have returned, we need to stay away from the cities at least for now," Lukas thought as he stood up first, taking her hand to help her to her feet. "I think we should head back the way we came, towards Switzerland."
"That's more than six hundred kilometres away!" She balked, staring at him in disbelief. Even as she did so, her eyes shifted to the mountains in the distance, the Alps that they would have to cross. "It took a train a whole day to get here! Not to mention we don't even have a car, how do you propose we get there? Walk?" Xenia asked sceptically, aware she was sounding a little shrewish but somewhat confident that her reservations were valid.
Lukas' expression was impatient. "It would take us five days but yes," he nodded determinedly, "we could walk."
Of course he had no intention of doing that because he planned to find transportation along their journey, however, if worse came to worse, that was exactly what they would do because they could not remain here.
"You are insane!" She spat angrily at him, needing to take it out on something. "We…we…have to go to town and find help…we need a car and supplies…." Xenia declared hotly. "We just can't…can't walk or…or…" she stuttered badly, not even certain what it was she was trying to say. She was so just so scared.
Suddenly, Lukas took her face in his large hands, cupping her cheeks on either side and making her stare into his intense blue eyes. "Xenia…Xen," he kept his voice gentle. "We cannot stay here and if they are back, their base of power is in the cities or at least that is where they will start to consolidate it. The immediate terrain makes it very difficult to hide us because we are on the valley between the Apennines. It will be easy for them to find us if we do not find cover. Please," he assured her, "I don't want to die any more than you do but we must be sensible about this."
"I don't want to be sensible," she squeaked. "This shouldn't be happening." She caught his wrists with her hands and shuddered. "I'm so scared Lukas."
"I know you are," he let go of her and pulled her to him in an embrace. "But you must be brave if either of us are going to survive this, yes?"
Lukas' arms around her body set Xenia's heart racing for an altogether different reason and for a moment, she savoured the velvet steel of his hard body against her own, relishing the solid wall of muscled flesh that made her feel sheltered safe. It didn't help that the night was cold and they were both soaked to the bone, making her wish to continue their contact because he felt so warm against her. However, this stolen bit of comfort could not last, not with what was pressing down against them.
"We have to go," Lukas said quietly, pulling away from her, reminding himself that he needed to be on his game to get them out of this alive.
Returning to Zurich or at least the safety of the mountains seemed the sensible course of idea. From what he remembered of his studies on Visitor physiology, it had been a requisite course in all military institutions following the departure of the Visitors, he knew they were not given to cold climates. While the false skins they wore gave them temporary protection against extreme cold, it was once noted that a Visitor had been seen entering subzero temperatures, it cause fissuring in the skin. During the Occupation, they had maintained a presence in colder climates but ensured they remained within easy reach of their skyfighters and motherships. It made sense that the Visitors would have adversity to such climates since Sirius was a binary star system, one of which was a red giant. Any world in orbit of it, would experience warm temperatures and such climates would be ideal for a reptilian based life form.
In the mountains, Lukas believed they would be safe at least for awhile until they could settle on their long term plans. His first impulse was to return home to his mother and father, to see if they were safe but Lukas knew he couldn't occupy his thoughts on that because he needed his focus intact, not torn in two directions. Undoubtedly, Xenia would want to go home to her own family and that would be harder to do since she was American and there was an ocean between her homeland and this continent.
"Alright first things first," he said looking around them. "We need to find some dry clothes." A lot of debris had ended on the embankment from the river, drifting free of the wreckage beneath. "Look for luggage," he ordered, walking along the river's edge, looking for anything they could use. "Anything that we can use and will not be too hard to carry."
Xenia followed him, glad to be given some direction. She needed something to do so she didn't think about Visitors, about the dead bodies in the water or the fact that the two of them felt like the only people in the world right now. "Those others," she asked, thinking on the people who had survived the crash with them, "What do you think will happen to them?"
"They are mostly likely been taken to the mothership," he replied, pausing to examine the contents of a backpack that was lying against a slope. Picking it up, he rifled through the belongings and surmised this probably belonged to some backpacker, Australian by the looks of the travel books and papers.
Motherships, Xenia shuddered, looking up instinctively up instinctively even though the skies were clear. No motherships here, she thought but then if the Visitors were back, so were the motherships. Just because she couldn't see them, didn't mean they weren't there. "They're going to be eaten aren't they?" She asked, her lips quivering.
"Possibly," Lukas answered although the more truthful answer would have been yes. Refusing to let her dwell on that that thought, he handed her the backpack after he had discarded everything that was no use to them. "Hold this. We'll need supplies for travelling."
Xenia looked inside and saw a pen knife, a small first aid kid with aspirin, antiseptic cream, band-aids, a sunscreen and a small assortment of over the counter drugs for travel. Nothing to heal major ailments but God forbid if they were actually going to walk to the Alps, then these were useful to have.
They spent the next hour picking through the debris like carrion eaters with Xenia finding her stomach hollowing each time they staked a claim on something left behind from the wreckage. She had to remind herself that this was necessary for their survival but inside, she felt revolted by the fact that they were picking at the leavings of the dead or the lost. Lukas showed no such difficulties, moving from place to place with an expression of calm determination. Xenia found herself silently grateful for him, that her protector had been someone who understood how frightened she was and made allowances for it. She wished she could have thanked Tolya for placing her in Lukas' charge but at this moment, she didn't know if he was still alive or not.
Scavenging dry clothes from the remains of the train wreck, it was not long after that Xenia and Lukas headed away from the Arno River, carrying what supplies they could. She had found a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and a warm coat which was heavenly after being in water logged clothes most of the evening. Lukas was in more or less the same thing and Xenia thought with a blush, that he looked as good in jeans as he did in his suit. Stashing everything worth taking into the backpack they had found, the two of them set out across the Italian countryside, northwards.
They had walked for about an hour before the small community of Pratantico came into view. Earlier that day when they were passing the town on the train, Xenia had observed it to be little more than a collection of buildings surrounded by rolling green fields. She knew that it was Lukas' intent to shelter there for the night and if possible find a vehicle that could take them towards the mountains.
Approaching Pratantico through one of the many olive groves surrounding the commune, she could see the silhouettes of roof tops appearing over the trees and even points of light that blinked suggestively at them, inviting them in. They were people there! She thought hopefully. Maybe if there was still some semblance of life that wasn't been swept away by the Visitors, they had a chance of getting out of this alive. In a flash of a second, Xenia thought of seeing Daniel and her father again, of returning to a world where her biggest worry would be whether or not she'd gotten a good night sleep to compete on the ice the next day.
It was a pipe dream and she knew it but Xenia was looking for hope anywhere she could right now, even if it was wholly unrealistic.
In the end however, that was exactly was it was, a pipe dream because as she and Lukas closed in on the town, the voices that had been distant and vague sharpened into clarity with shocking speed and finality.
There was screaming.
Lukas pulled her into the cover of canola plants that surrounded the olive trees, concealing themselves beneath the cover of the yellow flowering plants. As they remained crouched in the darkness, holding their breaths for fear of being heard, Xenia listened to the chilling sounds that emanated from the town. What they could hear above all else were the screams. They came from women amidst tears from young and old. The men were shouting, trying to get answers .
"Dove ci porti! Perché fate questo? Abbiamo fatto nulla! Fermare!"
Xenia didn't understand the words but she understood the fear in them. Through the branches of golden canola, Xenia and Lukas watched with strained breaths as the people of Pratantico were rounded up, dragged out of their homes, marched into the town square like a scene from some awful war movie when the Nazis were about to punish the whole town because of some hero's blow against their authority.
Lukas watched too, helpless and growing angrier by the second at his lack of ability to do anything to stop this. He had one gun, a SIG-Sauer P226 and while in any other situation it was an effective weapon, it was next to useless against the superior number of the Visitors and their laser rifles. So he was forced to remain hidden, reminding himself that while he was a soldier, he was also once an operative and the operative knew the value of moving about covertly. There would be time to fight but that time was not now. So all he could do was watch through gritted teeth and tried not to feel like a coward for letting these people be taken without being able to lift a finger to help them.
Men, women and children, Xenia saw with horror, were being herded and at gun point, marched up ramps that led into the belly of the beast, in this case, a Visitor transport ship. She watched them move reluctantly, some fighting, others going quietly, screams and protestations bursting around them like wanning artillery shells, losing potency when they disappeared inside the craft.
Those who protested too much for the invaders' liking was met with violence. A Visitor shock trooper smashed the butt of his rifle into the back of a man who hadn't moved fast enough, forcing a cry from his wife. Xenia had been holding onto Lukas' arm through all this and when the man went down, she felt him wince in reaction and saw in his profile the clenching of his jaw, indicating his desire to go help but could not.
It continued like this for an hour, with Xenia and Lukas hiding in the grove, waiting for the noise to die down which eventually it did after the Visitors had moved through Pratantico like locusts, stripping the community bare of all its inhabitants. Finally, the familiar drone of the ships filled the air again after all other sounds had died. The lights they had seen earlier had come from the ship and as it lifted into the air and began its journey to the mothership, it left behind only silence and darkness.
Only after they were gone did either of them dare to move and surprisingly enough it was Lukas who was on his feet first. He stood up like a taut, coiled spring released.
He cursed out loud, kicking the dirt in anger as the same time, finally allowed to express his frustration at being able to do nothing. Xenia hadn't seen him lose control before. It was the first time that she saw how much this affected him. Lukas had been her rock in all this, he had kept her alive, gave her hope and ensured her fear didn't get the better of her. Seeing him this way should have concerned her but instead, it made her feel close to him somehow, made her understand him a little better.
"Lukas," she placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "There's nothing you could have done."
He looked over his shoulder and regained his composure, his hand automatically covering hers on his shoulder. "I know," he said after a moment. "It is just difficult to sit by and do nothing…"
Feeling the need to comfort him, Xenia wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her cheek against his shoulder blade, pressing her body against his to calm the anger she could see trying to crack the surface of his calm demeanour. "You're not doing nothing," she said softly. "You're keeping me alive, that's something isn't it?"
Despite his anger, the sensation of her against him did have the effect of diffusing his rage somewhat and for a moment, he closed his eyes, savouring how she felt. Turning around, leaving her arms where they were, he looked into her face and found himself not for the first time, lost in her incredible blue eyes. A thumb stroked her cheek and he wanted badly to kiss her but that was a line he wasn't prepared to cross yet because he needed to be focussed. If he became too wrapped up on her, he'd make mistakes and Lukas wasn't prepared to risk both their lives on such foolishness, yet.
"It is a full time job," he managed to say, a faint smile on his lips. "Your manager owes me double time."
Xenia laughed softly and pulled away from him, patting his chest lightly as she answered, "I'll make sure you get triple time." She smiled at him and then added, "come on, like you said, we need to keep moving right?"
"We do," he nodded and pulled himself together. They had to get moving. Lukas wanted to be as far away from here when the sun came up as they could manage.
The Visitors were very thorough.
When Xenia and Lukas walked into Pratantico after the Visitors had left, there was nothing left of the commune's inhabitants. The chaos earlier vanished and replaced by this dead silence that was broken only by the occasional chirp of insects or a owl's distant hooting. Doors to homes were splayed open, cars were left abandoned on the main street. A window shutter was banging incessantly thanks to the wind. Everything was dark, even the street lights were dim. Somewhere a dog barked.
Lukas had no intention of remaining in this ghost town and quickly went to investigate the cars. It appeared that some of them had stopped in the middle of the road, their doors open and their hoods lifted as if their owners had tried to determine why their vehicles had stopped. Climbing behind the steering wheel of a late model sedan, he tried turning the engine over with little success.
Meanwhile, Xenia stepped into what looked to be a small grocery store. She tried the lights but nothing worked and remembered to use the small flashlight that they had found in the backpacker's gear. Using it to light the way, she saw the store had been left mostly untouched but there were signs of the violent of its owners. A few objects littered the aisle, having fallen off their display shelves, a window appeared to be broken.
Moving further into the store, Xenia helped herself to a few bottles of waters and a few tins of food, in case they were forced to rough it. Xenia knew that Lukas wanted to avoid major population centres until they knew what was going on. Switzerland's terrain made it easier for them to hide out there than the open fields of the Italian peninsula. She rounded the counter to see if there was anything they could use back there when she came across an old radio, the kind that used to be popular in the 50's with a handle, white (well now almost crème) finish and chipped chrome buttons and knobs.
Turning it on, she was greeted with nothing but static and Xenia continued to tune the thing, hoping she could pick something up, hopefully a news broadcast to tell them what was going on. The crackling noise brought Lukas to her and he was at her side in seconds, investigating the source of it.
"I found a radio," she announced to him as she continued to search for a channel after sitting on top of the counter.
"Its old," he pointed out.
"Yeah but it still works," Xenia retorted. "Probably runs on batteries or something…" she added when suddenly a burst of static silenced them both.
"…Deputy Secretary of the United Nations Asha-Rose Migiro. Anyone who can hear this message, please listen carefully…"
Xenia and Lukas exchanged glances and then listened to the broadcast that was being relayed on emergency channels revealing the state of the world. Asha Migiro, who had survived only because she was not at UN headquarters at the time it was obliterated by the Visitors, spoke in her Tanzanian accent of the Visitors' return, the breakdown of the Red Dust bacteria and the occupied territories now under Visitor control. Xenia listened, clutching Lukas' hand, trying not to cry when she heard of Los Angeles' destruction because San Jose was not that far away the doomed city and she had no idea where in the world Daniel was at this moment. However, in all the grim news they were forced to hear, they also learned that there were safe areas and Lukas' plan of heading north towards Switzerland was the right choice after all. The dust still worked in Switzerland. There they could be safe.
"I guess you were right," she said when they had finally switched off the radio. "Switzerland is the place to be."
"Yes," he nodded, trying not to think about what was said about the major cities, that Zurich could have been levelled. His parents, his brother Kurt, so many people that he cared about that may not have survived. The report on the radio had not be able to give confirmation of exactly how many cities had been destroyed so Lukas ordered himself to believe that they were alive until he knew otherwise. "We should get moving."
"Did you find a car?" Xenia asked.
"No," he shook his head. "But after what we heard about the EMP, it explains why none of the cars work and all the electricity is gone. This radio works because it uses valves instead of transistors." He explained.
Xenia let out a sigh of disappointment. "So we're walking to Switzerland?" She looked at him over the dim light of the torch.
"Not exactly," he led her out of the store after they had gathered anything of value to them and emerged into the night.
Something was in the street, breathing hard and occasionally snorting loudly. Xenia stared at Lukas in disbelief. "You're joking."
"No," he strode towards the chestnut mare that was saddled and waiting. "Think of it this way," Lukas replied extending his hand towards her. "We won't need to find a petrol station."
"Dove ci porti! Perché fate questo? Abbiamo fatto nulla! Fermare!" Where are you taking us? Why are you doing this? We've done nothing! Stop!
"Nuttesohn!" Son of a bitch!
Warning: NC-17 Material
MARCH 3rd 2009
It was only when they started to travel did they see the extent of Visitor control
The electro magnetic pulse which had crippled most of the planet's technology was no less prolific in Tuscany's rural landscape than anywhere else in the world. Even though the area was largely a collection of communes scattered throughout its corner of the Italian peninsula, evidence of the technology freeze could be seen in the cars that had been left on the road, abandoned by their owners, not to mention the lack of electricity or working telephones. To say nothing of the immediate disasters that befell the community when machines and appliances stopped abruptly. Like their Cisalpino train Xenia and Lukas barely survived.
It took them two days to reach Montemurlo on horse back and most of that journey had taken place under the cover of dark. Lukas believed it was safer to travel at night when they wouldn't be seen by skyfighters whose presence in the sky had become more and more frequent as they days progressed. They had yet to see a mothership but Lukas believed that was a torture yet to come when they approached a major city. If the Visitors stuck to old habits, they would concentrate their motherships on urban centres. Not that it mattered anyway, those skyfighters were able to achieve faster than light speed, crossing the Italian peninsula in a matter of minutes would be a minor inconvenience.
It was almost dawn when they approached Montermurlo and Xenia wanted to believe that the commune had remained largely unaffected because one thing had become clear during their two day trip through Tuscany; the Visitors were conducting sweeps of the smaller communities. It made perfect sense Lukas had explained. With the disruption of telephones and transportation, the disappearances of the populace from these communes would go unnoticed by major urban centres for quite some time. As chilling as the thought was, the Visitors needed to maintain a human stock for breeding purposes. This planet was their only hope of survival and it was sensible that they did not exhaust their food source by being greedy.
So once again, Xenia found herself entering an empty home as the sun started to rise over the horizon. She entered the quaint home with its provincial décor of mortar walls, dark polished stone floors and hand crafted furniture. Light curtains swayed in the breeze from the open window and petals withered off the stem from a mother of pearl vase. A spinet sat in the corner of the room, the top draped with embroidered lace.
This was someone’s home she thought as she saw a chair lying on its back beneath the dining table, a meal slowly turning on the plates, uneaten. The signs of abrupt departure were evident in everything and Xenia offered a silent hope for its owners as she looked at sepia coloured photographs on the mantle that looked from the early 1900s, that this had been a family home for a long time.
“Hello?” She called out as she walked across the tiles, hoping perhaps that someone was still here, that they hadn’t been taken like the rest of the people in this town.
There was no answer.
With a sigh, she picked up the plates and put it in the sink, a silly thing to be doing but she felt that it was only right that if she and Lukas were going to be squatting here for the night that they at least treat the place right. Who knows, these people may be come back someday. There was no reason for her sadness as she picked up the chair and set things right but as her eyes moved over the faces of grandparents, sons and daughters, weddings and children on the mantle piece; she wondered how many homes like these were empty shells.
Her blue eyes misted over before she even knew it.
“They have a well,” Lukas announced himself as he entered through the front door, closing it behind him. “I was able to water Misha and there’s plenty of grass in the back for her to eat…” he continued to speak until she turned around and he saw her face.
“What is it?” He asked, alarmed.
“Nothing,” she shook her head and wiped her eyes. “I’m being stupid.”
Approaching her cautiously, Lukas didn’t like seeing those blue eyes so despaired. “You’re allowed,” he replied. “What is wrong Xen? I mean apart from the obvious.”
“These people,” she gestured to the mantle piece, “they’re never going to come home. When the people were taken in the motherships the first time, we never got them back did we?”
Lukas drew in a breath and held her gaze, “no.” He answered, refusing to lie. “We never got them back. When the red dust was released into the air, we knew that there was no way to retrieve them. It was a sacrifice we had no choice but to make.”
He was only a boy when the Visitors came but during his years in the military, he had learned much. Pity the world hadn’t done the same.
His words didn’t offer her much comfort and Xenia’s only response was to nod and turn away from him before she started blubbering like a girl. Occupying herself with tidying the table, she waved away some flies buzzing over the spoiled food. “I keep thinking about my brother and my father. I have no idea where Daniel is. I wrote him before I came to Europe but it was always easier to send him letters through the church. Last I heard he was in the Middle East somewhere…”
The Middle East, definitely not a good place to be, there were no alpine conditions within two thousand miles and even if he managed to get avoid getting picked up by Visitors, that was harsh terrain to be trapped in, Lukas thought. “He’s a priest, yah?” Lukas came up to her and helped her clear the table. “He’s got God watching out for him. He’s the safest one of us all.”
Xenia blinked away the moisture from her face, wiping her face with the back of her hand. “Yes, that’s true.” She tried to smile but couldn’t manage it.
“Look,” Lukas said lifting her chin, “you’re tired and this thing we’ve been going through takes getting accustomed to if you’re not used to it. Let us eat get some food and rest. The water in the well is clean so we can wash before getting a good night sleep in a real bed. The world will seem better tomorrow, I promise you.” Lukas offered her a reassuring smile.
Xenia laughed, knowing that he was trying to make her feel better anyway he could, “are you spy types supposed to be optimistic. I thought you were all nihilistic and grim like the movies.”
“Well I was a terrible spy,” he lied. “Why do you think I’m a bodyguard?”
Xenia somehow doubted that.
Actually, Xenia discovered to her delight that there was something better than a well in the place and that was an old fashioned hand pump in the bathroom that actually got its water from an underground well. Lukas had let her fill up the bath tub, an old fashioned thing with clawed legs and though the water was cold, she didn’t care. It felt heavenly to wash the days of dirt from their journey off her skin where it felt like it was going to mould to her flesh forever. Xenia lay within the tub, beneath the soapy water, relishing the cool and the stolen moment of pleasure when it was clear that such things would be scarce in the future.
She tried not to think of the future and what it meant for her. Lukas had advised and rightly so, that they focussed on getting out of Italy. Once in the icy cool of the Alps, they could catch their breaths, think about what came next. However, now that she had a moment to think, where her thoughts were own, Xenia couldn't help but wonder what would happen when she did return to the safety of the colder climates. She had to find her father and Daniel just as she was certain that Lukas thought about his family, even if he didn't say it out loud.
Would there still be need for competitive sports? What could she do but figure skate? She could do a triple flip and a trip toe to perfection but what use was there for a 'Swan' in a world that was fighting for its life? Closing her eyes, Xenia forced such thoughts out of her head. Her mother, Katerina would say there was always something you could do, you just had to find what it was and be it. More than anything, Xenia wanted to hear her mother's assuring words at this moment, telling her that she had not outlived her usefulness in this world.
Forcing such thoughts out of her head, she washed her hair with some of the sweet smelling shampoos that seemed as much a luxury as the bath itself, rinsed off with more cool water before grabbing a towel and stepping out. Her gaze shifted across the window overlooking the back garden, where she heard splashes that did not belong to her bath water gurgling down to the unplugged drain. Peering through the glass, she saw Lukas at the well having obviously given up on ever getting a shot at the bath tub by getting a bucket shower for himself, when Xenia found herself staring, frozen.
He was standing next to the well, tipping a bucket of water over himself, bare from waist up. It ran over his strong shoulders, over his chiselled features and down his taut stomach. While he was undoubtedly masculine, that was a stag like grace about his build, muscled and lean. The moisture glistened under the sun and for a moment, he didn't seem quite real. Xenia felt her throat go dry watching him, thinking that before she had thought him merely handsome.
Now she thought him beautiful.
For two days he had been her rock through all this and Xenia had to confess that while she had found him attractive, she had been too afraid with the arrival of the Visitors to think about that any further. And why was that? When she was afraid, it was his arms that held her, when she was sad, his voice told her everything was going to be alright. Two days and he was the reason why her strength remained intact, the only reason she was still alive and not in the hands of the Visitor. He could have easily left her but that sense of honour that she was his charge, kept him at her side, protecting her.
And sometimes, he would look at her and Xenia would catch something in the depths of those steel blue eyes of his that seem to go on forever.
Flustered by the feelings seeing Lukas that way had engendered in her, Xenia quickly dried off, grateful that he hadn't seen her gawking at him like a teenager. The last thing he needed to know on top of keeping her alive, that she was not only a terrified female but a hormonal one as well.
Outside it was daylight and yet they were treating it as if it were night, with the shutters drawn, pretending no one was home. As was habit these past two days, they'd eat and then Xenia would sleep while Lukas took the first watch. More often than not, he'd let her sleep longer than necessary and he'd forced her to obey a strict time frame when doing the same for him. Xenia often felt guilty about that but Lukas would broke no argument on it and she had too much faith in his abilities to question his orders to her.
In fact, it surprised Xenia how much she was learning from him. His little lessons to her about keep watch, about travelling in the night, staying out of sight during the day, even how to use a gun. He had been teaching how to use one, how to fire, even if she had yet to pull a trigger on anything yet. Still, she absorbed it because she was used to learning fast. When you had to memorize routines for the ice, you retained information out of sheer practice.
"This is good," he complimented of the meal as they sat at the table, freshly bathed and in clean clothes for the first time in days.
"Thank you," Xenia said glad to be able to contribute something for a change. "I watch a lot of cooking shows when I'm in my hotel room during metes," she explained. Rummaging though the kitchen, she had thrown together a kind of ragu from the pasta, canned tomatoes, olive oil and cured prosciutto she had managed to find the kitchen pantry. The stove was wood fired so she was able to use it to make the first warm meal that either of them had eaten in days.
"You live like some soldiers, training all day and then locked away with curfew at night," he pointed out before picking up the glass of Chianti she had found during her investigation of the kitchen. Lukas allowed himself the indulgence of one glass, anything else would dull the senses he needed to be sharp. Their lives depended on it.
"Early to bed, early to rise," Xenia shrugged. "The price of Olympic gold is hard work."
"Is that what you want?" He asked her, "To win gold?"
"Oh we all want to win gold," Xenia answered honestly, "but there is something about being on the ice, about gliding across it like you're free. Every figure skater will tell you it's about the competition but really it's about the speed, the freedom. There is nothing like it. When you're moving across the ice, its like your heart is going to burst from how good it feels." Thoughts about that future surface again, the improbability of her ever winning gold because the world would be surely too busy for such things.
"Also dangerous," he quickly added, seeing her eyes change colour, darkening whenever her thoughts were the same. He guessed where her mind went and felt for her loss. It was a terrible thing to be denied doing the thing you loved.
"That is true," she couldn't deny that, recalling some of the falls she had taken. It was all apart of the process but no less disappointing when it happened. "I remember when I had to perform at a triple axel at Helsinki last year, I had the flu and I wasn't on my game. I fell straight on my ass. I was so lucky I didn't break anything," she said laughing, thinking how at the time she hadn't found it that amusing.
"I remember," Lukas replied setting down his glass on the table again, "you were doing your favourite piece…" He stopped short and stared at her, like a deer in head lights at having revealed too much.
"You remember?" Xenia was not about to let him off the hook. "You've watched me skate?"
Lukas shifted uncomfortably in his chair realising he had well and truly been caught red handed, "I might have seen a performance or two…" he admitted reluctantly, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down nervously.
"Enough to know my favourite piece which is…?" She teased him, finding it utterly endearing to see that unflappable manner slightly rattled.
That unfathomable gleam in his blue eyes appeared again as he stared at her, "Swan Lake." It was almost automatic, no reason to pause or think on the answer. Xenia could tell he had committed it to memory because of her.
"You're a fan," she smiled, the revelation sent her heart soaring. "I would never have guessed."
Lukas dropped his gaze to the table, suddenly becoming terribly interested in the white table cloth. "You are very beautiful on the ice," he said quietly, still not meeting her gaze. "I always thought so."
Xenia stood up from her chair. She rounded the table to drop to her knees before him, a hand reaching for his cheek, making him look at her. And when he did, she saw the anxiety at having his feelings exposed, at being vulnerable. He wasn't a man accustomed to showing his emotions. Throughout his career, his survival depended on how well he could hide such things.
"Xenia…" he started to say, needing to explain himself when she lifted up and kissed him chastely on the mouth.
It was meant to be chaste. Certainly Xenia meant it as such. Lukas pulled away from her for a second, an internal struggle taking place about whether this was a good idea or not. From the very first, he had struggled to keep his distance but their circumstances had changed to ensure that they could do nothing but be drawn to each other. When he pulled back, he saw her fear, realised that she might think he didn't want her.
The fierce need to prove the exact opposite drove Lukas to reclaim her lips, kissing her mouth with such eager intensity that for a moment, he couldn't believe he was here that this was happening between them. He had tried to maintain his professionalism but she smelled of fresh apples and her lips tasted so sweet, he had to concede defeat in his desire for her, especially when mouth opened beneath his like a hot house bloom. Swept away on wave of his own needs, Lukas was taking every ounce of pleasure he could from those soft, petal like lips. At that moment, he wanted her more than he had ever wanted anything in his life.
There were no further protests, not when she felt the hunger in his lips, the yearning that he finally gave into. Her arms wrapped around his neck and as he straightened up, lifted her with him, until they were standing before each other, length to length. Lukas coiled an arm around her waist, pulling her against to press their hips together while bending his shoulders enough to continue ravaging her silky lips.
Xenia barely remembered how they had made it to the bedroom.
She only knew that they had parted from each other to get there. In all her life, Xenia couldn’t ever remember feeling this way, being swept up so completely in raw, hungry passion that nothing else mattered but being with him.
For too long, he had admired her from a far, the way a man admires the Mona Lisa. Something beautiful and unattainable, Lukas was perfectly okay with that. He wouldn't be the first man to be infatuated by a vision of beauty on a screen. Then he actually met her and the woman who made his breath catch on the ice, became a real person who was even more enchanting than the creature he had toyed fancifully with in his dreams. After all, he was male and imaginations about torrid affairs like this, with fiery passion were dreams best left to schoolgirls and housewives who liked vampire novels.
No sooner then they had crossed the door way, Xenia was unfastening the buttons on his shirt, her fingers working feverishly to release him from it. When the shirt parted for her, Xenia once again thought how beautiful he was when she felt hard muscle beneath her palms. In turn, his hands were caressing her shoulders, exploring the curve of her blades before moving down her back. Large hands cupped her rear and pulled her to him with fierce insistence. Xenia gasped involuntarily at the contact and pulled away from his lips long enough to lick her own with anticipation.
They were barely past the door of the bedroom and Lukas wasn't holding out hope of them actually getting to the bed with the raw hunger they were experiencing now. He continued to taste her, to continue the game of thrust and parry they had engaged in all the way from the dining room. Now that he had allowed himself to surrender, Lukas couldn’t get enough of tasting her and when his hands slid under the hem of her dress, he shuddered at the feel of soft, supple thighs that were like cream to the touch.
With neither of them navigating, Xenia soon found herself pressed against a wall and though it might seem a base and tawdry place for sex, like he was paying for it in an alley, it was probably the most erotic sexual encounter she had experienced to date. His cock was grinding into her with insistence and Xenia whimpered softly at the feel of his growing arousal pressing against her belly.
Her skin was alabaster under her dress and Lukas felt a savage need surging through him when her delicate hands caressed his bare shoulders, nails biting just enough to draw a hiss of pleasure. He delighted in how her palms glided over his biceps, the planes of his chest and scrape lightly the taut muscles of his abs. In turn, he started working her dress down her shoulders, nibbling at her collarbone as he coaxed the material down.
Oh dear God, Xenia managed to think as she felt the warm air of the morning sun seducing her bare shoulders when Lukas released her dress from her body. He slid down her body swiping her collarbone with a gentle lick before descending further. There was a moment of clarity when she felt her nipples tighten with the heat of his breath and then she couldn’t think at all.
“Oh Lukas…” she sang his name in sweet surrender. Her eyes were clamped shut, blissfully lost to every flick of his tongue. He teased and bit at the taut bud between his teeth while his hand caressed her other breast with similar reverence.
Her soft whimpers were fairly driving Lukas out of his mind and the urge to just take her was so great he could barely contain it. He had wanted her for so long even before he knew it would become this thing that was real and profound. Leaving those wonderfully pert breasts, Lukas kissed his way down her stomach, all the while relishing her soft gasps as her fingers raked through his blond hair. Hooking two fingers on either side of her underwear, Lukas forced it down her thighs to join the dress already pooled at her feet.
Xenia looked down at him, her blue eyes burning with anticipation. Truth be told, she didn't have that many lovers. Competition, tight schedules and a regimented lifestyle ensured that a social life was sacrificed for the sake of the sport. What lovers she had, were nothing like this. Her breath caught when he lifted her leg and Xenia pressed her head against the wall with her eyes closed because she did not know if she could bear what he was going to do to her. She felt her thigh being lifted and draped over his shoulder before he leaned in to kiss the sensitive flesh.
“Lukas,” she panted as he was poised to move in. "You're going to kill me."
“Never,” he smiled before spreading her moist folds apart and leaning into to take a long, deep taste.
And she tasted like nothing he imagined because it was better.
With her thigh resting comfortably across his shoulder, Lukas continued his explorations, his tongue swirling around her clit, drawing it past his teeth and teasing it until her voice in his ears were desperate cries of his name. Then he plunged his tongue into her damp passage as far as he could until she could feel the rough stubble of his chin brushing against her wet folds. He almost smiled at the moan of utter bliss that escaped her when he washed his tongue over her clit again.
Xenia was almost sobbing incoherently from what he was doing. Her fingers raked through his hair as he tortured her so exquisitely. She could feel her climax building. Not the gradual swell of sensation that she had experienced before. No, this was coming towards her like a juggernaut. She couldn't even warn him when she came hard into his mouth.
Hearing that self assured voice crumble so spectacularly when she called out his name drove Lukas fairly insane with his own hunger for her. Lapping up her juices and savouring every drop had tapped the last bit of restraint he had left and he was on his feet, claiming her mouth again. She was still riding an orgasmic high when he shoved his jeans down his thighs. Hooking her leg over his hip, Lukas gave her no quarter and suspected she didn't need one when he slid into her with one powerful thrust.
Xenia had barely regained coherence when she felt him spreading her apart and impaling her with his impressive length in one deep stroke. Gasping into his mouth as he took her, Xenia's nails dug into his back, her body arching to take as much of him into her as she could. His love making was unlike anything she had ever known. She barely had a chance to breathe. It was like being swept away by a force of nature. She heard him groan into her mouth as he adjusted himself to the pleasure of their joining. It seemed that she could undo him as equally as he did her.
“Oh baby,” she started to whimper again, uncertain whether or not if she could ever have sex without wanting this again.
Lukas was experiencing a similar sort of enlightenment.
All this time, he had been toying with a fantasy and it was nothing like the reality. He hadn't realised how hard he could fall for her, not until he got to know her and realised that the woman, was far more compelling than that 'Swan' could ever be.
"Herregud Xen," he groaned into her mouth because the pleasure, the pleasure was too much. Each stroke into her was exquisite, making more and more of that control he struggled so hard to keep, slip further out of reach. Lips fused to hers, Lukas lifted her other leg, until both were wrapped around his waist because deep just wasn't enough. Her back was pressed against the wall as he moved at a torturous pace that ensured she felt every inch of his penetration.
Kissing him hard, their tongues duelling as intensely as the rest of their bodies ravaged each other, Xenia felt her stamina starting to splinter. He was the most incredible lover she had ever had and as that familiar tingle of sensation began to overcome her again, she covered his face in feverish kisses.
“Lukas," she begged, " more!” She could hardly recognise the voice coming out of her mouth as her own. Her skin was wet with perspiration, their wet flesh slapping against each other in deliciously moist, slick sounds.
Gritting his teeth, he complied, pushing harder and faster into her, no longer thinking that she was this fragile thing that might break under his strength. Grunting with each stroke, Lukas was nearing the edge of his endurance but he held on for her, wanting to feel the exquisite pleasure of Xenia's muscles crushing his cock when she climaxed again. To hear that lustful cry, he was prepared to wait for as long as she needed him too.
Which was not long at all because the force of her orgasm came upon her so violently that her muscles clenched around his cock with intense pressure that drove the sense from his mind. Lukas found himself pumping into a solid fist of hot, moist flesh that made him dizzy from the sheer pleasure of it. He fought against the urge to call out but eventually he too gave in as the back of his control shattered like broken glass. Surging into her depths, Lukas groaned her name repeatedly through gritted teeth as he filled her with warm seed.
They stayed together like that for a few moments as their quickening waned and breathing stilled. Lukas held her close, wanting to hold on to this forever. They slid to the floor in exhausted yet sated tangle of limbs, stealing a moment of sanity in another wise insane world.
It could be all they ever had but at that moment, for Xenia and Lukas equally, it was enough.
MARCH 3rd 2009
Even though Lukas should have known better, the afternoon that should have been spent sleeping preparing for their nocturnal journey north, was instead exhausted by him and Xenia spending the next few hours in bed, making love, interspaced by small post coital naps. He should have been keeping watch, ensuring that the Visitors did not stumble upon them in the farmhouse. Still, knowing better and wanting otherwise seemed too large a gap to cross at present.
Besides, when would the opportunity come again? So far they had been fortunate enough to escape the fate that had ensnared most of Tuscany it was turning out. Foresight and luck would only carry them so far but eventually the Visitors would sight them. Experience told him the Visitors were excellent tacticians; they would have guessed an exodus would be taking place across the globe as people moved towards the colder regions. If they didn’t secure the paths north then they had less intelligence than Lukas had originally credited them.
“You should get some sleep,” Lukas remarked as he laid on the bed facing her, their limbs a tangle under the sheets.
“I have slept,” Xenia said with a smile of contentment. “In between, she winked.
He let out a dry chuckle, “I mean really sleep. We have a lot of ground to cover tonight. Eventually the Visitors will begin securing the ways up north. Right now, they are spending time consolidating their hold over the territories they’ve taken but it won’t belong before they consider such matters. We need to be in Switzerland before that happens.”
Her expression darkened at the mention of the Visitors and what lay ahead. The last few hours had been a delightful way to forget about the wolf at the door. However, she understood his reasoning. Both had each other to live for now and he didn’t want to risk that by dropping their guard.
“Alright,” she nodded, “you’re going to...”
The sound of an engine silenced anything she had to say.
His gaze touched hers for a millisecond before he was rolling off the bed, his feet touching the floor in a blink of an eye. Before Xenia had presence of mind to sit up, he was already pulling his jeans on, making his way to the window, careful not to be seen from the outside. He hoped it was someone like them moving on but as he had thought earlier, their luck wasn’t finite and when he saw the Visitor vehicle coming down the road, he realised it had just run out.
“Get dressed,” he said firmly. “Now.”
Xenia nodded and climbed out of bed, keeping down low as she collected her clothes and quietly got dressed. Lukas was already heading down the stair case to the rooms below to retrieve the gun he had. He didn’t like leaving before sun down but the Visitor could be checking homes for just the reason they were squatting and if that was true, he and Xenia were going to have company very soon. Grabbing their gear including his Sig-Sauer, he made his way through the back door and loaded Misha when he heard the engines coming to a halt.
Freezing on the spot, he hurried back to the house just in time to see the door of the farmhouse bursting open as Xenia was half way down the steps. The moment seemed to slow as the three Visitors saw her and she uttered a strangled cry. Lukas didn’t waste any time, not that there was much time to waste, since they were going for their side arms and he couldn’t let them draw their weapons. Using the door frame into the landing as cover, he took aim and fired past the stairs, hoping that Xenia would have sense enough to keep her head down once she heard the shooting.
The first Teflon coated bullet which had become a standard feature on all ammunition in the post V-Day climate cracked the visor of the shock trooper helmet. The Visitor tumbled to the floor immediately but Lukas was already pulling the trigger on the second shot as the remaining troopers retreated through the door to evade the fire. The second bullet penetrated the nearest Visitor in the throat, causing spurts of thick, greenish blood to splatter across his chest. The third had disappeared no doubt calling for reinforcements
“Xenia!” Lukas called out.
She only needed to her name from his lips to regain her senses. “Lukas!” She cried out in return, running down the steps and joining him in a quick embrace before they were both running out of the house, not waiting to see if the Visitors were behind them.
Once outside, Lukas jumped into the saddle of the mare, pulling her up to join in one quick movement, before he dug in his hills and started the animal breaking into a hasty trot. Xenia held on tight, her arm around his waist as they rode away from the farm house. She could hear over the sound of pounding hooves, the engines of the vehicle rumbling to life behind them.
“Hold on!” He ordered as he took them away from the town, cutting through the olive groves and vineyards that surrounded the town. Forcing the mare into a gallop, they rode up the hill covered with olive trees, leaving the road behind them. Hopefully, the Visitors would be unable to steer their vehicle through the closely spaced trees that a horse had little trouble navigating.
Heart pounding as fast as the hooves beneath them, Xenia looked over her shoulder frantically to see if they were being followed. She could hardly hear anything through the rush of blood in her ears, her terror surging adrenaline through her veins. She saw the vehicle, a white jeep having followed as far as it could but were unable to follow them into the grove. For a moment, she allowed herself the luxury of believing that they would survive this. That somehow, they had managed to escape.
Lukas continued to scale the steep hill that offered them protection, mindful of pursuit. He cursed himself for indulging himself in their afternoon of sinful pleasure. He should have kept watch as he intended, getting them out of the house before the Visitors came through the damn door and almost took his Xenia away from him. More than anything, he feared his love, yes; his love for her would cause him to make mistakes. The exacted price of her life for his lack of professionalism was something that Lukas knew he could not pay.
They had escaped serious consequences but the next time they would not be so lucky.
Suddenly the ground next to Misha exploded loudly, causing the animal to rear on its hind legs, almost unseating him and Xenia. Behind him, she uttered a scream that corresponded with the horses’ shocked neigh. Debris of soil and sand rained at them as the mare bolted forward in a frenzied state. Lukas looked up to the sky and saw a skyfighter above them, firing another bolt of energy in their direction.
“Oh my God!” Xenia screamed as Lukas drove his heels into the mare’s side, forcing the animal to burst forward in a surge of speed, along with its own panic. The energy blast hit the ground behind them and Xenia felt her back pelted with clots of sand and shredded wood. Smoke filled the air as Lukas forced them onward, trying to stay ahead of the craft that was trying to bring them down. Holding on tight, she squealed as she heard another blast from the droning ship above their heads.
Lukas forced them through the olive groves, trying to use the trees as cover but against the blasts of laser canons, he knew they could last much longer. It was a small miracle that they hadn't already been hit. The skyfighter continued to rain down a barrage of deadly fire behind them, igniting the trees they were using to stay one step ahead and creating impact craters in the dirt. Smoke began to fill the air behind them as the burning trees ignited others and soon a Tuscany farmer's hard word for the year went up in a brush fire. With both flames and the Visitor craft chasing them, thick clouds of smoke filled the air.
Xenia struggled to catch her breath as she held on, the rising fog of giving them a momentary advantage by obscuring them from the view of the skyfighter crosshairs although they couldn't even be certain of that. Visitors had technology beyond their own and it was just wishful thinking to believe they didn't have a better tracking system than their own.
Leaving the burning grove behind, they emerged on top of the hill they had been steadily scaling into more sparsely covered brush. The skyfighter had not relented in its pursuit and Lukas could tell that any difficulty the pilot previously had of getting a clear shot of them was now more or less been eliminated. From here on in, he had an unobstructed view of them.
In leaving the smoke behind, they'd also given up their only protection.
With little choice but to force Misha closer to the few cypress trees there were for safety, Lukas knew this was only a temporary reprieve. He could hear the animal’s laboured breath and knew they couldn’t keep this up. Galloping up a hill, evading laser blasts and carrying two people was probably more than a mare that was most likely some teenagers pet, could handle. Eventually Misha's strength would give out and they'd be done for.
As he thought that, another blast from the skyfighter caused a passing oak tree to split in half, the thick trunk tumbling to the ground on either side, its leaves bursting in flames like a Roman candle. The horse neighed desperately again, too frightened to stop but clearly reaching the end of its endurance.
We’re going to die, Xenia thought as she saw the fire behind her and the craft overhead that pursued them like the Furies driving Orestes into madness.
The sound of rushing water amidst the chaos taking place around them immediately caught Lukas' attention and he wasted no time heading in its direction, needing for an avenue of escape because the ability to elude the skyfighter was dwindling. The horse thundered through the path of cypress trees, leaping easily over a fence at the same time Lukas felt Xenia grip him tighter to keep from falling. Once they crossed what he realised was barrier fence, he had a good idea what was coming up next. It was just as well because he felt another blast rumble the earth beneath them. That one had barely missed them and he knew the next one would not miss.
“Do you remember Butch and Sundance?” He asked her, shouting.
Xenia’s eyes widened. “Are you serious?” She yelled frantically, looking at him in disbelief.
“Absolutely," he declared. "Don't worry, we'll be fine!” He assured her.
“We'll be fine?" She balked. “They died!”
“Not til the end,” he answered, “and we are not there yet.”
She was about to ask what he meant by that when suddenly she looked past his shoulder and saw the hill was becoming an abrupt edge. “Lukas…”
The horse came to a sudden stop. The skyfighter sailed over their heads, not expecting them to dismount the animal. Overshooting them, it wasted no time circling back to make another run at them. Jumping out of the saddle first, Lucas helped Xenia off it and took her wrist as he swatted Misha on the rump and startled the horse to keep going. The mare was no good to them now.
"Trust me," he said as they saw the skyfighter coming back at them again. Tucking his gun in his pants because that was the one thing they couldn't afford to lose, he tugged her towards the edge. "We can do this."
Xenia looked down and saw beneath them, the fifty foot drop into frothing water of the Arno River.
Eyes darting over her shoulder, she saw the skyfighter approaching fast. This time, it would not miss. She looked at him and nodded. "Alright, let's do this."
"That's my girl," Lukas grinned and took a step back so that they could make a running stop. "Remember Butch said, you don't have to worry about drowning, the fall will probably kill you."
"Will you cut that out?" Xenia shouted before they ran forward and jumped.
MARCH 3rd 2009 TUSCANY, ITALY “You’re certifiable,” Xenia complained as she wrung out the skirt of her soaked dress, splattering water over the rocky banks of the Arno after they had miraculously survive their jump, through the grace of Daniel’s God she was certain. “We’re alive,” Lukas said dismissively, checking his gun to ensure that everything was working as well as it could be expected to. He wouldn’t have mind squeezing off a round to make sure if it wouldn’t mean alerting any Visitor in hearing distance to their presence. Their plunge over the cliff had been harrowing to say the least and they were fortunate the river was deep enough and turbulent enough for the surface tension to be broken when they impacted. It saved them from serious injury although there was enough ache in their limbs in the aftermath. Nevertheless, while it seemed they had shaken off the skyfighter for now Lukas didn’t want to assume that the Visitors weren’t searching for them still. Without a horse or any form of transport, they'd have to make their journey north on food. Furthermore, abandoning the farmhouse as they also cost them all their supplies. They were exceedingly vulnerable in daylight and had to get under cover until it was safe to travel again at night. Xenia recognised Lukas' clipped tone as his 'tough secret agent/bodyguard' voice. It was very hard to see Lukas that way after their ardent love making earlier on. Despite what it had cost them, Xenia regretted nothing. “Does that thing still work?” She asked as he continued to examine the Sig. Lifting his gaze to her as if she had asked a silly question, he retorted confidently. "Of course it does, its Swiss." Xenia rolled her eyes and retorted sweetly, “nice to know Americans aren’t the only ones with ego problems.” With the same smirk, he replied, “American ego is a problem, ours is fine just as it is.” Smiling at him in affection, she asked as she stood up and ran her fingers through her damp hair. “What now Lukas?" "We find supplies and a place to hide until tonight," he answered automatically. "There are at a lot of farms in this area. I'm sure the Visitors were checking all of them to see if they hadn't missed anyone in the sweeps. If we can get to one that they've left, we may be safe for a few hours. However, whatever happens, we're not staying around here. They'll search the river at some point looking for the humans who killed two of their own." Xenia tended to agree but she did not blame Lukas for that. If he hadn't done what he had, she would have been in the hands of the Visitors by now, gone to a fate worse than death. "So they may start looking for us before it gets dark." She asked. Lukas nodded grimly, "yes." Drawing a deep breath to steady herself, Xenia started to make her way across the rocks towards the grassy terrain running along the banks of the river. "We better get going then." She looked at him with a smile, trying to be brave for him. Lukas stared after her, swelling with affection at how strong she was becoming, how less and less like the porcelain beauty that was the Swan he had so admired from a distance. The woman who dared to jump over a cliff with him and didn't care that she was walking barefoot in the dirt was far more compelling. ******* After what seemed like hours, they saw the silhouette of a small cottage on the edge of a family sized vineyard through the trees. Making her wait in the woods, Lukas left Xenia alone while he went to investigate, determined that she remained out of harm's way if there hostiles as he called it, about. It seemed like a nicer and less scary word than Visitors. Though in Xenia's opinion, not by much. She waited a good twenty minutes but there was no sign of him. As she saw the sunlight diminish behind the trees, Xenia felt her alarm grow. Finally, she dared to emerge from her hiding place and left the grass to cross the gravel road running along the edge of the vineyard to the house. It was still daylight but it would be dark in less than an hour she guessed. For a moment, Xenia considered whether or not what she was doing was a good idea. After all, if he was in trouble, would she be causing him more by appearing? It wasn't as if she could protect him any more than she could protect him. Even as the thought crossed her mind fleetingly, Xenia knew she could not abandon Lukas. If it wasn't for him, she would have died on the train. He had saved her life and continued to do so since this nightmare began. To say nothing of the fact, that it was very possible she loved him. Thinking it for the first time did not terrify Xenia as much as she thought. Daniel always said she was too reasonable for her own good; rarely did she lead from the heart. The only time her passion was evident was when she skated but into that action, she poured her heart and soul. Perhaps it was fitting that Lukas had been so enamoured by her performance when it was during those moments that she revealed her inner self. Climbing over the stone fence framing the property, Xenia approached the cottage as quietly as she could. Even though her feet were aching from scratches and cuts from walking barefoot, she managed to advance without making a sound. This proved to be somewhat useful when she closed in on the structure and realised that there were muffled voices emanating from it but none that belonged to Lukas. Reaching the outside wall of the cottage, Xenia followed it around to a window when she saw something that made her heart stop. A white Visitor jeep. For a moment, she froze, wondering if she should leave but knew if Lukas had come here to investigate, then they would have been stumbled upon him. This was more or less confirmed when she peered through a window from which the voices were strongest and saw him on his knees, surrounded by a trio of shock troopers who were taking great pride in hitting him as many times as they could each time he didn't answer their question, whatever it was. Each blow across his handsome face made Xenia wince, bruises had started to appear as did blood. Sinking back to the base of the wall beneath the window sill she was spying through, Xenia covered her mouth and held back her frightened tears as she tried to control her panic. Her first inclination was to run but that would mean leaving Lukas. No! She couldn't do that, she just couldn't. No doubt, he would be angry at her for not doing so, Xenia didn't care. She wasn't giving him up to the Visitors' brutality, not without even trying to help him. Xenia waited with breath held, trying to decide what to do until further sounds of fists against flesh prompted her into moving. Her thoughts racing, she made her way to the jeep, hoping to find something she could use to help Lukas. The Visitor jeep was human in origin and Xenia supposed their technology allowed them to repair the vehicles disabled by the EMP, giving them a further advantage over the humans they had caught completely unprepared by their invasion. Xenia rummaged quietly through the back of the vehicle, terrified out of her mind but more frightened at the thought of losing Lukas if she didn’t act quickly. How much could he withstand under their brutal interrogation. As it was, she had no idea what they wanted from him unless they’d guessed he was the human who had killed two of their own. Suddenly, she came across what appeared to be a Visitor rifle. Almost frightened to touch the thing, she picked it up and found the weapon to be surprisingly light. The Visitor rifle did not look all that different from the guns she knew. Other than a few differences in regards to ammunition and power packs, the basic operation was the same. If anything, the fact that it was lightweight actually made it easier for Xenia to handle. Taking it back to the window she had seen, her presence had gone so far unnoticed but she didn’t hold out hope that this would go unnoticed indefinitely. Returning to the window, she saw Lukas bleeding but he was not too badly damaged yet, they were most likely wanting to take their time in his interrogation, not wishing to cause him permanent harm until the extracted what they wanted, she supposed. Xenia placed the barrel of the weapon on the window sill and took aim, reminding herself to line the sight as Lukas had taught her with the smaller hand gun. Fingers trembling, she aimed at the closer Visitor, intending to lay down such a barrage that it would give Lukas the opportunity to escape. She had faith in him. If she gave him the chance, he’d know how to use it. Almost shaking with fear, Xenia forced herself to calm down as one of the shock troopers punched Lukas hard enough to send him to floor. She jumped as if she felt the blow herself and felt a new emotion surging through her as she saw him reeling from the blow; anger. It was enough to overcome her anxiety and pull the trigger. The first shot slammed through window, shattering the glass as the energy beam cut through and hit the Visitor who had hit Lukas. The first bolt struck the Visitor in the chest and downed him immediately. For a moment, she was just as shocked as the occupants in the room, realising she had just killed someone, even if he was just Visitor. She had no more time to come to grips with this when the shock wore off and the others started to react. Depressing the trigger again, she continued to fire in quick succession aiming. When the Visitor hit the floor, Lukas wasted no time scrambling towards the body to retrieve the enemy's sidearm as the other two turned their attention to where the shot had come. Too late did they realise that he was on the move and one of them turned to deal with him, it was already too late. Lukas took aim and blew a hole through the shock trooper's chest. Keeping his head down as a barrage of laser fire cut through the room in an uncoordinated but effective attack in close quarters, Lukas looked up to see Xenia firing a Visitor rifle with fear in her eyes. It bothered Lukas seeing her do this. It was not what he wanted for her but had no time to debate the matter as the lone Visitor in the cottage found himself in the crossfire of both Xenia and Lukas. However, it was Lukas who took advantage of the shock trooper's efforts to evade the laser fire generated by Xenia's rifle to end him once and for all. When the Visitor collapsed in a heap, Lukas called out to Xenia. "Xen, hold your fire! Its done! They're dead." Only when she heard his voice did Xenia stop shooting and when she did, she slid to the ground again, letting the rifle fall against the grass beside her, shaking. Staring at her hands, she thought to herself that they had blood on them now. She had killed, taken a life and no matter how much she told herself that this was necessary, that it had to be done, her Roman Catholic upbringing told her that taking a life was sin. Did heaven know the difference between a justifiable killing and murder? In the end did the difference matter?
Lukas emerged from the cottage after retrieving the fallen Visitor's weapons. He rounded the corner of the house and saw Xenia on the ground, shaking. His heart ached at the sight of her, trembling there. Over the trees, the night had finally come, dragging the twilight over its shoulder as the light disappeared.
He lowered himself next to her, even though he knew they had very little time to linger and slid an arm around her shoulder. Immediately, she buried his face in the crook of his arm and sobbed, a sound that hurt more than any Visitor interrogation could.
Kissing the top of her head as he pulled her closer, he spoke softly, "there are many things I can tell you right now about war, about casualties, even about death and I do not think any of it would be useful to you."
Xenia lifted her eyes to him, those clear blue eyes that often seem like a drops of ocean. "I killed Lukas," she whispered. "How am I going to live with that?"
"You have to," he said kissing her forehead. "That's the price of taking a life, the knowing. For some it matters little and for them, they're already dead inside but for a good person, living with it is our penance. Know that it was necessary and I won't say it becomes easier, it never should be but this is war Xenia and people die, those are the rules."
She nodded, remaining in his arms for a few more minutes because she needed to. However, Xenia was realistic about how long that could last and soon asked, "we have to go don't we? Before someone comes looking for them?"
She was learning. "Yes," he nodded. "We do."
"Alright," she wiped her eyes and shifted out of his touch. "Let's go please."
Four hours later, they were still driving. Owing to the nature of what they had done in the area, Lukas wanted to put as much distance between them and the carnage they had caused before the Visitors discovered their dead comrades. After going through the cottage and loading the Visitor jeep with all the supplies they could, Lukas and Xenia drove out of Tuscany wearing the uniforms of the Visitors they had killed. Gruesome as Xenia thought the idea to be, she knew that in a Visitor vehicle, the uniforms would lessen their chances of being noticed by other Visitors patrols.
They drove for most of the night, bypassing Milan especially when they saw the shadow of a Visitor mothership hanging above the city from the distance. Considering how seriously the city town its fashionable reputation, Xenia felt the ugly ship suspended over the skies might seem terribly garish to its inhabitants, if they were in any mind to complain at all. As anticipated, their travel in the Visitor vehicle had garnered no opposition. The one time they had to stop and refuel, especially wearing the uniforms of shock troopers, Xenia was imagined that anyone seeing them at the fuel station they had raided would be cowering in terror.
When they neared Brescia, the Alps came into view and suddenly this whole nightmare that started two days ago seemed to have an end in sight. Even though they couldn’t see it clearly in the darkness, the line of mountains that ran along the horizon and grazed the roof of the sky was visible enough. They had travelled through the smaller country roads, trying to avoid Visitor patrols if any although Lukas believed they would be thinning out now if what the radio transmission said about the red dust working in colder climates was true. The bite of cold in the air was becoming more noticeable and Xenia never felt more grateful to be chilled in whole life.
The sound of a second engine a short time later put an immediate end to the euphoria she felt as sighting the mountains. Lukas as always had kept his own enthusiasm to a minimum largely because he was focussed on completing their journey in one piece. Until they were actually in the safety of the mountains, he was not about to let his guard down. Maintaining the façade of a Visitor patrol, the headlights that approached them did not come from another jeep but rather a truck. It was going the opposite direction, having come from one of the smaller communes that lay scattered around Brescia.
The truck passed them with little interest and Lukas was about to keep going when a glance at the back of the vehicle allowed him to catch sight of the cargo. Through brief, the faces staring at him were that of helpless citizen being carted off to the inevitability of Visitor storage tanks. Men, women and children, trapped and frightened. Lukas thought of the hollow eyes staring at him from photographs he’d seen of Jews on their way to the concentrations. The lack of hope in them as they challenged history to forget what happened when their journey ended on those cattle trains.
“Oh God,” Xen whispered as she saw the same thing and turn to him to see his knuckles turn white because he was gripping the steering wheel so hard. “Some of them are children…”
Lukas blinked slowly and cursed his weakness, cursed his inability to harden his heart and think of his skin and that of Xenia’s instead of even considering what was running through his mind. More than consider it in fact.
“Xen,” he met her gaze and suddenly Xenia knew what he wanted to do.
Frightened at what could happen but loving him more at that moment than any other since meeting him, she answered, “Let’s help them.”
Lukas nodded and said quietly, “I’ve always loved you, you know.”
She knew it, even if he hadn’t said the words before, Xenia could see it in his eyes and in everything he had done since they had been thrown together. Still it was good to hear.
“I know,” she smiled at him.
Spinning the wheel around, the jeep went back the way it came, accelerating so it could catch up with the truck. It took less than sixty seconds for them to do that and as they approached it, Lukas turned to Xenia and explained what he needed her to do. “When I drive around them, see if you can tell how many shock troopers they have in the truck. They’d have at least one to make sure no one tries to jump out of the truck on route.”
“Okay,” Xenia nodded, able to do that.
Closing the gap between the jeep and the truck, Lukas got to minimal distance and drew the immediate attention of the shock trooper inside the back tray. The Visitor stood up and observed them as they overtook the truck, moving past the length of the vehicle until they’d gotten ahead of it. Speeding a head of it by several car lengths, Lukas brought the jeep to a stop at the shoulder of the road.
“Stay here,” he instructed.
Xenia was not about to argue with him.
Climbing out of the vehicle in a manner not unlike a traffic cop hailing an errant driver to slow down, Lukas walked towards the approaching truck. The whine of hydraulic brakes shrilled through the night air as the vehicle slowed when he stepped into the path of its headlights. For a moment, Xenia had feared they might not stop but then again, one of their own uniforms was a disarming sight. Lukas continued towards the truck at the same relaxed pace until he was close enough to take his shot.
Using his sidearm, he aimed high and took out the driver first, shattering the windscreen with that first shot. The shock trooper on the other side of the cab immediately went for the door and Lukas closed the distance, killing him before he even had a chance to put his foot down on a run board. The Visitor fell face first against the bitumen road underneath it.
Xenia knew she ought to have stayed put but when she saw the shock trooper emerge from back of the truck, preparing to ambush Lukas; she reacted, not even thinking that he might have a strategy for dealing with the Visitor. Grabbing the rifle on reflex, she pinned him to the side of the truck with two uncertain shots before Lukas rounded the vehicle to finish him off.
It was becoming far too easy for her to pull that trigger, she thought.
Climbing out of the jeep, she hurried over to him. “I know you said stay in the jeep…”
“Its alright,” Lukas replied, once again, feeling a twinge of regret at the new skills she was learning because of their situation and in some part because of him. “You saved me…again.” He winked.
“About time I return the favour,” she shrugged.
Hurrying to the back of the jeep, Lukas went to see to the people they had rescued. As expected, they were frightened and confused by what was happening, particularly when they saw his uniform. He had soft gasps and stifled cries of fear as he appeared before them.
“Its alright,” he said quickly, his voice giving away his human origins. “You’re safe.” He spoke in fluent Italian. “Can any of you drive this vehicle?”
Once the group’s shock wore off, an elderly man emerged and confessed to being a bus driver in the past.
“Good,” Lukas said approvingly, helping the man out of the truck and leading him to front of the vehicle.
After instructing the old man to take these people north into the mountains because the red dust was still active in those areas, they removed the dead Visitors from the road and hide them in the woods. As it turned out, the occupants of the truck had been removed from their commune and were being transported to Milan, bound for the storage tanks of that city’s mothership.
When the villagers were ready to travel and the drone of the truck rumbled in Lukas ear, he went to the driver’s side to bid the old man good luck. Xenia was already in their jeep, waiting for him.
“Take care Gianni,” Lukas said to the man as he stepped away from the vehicle to the middle of the road.
“Take care of yourself, you crazy svizzero,” Gianni grinned at him, his busy moustache barely concealed several yellowed teeth. “You and your signora.”
Lukas started to pull away when suddenly, something caught the corner of his eyes and he turned to see an approaching vehicle. “Xenia!” He shouted, “start the jeep!”
Slapping his palm against the truck, he barked at the old man to get moving. “Go, Gianni! Now!”
The darkness obscured the identity of the approaching vehicle but Xenia had no intention of remaining in place long enough to find out. Jumping immediately into the driver’s seat, she put the jeep into gear and brought the engines to life, just as the truck rumbled past her, picking up speed as he left them behind.
Lukas started running towards the jeep when a bolt of energy shot out of the darkness. It stuck the ground near him and there was a moment of clarity when he realised that he wouldn’t get to the jeep before the enemy fired again. He saw Xenia driving the jeep towards him, calling out his name frantically when his senses froze with white hot agony. He might have uttered a cry but it if he did the sound was lost in his throat.
At least he heard Xenia scream.
MARCH 4th 2009
THE SWISS ALPS
“LUKAS!” Xenia screamed when she saw the blast hit him in the back, driving him to his hand and knees before collapsing fully against the tar road.
Xenia drove the jeep along side of Lukas’ prone body, jumping out of her seat with the oncoming vehicle bearing down on them. She blinked away the glaring headlights and ignored as best she could, the laser fire being lobbed at them both. Lukas was not moving and her heart lunged into her throat, thinking he might be dead. Refusing to entertain that notion, she grabbed him bodily from the ground, trying not to notice the smoking wound that was still hissing from his burnt flesh.
“Xenia, leave…” He groaned, drawing a breath of relief from Xenia because he was still alive.
“Don’t even start!” She barked at him just as another blast of energy impacted against the side of the jeep, making her jump. Refusing to acknowledge her fear, Xenia bent over and mustered every ounce of strength she had to haul Lucas to his feet. Straining against protesting muscles, she dragged him to the jeep and thrust him into the passenger sat. Another blast of energy impacted past her ear as she jumped into the driver’s seat and brought the idling engine to life with a roar. The headlights were growing larger in the distance and the shots were becoming even closer.
Spinning the wheel around, she jammed her foot against the accelerator, causing the jeep to lurch forward. Changing gears to keep in time with their growing speed, Xenia let out a surprised cry when the rear window was blasted off the side of the jeep by another blast. Reaching over, she grabbed Lukas by the arm, trying to keep his head down as she struggled to keep ahead of the Visitor fire behind her. Her heart clenched when she saw him slump sideways without any effort to stop himself from sliding down.
Blinking away the tears of panic that were threatening to overwhelm her because of him, Xenia braced herself and forced the accelerator pedal all the way to the floor, moving so far away that the wind had blown off the Visitor cap she was wearing, freeing her hair to flow like a banner in the wind. The shots continued, trying desperately to keep up with the acceleration of their vehicle but Xenia drove like a woman possessed. With the mountains visible the distance, they were the salvation she had to reach, to get Lukas help.
Refusing to believe in anything else, she did not look at him while she drove, jamming her foot so hard against the floor, she felt the muscles in her leg cramp up.
The Visitors had stopped shooting, most likely realising their energy bolts weren’t able to reach their jeep but they were not about to give up their pursuit. As Xenia started to see the sun beginning to glow behind the mountains in front of them, she also saw their headlights in the rear mirror behind them.
“Lukas,” she called out to him, “Lukas, can you hear me?” She demanded. “Stay with me Lukas!” She snapped, her voice turning sharp so it would pierce through his near unconscious state.
She saw his head jerk slightly and he shifted but not enough, his head lolling backward in her direction. “Still here…” he said weakly.
“Good,” she swallowed thickly, remaining strong and composed, trying to fight the anguish that wanted to come because she had seen how bad his wound was. “Stay with me. I need your help. I need to know how we can shake them.”
Blinking slowly, his eyes not quite able to focus on her, he whispered. “Don’t.”
“Don’t?” She stared at him and then it dawned on her. “I see…”
“I knew you would,” she saw through the amber light of the encroaching day, a faint smile on his lips. “You …you amaze me.”
Xenia looked at the mirror and dropped her speed, just enough for the Visitors to keep up but not so close that they could start taking shots again. They were relentless she thought as they continued their pursuit of the two humans across the lonely countryside leading into the Alps. Xenia wondered if the truck had taken a turn off the road they had travelled, since she hadn’t seen it since Lukas was hurt.
“Stay with me baby,” Xenia continued to speak. “I can’t do this without you.”
“You’re doing it already Xen,” he answered, head tilted in her direction even though he was finding it hard to focus, to remain conscious. “My beautiful Swan.”
Xenia blinked and this time, tears did run down her cheeks as she looked at him and the inevitable began to dawn on her. “You’re such a fan.” She tried to joke but it escaped her as half realised sob.
“I fell in love with the Swan on the ice,” he said softly, his gaze fixed on hers and Xenia saw the tears in his. “But I fell in love with you these last three days.”
“Lukas don’t,” she stopped him. “Don’t talk like this is the end, we're not there yet okay?” She said but it was herself she was trying to convince, not him. Stifling her anguished emotions, Xenia focused her mind on the road ahead as it continued to wind its way up the mountains, like a serpent coiling around a rock. Around them, the sunlight was bouncing off the green fields that were diminishing for icy sheets of snow. Her breath was escaping her in visible gusts of vapor and fingers were trembling even as she held the wheel.
Suddenly, she saw the Visitor vehicle in pursuit veer off the road before coming to a gradual stop. For a moment, Xenia was tempted to keep going but something in her needed to turn back, to feel a sense of closure in light of what she dreaded was coming. Making a sharp u-turn, she drove only a few hundred yards back the way they came before she saw the vehicle, another jeep like the one she and Lukas had stolen, ticking loudly as it idled on the shoulder of the single laned road.
“Xenia, don’t…” Lukas warned weakly when she stopped the jeep and climbed out. She took one of the Visitor weapons with her and approached the other vehicle cautiously, her eyes watching for the slightest movement. Only when she was able to see the inside of the other jeep, did she know that there was no threat. The two Visitors in the front were dead. Their human masks practically clawed off their faces as they choked to death on the red dust that was still active in this cold climate. The third Visitor lay across the back seat. He was still alive, twitching and gasping in a vain effort to breathe. He shifted his gaze towards her, a hand reached out in an effort to retaliate, plead for help, Xenia didn't know what. Nor did she care.
Dispassionately, she watched him choke and then promptly lifted the weapon in her hand to blow his head off. Pulling the trigger was no longer hard.
Returning to Lukas, Xenia grabbed a blanket from the supplies they had gathered in the cottage back in Tuscany and went to him. He was still alive but barely. If she could get him to a doctor quickly enough, there was a chance to save him. Xenia refused to think of any other possibility. She helped him sit up in his seat, wrapping the blanket around him because it would get colder the higher into the Alps they travelled.
They're dead," she stated as she made him comfortable before resuming their journey. "You were right. They were stupid enough to keep following us."
"You were the one who kept them following us," he spoke, his voice barely a whisper. The sun hadn't risen much above the mountains but there was enough light for her to see the graying pallor of his skin.
"I drove," she said with a little smile, ignoring how weak he looked, how close to slipping away it was. "I'm going to find the first town I can and get you a doctor." She said donning on a dark, heavy coat over her shoulders before she returned to the driver's seat.
"Okay," he nodded but Lukas Gisler was no fool, he knew how badly he was hurt and he also knew how damaging Visitor weapons could be. He couldn't feel his legs and the numbness was creeping up his body. Keeping his eyes fixed on her face, he wanted to fill them with the image of her for as long as he could. If it was the last thing he saw in this life, Lukas could live with that.
Xenia maintained her composure and started driving again, continuing their ascent into the Alps, leaving the dead Visitors and Italy behind her. Something told her, she would never visit this country again.
Lukas continued to bask in the sight of her, watching her trying to be strong for him. From an idealized image on a screen, she had become real to him these past three days and though he knew that was all he’d have with Xenia Ivanov, it was enough.
The village of Brescia awaited them in the distance. Xenia could see the scatterings of civilization from this small commune surrounded by lush green hills and the high peaks of the Alps. The morning sun had risen and for the first time in days, travelling by day did not seem ominous. On the San Romero Road, all was quiet and Xenia could smell the faint aroma of wild flowers in the air.
“We’re almost there Lukas,” she turned to him and froze
His head tilted in her direction, his eyes were closed and his breath still. Xenia slowed the jeep down and stared at him for a long moment, feeling the numbness spreading through her like a cancer. “Lukas?” She called again.
He did not stir and looked as if he could have been sleeping. Eyes closed, a soft smile of contentment across his handsome face, he had kept her in his sights to the very last and the last had come because he was gone.
Xenia swallowed, feeling the pain rise up in her chest like bile as she reached for him gingerly, her fingers brushing against his jaw. His skin was already growing cold. She wondered when he had slipped away from her and realised it didn’t matter. He was gone. Everything they had shared together, could have shared, the life she knew without any doubt would have been a good one. What she had felt for him was so powerful it threatened to explode out of her chest in joyous celebration.
But all that was over now, Lukas was dead.
“I love you,” she whispered as she drew him to her, cradling his head in her arms as tears filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. “I will never stop loving you Lukas,” she spoke to him as if he could hear her when in truth he was beyond hearing anything. “Not until the day I die. You saved me my love,” she started to weep, the grief in her heart supplanting the joy she had celebrated in her love for him. “You saved me.”
And he did.
He had taken the uncertain young woman on that train to Tuscany and transformed her into something else. Xenia didn’t know who she would see when she looked into a mirror again but it wouldn’t be the Olympic ice skater who dazzled the audiences with her rendition of Swan Lake. She would never be that person again. She would be someone who knew how to take care of herself, who understood the mechanics of what it took to survive in a world with Visitors. That other person, the one that Lukas had fallen for to begin with, was no use to the world now.
When Lukas died, his Swan had died with him.
Clinging to him for as long as she could, Xenia would cry her tears for him and when she was done, she would let him go even though in her heart, she knew there would be no one after him.
Even if all they had together was three days, Xenia knew she could live on that forever.
15th April 2009
She buried him in Brescia in two days later.
The local church had been the centre the relief efforts organised to help fleeing escapees from Visitor controlled territory. When the priest, Father Kessler, learnt that Xenia had a brother who was clergy, he extended her every kindness, providing a place to rest as well as giving a Lukas a proper burial. Two days after she arrived in Brescia, Lukas was laid to rest in the small cemetery behind the church. Even though she didn’t know if Lukas was Catholic or Swiss Reformed, it didn’t seem to matter.
He was with Daniel’s God.
The first few days in Brescia were the hardest. Xenia had become so accustomed to waking up in the morning to find Lukas keeping watch over her that realising he would never again brush the errant strands of hair out of her eyes made her curl up in a ball in anguish. Burying her face in the pillows, Xenia would cry fresh tears, missing him, hating the world for taking him away so soon after she had found him. Three days, that’s all they had and yet it felt like a part of her had died with him.
Except Lukas was only the loss to come.
It was also at Brescia that Xenia learned that Zurich was destroyed. Even though Switzerland was clearly in the territories the Visitors could not control, it did not stop them from attempting to disrupt the function of the neutral country by obliterating it’s most populous and important commercial centre. The city had been flattened and reports indicated a death toll in the millions. Xenia was almost thankful that Lukas wasn’t alive to face the possibility that his entire family might be dead. He had wanted so badly to return to Zurich not only for her sake but also to know that they were safe. Now they were gone like so many others, destroyed by the Visitors, leaving a gapping wound in the hearts of those left behind.
Xenia didn’t even know them and yet she mourned them just the same because they were important to Lukas. Just as she mourned Tolya.
Tolya had been her father’s friend before he defected from the former Soviet Union. Both had been in the Olympic team together and it was Tolya who turned a blind eye to Vassily and Katerina’s plan to defect. When the Soviet Union had collapsed shortly after the V-day twenty three years ago, Tolya had come to America and met up with his old friends. Like Vassily, he had become a trainer, having trained several gold medallists for Russia. When Xenia had entered competition, Tolya had kept her safe like she was his own child. It was Tolya who sent Lukas to meet her that day on the train and for that she would always love him almost as much as she would always keep Lukas in her heart.
While staying with Father Kessler, Xenia took the opportunity to use his affiliations with the Roman Catholic Church to find out what had happened to Daniel. While Xenia knew her father was most likely still in San Jose, Daniel’s whereabouts was anyone’s guess owing to his missionary work. More often than not, her letters to him had to be sent via the mission headquarters so that they could be forwarded to wherever he was in the world.
Trading the Visitor jeep for an old Volkswagen beetle, Xenia decided to drive to Winterthur after remaining with Father Kessler for a week because the local police had told her that a number of Zurich’s refugees had settled there. If there was a chance that Tolya or Lukas’ family was alive, she owed it Lukas and herself to find them. If they still lived, she had to tell his family of Lukas’ fate. They deserved to know that he was gone.
It took her a matter of hours to drive into Winterthur, on route; she passed the outskirts of Zurich and was halted by a check point outside the city. Even from the distance, she could see the devastation. While the Alps in the distance and Zurich Lake were the same, everything else was gone. The houses with the red roofs and the tall spires, the old provincial buildings meshed so neatly with modern architecture were no more. Their remnants were in ashes and wreckage. The city was an uneven line of ashes piles, burnt out buildings and bodies left in dead embers.
Zurich wasn’t her city. She spent a few weeks here and yet seeing its destruction was like a punch to the gut. She stumbled out of the car, her eyes fixed on the complete ruin before her, thinking that this was a sight she’d never forget as long as she lived.
“Oh God,” she had gasped. Xenia didn’t even notice when tears ran down her cheeks.
“Yes,” the guard at the check point nodded in understanding. “It strikes everyone the same way.”
“How do you stand it?” She looked at him.
“I don’t,” he admitted, “I try not to look.” With that, he turned his back on the scene.
Xenia could not blame him for that. She had trouble looking at the city herself. Once he had given her directions to move on to Winterthur, Xenia thanked him and continued her journey, trying not to look at Zurich but finding no way to rid herself of the burned image in her mind.
In Winterthur, she found a city bursting at the seams from the influx of refugees pouring in from Zurich. Winterthur was nowhere the modern metropolis that Zurich was but it too bore the marks of the Visitor attack. Some buildings had been levelled; others wore the blackened marks of blaster fire. As she drove through Winterthur, she saw community buildings had been converted into temporary settlements, with people wandering the city who looked decidedly lost and ragged. Even though Winterthur had survived Zurich’s fate, it had not escaped unscathed.
The Pulse had set the city back a 100 years. Even though some systems remained intact due to Swiss foresight, other things like transport was crippled. Old cars, buses and trucks were brought back into use. Trucks and buses were converted into people movers, replacing the trains. Bicycles and motor cycles became the dominant form of transport and Xenia even saw a few horses pulling carts or carrying riders.
She drove towards what served as the American consulate, a smaller branch of the larger office in Bern, hastily established following the destruction of Zurich. Americans who had survived the destruction of the city had registered themselves at the embassy. If Tolya had survived, this was the best way of finding him.
Upon arriving and registering, Xenia found that she was one of a handful of athletes who escaped the destruction of Zurich. Unfortunately, Tolya was still unaccounted for and Xenia was told that it was likely he hadn’t survived. Although she didn’t want to believe it at first, after Lukas, becoming resigned to the loss of Tolya was easy to do. At the embassy, she learnt what resources were available to her and had some access to the money in her Swiss accounts at the time of the pulse. Swiss banks had been protected against every contingency, even EMP and their fibre optic cable network had ensured the integrity of the information superhighway.
The embassy advised her to remain in northern Europe since the mechanics of travel to the United States was still problematic at this stage. Xenia had no choice but to do so because she had no idea where Daniel was and getting to her father meant entering occupied territory. She wasn’t prepared for that yet. Instead, she contacted the Roman Catholic Diocese in Basel inquiring after Daniel’s whereabouts. The bishop assured her an answer but information was scarce was at present. Once again, she would have to wait.
In the meantime, Xenia busied herself with the business of tracking down Lukas’ family. They had come from Zurich, she recalled him saying but could not face the possibility that they might have been wiped out in the attack that destroyed the city. She went to the municipal offices set up for the registration of refugees to allow loved ones to find them easily. However, without computers, it would take days for the information to come through.
With time on her hands, Xenia stepped onto the ice for the first time since the Visitor occupation. The glaring white under her feet stared back at her, challenging her to dance as she had done all her life. Slowly, Xenia pushed off from the edge and felt the wind in her hair as she skated across the cold surface and almost without thought; she slipped into the performance of her signature routine, Swan Lake. There was no music but then she did not need it, it played in her head with every movement. Closing her eyes for a second, she imagined that the stands around the rink was not empty at all but filled with crowds and somewhere, somewhere in all those faces was Lukas, watching.
Xenia didn’t even know she was crying until she felt the wet against her cheek.
She ended the piece and returned to reality feeling as if she had been splashed with ice cold water. The dream had been so sweet, so perfect, not this emptiness that faced her in the quiet stands and the non-existent crowds. Her heart clenched in her chest, filling her with renewed anguish that Xenia clamped down on hard. She wouldn’t allow it to crush her, she couldn’t. Lukas would want that.
And yet when Xenia stood up, she knew that the ice would never be the same for again, not even if the war ended tomorrow and life returned to normal. He had fallen in love with her on the ice and she’d never be able to dance upon it without wishing he was somewhere in the audience, watching her. Without looking back, she stepped off the ice, leaving it behind for now because she couldn’t bear to face it.
Almost two weeks after she arrived in Winterthur, Xenia found out what happened to Lukas’ family. A polite woman at the bureau of census now mobilized as the central repository of all refugee registration had explained to her that most of the Gisler family had been killed in the first attack. However, a brother and his family had been out of town that day in Bern, was still alive and apparently living on the outskirts of Winterthur. His name was Jonas Gisler, a medical doctor who had opted to escape the Olympic madness that weekend and had taken his family to Bern, surviving the carnage in Zurich.
Three later, Xenia found herself driving to the man’s home. She had wanted to go the instant she learned of his whereabouts but a bout of stomach flu had kept her confined to bed. Still feeling less than one hundred percent, Xenia was recovered enough to make the ten kilometre drive out of town. Jonas Gisler lived on a farm that belonged to his wife Ataliel’s parents and as Xenia drove through the lush green landscape, the fresh air settled her stomach somewhat.
Arriving at his front door, she knocked against the wood and ran her fingers through her hair, trying to look presentable. Xenia knew she was pale and sickly still but hoped that would not put Jonas off into thinking that she was hunting him for his services. When the door swung open, a woman with blond hair and brown eyes stared at her inquiringly.
“Hello?” She looked at Xenia.
“Hello,” Xenia said quickly. “My name is Xenia Ivanov, I was wondering if I could speak to Dr. Gisler?”
The woman looked over her shoulder and then faced Xenia again, a hint of suspicion in her eyes at why a pretty young woman would be searching for Jonas.
“What is this about?” She asked aloofly.
Xenia took a deep breath, needing to brace herself as she forced the words out. “Lukas,” she met the woman’s gaze, “it's about Lukas.”
“Lukas?” The woman’s hostile expression melted and then sobered when she saw the deep sadness in the sapphire blue eyes of the visitor. “Please come in.” She widened the door for Xenia to enter.
Xenia entered the farm house which reminded her of that little place in Tuscany where she and Lukas had consummated their brief love affair. It was warm, cosy, with pictures of the family hanging on the walls and arranged neatly over the dark wooden mantelpiece. It was decorated in earthy colours with padded sofas and wooden furniture. Her eye widened with fascination as she saw Lukas in some of the framed pictures, as a young man, as a soldier, even one she was knew was him even though it was a baby picture. Those grey eyes of his were unmistakable.
“Who is it Ana?” A male voice asked as Jonas Gisler emerged from another room, meeting Xenia and Ana in the hallway. He looked at her and froze, surprise in his features but also recognition. “You are Xenia Ivanov, the ice skater...yes?”
“Yes,” Xenia nodded, supposing that during the recent World Championships the press would have ensured that her face was plastered everywhere.
“My brother Lukas is a fan,” he revealed with a sad smile.
With a flash of insight Xenia realised that Jonas had given Lukas up for dead, like the rest of his family. She wished more than anything that she was standing here with Lukas and not having to give him news that would only confirm the loss of another member of his family.
“I know,” Xenia replied, trying to hide the sorrow that came with the admission. Daniel always said she had eyes like glass, expressive and incapable of hiding anything. In this instance, it was certainly true.
“Xenia came here to tell us about Lukas,” Ana spoke up, her voice sedate now she knew who the visitor was. She could read the younger woman’s expression and knew that the anguish she saw in her eyes was pain that could only come from loss. The loss of Lukas, if she was here.
Jonas shifted his gaze from his wife back to Xenia and nodded, “he is dead, isn’t he? That is why you have come.”
Xenia nodded, unable to draw the energy to deny it, blinking away the tears that wanted to come. “He was killed just outside of Brescia,” she explained, her voice shaking as Ana took her by the arm and lead her to the sofa, bidding her to sit. While Jonas took the seat across her, Ana withdrew into the kitchen, allowing Xenia to tell her husband her story.
Xenia watched Jonas, watched his sorrow and felt compelled to reach for his hand, in proxy of his wife until she came back. "My manager hired him to be my security while I was travelling through Italy. We were in Tuscany when the Visitors came. We tried to head back to Zurich but it was difficult because most of Italy is now Occupied Territory."
Jonas nodded, taking in her tale. "Lukas would have jumped at the chance of being your protector," the man said with a bittersweet smile. "He was never one for ice skating but he always watched you."
Xenia blinked and admitted without hesitation. "I loved him. We had three days together but it was almost a life time." Her lips quivered but once again, Xenia held it back.
"Then I am glad that he died with someone who cared for him," Jonas whispered, guessing as much with the emotion so naked in her eyes. He too was feeling his chest choking with pain at his younger brother's death but in truth, Jonas had suspected this was Lukas' fate when he learned about Zurich and the fate of the rest of his family. Such losses made a person numb after awhile.
"How…did it happen?" He asked after a moment.
"He was rescuing a truck filled with people being taken to the mothership, just short of the Swiss border. A Visitor shot him. I tried to get him help but by the time, we arrived at Brescia…." She looked away from Jonas, not wishing him to see just how much pain she was in. "He was gone."
Now it was Jonas' turn to hold her hand and he did so tenderly. While he looked like an older version of Lukas, Jonas' manner was gentler, indicating his physician's background.
"I had him buried in a cemetery in Brescia," Xenia continued after she composed herself enough to face him. "It was very important to Lukas to find his family and I am here for now other reason than because he…" she lifted her eyes to Jonas, "because he loved me. I wanted to tell you how brave he was, how much he meant to me and how much you were all in his thoughts."
Jonas nodded slowly, "thank you for being with him. He was so enamoured by you, I am happy that you had a chance to know him."
Xenia's eyes glistened with moisture despite her efforts to maintain her control, "I will never forget him. I would have given anything to be with him."
Ana reappeared from the kitchen bringing mugs of hot chocolate with her as she set down the tray on the coffee table near them. "Enough talk for now," she exchanged a look with her husband who needed a moment himself. "Have some hot cocoa and stay for dinner. What will you do now? Will you try to go back to America?"
"I'm not sure," Xenia shrugged, offering Ana a faint smile once she had dried her eyes. She was still holding Jonas' hand and promptly retracted it in the presence of his wife, feeling it inappropriate. "Travel to the States is difficult and I am waiting to hear some news about my brother and my father."
"Well you should stay here," Ana offered without even looking to her husband for his opinion. If Lukas loved this girl, she was family.
"Oh I couldn't impose," she said lifting a mug to her nose before the strong scent made her wince. Setting down the mug, Xenia looked at Ana with apology, "I'm sorry, I've had a stomach bug for the last two weeks and I'm not quite over it."
"Stomach bug?" Jonas' ears pricked up. "Have you been treated? With everything the way it is, you should not take your health for granted." He sounded very much like the doctor he was now.
"Oh I'm sure I'm fine," Xenia brushed it off.
"You do look a little pale my dear," Ana pointed out. "Jon, please, can you not examine her quickly, just to make sure she's alright?"
"Oh no…" Xenia protested but Ana would hear none of it.
An hour later, Xenia found herself dressed and back on the sofa where Ana had prepared for her a cup of chamomile tea. The tea sat better in her stomach and was actually rather soothing. Ana was determined that she stay for awhile and was busy preparing a room for her when Jonas returned, sitting down in the arm chair, across from her again. His expression was serious and immediately raised alarm bells in Xenia's mind.
"Am I alright?" She asked, spine straightening, entertaining wild notions of Visitor poisons she might have inhaled during her time in Occupied Territory.
"You do not have a stomach bug," he replied, a small smile on his lips.
"I don't?" She stared at him.
"I will need to get you to a hospital to confirm it but I'm certain you are at a very early stage of pregnancy."
With Lukas' child.
Xenia didn't know whether to laugh or cry.