Did you ever wonder how Lucas Ross and Korea Cooper met? You’re about to find out.
Snip below the break.
23 July 2256
I was running late—again—and this might be the last time if I didn’t step up the pace. Jack Mallek was a patient man, but not nearly as patient as Uncle Paul was, and I’d been late one too many times for our coffee meetings and Jack was now nearing the very limits of his patience. I had no desire to see what a retired Alliance Marine did when he reached the limit of his patience. But was it really my fault Professor Murray had kept us late again? I didn’t think so, but I really didn’t think Jack was going to take that as an acceptable excuse, either.
I ducked into the alleyway that was a shortcut between the university and Second Street. From there I could make it to Eastline quickly and the coffee shop where Jack and I were supposed to be meeting. I would have recouped the lost time, too, if a bundle of rags hadn’t groaned as I passed it.
I’ve got to be hearing things. I stopped, turned slowly, and stared at the pile. No sound came and I decided that it had to be my imagination. I turned and started to walk again, already back to think about how bloody late I was already.
I stopped again, turned again, brow furrowing. Was that a face? A flash of watery dark blue amidst grime and what might have been dried blood confirmed it. I mumbled a curse and crouched down next to the pile.
The eyes closed and the figure amongst the rags coughed, seeming to start to curl in on itself. I frowned darkly, reaching down. The figure flinched. “No, don’t!”
Definitely male. I reached down anyway and started to try to uncurl him, to peel away the dirty rags. Then I saw it. A glint of silver and black metallic amidst the grime. Tags. He’s tagged. That means…
I recoiled, scrambling back, looking around wildly. Imperium! I opened my mouth to scream for help, fumbling for my personal comm.
His eyes came open again and he stared at me with misery and madness mixed in his gaze. Some blood dribbled from a crack in a scabbed cut on his temple. “They’ll wipe it all clean,” he mumbled. “All clean, all clean. Write what they want to write…” He closed his eyes again, thumping his head lightly against the ground. “Won’t be who you are anymore. Be what they want you…do what they tell you…can’t do that. Won’t do that. Won’t be that. Run, run, run…get away, away, away…” His voice trailed away into incoherent mumblings in a language I didn’t understand.
I edged closer again, staring at him. I must be insane. He flinched again as I touched him, then shuddered and lay still. He looked at me again, cracked lips parting.
“Help me, please,” he whispered, seeming almost lucid for a moment. “Can’t let them find me. You-ey.” He squeezed his eyes shut, swallowing hard. “Can’t go back to E-Fed. Won’t go.”
E-Fed. A deserter? He deserted from the Imperium’s forces? I exhaled a shaky breath. He was bleeding just above his hip bone, too, though I couldn’t tell what from. I winced, thinking quickly.
I’m not going to make that meeting with Jack, I decided and then started working to get the man upright. He gasped in pain as I pulled his arm across my shoulders and hauled him to his feet. “Keep quiet,” I murmured to him softly. “I’ve got a place you can stay for a while, at least.”
He shuddered, then put an arm around me, leaning against me as we started down the street. Grim, pained determination replaced madness and hopelessness, at least for the moment.
Don’t miss the first appearance of Lucas Ross in Epsilon: Broken Stars, available where books are sold!
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