Title: Quid est veritas?
Warnings: Mentions of a (canon) suicide
Prompt: 33) It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. - Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), English novelist and essayist.
Summary: Melisse was never very good at playing it safe.
Author Notes: Set just after Xenosaga: Pied Piper. Done for femgenficathon on LJ. Prompt used. I don't own anything Xenosaga related. Thanks to the shiny-awesome puffinmuffin for the beta!
The door creaked open and Melisse was up and crouched on the bed they'd given her with her back pressed into a corner in an instant. Sweat, gross and sticky, beaded down her back as she waited, holding her breath in anticipation.
Her internal clock said it was after midnight. The orderlies at the facilities she'd been sequestered in due to a 'nervous breakdown' weren't due to check on her until six. There was no reason for her door to be opened.
She stared at the door and the thin crack of light from the corridor beyond the door. No one entered. Melisse forced her breathing calm and steady and waited. She could remember the Captain scolding her about her impatience. This time, she refused to give into it.
For the Captain, she thought, and blinked back furious tears.
For long moments she remained crouched where she was until her muscles began knotting up and protesting their positioning. Still nothing and no one had come through the door. Had the locks failed? she wondered.
Carefully she slipped off the bed and, after another long moment of hesitation, made it to the door. Melisse peeked into the hallway and saw no one and nothing. She looked down and saw a slip of paper that she'd not heard being set down.
It had one word on it:
It was in Lactis' writing. Melisse crumpled the note in her hand. Then she moved, wriggling out of the plain gown they'd provided for sleep and into the in-patient pants and shirt. It would mark her as a what they were determined to have everyone think, but that was alright. She could move easier in pants. That was all that was necessary for the moment. She ran a hairbrush through her hair-not out of vanity, but because if anyone spotted her, the last thing she needed to look like was a dangerous escaped mental patient.
Then, the note tucked into her bra, Melisse slipped out of her room.
Very sternly she told herself that she wasn't to wonder if this was another plot. Could she trust Lactis?
Melisse didn't know.
But she'd take the chance. That was always what she'd been best at.
It was reckless, she knew, but that was alright. Sometimes you had to be to get out of a bad situation. Melisse figured her odds were better to take advantage of this peculiar situation than remain a prisoner until the Federation figured out what to do with her.
She slipped down the hallway, barefoot and silent, her steps quick but cautious and her eyes intent. She knew the basic layout of her floor-hard not to when she'd lived here for nearly a month now-and when the hallway split into three, she knew to keep going straight.
And going. She saw nothing and while there were security cameras all over the place, no one came after her. It made the skin on the back of her neck prickle as she crept down the emergency stairs. The elevator would have been faster but that was far too dangerous when she was unarmed and unshod. Anyone could get on that. Who took the stairs when they didn't have to?
They were long and dizzying and when she reached the bottom after so many flights and turns that they blurred in her mind, she leaned against the wall to catch her breath. Then, before leaving the stairwell, she pressed her ear against the door, trying to listen for anything beyond, in the main halls, but the door was soundproofed and so that was a futile endeavor.
She could be reasonably certain that there wasn't a gunfight going on. But that was about it. Melisse closed her eyes, steeled herself to run-because in this case, running was the better part of valour-and opened the door.
The main hall was wide and grey with dim light and as she stepped out onto the cool floor, shutting the door behind her, the soft snick sent up an echo. The flooring was cold under her feet. There was no carpet in this area. Melisse shivered as she gauged which was the right way to go.
Now that she'd gotten this far, she had to make a choice. Left was the parking lot-but that would have security and guards. Right were the offices and the other exit. Which would have more security but fewer guards.
On swift feet she chose right and did her best to drift up the hallway rather than leave any sound to mark her passing. She told herself over and over that this was stupid, that this was an unacceptable risk, that she didn't know any of the codes she'd need to use in order to get out without rousing suspicions...
And then Melisse told herself to quit fretting and to get on with it.
What other choice did she have now that she'd come this far?
The offices started with several areas full of cubicles. For those, she thought, who didn't rate real offices. It was only once she'd passed through three such rooms that she came across a hallway that led off into the offices proper.
Melisse bit her lip in thought. She could seek an exit that was guaranteed and hope she could get the door open without knowing the code… or she could check the offices and hope one of them had a real window and that she could break that.
The sound of footsteps decided her. Her head snapped up and her eyes widened as Lactis (or, she reminded herself sternly, someone who looked like him) whipped around the corner ahead of her.
Where had he come from? It was stupid and it was dangerous but Melisse followed him.
He led her on a chase through hallways and rooms and corridors that went on and on until she would have been hopelessly lost on her own and still she ran after him, glad that even a month of captivity could not eliminate her stamina entirely.
He never stopped and he never let her catch up to him, and then, when she was certain they were going to be trapped in the facility forever, he led her to a door that gaped open a mere inch.
The outside was beyond it. Melisse pressed her fingertips to the door, hesitated a long second, told herself that if she walked right into a trap that it was her own stupid fault, and stepped outside.
Grass brushed and tickled her feet and the sky growing blush with the coming of the dawn greeted her and she was free. There were no guards.
There was no Lactis.
Melisse knew she couldn't waste her good fortune-and, if he'd been there, his risks-to go look for him. With the rising of the sun, there wasn't much time. After another moment to just breathe in the air, she picked up her pace again, the same run, only this time it was more exhilarating because she was out of there.
Only the first step toward freedom, she knew that, but all the same-it was thrilling. Now she'd have to look after herself and that would be harder on Abraxas, when she was likely known by the police forces as someone to keep an eye out for, and she had desperate few friends because most of them, like she had, had come from off-planet and, unlike her, had died on this one.
The way she saw it, there was only one place she could go.
It wasn't the sort of place that a good girl would stay but then she'd never been a good girl so much as a practical one. She slipped down quiet residential streets, still on foot and ignoring the way her feet objected to this much running without shoes, and planned her next move as much as she could.
Melisse had to hope that her refuge hadn't been compromised by Lactis' presence, when she'd brought them there during the investigation before everything had gone to hell. Melisse didn't understand exactly what Lactis had been at the end-he'd been something more than what he'd said, what he'd thought, what they'd believed.
That was another risk she'd have to take.
He'd shown her the way out though-how much should she count that for?
The sky grew lighter and lighter as the sun slowly rose. Melisse knew that people were awake now, going about their lives, getting ready for work and school, and for a moment she envied them.
Before all of this, that had been her life too. Her biggest concern had been the fact that she'd wanted, desperately, to go up in rank and hadn't yet.
In retrospect, that meant nothing. Not when weighed against the Captain's and Mikhail's and Lactis' lives.
She blinked back the inconvenient tears and forced herself to run faster. At least she knew the layout of the city. She knew how to get where she wanted to go.
It was time to visit Veritas Liberabit Vos again.
The first time she'd come into contact with Veritas, she'd been sixteen and still in high school, dreaming of the days when she'd be a police officer and lock the bad guys away.
At sixteen, members of Veritas had counted as bad guys. All she'd known about them was that according to Federation decree, they were an anti-U.M.N. group and were classed as terrorists.
That was it.
Seven years later, on a different planet, wearing the in-patient clothes of a mental institute, with a stitch in her side and her feet swollen and bloody from her run, Melisse thought that maybe Veritashad it right all along. She'd been thinking that for a while but there'd still been plenty she could do within the system that she loved. (Still loved. After all of everything.)
Now she had to find her own way.
On the bright side, that didn't mean she couldn't ask for help.
She could only hope she'd be given it. That wasn't in her hands to decide. Melisse kept running, knowing speed and the distance she could put between her and the facility were her biggest assets and took a winding, complicated path through the city despite her aching, bloody feet.
If she didn't take these precautions, she'd lead the Federation right to Veritas and she couldn't, wouldn't, do that.
As she ran, she tried to think of what to say, a way to spin her story so that it would make her still seem like an asset. Once upon a time, Alexei, the leader of Veritas, had said that her team would be useful to them.
Could she be useful to him all on her own?
Before she could decide, her time ran out, and Melisse stood outside Veritas' headquarters on Abraxas. She steeled herself and, before she could think better, pressed the palm of her hand to the sensor.
The sensor, Melisse knew, would tell Veritas that someone was outside and wanted in. But more than that, it would send the print of her palm through their database to see if it matched up with anyone they knew. It was a good way to tell who was outside your door, she thought.
Alexei himself opened the door and, before she could say anything, enfolded her in a hug as he pulled her inside. The door slamming shut behind her sounded like freedom.
He gave her time to shower, to have her feet treated, and time to get dressed in clothing that wasn't that of a mental patient and when all of that was done, he sat her down at a table and fed her before letting her talk.
"So," he said, once she'd finished eating and was sipping at her drink-plain water, but it had never tasted better to her. Alexei studied her, leaning back in his chair. He was a big man with long hair and muscles that even before her enforced rest of more than a month could have snapped her in half. "We thought you were lost."
Melisse shook her head. "No," she said, "I would have ended up that way, but they couldn't do it right away. Too much of a risk."
"How did you get out?" She can't blame him for the suspicion in his voice.
A faint smile curled her lips. Now that she was safe, she believed in her answer wholeheartedly. "Lactis freed me."
He frowned at her. "Lactis was sent to be reprogrammed on Vector's headquarters."
Melisse shrugged, looking down at her water. "He cleared the path for me," she said. "I know it was him."
She didn't know how it was possible but that was a different matter entirely.
Alexei sighed, like he wasn't sure what to do with her. "You're a wanted woman," he said.
"You're a wanted man," she retorted. "Can you help me?"
"Help you do what?" He had the gall to sound amused.
"Find the truth," she said. "Isn't that your whole purpose? Veritas Liberabit Vos."
The truth will set you free.
Melisse hoped it would do that for her.
He laughed and saluted her with his beer. "We'll see what we can do, Ortus. You willing to work hard?"
Melisse's eyes flashed as her chin came up, stubbornly set. "I always have been."
A month later, Melisse leaned against the railing of the park that she'd promised Mikhail, back before everything had changed, that they'd have dinner at. She stared down over the city and then closed her eyes. There was hardly anything to worry about, right now, as far as the Federation finding her went.
As far as they were concerned, she'd been last seen on a shuttle ship off-planet, one that had been headed towards Senir. She fingered her longer hair-it brushed her waist now, instead of falling just under her chin-and studied the deep red of it, which was far more brilliant than the reddish-brown (but mostly brown) head of hair she'd worn cropped short.
Her eyes, once green, were now bluer.
According to Alexei, the surgery could be undone, but it had been thorough enough to alter everything from her finger and palm prints to her retina scans and to change the colour of her hair and eyes on a cellular level. If she got caught as Melisse Ortus right now, then it would be because of something she did. Her ID had a different name.
One by one the lights in the city came on as dusk fell around her. At one point, she left the view long enough to buy a drink, and then came back. It wasn't the same as the supper she'd planned to have here, once upon a time, but then...
Not much was the same, these days.
She bit her lip, letting up only when she feared it might bleed. In all honesty, when she'd joined Veritas, she'd thought that things would happen quickly.
The Captain would say that she was being impatient again. He'd often said it was her greatest fault.
Melisse acknowledged that she likely was. That some things had to happen slowly and at their own pace… she didn't think that was what grated on her, leaving her restless and achy with the need to do something. It might have, in another time, but not now.
No, what bothered her was different, though the results were the same.
She'd spent a great deal of the last month studying what Veritas already knew about the Unus Mundus Network, the U.M.N., and gashing her teeth in frustration when she saw things, places they could exploit to find out more information and-
And noticed time and time again that Veritas failed to do just that. She knewthey had to see the same things they did. Compared to them, she was just a baby hacker, nothing special at all.
She just couldn't understand why they weren't doing more. There had to be a reason-Alexei was too good, too loved a leader for there not to be, and Melisse thought she knew good leaders from bad by now.
So it had to be her own failing that she couldn't see it.
But so far, the truth hadn't set her free at all. Instead, she found it stifling, binding, constricting because nothing was done with it.
She cast her glance up to the stars and sighed, leaning a little more solidly on the railing.
"Mikhail," Melisse murmured. "I'm sorry."
She was. She'd meant to come here to say good-bye to him and... and was thinking about other things entirely.
Melisse froze when what felt like a touch ghosted over her arms. She glanced at them and saw nothing. Skin prickling, she looked over her shoulder, but no one was there.
Then the touch again, brushing a bit of her artificially grown hair back from her face and followed by the touch of phantom lips on her cheek. She couldn't have moved even if she'd wanted to now. Her eyes wide and startled and disbelieving.
There was nothing she could see. Did that mean it hadn't happened? Had it been her imagination?
She waited for hours but there were no other touches and no one approached her. Melisse puzzled over what had happened while at the same time struggled with her tears.
Did that mean Mikhail didn't mind?
That had been his touch, she'd have known it anywhere.
But he was dead.
Maybe, she thought, he forgave her.
After that, though he never visited again, Melisse came to the park once a week, to watch the city and think of what could have been and what might have been and, eventually, to think about what she wanted to be.
And what to do with the future. It was hers to decide now.
Months passed, in this manner. Melisse threw herself into studying every thing that Veritas Liberabit Vos had ever done and learned and began making her own plans.
She'd been free for a year before she finally found out what had happened to the Captain's body. It had taken her a great deal of work, because the Federation would hardly want it to be public knowledge that the man they'd blacklisted in an attempt to stall the investigation into Voyager, had been claimed by Ziggurat Industries under the name of the Life Recycling Act.
Melisse toyed with her sleeve as she thought about that.
It meant that her Captain would be brought back to life.
That meant a great deal to her.
But she didn't know what to do about it. While she thought it would be grand to have him back, she knew that the Captain had killed himself out of grief. Could she, should she, be glad that he'd be brought back when it would so obviously be against his will?
Melisse asked Mikhail that, when she found the time that week to hit up the park. Mikhail didn't answer her, but that was alright, she could imagine his response.
His response was that, really, it wasn't up to her. The only thing she could decide was if she'd dare to make contact with the Captain once he was activated as a cyborg.
And that... that was something Melisse didn't know. Part of her was thrilled that she wouldn't be the only one of the old team to still be around. Lactis had disappeared off the face of the universe and Alexei still held that there was no way Lactis could have been the one to rescue her.
Melisse knew he had.
But for the Captain to be…
She was still a wanted person according to the Federation and under the Federation's laws, the Captain would become the Federation's property.
Was that too much of a risk for her to take?
If she stayed where she was, Melisse thought, it wouldn't be quite so dangerous. In the hierarchy of Veritasshe was little more than a secretary and a hacker. She wasn't one of the big fry that the Federation would want to get their hands on.
But meeting the Captain might be too dangerous anyway, she thought, because her fledging plans would make her more of an enemy to the Federation and the U.M.N. than anything Alexei had ever accomplished.
When she left the park that night, she'd decided nothing.
Melisse told herself to just take it one day at a time. That was all she could do.
Six months after that and Melisse packed her bag. She found Alexei in the observation room, studying the security of their hideout. He looked up with a quick smile when she entered and then his eyes took in her appearance and he went a little graver.
"You're leaving us?" he asked, lighting a smoke.
"I am," she said, "and I'm leaving Veritas."
He nodded, almost like he expected that, and she wondered if he had. She'd been so impatient at their methods in the last while that it had been impossible to hide her mounting frustration. Melisse wasn't that good an actor.
Veritasliked to find out the truth, but they didn't know how to use it. They seemed, as an organization, to feel that it was enough to simply discover what the truth is. She couldn't stand that.
"What will you do?" Alexei's face was shuttered. She couldn't read his expression and had no idea if that was a good sign or not. If he wanted to, he could have her killed before she managed to even leave this room. "Will you run off and rejoin the Federation?"
"No," she said firmly. "Never."
That was the truth. She knew how to use it.
"I'm going to start my own group," Melisse told him, the quiver in her voice well hidden. What did she know about running a group? Everything she'd learnt about commanding other people was second-hand knowledge from the Captain and Alexei.
Had she learnt her lessons well?
"I'm going to call it Scientia," she said, telling her nerves to shut up. "That means knowledge. Because-because I want to use the truth, use what there is to be learned to make this world a better place. You use knowledge, you don't just let it sit and languish."
For a moment she thought she'd gone too far-well done, Melisse, telling a rebel leader that they're languishing about like spoilt children-but then, just as the silence got to be almost too much to bear, Alexei laughed.
"Ortus," he said, "do you have any idea what you're in for?"
"No," she replied, because guesses and estimations aren't the same as the truth. He'd taught her that. "But I'm going to reap the whirlwind and see what happens."
"A lot of people are going to want your pretty head on a platter," he said with another drag on his cigarette.
"I know," she said.
"Where are you going to be located?"
Her smile was deliberately arrogant. "On Fifth Jerusalem. I've got a spot on a flight that's heading there after a stop on Miltia."
Alexei whistled, looking reluctantly impressed. "You'll be taking a lot of risks, working right under the Federation's nose like that."
"One thing I've learned," Melisse said, "is that I'm good at taking risks."
"That you are," he admitted. "I won't stop you."
"Survive a year," he added, "grow your organization. If you manage that-come talk to me again."
Melisse looked at him curiously.
"A year," he repeated, with a smile that, in his youth likely had netted him much admiration. "And we'll talk about what the truth can do for knowledge. Now go, you've got a flight to catch."
Months later, her hair chopped short and black instead of red, her eyes brown rather than blue, her appearance as fluid as her home, Melisse was happy.
Scientia kept growing, reaching across the universe, and making her one of the most wanted women in the entire universe.
Melisse welcomed Veritas when they came to her, with open arms.
They had work to do.