The last thing Lydia saw was Steven’s cold face before she succumbed to gravity. Her body – tired, bruised and bleeding – was cradled by the trunk of the hundred-year oak tree, a solitary variety in the Forest of Myrrh. From the distance, the birds crowed. Wings fluttered. The grass folded as the invisible blanket of wind passed over.
Steven’s shoes crunched on the ground; his shadow loomed over her like a heavy boulder of regret. “You have been dead for years. Dead to me,” she heard him say. “Dead to the people of Corona whom you have betrayed. Why did you do it, Lydia? Why did you leave the Republic?”
Blood was already gushing out of her stomach, yet Lydia managed to smile. “You know full well, Steven,” she said weakly, settling her hands on the moldy skin of the oak instead of covering her wound. Lydia knew it. She won’t be able to run now. This was the last of her page.
“I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused,” she tried to open her eyes. “Tell Karel I’ll meet him on the other side.”
In that moment, she saw the glimpse of Steven’s remaining humanity. His sharp gaze softened before he turned away. His face wrinkled, repressing a feeling he long buried deep in his chest. It is still there, Lydia thought. Thank goodness.
“I have one request,” she murmured.
It woke him up. Anger flashed in his eyes. “Request?” Steven gnarled. “How dare you, when the rest of the world is suffering from your choice? This – what you did – it’s irreparable! It’s—”
She didn’t hear him finish. “Bury me here, please,” Lydia muttered, leaning her head on the dew-scented bark before she closed her eyes. She laid there, finally resting on the giant roots that rose from the dry soil. Her blood rapidly streamed down like a leaking faucet, turning the mud-colored puddles into a hue of dark red.
Steven lingered helplessly at the sight of his sister, a gun in his left hand, his fingers shaking. It didn’t have to end this way, he kept telling himself. But it did. It ended. It ended in the worst way possible.
He stood there motionlessly for fifteen minutes, under the heavy indigo sky without a canopy. The monsoon rains dripped from the heavy gray clouds; it was a good excuse for tears. Lydia was dead. The long chase was over. He could come home to Corona. He will come home a savior.
“A promise is a promise,” those were his first words as he walked away. His promise, after all, was to kill the runaway. His problem is over. But his chest, though now awash with relief, had a gaping hole he could not fill. It stung with regret.
She was his sister. His sister. He shared his dreams with her as they grew up in the Northern Vintas. It was her voice that woke him up on mornings the nuns would say they have no food. It was her hand that he held as they walked through the tunnel out of that godforsaken place and reached asylum through the Republic. Lydia was half of his life – if not his life.
But she made her decision, and she made his.
Slowly, unsteadily, Steven found the edge of the forest: a gate wrapped by branches of wires instead of wood. Downhill, a car in black was parked on the exhausted terrain. A young boy, about sixteen, wore a light blue uniform and gazed around with a pair of binoculars. When he saw him, the boy stopped, made a sharp salute, and greeted, “Sir!”
Thomas ran and assisted Steven down the eroded pathway. Immediately, he opened his bulky bag, wrapped his master with a warm towel and aided him in the sedan. Perched on the velvet seat, Steven first took a box of tobacco, lit it up, and leaned tiresomely on the backrest.
“Is there anything else you’d want, sir?” Thomas asked.
Want? Steven could think of many things, but none of those were within Thomas’ abilities, which is why after puffing out a smoke, he said, “Let’s go home.”
Home meant passing through endless darkness for days. Corona, the planet’s remaining fortress, was a continent made out of steel perched in the middle of the Pacific. From above the hemisphere, it looked like a crown, with its towers extending like sharp pins from each side. On the ground, these towers can only be accessed by passing through tunnels that stretched in miles.
Small slits from above the steel-and-concrete construction give solar-powered cars fuel to go by. The sun, after all, has become the planet’s main source of energy. For decades, it increasingly wielded its heat, leading to the melting of the glaciers and the warming of the sea. Mankind has suffered the surge of natural calamities that wiped out two-thirds of the population. The ground ceased to produce its yield. The plates refuse to remain still. The waters billowed in anger, submerging half of Europe and Asia into its depths.
And today – at least, that’s what Steven thought of the seventy-two hours past – was another.
Soon enough, the car made its way to the city grid. From the black-tinted windows, Steven could make out a tourette made of glass. The light from the upper dome is reflected on all sides, shining with a spectrum of colors like a facet on a gem. As the car parked onto the outer rim, Steven walked out, wearing dark shades, and positioned his hand on the smoked-glass walls.
“Steven Ortega,” he murmured, his low voice echoing in the depressingly empty place. The glass danced with lights of many variations, scanning his body. Soon, the door, like ice cut in half, broke open.
Thomas, clutching his chest in deep awe, almost forgot to close his master’s door after Steven sat back in his sedan. “So much has changed,” gasped the boy. “It wasn’t like this when we left.”
Like an immediate waking, the lad scampered back to the front seat. The sedan drove inside the thick glass walls that individually close as the car passed by. As the white lights from the city beamed overhead, Thomas clutched his chest, silently taking everything in, until he could no longer purse his mouth.
“Sir, would you tell me again why Corona is fortified like so?” He mumbled at front. Steven, who was calmly relishing his cigar with his eyes half-closed, almost inhaled the smoke he was about to puff.
“It’s because the arid nomads are still out there, trying to get in,” Steven groaned.
Thomas knew about the Arids. They were bad news. At least, that’s what he heard from his master. “B-But we never saw one during our trip in Asia,” he stuttered, making short glances at Steven, who wouldn’t look at him.
Ah, there was one, he now remembered. Thomas made a look that spoke it plainly, and Steven knew he didn’t need to answer. He didn’t want to. When he gazed out of the window, the sight of the capitol greeted him with its white boughs. His long journey will end. Only a few minutes more.
When the car parked in front of the glass gate, officers in red and blue uniforms lined up in piles, and, like the Red Sea cut in half, made way for the newcomers. Thomas shriveled at the sight of the ranks, but Steven was unfazed. Buttoning his gloves, Steven emerged from the car with a gold cap and walked in the midst of the crowd that saluted him.
He has returned, Thomas heard the people mumble. Ortega has returned.
Steven walked straight to the elevator, a first for Thomas that the lad pressed on his mouth to keep himself from vomiting. From the transparent fiber glass walls, both of them saw the green forest that slowly grew from Corona’s walls – trees in giant pots that parade around the terraces of the concrete towers. From here, the people in uniforms look like ants, especially as they strolled around on four-legged machines. Everything felt like winter; all the warehouses were white, even the light, for the blistering heat of the sun was kept out, except for the tiny slits that power the city’s energy.
Corona was not like the town he read in the book Steven kept in his bag – a town with green grass and wooden homes and furry animals trailing after their owners. There were no children. No birds chirping. No rivers. No sky. There was life, but there was also the depressing feeling of the absence of it. Everything in Corona was of metal, glass and concrete. Even the breaths of humans smell like steel.
Or maybe, blood.
It was the lingering scent of the room when the elevator door opened.
“Steven, our good friend, Steven,” greeted a mustached man with a snowy hair, a constellation of golden badges stamped on his chest. He hugged the newcomer with a long, lingering embrace against his jolly, fat stomach. “We thought you’d never return.”
“Thought,” Steven laughed coldly. “Or maybe hoped, General Myer?”
“Nonsense, Steven,” laughed the man. “Why, who do you think could run Mirage without you?”
That was the moment when Steven Ortega, in his black uniform that replicated the rest of the men in the room, turned to Thomas and mumbled, “This is where you stop, boy.”
In an instant, a glass wall separated them from each other, and Thomas watched Steven take his place in the Round Table of the Generals of Corona.
“How has it been holding up?” was Steven’s first question, his arms folded on the table as the rest of the generals turned to him with a nervous expression.
“Not good,” one of the generals said. “The lab reported that putting the Sleepers in a long trance will consequently affect their mental health. Unless we make new memories, we cannot ensure the safety of the people.”
“We have to feed Mirage new data,” said another. “If we push through according to the schedule – that is, re-establish the continents back to their former glory – the people need new imagery.”
“But where do we get the same data?” groaned one. “It has always been Lydia’s mind from the beginning. If our suspicion was right and the Arids had turned her against us, the project is—.”
“The project continues,” Steven cut General Rothman icily. “Lydia won’t be used against the Mirage. She’s already—,” and that is where he pursed his lips and looked away, then said, much more softly, “Gone.”
Everyone in the room was quiet.
“Are you sure she is – as you say?” General Myer stared at him intently. “She is the key to the machine, and unless she is gone—.”
“Her body is lying in the Forest of Myrrh. Have it autopsied, if you must,” Steven retorted, his hands flinching, his chest burning deep under the black uniform he wore.
“Come now, let’s not argue. Nobody doubts your intention, General Ortega,” one of the generals said, tapping Steven’s shoulder. “I’m sure it must have been hard for you.”
Hard? Steven gritted between his teeth. He has chased her for four years. She had to die in his own hands. It was a sacrifice. Hell, even the last expression she made kept replaying in his head.
“For the good of Corona,” was all he muttered, before he straightened his shoulders and folded his hands. “Now, have you found one?”
“If you’re asking about Mirage’s new possessor, we can proudly say yes,” General Myer sat straight on his ebony chair. “Just as you recommended, we assembled the best and the brightest. One girl gave the closest interpretation of Lydia’s vision; she scored the highest among the tests. Her name is Anna Rakhnaya.”
“Great, then,” Steven pulled himself away from his seat. “Let’s call her in.”
Anna Rakhnaya was a twenty-three-year-old cadet with cornstalk hair and deep brown skin. She greeted Steven with a half bow, then gazed at him with her light brown eyes. Steven, from his desk, studied her quietly. Lydia is shorter, thinner, and less serious. At this point, his sister would have made faces instead of just stoically stare at him back.
Anna winced. “Is something the matter, sir?”
“No,” Steven shook his head, turning his attention back to the papers sent to him by the lab. 87 percent. That’s how close she was to Lydia’s world. Not bad, he mused. The woman standing in front of him might just be what Mirage needs.
“Are you willing to do this?” He asked without looking at her.
“You would be stuck to a machine, immobile, and you cannot be away from Corona for a time.”
“I was already oriented, sir.”
I meant, for a lifetime, Steven glanced at Anna, who wore a red uniform of a secondary officer. “Do you know what purpose you’ll serve?”
“To be the provider of data to the Mirage, sir.”
No, that’s not it. Steven mused silently. You’re giving the Sleepers a view of the new world they’ll wake up to. That’s your purpose.
“Will you commit to it for as long as we need you, even to death?”
That last word was spoken with deep gravity, and Steven was able to look at her in the eye. Anna was stunned aback, but she caught herself, cleared her throat, and calmly responded, “Yes, sir.”
“Very well,” Steven held out his hands, now sweaty under his thick white glove. “We will guide you in the next process, Rakhnaya.”
There was no tremble in Anna’s hands as he shook them. Just a stone-cold grip.
“A reboot? Whoever thought of such a thing?”
The sleeves of Karel’s shirt were twisted to arms. He wore a smile just like how they first met – exhausted but merry. His thick wad of hair plopped onto his small head, bearing the notion that a lot of scratching was done. Either Karel was very much confused, or very unlikely to take a bath.
“The generals,” Steven answered, noticing the difference between him and his long-time friend. “Haven’t they told you about it?”
“Nope. Nobody tells me anything down here,” Karel replied, too busy hauling his machines to look at a general in the room.
“You could have been up there, a general. You and I made Mirage. You and I saved the planet.”
“Yes,” Karel agreed, hauling his junk in a crate. “You and me. And Lydia.”
Steven clenched his fist. “And you keep saying ‘no’ to all their offers,” he said, trying to ignore the name he just heard.
“That’s because I’m a worker, not a planner,” Karel retorted. “I’m a machine man. I like being surrounded by things and parts that don’t make sense at first. I like elbow grease. Besides, what would Lydia say if she found me sitting on a comfy chair when she’s there, squeezing every particle of her brain to feed to the people’s heads?”
And there, Karel stopped.
“How is she?” He glanced at Steven.
He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know yet. Steven’s heart pounded madly from his chest as he forced a smile. “The same as before,” he cleared his throat. “Inside a cockpit.”
“Of course. What else should she do but sleep? She’s got the easiest job among us,” Karel laughed as he nudged Steven with his greasy elbow.
Steven did not take the joke. He could not. Instead, he just stared at Karel with welling eyes before excusing himself for a smoke, passing by Thomas who just arrived to join them in their reunion.
“We made Mirage that way. A dream.” Karel walked around his warehouse-looking lab in his overalls. Thomas followed him with his eyes. “When Steven first thought it was possible, when I worked on the prototype with my bare hands, when Lydia started imagining the places she could build for the distraught people all over the world – ah, that started a fire. We worked on this for five years before the government picked up the project. Why, Mirage, to us, was our dream. And now it’s serving its purpose. It’s cliché to say, but here I am, dream come true.”
Thomas, however, noticed a strange kind of loneliness in Karel’s eyes. “You don’t look so happy, sir,” he pointed out.
“Happy?” Karel lugged around with two giant pipes on his shoulders. “The world has no time to be happy. I have a wife, but I can’t be with her. Instead, I have to spend my life here, underneath Corona, working on a machine that had to keep running for at least half a century more. I’d probably be old and gray by the time the New Republic is finished. I got to find myself a mentee.”
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t volunteer myself, sir. I’m not good at – um – stuff.” Thomas secretly imagined himself pulling a cart full of gears and falling over them, because he was lame and weak.
“Nah. You’re Steven’s mentee. I can see he’s gearing you up for office. Good for you,” grinned Karel. “We need good people up there, more than ever.”
“Why do you say that, sir?”
“Because,” Karel stopped to sit on a crate. “Up there is power, and where there’s power, there’s danger. People are hungry for it. And the world is most vulnerable, especially now, for there are uprisings here and there. While the clock moves, evil thrives.” There was an angry flare in his eyes. “Can you imagine how easy it is to assume power while half of the world is sleeping? Can you imagine how convenient it is to kill and grab thrones, for no one will remember what happened?”
There was a lump in Thomas’ throat that he found hard to swallow.
“Which is why when we made Mirage, Steven, Lydia and I agreed to one thing: it will be used for peace, and for that purpose only. No corrupted outsider should ever possess it and brainwash the people.” Karel lit his vape and smoke puffed out of his nose. That corner smelled like musk.
“From the prototypes up to its current system, Mirage had only one possessor – Lydia. She’s the only one who can control it. Give life to it. Create good dreams with it. Lydia has been up there, all this time, dreaming nice dreams for people, creating a world with them while the Republic repairs this world, the real world.” And Karel pointed up with his vape stick. “It gets lonely down here, and I am in desperate need of a reunion, but I am sworn to this job just as everyone else is sworn to theirs, so I’m content talking to you.”
Thomas’ ears reddened a bit. “I-I-Is the Lydia you’re talking about Lydia Lang?”
“Yep,” Karel glanced at him warmly. “That Lydia.”
I shouldn’t have asked, Thomas told himself. Now, he was uncomfortable. He could feel his armpits sweating heavily despite the air-conditioned room. He could not mistake it – he saw Steven’s order. He had passed it many times before, to special officers to sergeants, to majors and finally, to Steven himself. He couldn’t be wrong. Steven’s mission – the one that took him four years to take – was to kill that Lydia.
“I-I-I should be going now, sir,” Thomas almost stumbled on the empty cart that was parked beside his seat. His legs sprinted fast that he didn’t see Karel wave goodbye with his greasy fingers. He didn’t see Karel scratch his heavy mound of hair and murmured, “Boy, he probably had a bad diarrhea.”