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, his hand shakily holding out the gun he just fired three shots with. “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?”
“You know full well, Steven,” Lydia said weakly, her fingers slowly making their way to cover her gushing stomach as she settled on the moldy-skinned oak. She knew it. She won’t be able to run away now. Not like she has done many years ago.
“I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused,” she murmured faintly. “Tell Karel I’ll meet him on the other side.”
Steven’s 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. His humanity. Thank goodness.
“I have one request,” she murmured.
“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. “Not in your glass city. Here. Outside, where there is sun. Where we all used to play as kids. Where we were once living alive.” She gazed up, trying to look for that light, but there is none. There was only darkness and Steven’s face, now slowly burring at the mist in her lashes as her eyes succumbed to sleep.
Lydia didn’t say anything more. She breathed her last on the giant roots that rose from the dry soil. Her blood streamed down like a leaking faucet, turning the mud-colored puddles into a hue of dark red.
Steven 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.”
“He killed her. He killed Lydia. He killed Mirage’s possessor. He killed the only key,” and no matter Thomas tried to justify why the young General Steven Ortega would do that, something didn’t feel right. The puzzle pieces were all scattered on the floor, all in the wrong places.
“Thomas, you’ve been standing like a statue for ten minutes,” Steven, who was behind a large ivory desk, called him out. “Come here. I have a mission for you.”
Tight-fisted, mouth pursed, Thomas approached his master, not able to look at him in the eye. A folder flopped on the desk, sliding out a solitary page underneath. It was blank, but on a closer look, Thomas could recognize the gray, almost-invisible print.
Solar ink, he mused. Special missions always used solar ink.
“I want you to do it quietly, covertly,” Steven said, his fingers clasped on the hands where he propped his chin. There was a new kind of gravity in his voice that Thomas shyly peeked through his brown bands. The deep black of his master’s eyes had a serious gleam.
“Understood, sir,” and Thomas pulled the folder off the desk. He was surprised when Steven grasped his arm, and pulled him in.
“Do everything in the mission. Every. Thing,” his master implied, and Thomas gingerly nodded. He stayed there, in his inclined position, until Steven’s hand loosened. With a polite bow, Thomas removed himself from Steven’s office, the folder tucked under his arm, his legs sprinting as fast as he could. Around the bend and up the stairs, where the skylight poured the morning’s sun on his head, Thomas unwrapped his secret, and there he read,
Find body #1047B379 in the Burrow. Bury it in the Forest of Myrrh. Bring me a myrrh twig once finished. Discard this mission in the fire after you read it.
Every one of the Awake in Corona was trained to remember things quickly. After tearing the first sun-inked page, Thomas found himself sprinting down to where their car was parked and rushed to the Burrow.
The Burrow was where Corona kept its dead. It was a morgue, the size of a warehouse, where the dead is bathed in the fragrant scent of myrrh before they were thrown in the big fire to be incinerated. The Forest of Myrrh, the only preserved park in the planet, grew in the ashes of these dead bodies.
#1047B379, he repeated to himself, glancing at every embalmed form perched atop their wooden baskets, waiting for be burned in the hellish fire before they completely disappear from the earth. He walked across the main aisle and into the east wing, pushing a wheeled bed in front of him. The body was yet to be found. Maybe it’s in the west wing.
He was right. At the farthest corner, wrapped in a blue cotton gauze, was body #1047B379. Thomas felt his heart burn. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled as he removed the number off its chest. “I’m just obeying my master’s orders, see. For the good of Corona.”
For the good of Corona. He had some doubts about that now. When he first met Steven, he looked up to him as a hero – bright, compassionate, warm. But that belief has cracked, a broken mirror. Still, there’s a mission, a work to be done. The last dead body Thomas held was his brother’s, an 11-month-old baby, bare bones from the drought. But this body was not something he could easily dispatch away. As the lad gently pushed the body onto the steel rolling bed, its wrapper unwound. Hair. Jet black hair. It was long and thick and curly. Its ends were covered with mud.
“Don’t look, Thomas Yun. Don’t look,” he told himself, but curiosity got the best of him. What was it that required to be written in solar ink? Why should this body be buried outside Corona, when it could easily be burned in the large furnace?
He leaned closer, so close that he could smell the body’s rotting odor intermixing with the fragrance of myrrh. From the visor of his cap, Thomas peeked. There were blue bruises on the corpse’s pale forehead. A mole at the end of the left eye brow. Long eyelashes. The face was stone-cold and bloodied, but Thomas would recognize it. He had seen her face so many times.
The truth dawned upon him like the dousing of cold water, and Thomas stepped back. It was her – the dead body of Lydia Lang. And as he examined the mud on her face, suddenly, her lashes moved – she opened her eyes – and Thomas found himself being stared at by the dead.
Steven had many memories while looking at Anna wearing Lydia’s white suit. A panel of coders lined around the Mirage in preparation for the rebooting. The generals, all in their blacks, huddled in the box, watching them from afar. General Myer beamed at Steven from his seat, although his eyes seem to say something else.
“I hope you have high tolerance for pain,” Steven stood beside Anna, trying to avoid the glances of the higher officials. Anna took in many breaths, her golden skin shining under the bright light.
“I was trained for that, sir. Thank you.”
“But to be completely immobile for years, that’s something else,” he glanced at her shyly, before giving her a wide-eye stare.
He was sure it was Lydia’s face he saw. No, he must be dreaming awake.
“For the good of Corona,” Anna said, her voice exasperated.
“For the good of Corona,” Steven repeated. His eyes turned to the head of the scientists, clad in his white lab coat, indicating that Mirage is fully prepared to accept its new owner.
The green-lit cage opened, and smoke crawled outside the door. Anna was undaunted. Steven, overcome with brotherly love in a twisted nostalgia, gave her a lingering grip on the shoulder.
“We will be seeing you in a few years,” he said.
Anna Rakhnaya smiled back at him. She stepped back, gave her sharpest salute, and walked into the machine with shoulders high. Steven’s heart welled as he saluted back, and so did everyone in the room.
They watched her lay in the cockpit. The scientists outfitted Anna with wires attached to the machine. From above, circuits from the machine approached slowly, accessing the channels from the head gear she wore. Everyone held their breaths as Mirage reboots for its new possessor.
Steven gazed at Anna until the last gap between the door shuts to a close. It was the same feeling – sorrow and joy, fear and hope – just as when Lydia first went in. Mirage was his life project. It was his literal blood, sweat and tears. With this, people will remember him, a young boy, thin, sickly, bereft of parents, who made a difference in the world. He had a purpose. He did something good.
Even if he did kill the person closest to his heart.
Every great thing, after all, demanded a sacrifice.
It was a sacrifice for all. Steven wallowed in this emptiness, but karma caught up on him. There was no warning: Reject. The cockpit glared with an alarm, throwing the entire Corona into a shock of sirens. Inside the main lab, panicking scientists huddled around the panel. Reject, glared the words out of the giant screens. Reject, the green color of the cockpit turned to an ominous red. Reject, wires from Mirage crept out from its crevices, lurking like snakes unbound.
From the box, all generals rose from their seats with urgency. On the floor, white lab coats fluttered like wings, but still, no one could make things right. Reject, warned the computer, prompting Steven to pierce through the crowd of scientists and take over the controls himself.
“What’s going on?” He yelled loudly. “Why won’t it restart? We’ve put it in trance. We’ve performed the tests! Why? Why?”
But Mirage was a machine; it had no heart to sense fears, no mouth to answer back. It did give a hint – from the one clear window of the cockpit came a loud, shrill scream – the screaming of a woman, that Steven jumped to his feet, and shouted,
“Take Rakhnaya out! Right now!”
Everyone in the room, even the gold-capped generals, rushed to the door, but Mirage pursed its metal teeth. From the solitary window came the loud shrieks of a woman; the wires danced rebelliously, treacherously, weaving themselves in and out of her body that blood heavily splattered on the clear glass. In a minute, the screams were over, the sirens calmed, and the red Reject sign disappeared from the screen as the cockpit door opened. The body of a thoroughly deformed Anna Rakhnaya fell through their midst, her white suit was bathed with fresh red blood.
Karel has never set foot in the inner ring for many years that the sight of the sun and the company of the lab-coated personnel startled him. Between them, he looked like a greasy pauper, but they came for him with such urgency that he could not deny their request.
Oh, it wasn’t a request.
His heart throbbed madly as the elevator took him up to the main lab. He saw himself in the mirror – face unwashed, hair uncombed, shirt unchanged. What would Lydia tell him when she sees him? That he spent his life looking like a rat? Well, she’s spent her life in an air-conditioned room, sleeping.
With his greasy hands, he combed through his hair. There. At least he looked a bit better. He might not be a like the prince who woke a sleeping princess in the fairy tales they read, but he was her prince. And no matter how he looked, she would always recognize him.
The ring on his left finger – his only most precious possession – shone under the bright rainbow lights. Never has he been so excited to meet his wife. Even if she was asleep.
Karel took deep breaths as the elevator reached the 188th floor. He stepped out in his ragged boots, along with the white-uniformed staff that surrounded him. From the mirrored walls, he kept noticing the dirt on his arms. He has changed. I wonder how Lydia looked now, he mused. The waiting would be short; the walking was brisk, and soon enough, the door to the main lab welcomed him with radiant lights. Karel held his hand over his squinting eyes.
The first thing he saw was Steven’s face.
“I’m sorry, Karel. We need your help.”
“Help?” Karel kept turning away from the bright light. “What kind of help? You’re fully capable to—,” and his mouth hung at the sight of a body spat out of the cockpit, lying in a pool of blood. “Lydia? Is that my Lydia?”
Karel didn’t get anywhere near. The hands behind him grasped him tightly, fettering him to steel handcuffs. His mouth numbed, his brain went blank, but there was tiny hope, for the strands of blonde hair swinging from the decapitated head dangling in the cockpit’s inner tube was not his wife. With a repressed pain, he turned to Steven, who held him with trembling hands, and started, with an apologetic voice, “I need to tell you something.”
“Four years ago, the Arids came and took Lydia away. It was my fault – the cockpit wasn’t secured. I put the Mirage in trance mode, and I sent men to bring her back. All those men died, Karel,” Steven began, averting Karel’s weeping eyes.
He planned to lie. After all, Lydia was dead. She couldn’t tell her story. She wouldn’t be here to right his wrongs. But that would be unfair to her, and to him – Karel – his two most precious people in the world. And so, as he choked and cleared his throat, Steven started anew. “I took it upon myself to bring her back, until I realized that Lydia had,” his voice fell, softer, more vulnerable, “a change of heart.”
Karel looked on, and he understood. He took it plainly well that his sobbing mouth broke into a smile, saying proudly, “That’s my girl.”
Steven would have agreed. “She made her choice,” he murmured. “She held on to it so strong that – that things wouldn’t have happened – this – and that – the many deaths – for the good of Corona,” words failed him, and Steven was not ashamed, even in front of his subjects.
“I was helpless, Karel,” he gripped the man’s greasy collar with his eyes full. “She made hers, and I made mine; there was nothing I can do but to hold strongly to it too.”
What did you do? Karel mouthed. His shoulders jerked, his eyes rimmed wide. He watched Steven shake his head and turned away. He knew that look. A deathly chill crippled his body.
“You killed her? You killed my wife? You killed your sister?”
“Yes, yes I killed her!” Steven shouted back, his shoulders falling, his feet prancing around the floor as fire raged from his stomach. “I killed her because she would not come back. I killed her because as long as she exists, Mirage will have no other possessor. I killed her, Karel, because I want our people to live!”
“To live in what?” the chains on Karel’s fetters danced as he lunged forward. “A dream? A fake reality? To sleep while waiting for redemption?” and Karel made a sharp, painful laugh. “Redemption doesn’t come for the Sleepers, Steven. They will wake up blind and vulnerable to those high-capped generals you serve. Nobody gets saved here. Not you, not me. Don’t ask for my help. I won’t repair Mirage. If you’d have me killed, then do it. I have no purpose here. Not anymore. My wife is dead,” and finally acknowledging the gravity of it all, Karel fell on the floor, his loud cries reverberating across the mirrored room.
A solemn lull fell in the lab that not even the officers pulled him away. One voice, however, piped at the most unexpected moment, for Thomas appeared through the open door, his hand on his nose, greeting, “Sir, I think we have a problem.”
“Have you done what I asked you?” Steven turned to him, reaching out his palm for the myrrh twig. But Thomas shook his head; there was none. Instead, the lad walked closer to him, wondering if he should say it upfront, or whisper it in his master’s ear. He did the latter, and Steven, leaning close, listened to the words he was half-afraid, half-joyful to hear.
“Sir, I think Ms. Lydia’s still alive.”
Steven gazed at the wooden casket where body 1047B379 should have been. “It was here, sir. Right here. I was about to put her on the rolling bed,” Thomas reenacted, his arms protruded as if carrying a big, solid burden. “And then, when I was about to, the strips of gauze on the body’s face unwound. I knew I shouldn’t have had, but I took a peek. I recognized her, and suddenly, she opened her eyes and hissed, ‘Where are you taking me?’ and then I was shocked; she kept staring at me that I scampered out of the Burrow and ran into my car to tell you.”
There were so many words, but Karel, who walked behind the golden-capped generals, only needed to hear a few.
“She’s alive,” he mused. “My wife is alive!”
“Three shots, Karel,” Steven emphasized, defending himself in front of the officials. “Three fatal shots. She fell on the hundred-year oak tree. I saw her die. The team had her autopsied.”
“So where is she, then?” General Myers pointed out.
All of their eyes turned to the wooden casket in front of them. It was empty.
“I don’t understand,” Steven fell down the floor. “The Mirage rejected its new owner. But Lydia’s dead. I’m most certain she is.”
Steven has always been the brilliant man. He was the one who knew the answers; if not, he knew where to find it. Seeing him thoroughly confused was new to Karel. And even though there was a gaping hole burning in his chest, a knowledge that an unforgivable deed was done, he couldn’t disregard the truth – the entire Corona is in grave danger of not waking up from this endless trance.
“One last time,” Karel mumbled almost inaudibly. “I will help you one last time, and all I ask of the Republic is to set me free.”
Thomas never knew Karel could look cold and grim as he did now. The lad watched Steven hold out his hand, making one last shake with his fettered friend. “Agreed.”
“A promise is a promise.”
“I know. Unclasp him, please,” Steven asked his personnel, but they only dropped the fetters, not the steel choker that would restrain Karel lest he made any threats.
Karel did not fight for his freedom. Today, his first day out of the Roots, he was ready to lose everything. “I need to check Mirage. I need to see with my own eyes what went wrong.”
It might be that only Thomas noticed it, but there were wires that trailed after them, slithering like tiny snakes across the floor as they went rode back to the main lab.
“Mirage feeds on Lydia brain waves. It traces her signal, reflects them inside the mirror cables and sends them to the Sleepers. If she’s – as you say, dead” Karel spoke the word with disgust. “Then something here must be keeping Mirage alive.”
The generals looked at each other. “Like what, Mr. de la Cruz?”
“Like a container. A storage. A vessel from which Mirage gets the signal that its former possessor still exists. That’s the only reason I know,” Karel mumbled, his neck heavy with the metal ropes held by the men behind him.
Slowly, they made their way back to the scene of the grisly death of Anna Rakhnava. Her body was disposed, but the splatters of blood were still there. As the door to the lab closed, wires swooped back into the panel.
Inside the bloody cockpit of Mirage was the rotting, decomposing body of Lydia Lang-de la Cruz, wrapped in a blanket of white suit, as if it was her place to be there. On the giant screens, one image kept playing: a smoke from a gunshot, and a woman falling down, repeating the words, “Tell Karel I’ll see him on the other side.”
It played over and over again, just as how it would in Steven’s dreams, only this time, everyone could see it. Karel pushed his hands on his mouth. So that’s how she looked. It has been four years. He would have given everything to see her face for the last time.
“You have been in the running, dear,” he sobs were muffled between his teeth. “You’ve run away, and you didn’t tell me.”
I would have come with you, he added silently. I would have died with you.
Steven just stood there, as still as stone, eyes on the screen as if studying every lines on Lydia’s face. But he has memorized it now, every single frame has been playing in his head ever since it happened. It stayed there, with him. Like a ghost.
His legs shook. His eyes widened. “No. It can’t be, could it?” And Steven, shocked, fell on the ground, his hands on the floor, his head bowed down before his shoulders trembled and fell into peals of laughter.
Everyone in the lab stared at him like he has gone out of his mind.
“I get it now,” Steven grinned with disbelief that he kept shaking his head. His hand pounced on the ground. He laughed until his stomach hurt.
The generals, thoroughly confused, were ready to declare him mad. But Karel looked on. He knew – Steven had figured it out. It was plain to see.
It was him. He was keeping Lydia alive. And, at the bit of this irony, Karel shook his head and laughed a bit too. The medley did not cease until both of them heard a gun click from behind.
Ah. The rest of the generals have caught on.
“Any last words, General Ortega?” Asked the stout General Myer, who long desired to cast a bullet in his long-rival’s head.
It has been a long time since Steven laughed, that it took him time before he cleared his throat and propped up. “Yes, I do,” he said, and beckoned Thomas, who was looking at him from afar with eyes full of worry and sadness.
The lad made his way through black-suited officers, his legs sprinting with alarm. “Sir, they’re going to kill you. Sir, what are we going to do?”
Steven gestured him to lean down.
“First, give me my cigar.”
Thomas complied, tucking a tobacco in between Steven’s parched lips and lighting it. Spewing a heavy puff of smoke, Steven removed the musky stick and whispered, “You have a new mission.”
“Yes, sir. Anything.”
Behind them, the generals were looking impatient that Myers stretched out his hand, his gun against Steven’s head, his finger on the trigger.
Steven bore the look of one who has accepted his fate. “Bury the three of us in the Forest of Myrrh. And forget about bringing back a twig. Now, move away; I’m about to die.”
For the good of Corona. That was the last thing Thomas read in Steven’s lips before General Myers delivered that fatal shot, and the City of Mirrors darkened into pitch black.