The council stood up as President Jerrod and Charles walked inside. On the elliptical table, were four commanders and Dr. Greg – a total of 6 members.
“So, this should be the 7th executive council since the establishment of the Dominion. Let us begin,” announced the president. He shuffled through the stacked files in front of him. “First thing’s first. Operation Hornet’s Nest; although the war is finished I believe there’s work to be done to completely warp this case up.”
“We have construction workers building a larger perimeter along the outside. We should be gaining more land and areas hopefully for a public cemetery and other structures,” said Commander Soren. Jerrod nodded. “However, the work is not going as smoothly as we have planned out. The area is covered in woods, meaning time is needed to cut them off. And again… we are running out of adequate resources for additional barricade.”
“What do we need?” asked Jerrod.
“We’ve been recycling every ounce of metal from the Ark, which is highly dense and yet relatively light – it is not a substance that can be composed easily nor is it that common,” said Rackel, reading from his paper. “Common steel is obviously available but I don’t think it’ll last as long as the original material when Hunters attack.
“Speaking of resources, Mr. President,” Commander Trek. “We need more NF armors for Crusaders and bullets for soldiers. The armors we have some remainders but in times like this, I believe everyone needs at least 2 for their own. The bullets are also a problem. We lost half of our supply of ammunition during this one war. Access to titanium and metals to produce military supplies is absolutely necessary.”
“So what do we have on the table? Resources, military supplies –“
“Military resources are important but you need to realize the mood in this settlement Commander Trek,” commented Commander Alex. She slightly raised her voice. “Numerous has died and we could use some money and funds to ease their sorrow and pain. In the end, the Dominion’s power is from the population of this settlement. It’s more urgent to satisfy the citizens than military reinforcement.”
“Military reinforcement is satisfying the citizen’s need and one of most important: safety,” claimed Trek.
“They say it is safety within poverty,” Soren commented suddenly. Trek’s face flushed in anger.
“Commander Soren! That is not what I mean. We provide every necessities for the citizens – of course we do – but right now, we never know when a retaliation will hit us,” Trek exclaimed out loud. “Clearly, we saw from Director Han’s report. The Hunters actually have a brain and know what tactics are. We’ve only destroyed one of tens or hundreds of lairs around us. Only reinforcing the Crusaders and soldiers will guarantee people’s safety.”
“He does have a point,” shrugged Rackel quietly.
“The radar shows zero activity around a 10 mile radius. At least for the next few days, we have a chance to comfort our citizens instead of making them nervous and anxious as we have until now,” stated Alex.
“Now, everyone –“
“And if that radar is so trustworthy, what happened to it during the Blackout?” questioned Trek. He stood up.
“SHUT UP!” yelled Jerrod. The table went dead. The four commanders stared at him in surprise. Trek slowly sat down. Dr. Greg only smirked at the situation. Jerrod pretended to ignore. “Back to the case. Natural and artificial resources – that is what we are short of, am I correct?”
Everyone nodded except for the doctor.
“And this war reduced a whole lot of them, correct?”
They murmured in validation.
“Good, now we have a solid conclusion don’t we?” he scowled at them. “I want soldiers on expeditions to find and scout the area for some rare materials. Use the helicopters and any means of transportation if needed. This place used to be the southern fields of Russia – there should be plenty of underground resources we can find.”
“Yes, Mr. President,” answered Soren.
“And… to the next problem at hand,” he glanced at the doctor, sitting innocently just at the opposite of him. “Raven Project – is it ready doctor?”
“What? What in the world is Raven Project?” asked Rackel. Dr. Greg sat up.
“If Crusader Project was phase 1, the Raven Project is phase 2,” said Dr. Greg.
“And, beg your pardon Mr. President, why have this been confidential even to us?” demanded Commander Trek.
“Please, Commander Trek. This project was bound to be highly controversial when there were over 300 Crusaders accounting for 90% of all military power,” explained the doctor. “And technically speaking, it was above your pay grade meaning it was only for the eyes of the President.”
“And you doctor?” Trek questioned.
“We are the ones who carry this project forward. We can’t proceed if we don’t know it,” chuckled the doctor as if he was joking. “But now you know it, so I assume it doesn’t matter really.”
“What is it Mr. Greg? I thought the Crusaders were already strong enough,” said Soren.
“Yes they are. They are quite a masterpiece. That is why the Ravens are also influenced by it,” the doctor began to explain. “The Crusaders were genetically-engineered fighters. I can say they were like super soldiers with extraordinary physical abilities; nothing more nothing less. Of course I was extremely surprised to fine unintended cases like Leon Veridi or Hugo Camell. The silver and blue energy force was like something from fantasy movies.”
“Still, the Crusaders’ ability overall relies relatively heavily on experience and constant practice. It’ll be easier to think of the early Renaissance’s impact on soldiers. Knights were strong but needed years, if not decades of training and experience to be excellent. With invention of firearms, such ‘professions’ were not needed,” said the doctor. “So I plan to make the Second Renaissance for the Dominion. With Raven Project, I intend to make soldiers with capabilities comparable with those of veteran Crusaders in an instant.”
“And how do you plan on doing that?”
“Hunters,” replied the doctor said casually. The other directors looked very baffled. “Hunters have innate genetic DNAs excelling in every area compared to normal human beings. My team was able to extract the purest and the least contaminate of that DNA, which is going to be injected to soldiers.”
“I’m not a scientist and I failed biology when I was in the Ark. But I hear that seems very and highly dangerous,” commented Soren.
“That is one of the reason we kept this ultra-secret. And that’s why we are still testing for safety and compatibility with human body,” said the doctor. “So far, we are very successful.”
“Um… doctor and how long have you been implementing this? I believe this is quite needed. If anything happens or go wrong –"
“I’ve been planning this with my former team when I was in Sector 1. When I arrived here, our president agreed full support of my project even before the unification,” said the doctor. “Apparently, we had not a single problem.”
“…well, I think it’s a great project,” shrugged Alex. “It’s great to have more people like Leon Veridi. You’ve been busy for a while for a good reason doctor.”
“I thank you for your appreciation, Commander Alex,” replied the doctor. “And as an addition: I’ve only been able to make Crusaders against those people with compatible physical features, which I recall it being fairly narrow every time. Making a Raven, however, I can be quite sure that it’s compatible with nearly anyone.”
“So far it sounds quite attractive. Don’t you all agree?” said Commander Soren as he looked around at each of them. They all mumbled and nodded in agreement. Then he caught sight of Jerrod, who was silent ever since the doctor opened his mouth. “Mr. President?”
“I’ve already been briefed about this, so I believe my opinion is quite clear,” was the words of the president. The four directors looked at him in a bizarre way. Jerrod sat up. “It means, ever since I provided 100% support on this project, I was greatly inspired by it.”
“So when is this going to go public?” asked Alex.
“As soon as I can absolutely confirm that the Hunter DNA poses no harm to the human’s, Commander Alex. I believe it will be ready within this month at latest,” said Dr. Greg. “I was able to start establishing an appropriate test for this very recently. I myself hope the results to come out fast as possible. After all, it is my ever-longing will to support humanity’s survival every way I can, as a scientist.”
“I appreciate your care doctor. Now, I have duties to do so I guess I’ll have to dismiss the council of today early,” said Jerrod quickly. “I hope you all have a good day.”
Michelle burst into my room.
“Leon! You’ve been doing nothing since you woke up!” she shouted.
“There’s nothing to do anyway,” I shrugged, still staring at the shining sword. I was lying down on my bed, spinning the sword with my fingers. “We deserve a break.”
“At least do something outside. You don’t just lie down on a bed for the entire day staring at your sword,” said Michelle. I glanced at hers clipped on her side. She caught my eye looking at it.
“Did you have any carvings on yours?” I asked her. She tilted her head and checked her sword.
“Just the number ‘2’ in roman numerals. I guess the maker was a fan of ancient language,” commented Michelle as she slid her sword back. “If you want to, we can go to the gym together.”
“I’ll pass,” I said back. She looked frustrated. “Michelle, you’re not –“
I stopped myself – barely. Barely stopped myself from saying I mustn’t have even thought about it. Fortunately, she did not look as if she noticed what I almost said.
“I’ll then just go for a walk outside the city,” I said. She cocked her head. “I’ll be gone before the clock ticks 11:30. I promise.”
“Want me to walk with you?” she asked.
“Nah, it’ll be a short walk,” I said.
“How about a match after? Just to not lose our senses,” she suggested.
“Yeah…” I said, feeling a little strange. “Sure.”
Indeed, I found myself in the middle of the woods just at the outer perimeter of the city. The settlement, which used to be nothing but an enclosed area with residents, was now quite large in size. The barricades looked much reliable. Towers were garrisoned with more men. More buildings were seen from outside. And of course, there was way more activity.
The natural marvel, nonetheless, remained untouched. I felt like visiting the very lake that I found the other day – no; the other month. The bloody war almost messed up my notion of time. Anyhow, the lake’s fabulous view was something one could not forget and I wasn’t an exception. If only I could borrow Scarlet’s aircraft…
I circled around the settlement, walking between woods that I saw repeatedly every time I come for a walk. In the end, I always returned into the city with a bored feeling. The lake was fascinating. There must be rivers, waterfalls, cliffs, mountains… everything I saw with pictures and through lousy simulations. Of course simulations were theoretically meant to resemble the real world but still… it’s incomparable.
“But all that replaced for this shit,” I murmured to myself as I took my sword off from my side. I looked at it.
I liked it. Having my own sword, the symbol of being a Crusader, made me feel like I was special. Also, the design and style fit me too well. I loved it. It was like a token of prestige.
But at the same time – this is very ironic – the sword was a token of confinement. Confined to fight when called for duty; confined to kill when necessary; confined to war until every Hunter drown within the soil beneath me.
I sat down beneath a large oak tree; looked into the distant that led to nowhere… imagining what it will be like with none of it. No Hunters, no swords, no war, no fighting…
The sword of confinement looked at me with its top dug into the soil. The small red jewelry at the tip of the hilt seemed to penetrate my eyes. I will have gone to school. I looked up to the sky. I would have had friends. I will have studied as a student. I will have played as one, behaved as one, and thought like one. The life without Hunters at Earth will have been almost exactly the same with the life at the Ark – only with a larger scale of activity. Although I never formally went to school, I had a vague idea how it worked.
However, that will have been all. School, friends and studying life will have been the life I will be living right now. Perhaps a few years later, I’ll graduate and try to find some work. I’ll grow old and maybe get married, have some kids and grow older. Then I’ll die and be buried under the soil that once buried billions of mankind. My corpse will rot and decay and fertilize the soil.
And that will be all.
I’ll have little remorse; little to hope for; little to ask for. My surroundings will hardly change and life of my friends will be the same for the rest of their lives. And when everything finally ends, a new generation of humans will take over, enlarge the settlement, go on reconquering the world and have the same life over and over again.
Every day will be uniform.
But that’s hardly imaginable. So vague that even hoping for it is extravagance.
I stood up, pulled my sword out of the ground and returned home.
The city was crowded with people. I overheard many of them talking about me or Michelle. Everyone seemed excited and awed. I turned my steps toward the training center, hoping Michelle was waiting for me. We’re having a day off and she wants to duel. I couldn’t help but thinking all kinds of ways to enjoy the day. Picnic would have been fabulous. A stroll around the forest would have been great. But it had to be a duel underneath the ground. Still, the fact that Michelle offered me to do anything with her meant something by itself.
I was just in front of the gym when I heard Scarlet shouting from a distance.
“Scarlet?” I cocked my head. She was running down the road, almost in panic, yelling my name like mad. She finally found me in front of the glass door and ran straight for me. She gasped harshly and strived to catch a breath. “What’s the matter?”
“Mi… it’s…” she tried to take some breath and say something at the same time. I waited patiently and let her talk after some time. “Michelle… she’s… We have a problem"
“Where is she?” I demanded, holding her by the shoulder. She started running back to where she came and I followed her.
“What happened,” I asked the doctor. Scarlet collapsed on a chair, coughing out air. “WHERE IS SHE?”
“She’s in the emergency room, just on her way for surgery –“
“Take me to her,” I ordered.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Veridi, but it is very important to leave room for–“
I unsheathed Prima and pointed the tip at his throat. The doctor was terrified and so was everyone else in the hospital lobby. But that was the least I worried about.
“Fo… follow me,” he stuttered. I hid my blade and glanced at Scarlet. She looked as if she saw something unbelievable.
“You coming?” I asked her. She only nodded. Both of us followed the doctor into the emergency room.
Michelle was on her bed with five other people in suits around her. I was able to tell it was just before they took her off for surgery.
“Wait!” shouted the doctor who guided us. “There’s someone who wants to see the patient.”
They all scattered and made room. The six doctors backed up and moved their position to another space in the room. They started talking about – god knows what. Meanwhile, I desperately held her weak hands by her bed. She was, thankfully, still conscious.
“Michelle…” I said. My eyes were already beginning to water as I saw her pale face. Around her face were streaks of blood presumably hers. Besides that, everything looked almost fine. “What happened?”
“Ms. Nathans coughed out a hand full of blood all of the sudden and blacked out,” said one of the doctors. “By the time she arrived here, she just awoke from her faint. But… I’m afraid the symptoms are quit severe. We need to get an operation started right away.”
“What’s wrong with her?” I demanded them. I felt my eyes getting wet as I glared at the doctor.
“We currently have no idea but assume it was caused by the alien substance we treated a few days ago,” he said.
“You said you cured it,” I demanded.
“We thought –“
“Mr. Veridi we will do –“
“Of course you’ll do your best to save her,” I spat at them. Then I heard her mumble. “I want a few minutes alone with her.”
“We need to –“
The bastards finally scurried out. From some point, Scarlet was already gone and Michelle and I was the only one in there.
“Leon…” she stammered a few words, but most of them were hardly audible. She smiled faintly. “You… shouldn’t have done that…”
“What happened to you? What is –“ words were forcefully swallowed. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re back walking and we can go back to the gym and have a duel.”
“No Leon…” she tapped my shoulder. “We can’t… not now… I’m afraid –“
“No, no, no. Don’t say something like that,” I burst into tears and my throat started to lock itself up. “You are not going to die. No. Not right now. You can’t…”
“Promise me… one… thing,” she said, almost whispering by then. I wanted to cover her mouth, stop her from saying more. I wanted to deny everything happening in the room. I wanted to shout at her to stand up. I wanted to… “Protect…”
“Yes, I’ll protect you. I’ll protect Scarlet too, with my life,” I said. The beads rained down on my cheeks and there was nothing to stop them. “So… don’t say anything more. You’ll live. You’re going to come out of this hospital with all healthy and standing.”
“Protect… everyone, Leon,” she said, still not losing her smile. Might have been my imagination but her smile was getting bigger. “Not just Scarlet… everyone. You’re strong… you’ll lead everyone… and protect them…”
“No… no… I don’t want to lead anyone, I just want –“ Michelle’s face went still. The smile faded instantly. Her eyes lost focus. “DOCTOR!”
It rained just in time.
The sun was shining like a couple of hours ago and now it was pouring down.
The rain drops slashed the windows like whips.
And leaves hit by them fell off their branches helplessly.
Scarlet was beside me.
But both of us were distressed.
She didn’t talk to me for a long time and neither did I.
It just wasn’t the right time…
“Leon,” said a low manly voice. I looked up. “May I sit?”
“Help yourself,” I murmured. Tears had stopped but sorrow was beyond anything I experienced. I even don’t’ remember being that grim – even when my parents died. No… my ‘parents’ were only legal parents. The only family I remember was, in the end, Michelle Nathans. But now, she was inside the operation room, coming back and forth between life and death.
It was already 4 in the afternoon and I didn’t have lunch. Still, I felt like the time was racing past me. Scarlet stood up a few minutes after Han came. She didn’t turn back and left the building.
“I have no idea what you’re going through,” he said. He pulled out a necklace a shape of a leaf. It was shining silver with glittering string. “But I am sincerely sorry for you.”
“Is that hers?” I asked him.
“No. It’s mine,” said Han. I almost laughed. “It was the last present she gave me...”
I closed the conversation and Han didn’t say anything for the next half an hour. He only fidgeted with the necklace while I was dreading myself.
“It’s too sudden,” I said. He blinked at me. “I was on my way to her. After a stroll in the woods for a couple of minutes, I was supposed to have a duel with her.”
“But then Scarlet suddenly runs to me and said Michelle fainted.”
“I… have nothing to say, Leon,” said Han. He sighed. “What did the doctors say?”
“They think it’s because of the black thing she was inflicted,” I replied.
“Who treated her?” asked Han. I looked up but did not answer for a long time, then ducked my head down again. “Who treated her? I should at least know the person who thought he or she cured Michelle.”
“Do you know why he suddenly wants to play doctor after all his years as biochemist?” Han demanded, raising his voice.
“Look, I don’t give a shit who or how or why anyone treated Michelle. But I know this: she has suddenly fainted and is in that room either readying for death or a new life,” I scowled. “So please, Han. Give me a god forsaken break.”
“Relatives of Ms. Michelle Nathans?” called out as a woman peeked out of the room. I instinctively stood up and so did Han slowly. Her expression was dark and grim, and very blatant it was full with sorrow. She hesitated and looked down on the floor as she avoided our eyes. “I’m… sorry Mr. Veridi, Mr. McCline. We… did our best but… the poison had already spread to her lungs and hearts. Ms. Nathans is not part of this world.”
“I thought when she first left the hospital, there was little more than taking medicines left to be done. Now you’re telling me some poison infiltrated her organs?” Han said enraged. I couldn’t speak a word beside him. All I did was staring at her stubborn face with nothing but blackness in my head. The woman met my eyes for the first time. She removed them as if ignoring me. “This is ridiculous… it’s bullshit.”
The next thing I saw was Han disappearing through the corridor and the woman standing still in front of the door. All that time, I just stared at her unmoving. She repeatedly looked up at my face and down at the floor.
Perhaps I stood there for like twenty minutes; hell, I might have stood there for an hour. But when I was done staring at that accursed face of hers, I turned my back. I turned my back and started walking. I walked until I saw stairs. I climbed down. I climbed down until I saw the first floor lobby. At the lobby, I saw like a dozen of people watching me. I continued to walk past them. At the door, I saw Scarlet.
“Leon… what happened?” she asked. She was soaked wet with drips of water all over where she stood.
“The… the… operation,” I gulped. I tried to smile, but all I managed was probably much more sorrowful expression. “It went well, Scarlet. She’s… going to live.”
Scarlet hugged me and I did not refuse her.
“Then why are you crying so badly Leon,” she asked. She patted my back. She was soaking wet. But she was warmer than anything. “You can cry Leon… no one can tell you anything against it… It’s okay… I’m… I’m sorry.”
Sobbing became a great mourn. I didn’t give a shit about the people in the lobby. What I did give was the person inside the operation room. The person who was probably on a bed with several doctors surrounding her. The doctors will probably cover her body with some blue sheet… not just up to her neck, all the way to her head… Then they’ll…
“She’s dead Scarlet…” I moaned with my voice nearly drowning. “She’s dead… She’s gone… She’s…”
“Cry all you want Leon…” was Scarlet’s words. Her eyes were red as well.
I embraced her tighter and her hands held me tight as well.
Eight hours later
The room was dark. Everything was fuzzy. Vision was blurry. No… it wasn’t all dark. There was a light, a dim one, yet a light it was. It was probably from a lamp. A lamp attached to the ceiling. Looking around, nothing was seen but blackness. The person knew the hands were bound but knew certainly one was bound to a chair. Head ached… and had no idea where this place was or who or why anyone dragged one to it.
The person heard footsteps. The person tried to move; direly turning left and right to free oneself. But the footsteps only grew louder and the door in front finally opened. A sprout of light pierced into the dim lit room. A figure of a man was blocking the light. The person was desperate to see who he was. But the person’s mouth was gagged. He walked closer. The person knew one had to act but was powerless. The man closed to door behind him and got himself a chair. He sat on it and stared right at her – though his face was still veiled in darkness.
“It has been almost twelve hours. So I figured you’d wake up by now,” said the man. His voice was strangely familiar. The person’s heart pumped like a freight train, but there was nothing the person could do. “Do you remember anything? Just nod yes or no.”
The person, unwittingly, moved one’s head sideways as a no.
“You are officially dead for… eight hours,” he said. “Which means, no one out of this room knows you’re alive.”
The man removed the gags.
“Who are you?” the person demanded. “What is this place? What do you mean I died eight hours ago?”
The man dragged the dim lamp in front of his face and the person gasped in shock.
“I don’t know Michelle Nathans,” said Dr. Greg. “What do I mean?”