Four days after the funeral, I revisited her grave for the second time. And for those four days, I haven’t been out of my room except when Scarlet dragged me out and when I figured I was doing the right thing. The shock was still in me – the moment I stepped out that day, I couldn’t help but hesitate and soon, I returned inside. It was a lame move for someone who just decided something bold.
It was bloody sunny; 10 in the morning with not a single cloud hovered in the sky. The air was refreshing – probably because of the rain that came down for the last two days or so. Anyhow, there I was, standing in front of her grave all alone. Not a flower was laid in front for no one really needed to. From the Dominion’s view, they just lost one precious Crusader and all that requires of them is perfunctory showing of pity and respect as a mere fighter who sacrificed herself to the Dominion. And that is the end of one hero that meant everything…
“You’re up early.”
I looked back to see Director Han. I had nothing to say to him; I returned to the gravestone in front of me.
“It’s been some time since we had a proper conversation,” he said from my back. I didn’t move. I had nothing for him. “I heard this is like the first time you exited your room.”
“…” I opened my mouth and almost said something. Han sighed.
“Yeah, well I don’t blame you for ignoring, Leon,” said the director. He stepped up closer and crouched. Han then gently placed a white flower in front of her gravestone. “It’s a chrysanthemum. I think it’s a horrible name for a beautiful flower. But… it was her favorite flower.”
The flower wiggled in the wind as he placed it. Han wiped off the grass and leaves around and on top of the stone.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him. He stopped and looked up.
“As you can see, I’m here to see her,” he shrugged as he went back cleaning the grave. “What are you doing here, Leon? The last time I heard, you were nailed in your house.”
“Fabulous,” he said coldly. “I’ll just assume you’re here to see her too.”
The two of us went silent for a while. I stared at the grave and Han cleaning it dumbfounded and the director continued removing twigs and cutting overgrown grass. When he finished, he stood up.
“You know she was almost the last person I expected to see dead,” said Han. “It’s almost funny – to see someone much stronger, healthier and younger suddenly die apart from combat.”
“Did you see her dead?” I asked him. “Did you see her body before she was buried?”
“…” he stared at me for a moment. “Yes I did. You could have seen it too but you left without turning back. Speaking of it – why did you?”
“I… was uneasy,” I stuttered.
“You mean afraid.”
“No,” I responded sternly. Han gave a mocking smile.
“A short history the Crusaders might have but you are the best of them so far. To many people here, you’re the hero not her. And your capability in the battleground is unparalleled, unimaginable and infinite,” said Han. “So tell me, really, what is that you are afraid of? And why are you?”
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” I said, trying to sound as calm as possible, but inside, I wanted to shout out. Yell out all the things that I was threatening. I abruptly turned my back and tried to leave the area.
“You’re a coward Leon.”
“Everyone says you’re invincible, but I think you are far from being invincible. Look at you. Michelle’s death destroyed you – something that nobody or no creature could have done,” he said. “Wake up, Leon Veridi. As ludicrous this might sound, but it might be you in the coffin sooner or later. So let it go.”
“And what makes you say that, Han? Why do you even care about what I do?” I asked him. “It’s none of your business. And I think you’re the one who should let it go.”
I hastened my pace and left Han to himself before he could say more. The city was busy and everyone was back to their normal life. Without the Hunter, everyone looked so peaceful and the only person in distress was me. Returning to my room wasn’t going to happen; leaving the house just that morning would be pointless that way. Scarlet was probably already off to work and there was nowhere to go and no one to see. The huge hole in my life only expanded and the vacancy only brought more misery and confusion.
I found myself in the middle of the city. People came and went by as they moved from one place to another. I saw merchants shouting out to advertise their goods, workers running hurriedly to their posts, couples enjoying the morning freshness, and parents playing with their children. Indeed they looked all happy.
I followed the main road down to the main gate. The guards were engaged in some vigorous conversation that they did not see me approaching or hear me when I shouted out to open the gates. When they did finally hear me, one of them simply hit the twitch and continued to talk as if I never came.
The woods just about a kilometer away from the city became a sort of a sanctuary of my own. It was such a pity I never brought Michelle here for it really ‘healed’ me. The woods weren’t really a middle of the forest – just at the outskirt of it. Still, the area was enough to comfort me. My sanctuary was a place away from the real world, disconnected from all the complication of reality. I can simply lean on one of the trees and let the surrounding do the rest.
Today, however, the vivid forest of tranquility looked all murky. The dense leaves and branches prevented the sunlight from beaming down with barely any spot illuminated in golden yellow. I sat down on the very tree I leaned every time I came here, nonetheless, hoping for whatever miracle it can provide me.
You’re a coward Leon.
That was probably the most shocking words I ever heard. None ever dared to tell me that I was a coward. I always stood at the front in any danger and led every single one of them to victory. A perfect Crusader I was and as Han said I was the best of them all. None of my actions proved me a craven. I should be confident of myself and let his words come in one hear and out the other. But why am I so concerned of it?
I’m afraid; I’m afraid of whatever is frightening me.
Han spoke like he knew exactly the state I was in – meaning he knew what I’m scared of.
“Leon,” said a voice behind the tree. I jumped and instinctually unsheathed the sword I had with me. A person came out from the tree that I was leaning on.
“Scarlet?” I said, puzzled. “I thought you were off to work?” “I got a day off. Since they decided that threat has been neutralized, they can spare me the training sessions,” said Scarlet, grinning as she usually does. “You weren’t in the house or the gym, so I guessed this was the only place you would go.”
“How did you know this place?” I asked her.
“You took me here once, Leon. Don’t you remember?”
“I guess not…” I murmured. I sat back down on the soft ground.
“You look awful, despite the fact that you finally stepped out of your room,” she remarked. “What are you doing here?”
“Apparently, I’m…” I paused. I honestly didn’t know what the hell I was doing in the forest. “I’m just thinking.”
“It must be something very important to make you come all the way here to think,” she said lightly. Scarlet sat down just beside me. “What were you thinking? Is it… is it about her?”
“No…” I looked down on the grass and fidgeted with the fallen leaves and twigs. “Scarlet, do you think I’m a coward?”
“No. Of course not; you’re the bravest person I’ve ever saw,” she said giving me another pleasant smile that always seemed to cheer me up. “What makes you say that?”
“Scarlet. I’m serious. Just tell me what I –“ I faltered and couldn’t end my statement. I looked at her and read her grim expression.
“Honestly, I’m worried. Ever since Michelle died, you don’t seem to be like the Leon I knew since the day we met,” said Scarlet. “You seem like you’re chasing after something desperately regardless of all the pain you are inflicted in the process.”
“And what am I chasing after?” I asked her.
“Nothing,” she said. My heart seemed to stop. “That ‘something’ has been gone for a long time but you are still chasing it, forcing yourself to believe that it is not gone.”
“What do you suggest I should do then?” I asked her. What is she? A psychotherapist? No; she was just a dear friend I’ve trusted over the years. I wished Michelle was alive to answer all the questions, but she wasn’t. All I needed was someone – or even something – to tell me where to go…
Scarlet didn’t answer for a long time. I didn’t complain because I knew I wasn’t in the place to demand answers.
“I don’t want you to take this the wrong way but; I don’t know, Leon,” said Scarlet. I couldn’t say I wasn’t disappointed. But again, I was never in the spot to complain. I nodded in response. “I do wish I had the answers like the way you gave me during the war. I really do.”
“It’s all right, Scarlet. Thanks,” I said. I stood up. “We should be going back. I’ll buy you some lunch.”
“Leon,” she called back.
“Maybe some problems are just questions that you need to answer yourself,” she suggested. I could sense she was careful about what she was talking about. “Maybe this one is like that.”
I considered how to respond to that, but soon I decided I should just get over with it.
“I guess it is.”
I fixed myself up with some sandwich at a café while Scarlet stayed with a loaf of bread from the bakery. It didn’t turn out to be the lunch I imagined but I figured I was satisfied enough in the café balcony.
“So what are you going to do?” Scarlet asked suddenly.
“I mean you’re finally out from indoors, you must have some idea of what you planned on doing,” she said.
“I told you, I wasn’t sure what I was into – I was lost and didn’t, no, still don’t know what to do,” I said with a heavy sigh. “It’s just that… I just think if she was here, she’ll tell me what I should do. It feels like everything I have been achieving just exploded into a million pieces. The hole is just… too big.”
“I think I can see why anyone would call you a coward,” she said. I froze and stared at her. “You’re afraid. You’re afraid of failure.”
“Excuse me?” I demanded. I found myself leaning up to her very closely. She seemed surprised because she backed up a bit.
“For all these times, Michelle was like… the boss of your life. She was like… like a guide,” explained Scarlet.
“I was the boss of my life,” I talked back.
“No you weren’t. How many times did you do something without consulting with her?” she asked me. I opened my mouth say something, but closed because I had nothing to say. All I could count was one occasion… which angered me even more because I remembered only one out of all the events I had with her. “See? It’s not that she was controlling you or anything, though. It’s just that you were too… dependent on her that you started to feel she was literally part of you. Now that she is… gone, you can’t stand it.”
“What do you want me to do then!” I was unwittingly blurting out words in rage. I couldn’t stand it that…
“Michelle would hate to see you like this, Leon,” she said it even more softly to calm me. Her gentle voice was soothing, but I was not myself. “Make your choice – a choice that you can return to your normal life you had with Michelle and… I never heard her last words but clearly, I’m sure it was nothing close to this.”
“See you tomorrow, Scarlet,” I stormed out of the café.
Go back! Go back and bloody thank her! Get the hell back to that balcony!
My brain shouted at me, but my body disobeyed and ran down the streets. In the distance I saw my house’s door.
Don’t go in! Do you want to be confined in yourself again? Don’t go in!
My mind was desperately yelling out. Rationality crumbled. The next thing I found was myself, back against my bed, crouching in agony in the very room I’ve been for nearly three days.
What is that you are afraid of? And why are you?
You’re a coward Leon.
You’re afraid of failure.
Why… I did not know why. When… I did not know when. Everything just started in a blink of an eye. Once, I was overjoyed to see Michelle all healthy again and the next, I was standing in front of her coffin, waiting for it to be buried. And in the center of these chain of events, was me getting ruined.
When did it all began?
The doctors were sure they cured her. Even Dr. Greg was there. Did they lie to me? Did they lie because some consequence can happen if they, the best medical team in the city, failed to treat one patient?
It mattered not. I was beginning to certain myself, rationalize that the doctors were the beginning of all this. If they treated that thing completely, she wouldn’t have died and I will never have been in this situation.
They are the cause… the doctors, that nerd who calls himself Dr. Greg, the person in charge of them… Jerrod… the Earth Dominion… the city… the settlement.
My head spun in lightning speed and the world just seemed mad. Scarlet told me to make a decision of my own. Try to become the ‘past’ me again.
It is too late for that… to return to the time before Michelle’s death.
But… I think I can finally make a decision of my own…
“Gentlemen, I call for a cheer!”
Everyone exclaimed in success, shouting ‘hurray’ and all kinds of applauding exclamation. The laboratory that had been working endlessly towards the Raven Project was turned into a small party house for the day.
“Congratulation, Dr. Greg. You’ve achieved another miracle in science and for all of mankind,” praised Commander Soren.
“Of course, I have,” shrugged Dr. Greg. They laughed. “Thank you, commander. I… don’t see the president? Is he here? I’m pretty sure he would love to join us tonight.”
“Oh, I’m afraid the president won’t be joining us – some personal business and presidential duty. He is, after all, a diligent man,” said the commander.
“Is that so?” the doctor made a mysterious smile. “Well, I can’t agree more – presidential duty is very crucial and I don’t doubt his personal issue is also very important.”
“But, it is a glorious night. I don’t know how you achieve your safety test but as long as the report is concerned, I believe I can take it to the president after the party,” said Soren. He finished his glass of whisky and ordered one of the men for another. “I think we can announce this great news tomorrow.”
“The sooner the better; the citizens has every right to know for there is nothing to keep confidential,” Dr. Greg agreed.
“Dr. Greg, congratulations,” commented Commander Rackel. He shook hands with him. The other two commanders arrived consecutively and praised him of his accomplishment.
“Thank you, thank you. It will never have been achieved without the support of our esteemed commanders,” said the doctor as he bowed in politeness.
“May I ask you what your plan is for our near future?” asked Commander Trek.
“Ah, I’ve been actually discussing that with our president,” said Dr. Greg. “The Crusaders are and will be remembered for the excellence on defending the mankind as we settled on this unexpectedly hostile planet. The Ravens, on the other hand, will be remembered for stretching the borders; literally and figuratively.”
“That is one hell of a plan, doctor,” remarked Commander Alex. The five of them laughed.
“Indeed it is. Commanders of the Earth Dominion, I’m confident you will witness the second Reconquista as soon as Raven Company is armed and ready.”
President Jerrod entered a dark room. Inside, barely a thing was visible except the brightly lit monitor of a computer, illuminating the vague figure of a man’s face. He pushed the door closed and slowly walked towards the man in front of the computer. The man was almost ignoring him until the president was only inches away from him.
“You didn’t come to the party, Jerrod,” said the man. He was busily typing something. “I was quite disappointed. I thought you loved my plan; you had to like it because it gave you everything you wanted. After a few weeks – no days – everything will be done. You’ll really have the one thing you’ve ever wanted for all these years.”
“Don’t talk to me like that,” said Jerrod.
“And why not Jerrod? It’s the truth. From day 1 as captain of the 3rd Ark, from day 1 as Commander of Sector 3, you wanted it,” said the man. His voice was mocking and full of insults, Jerrod thought. But the president knew better: it wasn’t the right time. “But remember, throughout history; before and after the Industrial Evolution and Digital Era, power corrupted many people.”
“My purpose has nothing to do with corruption, Vincent. And you have no right to judge me,” the voice of the president was already full of anger.
“I have every right. I gave it to you when I could have taken all of it,” Dr. Greg’s tone was cold. “But you’re right. I don’t give a damn about what you do. I am very satisfied right now. Although… I don’t think you are here just to chat with me.”
“What have you done to Michelle,” demanded Jerrod.
“She is very popular. Even the president is interested even after her death,” chuckled the doctor. Then his expression suddenly went rigid and stern. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jerrod. The official test is over. I’m giving her last moment. After that, I’ll give her a clean death. Then remove the fake body and put hers back in the coffin at the cemetery.”
“You are lying. What are you going to do with her,” Jerrod was becoming impatient.
“There’s no point arguing with me. As I said –“
Jerrod caught the doctor by his throat and slammed him against the wall. He unleashed his pistol and pointed the gun at his forehead.
“I swear I will pull the trigger,” said Jerrod.
“There’s a saying: think before you act,” said the doctor. Two men in full suites came out from nowhere and grabbed Jerrod by the shoulder and punched him in the stomach. The president lost hold of his pistol and collapsed on the ground. The doctor picked up the gun. “The one on your right is Jill and the one on your left is Dill. They are twins and the first two Ravens.”
“Michelle… what…” the president coughed and couldn’t speak on.
“She was just a test subject. These two, however, were immediately put to work right after the confirmation. The DNA input was nothing, but the real art is this: I engineered them myself; every tissue, organs and bone structure and so on,” said the doctor. “Speaking of it, it reminds me of the first masterpiece: the very first Crusader I created, the one I also designed and engineered everything from head to toe. Well, as you know it was quite a success and I made these two to reproduce the miracle that happened and is happening right now!”
“Master, what shall we do with him?” asked Dill.
“He’s the president. What are you going to do with him?” Dr. Greg rolled his eyes. He signaled them to back off. Then he returned to Jerrod as the two left. “You can’t defeat me. But if you just do as I say, you’ll have an invincible ally on your side, because realistically, Leon Veridi is never going to believe you. Besides, I think I will be stronger than him very soon.”
“One day, Vincent…” the president coughed but didn’t stop his words. “One day, you’ll be the one on the floor and I’ll be watching you from above.”
“I’ll be looking forward to it,” said the doctor. He signed at the Raven twins. Jill struck Jerrod’s head and knocked him out. “Take him back, lay him on his bed. And do a favor not to hurt this guy on the way. I still can’t touch him right now; not yet.”
It was midnight. The twins just came back after they took care of Jerrod. Dr. Greg had them follow. There were only a dozen scientists with him this time. All fourteen of them exited the settlement barricade and entered the woods just west of the city. After a few minutes, they arrived at a hatch covered with vines, branches and twigs. The doctor removed them and opened the hatch. He ordered the Ravens to scout the area to eliminate any spies. The thirteen scientists entered the hatch.
Dr. Greg made it first on the secret lab underground. He followed through the main corridor which wasn’t quite wide. He opened the third room to his left and went in.
“I have to admit, Jerrod was too kind building this for me,” he said. “Anyway, thanks to you. One out of two projects for my plan is done.”
Michelle Nathans was in binds and gagged. She struggled to shout something at him. Vincent Greg only smiled cynically. He ordered the scientists who accompanied him to grab her. She looked confused and panicked. But the dozen men forced her to stand up and move.
“Now, I want you to help me finish the last half of my grand plan."