NEIL M. PAIK
I. Birth | Avi
I was born on October 7th, 2041 at the age of 13.
The date is important — October 7th. It was a Monday in Earth time. It was also the day they came for us.
There are things I remember from that morning vaguely, before it happened. The bruise on the apple my mother packed me. A brown stain against its perfectly shiny, green surface. The last time my father kissed my cheek and I felt the warmth and nausea that came from smelling the cold alcohol of his after shave.
And I remember Julia. The sad, angry wrinkles that began invading her girlish face that morning. How she pretended to be sick so she wouldn’t have to go back to school, to show everybody what she had become.
That summer, my sister was riding across the street when a drunk driver from Earth smashed into her bicycle and left her paralyzed from the hips down. She was 10. And part of her would only ever be 10.
As my father struggled to wheel her into the back of our sedan, he managed to keep a smile cracking through the beads of sweat that plagued his forehead — pestering reminders that he and my mother couldn’t afford a bigger vehicle. That my sister would be further tormented by the spectacle of his failed attempts to pull her out of the car at a proper angle in front of our classmates.
Give me six months, he would tell us for years. Six months and I’ll get things moving. We’ll have enough to get a bigger car, a bigger house. The six months passed and he would say, “It was a slow season and the newcomers from Earth are seizing up all the jobs. Give me six more.” Then six more. And six more after that.
As we parted ways to different buildings in the school, I could feel a growing lump in my throat. It’s a feeling I’ve come to know well since then, but that day was my introduction to guilt. Guilt for not being there for Julia. For not skipping my class so she wouldn’t be alone her first day in what they called the “special” section of the school. For her once spirited little legs that now felt like immovable prison bars caging her young soul. As my father wheeled her away, she turned with the hint of a smile and stuck out her tongue. I think it was her way of telling me not to worry. That things would be okay.
“What happens to a dream deferred?”
That’s the last lesson I learned in school. An old poem in our Earth Languages class. I remember distinctly now the details that felt fleeting and unimportant at the time. The crispness of Mr. Aziz’s shirt. The perfect part in his hair. He continued with the stanzas of the poem and gestured to the portraits of Earth’s historic civil rights activists that hung upon the green walls. He spoke with force, like a desperate military commander giving orders to his outnumbered troops. Every line of the poem struck like lightning, as the sound of thunder began to approach outside.
It was a thunder that seemed to last for forever, getting closer every second. Mr. Aziz continued…
“Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
The thunder came in even repetitions, roaring its HUTT HUTT HUTT HUTT. Left, right. Left, right.
“Or fester like a sore—“
BANG! The classroom door burst open and the roar of troops entered.
Their pristine black boots thundered HUTT HUTT, left right. They wore dark helmets and Kevlar vests and held shields eight inches thick before their obscured faces.
They came straight for Mr. Aziz, who was calm — never missing a breath in his recitation.
“…and then run?”
They slammed his head into the wall, leaving a burst of red staining a black and white portrait of Nelson Mandela that hung against the glossy, unblemished whiteboard.
They dragged his unconscious body outside, never making eye contact with any of us. They shut the door and locked it from the outside, ensuring we couldn’t get out. Ensuring we couldn’t see what they were about to do.
At the time, I could only think of Julia. Did they find her classroom, too? I ran to the window past a huddle of other students to peek outside through a crack in the blinds.
A gloved hand slammed against the window as one of the dark helmets peered at us from outside, his other hand fastened to an assault rifle so tightly it seemed like an extension of his fist.
We crept down from the window and exchanged tearful glances in silence, not knowing what words to say, not having the courage to utter anything but whimpers. Through the crack in the blinds, I could vaguely see Mr. Aziz on his feet in the distance, his pristine shirt now untucked. The perfect part in his hair now disheveled, soiled with dirt and blood. They poked his back with a rifle and pushed him into a line. I recognized the other adults beside him — they were teachers, the principal, our counselors.
As I searched through the faces, my heart fell into my stomach. Down the row, there was Mrs. Honeycutt — Julia’s teacher. The golden curls lay bloody upon her face as her plump body shivered in fear.
The leader of the dark helmets stood before his comrades with one arm raised, barking his command.
My mouth had never felt so dry. My heart was racing and yet I felt paralyzed, unable to move even a muscle. I thought of Julia’s accident. Of how she must be feeling in this moment.
In a deft motion, the leader dropped his hand to his side, and instantly there was one resounding crack of thunder. Almost completely in sync, the line of teachers fell to the ground, their bodies twitching to stillness as lines of red joined together into one growing pool of blood on the asphalt.
As the dark helmets marched away and the sound of thunder subsided, I searched for Mr. Aziz’s crumpled body amongst the dead. His starched white shirt was now several shades of red. He twitched slightly and turned his head to the window, looking straight into my eyes.
His mouth was moving slightly. Though there was no way I could hear what he was saying, I knew. He was still reciting the poem. He hadn’t missed a single beat. As his eyes became still and grey behind his cracked glasses, I imagined his spirited voice articulating the final words that escaped his lips.
II. Death | Julia
The sun peeks through a gap in the manhole cover above and awakens me from another nightmare. It’s been three days this week that I’ve dreamt about my brother. About the day that they came to our school.
The day my parents were murdered.
I quietly slip out from amongst the bodies of rebels lying beside me and slip on my metal legs.
Gina hears me rustling and places her lips against my shoulder quietly.
For fifteen years now, we have been underground. Moving quietly at night and switching headquarters between the city’s sewage systems as The Order tracks us from above.
The Resistance began as secret meetings where we could find others who wanted to fight the injustice of the current regime. But as The Order infiltrated our gatherings with their spies, many were killed. We were forced to find shelter underground. To lurk in the darkest and dirtiest places where sustaining human life is barely possible.
Women have given birth in the sewers. Children have learned to walk here. We have developed our own ecosystem, our own literal underground society.
I tell Gina to go back to sleep but she’s already getting dressed. She asks me where I’m going and I say I just need to take a walk to sort through some bad dreams. She wants to come with me but before she can ask, I kiss her on the lips deeply and lull her back to our sleeping bag.
Down here, you learn to hold onto the things that are most precious. Gina is all I have now, and I don’t want her to see what I’m about to do.
I cover up my metal legs with black padded pants. I slip on the polished black boots. I wrap the Kevlar vest around my chest. I place the dark helmet above my head. And I arm myself with the shield and rifle. This one has a name scratched into the handle: David.
David. For a second I feel a slight tinge of sadness for him. A soldier for The Order who came down into the sewers to follow a lead about rebel activity. His mistake was coming alone. He was beheaded violently by a group of teenage rebels who guard the manhole entrances in urban areas. Their hatred for The Order coupled with their raging hormones didn’t leave David much of a chance. A mangled corpse without a head was found days later on a sidewalk above. Images of the body were utilized by the news media as a propaganda tool to further bolster military spending to fight The Resistance.
I make sure the chamber is loaded and leave my empathy in the sewers as I climb up onto the street and into a world that used to be my own.
The city feels the same, though it is no longer home to me. The billboards have changed. They used to advertise movies, now they display majestic pictures of the president. They speak of his nobility. His charitable activities. And of the might of his troops.
Troops who look like I look now. Troops like the ones who stormed our school that day.
It was my first time returning to class after my accident. All I can remember is a crash of thunder, boots on the ground, and the thuds of bodies hitting asphalt. There were no screams, only death.
When the humans from Earth first arrived, they were diplomatic. They claimed to be refugees who were coming to seek help to restore their home planet after a devastating war. But as they integrated into our society, it became clear that they weren’t simply attempting to return home. They were looking for a new one: ours.
Preying upon the hearts of empathetic citizens, they equated their struggle with that of the economically disadvantaged. The poor. The weak. They became policemen and soldiers. Bankers and politicians. And then one became president.
Within a generation, they commanded the military and the government. When it was clear that their intention was to take over completely and subjugate the rest of us in our own planet, people began to speak out.
That’s when they established The Order.
It was created by their Earth-born president in the name of planetary security — a measure to protect the homeland from invasion, including invaders from the inside.
They attacked institutions and individuals — namely those who spoke out publicly to defame the government. To protest injustice.
My school was one of the first to be raided. They lined up our teachers and brutally slaughtered them en masse. My brother Avi managed to escape his classroom and wheel me home. But we got there too late. My parents had been seized and taken to jail. I thought that would be the worst of it. That things would be sorted out when we arrived, and The Order would realize that they had made a mistake.
But it was just the beginning.
It was the last time I would see my parents alive.
It was the last time I would see my brother’s face without a dark helmet covering it.
My brother. Golden child of The Order. They gave him a test at the jail cell where they took my parents. And he passed with flying colors.
They usurped his body and mind by putting him through the process we call Reawakening. They trained him, armed him, and made him a killing machine to thwart The Resistance.
Today will be the first time I see my brother’s face in fifteen years.
Today, he will answer for the murder of our parents.
Today will be his last day.
III. Rebirth | Gina
When my family and I first arrived, we had nothing. Our home planet of Earth had been torn apart by violence. Famine was the only thing in abundance.
The climate had become defensive, finally losing patience with the human race and determining that the only way to ensure the planet’s survival was our extinction.
When our ship arrived on LUMA, we were taken in as refugees. We were given project houses to live in and told that we would be taken care of so long as we could assimilate.
LUMA had first been settled by humans 500 years prior. Discovered by the greatest minds of the scientific revolution, it was the best kept secret of the elite for centuries. The richest and most powerful individuals — usually intellectuals who had become frustrated by the pitfalls of human nature — secretly created technology that allowed their transport and settlement into this newfound planet.
The general public wouldn’t be aware of the feasibility of space travel until the 20th-century. But even then, LUMA stayed off the radar. In order to keep the existence of their planet hidden from public knowledge, those who had settled LUMA created a force field preventing spacecraft and satellites from recognizing its existence.
LUMA had become invisible.
There were rumors of course. Tall tales passed on since the 1500’s about a planet like Earth where the greatest minds from history — call them superhumans — lived and prospered. Where the likes of Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci settled after history deemed them dead. But that’s all they were — rumors.
It wasn’t until the last of us who found a way to escape Earth’s crumbling surface resorted to desperation that we considered the tall tales to be true. Whether it was lack of oxygen on the spacecraft or the outdated sentiment called hope that drove us, we found LUMA. It was real. And it was beautiful.
A newborn planet filled with wondrous nature. Not suffering from an antagonistic climate or overpopulation. Settled only by a small group of brilliant, high class individuals many centuries prior whose descendants lived peacefully amongst one another. It was the closest thing to utopia that any humans had ever created.
Only they didn’t consider themselves humans any longer. They were different now. Their ancestors had left Earth behind disgusted by the violence, hatred, and greed that they believed defined humanity.
Not many were enthused about our sudden appearance. But they let us stay.
We lived peacefully for years. Took up jobs in the community. Had children. And then one of us was elected to political office. That’s when the natives turned on us.
Each day there would be a new assassination attempt, a new assault on a human-owned business. A questionable use of force by their police.
We had no choice but to protect ourselves. To create a defense system that would keep our people safe. We called our troops The Order — as an attempt to restore what we believed was a peaceful system of Earth-originated laws that all beings could function under. They accused us of attempting to take over their planet. But that was never the intention.
We came to seek help for Earth. So we could one day travel back home and restore it to a habitable circumstance. But it takes time to assimilate. Time to build. Our people came of age here, got married — sometimes to the natives. We planted roots and created a new home.
For some, we would always be outsiders — memories of the dark past that they had left behind.
The natives formed an underground network called The Resistance: a terrorist organization that operated beneath the streets of the city planning assassinations and bombings of our leaders. Attempting to scare our community back to Earth.
The Order took decisive action to silence Resistance members who had infiltrated the schools and were spreading propaganda amongst the students. They utilized Earth’s history as a tool to prove that we had been perpetrators of evil. That the great civil rights activists from human history worked their entire lives to quell the type of violence that our president now perpetuated here.
They portrayed themselves as the oppressed, despite the majority of their numbers. They blamed our presence for strains on the economy, and for diminishing work opportunities that were previously reserved only for natives.
They bombed our residence buildings in the middle of the night and then boasted about it on the news the next morning.
My sisters were asleep when the explosives tore through our living room. I can only find solace in the hope that their last moments of life were spent dreaming.
A soldier for The Order rescued me from the burning building. He introduced me to others who had suffered loss. Who came here seeking a better life but were subjugated again and again until the life was beaten out of them. I was one of the youngest, and they knew that meant I could be their secret weapon.
They set me up for the process the natives call Reawakening — a system that restructures a human’s conscious mind and invents a new person. Imagine if all of the memories of your life — your parents feeding you, your first time making love, your failures and your heartaches — could somehow be restructured to create a new history of you.
My history became one of a native. I was rewired to have been born on LUMA, to have lost my family to a raid by The Order, and to have sought out the Resistance in an attempt to rectify the wrongs of the humans. From then on, I would be known as Gina — with no true memory of who I really was.
Gina infiltrated The Resistance five years ago after following a lead that there was a woman with metal legs leading the movement in the sewers. She met this woman — Julia — and they bonded over their shared loss. They were there for each other as friends, and then lovers.
In the darkest of places, these two women found a bond that brought light into their lives and sparked a feeling that they had both long forgotten: hope.
But in these times, hope alone is sometimes simply not enough.
The Order recaptured Gina and ran her through Reawakening again, this time reversing the process and restoring her to the human who I used to be. They utilized the new memories that Gina created as information to infiltrate The Resistance.
I was to return to the sewers and continue my charade, pretending to be Gina. Pretending to love Julia — because I was her weakness. And one day, when the command came from The Order — I was to destroy her.
The thing that Reawakening never quite figured out about human beings is how fallible we become in matters of love.
Although I knew the moments between Gina and Julia were not real, they still continued to exist within me. Hidden in a mysterious part of my heart, thoughts of our time together weakened and excited me all at once. It was an impossible sensation to resist.
When she whispered into my ear as we made love, I felt like I was Gina again. It was a feeling that existed between two women who discovered love in each other’s arms. A feeling no technology — no matter how advanced — could ever truly erase.
I felt that weak and excited part of my heart die this morning…when the command came in. I was to terminate Julia today.
She rose early and began dressing in her stolen Order uniform when I kissed her shoulder and tried to tell her the truth. But something else was on her mind and she left in a hurry. I pretended to go back to sleep, then crawled out and followed her into the heart of the city. Into the headquarters of The Order.
The plan was to signal the others when I had killed Julia, and they would infiltrate the underground network and destroy the heart of The Resistance. Lopping off the head of the movement would destroy the morale of its followers and cripple them indefinitely.
It took me some time to sneak into the headquarters and catch up with Julia, but by the time I did, she had a gun pointed at a real member of The Order. A decorated soldier who she had cornered in a corridor.
I reached for my gun, but my fingers became paralyzed as he took off his helmet and I instantly recognized his face.
Julia kept a photograph of him in a locket she wore around her neck since I’ve known her.
This was the man she was here to kill. A head commander of The Order. A man she knew only as Avi.
Julia’s long lost brother. My husband.
IV. Awakening | Avi
I imagined what it would be like to see my sister again after fifteen long years. In my mind, she was still a scared, wheelchair-bound girl sticking her tongue out as rebellion against the ugly fate life had dealt her.
But the woman looking at me through the barrel of her revolver is not scared. She is ferocious, determined. The scars on her face indicate that these fifteen years have been unkind; that she has insisted on living through them fist first.
The last time we saw each other was in the jail cell where they took our parents. I held Julia close to me as we entered the holding compound where they kept all who were suspected of being affiliated with The Resistance. It was a row of cages with bodies lying on top of each other. As soon as we saw them, I knew this was no misunderstanding. Our parents weren’t taken by mistake, and they would not be spared. My father had been beaten, his bludgeoned face fresh with blood. My mother’s eyes were cold and grey, distant as if contemplating some long held secret.
The dark helmets placed Julia and I in front of the cell. And then they held guns to our heads. Our parents screamed in panic, begging for our lives to be spared at the expense of their own. But it wasn’t going to be that easy.
The Order didn’t want to simply exterminate us. They wanted to ensure that no new seeds would be planted. That no trees of resistance would grow. The dark helmets withdrew their guns and placed one each in my hand and Julia’s.
They gave us a choice: kill our parents, or all four of us would be killed.
My father looked at me through his tears and whispered, “It’s okay.” He repeated the phrase endlessly, in fading whimpers as if trying to convince himself it was true.
The Order watched us from behind their dark masks, and I wondered if they were secretly crying, or secretly smiling.
One of them began a countdown from 10. 9… 8…
Julia began to scream. My mother tried to calm her through the bars of the cell, but the numbers continued…
7… 6… 5…
“It’s okay…it’s okay…” my father stammered, his eyes glued to the dirty floors.
4… 3… 2…
Julia’s grip was loosening on the gun. There was no way she could do this. The dark helmets once again drew their weapons to our heads.
At the sight of the metal touching Julia’s forehead, I acted.
I pulled the trigger twice quickly and without hesitation. Silence filled the air.
Silence but for the sound of a THUD, and then another. And another. Falling out of my pocket and bouncing slowly away was the apple mother had packed me for lunch. The stain had grown, and it was now completely brown. Rotten. It bounced until finding refuge next to my parents’ cold, interlocking fingers. They died holding hands.
The silence was pierced open by Julia’s screams as the dark helmets dragged her away. I couldn’t meet her eyes. I couldn’t bear to see how she would look at me.
And for fifteen years, I wouldn’t.
I had passed The Order’s test. They placed me through a sophisticated LUMA technology they called Reawakening — reprogramming my conscious mind and restructuring my memories to fit that of a soldier for The Order.
Avi died on October 7, 2041 at the age of 13. And I was born that day.
I killed for The Order. I arrested hundreds of dissidents. Five years into my service, The Resistance had fully taken shape underground.
One night, they bombed a family project building and killed several children. By the time I arrived, only one person was still breathing.
I took her to the hospital, where she fell into a coma. If and when she woke up, she would find out that her sisters were dead. I felt guilty not being there to deliver the news, so I visited her each night on the chance that she might wake. For six months, I sat by her bed nightly hoping her eyes would open — until one day they did.
Her name was Elsa, and she became my wife.
Fueled by a seething desire for vengeance, Elsa went undercover as an agent of The Order to infiltrate The Resistance’s underground network. We Reawakened her as Gina — a native of LUMA whose family was killed by The Order. When she returned to the surface and we scanned her memories, we identified the new leader of The Resistance: a woman with metal legs.
Her face brought me an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu. She was a part of Avi’s memories, but I was no longer Avi. Still, something inside of me felt conflicted.
We reversed Gina’s Reawakening and she was Elsa again. But something was different between us. We weren’t the same couple; her mind was often elsewhere, and she threw herself into her work — spending most of her time undercover and underground with The Resistance. Maybe part of Gina had stayed with her the way part of Avi had stayed with me.
The image of the woman with metal legs ate away at me. But I didn’t find an answer until she stood before me pointing a gun in my face. She was Avi’s sister. My sister.
I reach out to touch Julia’s face but a definitive CLICK of the safety coming off of her revolver stops me.
“Julia…” I begin to say her name for the first time in fifteen years, but I’m interrupted.
From the shadows, Elsa emerges dressed in her undercover rebel attire, smelling of waste, and with her gun pointed straight at Julia.
“What are you doing here, Gina?” Julia asks as her stance softens.
Now three guns are drawn: Julia’s on me, Elsa’s on Julia… and mine on Elsa.
My wife turns and speaks to me for the first time in weeks. “What are you doing?”
LUMA was first discovered and populated by the most intelligent minds on Earth five centuries ago. When they settled here, they invented some of the greatest technology in the known universe: systems that could control human thinking, manipulate our memories, and transform our very beings.
But one thing even the most advanced LUMA technology could never decipher was the bond that existed between two humans who found love in each other’s hearts.
The images of Julia from Gina’s memory bank haunted me incessantly, and I needed to know why. Without anyone’s knowledge, I used my access to The Order’s headquarters to hack into the Reawakening platform and reversed my programming.
Fifteen years after killing him, I secretly became Avi again.
Julia believes I am still a loyal soldier for The Order. Elsa believes I am still the man she married.
An alarm rings out before any of us can say another word, and the sound of thunder that has become so familiar to me these last fifteen years surrounds us. HUTT HUTT, left right.
Soldiers encircle the three of us.
Tears stream down Elsa’s face. I try to tell her that it’ll be okay, but when she turns her head and I see the red, broken veins in her eyes, it’s clear that she has been crying for days. These tears are not for herself. They are not for me, nor for her former husband.
They are not tears shed by a lover at the receiving end of a long betrayal. They are those of a lover guilty of murdering her partner.
Somehow she knew.
“He’s been reawakened unlawfully as a Resistance sympathizer,” she tells the soldiers. “He’s no longer one of us.”
The soldiers seize my weapon and they restrain Julia. Our long awaited reunion has placed us once again in chains.
“Wait!” Elsa interjects. “She’s with me. She was an informant.”
Whether it was true love or the piece of Gina that was still a part of Elsa’s conscience that led her to lie at that moment, I’ll never know. But she chose Julia over me.
It didn’t matter that my sister looked away and didn’t utter a word. That she felt paralyzed by Elsa’s hand holding hers. That she kept from telling the soldiers the truth. That she was not an informant. That she was here to destroy The Order. That she was a loyal member of The Resistance and that she thought Elsa was an ally named Gina.
And that they were in love.
I studied my sister. Her scars. Her torn up clothes. The stench of sewage. Her metal legs. Our dead parents. I don’t know if she blamed me for pulling the trigger in the jail cell that day, but I know that she hated me for taking away the only people who looked at her like she wasn’t broken.
Her silence now doesn’t hurt me; she never owed me anything.
The first shot punctures my arm and blood leaks down my fingers onto the glossy, unblemished white floor.
I imagine the growing red stain sinking beneath the surface and spreading roots underground, forever embedding this world with the memory of what was taken from us.
Julia finally meets my fading eyes. I want to tell her not to worry, that things will be okay. But the strength escapes my voice, and I can only stick out my tongue.
Her face softens. She knows that I am no longer the monster they made me; that I am once again her big brother. In her changing expression, I sense the same hint of a smile once worn by a shy, little girl on the first day of what was supposed to be a long school year.
“What happens to a dream deferred?”
I picture Mr. Aziz’s bloodied lips uttering his final words as the crack of thunder shatters my chest.
“…Or does it explode?”