In a time far before today, there was a period when one war was waged after another. These unceasing wars lasted for almost a century before they finally stopped. Now…if you are from the time that I think you are, perhaps you have never witnessed a war for yourself. If that is the case, I will spare you the grotesque details; if that is not the case, then, well, you already know what I have seen, and there is no need for me to remind you. In any event, this story takes place at a time after all those wars. Every nation, old and new, was using its best endeavors to rebuild its country, and repair all the damage—the tangible and the emotional. The tensions among the countries were still ripe, and memories of war were still fresh in the people’s minds. Every night and every morning, every time someone went to read the news, they would hold their breath, scanning the pages for anything that might tell them the war wasn’t over after all, that something had landed somewhere and killed some people. Everyone remembered something about at least one crack on the street; everyone had a story to tell; everyone was doing anything they could to survive another day—to make a living of some sort.
During that time, there was a happy family of three: a man named Jacob Jones, his elder son Oakley, and his young daughter Quincey. Quincey was nearly ten years younger than Oakley. The children’s mother died soon after giving birth to Quincey; the little girl had never known the face of the woman who gave her life. Nevertheless, Jacob did his best to provide for Oakley and Quincey as much as one man could during social and political unrest. The three got along amicably for a time like that—the daughter was an angel, and her father and brother doted on her. They were not a wealthy family, but they got by.
Somewhere dangerously close to where the family resided, there lived a scientific genius. He was around Jacob’s age, maybe slightly older, but none would be able to tell if they looked at him. The man had only a few cedar-colored hairs on his head, his gaze always seemed murky and unfocused, and the most intact parts of his skin were shriveled at best; the rest were comprised of patches of red and pink, black and purple. He used to have another name, but changed it to Filip Zagorski after the consecutive wars. Another thing Zagorski used to have was a stable job, but that he lost along with the war. Now, he had many little jobs. Like many others, he was doing everything in his power to stay alive; unlike many others, his power ranged too far beyond ordinary means.
The Jones family should have lived happily ever after. Alas, the best people in the world too often encounter the worst ones. Maybe this is the way this world strikes a balance between good and evil, but if you asked me, I would say that it needs more of the good and less of the bad.
Filip Zagorski looked exactly like the mad scientist he was. The reasons his scalp was almost bare and his skin in patches of dying colors were one and the same: whenever he experimented with chemicals whose final product was to be sold as a weapon against human beings, he experimented on himself. So long as he didn’t die, that is. So long as he didn’t die, he didn’t care. The scientist needed to know just how much it hurt, just what effects his works would have. He needed to know the precise outcomes of his products. Of course, that brought him close to death’s door so many times…and yet he remained alive, and he continued being the best provider of these secret weapons.
Wars, you see, never truly end. They are only taken underground as technology advances. Instead of bullets flying through the sky in broad daylight, bloodshed takes place beneath the dirt at night.
One night, the scientist ventured out of his home, looking for anyone, anyone at all, to be his test subject. There was only one reason: he was running out of clean patches of skin on himself. It had rained during the day, which made the air still somewhat foggy in the evening. This was the perfect night to test his new substance, he thought, the humidity would ensure its effects. Just one drop would be sufficient.
By chance, Mr. Jones hadn’t yet returned home when the scientist felt this desperate need for a test subject. Zagorski peered into the Jones residence through a window. He thought it was his lucky day: little Quincey was sitting by herself in her room, and although the door to her room was open, her brother was not with her at the moment. She was playing on her own by the window, and it presented Zagorski with the perfect opportunity. He grabbed the little girl and pulled her out of the window. Quincey screamed at the top of her lungs, partly because Zagorski was just so…hideous, but mostly because she was terrified. At the sound of her scream, her brother rushed into the room. At almost the same time, Mr. Jones arrived back home.
For the next few minutes, everything happened in a blur. Jacob and Oakley Jones fought hard to retrieve Quincey; Quincey struggled for her freedom—and as far as she was concerned, her life—with everything she had; the scientist wanted only to get one drop of his new product into the girl’s skin. He needed only a glimpse of the results, then he would have been satisfied. After all, his deadline was approaching fast.
In the midst of that struggle, a tube of lethal liquids—just one among many—fell out of Zagorski’s coat pocket. Mr. Jones stepped on it by accident, crushing it under his foot. The scientist, being the only person who knew what it was, instinctively stepped away from it. Nevertheless, the liquids melted away the father’s shoe, burning through his skin and into his bloodstream.
That night, Jacob Jones died. It was a quick and nearly painless death, or so Zagorski would tell Oakley later. Having realized that his father was being attacked by something, although not quite understanding what, young Oakley took revenge by attacking the scientist. He managed to mortally wound him, though he did not kill him. The ruckus caught the attention of the police and they were both taken into custody—where they remained for a ridiculously long time, during which Quincey was taken into an orphanage. It wasn’t until the war ended that both men were sentenced to imprisonment for wounding one another.
None of Zagorski’s true crimes were disclosed—not to the court, not by the police. In fact, he suspected that the reason they simply remained in custody for so long without ever being charged or released was related to his underground work. While the results of his labor benefited the state, the state could not simply admit or allow it to be known that it used such weapons against its enemies. The truth behind Jacob Jones’s death was buried along with his remains, never to see the light of day.
In jail, the old scientist and the young man became friends—uncanny, I know, given how they came to know each other to begin with. Yet, closer and closer they did become with each sharing of personal experiences. The scientist told the young man, bit by bit, about himself; in exchange, the young man mostly listened and reflected on those stories, as his own freedom to live and make reckless mistakes had been cut short when both of them were sentenced to imprisonment.
Filip Zagorski came from an ordinary family which, during a time of political turmoil and constant war, meant poverty. But poverty is only noticeable when there are wealthier people around you—and for him, that was not the case. The entire neighborhood and most of the country lived in similar ways, under similar conditions. When the war came, young Filip became separated from his family while fleeing. Left on his own, the boy did whatever it took to live another day. One thing led to another, and eventually, he became a member of a research team funded by the state. The team’s task was to develop lethal weapons that would not catch the attention of the enemy. The very existence of that team was confidential—but it did not stay that way for long.
In this world, nothing that is done will forever remain a secret, however desperately you want it to. Whatever you do, do it with the presumption of being discovered in mind. It is only a matter of time.
In between two wars, the secret research team was discovered and forcibly dissolved. The members scattered out to all corners of the nation, but most remained in contact with one another; most remained in contact with the state. Their work never did stop, the only difference was that they were now working deeper in the shadows than they had before. It was against this backdrop that Filip encountered the Joneses.
As the scientist and Oakley became friends, Oakley learned that Zagorski was actually not as old as he looked. The man appeared to be at least sixty, but close attention to the timeline of events he spoke of, he had actually not lived that many years—even if a lot of events had taken place in the span of twenty short years.
Twenty years that felt much too long for those who had lived them wide awake.
Zagorski passed on his knowledge to Oakley in jail—to the best of his ability in their restricted circumstances. The culprit whose most severe crimes were buried underneath every other state secret seemed to have reformed…or maybe he was never truly “evil” to begin with. When asked, Zagorski insisted that he was a bad man who had done bad things; at the same time, he showed remorse, and a strong desire to never experiment with unknown substances himself again—not on human beings, at least.
Then, the war finally ended.
While the men were serving their sentence, prolonged to reflect the gravity of Zagorski’s true crime without explicitly declaring it so, Quincey was growing up in an orphanage. Due to the tumultuous circumstances, she had to change from one orphanage to another—all the while never ceasing to look for her brother. She had watched her own father get killed, but she was not at the time old enough to understand why it was that Oakley was taken away, or where to. As she grew older, she was left with only the impression that he was taken, and even as she was old enough to live on her own, she continued searching for him.
The war finally ended, but the aftermath would leave global wounds set to bleed incessantly for the next century to come. For the time being, political territories were rearranged all over the world—but most of such rearrangements did not affect the siblings. The one that did was that the country where they had lived was now split into two; coincidentally or perhaps not, Oakley resided on one side and Quincey on the other. Although Quincey was now a young adult herself, and Oakley had regained his freedom, the two were never reunited to the end of their days.
But there was something strange about that.
Oakley, equipped with the knowledge that Zagorski had imparted to him, was able to use it for good, making a living for himself and eventually building his own family. Like Quincey, he too looked for her after his release from prison; like her, he could not gain access to any information on her whereabouts and guessed that it was due to political reasons beyond either of their control.
Quincey, on the other hand, had not received proper education or learned any substantive skill related to sustaining herself. Despite this, luck seemed always to be on her side: just when she needed money, there would be some kind of odd job available to her; just as she fell sick, she discovered that there was a doctor in her region who served mostly poor people for a relatively low price but with the same standards. These incidents took place so frequently that Quincey came to believe it was not luck after all but a mysterious benefactor, somebody watching over her from somewhere she did not know—but who it was, she did not know, and had no means of knowing.
And whoever this benefactor was, they were not powerful enough to transcend political boundaries and reunite her with her long-lost brother.
They must be human.
Years later, a young woman walked up the steps to her bedroom, a package in her arms. Her name was Willa Underhill, and she was home alone today. When Willa received a scholarship to attend university in pursuit of her degree in computer science, her entire family moved with her. After half-hopping to her room, she set the package down on the floor, thinking it was a specific kit she had ordered. When she unwrapped it, she found that it was an old setup of some kind of machine. Out of sheer curiosity, she pieced the machine together—even then, she couldn’t quite tell what it was supposed to be, except that it was probably the prototype of something—and turned it on.
“Hi!” rang out a young male voice—but there was no screen on the machine, nor a face, or anything that indicated front or back. “I’m the most advanced artificial intelligence of the day.”
“...you’re what? No you’re not,” said Willa.
“...please wait a moment,” said the machine.
Willa waited, still curious above all else. She closed the door even though no one else was home. A little over two minutes later, the machine spoke again.
“I apologize. Apparently, I thought I’m the most advanced artificial intelligence, but man has landed on Jupiter, woman has landed on the moon, and so, so many presidents all over the world have been assassinated. I’ve done my research, now I know where I’m at.” The machine even sighed.
“Wait, were you supposed to be artificial intelligence? You sound more like a recording—an old one,” Willa retorted.
“I was. Actually…not initially. My…brain was uploaded to this thing. I was initially human, had a wish, asked a crazy genius for crazy favors he owed me. He did it. I didn’t know he did it until you turned this on, but I guess this machine got shipped much too late.”
The more insane it sounded, the more curious Willa became. She sat in front of the machine—or behind it; she couldn’t tell.
“Tell me your story.”
The voice seemed to take a deep breath.
“My name is Oakley Jones. I lived a happy life, though a short one—and I’ve always, always been looking for my sister.”
Oakley’s story alone would not have helped Willa find out what happened to Quincey. After all, both were extra-ordinary names. The name of Filip Zagorski, however, together with his secret identity, connected all the necessary dots and solved all the necessary puzzles.
“Hey, Oakley?” called Willa one day, nearly a year later.
“I’m here,” replied the young man’s voice.
“I found out where your sister ended up,” said Willa, “She lived a full life and was buried in the eastern part of the country, together with a man. Married. She wasn’t a Jones anymore.”
“Ohhh I didn’t want to know that,” Oakley’s voice said, chuckling afterwards. “But I’m glad to know.”
Such a good young man he had been all his life, Oakley Jones. I lament how the world is—how good people die so young, and sinful ones like myself live on for so long. Long enough to leave a hazardous trail wherever we go, but not long enough to mend the tragedies of our own making.
~ fin ~
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