The first thing Julius noticed when he awakened was how blue the world was around him. His hand twitched as the sensation of cool gel between his fingers registered in his muddled mind. Julius slowly opened his eyes, the blue becoming more vivid as he peered through his eyelashes. All was still, everything silent except for the low hum of a generator.
Fighting through the thick gel as he tilted his head up, Julius found himself staring at three metallic orbs, emitting light through multiple holes in its exterior and drifting on their own above him. He turned back to gaze through the bright blue sea, in which he realized absentmindedly, held flecks of light that shimmered like little diamonds. Julius reached out to touch one of those beautiful sparkles, wincing when his hand instead found icy glass, and he opened his eyes wider to view a man staring back at him.
His golden hair drifted to frame his face in the reflection, and the wetsuit he wore clung to him like a second skin. An oxygen mask covered his nose and mouth, and connected to three dark tubes that snaked their way to the tank’s edge. Julius realized with a start that he’d been breathing into a mask the entire time, but the actual feel of it wasn’t there. Confused by the reflection, gel, and lack of feeling, dread started creeping up his spine.
Adrenaline coursed through his veins as he pushed against the numbness in his legs. It took several tries, and a lot of Julius’ patience, before they finally budged and were able to shove through the condensed liquid. Julius couldn’t help a relieved sigh as his body seemed to become aware of itself again. Gathering whatever strength he had left, he kicked at the glass surrounding him. The instant his feet touched the tank, the orbs above him began to fly in a frenzy and the light specks began to dance and the stasis chamber began to hiss. A distinct pop implored Julius to glance up through the blue haze and find that the lid of the airtight chamber had opened. With a grunt, he pulled off his mask and propelled himself upwards to his freedom. When his head broke through the gel and humid air began to warm his cheeks, a deceptively human, male voice shook him out of his reverie. “Good day, Mr. Felix. I trust you’ve had an enjoyable slumber.”
He frowned when he remembered whose it was. Julius’ voice was low and raspy as he asked, “Gideon? What the hell’s going on?”
The AI was even more cheerful when his deep timbre began to fill the dim room a second time.
“Amazing, Mr. Felix! I didn’t expect you to recall my name so soon. Senior Mr. Felix said you’d only be able to recollect all your memories after a few hours...”
Julius’ heart began to pound as he cut Gideon off. “Where is my brother?”
There was a deafening quietness as Gideon struggled to respond. Instinctively, Julius ran a hand through his slick hair as he considered the computer system’s silence. “Where’s Axel?”
“Senior Mr. Felix left for Washington, and he hasn’t returned.”
Julius’ hands were trembling as he held onto the sharp edge of the tank, but he couldn’t tell whether it was because of worry or fury.
The AI sighed, a gesture so human it sent shivers down his back.
“It’s been seven years since you’ve been in the stasis chamber, since he left. The probability of his sustained existence is less than one millionth of a percent currently. This statistic holds true for anyone on Earth. Knowing he wouldn’t be coming home, he kept you, Mr. Felix, in a hibernation state and told everyone you’d passed away to ensure your continued safety.”
Julius’ entire body went rigid at the words, disbelief marring his features.
“Axel couldn’t just leave me behind. He wouldn’t.”
Gideon’s external scanner must have caught onto the turmoil of emotions building in his chest, because the AI rushed to explain.
“I don’t want to overwhelm you, especially since you’ve been in a quiescent state for so long. But simply put, Felix Industries was trying to find a cure for TIYS-76...” The name sounded familiar, especially in the same sentence as the pharmaceutical company that his brother ran, but its meaning lingered right out of his mind’s reach. After its sensors detected Julius’s confused expression, the AI clarified.
“In case you can’t recall, TIYS-76 is a virus that targets vital organs such as the heart, lungs, and intestines. It was a biological weapon developed in secret by terrorists who’d stolen classified records from an unknown experimental laboratory in northern Siberia. After the U.S and its allies attacked, the terrorists released their own form of the virus-”
Julius cut him off as he looked around, taking in the empty room and its tiled white walls and floor. “Where am I? I don’t remember ever being here.”
The AI answered jovially, “Don’t worry, sir, that’s to be expected. We are in the Felix Industries’ command center’s loft. Senior Mr. Felix wanted to keep you close to home when you awoke, as the virus would’ve taken over in every country and he wouldn’t be here to...what are you doing, Mr. Felix? Stop, you’re going to hurt yourself!”
Julius had slowly begun lifting himself from the tank while the AI had been speaking, his arms quaking with his weight as he swung a wobbly leg over the edge of the chamber.
Julius glared down at the ten foot drop. “Damn you, Axel.”, he whispered.
Ignoring Gideon’s protests, Julius pushed himself forward and let go of the glass edge, landing roughly on smooth tiles. As he struggled to hold himself up, he slipped on the blue goo clinging to his feet and hit the ground with a painful groan. “For goodness’ sake, Mr. Felix! It would’ve taken only ten minutes for proper extraction...” But Julius couldn’t hear the AI’s deep timbre, because his ears had begun to ring and his vision to cloud as he slipped into a now familiar darkness in a pool of unforgiving icy blue on an unforgiving icy floor.
Kiara stood with Rover on top of the complex she’d called home for almost three years. The air was a warm blanket against her skin as she leaned against the railing, watching the scene in front of her intently. Spiraling towers reached towards the heavens, the sun’s light reflecting off their glass panels to illuminate a silent city. From her height, the line of empty cars below her seemed to blend into a colorful assortment of spots on a black canvas. A gust of wind blew her thick dark locks away from her face, whispering sweet nothings as it passed her by. Massachusetts seemed to be trapped, frozen in time, as the sunset painted the sky with bright gold hues followed by layers of dark pink interspersed with red streaks and pure midnight blue. The stars stood proud with their sun, sparkling like crystals in a stunning sea of colors. The final touch on a masterpiece. Absolutely gorgeous, Kiara mused.
Rover nosed her leg, and she reached a comforting hand down to pet his dense black fur. She kept her eye on the view, on the abandoned stores hundreds of feet below, on the dozens of miles ahead of her in which not a single soul lived. As she brushed her hand through her companion’s pelt, she sighed. “You know, Rover, it wasn’t always like this. This sky”, she gestured to the stars above, “was full of smoke and pollution. Before the plague, no one had clearly seen a sunset in almost twelve years. Mom once told me that the sky used to be clear, beautiful, but all I’d ever seen at the time was grey so I didn’t believe her.” Kiara scoffed. “I was sure she was dreaming, that skies like that were impossible in this city. I wish she were here to see just how wrong I was.”
With a soft chuckle at the thought of her petite mother’s smug smile, Kiara sighed. “You’re great company, Rover, but sometimes I wish I could have someone here. Anyone really, to share the sunset with.”
A tremulous smile formed on her lips as she shook her head. “Come, Rover. Let’s go inside before it gets dark.”, she murmured before walking over to the door built into a block of cement. Kiara opened it, letting Rover tentatively travel down the steep staircase first. Not bothering to lock the door behind her, she followed in step. When they reached the tiled top floor, she asked, “Hey Gideon, do you think it’s Rover’s dinner time yet? I’m not sure when I last fed him, but since I’m already starving...”
At the absence of the AI who’d had kept her company for the last three years, she froze. “Gideon?”, she called.
A moment later, Gideon answered in his refreshingly human voice. “Yes, Mrs. Ardent?”
Kiara frowned at the abrupt answer, out of place for the normally talkative AI.
“Is everything alright?”
There was a long silence as Gideon contemplated his next words, which only served to augment her growing concern.
“No, Mrs. Ardent, everything’s not alright. Do you promise not to be angry if I tell you something? I’ve kept it hidden to respect my maker’s wishes, and because there really was no need to confide before. He was safe in his chamber, simply resting, but when he awoke...”
She cut him off then, cautiously asking, “What exactly do you mean by ‘he’?”
The AI’s voice lowered to no more than a whisper as he said his next words. “Julius Felix, ma’am. He’s alive.”
The first thing Julius noticed when he awakened was how white the world was around him. He felt a sensation of warmth and the light touch of cotton on his face, a complete opposite of how he’d felt after waking up in the stasis chamber. This time, however, his limbs worked just fine. Julius pushed the white bed-sheet down, groggily running a hand through his soft golden hair, and pulled back when he realized that the blue gel that had once coated it was gone. Startled, he moved to sit up.
“Woah there, Felix. Take it easy, the last thing you want is to pass out for a second time.”
Before Julius could find the words’ source, the AI’s jovial voice chimed in.
“The lady’s right, Mr. Felix. I trust you’ve had an enjoyable slumber?”
Julius’ answering laugh was mirthless as he carefully pulled himself into a sitting position. “I’ve had enough ‘enjoyable slumbers’ to last a lifetime, Gideon.”
He finally met eyes with who’d spoken first, a tall woman made of sharp angles leaning against the wall beside him. Even though Julius had been asleep at the time, it was jarring to see someone after so many years, especially because he believed he was the only one that survived. Even more surprising was that this stranger was wearing his T-shirt along with a pair of leggings that clearly had been through a lot.
“Who the hell are you? Why are you in my”, his eyes narrowed as he looked around, “...bedroom? Wait, bedroom?”
He lifted the sheet to peek at his clothing, where instead of a slimy wetsuit, he found a soft cotton hoodie and shorts. Julius’s cheeks flushed as he glared at the ceiling. “Um, Gideon, a little help here?”
The woman rolled her eyes, but there was a spark of amusement in those chocolate brown irises. “I can answer for myself, Felix. My name’s Kiara Ardent”, she gestured down at her feet, “and this little guy here, is Rover.”
A mini black dog leaped up onto the large bed at the mention of his name. Tail wagging, Rover licked a long wet stripe across Julius’s face, and he found himself genuinely laughing as he turned away to protect himself. After a moment of petting the adorable animal’s glossy fur, Julius glanced up at Kiara, now a little calmer.
“Alright then, Ardent. Mind explaining why you got me out of the wetsuit? People normally buy me dinner first.”
She didn’t budge from her position on the wall, preventing him from being able to see her fully. “Don’t flatter yourself, Felix. I would’ve much rather left you on the ground until you woke up, but Gideon kept whining about a potential fever.”
Julius cocked a dark eyebrow at her boldly unflustered response, but dropped the topic. He didn’t want to think about it anymore than she did. Instead he asked her, “How’d you end up here? In my brother’s command center?”
Kiara finally came into view, stepping forward from the wall. Julius’s T-shirt barely hung past her waist, but her thick straight hair reached her hips. She tucked a loose strand behind her ear, before gesturing to the bed. Understanding what she was asking, he nodded, and slowly moved aside so she could sit beside him. Rover nestled in between them both, resting his head on Kiara’s lap happily.
“I had no intention of coming here at first. But after the place I was staying in ran out of supplies, I needed to resupply for myself and Rover. When I was searching, I found the command center and figured there could be something useful here. Apparently, it was stocked with enough non-perishable food and bottled water to last a lifetime. I didn’t think much of it at the time, I was more relieved than anything, but it makes sense now. You’re immune, so Axel Felix must’ve had the building vacated early and necessities brought in. It’s smart.”
Julius’s heart clenched at his brother’s name on her lips.
Instead of letting it show, he asked, “Where’d you stay before?”
She shifted uncomfortably against the pillows. “With a family friend. My father sent me there because people were getting suspicious of how I was able to stay with my ill mother for so long and not catch the virus. After a while, my friends became sick. When they...”, she paused to clear her throat, “died, I stayed there. I was too much of a coward to go tell someone about my immunity, so I ate their food and drank their water until there was nothing left. At that point, most of Manhattan was gone. Felix Industries’ command center seemed like a good place to scavenge, even if just to grab some drugs from your storage. When you believe you’re the only person on Earth and you’re sober, it gets kind of lonely.”
He smiled dryly at that. “Yeah, I know.”
“Really? Do you remember the virus, how you ended up in the chamber?”
Julius shrugged, “Not much, just bits and pieces. I know that my brother left me in a stasis chamber before he went to Washington, and that he hasn’t been back since. I can’t even picture my brother’s face clearly. But I do remember being alone...I was trapped in my own mind for a very long time.” Kiara nodded beside him, but didn’t press.
“Gideon told me to give this to you. He said it might help.” She pulled out something from her worn sweats, a wrinkled photograph.
And what he saw took away his breath. His brother had an arm around Julius’ shoulders and a youthful smile on his face as they both stood in front of Felix Industries, ready to run the family company together. The golden sun shone down on them both, their foster-parents hugging them from behind. Something shifted in Julius’s heart as he took in his brother’s heartwarming grin, his warm embrace, the way his chestnut curls fell into his eyes.
Memories began to come back in bursts.
Snowy winter afternoons spent laughing on a sofa with Axel, cool autumn mornings spent crying into his brother’s shoulder after their parents’ passing, warm summer nights spent drawing his blood to find a cure with Axel nearby to help him reach his bed when he was too weak to get up.
“I was going to kill myself.”
Kiara’s eyes widened as he forced the words out.
“I wouldn’t listen to him, even when he told me that exposing myself over and over to the ill would raise red flags to the public. I thought it wouldn’t matter if people knew I was immune because I thought I could save everyone, I thought there was time.”
Julius’ entire body trembled with the force of everything coming together.
“He told everyone I’d died so people wouldn’t come searching for me, because he knew there was no time for my immunity to lead to anything but my death. I refused to hide when he told me to, so he hid me away himself. The government must’ve not believed that I had died from the disease, since they took Axel, because I’d raised doubt with all the times I’d helped the infected and stayed alive. If I hadn’t fought Axel, if I had just listened to him and not shown my immunity to the entire world, then...maybe he could’ve found sanctuary. Lived.”
Julius’ heart was racing, tears chasing tears down his face as he hid his face in his hands. Kiara watched as the man broke at the mere image of all he’d lost, but she didn’t say a word.
She let him grieve, because she knew the pain of losing loved ones all too well.
Early morning light drifted through a window of the room where the two last people of Earth laid together, on opposite sides of a king bed.
“Hey, Felix?”, she murmured, her voice rough from them sharing their dreams and fears all night long.
“It’s just Julius.”, his equally gruff voice chided.
“Julius. Would you like to share the sunrise with me?”
Julius tilted his head towards Kiara, his emerald eyes holding her chocolate ones captive. He smiled.
“Let’s go. I haven’t seen the sky in far too long.”