This story revolves around Mia Marcus and her older brother Ornelius, and the memories that they shared as well as her fight for survival in spite of horrifying injuries resultant from the Attack on Vienna.
Vienna, Germania province, Roman Empire
Mia Marcus threw the Frisbee playfully at her older brother, Ornelius. He caught it, with both hands. He threw it back, and Mia had to run to retrieve it. As she sprinted towards the descending Frisbee, she tripped and fell onto the concrete of the nearby path, grazing her knee. She winced in pain as she sat up and gingerly examined the injury.
Her brother raced to her side. "Are you okay?"
"I think so," she replied.
The duo stood up and ran towards the Frisbee. At that instant, in an ear-piercing shriek, the air-raid alarms began blaring. Mia and Ornelius could both hear faint explosions in the distance. They looked up.
Soviet bombers. Rome had been at war with the Soviets for a while, but the fighting was mainly limited to the border the Empire shared with the Soviet Union.
"Quick!" Ornelius said, panicked. "We need to get to the bunker entrance in the Praetorum!"
Ornelius and Mia began to run, though Mia eventually limped desperately to catch up with her brother.
Ornelius’ phone rang. "Hello?"
"It’s Mum, dear," replied the voice on the other side. Anna Marcus sounded worried. "Are you safe? Where are you?”
"We’re at Central Park, Mum,” Ornelius answered. “It shouldn’t take us too long to get to the bunker entrance in the Praetorum."
"Stay safe, darling," Anna said. The line cut off.
Ornelius ran as fast as he could, pocketing his mobile phone. He called out to his sister. "C'mon, Mia! Hurry!"
In the distance, Ornelius could hear ack-ack fire. As he ran through the streets of Vienna, he could see that a lot of the buildings had been destroyed by the Soviet bombs. What was left had ignited. He looked behind him. Mia was several hundred metres behind him. Ornelius, remembering that Mia was injured, suddenly came to the realisation that Mia needed help. He turned back to assist her, but at the same moment, out of the corner of his eye, he could see and hear a small bomb being dropped about a kilometre behind Mia.
"Mia! Get down!" he shouted instinctively.
The bomb hit the ground, shattering on impact, then producing an explosive plume of gas and smoke, as well as vaporised concrete and other materials. Just the force produced by the impact threw Ornelius backwards, and sent Mia, screaming, flying, as she was significantly closer to the epicentre of the explosion. She hit the ground with a frightening, bone-shattering crunch, which rendered her unconscious.
Two days later...
Two days after the bombing, with minor injuries, Ornelius had been discharged from the town bunker's medical centre. He had his right arm cradled in a fresh, white sling, and his left wrist was bandaged because of a sprain. His legs, fortunately, remained relatively unharmed.
Mia, however, wasn't so lucky.
Ornelius and the rest of the Marcus family were gathered around Mia's hospital bed, where she lay, comatose. It didn't look particularly comfortable. She was in terrible shape. Her blonde hair had been burnt at the edges, and she lay with an assortment of needles puncturing her skin in order to deliver certain chemicals into her bloodstream. The cardiac monitor beeped quietly, but steadily. Her yellow polo shirt had been torn. The legs of her shorts had suffered a similar fate. Damage to her spinal cord was being treated: thanks to modern medicine it was possible to repair neural damage. He noticed that a prosthesis had replaced her right leg.
The same leg that she had grazed that day.
A tear rolled down Ornelius' face.
For the first time in his life, he found himself appealing to the god of healing worshipped by his ancestors, even though he was an atheist. He did know how to pray though, since he learned how to do so in history class at school. He repeated the sentence several times, to different gods as well, just to make sure. As he said his prayer, the rest of his family gradually joined in.
One year earlier...
Ornelius was walking through the family home in the well-to-do suburb of Leopoldstadt, Vienna. He had heard his father saying that the Soviets had declared war on Rome, which worried him. He had asked if the Soviets would attack Vienna, but Gaius Marcus had said that such an attack was unlikely, since Vienna wasn't a very important city. Relieved, he continued on his jolly way up the stairs, attracted to the beautiful sound of the violin. His sister was at it again.
He knocked on the door to her room. The music ceased and she opened the door.
"Oh, it's you," Mia said. "Come in!"
Ornelius sat on Mia's bed. "What are you playing now?"
Mia took a musical score off her stand and flapped it in front of him.
"Violin Sonata by Debussy," she said.
"Isn't that meant to be difficult to play?"
Mia shrugged. "I guess so."
Ornelius sighed. "I wish I could play music like you, Mia."
"You can. Come on!" Mia said. "The violin will probably be big enough for you. I can teach you how to play."
"Really?" Ornelius gasped.
"It'll take a while," Mia replied, "but I'm sure we'll be able to get you playing as good as Debussy himself in no time!"
Ornelius laughed. "I doubt it. I think getting as good as you is good enough."
"Uh, alright," Mia blushed.
Ornelius spent the rest of the afternoon being taught by Mia the basics of violin playing.
Ornelius smiled weakly as he replayed that particular memory in his mind. As he thought of his now-injured sister's determination in trying to teach him, more tears fell and made streams on his face. He wasn't musical, but she certainly was. She even played scales with such emotion and expression that it almost sounded like a good movie soundtrack.
He continued to hold Mia's hand, muttering prayers. His parents and relatives had gone back to their living quarters, allowing Ornelius the night alone with his sister.
A few hours after Ornelius had fallen asleep, still holding Mia's hand, he was roused. He looked around, curious as to what had woken him. Then he looked down at his and Mia's hands.
Mia was squeezing Ornelius' hand. His mind jumped for joy as it dawned on him what this meant.
Mia had woken up.
“Ornelius,” she whispered weakly. Her speech was somewhat slurred. He jumped up and hugged her. She winced in pain, whereupon he gently released her and lay her back down on her bed.
“Sorry. That was a bit sudden.”
A doctor entered the room, expecting Ornelius to have gone and Mia to be still unconscious. He was surprised when he saw otherwise.
“Oh!” he stuttered. “Good morning, Ornelius, and I'm glad to see you're awake now, Mia.”
“Can I…get out…of bed yet?” Mia said slowly.
“Unfortunately,” said the doctor. “We need to keep you in bed so that we can monitor you at all times. Is there something you need?”
At that moment the P.A. came to life. “Groups 801 through 900 to report to Mess Halls!”
“Well, I would like some food. I’m rather hungry.”
Ornelius stood up. “I’ll go get something for you while I go for breakfast. What would you like?”
“Oh, I don’t want to be difficult,” Mia said shyly.
“No, no, not at all,” Ornelius kissed Mia on the forehead, and smiled before leaving the room. As he exited, he poked his head back through the doorway and grinned cheekily. “You want a classic English breakfast?”
Mia giggled. “Okay.”
The Vienna Municipal Underground Shelter, as it was officially known, was essentially a city away from the city. Since the Attack on Vienna, all surviving citizens were moved to the bunker in case of a future attack. Until the war ended, all who were in Vienna at the time of the assault were to stay in the bunker and only venture outside if necessary. Soldiers from the Army saw to it that no one exited the bunker unless they had a very good reason.
The Bunker had living quarters for the thousands of families that had survived the bombing. There were also one hundred massive hall areas that served as meeting places as well as eating areas. Groups of families took turns to eat, and every hour one group would leave each mess hall and another would subsequently enter. To make sure everyone was catered for, large kitchens as well as staff was needed. Everyone was happy that they could live relatively comfortably in the confines of the bunker. There were also play areas for the city's youth, but there wasn't enough room for a school, to a lot of children's relief. It had taken over fifty years to build the bunker, and it had been kept a secret by the City Council until the war began.
“Wow,” Ornelius said. “This bunker's so…big!”
Mess Hall 78 was a gargantuan, multistorey chamber capable of seating up to four thousand people. Ornelius found himself wondering how they managed to build not one, but a hundred of these expansive eating areas. At the opposite end of the entrance stood the kitchen and serving area, where he ordered food for himself before being directed to their table by the kitchen staff.
Anna, Gaius and Noah Marcus stood up and ran to Ornelius and began to bombard him with questions.
“Is Mia okay?” Anna said.
“What do the doctors think about her?” asked Gaius
“Is she awake yet?” Noah cried, gently shaking Ornelius by putting his hands on his shoulders.
“I think so, I don’t know, and Yes,” Ornelius answered quickly. “Can we eat now? I need to get more food for Mia before the next group comes in.”
One year earlier...
"Kids!" Anna called. "Time for Cena!"
Mia Marcus was teaching Ornelius how to play an ancient Celtic hymn when they heard the call to the family's evening meal.
"Gosh!" Mia said, rubbing her stomach vigorously. "I'm starving!"
Ornelius and Mia sat themselves at the table. Their parents and elder brother were already beginning to eat.
"Well said, Mia, well said," said her father, Gaius. "Where did you learn that?"
Mia shrugged. "School."
"Well then," Gaius said. "Let's eat!"
Ornelius wondered how Mia managed to pick up so much Ancient Latin.
Ornelius deposited the empty plates and grabbed a tray of food for Mia. Holding the tray as if it were a redemptive lifeline he hurried through the great steel doors towards Mia’s room.
Meanwhile, the family approached their living quarters after their meal. Anna Marcus’ phone rang. She picked it up.
"Hello?" she said.
After several seconds her facial expression changed from neutrality to surprise to shock, and then to total terror.
Anna hung up and began to dial Ornelius' number.
"We need to get to the hospital NOW! Mia’s in trouble!" Anna called Ornelius, and told him to hightail it to the hospital.
When they got there, they got the news on Mia. Ornelius was horrified when he saw that Mia was unconscious again. Her breathing was irregular and when he looked at the cardiac monitor, he saw that her heart rate was crazily accelerating. Mia had become pale, her skin clammy and cold.
"She’s going into neurogenic shock. It isn’t good," the doctor said. "Not good at all. Quickly! 20 millilitre saline solution!"
The nurse shuffled through a cabinet and grabbed out a packet containing a clear liquid. She hooked it up onto the drip and the solution began to slowly drain from the packet.
"Phenylephrine!" called the doctor. The nurse passed him a syringe and a bottle that contained another clear-coloured liquid. The doctor drew some liquid from the bottle.
"Mr Marcus, please," he said. "Hold down Mia’s arm for me."
Ornelius’s father reluctantly took hold of Mia’s right arm. The doctor then pushed the needle into her skin. The liquid drained out of the syringe, entering her bloodstream.
The nurse was reading the cardiac monitor. "Success!" she said. "Heart rate is decreasing to normal levels!" Mia’s breathing became less laboured and it once again became rhythmic. All who were present breathed a sigh of relief and Ornelius wiped the sweat off his forehead with his hand.
The following day...
Ornelius and Mia Marcus were in Mia’s room in the hospital. She was confined to her bed since the near-death experience that she went through yesterday. Doctors were monitoring her twenty-four hours a day. Fortunately, Mia had regained consciousness.
"That was a close one, sis," Ornelius said. "You had me really worried there."
Mia looked at her older brother. She smiled weakly. "Well, I’m still here, aren’t I?"
Mia’s best friend Honorius was in the room as well.
"You’ll be okay, Mia, won’t you?" he said. Mia smiled.
Ornelius felt disappointed in himself. During the attack, he had run ahead of Mia while she limped behind her. He only remembered that she needed help just before the bomb hit. It was his fault. He failed her as an older brother.
"I wish it was me that got hit and not you," Ornelius finally said.
Mia was silent for a moment, but then she said, "Don’t say that, Ornelius."
"I was selfish, Mia. I ran ahead of you, thinking you’d be able to catch up. I…failed you. I’m sorry." Tears fell onto Mia’s bed.
Mia stared at Ornelius for a while. She frowned for just a moment, but then continued to smile. "It’s alright, Ornelius. You’re a great brother. You…will always be. You’ll always be my brother."
A nurse came into the room. "Alright, Ornelius, Honorius. Let Mia get some rest."
"Bye Ornelius. Bye Honorius," Mia said. Ornelius took her hand. Honorius waved goodbye and went out the door.
"Get better soon," he said, before letting go and leaving the room.
30th December, 1993.
Ornelius held Mia’s hand as she lay in her hospital bed. Their parents held the other. Honorius and his family sat around the room.
"Happy birthday, Mia," her father whispered. Mia smiled.
Ornelius stood up. Mia’s eyes slowly followed him as he travelled to the back of the room, picking up a large case and walking back. He heaved the heavy, black case onto the bed, making sure that it didn’t land on Mia’s legs.
"This is your present, Mia," Ornelius said. "From all of us."
Ornelius, knowing that Mia was too weak to open the case by herself, slowly zipped it open, periodically looking up to watch her face, joyfully seeing suspense and excitement build up in her twinkling green eyes.
When the top of the case finally flipped open. Mia’s pupils expanded almost instantly, her mouth growing into a smile that was broad even for a healthy person’s standards.
She had never dreamed that she would gain possession of one of the famed violins of which only around six hundred and fifty remained.
"A...a..." Mia stuttered. "A Stradivarius violin!"
Mia burst into tears. She was not one to cry about anything. The family embraced her in a group hug. Honorius, and then his family, eventually joined the huddle.
When everyone finally let go, Mia, tears still flowing down her face, reached for her new violin. Ornelius picked it up and placed it gently in her lap. Mia picked up the bow and placed the fingers of her left hand around the strings of the fingerboard. Her trembling right hand immediately smoothened as the bow touched the strings to create an entrancing sound. She closed her eyes in happiness as her fingertips effortlessly ran up and down the fingerboard. Even in her present state the music that poured from her sounded more divine than ever.
The following day, 11.59pm
"It’s gonna be 1993 soon, Mia," Ornelius attempted a grin to make Mia feel better. Her condition had unfortunately worsened, and the doctors told the family (without Mia, of course) that they feared she wasn’t going to make it.
The family, along with Honorius, were all around Mia’s bed. All of them, including Mia, were watching the HoloVision, waiting for the final countdown to begin. When it did, they looked out the window. The Army had cleaned up Vienna after the attack, and everyone was waiting for the fireworks show to start. The entire show was being provided by the soldiers.
The fireworks were beautiful. Reds, blues, greens, whites and yellows flashed across the night sky in a festival of explosive light. Mia beamed with delight as the fireworks burst into all sorts of shapes. Stars, flowers and smileys were common.
"Happy New Year, Mia," Ornelius and Honorius said, putting their arms around her.
Two days later...
Mia was still bedridden six days after the attack. Her predicament had worsened such that she always looked tired or ill. Ornelius, Honorius and the rest of her family were now constantly by her side.
Mia’s voice, once bright and vibrant, was now reduced to a stifled, soft croak. "Ornelius," she coughed. After a pause, she continued. "I’m...scared."
"Shhhh...Everything will be okay, Mia." Ornelius tried to sound calm and collected, but he was equally as terrified. The life in her body could flicker out at any moment. The doctors had begun the process of downloading her memories into the Imperial Memory Database, which stored the memories of deceased Roman citizens, in case, for whatever reason, they were needed in the future.
Eight years earlier...
Five-year-old Ornelius Marcus was in the maternity ward. He and his father were visiting his mother, Anna Marcus, who had just given birth to a girl.
Gaius and Anna Marcus had named their new daughter Mia. Ornelius had asked to hold her new sister and he was now cradling Mia in his arms. She was crying, but stopped almost immediately after Ornelius began playing games with her.
"Peek-a-boo!" he jovially said as he covered Mia’s eyes before removing his hand. Mia laughed.
Two years later...
Ornelius had seen his parents teaching his sister to walk. She had grasped that quite quickly, and now they were teaching her to talk. He had decided to give it a try with the vocabulary that he had.
He held up a picture of an apple.
"This is an apple, Mia," he said.
"Apple!" she cried. Ornelius smiled and put down the card. He picked up another one, flashing it at Mia.
"What’s this?" Ornelius pointed at a picture of the Moon.
"Moon!" she said. Ornelius was impressed. Finally, he pointed a finger at himself.
"Who’s this?" he asked her.
“Ornelius!” she replied. Ornelius’s jaw dropped. He was baffled at how quickly she had managed to learn words.
Three years later...
Mia Marcus excitedly put her books into her bag before slinging it over her shoulder. Today was her first day at school, and she couldn’t wait to make friends with everyone.
Ornelius grabbed his bicycle and called her.
"Mia! We need to go to school now! We’re gonna be late!"
Several minutes later, classes had started. Mia sat at her desk patiently, and while waiting for the teacher to appear, she talked to the other students around her. One boy in particular interested her. He was busily drawing something onto a piece of paper.
“Hi!” Mia said. "I’m Mia. What’s your name?"
The boy looked up. "I’m Honorius."
"You’re good at drawing," she said.
"Thanks," Honorius smiled.
3rd January 1993. 8pm.
Ornelius was holding one of Mia’s hands, their parents the other. Ornelius and Mia’s family and friends were now standing or sitting around her, waiting for the bitter end. The doctors had told them that she was going to die, and they had also told Mia in private.
She had a feeling she wasn’t going to make it anyway.
"It’ll be alright," Mia said.
Her mother was fighting back the salty water that now saturated her eyes. "But what will we do without you?"
"Don’t worry, Mum. I’m sure you’ll all get on just fine," Mia said bravely.
"I’ll...see you...sometime, maybe?" Honorius said, sobbing.
"Yeah. See you around, I guess," Mia wheezed, smiling. "Thanks, Ornelius, Mum, Dad, everyone," Mia’s green eyes were now locked on the group before her. "Thanks for everything."
She then slowly turned to Ornelius, and croaked, "You—" she stopped. "I...feel...cold..." She was sweating profusely, and she was shaking. Her skin became clammy, and her breathing was shallow and irregular.
A doctor interrupted quickly with their shout. "She’s going into haemorrhagic shock again! Class II!"
"Yes, Mia? What were you going to say?" Ornelius said quickly with increased intensity, panicking as the medical staff scuttled to and fro in a drastic attempt to save her. He was begging to the heavens for several minutes more.
Mia tried again, trying to smile as one of the nurses jabbed a needle into Mia’s skin to deliver intravenous fluids. "You are—"
Before Mia could finish her sentence, she let out a final, long breath and she slumped further into her bed. Her smile faded from her face. Anna began to scream in horror, and Honorius began to cry. Ornelius just stood, astounded at what just happened. Several seconds later, the cardiac monitor screeched the noise that everyone dreaded.
Gaius, lip quivering, swept his hand over his daughter's eyes, closing them for the last time.
Twenty-one years later...
Augustus XV and Honorius Scipius stood in front of Mia’s grave in Vienna. Augustus had placed a bouquet of yellow tulips on the ground in front of the tombstone. Her favourite colour. He then placed a cupcake with a candle in it on top of the tombstone. Praetorian Guards flanked them.
"Happy birthday, Mia," Augustus said. After a pause, he spoke again. "I never heard the end of your last sentence, Mia. I wish I knew what it was." Honorius simply stood, head down, in silence.
He read the inscription on the headstone.
“Mia Atheia Gaia Marcus. 1984 - 1993. RIP. Irreplaceable and wonderful friend, daughter, and the best little sister to ever live.”
Both smiled, because they wrote the last sentence for the chiseller that made the headstone.
Augustus told his Praetorian Guards to leave him and his friend alone for a while. The two then took fold-out chairs from the pile of things they had brought with them. They sat down and began talking to the headstone and to each other.
Several hours later, the candle nearly burnt out and the sun going down, Augustus looked at Honorius. The two friends placed their hands on a large case, and together, heaved it onto the ground in front of the headstone. They opened the case, and out came a violin.
The same old Stradivarius violin that Mia only played once.
Augustus and Honorius gently leant it against the gravestone. Overflowing with emotion, both of them fell to their knees and began to cry.
After a few minutes they stood up, took one last look at the grave, and walked away.
As the two walked into the night, they felt a presence. Something that they had never felt before.
They broke into a smile, for there were no longer two of them.
There were three.