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‘Is it over?’ the boy asked as he fidgeted restlessly, waiting for an answer. His palms were sweaty, but he crossed his fingers, holding his breath as his father studied him with an inscrutable expression.
‘Yeah. You’re cured. You also don’t need to wear glasses now as a bonus,’ the doctor concluded.
‘Yep. Read the chart across the room. What does it say?’ the doctor gestured to the chart hanging on the wall six meters away.
The boy squinted at the chart, half-expecting the words to blur out like before but, to his delight, he could see them as clearly as if they were right in front of him. ‘Um. Q. U. I. G. J. L. T. S. B. T. N-’
‘Alright, you can stop. You weren’t able to get past the fifth letter before.’
The doctor nodded and cut the enthusiastic rambling child off before he could get carried away, though the young boy still perked up in delight.
‘Wow! Thank you, father!’
‘Now you can go outside and play with your friends.’
The boy’s father opened the door and waved outside, as if impatient to shoo him out of the room. However, the boy didn’t seem to notice, his thoughts preoccupied with something else.
‘Can I go see Jacob first?’ he asked.
‘Sorry. He’s not ready yet,’ the doctor denied.
‘Was something wrong with our operations?’ the boy gulped as he began to fidget again.
His father gave a welcoming smile and placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘Not for you. Your nanobots can and will recreate themselves, just like your ordinary cells. It’s just that some minor problems have appeared for Jacob, which is why you can’t see him at the moment.’
‘Aww,’ the boy complained. ‘I haven’t seen him for a year now. When will he be healed?’
‘Soon,’ his father assured him with a now strained smile.
‘You said that last time.’
‘Don’t probe into the matter.’
‘But I want to go see him now.’
‘Go outside and play.’
The doctor had lost his smile and his expression grew stern. ‘Look. I understand you want to see your brother. I understand you’re a smart kid that’s interested in my work. I understand your concerns, but can’t you act like a normal kid for once?’
‘Mmm. Ok,’ the boy said as his shoulders slumped.
‘Thank you.’ His father turned away, sighing in relief.
The boy glanced at him for a second, and then obediently slid out of the room. Act like a normal kid? Yeah. He could do that. He’s a normal boy now. No more illnesses. No more weaknesses. No more collapsing suddenly. His friends would accept the new him.
If only that was what happened. For the boy came back a few hours later, bawling his eyes out.
‘Father! Please turn me back to normal!’ he pleaded as he ran into his father’s office.
Concerned by the sudden outburst, his father picked his son who hid in the cover of his dad’s lab coat, sobbing into his shirt.
‘What happened?’ the father asked as he began stroking his hair to comfort him.
‘I saved her and then I got hurt and then I’m not hurt anymore but it was too quick and now everyone thinks I’m a monster,’ the boy clamoured, all in one breath.
‘I don’t know what’s going on, but you’re definitely not a fr-’
‘Look!’ the boy interrupted, shoving his hand into his father’s face.
He inspected it but saw nothing unusual. There were a few scratch marks, but surely that was normal for boisterous kids of his age.
‘I don’t see anything strange,’ the doctor admitted.
‘Exactly! I want to go back to normal!’ his son pleaded, sobbing again.
‘Woah. Woah. Woah. Slow down. Take a deep breath and tell me what happened.’
‘James and John said I didn’t need glasses because I wasn’t human anymore. I told them I was still human. I thought they believed me. But I was wrong.’
The father wanted to speak up but decided against it. Though he was distressed by what had happened, he knew simple name-calling wasn’t something that would get his son upset. There had to be something else, so he let him continue.
‘They never believed me! They said monsters don’t protect anyone, so they threw rocks at Samantha, but I blocked all of it. I protected her and I thought I proved them wrong, but I didn’t. My hand was bleeding but now my wound is gone. I healed too quickly. I really am a monster. Even the adults are looking at me funny.’
‘So that’s the reason,’ the father hugged his son tighter, letting the tears form marks on his clothes. ‘Look, son, the sudden burst of inhuman power would scare most children and raise the eyebrow of most adults. I hoped to explain all the changes that happened to your body during the operation, but it’s too soon. You’ll understand with time. You’re not a monster or freak. That’s only the regenerative properties of the-’
‘Change me back! I hate this! I don’t care if I’m ill again! Please, father!’ the boy exclaimed, his eyes now red from the crying.
The father sighed. He wanted to reassure his son. He could easily prove that his son was human, both technically and physically, but against a child who was in no mood to change his mind, there wasn’t anything that would work.
Why must children be so illogical?
In the end, he considered the boy’s request but, realistically, trying to reverse the procedure would bring more harm than good. Maybe he could turn down the effectiveness, but for now, he had to stop any more tears from falling out.
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ the doctor said at last. ‘In the meantime, do you want to see my latest invention, the Integrated Nanobot System? INS for short.’
‘Huh? Really?! You never show me your work!’ the boy sniffled. ‘Yes. Yes. Yes!’
At least he stopped crying.
Gin felt something pecking his arm. It was more of a tickle, but its consistency roused Gin up. He opened his eyes, reliving the all too familiar feeling of looking upwards after regaining consciousness. On this instance, he saw a cloudy sky, neither too dark nor too bright which told him that the sun already rose. Either that or it was about to set (he lost track of his bearings).
‘Ugh. It’s been a while since I dreamt like that. Why was I always such a whiny brat?’ he regretted.
As he sat up, he groaned as his body hurt with each movement, like pins pricking his pierced limbs. Then shock overcame his pain, soon followed by a sinking feeling of guilt when he witnessed how ash, decay, and burnt plants replaced the lush green of the forestry the day before. Though he did feel relieved that he could still see trees in the distance, the cataclysm caused by his selfish desire for survival still left a sour taste in his mouth.
‘Mother, father, Jacob…I’m sorry. It’s all my fault again.’
Gin wanted to go back to sleep and forget his troubles but the pecking persisted, this time on his thigh, prompting him to look down instead, finding a bird no larger than the width of his leg. The black feathers of the creature, combined with the elongated neck and the odd teeth protruding out of the beak of its round head made one thought come to his mind: This isn’t a tinoo.
The bird tilted its head, staring at Gin. It squawked, revealing the rest of its impressive array of teeth in the process. It then tried jumping onto Gin’s legs but, due to the difference in size, it proved to be a difficult task. But, no matter how many times it fell over, it got back up and jumped again, albeit failing like normal.
‘Heh. Tenacious one, aren’t you? Need some help?’ Gin asked, wondering if the bird understood words.
It stopped flailing around, fluttering its wings and squawking in delight upon the offer. It was weak, feeble and out of place, though for some reason Gin found solace with his newfound companion. He extended his arm for the bird to hop onto. However, as he did so, he noticed that the Xernim1XernimA parasitical entity that sometimes benefits its host gauntlets covered his whole arm. Then a simple check confirmed that the same happened to the other arm.
‘Huh? When did they do this? Swear it was meant to be just elbow height,’ Gin wondered, turning back to the bird on his palm. ‘Oh well.’
He let the animal down on his thigh. It scurried up and down before stopping at where scratch marks tore through his trousers, revealing lined scabs. The bird twisted its head in a three-sixty, mesmerised by the shape and colour. What a strange creature, Gin concluded.
The bird went back to its natural position. It took one more look at the scabs. Water started seeping from the bird’s mouth, its head edging closer until the tip of its beak touched the wound. Gin wanted to shoo the creature away, knowing full well what the animal planned to do, but curiosity got the better of him and he watched its next movement with anticipation instead.
In an instant, the beak opened and closed, snipping the wound open. Using the long, spindly tongue hidden inside its mouth, the bird lapped up the oozing blood. Despite the rough texture of the licks, to Gin’s surprise, he didn’t recognise anything he would call pain. To him, the best description of the feeling was a muscle-relieving massage, so he let the animal be, enjoying the strange moment.
After having its full, the bird looked at its benefactor with eager and grateful eyes. It walked up against his leg, nuzzling him once it reached the stomach. Did offering blood warrant such affection? Maybe. Probably not. However, Gin found the actions amusing, stroking his companion back in appreciation. He wanted to pet some more but several caws cut their time short.
All of a sudden, the bird looked up. Gin didn’t realise why until he saw a flock of birds, all similar in shape to the chick, yet he couldn’t quite figure out their size due to how high the others were flying. Regardless, the animal on his lap recognised them. It looked back once more and gave one last squawk. Then, using Gin’s legs as a launchpad, it flapped its tiny wings, lifting off in an awkward fashion.
‘The world sure is a weird place,’ Gin commented, watching the creature catch up to the family overhead. ‘Heh. It seems like my self-deprecation flew away with the fella too. Alright.’
Through the aches, Gin hoisted himself up, using the half-burnt tree trunk behind him as leverage. He inspected the surroundings further, finding two of his INS on the floor; the green of the shield and the silver of the nanobooster. Not far from both, he spotted a burnt, broken container cut into five pieces. The liquid that was once inside no longer remained; a testimony that the fire started from that exact spot.
Taking the nanobooster, he tried injecting the serum into his arm, only to remember how the Xernim had grown again. Where do I put it now? he asked himself. Guess via the chest would be the most effective method. He did just that, first taking off his torn shirt and chipped armour, and caressing the scars he received from his first day in squadron W. The veins bulged somewhat out of his skin, allowing for an easy target for the serum to enter the bloodstream through.
‘Hey! Guys! We were right, he’s here!’ someone shouted from behind.
‘I see him!’
‘Hurry! He looks like he’s about to collapse!’
Out of the voices, Gin only recognised Michal’s. He didn’t shout nor did the voice in any way feel desperate like the others. No, it sounded like he carried an “I knew it” vibe rather than anything else.
‘Search the area for anything suspicious. I’ll take him back to camp,’ Michal ordered. He walked up to Gin, his boots squelching on the wet ash beneath with each step. ‘Hey.’
‘Ah. Michal. How are you?’ Gin asked, his words coming out more feeble than he wanted to.
‘Don’t worry about me,’ Michal said as he put Gin over his shoulders. ‘You’re hurt.’
‘Heh. Since when did you get so capable? Ordering the others like a natural leader and taking control right now.’
‘A lot has happened in the past few days.’
‘Tell me about it.’
The pair walked towards camp, silent and recollecting the events prior. Their quietness bothered Gin more than he thought it would. It wasn’t until they reached the first set of trees that he spoke up.
‘Did something happen while I was unconscious?’
‘Gin, can I ask you something first?’ Michal asked instead, hesitant in his speech.
‘Ok, sure. Go ahead.’
‘Are you,’ Michal paused before finishing. ‘Are you a manush?’
Oh. How did they figure that out? Gin thought. He didn’t know how to answer. Should he respond at all or divert the question?
‘Your silence probably means Jake wasn’t lying then.’
‘What? Oh. I’m sorry. Wo warned against this. You guys probably think I’m worse than the worst now. I’m sorry. I should never have taken up my role of battalion leader. It was inevitable my secret would come out. I’m sorry. I always make a mess of everything. I should have just given my job to someone else. Someone who can lead better, or come up with better training. I’m sor-’
‘Gin!’ Michal interrupted, taking a deep breath to calm his nerves before continuing. ‘Don’t worry. I’ve thought it over a lot myself. And honestly, I don’t care. What about you though? Are you ok? Because you’re acting weird. What do you mean someone who can lead better? Nobody could lead our battalion like you do. We only managed to get so far because of you.’
Gin’s heart shook. Once again, he was left speechless but for a different reason. Like something lifting his nerves, doubt and self-deprecation.
‘It’s like Brim said, “And what if Gin really is a manush? How does that change anything? Is he not Eurasian? Does that mean he’s not on our side?”’ Michal quoted, letting out a sigh when he finished. ‘What happened to you Gin? Are you really gonna let a single loss and a little secret make you believe we won’t care about you anymore? What you said better be a joke because I will tell Brim and Joan and they will beat you to the next continent if they see you acting like this.’
‘Please don’t,’ Gin begged, unable to hide the encroaching smile.
‘Good. Then we never talked about this,’ Michal pouted.
‘They’re the two people I can’t get worried, heh.’
‘Look, everyone here who stayed is here for you, so cheer up, ok?’
‘Huh? What do you mean “stayed”? Don’t tell me…’
But before Gin could get an answer, they both emerged from the forest and into the campsite. It was just as he feared. Worried and disbelieving eyes fixated on him, a feeling he thought he rid off in the distant past. He heard their comments, each containing his name, “mage”, “manush”, or a combination of the above. However, what worried him the most wasn’t the reactions of those present but those that weren’t. The scolding Michal gave to sort him out almost became null.
‘Don’t mind them,’ Michal assured, realising his words weren’t enough.
But from the crowd, one person made his way towards the pair, the only one that was close enough and on equal terms with Gin. From what he could guess from the looks of things, Brim appeared the most distraught by the revelations.
Gin wanted to go back to how it was before anyone knew anything about him. He wanted to find a way to make amends. He wanted to deny everything. But he had no faith in his lying capabilities, especially after spilling the truth to Michal. Not after last time.
As Brim got closer, Gin had made his mind up. He no longer found any point in hiding his identity. If he did, then what would happen if he had a bigger army? How was he going to manage deserters in the thousands rather than the hundreds? Better to tell the truth now than suffer later.
‘Is it true?’ Brim asked, his expression as stern as ever. ‘Are you a manush?’
‘What if I’m a manush?’ Gin retorted. ‘It just means I’ve always have been and always will be weaker than you mages. I’m worse than F ranks for crying out loud! I got no special powers, no innate evolutionary advantage. It means I have to rely on my wits rather than my strength. It’s how I survived up to now and I will continue to survive because of it. What are you going to do about it?’
‘Gin,’ Michal murmured.
‘Ha! That’s just like you, Gin,’ Brim responded with a smile. ‘That decides it. You heard him, everyone! Let’s continue to follow you.’
‘Eh? That’s how you react?’ Gin said, with a puzzled look across his face, watching the doubtful gazes turn into warm grins.
‘Were you expecting me to hate you all of a sudden?’ Brim smirked.
‘Um,’ Gin didn’t know how to respond, still in a confused shock. ‘Maybe.’
‘Gin. Look,’ Brim asserted himself. ‘You made me overlook my initial prejudice of the low ranked. I think I can overlook you being a manush. It doesn’t change much about you, does it? If you denied everything and I found out the truth, that would have been a different story. But you blatantly revealed yourself to everyone without fear. As I said, that’s just typical you. Everyone here feels the same way.’
‘I agree,’ Michal added.
‘Wow,’ Gin gaped, taken aback by how well everyone was taking it. ‘But I still don’t think the offence group feel the same way, Brim. They left because of me, right? I’m sure that’s why we’re so depleted. Wouldn’t it be better if you took charge?’
‘Don’t be an idiot, Gin. Ask me again after you’ve taken the opinion of what’s left of your battalion,’ Brim said, pointing to where his battalion was resting. ‘I’ll talk to the doubters in the artillery group, while Michal will talk to the utility group. We’ll also talk to Syndra’s battalion. They’re still bringing the caravans. You sort out your side of this mess.’
‘Alright,’ Gin conceded, not in a position to argue. ‘Michal, you can go. I can walk by myself.’
‘Alright,’ he obeyed, letting go of him. ‘I’ll try my best to persuade everyone to listen to you again. Then we’ll fill you in on everything we found out.’
Gin hobbled his way to what remained of his battalion. Their faces showed too much brokenness. They didn’t even notice his arrival. That didn’t surprise him in the least. Rather, his shock came from the fact that Jake sat with them. He looked just as depressed – remorseful in fact.
‘Guys, he’s here,’ Jake pointed out, the first to notice.
The battalion looked up at their battered leader in unison. Their faces lit up in an instant, a wide smile filling each of them. They sprung up and rushed Gin, enveloping him with such affection that tears began to well up.
I’m such an idiot, he thought to himself within the chaos. He looked back to find that Jake stayed behind and looked away from the rest. Seriously, what the hell happened? But that didn’t take away the sheer joy he felt, surrounded by those that looked up to him.
Though technically, they’re looking down on me, Gin mused, conscious of his relative height all of a sudden. He made his mind up again, smiling to his peers. He steeled himself for the worst but no longer cared. He couldn’t doubt himself. Not anymore. He was going to see this battle through and lead them to victory. He was going to gain back the trust of the deserters. He was going to fulfil the promises he made when he got attacked. That was Gin’s resolve.
Synopsis: The online game <