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(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you happen to spot them, please let me know in the comments below. Thanks in advance!!)
Jack’s consciousness slowly came back. When he opened his heavy eyes, he found himself lying on a spacious bed in a darkened room. He knew instinctively that this was a hospital.
The lights were off, and there were heavy curtains drawn over the windows. It was dark outside, anyway – no light to enter in the first place unless all those sparkling embers of distant city lights were counted as one.
His head ached like crazy. Funny thing was, though, he also felt as if swimming in the ocean full of olive oil, judging by how lethargic he felt. A throbbing head and a reticent body – a strange combination indeed.
How long have I been out for?
Jack closed his eyes and tried to recall. For obvious reasons, he couldn’t make heads nor tails the amount of time he spent lying here. It only made his headache worse.
Looking at his own body, what with the limited mobility his neck currently had, Jack pretty much understood the grim situation he was in. He was wrapped completely in bandages, from head to toe; various tubes coming out of him and electrodes attached to his chest, head, wherever. He didn’t so much look like a patient but a science experiment with the sheer number of odd things sticking out of him.
Even he could tell the operations to save his sorry ass were monumental in difficulty. At least he knew the doctors had succeeded – otherwise, he wouldn’t have woken up at all.
Then, he fell into a sudden bout of panic. Was he the only one to survive? What about Nick? Jack remembered seeing his friend standing right by his side. What happened to him? And what about the bus and its passengers? Did they survive?
Where were they?
Jack’s head hurt even more. It was like a dozen or so scalpels digging into his brain. A small groan escaped his lips.
He tried to raise his hands, his arms, and massage his aching head. Only then did he notice the restraints placed on all but one of his limbs. His right arm was the lucky, untethered one. Even it was wrapped in several smaller bandages with signs of careful stitching evident underneath.
Those restraints were there to prevent Jack from moving his damaged limbs, lest he banged them on the railings of his bed and hurt them further. Still, it was not a good feeling to see his own body strapped down like that, like a dangerous mental patient in a psychiatric ward.
In this state, he couldn’t even call for a night nurse via a remote that was on the wall right next to his head.
There was a soft click, a sound of a door opening. When Jack concentrated, he could see that there was a sliver of amber light coming out from the far-side wall from his bed. Through the crack of the opening, he saw a bathroom and then, the figure of his father, Bob Mercer, emerging from it. He was trying to move around as quietly as possible.
Because of that light, Jack could see that he was not alone in the room after all. Jack saw his younger sister, Dana Mercer, by the foot of his bed. She was sitting on a chair but slumped forward, resting her torso on the mattress. She was sound asleep, but her brows twitched occasionally as if to let him know that she wasn’t having a nice little dream.
Jack’s mother, Min-jung Mercer, was occupying a chair near the window. She too was asleep, with a coat acting as her blanket. There was a worried frown on her face as well, just like her daughter.
Bob looked tired, the soft amber lighting accentuating the creases on his face. But his expression brightened the moment he saw Jack’s open eyes staring at him.
Bob quickly made his way next to his son and stroked his head.
“Hey, you woke up. How are you feeling right now?”
“…Like crap, dad.”
Jack groaned out slowly. His voice sounded unnatural to his ears.
“Yeah, well. That’s to be expected, I guess. Welcome back, son.”
Bob couldn’t hide his relief as he sighed loudly. He then woke the rest of his family up for a tearful reunion. First, it was Dana. She was the closest after all.
When she was roused, at first she was confused but, as soon as she saw her brother’s open eyes, she burst out in tears.
“Jack, you are awake!!”
She nearly jumped on the bed to hug him. Only after Bob hurriedly stopped her did she calm down a little and instead decided to hold his hands and wipe her overflowing waterworks.
“Gosh, you had us so worried!!”
She beamed widely as she squeezed the top of his bandaged hand.
Her raised voice also had the effect of waking up Min-jung. She brushed her heavy eyelids before gaining cognizance of the events in the room. And a large, relieved smile spread on her face. It had been two days of uncertainty, two whole days of waiting and more waiting.
Seeing her family smiling like that, all her worries and fatigue accumulated from the past couple of days melted away. All her tireless efforts to save Jack with her medical skills have handsomely paid off.
She shrugged off the coat and got up, quickly joining the rest of her family in celebrating Jack’s awakening.
“How are you feeling?” Min-jung asked as she checked Jack’s vitals via the monitor displays. Her trained eyes quickly scanned each monitor for anything strange or alarming, but there were none.
Jack faintly smiled and wanted to shake his head, but the thick bandages meant that wasn’t possible. So, he simply muttered.
“Not so good. Well, you’re a doctor, so you tell me, mom.”
She chuckled and stroked his cheeks. “Well, my prognosis is that you need to rest up some more and get your strength back before acting like a smart ass.”
“Roger that,” Jack smiled weakly before he remembered the questions in his mind. “Mom, dad – how long has it been? Where’s everyone? Are they alright? What about Nick? Is he okay?”
With the exception of Jack, whose face was already pale, all three present felt the blood drain from their faces. Dana hesitantly looked at her parents to find some guidance but she saw that even they were at a loss to how to proceed with breaking the bad news.
Finally, it was Bob who braved it and spoke out the words.
“Nick’s in another room. His operation went well, but he hadn’t woken up yet. As for the others…. Right now, that’s all you need to know. Get well first, then we’ll talk about it in depth. I promise.”
It was an unsatisfying answer. Jack wanted to argue for a bit longer, but his intense headache was still with him, gnawing at his patience. So he asked for a sip of water instead.
As Bob and Dana helped out with that, Min-jung went to the chair to get her coat and saw her smartphone on top of a small round table. Out of habit, she picked it up and checked for messages.
There was one. The time stamp showed she was asleep when it came. She frowned slightly at the number, before tightly grasping the phone. She turned around to face her family and spoke.
“I’ll go get the nurses. Wait for me.”
After that, she left the hospital room and entered the quiet corridor. There was a soft murmur from the nurse’s station at the end of the passage but otherwise, all was deathly silent. Even the lighting was muted to reinforce the silence.
She quickly checked the message on the phone. It said:
How is your son doing?
Nothing else other than that simple inquiry.
Min-jung’s frown grew deeper but she shook head and began typing a message of her own.
He’s fine, just woken up now. Don’t contact me again. I’ll contact you instead.
She made sure no one else was around her before putting away the phone in her pocket.
While Min-jung was outside, the talk inside hadn’t progressed much. Both Bob and Dana were doing their best to make him feel relaxed, but inwardly, Jack was feeling nothing but that.
His mind was occupied with those red crystal-like things. Those red…. souls of the dead. Also, that “dream” world of red crimson orbs, crystals, whatever they were. Whether that was really a dream or not Jack couldn’t be sure, but he was at least certain of one thing – that he’d run into that world sooner rather than later.
When he thought like that, he felt a line of cold goosebumps forming on his skin; what’s left exposed, anyways. Jack was emphatically not looking forward to encountering more of those screaming, agonized faces trapped in some bizarre crystalline things, all yelling at him and the like. He wanted it to be nothing more than him having an adrenaline-fuelled hallucination, but he knew better. They were as real as reality got. Unless he was mixing reality with illusions, that was.
Speaking of hallucinations, Jack also remembered dreaming about the ancient world, its crisp blue skies, and that… woman.
Who was she?
Jack silently mulled this question. Why did she feel so familiar? Where had he seen her before? Why did all of those felt like memories, rather than… an imagination? Questions upon questions with no answers. It was all rather damn frustrating.
He gazed at the happy faces of his father and sister, then at the nurses’ and Min-jung’s, and thought, Do I need to tell them? Do I? But can I?
Jack wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure of him not imagining things, that he wasn’t making up some crazy fantasy. At the same time, if what he saw was real then he needed to understand a bit more before he was comfortable enough to talk about it.
The nurses and Min-jung checked Jack’s vitals, recorded some things on the charts, and spoke to Jack, asking him about this and that. One thing he noted from them, was that they were not like regular nurses – he got the feeling he recognized the uniforms.
After the nurses left, he asked his parents to confirm his suspicions.
“This isn’t a normal hospital, is it?”
“No, it isn’t,” replied Min-jung. “We are at the Fort McNamus General Medical Center. You remember this place, right?”
“Yeah, you used to work here. And brought me here often.”
Min-jung smiled and nodded. “Yeah I did, didn’t I? Well, that was before I went full civilian, though. Don’t worry, you can concentrate on getting better while you’re here. No distractions.”
They talked a bit after that, but in the end, Jack needed his rest – besides, his headache was getting worse. So, after receiving some type of medication, he reluctantly closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep.
But, to his disappointment, instead of falling into a deep, restive sleep his consciousness fell straight down the proverbial rabbit hole and slipped into a dark, empty world.
Jack found himself floating freely, unable to see beyond his nose and the rest of his senses utterly cut off from everything. Suffice to say, he was not even remotely amused by his situation. When he looked down on his body, he was not bound by anything; no tubes, no bandages, no wounds, nor was he wearing a scrap of clothing. But Jack didn’t feel cold at all, and somehow, didn’t feel embarrassed about the exposure of his privates either. There was no one else here to witness it anyways.
Jack had to question his sanity, wondering out aloud whether this black space, his current condition and the overall tranquility that pervaded this world were all a result of him going totally mad. Or, he fell asleep and now was dreaming one hell of a weird dream. After all, he was trying to sleep so it was only natural to think this was the case.
However, he soon came to a conclusion that this wasn’t what he thought it was. Why? Simple, really.
The black, featureless world was soon converted into a blood-red one, filled with the shining red crystal-like souls being the main source of all that crimson hue. It was literally red everywhere, like as if the whole world was submerged into the overflowing river of blood.
Jack gulped nervously. He was floating there, surrounded by these mysterious and horrifying things everywhere he could see. Understandably, he was deeply apprehensive of this new and unwelcome change.
But when he eyed the floating red soul crystal things, suddenly he recalled an important detail. Quickly, Jack searched around for the faces of people he knew and cared about among the souls, and soon enough, saw his classmates grouped together in one section among the numerous souls.
It was a bit of a way from where he was. Not knowing a method to move in this world, Jack thought about what he could do here – swim as if he was underwater or in a zero-gravity situation.
Several ideas came by in his mind, and when he thought about dragging those souls closer to where he was, things began to shift. Indeed, the sea of red seemed to undulate like the parting waves. The group of red souls then flickered and seemingly, in a blink of an eye, teleported right before his stunned face.
“Oh, that’s convenient,” Jack muttered, slightly taken aback but recovering quickly. “Okay, so if I think about wanting something to happen, then it’ll probably happen inside this world….”
A glint of understanding flashed in his eyes. But that glint was shrouded just as quickly when those familiar faces got closer. Jack shuddered as he witnessed all of those faces, still shrieking in agony and still trapped within these abominable crystal things.
Thankfully, no sound came out of them, mercifully sparing him from enduring the pained screams of people he grew up to know well.
Jack slowly, hesitantly reached out and touched the nearest one. It was the bus driver’s soul, about the size of a basketball. It was warm and hard to the touch – and was gently pushed away as his fingers made contact with the surface.
“What can I do with these souls? Why are they…. here? In me?”
Jack mulled this quandary that none could answer but maybe the trapped souls themselves. And as if wanting to satisfy his curiosity, the bus driver’s soul crystal spun faster and faster, all the while ripples spread out from where Jack touched it.
And with a soft “Pah!!” the crystal dissolved into a fine, powdery mist.
It didn’t stop there. Instead of dispersing away, the red mist then surrounded Jack and slowly rotated around him.
To say he was really surprised and scared at this new development would be the understatement of the year. Jack thought that he had done something bad to the soul, that he had somehow managed to destroy the damn thing and thereby killing off the soul itself with no future means of reviving it or sending it to The Heaven or some such.
If that were so, then he’d be feeling so unbelievably miserable of himself.
However, a certain feeling, a sense really, of familiarity about this situation gradually settled in him. It was hard to explain what was so familiar to him in the first place. It was kinda like, he knew this was supposed to happen. That it was normal.
It was not too dissimilar to how he knew these souls inside this space would move under his will.
But as to why it was so – why he felt this way – Jack could not come up with anything plausible. The best he could think of was that he already knew the truth but had forgotten it, only now remembering the details, one at the time.
For the proof, he only needed to simply think about redirecting the flowing red mist, and the desired result immediately occurred. It changed the direction of its movement with not a sign of hesitation nor resistance. To make sure he was right, Jack tried it a couple more times until his understanding of how this world worked deepened.
But he wasn’t really satisfied with this much. It felt like he was missing something vital, something important. He just wasn’t sure of what exactly. It was right at the tip of his tongue, teasingly beyond the reach.
He floated there, surrounded by the red mist and the red soul crystals, pondering.
He pondered about the ways to leave this place, he pondered about what he had apparently forgotten, and he also pondered about the implications of these red souls inside of him.
“Could it be that… Am I a Super, too?”
No matter what, Jack could not shake this notion out of his mind. No, it was only getting stronger, this helpless and disgusted feeling. Unless he was going crazy – then, all of this was just nothing but him seeing things that weren’t there.
But if he wasn’t going mad, then…
“Then, I must be a Super. It has to be. What other explanations are there?”
Jack breathed in deeply, quite bitter at the prospect of being treated the same as one of those bastards that murdered his friends. Oh, he knew. His father, Bob Mercer may have avoided telling him, but Jack was not a dummy. He had remembered the burning bus, the smell of human flesh, the anguished cries. He remembered them all.
And he just could not bear the thought of it at all, the ultimate insult of being treated the same as the Supers.
As he trembled in agony and anger, Jack had one of those famed lightbulb moments.
“No, wait a minute here. If I am a Super, then, doesn’t that mean…. I have the power, potentially, to take those two killers down?”
Jack felt as if a lightning had struck him. An epiphany so powerful, he felt his entire being shudder and shake like an earthquake.
The mere thought of being a Super powerful enough to exact the righteous retribution to the guilty ones shook him very hard, deep into his core. As a matter of fact, the crimson world began to vibrate, causing numerous large ripples to break out as if the whole world and everything in it were agitated, excited at the prospect of becoming…. a Super.
“But…. can I? Really?”
Jack hesitated. The cause? He was engulfed in confusion and fear, that was why.
He wasn’t normally the type to hide in a dark room and not come out until the world was safe again. No, if there was one redeeming quality he had, then it’d be his inability to sit still and do nothing. He had to something.
So to gain a potential power that might, just might give him a way to dispense justice, then it’d be an enormous boon, no doubt. But at the same time, the fear of being rejected as a monster scared him silly.
Being rejected and feared by his own family, by everyone he knew, by the world – that thought was completely unbearable to Jack. Yes, the world was full of Supers, both good and bad, and the general populace might have accepted their existence, but Jack no longer felt that way. His anger towards the powerful Supers was real, rooted deeply in his heart, and now, to think he was one just like those he despised, the whole situation left him paralyzed somewhat.
But he had no choice in this matter anymore. Even if he kept his transformation, his awakening a secret, how long would he be able to carry that baggage? He, or somebody else, would expose it and destroy his life. Of course he was fearful. Of course he was confused.
Clutching his fist in a fit of frustration, Jack angrily screamed out.
His voice echoed in the crimson world. The ripples of the world quietened down as the sound waves bounced around. The calm stillness was soon restored, with nary a hint of anything ever happening here.
Soon, even the echoes of his voice were gone. His throat hurt from the overuse, although technically speaking, he wasn’t really using it just now. Still, it burned and itched, making him desire for a soothing balm of some kind.
As if to answer this call for relief, the red mist swirled and shot directly into his throat area. Jack stiffened, but he couldn’t do a thing to stop it as the mist was moving too fast, and was quickly absorbed into him.
It was a very different sensation compared to when the red soul crystals entered him back on the highway. Back then, whether due to the blood loss or the brain blocking out the excruciating pain, he didn’t feel a thing.
But now, here, Jack felt like something uncomfortably hot and heavy was pressing down on his skin, then against the muscles in his neck – then, even down to the bones and the marrows and the like.
It was not to the level of being completely intolerable, but still, Jack found the experience very unpleasant.
The mist was completely absorbed into his neck, and just like that, hoarseness in his throat was all gone. He felt refreshed, for the lack of better description. At the same time, not a drop of that red mist made up of the driver’s soul remained. Jack couldn’t even sense it anymore. It was gone for good.
“What the…. what the hell was that all about?!”
The next morning came, and there was a slight but noticeable change in Jack’s condition.
Bob had to go to work. He could have gotten an absence of leave from his job as an analyst in a huge firm – but chose not to as the company was in the middle of securing a very important contract. Bob’s input was an absolute necessity.
Dana had to go to school. Now that her brother had woken up, she had to continue with her own life. Putting it on a back burner was not an option, as Min-jung had put it.
And as for Min-jung herself, since she was a world-renowned geneticist working for a massive global pharmaceutical company, she was given a lot of leeways and she took full advantage of that by staying near her son’s side, studying and checking up on his conditions.
And that’s when the complications rose.
It wasn’t to do with the prying eyes of the local and international press. No, the impressive security of the Fort meant that no so-called journalists chasing a primetime slot with a story would be able to sneak in. There was no worry in that regard.
Nor were they to do with the level of doctors and the equipment here – unlike most military-run hospitals, Fort McNamus was actually run by the Department of Defense. And they made sure every facet of this facility was as advanced as possible in order to treat the high-ranking VIPs and politicians quietly and discreetly.
Since Min-jung still knew people from here, having her son recuperate here was a good decision from her side, as there was, inevitably, some people trying to use this tragedy of the Highway R-35 Northbound to score valuable political points. Min-jung and Bob both agreed that their children would not be subjected to such opportunism if they could help it.
Also – there were daily protests going on out there. They were very anti-Super in nature, fuelled by the tragedy that took away countless lives. The whole affair had taken on very serious undertones, both political and social. Min-jung wasn’t sure whether her son was equipped to handle all that right now.
If anything, Jack needed time to process his grief first before dealing with all that crazy stuff that would normally fly over his head. He was only a 17-year-old teen, after all.
No, the complications came from the fact that Jack’s neck area was completely healed overnight. This bizarre phenomenon was only noticed by the nurses when they were changing the bandages for a set of new one. Min-jung was present, of course, and bore witness to this near-miraculous recovery all in its glory.
She was shocked. There was a very little explanation that could match this unusual situation. If Jack’s entire body was healed, then it’d be far easier to understand, but it was just his neck, nowhere else. Now that was…. that was an odd thing. Very odd.
Min-jung waited until the confused nurses were done with their jobs. She watched them leave, then only did she sit next to her son and carefully asked him.
“Jack, how are you feeling today?”
“I guess… it’s okay, considering.” Jack replied, sounding a little weak.
“Feel any different? You know, besides the drugs in your system making you drowsy. Like, something has changed in your body. The way it feels to you.”
Jack frowned and hesitated for a brief second. He almost blurted out aloud the matters of the red soul crystals and the crimson world – but held back. His fears still lingered and he didn’t want his own mother to look at him like as if he was a freak.
So he lied.
“No, not really. I don’t feel different but yeah, I am drowsy, that’s for sure.”
Min-jung narrowed her eyes slightly but didn’t press any further for now. “If you feel weird, even if it’s just a tiny bit, tell me, alright? Besides being your mother, I’m a pretty good doctor, I’ll have you know. So you can trust my prognosis.”
“Yeah well, that’s a given, mom.”
Jack chuckled, trying his best to hide the slight guilt in his heart from tainting his voice or his facial expression. He wasn’t a good actor and he knew it.
But he was saved from a barrage of interrogation when Min-jung’s phone vibrated. She was going to ignore it but then she saw the caller’s numbers and ended up frowning a little. She didn’t want to answer it but….
Sighing, she got up from the bed. “I gotta take this. I’ll return later to check on you. Get plenty of rest, Jack.”
“I know, mom.”
With a gentle smile, she left the room to take the call.
As soon as she got to the corridor, she connected to the call and heard the unpleasant voice from the distant past she didn’t want to be reminded of.
“Glad to hear your son is doing fine, doctor Mercer.”
“Thank you. Now, what is it you want? I told you not to contact me.”
“Don’t be like that, doctor. We haven’t talked in ages. Why don’t we have a little chat – please stop by at my office later today. Around twelve thirty. See you then.”
Infuriatingly, the other party ended the call before she could refuse. Min-jung didn’t even get to speak properly. She was angry, but at the same time, had to resign herself to the meeting now set in stone regardless of her own feelings.
She looked at the time displayed on the phone. If she were to make it for the meeting, then she had to get going right away. Before leaving, though, Min-jung took a long, worried gaze towards the direction of her son’s room.
Meanwhile, Jack was breathing in deeply while examining his neck with the untethered right arm. He wasn’t a dummy – he had also noticed that something was different with his neck. And when he touched there, he was thoroughly shocked himself.
It took a while to calm down but eventually, he did. Only then was he able to coolly assess why his neck was fine while the rest of his body looked like crap.
There was only one logical answer, though.
“It’s the red soul mist….”
Jack imperceptibly murmured to no one in particular.
He had no doubt that the red soul “mist” his neck had absorbed was the cause for this miraculous recovery. Even though he had absorbed it in an illusory world within his mind, the effects were shown in the real world.
“Oh my god. I am a Super….”
Jack felt like massaging his throbbing head. His worst fears were confirmed for good now. He couldn’t even go on a denial now that there was an irrefutable proof.
He tried very hard to think positively. There must be something good at the end of all this. Finally, he was able to convince himself that, if this Superpower being manifested in him was a particularly useful one, then he could bring the ones responsible to justice. So that was good.
He again breathed in deeply. Jack knew there was nothing he could do to change his fate now. To his knowledge, a human being had the figurative “one in a million” chance in manifesting a Superpower during his or her lifetime. Not all of that power was good or strong, but if he was lucky enough, then he just might be able to….
In order to be sure, Jack needed to experiment. He needed to find out more about this power of his, explore it in depth and figure out its limits and attributes if he were to fight.
He didn’t know how the things he was doing – or planning to do – would affect all the trapped souls inside of him. He didn’t even know whether those souls were…. alive or not, either.
All he knew at this point was, that these souls could potentially help him avenge his friends.
Another thing he was mindful of, was that he needed to find another way to access that crimson world. It was going to become a massive bother if he had to fall asleep every time just to “power up.”
Jack couldn’t think beyond these, however. He became too drowsy to continue as the drugs coursed within his veins began to dull his senses.
So, he quickly drifted into a drug-induced sleep. To his relief, though, rather than ending up in some hazy dream that didn’t help anyone, Jack’s consciousness ended up in the crimson world once more.
“Alright, since I’m here, might as well start the experiments,” said Jack, as he tightly clenched his fists.
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Synopsis: The online game <