Upon opening his eyes, he immediately, instinctively shut them. The light overhead was blinding, and it was in the wrong shade of white.
He groaned as his nerves slowly woke up, one by one.
“Listen to me.”
“Listen to my voice”.
The voices clambered over each other, and he could barely make sense of anything aside from the pain. He arched his back, moved his hands, only to realize he was partially restrained. Something painful kept exploding behind his eyelids, in his head, spreading everywhere. He tried moving again, to reach his head, maybe lessen the pain, anything, anything to make this stop. His instinct was screaming at him, stop, you won’t survive this.
Another point of pain exploded in his arms, but it was much milder than the one on his head. A few seconds later, the pain started becoming bearable. His scream turned into sobs – he had been screaming this whole time. His throat was burning.
“Sanghyuk, you will be okay.”
A voice claimed, before he felt back into unconsciousness. He managed a single thought. My name is Sanghyuk.
The next time he had woken up, the pain was no longer there. He felt fuzzy, pleasant, but his limbs didn’t feel like they were his. They were very heavy. He tried to move a finger, then his hand, but it was sluggish and someone stopped him before he could move his arm. He was lying on a soft mattress, within a sterile white room. Someone in a white lab coat was with him.
He didn’t remember what they had asked or done to him.
He only remembered, they said, it worked.
They brought him to awareness slowly, no more than a few times daily, a few minutes for the first time and slowly increasing. He wouldn’t know for sure anyway, but that was what they told him.
After each bout of wakefulness, right before the medication could steal consciousness from him, he tried to recall the facts.
His name was Han Sanghyuk. He was twenty-one. His Mom had died of a heart attack when he was seven, and he had no other known relatives. He was brought up in an orphanage in a relatively quiet neighbourhood within New Seoul, dropped out of school when he was sixteen, accepted to the Corps as soon as he was of age. Within two years, he had made a fast rise through the ranks.
He had traded his memories for entry into S-rank five days prior.
He had no recollections of why he had made such a decision, or whether it was worth it. Nonetheless, it worked.
On the sixth day, at six am, he asked someone if this was a good thing. They said, it remained to be seen, but the failure rate was less than 1%.
The way they said failure unsettled him. He asked what it meant, but they just shook their head.
He knew he should be freaking out, because there were large blank spaces in his memory that shouldn’t be there. He knew the name of the orphanage where he lived until he was fourteen, but he had no memories of growing up there. He had a roommate for years, but he wouldn’t be able to pick out their face among a crowd. It was overall a freaky affair – his brain was messed with, who knew if he had some screws loose now, or if they had taken away something he treasured. Instead, he was so relieved. It worked.
At ten am, he woke up to a new face, someone in a military uniform. S-rank, fifth class, his brain supplied. The man remained in the room with his back facing the door as the doctors ran Sanghyuk through his usual check-ups. His presence was ice cold, and despite Sanghyuk being on very little medication, he didn’t dare move until the man leave the room, his eyes never straying from the strange figure.
Sanghyuk shuddered at the little smirk the man left behind.
On the seventh day, the medical facility was allowed to discharge him. Sanghyuk had all of two minutes to think of where he should go (he had an apartment ten kilometers from downtown) and what he should do, before three uniformed men entered.
- Commander Han Sanghyuk, please follow us.
That was the first time Sanghyuk learnt of his rank. It was also when he entered hell.
He retained enough of his muscle memory to skip three, then five weeks of physical training. Two weeks was the usual number post-Operation, but as Sanghyuk worked through what seemed to be barely-concealed tests, he realized he wasn’t usual. The eyes of the training officers followed him, part admiration, part uneasiness. He moved almost as if he had retained all of his memories, and it wasn’t good.
Sanghyuk just smirked in the darkness of his bunk, but it worked. And he wasn’t entirely sure why he was so pleased, but he was. And that was all that mattered.
Psych training was where it all went to shit.
The first two days, they had him locked up in a windowless room, had him recall every bit of information he could remember and put it down into paper. For the first day, Sanghyuk was bored, but when the sixth hour of the second day dawned, a headache slammed into him full force.
He was warned of this before his discharge from the Operation facility, that he would experience the occasional headaches as his mental pathways diverged and form new ways to make up for all the missing neuron links they buried during the Operation.
It wasn’t a headache that could keep him down, but a constant pressure at the back of his head, as if someone was pressing down onto that area continuously. He broke into a cold sweat, and the pen slipped out of his hands as he failed to write down his numerous addresses during his period of almost-homelessness right before recruitment.
The camera at the top right corner of the room flickered, as if someone had realised his dilemma.
An unknown voice rang in his head. His eyes widened, before he remembered he was being monitored. He picked up his pen, and returned to writing, his expressions as neutral as he could make it.
That voice was as clear as a memory, but he couldn’t recall when, where and how he got it. It probably wasn’t important, but he was certain he wanted to hide it. It made not one lick of sense, but as a military personnel, Sanghyuk had learnt to trust his instincts.
He ended the task three hours earlier than deadline, and there was no mention of a strange voice in his report.
Pre-Operation, if he had ever dreamt, he didn’t remember. Post-Operation, he had been at physical training, exhausting himself to complete every combatant requirement so he had fallen deep into slumber as soon as his back hit the mattress.
But, for the first time, he dreamt that night. The voice was the same one he heard during his first Psych task, tangy, scattered, speaking random encouragements. It was warm and nurturing.
He still decided to keep it for himself.
(He thought it might have been his mother’s voice.)
In theory, the Operation was designed to strip potential S-rank officers of complications. It was a required stabilizing agent of the training process. That’s the fancy, official explanations.
The raw explanation was that the Operation strips you of emotions, of memories that could trigger an undesired reaction.
Sanghyuk retained most of the pure and simple facts of his life – those that carried with it no emotional impact. But he couldn’t remember his Mom, or his roommates, or the nurse who treated his broken legs during fourth grade, because those memories could trigger his emotional responses.
The Operation made sure those memories was sealed off from him, as if polishing a diamond into shape – the diamond was more worthy, beautiful and of use but it had lost all of the rough edges that could do damage, along with most of its weight.
Psych training should be called psych evaluation instead, Sanghyuk thought. If the Operation had done its job, this process shouldn’t be needed at all. Sanghyuk was shown the trauma of getting hurt while in combat and losing comrades, but he couldn’t remember the pain at all, or the empathy needed, so he didn’t feel anything. Psych image training turned more and more gruesome – there was a lot of blood, of people dying, from new news reels of famine and unrest to old news footage of entire cities being decimated. But nothing could draw a reaction out of him.
It wasn’t normal. Human was prone to the most extreme of emotions, sadness, fear, anxiety, resentment, doubt. But those Sanghyuk didn’t remember feeling at all. And he couldn’t feel them now. A sense of detachment washed over him, because all those was just another human lost, just another city destroyed in the grand schemes of things. History had been bloody ever since the recorded beginning of humanity, and adding that to the slow destruction of their planet ever since Excess overtook, they were lucky humanity had still managed to survive.
Everything was muddled. If Sanghyuk could compare it to anything, perhaps a veil which shielded him from viewing the world with emotions, leaving him with only the facts to work with. Logical. It was a veil thick enough that even if Sanghyuk wanted to feel anything, he wouldn’t be able to muster enough energy to. Despite how displaced and strang and wrong it was.
The training officers were pleased by his state of mind. Sanghyuk was relieved, for reasons unclear to him. It worked.
The hand was his. Definitely his. He held the pills loosely, but they were not big enough to slip through the space between his fingers. He felt compelled to take them.
A hand grabbed his wrist.
The voice was muddled. He looked up, but their face was unclear to him as well.
His face. They were a he. And Sanghyuk could tell he was familiar, because the hand holding his left wrist was warm and comforting.
The man hugged him, and his shaking stopped. He had not realised he had even been shaking until that moment. They slowly lowered onto the floor. The tile was white and slippery, similar to the one usually used for bathrooms. A hint of ammonia in the air. There was a basin to his left, a bidet to his right. A big blue tower hanged just within his peripheral vision. The wall paint was muted gray.
Sanghyuk hadn’t been here before, and he didn’t know how he knew, but it was his bathroom.
“You can do it.”
Sanghyuk woke up slowly, but as he opened his eyes, the pain slammed into him unexpectedly. The migraine at the back of his head ever since the Operation grew ten times its size, going from a persistent small presence at the back of his mind into a fucking portion of his brain feeling like it was on fire. The images of his dream rushed back at him all at once, the sensation of cold ceramic tiles under his feet, the cool damp air of a bathroom, the white pills he held in his palm. The warm comfort of the man’s embrace.
He shuddered, though the temperature of his bunker was strictly regulated for maximum human comfort. He pulled the blanket around himself, and as the images fade, the pain in his head went back down to manageable level. But the sensation stayed with him, and he didn’t know what to do with it. It was strange, yet familiar. It felt real, a memory rather than a dream.
But Sanghyuk didn’t remember. He couldn’t.
Sanghyuk dreamt every night ever since the first. Everytime he woke up, he retained some of the images and sensations, his migraine kicking up a notch before it all faded back into a dull ache. None of the dreams was as clear as the first one, but he was certain of them all being his memories (which was supposed to suppressed and couldn’t resurface).
With three days left in his Psych training, he reported to the medical ward. It wasn’t ideal, his promotions could be in jeopardy over this small details. But he needed answers.
The doctors pricked and prodded at his brain for a whole day, whispering furiously between themselves where they thought Sanghyuk couldn’t see them.
Finally, at sixteen hundred hour, he had his answers. A woman in a lab coat entered. She had soft bob hair and a soft smile tugging at the corner of her lips. She looked harmless, comforting, like she could be someone’s mom.
“Commander, if you’re ready to hear about your current condition.”
He nodded, leaning back against the lumpy pillow.
“While we had not intended for it to be so, your brain considered the Operation as damage to your brain. It is trying to fix itself, by bridging your old mental pathways as well as forming new ones. We have had a lot of cases like this, so the medication assigned to you should be suppressing the bridging. But it was not as effective.”
He took it all in, and mentally filed the abrupt end to the explanation. Classified information, then. Probably something to do with the intricate way the Operation worked. Sanghyuk was a military personnel, he didn’t need to know anyway.
“So?”, he asked, tone flat.
“Just a case of wrong medication. We will be adjusting it.”
Sanghyuk was discharged two hours later, with a few prescribed pain killers. His new medication would be sent to the kitchen along with his new diet, just like the last batch.
He ignored the wrong wrong wrong in his head.
His promotion was overall a quiet affair. They had only a dozen officers being promoted to S-rank this time, but Sanghyuk was told that this number was higher than usual. Unrest beyond the Wall had hastened some of the promoting decisions made by the higher-ups.
As he stood shoulder to shoulder with some of his new comrades, he couldn’t find a familiar face. If they were ever in the same unit, if they had ever had each other’s back during battle, if they had ever bled for each other, Sanghyuk wouldn’t know.
But they made the decision to forget themselves, and there shouldn’t be any regrets.
Sanghyuk was allowed to leave base and return to his apartment afterwards. It would take somewhere between three days and a week for them to sort out the logistics of his work and assign him where he needed to be.
The bus took him around the city, dropping off numerous other personnel, slowly spiraling into the heart of the city. He would be one of the last to get off then.
The envious eyes of lower-ranked soldiers followed him and the new S-rank recruits. If only they knew what it would take to get there, Sanghyuk wondered, how many of them would still be willing to do it. He kept the thought to himself.
The city scape whipped by the window. Sanghyuk didn’t follow anything detail in particular, just letting it wash over him. At nineteen hundred hour on a mid-week night, the city was vibrant with colours. Of course, there was hardly anyone outside to enjoy it, the act too taboo. But the pixie lights of that restaurant, or the billboard promoting enlistment hit your eyes with disturbing loudness. The city was trying to scream liveliness, but the fakeness couldn’t be hidden.
Things shouldn’t be done in excess, Sanghyuk thought.
He was dropped off a street away from his apartment. He walked the rest of the way. Very few things could hurt him these days.
Stepping into the apartment made him feel displaced. It felt familiar, in the way that his uniform was. But it seemed too strange at the same time. He had expected to feel the same familiarity that the man in his dream gave off, because this was supposed to be his home.
Sanghyuk broke out in a cold sweat. He dropped his duffel at the door step, ran until he could find the bathroom, and slammed the door open.
The towel folded and placed neatly on a shelf was white. Both the basin and the bidet was on his right. The wall was tiled.
This wasn’t his bathroom.
This was his apartment, but this bathroom wasn’t his bathroom.
Sanghyuk collapsed to the ground, and wondered how much he forgot.
The colours, in daylight, were more muted. They were animated and proper, sure – a house roof painted red, the mural on the ground of the city square was splattered with green and blue and orange depicting a sunny day and a grass field that stretched out infinitely, restaurants’ doors are painted brown and always shiny new. The city gave off the vibe of well-maintained. But no colour was in excess.
Excess, they learnt, was the downfall of their society generations ago. Without excessive greed, human wouldn’t have collapsed their old economy and exhausted the planet’s natural resources. Without excessive power, nuclear bombs wouldn’t have been able to wipe off one-fifth of their population after just one war. Without excessive fear, they might have been able to leave for the unknown, not barely surviving on a dying planet.
Now, nothing was in excess. Though trying to give off the illusions of variety, the governments had been striving for moderation. Beyond the Wall there were resources they could still salvage, but that was the job of the military, not their citizens. In name, the Wall was built to protect them from unknown elements, but in truth, it was to protect the vast world from their excess.
Within the Wall, everything was controlled. Nothing too much, nothing too little. Houses weren’t uniform, but no one house was bigger, taller or more luxurious than another house. Wages were tightly controlled, everyone received different pay for the work they did, but nobody had excessively more money than the other. Restaurant, entertainment establishments, services, everything resembled the materialistic world they built hundreds of years ago, but it was small, and moderated. Restaurants could run for years, never going out of business but never gaining much profit either.
Government officials, carefully selected, distributing all resources in equal measures. They must be reasonable, logical, without greed, and striving for the greater good of the community.
Perhaps, that was why Sanghyuk had to undergo the Operation in order to be a higher ranked military personnel. To eliminate excess from the community, they must start eliminating the excess within themselves.
Something must be done out of necessity.
But he had been recalling, information he shouldn’t know. He had kept dreaming, every night, fragments of his memory invading his brain, creating sensory overload. Sanghyuk sat, staring out his window at the gray house a little shorter than his fourth floor apartment. He wondered why he kept thinking it worked, when he could feel an excess of hollowness within himself.
Upon entering S-rank, his assignment changed drastically. He remembered the bare bones of what he had been doing before, patrolling pre-determined streets, ushering people who was out after lights out towards their residence.
Being S-ranked meant he must ensure there were always people being on the ground and doing that sort of thing now. The city map laid on the table in front of him while a third class officer explained the parameter of their work. Sanghyuk stared, filing the information automatically while marveling at the details of the map. Their world was small enough to be scaled on white paper, the Wall thick and in stark contrast with the streets and houses lining the map.
He wouldn’t call it information overload, but it was close.
The intricacy of their work came to Sanghyuk faster than some of the recruits of his class. There was no jealousy, only curiousity and the desire to get the job done. Sanghyuk shared what he could, because they were all there for the same purpose anyway.
His prefecture was given to him on the second week of his assignment. It was more tricky than usual, since it was in direct contact with the Wall. Aside from assuring safety and discipline of his prefecture, he had to patrol the outer perimeter of the Wall as well.
Sanghyuk remembered only three times where he had been outside the Wall, being part of the patrol unit. The remains of Old Seoul was far and few in between, being invaded by wild greenery. But it still existed, outside the Wall. Elements unknown lurked, and though they would not be able to cross the Wall or do any harm to the well-protected city, cautions were to be taken.
On this first day out, on top of the Wall looking down at his prefecture and the vast land beyond the Wall, Sanghyuk shivered as a revelation hit him.
The muted decadent beyond their world, the colour of gray and the silence greeted him with familiarity nothing within the Wall could give. The colours of their world was a direct clash with the world beyond, perhaps a way to distinct themselves from what was broken. But the silence called him like siren songs.
Sanghyuk had something, someone out there waiting for him. He couldn’t remember.
Sanghyuk worked in twelve hour shifts, moving personnel and military resources, patrolling, smiling at the residence of their prefecture and telling them, they were safe with him, yes, please do not worry.
Outside of those hours, he walked the city. Sometimes over ground, but mostly within the sewage system. Walking wasn’t prohibited, but with the frequency Sanghyuk walked, someone was bound to notice. So he stayed underground, mapping up where he had been to as he explored the city scape, brick by brick. He had very little collections of the time between he was sixteen and eighteen, but he figured traipsing the streets was what he had done then, if he was so familiar with this maze.
He was dreaming still. Each time he closed his eyes, memories exploded on the inside of his eyelids. Bits and pieces that he could not make sense of, locations he hadn’t seen or should ever see, people with blurry faces, wearing strange clothes and whispering nonsense. But the most vivid picture he could draw up, was of an abandoned train carriage.
The train system within the city limit had been partially decommissioned and demolished. Only two lines run now, covering two tracks from the furthest north to south and furthest east to west corner of the city. Other branches was considered a waste of resources as buses and bikes could work perfectly for the normal travelling distance that a citizen would need.
This particular abandoned train carriage though, was back grounded by unusual scenery. The buildings behind it was higher than anything the city would allow, gray and falling apart. The electricity line was run in the air by some poles, not underground.
Sanghyuk needed to find that train carriage.
So he followed the old train lines, those which were still standing, slowly checking for anything that could resemble the image inside his head.
One cold day at the end of the year, three months after the Operation, he almost found it. The scenery was different, but the déjà vu slammed into him like a freight train. The stones made the ground uneven under his feet, but he ignored them, and ran across the small abandoned station, looking for the carriage.
After half an hour of checking every angle possible, he realised, this was not where he was looking for. But the nostalgia soaked each of his step, preventing him from leaving the place.
He had been here before. He was with a group of people, all of them familiar, all of them radiating heat, so warm he could choke on the comfort of it. He walked the rail, and someone reached out to catch him when he almost stumbled and fell. Laughter rang in his ears.
Unknowingly, his feet brought him to a train carriage. He climbed up, ended up sitting down with his feet swinging three meters above the ground. He looked up, and from here he could see the highest part of the Wall.
It’s not that high.
That night, he dreamt of the people that walked with him. He could recognize them now, could recognize them everywhere.
Someone drowned themself, and Sanghyuk wasn’t there. Someone burned, stared straight into his eyes as the drapes, the bed sheets, the furniture burned around them, the smell of gasoline and the dryness of the air ripping a part of Sanghyuk out and burned it into ash. Someone wandered, lost, anchorless, and Sanghyuk reached out but couldn’t touch them as a group of faceless people hit and hit and hit. Someone’s world tilted, slipping out of the xyz axes, falling apart. More burning, more water. Blood.
Somwhere warmer. A fire was burning, but instead of hot it was warm. Someone draped a blanket over his shoulders. Pills fell from a bottle into the fire, disappearing from the world without a trace.
Sanghyuk woke up retching out the content of his stomach. A feeling hit him for the first time. Fear. He was afraid.
He clambered for the medicine cabinet. Grabbing his medication, he opened each bottle, spilling various coloured pills all over the place before flushing most of them down the toilet.
Unable to distinguish between a dream and memories for the first time, he sat shivering in his bathroom for hours until his alarm rang. He stood up, cleaned everything, and left for work like he was meant to do.
He couldn’t remember, but he needed too.
The trip was planned months in advance, a rare occurrence that needed the risks minimized. The biologists were to be accompanied on their trip outside the Wall to collect samples.
Sanghyuk was secure enough with himself to know, he would get it done. His memories had been playing tricks on him, but he was still Commander Han Sanghyuk of the Republic of New Korea’s Military Corps, and he would be damned if he traded his memory only to be stripped of his title due to incompetence.
His confidence deflated as soon as they left the city. The Jeep he was on made a sudden jerk as its wheel caught on a big rock, and their entourage was slowed momentarily so they could leave the car behind and transferred to the remaining vehicles. As soon as he climbed onto the car, he could feel a presence, watching him. His skin prickled. He looked around once, on high alert, but no one was in sight.
The car jerked once due to the sudden break, accompanied the loud yelling of his subordinates in front. He jumped down and sprinted towards the car carrying the three scientists, his priority being their safety.
He could barely make out the three figures, but they were black-cladded and moved faster, as fast as someone with years of military physical training.
Some soldiers stumbled towards Sanghyuk’s directions, remembering their objective. But his unit of two dozen became disorganized in an instance, picked off by their attackers.
Stragglers. Sanghyuk didn’t know they had Stragglers in this area. He had not been informed. Nor had anything happened during the two months he had been taking care of this prefecture.
“Fall back. Protect the…”
He yelled out the command, but was cut off half way through by a kick to his stomach. He dropped his hand from his gun, going for his knife instead. His left hand pulled, slashing upwards once before swiftly switching the knife to his right hand.
The Straggler stalled in front of him, staring. His cheek was cut, not too deep, but it was bleeding.
Everyone around them seemed to have stopped moving entirely. Or maybe that was just his perspective. He was focused on the presence in front of him.
I walked with him.
Sanghyuk hadn’t seen this much leather on one person before. An excess, his brain supplied. The leather jacket wrapped the man’s frame tightly, another layer of protection and screaming his Straggler status. Black pants, black worn t-shirts underneath the jacket, booths that looked worn from excessive use. The clothing was strange for their world, but on this man, it suited him to a T. He was calm, but his eyes were cold and hot at the same time, burning with wildness. In the soft light of the early morning, he looked dangerous, filled with tightly contained energy.
I walked with him.
The lapse of focus took away Sanghyuk’s advantage, as the man dodged his knife and approached him, forcing his back against a car’s door.
“Come fine the train carriage.”
The Straggler whispered once, his voice small and light, reminding Sanghyuk of a cat. He slashed at Sanghyuk’s side, and Sanghyuk closed his eyes, waiting for the inevitable pain.
But nothing came, and as he opened his eyes, all three Stragglers were gone. His uniform was cut in three places, but none of the cut reached his skin.
Their entourage hastily returned to the city, within the safety of the Wall. Sanghyuk made a report, and the higher ups immediately removed him from patrolling duty, pushing in a third class officer who had experiences with Stragglers as replacement.
He said nothing, and accepted the early dismissal. He returned to his apartment at noon, exhausted, worn out.
The feeling of oxidized metal was grounding under his palm. He breathed in the dusk of decadent, mold climbing up the wall, oil spilling on the floor, and he coughed, but his lungs were warm.
He was inside a train carriage. It was cold. Outside, the fire crackled, burning inside an empty barrel. The red of the flame illuminated his surroundings, and there were people walking around, chattering endlessly.
Despite the muted colours, Sanghyuk could make them out very clearly. The blue-almost black of the sky, decorated by galaxies of bright stars.The gray of the buildings falling apart behind them, reminders that they once had buildings that could penetrate through the clouds. The polished silver, and dark red of metals that was oxidizing. The soft green of the blanket placed on him.
Someone called out at him, and he looked up. Outside the carriage, someone was looking at him with a soft smile, carrying a steaming mug.
Sanghyuk woke up with a muffled sob. His bed sheet was so wet due to his sweat, and the sky outside had darkened. He hastily climbed out of bed, struggled into a pair of grey pants and a white t-shirt, grabbing one of his guns and a pair of knives before running out of the house with all his might.
Taekwoon hyung. That was Taekwoon hyung, and he was family.
Sanghyuk, subconsciously, had always known the train carriage was outside the boundary of the Wall.
But being within meant security, peace, and simplicity. Sanghyuk wasn’t good enough a man to place himself into a situation where all of that was compromised, just to understand a puzzle.
But he had a family out there, and even under the influence of the drugs that still haunted his system, he knew family was important. Why did he remember his Mom, but not this family beyond the Wall?
He couldn’t remember, but who cared? He would learn again, if needed to.
Sanghyuk slipped past the night guards, so grateful that the new officer in chief didn’t change the patrol plan he had enforced.
The first thing he noticed, was that it was pitch dark beyond the light of the city. The great unknown, as the propaganda liked to call it.
He took a deep breath, and ran.
His legs would know where to take him.
The landscape immediately outside the Wall was barren, as clean up efforts decades ago had made sure of. But as Sanghyuk ran and ran, and his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could make out the ruins ahead. Buildings as tall as they could build it, paved roads lined with piles of metals that must have been cars at one point, old technology.
As he hit the invisible limit of where the Corps patrolled, he felt someone’s presence.
The figure ran towards him. Sanghyuk didn’t stop, his brain screaming, keep going, you’re almost home.
“Taekwoon hyung’s plan actually worked.”
The voice was syrupy sweet, and clear. Sanghyuk could imagine the gorgeous laugh, the playful tone.
“Hyung.”, he choked out instinctively.
“Hyung, I don’t remember anything.”, he said breathlessly, due to the suicidal run he was doing, due to the fragments of memories surfacing as he went further and further away from the city, closer and closer to home.
“You’ll be okay, Hyukie. You’re home.”
Sanghyuk heard it at the same times he saw the train carriage at a distance, lit up by various barrel fires, a single point of light among the darkness.
“His body has been rejecting the Operation, like a body would reject an incompatible organ transplant. Him surviving this long is a miracle.”
“You mean I sent my baby brother out there for your intel, and he is dying for it.”
“Hakyeon, that’s not what I meant. We can still perform the reverse surgery on him.”
“He’d better be able to regain full strength or I’m turning this war into a blood bath.”
Sanghyuk winced, at the brightness of the light, at the loud voices around him, at the steadily increasing pressure at the back of his head.
Someone said, taking hold of his hand. The warmth was familiar.
He remembered. When he was seventeen and found the sewage line that laid underneath the Wall, he had kept walking until he was right underneath a building at the verge of collapsing. Hakyeon had taken him back to his house, a shabby structure five kilometers away, had tended to his wounds without any reservations regarding his status as a city dweller.
“He will pull through. He’s our Hyuk.”
He remembered. Taekwoon giving him his first knife. The one with the carving of Taekwoon’s initials around the handle. It took him two years to overtake Taekwoon with it.
Someone with fiery red hair was within his peripheral vision.
He remembered. Wonshik had mixed up a chemical closely resembling hair dye. The first thing he did was using Sanghyuk as a guinea pig. The first bleached blonde colour was disgusting, but Sanghyuk had liked the fiery red. He had always hated going back into town, having to cover his hair under a layer of temporary black dye.
Someone sang, softly, a lullaby.
He remembered. When Jaehwan was sick, he had hummed a tune that he later realised was the only lullaby his mom had sang for him. Jaehwan bounced back quickly, because idiots honestly shouldn’t even catch cold in the first place. But he had teased Sanghyuk endlessly, humming the song for weeks until Taekwoon was sick of it and chased after him with a knife. Karma, Sanghyuk had thought.
“Hongbin, you can’t stay here forever. Go get some rest.”
“I’m fine, hyung.”
He remembered. Hongbin’s bright laughters, the way he played along with most of Sanghyuk’s jokes and stupid ideas. They almost exploded a car. They walked seven kilometers away from base to find a good star-watching spot. Hongbin led him home, the night he escaped the city without memories.
After an extended period of excruciating pain, he remembered.
He was seventeen when he discovered life existed outside the Wall. A life without moderation, a life without the bleak fakeness, filled with vibrancy. Better yet, a life with family. He had started associating the permanent gray colour with the occasional splatter of green with comfort, happiness, content.
He was nineteen when his family got sweep up in a war not yet started. Freedom from the governments who was trapping thousands within their Walls. Building back the world they used to have, with a proper economy and governments, with freedom to live however they wanted, with skyscrapers and personal cars and movies.
Sanghyuk didn’t care for it, but he had decided, if they could wage a war and win, maybe he could bring his family into the city, so they didn’t have to live in shacks anymore, so they could stop hunting for essentials like food and water or warm shelter. Taekwoon should be good at woodwork, Wonshik would be such an excellent scientist, he and Hongbin could open a shop of some kind while Jaehwan lazed around being a bum and Hakyeon nagged at them all.
Sanghyuk had stupidly decided to undertake the hardest job. Had decided to trade his memory for a chance to infiltrate the military, having only one fail safe in the form of the image of their gathering spot. Had decided to be the final key to a war of unknown scale.
At least he had been able to return.
Sanghyuk woke up. Hakyeon hugged him so tight he had difficulty breathing, and normally, he would be complaining. But he hadn’t seen Hakyeon for five months, and he allowed himself a moment to bask in the warmth.
- Don’t do something stupid like that ever again.
- I’m invincible, and you know it. We have a war to win now.
Who cared which side of the war they were on, as long as he had his family, Sanghyuk thought.