“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
to mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From Darkness to promote me?”
- Milton, Paradise Lost
In retrospect, Jeno should have seen it coming.
He was laughing, giddy off their meagre pay raise as they clinked soju bottles together in celebration while they stumbled down the streets of Seoul, indifferent to the puddles of icy water that sploshed around their ankles and falling from the smoggy sky above. There were hardly any supply trucks this late at night save for the random Post Bots rolling past them with their packages, which meant that they got the whole street to themselves. He laughed again, one of the rare ones that were uninhibited and free of deceit, shoving Jaemin away when he attempted to land a kiss on Jeno’s cheek.
“Hey,” Jeno had slurred, pulling out of Jaemin’s arms to stand in front of him, holding his soju bottle in front of him mock-threateningly as he walked backwards, away from Jaemin, “I’m not an easy man. I prefer to be wined and dined before bedded.”
“I’ve been waiting forever for you to say that, Lee Jeno,” Jaemin grinned at him wolfishly, teeth glinting under the pink neon lights from the neighbouring bar. Jesus, Jeno thought to himself dazedly in his drunken haze, that’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t a thought that sober Jeno, or anyone else on the street, would have made. Jaemin was tall and lanky, scrawny even, lovely features stretched so tight across hunger-ravaged cheekbones that it looked like a caricature. He was dishevelled and unpolished, sticking out like a sketch among the straight, neat lines of black-clad figures that passed them with disdainful looks on their Boardwalkers. He ought not to have, yet Na Jaemin stood out like a beacon of light in that one last night when they thought that they had it all.
There was a screeching noise and shouting that Jeno’s alcohol-addled brain vaguely registered, and then Jaemin was lit up, lit up like how Jeno used to imagine souls were when they ascended to heaven, lit up for a moment by the lights of the massive truck that spun around the corner.
There was no heaven for people like them to rise to in Seoul 2089, only the 105th level of St. Mary’s hospital.
Jeno sat outside the operating theatre, elbows resting on his knees and neck cramping from where his head had hung limply. His fingers, clasped together in useless prayer, tightened as he rasped again, “Why?”
The doctor frowned at him, uncomprehending. “You do not have insurance,” he said in a tone as though that was obvious, “and you are unable to pay in credit.”
Jeno swallowed, trying to fight back his trembling. He had no words to say, knowing that was the truth. “I…I’ll give you my paycheck,” he whispered, “If you could let me pay in instalments – ”
“We do not accept instalments for cases as severe this,” the doctor cut him off, “unless you can provide proof of a guarantor.” His eyes roved over him disparagingly, a feeling that Jeno was not unused to. “As it is, neither of you are of age, nor have any form of guardians in your records…” he trailed off, letting silence fill the air and the unspoken understanding.
The first of his sobs crawled up his throat, a little gasp that he tried to stifle. The doctor’s eyes softened a little, “In any case, your friend is far beyond what our hospital can help. You would be better off putting that money into setting up the necessary arrangements.” He hesitated, then clamped his hand on Jeno’s shoulder, drawing away quickly and wiping it discreetly on his white coat as he walked away.
Jeno stared at the floor, eyes burning and body rigid. He felt as though he might shatter if he shifted the slightest inch. The man who had come with him to the hospital – a man who had been in pursuit of the supply truck – walked over from where he had been watching the exchange at the opposite wall to sit next to him. “If I may,” he started, hands fiddling with the tablet in his hands, “I have an offer to make.”
"You are not getting his organs,” Jeno said stonily.
The man recoiled, “I wasn’t going to ask for that! Organs are useless now anyway, hardly anyone would have a use for them,” he stopped abruptly, clearing his throat when he saw the look in Jeno’s eyes. “Would you like to take revenge on that man?”
“Fuck off,” Jeno growled, patience running thin.
The man looked offended, he opened his mouth and Jeno curled his hand into a fist, waiting for him to say just the thing that he could use as an excuse to punch someone. “Doyoung, Doyoung,” a voice broke in, “This is why you’re better off sticking to your computers.” A tall man appeared suddenly in Jeno’s line of sight. Despite himself, he flinched in surprise. He hadn’t heard a sound.
“Johnny,” Doyoung greeted, still looking a little put out.
The tall man, Johnny, turned cold eyes on Jeno. “I’ll cut to the chase. Your friend will die within an hour, maybe less. We have a way to save his life,” he went on before Jeno got a chance to gather his anger, “But it is a pilot technique and we will not be able to guarantee anything. Will you like to try it?”
Jeno looked back at him for a few moments, motionless. “What’s the catch?” his lips barely moved as he formed the words.
Johnny smiled slowly, predatorily, “You two will be in our service for life.”
“Of course not!” Doyoung broke in, scandalised, clearly unhappy to be left out of the conversation, “You’ll receive a stipend, lodgings, food allowance and anything you will need within reason.”
It sounded shady as hell, but did Jeno have a choice? Not after the doctor had announced Jaemin’s death sentence. He would do anything to stop that. Still, he had to know. Not for himself, but for Jaemin. “Why are you doing this? Who are you?”
“It’s a win-win situation,” Johnny answered without a shred of reservation, “We need a patient who has nothing to lose except his life, and from what I hear he’s already on his way. As for the second question, I’m afraid I can’t tell you much until you sign the contract with us, except that you can rest assured that we’re not anything illegal. Quite the contrary.” He finished wryly.
Jeno brought himself to his feet, trying to come level with his eyes. Johnny watched him silently, a glint of approval in his eyes, “How are you going to save him?”
“Do I have your word?” Johnny said instead, “If you sign with us, you and your friend will forever be in our service. There is no turning back.”
He laughed, a hacking, mocking sound. “I don’t have much to return to.” Jeno extended a hand to Doyoung, not looking away from Johnny, “Give me the contract.”
Doyoung fretted over his shoulder while he swiped through the pages, barely scanning them as he signed. “I’ll email you a copy so that you can refer to it anytime you like. I’m sorry that we’re coming off so shady because it’s part of our job, but I promise you that there’s nothing in there that would place you at a disadvantage.” Jeno let his words wash over him without listening. His optimism was touching, but Jeno knew better than anyone that there was no such thing for them in this world. “You said that he has barely an hour,” he said to Johnny as he handed the tablet to Doyoung, “What are you still doing here?”
“Waiting for you to join me,” Johnny replied, unfazed by his directness, “And Taeyong has already started.”
For the first time, Jeno faltered, more in surprise than actual hesitation, “What?”
“Na Jaemin has no legal guardian, no will and no next-of-kin,” Johnny said, disregarding Doyoung’s shushing, “He is essentially a blank slate and he is about to become a sentence on a carved slate. He is only a citizen of South Korea and that means that he belongs to us.” He turned away without waiting for Jeno’s reply. Jeno followed, pushing away the fury at the truth of his words to focus.
As they robed up to enter the operating theatre, Johnny said, “You probably didn’t read the contract so I will tell you now; whatever happens in this room will stay in this room. You will not speak about it to anyone aside from those involved. You will not interfere in anything, because doing so will only put your friend at risk. Do you understand me?”
Jeno nodded distractedly, snapping the mask on. It was only because of that one sentence that Jeno didn’t immediately lose his shit the moment they stepped into the room and saw a man lifting Jaemin’s brain out of his open skull.
“It’s called a BrainEx,” Doyoung mumbled to him, voice muffled by the mask and the effort of keeping his voice low as Johnny joined the team of people surrounding Jaemin’s broken body, “His brain is dying and we need more time to fix up his body. That jar will keep it alive and oxygenated while they work.”
Jar was putting it mildly. Jaemin’s brain floated serenely in the murky red fluid, connected to tiny tubes through which more of the red fluid flowed. Jeno swallowed back the bile in his throat at the sight, wincing at each crack of Jaemin’s ribs.
“Can he feel anything now?” Jeno asked, dreading the answer. He hadn’t had a chance to take a proper look at Jaemin after the truck mowed him down. He remembered a lot of blood, bone poking through skin and Jaemin lying on the ground like a pile of twigs. He remembered the driver of the truck leaping out and disappearing into the truck, hearing people screaming, some of which was his own when he yelled his way into the ambulance. And now all that encompasses Na Jaemin is the brain in the jar and a collection of broken bones. If he even makes it through.
Doyoung shook his head, “He should not. He’s basically in a coma now.” Thank god. Jeno couldn’t imagine how agonising it would be if Jaemin could feel every crack of his bone now. Jeno vaguely heard Doyoung muttering an excuse as he hurriedly left the room. His stomach turned when Taeyong started doing something that looked like he was digging out an organ, but he pushed the revulsion back and seating himself in a corner of the room. If Jaemin isn’t going to make it through, he will make damn sure that he’s in the room till the last moment.
“Can we share?” a nasal voice interrupted Jeno as he was reading. He looked up from where he had curled up in a corner of the room with the battered book. A skinny boy, slightly smaller than him with buck teeth and a perpetual smile on his face was standing in front of him, looking hopeful. Jeno recognised him. It was Na Jaemin, the kid who was friends with everyone and equally disliked by just as many. The same grin that endeared him to others also got on other people’s nerves.
Jeno was neither. He couldn’t care less about the workings of the orphanage that they lived in. Today, he found himself leaning towards the latter. “No,” he replied shortly, pulling the book closer to him.
Jaemin sat down, planting his butt uncomfortably close to Jeno in a way that let him know he wasn’t going to give in easily. “Please?” it was surprisingly sincere, “I’ve been wanting to but the other kids won’t let me have it because Madam said that I’m not smart enough.”
“You should just go ahead and take it anyway,” Jeno replied, unconcerned, flipping a page and staring at the drawing of the rabbit. He had never met a rabbit before, and he traced the drawing with his fingers, trying to imagine how rabbit’s fur will feel like.
“I can’t do that,” Jaemin replied immediately, “that wouldn’t be nice.”
“But they weren’t nice to you.”
There was no reply. Jeno peeked over the top of the book, catching sight of the lost, baffled expression on his face. It didn’t seem like Jaemin would leave anytime soon. He sighed, relenting, knowing that it would be simpler to just humour him, “You can read with me, but I get to hold the book.”
Jaemin scrambled closer to him eagerly, making his place next to Jeno. “What is it about?”
Jeno flipped to the front of the book, showing him the drawing where the rabbit was on a ship. “It’s about a rabbit who fell overboard from a ship.”
“A ship?” Jaemin’s eyes widened, he stared at the picture of the rabbit falling through the water in fascination. “Is this called a sea?” Jeno nodded. “It’s beautiful.”
It is. The sea was coloured in shades of blue and green, the limp body of the rabbit oddly forlorn as he fell towards the murky bottom. “I want to see the sea someday,” Jaemin declared, still fixated on the drawing. They read in silence, Jaemin holding the page down when he wasn’t done reading which happened more often than not. The fifth time it happened, Jeno lost his patience, “Why are you so slow?”
To his astonishment, Jaemin’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, swiping at his eyes as fast as he can, “I won’t hold you back again.” He stared at the book, steadfastly not looking at Jeno. Something unfamiliar rose in him as he stared at the other boy’s small shoulders. He didn’t know what it was, only that it was uncomfortable and it was somewhere in his chest. “I’ll read to you,” he said slowly, the words coming from him unbidden.
Jaemin glanced at him apprehensively, eyes still a little watery. “That way we won’t have to slow down,” Jeno tried again, chest still tight with that weird feeling.
“Okay,” Jaemin replied in a small voice.
That was the first and clearest memory Jeno had of Jaemin. Two young boys huddled in the corner of the room, bent over a battered book, oblivious to the other children fighting while Madam tried to separate them, to the yelling outside the windows as drunkards stumbled down the street, woefully ignorant of the tablets that other children who weren’t Jaemin and Jeno used outside this room. It didn’t matter to them then and it wouldn’t matter for a long time, but for that period of time in their childhood they felt the way that only children could feel, when the only world that mattered was the one they held in their hands, the world of the little rabbit called Edward Tulane.
Jeno stood outside the room, looking through the glass into the room where Jaemin lay comatose. “We’re waiting for his brain to settle in,” a soft voice at his side said. Taeyong, a remarkably handsome man with doe eyes that contrasted with the angular planes of his face, leaned against the wall, looking exhausted but satisfied. “We don’t want to wake him up until the swelling goes down.”
Jeno stared at Jaemin, at the mass of bandages that wrapped around his face and his head. All he could see was a mass of white and grey. White blankets, white bandages, the gray of his metallic limbs. “We’ll eventually get around to fixing his face and covering up the metal parts,” Taeyong said apologetically, “But for now we need to focus on monitoring him and watching for signs of tissue rejection.”
“Thank you,” Jeno said woodenly as Taeyong patted his shoulder and left. The operation took 36 hours, 36 hours to pull Jaemin apart and put him back together like a doll. 36 long hours where Jeno watched with burning eyes as they cut away and drilled and joined natural and man-made flesh together while Jaemin’s brain waited patiently in the glass tank. And the worst thing was that for the first time, Jeno had no idea what was happening at all. As soon as he came out he went straight to a vending machine and downed three cups of espresso before borrowing Doyoung’s tablet to look through the appendix of the contract.
Myoelectric prosthetics. Stem cell organs. Metal implants. Respirocyte transfusion. A grocery list to put together the flesh-and-bone body crushed under several tonnes of steel. A grocery list to put together a Frankenstein.
Standing alone in the corridor looking at that freak of nature, Jeno should be feeling worse. But the only thing he could think of was how much he missed Jaemin already.
They transferred Jaemin into the military hospital once his condition stabilised. Almost a month of operations and recovery and Doyoung forcing Jeno to shower and eat and sleep because he was too afraid of having Jaemin slip through his fingers when he wasn’t around.
It was only then that Jeno was assured enough to go back to their home long enough to pack up the meagre items of their lives before moving into the military base. Though, this wasn’t like any other military base, this one was a highly classified branch, a joint venture between U.S. DARPA and South Korea’s ADD located deep in the mountains of Gangwon.
The base was completely different from what Jeno was used to, it looked almost primitive. They went through an electronic gate that opened to a long dirt road which eventually ended in several squat, gray buildings. Jeno couldn’t help staring when they pulled up to the main hall. He had never seen buildings which were less than twenty storeys tall. These looked like they were two, maybe three storeys. And there were no windows at all. He turned to Doyoung, questions on the tip of his tongue. “We can’t have the buildings too high or it’ll be noticeable,” he said, evidently reading his mind, “And windows are a liability. It’s more expensive to use electrical energy than standard solar energy but it’s a small price to pay for the safety of our recruits.”
“Is that what I am now?” Jeno swivelled his head around, taking in everything. There was just so much space and the air was so fresh, it was mind-boggling. “A recruit?”
Doyoung looked exasperated, “Did you read your contract at all?”
“I read up on what they did to Jaemin.” The corridors felt almost claustrophobic without windows despite the LED walls showing a live feed of the outside, a feeling that he probably had to get used to. He ignored the sigh Doyoung let out, peering through the translucent glass of a door. “Yes, you and Jaemin are our recruits now,” Doyoung said testily, “We’ll put you through a three-year training that will commence as soon as Taeyong certifies Jaemin fit for work. I asked for that, by the way,” he paused, giving Jeno an expectant look, “Johnny wanted to start you right away but I convinced him that you would like to do it with Jaemin instead.”
Jeno stared at him blankly. Doyoung cleared his throat awkwardly and started a short tour around the base, showing him the mess hall, the training rooms, the classrooms; everything that they needed to turn him from a mere waiter to the human equivalent of a snake. “This is a joint effort by DARPA and ADD,” Doyoung explained, “The technology we used to put Jaemin together is highly classified. It’s the first of its kind,” Doyoung’s voice rose in excitement, “None of us expected it to work so it’s a miracle that he’s alive.”
A muscle in Jeno’s cheek twitched. Doyoung didn’t notice and went on, “For security and observation purposes we’ll have to keep him here. The same goes for you because we can’t risk you leaking information to anyone who doesn’t have the clearance.”
They passed the open door of a training room where recruits were doing somersaults in mid-air while an instructor yelled at them. Jeno’s eyes widened. Doyoung caught sight of his alarmed expression, “It’s a pretty tough programme and you usually need to pass interviews and tests to get in. You’re a special case so I’m afraid you don’t really get a choice in it.” He said, sounding somewhat rueful.
“It’s fine,” he said, watching them. “I’ll keep up.” Jeno listened quietly as Doyoung continued his tour, hefting his and Jaemin’s bags up his shoulder. They stopped in front of a white door and Doyoung pressed his thumb to the scanner. It unlocked with a beep, the green light flashing. He pushed opened the door to reveal a twin room that wasn’t all that much smaller than their apartment, except for the absence of a kitchenette. “I suppose you’ll want to wash up – ” He didn’t get to finish his sentence before Jeno was dropping the bags on the floor and turning to him. “When are you going to wake Jaemin?”
Doyoung stared at the bags in surprise, “Is that all you have?”
Jeno glanced down, shrugging. “Yeah. Everything else can be thrown or sold, whatever you guys are planning.” He paused, a thought crossing his mind, “Can I get the deposit for the apartment back? It was pretty fucking expensive.”
Doyoung still looked flummoxed. Jeno couldn’t comprehend why. “But that’s so little!” His voice went up a pitch in his surprise, “How do you live off this?” Understanding clicked in him, it was probably the first time Doyoung encountered people like them. It would explain why he acted like an idiot sometimes. Ignorant, probably, but still an idiot. Jeno had met plenty of them at his job. “I’ll talk to Johnny about it, we’ll wire the credit to you.” He was still gazing at their bags in awe.
“Can we go see Jaemin?” Jeno asked pointedly, breaking him out of his daze.
“Oh yeah, of course,” Doyoung fumbled, checking his government-issued Blinker, scrolling through the messages, “I’m not sure if you’re allowed there…”
“I was there in the operating room,” Jeno said, walking past Doyoung and closing the door behind them. “Taeyong should be fine with it.” He had to slow down to let Doyoung pass him, leading them the hospital wing.
Johnny and Taeyong looked up when they entered, the former frowning immediately when he caught sight of Jeno. “No, keep him here,” Taeyong stopped Johnny before he could boot Jeno out the door, “It might help to have a familiar face.” Jaemin was lying on the bed, the blanket drawn up to his chin. They had covered up the metallic limbs with biomaterial skin before they snuck him out of the hospital, passing him off as another regular patient, but Jeno could never forget the image of Jaemin in that room, nothing but bandages and metal. Taeyong toggled with his tablet, muttering to himself as he switched on the chip they implanted into Jaemin’s brain.
“Is he going to be very different?” Jeno couldn’t help asking, reaching out to brush Jaemin’s dark hair away from his face. His face had been meticulously stitched together based on a photo that Jeno had shown them. Jeno inwardly marvelled at the detail, they even got his weird camel eyelashes right. The skin under his fingers was smooth and flawless, practically poreless. It dipped under the pressure of his fingers like actual flesh. Jaemin’s face was at repose, so much different from the usual expressiveness that would contort his face even in sleep.
Taeyong hesitated, “His brain was damaged during the accident and the duration in the BrainEx didn’t help either. We could have used a simple chip to stimulate his brain, but we didn’t want to risk any lasting damage or disability.”
Jeno shook his head, his fingers lingering for a moment more before drawing away. “That wasn’t what I asked.”
This time there was a longer pause. When he spoke, Taeyong’s voice was careful and measured. “The main function of the chip is to help him control the prosthetic limbs at will. But we added a machine-learning algorithm to help him learn frequently performed activities quickly, and another programme to regulate emotional thoughts and keep him calmer and more focused longer than any human can ever be. This was a necessary part of the procedure, it should not interfere with your friend’s original personality much.”
“What about the effects to his body?”
“Minimal. We replaced the damaged parts with our tech so that he’ll be more powerful and energy efficient.” Taeyong regarded Jeno wordlessly for a moment more before saying, “It sounds like a lot but I promise you that this is a wonderful thing. Jaemin is about to become the best of us.” Jeno could feel Johnny’s presence at his back, a silent pressure and reminder. He didn’t say anything else while Taeyong tapped away the tablet.
Jaemin’s eyes flew open. His gaze landed on the three of them, clear-eyed and steady. “Jaemin,” Taeyong enunciated slowly, “Can you move?”
Jaemin’s eyes slid over them until it rested on Jeno. “Jeno?” a hand lifted shakily from the bed, reaching towards him. Jeno caught his hand, gripping it tightly. Like his face, it was smooth and soft, nothing like his own callused ones and nothing like he remembered. Jeno didn’t care, he pressed the hand to his cheek, letting out a shaky breath he didn’t know he was holding. The pressure that had been suffocating him for the past weeks loosened. “Well, that answers our question.” Taeyong sounded relieved, “If you could please move aside a little, Jeno, I need to check up on him.”
Taeyong rattled off a list of questions, doing a quick check all over again to see if he was working alright before straightening up with a giddy smile. “As good as new, it seems.” He rested a hand on Jaemin’s forehead gently, “I’m glad you’re alright now.” Jaemin stared at Taeyong and smiled back, a slow spread across his face. Jeno looked at that pretty smile as Taeyong fussed over him and felt the first cold trickle of uneasiness down his spine. There was a sinking feeling in him, and it was the exact moment when he knew for sure that something had gone wrong.