“How long is it gonna take?” 5765 laid on the operation table, asking the doctor. “Would I be late for dinner?”
The doctor introduced herself as Calypso. The name sounded fake, but 5765 wasn’t in the position to complain about names. Doctor Calypso was kind to him and didn’t treat him like a child. So that’s good.
“Probably,” Doctor Calypso said. “It’s not that good anyway. Canned beef stew and potato again.”
“Okay.” It didn’t stop his mouth from watering. Any food was good food. A stew in the war zone would have been heavenly.
He tried staying still on the cold surface, but he couldn’t help himself. A lengthy disinfecting process had got rid of all the grimes. His skin was still tender. His fresh new jumpsuit made him fit right in with the sterile environment of this…facility.
He didn’t know where they were. Just underground. It’s large and full of people. They’ve been here for a few weeks. Waiting for something. It’s finally his turn to get treatment.
“Is it gonna hurt?”
“Only a little at first.” The doctor said.
5765 believed her. The doctor was younger than his mother as he last remembered her, and carried an entirely different vibe than anyone he used to know. The same vibe as the man in white, who guided his group inside the facility. The same as those who gave them fresh bedrolls, clean water, and food. They were nice.
“Ouch.” 5765 felt the sting on his arm.
“See? That’s it.” Doctor Calypso put away the empty syringe. “I won’t lie to you.”
5765 was feeling the effect. His eyelids felt heavy, and his limbs felt light. The table underneath him was moving. He used up all his energy to squint. He was inside some kind of pod, and the lid was closing on him. There was a brief panic, but he relaxed. It was the safest place he had ever been to.
Then he closed his eyes and began to dream.
His family lived on the east side of Mt. Trash. Their house was a shipping container, rusted and forever smelled like something crawled in and died. It was probably accurate, since her parents never told him where Grandma and Granpa went. One day they were living with them, the next they were not.
His family scavenged for a living. Mt. Trash was truly resourceful. On a good day, all of them could fall asleep not hungry. On a really good day, they could even find something to sell. Dad would dig out the cyber implants from the dumped corpses they found, and took them to the market. He would come back with fresh food, usually bread. And Mom would yell at him because three implants would certainly worth more than three loaves. He gambled the rest away.
5765 had a handful of siblings. This oldest brother got scammed by the prostitute he “fell in love” with. He was saving money for two tickets out of the system, and ended up broke and stabbed, left to die in the gutters.
But no one would hate the prostitutes because of that. Because his sister did that for a living. She swore to 5765 that she’d never fall in love, and made him swear he’d do the same. 5765 never understood what love was.
“Can you eat it?” He asked his sister.
“No. It eats you.”
That was what roughly happened before the war came. For the first time, they were glad to live in Mt. Trash, because the firefights didn’t reach here. Until the bombs started falling. They scurried toward the next settlement, with only the clothes on their backs.
In Clifftown, Dad was conscripted by the rebel army, and that was the last 5765 saw of him.
Back to the shelter under the bridge. A few dozen refugee families were camping there. Sometimes they fought over clean water and food. But when the shells started dropping, they huddled for warmth.
His last surviving brother was one year older than himself. He taught 5765 how to steal. When the soldiers left town, the stores would reopen. That’s how they could get anything they wanted.
In theory, anyway. 5765 got caught on his second try. His first target was the food stand, where he got his dinner. The amazing feeling of being full had made him dizzy. Made him bold enough to forget that he was far from a seasoned thief. His strike on a former toy booth — now military surplus store — went awfully wrong.
It all happened so fast. 5765 was standing among the shelves, pretending to browse. He wasn’t a kid anymore. He was a young man, just old enough to fit in with the surplus crowd.
There weren’t a lot of costumers, so his brother offered to distract the owner. He pointed at some laser gun on the wall, and the owner turned his back to retrieve it.
5765 knew it was his opportunity to act. He grabbed a fist full of pellets and stuffed them down his pockets. These kinds of things were the real currency, these days. He grabbed one hand after another, until his jacket was weighted down.
Some spilled out and pounced on the floor. They made sharp, clicking noises as they rolled.
The owner turned his head and caught him red-handed.
“Robbery!” He was yelling. Everyone in the market turned their heads. None of them helped either side. They ducked and screamed when the guns came out.
The next thing 5765 knew, he was running. In his panicking state, he had put a handful of pellets in his mouth and swallowed them.
What was that for? He didn’t know. They felt like pebbles stuck in his chest. All he knew was that he was choking. He coughed violently, still scrambling to run.
His brother was behind him, scrambling between the various stands.
“Faster!” He yelled.
5765 was running with biological tears rolling from his face.
Before he knew it, his brother was shot. He was shot twice in the back as they were running. 5765 thought he was dead. He hoped it was quick. Because in the blinding panic, he left his brother behind.
5765 went back to the camp under the bridge. His family’s empty tent was still there. He crawled under the plastic sheet, curled up and began to cry.
While sobbing, his waist muscle tightens and he felt the pain. Looking down, he found blood. He was grazed. And he was bleeding. A dark red stain was spreading on his tattered clothes.
His pockets were empty. The treasure that costed him all he had left, were scattered on the way back.
He was certain that was how he’s gonna die. Alone, last of his family, inside a dirty hellhole. The same kind of place where he was born. As his consciousness slipped in and out of focus, he heard voices. Was it God’s angels? They were outside his tent. Then, someone tore off the plastic sheet, and light flooded in.
“Here’s another one!” Someone yelled.
He strained his eyes to look. A group of strangers was standing over him. Some kind of military men. He panicked. Tried to run. Forgot he couldn’t. And he laid there in pain. The night was made bright by all the flashlights they carried. Under the light. He saw that the man in front of him was wearing white. Not the black armors or camouflage like the soldiers.
Someone picked him up and put him on a stretcher. A few hands carried him away. To where? He fell unconscious.
Briefly, he woke up again. This time, he was inside a moving. The hulls vibrated. It was an aircraft. He had never been so high in the sky, and it scared him shitless. He closed his eyes and hoped for the best.
Then, he wasn’t bleeding any more. He was in a shower. He was getting fresh clothes. He was waiting in line for food. Food! He had a metal tray in his hands, like the other people in line with him. The cook dropped a spoonful of something onto his tray. He didn’t know what it was, but it smelled heavenly.
“People, gather around!” A few of those men in white armors came back. One of them looked like the leader, stepped forward.
“By now, you probably heard a lot of rumors about what this place is. Arber Conservatory will be your temporary home. A refuge until we make the arrangement for your new lives. Rest assured that you are safe here. The war is behind you. We have staff in place to take care of your needs. For your safety, please do not venture beyond your designated area.”
“Why did you give us these numbers?” Someone among the crowd asked. “What are they for? Why can’t we use your names?”
“Your number is assigned to you by chronological order. The first one who arrived here was “number 1”, the second was “2”, and so on. It’s easier for our agents to identify you, since some are having trouble pronouncing your names.”
“Please be patient until the transportation is arranged. We will notify you when it’s your turn. If you have any questions, any working agents around you can answer them. If they can’t, direct your questions toward the Caseworker’s office.” The agents scanned the room. “That’s all for now.”
Doctor Calypso processed her patients in groups of eighteen. She used to have twenty regeneration machines but two were down, and there were no technicians around to fix them.
The organization had deemed this dimension “lost”. Even after decades of trying to fix things, trying to make things right. Thousands of agents died to fix this dimension. At first, they were adjusting the timeline so the war wouldn’t happen. When that failed, they were trying to bring back peace. Calypso knew of a colleague who went as far as infiltrating the governments, but none of that worked. In the end, she supposed, fate was fate. What’s lost was lost.
In recent months, CICADA had been pulling their resources off the planet. Personnel evacuating through spacecraft or portals.
This underground cave they were in, was the last CICADA facility in this dimension.
Arber Conservatory was originally designed to house endangered local plants and seeds. It was far from designed to act as a refugee center, but it’s the only safe place large enough.
It had been months, and they were still stranded on this god-forsaken world, waiting for their turn to evacuate. Only one portal was working. It opened once a week and had to recharge. They could send about five hundred people through, before risking overheating the gate.
Calypso told herself it didn’t matter where she’s doing her job, here or the other side of the portal. These patients needed attention. But the med bay here is basic and severely understaffed.
It could have been a lot worse, though. They could’ve been dead, caught up in the war that’s tearing the planet apart.
Also, she badly needed a cigarette. She had two options. Ascending miles to the chaotic surface, or crawling into the outgoing air duct. Neither was worth the trouble.
She compromised by having a cup of powdered coffee. A green light popped up on the control panel. The procedure was complete. She leaned back in her wore chair, waiting for the machines to power down.
Calypso glanced at the screen, which was producing a detailed report about her patients. One of them caught her eyes. The boy, 5765. Barely a teenager and already suffered multiple old wounds. Hairline fractures and old burn scars.
He was a survivor. She briefly wondered what he could achieve in a peaceful world.
There was something in his stomach, the imaging showed. The automatic operation had removed them from his body, and deposited the small spheres for the doctor to examine.
They were shiny, glass marbles.
5765 was dressed in his white jumpsuit. He stood in line, waiting for his turn through the glowing gate. He was impatient, like many who were in the line. There was also a lingering fear, of the unknown and what’s beyond. His savior promised a peaceful place, where they could start a new life. Away from the war and all the ugly things they stand for.
The light was too bright as he stepped through. The other side didn’t look too different. The same kind of room, but with clean white walls.
“Refugee number 5765, you may now choose a name.” A slightly mechanical voice began. The room had many screens, and he was standing in front of one. “If you choose to become a civilian, on the screen in front of you is a list of socially acceptable names, ranked from the most common to least.”
“There’re other options?” He asked, hesitant. It seemed silly speaking into a machine.
“You may also choose to join CICADA Our organization specializes in the protection of the humankind across timelines, dimensions, and beyond. The benefits of joining our organization are as listed: guaranteed housing, a competitive salary, and a purpose in the service of mankind.”
“It’s like the people who saved me, right?” He asked.
“[Direction Unclear].” The machine said. “Please repeat your inquiry.”
“…Never mind,” he said. “Go on.”
“As an agent of CICADA, you may choose any codename you like. As long as it is one word and does not conflict with those in our database. Type in your potential name to see if it’s available.”
“You have chosen to become an agent of CICADA. Please exit to the room on the right for information regarding your future identity, housing, and training program.”
After he made his choice, a woman in a black suit greeted him at the door.
“Welcome to Earth.” She shook his hand. “This one is safe. You are safe. You are home.”
And, for the first time in his life, he felt like he could finally breathe.
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