Chapter 3:

The Break of Dawn

Han Hito: The Story of Patient Zero

I pulled back the flaps of the medical tent to let the early dawn in. “Alright, rise and shine, dolts,” I growled, grabbing the lamp Sammy had used the night before. I waved it in their sleepy faces for a moment before realizing it wasn’t on. The pattern compartment on the top was empty- she must have taken them out to conserve energy.

“Why so early, goodness!” Sammy whined, rubbing her dark-skinned face with a sleeve. Actually, I couldn’t tell whether it was skin, or if it was fur like Murry’s. Her hair seemed to match the color of her skin, though it had aqua-dyed highlights to differentiate it. “It’s only been three hours!”

“It’s been, like, five. That’s twice as good,” I reasoned with her tiredly. I hadn’t gotten much sleep, either- they had slept in a tent while I had remained frigid through the night.

Murry was second to wake, nearly hitting his arm on a shelf as he sat up. “I-I thought it was five-thirds as good…”

“This is the forest, moron. There isn’t a soul out here who gives a shit about math. Approximations are the best we got,” I told him, grabbing his good hand and pulling him up to his feet. As I did, I caught a glimpse of his eyes- one was a light hazel, the other a pale blue. I hadn’t realized he had heterochromia.

Sammy snatched the lantern from my hand. “So, what must we do for you? Feed you like a king?” she questioned, hand on her hip. “We aren’t your slaves. Whatever you’ll get us to do will be within reason.”

“Okay, not him, just you. He can’t use his arm. Plus it’ll keep you from just runnin’ away when I’m not looking,” I explained, to her immense disappointment. Maybe she had been planning to run away. “You better find something to feed a family of seven by noon. It’s, like, five in the morning now. You have some time. I’ll get Murry introduced with the rest of the group while we wait.”

Sammy pouted. “Can you really make me do that?”

“Yeah, I can. Bow. Arrow. Door. Go.” She glared at me as she stomped out of the tent, weapon in hand. I only hoped she wouldn’t make me her next target.

Murry poked at my left arm, which had a load of gauze wrapped around it. “W-what’re those for? Did you get hurt really bad?” he asked sweetly. I didn’t take too kindly to the invasion of my privacy, but I could forgive him.

“Broke my arm hunting a few weeks ago. Deer rammed into me,” I explained simply. “We don’t have casts, so this is pretty much the closest thing.”

“T-this is gonna sound really weird to you, but…” Murry chuckled a little. “I’ve never broken a bone before. It’s kind of funny. All my friends used to talk about how weird it was and how much they hated the cast. I-I never had that experience.”

I raised an eyebrow. “That’s not weird. I mean, actually, okay, it’s kinda weird. But it’s weirder that you think it’s weird, if that makes sense. You’re psychin’ yourself out,” I told him. He relaxed.

Murry looked up at the ceiling and picked at his nails. “So you said you were g-gonna, uh, introduce me to people?” he repeated.

“Oh, yeah. You saw all those orange tents when we came through here last night, right? That’s where they sleep,” I described.

“H-how come you sleep outside?”

“Patrol. Someone’s gotta keep watch.”

Murry shakily pushed through the flaps and braced himself from the frostbitten air. It wasn’t that cold yet- it was only early September- but it was sure to drop into the negatives over the next couple of months. “You really shouldn’t do that to yourself,” he said solemnly. “I-I mean, you could catch a cold! That would be bad for you!”

“It’s just cold. Who gives a shit? The virus hasn’t done a thing to my immune system,” I replied. The reality was, the older teens and adults were supposed to rotate for patrol duty. For some reason, they had forgotten about it, so I was stuck with the job every night.

“S-s-still! Why do you have to patrol, anyway? Isn’t it more important to stay warm?” Murry pressed.

“All our rations would get stolen. I’d rather live in the cold than die of starvation.”

He stayed silent for a little while as we approached one of the tents. I was never great at keeping track of the two normal ones- there was a third with a zipper on it, which was always easy to remember, but the first two were nearly identical. I brushed open the flaps to see who was occupying it.

“Mmph. Hello…?” a small voice whispered from inside a sleeping bag. It was watery but feminine; it emitted a resounding, wet cough. The girl wiggled her way out of the bag and looked up at Murry and I. Her grey-ish skin was slimy and wet, and her hands were misformed and simple, with only a thumb and one combined digit where her fingers would be. Murry almost cringed, but limited his reaction to fidgeting with his fingers behind his back. Ironic.

The girl let out another wet cough, and Murry panicked. “A-are you okay? I can get stuff from the first aid kit…!” he reasoned. The girl scowled, and I elbowed him.

“I am quite fine, thank you.” She shakily stood up on her sandaled feet. “Sumisu, tell your guest he can stop worrying about my welfare. Oh, and have him introduce himself.”

“Sumisu? Is that your name?” Murry asked me, a glow of wonder in his eyes. He smiled. “It’s a nice name.”

I palmed my forehead. “That’s not my name.”

“T-then why’d she call you it?”

The girl spoke up. “It is his last name. His first name is-”

“Shut up, Maya,” I snarled. Maya smirked at me mischievously, though it made me happy to see she was still mentally intact. “Yeah, this is Maya. She’s a pain in the ass, but she’s better than a few of the other ones.”

“H-how can you say that? She’s sick…!” Murry rejected. “And she’s right there, too! I admire your courage, but it’s probably not a good idea to waste it on insulting people…”

Maya stepped forward and shushed him with part of her singular flesh-bound finger. A bit of slime stuck to his fur; he wiped it off with his sleeve. “Child, Niko insults people by default. If you catch him acting friendly, that is when you know there is an issue.”

Murry looked down. “N-Niko…?”

“Shit! I told you not to friggin’-” I cut myself off, defeated. “What the hell, Maya. Go back to sleep.”

“Not just yet. You have yet to even properly introduce this strange fellow. He seems further into the cycle than you are, oddly enough,” Maya replied, examining Murry closely. She walked around him carefully, tugging at clothes and pulling up sleeves. When she reached for his hood, his working arm snapped up to stop her. “Eh? Not there? I do not understand.”

“It’s just kind of embarrassing…” Murry said.

Maya sighed, though it sounded almost like she was clearing her throat. “Child, I would like to see your face. I could consider my condition embarrassing, but what good would it do for me? Apply the same logic to your own situation.”

“F-f-fine,” Murry agreed. He lifted the hood off of his head, and just like I had expected, his hair color was about identical to his fur color. Like his jawline, his face was soft. I hadn’t noticed before because of his hood, but part of his mouth and nose protruded like a small snout. His heterochromia was more obvious now that the lamp’s light reached his eyes. On the sides of his head, two floppy ears reached down to his shoulders- their ends were naturally tipped with black.

Maya held in a gasp. “You are a lot further in the cycle than I had realized. Do you know which strand you contracted?” Murry’s confused look gave her all the information she needed. “The strand of the virus you contracted. Each strand contains different genetic material, and depending on that, one can develop a variety of traits, positive or negative. This is all before the inevitable demise of the individual, of course.”

“No, I, uh, know all that. It’s more the thing about the cycle…”

“Oh. Though the virus has not been out for long, Niko here has studied it with the materials he has available and discovered the effects it has. Niko, would you like to explain?” Maya offered.

“No,” I replied.

“Please?” Murry pleaded. Now with two parties’ opposition, I had no choice but to oblige.

I cracked my knuckles. “So the virus works in little cycles, right? Well, they aren’t little. But, like, there’re cycles, got it?” Murry nodded. “The initial phase of the- actually, you know what, let’s go outside. It’s easier to draw on the dirt out there.”

Murry and Maya followed me out of the tent quietly. I snatched a nearby stick and spun it in my hand before sticking it in the dirt.

“So let’s say you get the virus at some time, like, here,” I said, marking the dirt with a small dash. “So, at the start, you can go for a while with just, like, the normal symptoms, dependin’ on your strand.” I drew a line from the dash about half a meter long. “That’s what we call ‘Cycle A’. It’s how the thing starts, and it’s the one cycle everyone’ll get, guaranteed.”

“Uh, why’s that?” Murry asked hesitantly.

“Let me finish. At the end of Cycle A, it’s what I call a ‘deadline’.” I drew an ‘X’ at the end of the line. “You get there, the virus goes for your brain. The better shape you’re in, the better chance you have of gettin’ out alive. If the virus wins, kiss your conscience goodbye. You’re practically an animal by that point.”

Murry tilted his head, and his exposed ears flopped with him. I could practically see the question mark form above his head. “S-so what happens if you do make it out alive?” he asked.

“We call that ‘Cycle B’. The virus retreats to trick your body into a state of normalcy so its next attack can be even more vicious,” I explained. “You lose some of those traits, and you get less sick. It’s kind of a relief stage- not that anyone’s had the thing long enough to get to Cycle B in the first place.”

“W-wait, if no one’s gotten to it, then how do you know… uh, nevermind.”

Maya pushed her way in between me and Murry. “Yes. Something Niko failed to mention- a Cycle is generally around ninety days long. A period of intense sickness follows before and after a deadline or lifeline.”

Murry kept on questioning everything. “Uh, what’s a lifeline?”

“I’m about to get to it. Be patient, dolt,” I snapped. “Sorry. At the end of Cycle B, you reach a point where your body is pretty much normal. We call that a lifeline. At that point, your body’s got an actual chance to fight back against the infection. It’s super rare, but it’s possible to get rid of it then.” I drew a line continuing from the ‘X’, or deadline, of Cycle A, then I scratched a checkmark at the end.

“So that’s why it’s called a lifeline instead of a deadline- it’s like the opposite,” Murry realized. “Got it. Uh, keep going.”

I shook out my hand and drew a line from the checkmark to another arbitrary point in the dirt. “I bet you can guess what happens now.”

“I-I dunno… does it, uh, sway closer to the median? Like in regression towards the mean?”

“The hell does that mean? Is it some nerdy math shit?” I questioned.

“Y-yes! It’s like, in probability, where the more you try something, the average result gets closer and closer to the ratio of the… why are you closing your eyes?”

I rubbed my eyes with my bandaged hands. “You’re putting me to sleep. And no, it’s not like that. That would mean you’d just be half-and-half forever.”

“Wouldn’t that be better than dying?”

“Hell yeah. Just, y’know, the virus doesn’t work like that,” I explained. “You actually get to another deadline, like the one at the end of Cycle A. Except, this one’s worse. Harder to survive. It doesn’t matter how fit you are. Basically random chance at that point.”

Maya butted in, holding one of her malformed hands up. “You may have noticed a pattern by now- it is why we call them cycles, of course. It goes back and forth until a deadline gets to the host. If that occurs, we call the host ‘lost’. It is unknown whether it is possible to regain conscience after becoming lost.”

Murry put a finger to his chin. “W-what do you mean, regain conscience? You keep mentioning it…”

“Okay, stop asking questions. If I knew you literally knew nothing, I wouldn’t’ve explained anything. We’re done with this for now,” I sighed. Murry frowned a little, so I added on, “For now. I’ll explain more later if you’re that much of a nerd.”

I cast the stick out into the dirt again without a thought. Maya tapped my shoulder suddenly, and I jumped. “Sumisu. You never told me his name. The boy you brought in, with the fur,” she remarked.

“So? What if he doesn’t wanna tell you?” I responded.

“I can hear you, and, uh, my name’s Murry! I appreciate the thought, but really, I’m not that worried about it…” He looked a little bugged about something- he clung to his sleeve and looked away from us.

I decided to speak up. “Okay, what’s the deal?”

“Uh…? What do you mean?”

“You look anxious. That isn’t good. If we’re anxious, we don’t let it show. You’re showin’ it.”

He let some air out through his nose. “Well, it’s just, your friend used my fur as an identifier. I don’t really like when people do that. ‘That kid with the fur’, you know? It’s not like I have control over it.” I was confused.

“I mean, I don’t see the problem. It’s a physical attribute. I wouldn’t mind getting called cat-ears,” I told him. I purposefully twitched my ears to emphasize my point. “Uh, don’t call me that, though.” I suppose I understood what he meant, but now that I had taken a stance, I wasn’t about to switch immediately.

“I-it’s not the same. I mean, uh… just c-call me by my name, okay?” Murry stammered. “Oh, uh, wait, she didn’t know when she… uh, just, uh…”

I patted him on the back. “She knows now. She will. Right, Maya?”

“More likely than not,” she replied. This was not an optimal answer, but I hoped it would suffice. Murry nodded in response, and my worries were quelled.

In our brief moment of silence, a cry broke out nearby. Whoever it was coming from was very joyful about something- they were cheering and hollering with little regard for auditory boundaries. Murry recognized it immediately. “That’s Sammy… she found something, didn’t she? Oh, does that mean we have to leave soon…?”

“Sammy?” Maya repeated cluelessly.

“Murry’s girlfriend. She came along too, but I made her go hunt ‘cause I let the two of them stay the night,” I explained to her.

“Well, if you must send them off, at least keep them for whatever small feast she obtained,” Maya ordered. “The sun is beginning to rise. The others will start waking up soon- how better to introduce them than with a meal?” She eyed the pastel tones in the sky past the shadowy trees.

“Fine. Murry, you tell Sammy you’re staying a little longer, got it?” I called. He nodded before running off to see what Sammy had done.

The sun began to peek through the hazy clouds, and a sharp ray hit my face as it rose. All the shadows of the forest defined themselves as if they had adjusted their resolution under a microscope. “First light, Sumisu. Do you reckon we will have them for long?” Maya wondered aloud, clearing her throat with a wet cough.

“Do I reckon what?”

“Those two, Murry and his partner. How long do you think they will stay?”

I looked back to where Murry had just taken off and sighed. “Not long,” I said distantly, gazing into the glowing green path ahead.

I was dead wrong.