Han Hito: The Story of Patient Zero
We equipped Maya with a respirator mask, a set of goggles, and a tube of anti-viral wipes we’d grabbed just in case this occurred. We weren’t entirely unprepared physically- we just weren’t mentally ready. We waved her off as she ran to the interstate, and we hoped to God she would make it without getting hurt or contracting a new strand. She promised she’d find some way to contact us if she ever obtained information that would help me figure out what I was doing.
Her leave was unexpected and sudden, and it left us in a state of shock. It had actually been a while since we’d lost Tori and John, but it didn’t feel like it. Time was soaring by like a fighter jet.
Suddenly, it was March, and by then, I had regained my cat-ears. I hadn’t managed to expel the infection from my body, and so I was in for Cycle C. Murry and Sammy were up for their lifelines, but neither of them was free of the Han Hito curse just yet. That is to say, Murry still had the virus, and Sammy would wait around until he was free of it.
The forest was becoming less densely populated since so many people had fled during their lifelines, thinking they’d been cured. There were also a number of deaths to the deadline of Cycle A, but those had happened months ago. Seasons were changing, so prey was coming back onto the scene just in time. It was just the three of us then- all my family had abandoned me, but my friends stuck by my side. Maya hadn’t chosen to leave, of course, and neither had Benji and Chad. It was just the whims of fate tossing us all around.
March was also when the government started its efforts to kill off infected individuals to keep the virus from spreading any further. Teams of men in hazmat suits ran through the foliage every now and again, determining whether there were any half-humans, as they called them, around. The term half-human had become colloquial slang referring to anyone with the infection- at first, it bothered me, but as it was more commonly used, I became apathetic towards it.
I did not, however, become apathetic towards the efforts to take my life. A team once attempted to burn the entire campground to ashes, but luckily for us, they’d run out of fuel at the last campground and were satisfied with just breaking some of our tents and stomping out our fire. We were also lucky that was all they did because they didn’t realize that our tents had only folded in, not actually broken. “Damn halfies,” I heard one of them say. “If they weren’t out here making camps like this, we could focus more money into making a stinkin’ cure.”
While we were setting back up, I found another half-human who looked lost. I asked her where she was going- I had gained my voice back by then- and she said she didn’t know. Her hands were that of a lobster’s, so it wasn’t hard to tell what strand she had contracted.
She told us her name was Taylor over a small meal of rabbit. “I’m not actually lost,” she would say. “I’m just waiting to find a way home.” That night, while evading government patrols, she asked us if we’d heard any urban legends about these woods.
“Urban legends?” Sammy piped up. She was one for the mysterious and obscure. “Well, now that you’ve mentioned them, you’ve got to tell them! Come on, come on now!”
“Oh, alrighty then,” Taylor obliged. “Well, this one’s more recent, so I guess it’s more of an urban rumor. Is that alright?” Sammy nodded her head vigorously while Murry and I watched from the bushes to make sure there were no troops. “Alright! So, a lot of groups around the forest have been talking about some monster that haunts the woods. Some claim to have seen it at night, some even during the day! It’s a huge black beast with red eyes! Basically, a really big spider, you know. They say it gobbles up people like snacks!”
Sammy’s smile became strained. “Eugh. I think I know where that one came from,” she said with a grimace. I was gripping my forehead while Murry tried to calm me down, but Taylor didn’t see my panic attack, so she continued.
“Well, they say it whispers weird things. Someone told me they heard something about ‘beware’… uh, something-or-other. It sounded like gibberish, she said. Either that, or it was a name,” she described. My headache only got worse, and I clenched my fist. Murry covered my ears with his hoodie and told me what the rest of the conversation was about afterward.
According to Murry, Taylor then said, “The one thing that’s always the same about the encounters is that they all have that same weird gibberish, so I think it might be a name.”
“Well, what’s the name?” Sammy asked her.
“Uh, I dunno. Does ‘Nikkun’ mean anything to you?”
Sammy hesitated. “N-no.”
“Yeah, not to me either. But it always says ‘beware Nikkun of the forest’ or something. It’s not exact, but you know what I mean,” Taylor said. “You said you knew where it came from? Where? I love trying to piece together things like that!”
Sammy once again hesitated to give an answer. “Erm. In our group here, we used to have a member who was a bit off. She had to stay closed in her tent so she wouldn’t hurt anyone, or so she said. When we let her out on Thanksgiving, it was…”
“She killed two of our other members and cooked their meat to serve,” Sammy explained.
Taylor winced. “Woah! No kidding, that’s dark! And so people heard about that and spread it like a rumor? Wow…”
“Please don’t ‘woah’ or ‘wow’ about it. It’s caused a couple of us severe psychological damage. The children who were eaten were one of our member’s brothers. He freezes up and goes haywire whenever someone talks about them. He’s on territory defense with my boyfriend right now, so if you see either of them, just, please don’t say anything,” Sammy defended. According to Murry, there was more of the conversation, but he didn’t pay attention, because a patrol squad came nearby and he had to make sure they weren’t approaching our camp.
Taylor left the next day, but she said it was nice to meet us and that she wished us luck. I wondered whether she was just a nomad or if she was actually lost and trying to return to her camp. We wished her luck, too, and went on about our separate ways. I would never see Taylor again, but she was certainly an interesting individual.
Hunting became a tricky challenge among the many patrol groups and their wake of environmental damage. We were getting about as much food as we had captured in winter, but the danger was to us now instead of the animals. There were multiple instances in which I had to hide in tree branches above oncoming troops and swoop out of sight at the last opportunity. The swooping was undoubtedly fun- what wasn’t fun was the hanging dread of the certain death that awaited if I failed it. Our most common catches were rabbits and mice, instead of the larger deer and pheasant we were more accustomed to.
Along with our sudden plummet in available food was the spread of various strange rumors. Some claimed there were hundreds of ghosts of the infected dead haunting the woods, some claimed they were all culminated into one being, but they all got the same message across. There was something terrifying in the woods. And worse yet was the rumor alongside it- ‘beware Nikkun of the forest’. People had no idea what it meant, but they were terrified. Unbeknownst to them, they were idolizing me as some sort of god of fear and demise. I was a traumatized teenager with an interest in medical science, not a god. I hoped the rumor would clear quickly, but it did not.
One day, I found a letter on the floor of the virus research tent. When I opened it, I discovered it was from Maya. It was a list of the possible areas in the DNA where the sequence must have resided based on research that showed the other parts of the DNA to be introns- unused sequences. On the back, there was an actual letter.
“Dear Niko, I have heard about them, you know. The rumors of ‘Nikkun of the forest’ managed to escape to even further north in Serpho. I have no idea what has prompted them, nor whether they were within your control, but I hope you find some way to manage them before you become an urban legend for the wrong reasons. Farewell, Maya,” it read. I felt shivers down my spine- ‘an urban legend for the wrong reasons’? The only thing I wanted to become a legend for was finding the cure to the virus. Maybe the rumors would disappear once I did that? I had no way to know, but I hoped they would. I began using Maya’s advice to narrow down the strand of DNA that I needed.
In just a few days’ time, I had narrowed down the exact sequence of DNA that coded for the killer protein in Sammy’s cells. I only needed to find a way to get that sequence into every body cell, and anyone who had that DNA would be immune to the virus.
Sammy saw me doing all this and suggested something I found very vital. If that killer protein became part of the person’s DNA while they still had the virus, they would be stuck in that form forever. That prompted me to realize that before I could immunize anyone against the virus, I had to reverse the effects. On paper sketches that I would later send to Maya, I drew out the way an antidote would work.
A virus of the same type as Han Hito would be given the same DNA as in the human’s original somatic cells. It would then spread through the body as Han Hito would, changing any animal cells back to human cells. When that was at least ninety-percent complete, the killer protein DNA strand could be injected using gene therapy, which would immunize the patient from the disease. It was a simplistic idea, not accounting for perhaps the specialization of certain cells and how Han Hito treated them. But, if executed properly, I believed it would work. My question was why no scientist had thought of it sooner. Then I remembered- no scientist had access to the killer protein Sammy had. I was alone in that.
I knew I had no way to make a full antidote in the woods. That would require fully reverse-engineering the virus and fitting a specific human’s DNA inside. I knew something I could strive for, however. If I was able to make some sort of stasis that could unlock when eventually going through full treatment, that would be my ticket. I just had to find a way to deactivate the killer proteins when I needed to. That would take me a little while longer.
Around the end of April, many things began happening. It was getting closer and closer to my Cycle C deadline, something I was very wary of. The government stopped sending troops, believing they’d eradicated most of the population. They hadn’t- not even remotely- but the damage was still present. Most importantly of all, I found another gene in Sammy’s cells that could turn off killer protein production when exposed to a certain chemical. I was nearly finished with the temporary cure to Han Hito. A sixteen-year-old boy, sick in the middle of a forest, managing to nearly complete the cure to a deadly virus. Mine would be a story to tell if I made it out alive.
It was the beginning of May when it hit. My sickness increased tenfold, and my physical well-being was awful. These were the symptoms to expect when the body wasn’t strong enough to fight the virus a second time, according to Aru. I felt like a lumbering corpse any time I moved, I was constantly tired- even some animal instincts were beginning to kick in, like scratching or meowing. When the day of my deadline approached us, I was impatient. I hated being confined to the bed. I wanted to spend every last second I had on my repayment to the world. So, when Murry and Sammy got up to wish me my last goodbyes, they didn’t find me in my bed. I was using my last moments to find a way to get my body to produce the killer proteins.
“N-Niko! W-wha… you’re about to die, and you’re… Niko, why are you so intent on this? We’re… we’re still here, you know? We can carry it on when you…” Murry sniffled. “You don’t have to do it yourself! You should be enjoying your last moments, not…”
“Murry,” I coughed. “There are some things I have to do. You might not get it, but I have a debt to pay. To pay to everyone who’s ever been infected with Han Hito. If I die before I repay that debt… I dunno what’ll happen. But whatever it is, I can’t let it.”
Sammy dragged me away from the station. “Niko, this is absurd! I won’t allow you to waste your final moments like this!” she scorned, taking me back to the bed I had been reacting in. “What do you need to tell us before you… before you go?”
“I wasn’t telling anyone something for a long time,” I started. “I was worried your view on me would shift and I wouldn’t be the same anymore. So I hid it. But now I gotta say it.” It took more energy than I’d ever used in my life to get the next words out. I pushed and heaved them out of my mouth. “Han Hito. This whole virus. The end of the world. It’s my fault.”
Murry teared up. “No, it’s not! You can’t blame any of this on yourself!”“I’m the one who released it. I was patient zero. This is my fault. So…” I pushed to get out of my bed. “I have… to make things right. Let me try and stop it.” This time, neither Sammy nor Murry stopped me. I shambled over to the research tent and started testing. Testing over and over again, different combinations, different materials. I was about to reach it. I was holding it in my hand, the stasis- I was holding it, ready to inject it into myself, when I lost all the strength in my body and slumped to the ground.