A Moribund Hero
"Hey, ACE2. Have you ever thought about having a people name?" Ten-year-old Leon whispered and stared at his slightly older sparing brother as they laid, side by side, on their cots in their sleeping quarters.
Both boys had buzz cuts and wore the regimented white gowns of a warrior trainee. No shoes or other clothing, since they were told they only needed their bare fists and feet to learn to fight.
Throughout his childhood, he had only even known being another barcoded kid in a white training gown, proudly cultivating to be someone better. The stark-white Golden Warrior virtual simulation, training, barrack, and mess halls were his home. It wasn't a problem. He was going to be a future pride of the GCE Eight Zone nation. A warrior who could keep civilians safe. 426983ACE1 would one day make a difference to the Big Farma House rankings.
So, it felt weird when he heard another kid call one of their teachers by a people name. It was the first time hearing it and made him question why he wasn't allowed one too. He was human, right?
Of course, too scared to discuss his thoughts with an adult. He opted to talk about it with ACE2, his sparring partner, while they were together.
When kids entered the Houses, they trained in pairs until they turned 11 years old. They were then separated into individual ranks and barracks with the older kids. ACE2 was a few months away from being of that age, so asking him then was now or never.
"ACE1. 426983ACE1. Never ask that question again." ACE2 had solemnly warned Leon.
Leon frowned, puzzled. His older sparring partner gave him an answer that sunk home.
"Only humans are allowed people names. Remember, we train to be fighting machines. One day, we'll have to do the biodroid op and become one for real. So, we don't need names."
A few days later, ACE2 was gone from his life. And he had decided to accept the facts unquestionably.
--- ** ---
Leon's eyes gradually opened to glaring overhead lamps on a stained ceiling. He sensed he was in a closed-in space and glanced around to see rusty metal walls similar to a weathered bomb shelter. Wire racks held small crates and containers of medical tools and vials. To one corner was a side table and chair. His hat, gun belt, and overcoat were placed on the chair. He concluded that he was in an examination room of sorts, but unlike the testing cells of his old House.
Thinking of his old House made his mind flick back to the recap of his childhood memory. It was strange that his mind had replayed that one. Maybe because he had a people name now.
Either way, it was likely that his serotonin levels were unbalanced. So, he closed his eyes again to activate his inbuilt diagnostic scanners and check his health vitals. Slamming noises, followed by a crude jolt and jab to his sides, made his scanning skip over a number. His eyes opened again. His scanning paused.
"Hey. Baldy ken doll. Don't sleep and slack off." Lucy let out a chetting noise at the end of her words. She gave the side of his cot another firm kick.
Leon turned his head to see a spiky-haired woman glaring down at him.
"Ken doll?" he innocently asked.
"Yeah, doofus." She scoffed.
Her eyes glossed over his shiny bald head, so clean it could substitute a bowling ball.
"Oh." He wondered if it had reference to his bald head. But he still didn't know what a ken doll was. "What is a ken doll?"
Lucy groaned and explained that his ghost-white skin had no zits or spots. It was flawless to the point of being plastic-looking, and his features were way too sickly handsome. Except for his freakish, glaring, blue-white, and slightly bloodshot eyes. Like they had a nasty case of grandpa cataracts.
"You look like a beefcake stiff for the morgue. Guess you were, at one point, before Butcher hooked you up to some blood bags." She folded her arms across her chest and gave him a wry look. "By the way, you owe me ten gold leura for it."
"Oh. I've placed you in an inconvenience." Leon came to an understanding. "Okay, when I have recovered my strength, I'll find some way to recompensate you."
"Whatever. Stay awake. I've got questions and you better spill, capeesh." She huffed at the end of her order, less miffed than before. If anything, the ken doll was well mannered.
She stood back, so Leon could get a good look at her. For a woman of tiny stature, she was sure ballsy.
"Give me one reason why I shouldn't shoot you now?" she asked, tapping a docked gun at her hip with a painted fingernail.
He gave her question some thought and returned with an honest, "I don't know. Do you have a reason to shoot me?"
"Pfft. Yeah! Fire mage." She huffed and rolled her eyes with annoyance when the door opened and closed behind her.
A scar-faced, wiry old man dressed in a white lab coat stepped into the room. His left eye was covered with a brown leather eye patch, where the elastic was looped into the ties of his matted gray ponytail to keep tufts off his face. His gloved hands were carrying a couple of fresh plastic blood bags.
"Butcher. You said I have five minutes. I got more questions," Lucy complained.
"Look, you foul pixie, he's moribund. If I don't change his blood bag soon, you won't have five minutes to question him."
Leon glanced around his arms to see a drip needle fastened to his exposed left wrist. A thin tube filled with blood was feeding into his veins from a blood bag hanging on a nearby drip stand. The bag was almost sucked clean. Seems he was undergoing a blood transfusion and suspected it was the cause for his memory trigger, since the rapid boost of oxygen would've excited his natural serotonin.
"Fine." She huffed and watched the old doctor change the bags. "Why'd you need to bother anyway on a biodefect?"
Butcher's irritation with her question showed on his wrinkly forehead. He may be named Butcher, but that was because he was actually a butcher and chef when he wasn't being the army camp's resident doctor. Medical professionalism was required at all times.
"Biodefect or not. He's still a man. More so than the other rogues, Scarf City has taken in."
Leon held his silence to ensure the conversation wasn't interrupted; he scanned the terms the man spoke of in his offline knowledge base.
"Why's that?" Lucy asked.
"He didn't undergo the limb replacements. Aside from his semantic storage implant, micro-scan lenses, analytic apps, and heart shell, he still has all his original limbs and their functions," Butcher said when he finished swapping out a fresh bag and leaned back to examine Leon like he was a test subject for observation. "I suspect he wasn't able to progress beyond the Heart Shelling process."
Butcher explained to Lucy that the shelling process was part of the biodroid enhancement. It was when a synthetic coating wrapped around the heart to protect it from the volatile reactions the titanium bone implants would cause during the implementation. Once the limb bones had been installed to replace the natural ones, and the body attuned, the shell would be removed. The coating was a carbonized material that had to be cut and fit into size when being operated on. It was a common mishap for surgeons to make the coating too thin, so some of the material melted into the bloodstream.
"Fortunately, for you boy, the surgeon realized his error early and stopped the process. However, I suspect you can't go a day without having to externally top up your blood oxygen." He directed his words to Leon.
Leon nodded. "You seem to know a lot about it."
"Hmph. Right." Butcher brushed off the man's assumption and returned his attention to Lucy.
"Blood bags done, now get going, geezer."
"I sympathize for the sergeant who had to raise you." Butcher sighed. "Don't aggravate my patient. You'll see the sharp end of my cleavers if you do."
He gave Leon a look of sympathy before calmly leaving the room.
Lucy dropped her crankiness. She wanted to have a serious talk with Leon.
"So, am I to be incinerated for suspicion of magic?" Leon soberly asked.
"Would you be hooked up to blood bags if that were the case? Man, these sacks are so expensive." Lucy lamented over the coin pouch she held before her. "Butcher must be feeding you liquid gold."
Leon didn't understand her concerns. "Is ten gold leura expensive?"
Lucy blinked. The guy can't be serious. Of course, he was a biodefect. Nothing more than a sheltered lab rat that was let loose when a procedure on him went wrong.
"Bloody heck is. That's three months of my wages gone! I could buy fifty meals and a sweet ride with it. Right. It's clear you ain't got the dough, so, I'll get you to pay with your life." A cheeky smirk stretched her lips when she pulled off one of her leather bracelets and placed it over Leon's wrist. "I mean, you are a refugee criminal."
Leon felt a weird energy rush through him, and his wrist glowed blue for a fleeting moment. The leather bracelet revealed an alphanumeric code. A registration number that was likely hers. That was fine for the time being. At least being registered to her, he didn't have to worry about having to explain his presence to the local guards.
"Clearly, you want me for something." He stared into the woman's eyes.
Her smirk widened. "Catch on quick, Chuckles. Yeah. I do."
Lucy's eyes lingered on the amulet's chain peeking out from beneath his loosened collar. "I definitely do."