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    #1. Black Badger (1)

    Unfamiliar voices rang out.

    As I opened my eyes, I saw the blurry figures of people moving about in a hurry. I blinked, dazed. Shadows loomed over my head. Urgent shouts. Figures seemingly running off somewhere in a rush.

    My senses hadn’t fully awakened, leaving me disoriented. Closing and opening my heavy eyelids, the smell of dirt and gunpowder tickled my nose.

    And then I saw gun barrels pointed at me.

    What the hell?

    The moment that thought crossed my mind, a sharp voice jolted me awake.

    “Who are you?”

    That’s what I want to know.

    “Where the hell did you pop out from?”

    I sat up.

    My field of vision widened considerably. I saw multiple gun barrels aimed at me. A piercing white light settled over the blurry scene.

    What is going on here?

    Still dazed, I took in the five people holding guns, the spacious room with a high ceiling, and the man standing before me.

    The owner of the voice was the man pressing a gun barrel between my eyes. He had curly hair and distinct hazel eyes.

    “How did you get in here?”

    “Where am I?”

    I mumbled, looking into the man’s clear eyes. My mind wasn’t functioning well.

    Did I pass out drunk?

    “What was I doing…?”

    “Hey, cut the nonsense!”

    The curly-haired man scowled.

    “How and when did you get in?”

    He seemed like a man of strong character. But I truly had no idea what was happening. I watched as the man leaned in closer to me.

    He was wearing the same attire as the others. A pitch-black special ops suit that seemed to absorb light. Black gloves and a sturdy-looking massive gun in hand.

    The man firmly pressed the black gun barrel against my throat. I could feel the cold metal on my skin.

    This is a pretty dangerous situation, isn’t it?

    “You gonna keep spouting nonsense? Are you messing with me?”

    “Lowe.”

    Someone standing behind spoke up.

    “Looks like there was an issue with the portal. Lower your gun.”

    A girl with round eyes interjected. She had her black hair tied back and held a gun as large as her upper body. Being the only Asian girl, she easily caught my attention.

    Why is a girl who looks like a high school student, or at most a college freshman, holding a gun like that?

    The curly-haired man, called Lowe, spun his head around.

    “Lower my gun? We don’t even know who this guy is!”

    “That’s why I’m saying there must have been a problem with the portal.”

    The girl strode over.

    “Maybe it briefly connected with another portal or something.”

    Put the gun down, Lowe. The girl calmly nagged.

    With both hands on the floor, I took in the approaching girl and those standing behind her.

    They were an impressive bunch in black attire. They didn’t seem like ordinary civilians. The gazes fixed on me were as sharp as blades.

    Moreover, although she told him to lower the gun, they were poised to shoot me immediately if I made any suspicious moves. The lingering smell of gunpowder and dirt in the air.

    Where is this place? How did I end up here?

    The space with its high ceiling and pale interior was unfamiliar. Judging by their reactions and my own feelings, it didn’t seem to be a place I had been to before. I had no idea why I had woken up here.

    And who was I?

    Just as I was flustered by my lack of memories, the girl stopped in front of me.

    She looked down at me, sitting on the floor, with her round eyes.

    “Hello!”

    She greeted me cheerfully, extending her right hand.

    “I’m Choi Ami! You can call me Ami.”

    “…Hildebert Taleb.”

    I reflexively took Ami’s hand.

    “Feel free to call me Hilde.”

    But I couldn’t remember since when or by whom I had been called Hilde. My memories had been wiped clean.

    When did this start happening?

    Flustered by my blank past, I stared blankly ahead. A sinking feeling settled in my chest as I began to panic silently.

    At the same time, handcuffs were placed on my extended hand.

    ***

    I was dragged somewhere, restrained by the handcuffs.

    I wasn’t dragged roughly. It was because I stupidly complied, at a loss. Shocked by my vanished memories, I dumbly followed the girl named Ami.

    The people from the room flanked my sides and back. The man called Lowe was on my left, and a tall man with gentle, upturned eyes was on my right. Behind me, a small girl with two-toned hair and a man wearing a mask up to his nose followed closely.

    It looked like a formation for escorting a VIP.

    In reality, it was surveillance rather than an escort.

    We walked down a wide corridor and arrived at a room.

    The room had several white desks and chairs. It seemed like a room used for meetings or not used at all on a regular basis.

    Ami pulled out a chair from the desk in the center of the room.

    With my hands cuffed, I obediently sat down.

    “Hilde?”

    “Yes?”

    “I need to make a call. I’ll be right back.”

    Taken aback by Ami’s sudden remark, I blinked.

    Stupidly staring at the person in front of me, I awkwardly replied.

    “Ah, yes. Yes. Don’t mind me and take your time with the call.”

    The Asian girl’s eyes crinkled as she grinned.

    She opened the front door and went out into the corridor.

    At the same time, silence descended upon the pristine room. Everyone took their positions and closed their mouths. They seemed to be waiting for something, but the situation didn’t look like it would change anytime soon.

    I should take this opportunity to think thoroughly.

    I took full advantage of the newfound silence to try to recall who I was.

    This is driving me crazy. Why can’t I remember anything except my name?

    There were countless things I couldn’t remember. No, the majority of my memories were gone. It was as if someone had washed my memories away with water. Since the handcuffs were put on, I had been trying to remember where I came from and what kind of person I was, but to no avail.

    Only fragmented and useless memories popped up. Scenes like sitting in the passenger seat and looking outside, playing games on a handheld game console slightly larger than my palm.

    Frowning, I straightened my sitting posture.

    “Need to use the bathroom~?”

    The man sitting next to Lowe broke the silence with a grin.

    “If you need to go, just say so~…”

    I blinked.

    “No. I’m fine.”

    I tried to keep my back straight as I looked at him.

    “Thank you for your concern.”

    “Feel free to let me know anytime if you need to go~.”

    The man’s eyes curved into crescent moons. His vibrant green eyes narrowed.

    Ah. He has a nasty personality.

    I decided it would be best not to get on that man’s bad side if possible.

    He may always wear a smile, but in reality, he’s likely very sensitive and sharp.

    The green-eyed man was lazily sitting in a chair in front of the whiteboard. He was leaning back in the chair with his legs crossed and his hands in his pockets. Yet, there was no sign of vulnerability in his posture.

    He seemed like the type of person who would cause big trouble if you crossed the line.

    Looking at his elongated eyes, black hair, and neat features, I politely added.

    “Thank you.”

    “You’re welcome…”

    “Hey.”

    Lowe, who had been tapping on his cell phone next to the green-eyed man, suddenly lifted his head.

    “Yes?”

    “Where are you from?”

    Lowe leaned back in his chair, fidgeting his feet.

    “Didn’t you say you can’t remember?”

    “Yes. I apologize. I’m trying to remember, but only useless memories are coming to mind.”

    “Like what?”

    “…Well, memories of playing games on a handheld console…”

    I frowned, trying to recall more useful information.

    However, I failed spectacularly once again. Only scenes that were of no help flashed through my mind, like a clean room with two apples, coffee milk with a straw, and a half-eaten scone.

    I let out a small sigh.

    “…I’m sorry. Nothing worth mentioning comes to mind. Strangely, I only remember my name, but no other personal information.”

    “Maybe his memory was wiped when he passed through the portal…”

    The green-eyed man muttered as if talking to himself.

    “I’ve heard that similar things used to happen occasionally in the past, but I’m not sure if it’s reliable information…”

    “Damn it. What the hell is this? We returned through the portal, and suddenly, an unfamiliar person appears. I may be stupid, but I know that if five people go in, five people should come out. But fuck, six people came out. Does that make any sense?”

    “It doesn’t make sense, which is why we’re here like this~. I was planning to go back, take a shower, and smoke a cigarette as soon as I got off work, but…”

    The green-eyed man spoke slowly, tilting his head to one side.

    “I want to go home…”

    “I apologize.”

    Seeing the smile disappear from the green-eyed man’s face, I reflexively responded.

    “You can smoke here if you’d like. I don’t mind.”

    The gazes of Lowe and the green-eyed man, who had been lazily staring into the air, focused on me. I could also feel the stares of those standing behind me on the back of my head.

    I feel like an animal in a cage.

    With a wry smile, I met the gazes directed at me.

    But before I could open my mouth to speak, the door opened.

    “He’s not there!”

    Ami ran in with her eyes wide open.

    “There’s no one who looks like Hilde or has the name Hildebert Taleb anywhere in the Center Core or any other Cores.”

    “Who the hell are you?”

    Lowe glared at me, furrowing his thick eyebrows.

    “Where the fuck did you come from?”

    “…I’m sorry. But I’m really confused too…”

    “Anyway, Ska said to wait.”

    Let’s just wait here quietly for now. Ami waved her hands as if trying to calm me and Lowe down.

    I carefully observed Ami closing the door and approaching me. The gun she had been holding earlier was nowhere to be seen.

    I tried to absorb the information into my mind as I watched her approach. Perhaps because my memories had been wiped clean, I felt like a newborn baby learning everything anew. Who was Ska? And what did Center Core and Core mean?

    Where did I come from in the first place? I tried to recall my country of origin. It wasn’t that I had forgotten the names of countries. I could remember the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia. But I couldn’t remember the most important detail—which country I was from.

    As Ami placed a paper bag on the desk, I asked.

    “Where is this place?”

    Ami, Lowe, and the green-eyed man lifted their heads to look at me.

    “I mean, which country are we in? Are you not from any particular country? What exactly does it mean that there are no borders?”

    The expressions on people’s faces changed.

    Silence fell. A strange atmosphere filled the dry room.

    Flustered by the change in the atmosphere, I blinked. Why? I sat there, confused amidst the silence.

    Why are they reacting like this…?

    It was Lowe who broke the silence with an irritated remark.

    “What are you talking about now?”

    “The United States doesn’t exist anymore~.”

    The green-eyed man cut off Lowe’s words, which were full of irritation and suspicion.

    His sharp green eyes pierced through mine.

    “It’s been a while since I heard that proper noun…”

    I blinked at his words, which were not easily understood.

    “Pardon?”

    “What I’m saying is that borders no longer exist~. I’ve heard that students these days have a hard time grasping the concept of nations… Do you happen to remember how old you are~?”

    “What? No… I’m sorry, but I don’t remember that either… What? Huh?”

    I repeatedly said “What?” in confusion for a while. I couldn’t understand what the green-eyed man was saying.

    The green-eyed man repeated the same thing. Borders no longer exist, and everyone lives in Cores now. I tried to integrate my fragmented memories with the new information. But it was a fruitless effort.

    I clearly remembered that various countries existed in my memory.

    I distinctly remembered several countries. The United States, the United Kingdom, China, India.

    I seemed to have been dazed and flustered for a long time.

    After a while, I came to my senses. To escape from the confusion and disorientation, I intentionally focused on my five senses. The room was quiet and still. The white incandescent light and the pleasant scent of the wooden desk. The people in front of me were staring at me intently, waiting for me to speak.

    Feeling the chilly air, I finally managed to open my mouth.

    “Then, where are you three from? Are you not from any particular country… any particular country? What exactly does it mean that borders are gone?”

    “Ah.”

    The green-eyed man, who had been sitting motionless with his legs crossed, smiled slightly.

    “That’s a difficult question~. It just so happens that the three of us are a bit older. I was originally from Italy~. Although now I’m a citizen of the Center Core…”

    “Sicily.”

    Lowe interjected bluntly.

    “Those two brats behind you are from the Center Core. This little one is from China.”

    “I said I’m from Korea!”

    Ami, who had been observing me with her round eyes, jumped up. Startled by Ami’s sudden anger, I looked at her with wide eyes.

    The green-eyed man chuckled as he watched me. Ami, whether aware of the reactions around her or not, slammed the desk while glaring down at Lowe.

    “I’ve told you dozens of times that Yoon-oppa and I are Korean! The one from China is the head of HR! Ju!”

    “Oh, was that it? Well, who cares.”

    “It’s not about who cares! You and I have been comrades for 40 years, but how can you still mix up my original nationality?”

    “Hey, since you brought it up, where’s the head of HR? Shouldn’t they come when a person of unknown identity has popped up from the ground?”

    “Ju said he’s not coming.”

    Ami, who had suddenly calmed down, said with her eyes wide open.

    I watched Lowe and the green-eyed man blink.

    Ami, with her round eyes, casually added.

    “He said it doesn’t seem like a matter that requires urgency, and there’s nothing, in particular, to do right away.”

    “Crazy. If a person appearing out of thin air isn’t urgent, then what the hell is?”

    “I don’t know.”

    “Did you report it to the Commander-in-Chief~?”

    The green-eyed man asked slowly.

    “What did they say…?”

    “They said they’ll come as soon as possible. For now, Assistant Ska will handle it. John and Yoon-oppa are currently checking the portal’s condition. Samuel said he’ll have everything ready for Hilde’s physical examination. The HR department should be done preparing for the polygraph test.”

    “Excuse me…”

    I carefully interjected. I could feel people’s gazes focusing on me once again. It wasn’t a very pleasant reaction, but I couldn’t suppress the question lingering in my mouth.

    I was in the process of piecing together the puzzle using the fragments of information they had thrown at me and their conversation. For example, the fact that I had suddenly popped out of the portal. The fact that borders no longer existed, and countries like the United States and China no longer existed, and people now lived in a place called the Center Core.

    And that the pair of man and woman silently standing behind me were likely of the lowest rank…

    I asked about a point I couldn’t understand.

    “How old are you three?”

    Smiles appeared on the lips of the green-eyed man and Ami. A mischievous grin also appeared on Lowe’s face.

    I blankly looked at them, smiling brightly at me.

    I waited for them to say something while they were grinning at me.

    It was Ami who answered. She smiled brightly at me.

    Then she cheerfully said.

    “70 years old!”

     

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