by Kuruma Ebi (車エビ)
illustrated by beili
With Myung-soo, Yeol learned how to dream.
But first Yeol learned how to sleep. Not the optimally timed naps that he used to take just for the utility of it, but the heady sleep of a child, face slack and limbs everywhere. Indulgent. He learned all this in Myung-soo’s arms, against the warmth of Myung-soo’s body.
At the facility, they had all dreamed the same dreams. It was Nine who discovered this. They had all lost the same mother in a creature attack, at the same bridge in the same city. The standard-issue box they had been given for the journey contained the same standard-issue photograph. I wept for her, was what Nine said, when they first realised this. Those bastards.
Now Yeol dreamt meandering dreams: disjointed ones that lacked the devastating coherence of the facility’s constructs. Sometimes he dreamt of Myung-soo, leading him by the hand across some vast field. Sometimes he dreamt of dying, and when he awoke with a shout it was to Myung-soo’s concerned face and Myung-soo’s warm hands stroking along his forehead.
“You’re an idiot,” said Nine, when she appeared on Myung-soo’s doorstep bearing news of the attack at Fort Simpson. She took one look at Yeol in his threadbare flannel pyjamas, and laughed. “You’re a fucking idiot.”
“It’s nice to see you again too,” said Nine. Her eyes followed the way Myung-soo brought his other hand to rest on the small of Yeol’s back.
“What is it?” asked Yeol. Now that Nine had appeared, the soft edges of his morning had faded away, and not even Myung-soo’s touch could calm the rising dread in Yeol’s gut.
Nine smiled, rested her arm against the doorframe just below Myung-soo’s hand and leaned in towards them. “A Category Three creature hit Fort Simpson this morning.”
Yeol’s entire body went cold.
“What does that mean?” Myung-soo demanded.
“It means you’re out of time,” Nine replied. She turned to Yeol. “One and Two took it down. They didn’t survive.”
After Nine left, they watched the news in silence. First Creature to Appear In Seven Years. Fort Simpson Residents Evacuated. In the grainy helicopter footage of the attack Yeol saw One and Two emptying the last blue blasts from their plasma rifles into the creature’s thick hide. By the looks of it they had already blinded it earlier, and Two now drew her sword to intercept its blundering path.
Yeol had done the exact same thing a thousand times before, in simulations at the facility. He had made the same flying leap onto the creature’s foreleg, narrowly avoiding the poisonous jet black fluid that poured from its wounds, and plunged his sword into the weak spot just below its jaw where it kept its second heart. The difference of course was that this was no longer a simulation, and when Two hit her target she was also deluged in a stream of the creature’s blood. The creature tossed her off like an insect, rearing back in pain, and it was in that moment that One fired his last shot right into the roof of its mouth.
“Authorities are still investigating the identities of the two mysterious interveners, but –”
Myung-soo picked up the remote control and switched off the television. His hands were trembling as he placed the remote back down on the coffee table. “How long did you say you had? Between Fort Simpson and Busan?”
“Myung-soo, I –”
He had known this long before he’d arrived in this time. Squadron Three would have five attacks on their watch. Back at the facility, their squadron had recited the intervals and attack points every morning and every evening. Fort Simpson. Lusaka, Darwin, Kagoshima. Busan. It would be a journey through time to await ten days of hell. Nothing in their orders mentioned ever coming back.
For a moment Myung-soo said nothing. Then he got up and stumbled to the toilet, where he was violently sick.
Yeol trailed after Myung-soo and stroked his back as he retched, and even when there was nothing left to throw up they crouched there together for a long time. Yeol buried his face in the warmth of Myung-soo’s shoulder and breathed as Myung-soo breathed.
“You’ll need to pack, won’t you?” asked Myung-soo, as they stood in the kitchen making breakfast.
“Everything I’ll need is in that box,” Yeol replied.
He had shown Myung-soo its contents once, close to a year ago, when the impending attack had only been a distant eventuality. The box had been made to contain exactly twenty chrono-kilograms, the maximum mass they were able to send through together with each soldier. Myung-soo had been astounded to realise that Yeol’s only possessions in the world were his rifle, suit and sword.
This had changed in the intervening months. Yeol had things now, like a mug and books and a watch. He had a silly cap that one of Myung-soo’s friends had given him, and a pair of hiking boots he had bought together with Myung-soo when he’d gotten his first paycheck from working at the fitness centre.
But what he wished he could hoard was this: the moments when Myung-soo’s slow smile widened into a grin. The way Myung-soo would sometimes press his face into the crook of Yeol’s neck when they hugged. The easy curl of their fingers together.
“Maybe I’ll get you some snacks for the journey,” said Myung-soo, stirring the beansprout soup with an absent look on his face. The night before, they had both lain in bed, but sleep had not come. There were shadows under Myung-soo’s eyes.
“That would be nice,” said Yeol. He thought of Two’s broken body convulsing in the creature’s tar-black blood, and his stomach roiled.
“And I suppose you’ll need to leave earlier, to prepare,” Myung-soo continued, in that oddly flat tone of voice.
“Nine and I will spar,” said Yeol, “but I think she has matters to settle as well.”
They set the table in silence. Yeol got the rice and side dishes, as he always did, while Myung-soo filled two bowls with beansprout soup. It was a beautiful morning and the sunlight filtering in through the balcony window lent everything a soft glow.
“Am I that, too?” Myung-soo finally broke the silence, halfway through breakfast. “Am I a matter for you to settle?”
Yeol set down his spoon. “Myung-soo.”
“I’m sorry,” said Myung-soo. He buried his face in his hands. “I didn’t mean it that way. If you need me to go, if you need some time…”
“I can’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t preparing to kill creatures,” said Yeol. “That part is –” Not easy. “Expected. But this –” He looked at their breakfast table, and at their laundry flapping on the balcony; at Myung-soo’s laptop and papers scattered across the sofa. “Nobody prepared me for this.”
“I tried to warn you,” said Nine, when Yeol stepped into the abandoned factory.
“Fuck off, will you,” Yeol replied. It had taken him a good hour to get there from Seoul, and after all that time he was itching for a fight.
As always, they sparred without their suits and with no weapons. It was just Nine, vicious and wily, flinging Yeol through walls at any chance she could get and lifting beams ten times her weight to send them flying towards Yeol.
“You’ve gotten rusty,” said Nine, during the few precious seconds they each gave themselves in order to let their more serious injuries heal. They wouldn’t have this luxury when faced with an actual creature.
Yeol waited for the searing pain in his back to lessen to a dull throb before he sprang towards Nine and pushed her to the floor with force enough to break bone.
“That’s more like it,” Nine laughed, clawing at the ground in an effort to throw Yeol off of her. Her face was bloody and Yeol’s probably was as well; his whole body was consumed with pain.
And Myung-soo had once wondered why Yeol seemed so unmoved by violent films.
The split second Yeol took to entertain that thought was enough for Nine to roll over and wrap her fingers around Yeol’s neck.
“Just like old times,” Yeol wheezed, when Nine’s fingers relaxed enough for him to speak.
“It would have been easier if you had just listened to me,” said Nine. “You should have left him after you fucked him.”
Yeol stared up at Nine’s face; her pretty, hard eyes that always watched for him. “It wasn’t just about the fucking.”
“I know,” said Nine. “That’s the worst thing.”
They went to the park on Myung-soo’s day off.
“Let’s try to find a decent spot,” said Myung-soo, owlish in his glasses and squinting at the sun. The book he had been intending to finish for weeks was tucked under his arm. He hadn’t wanted to bring it along, but Yeol had retrieved it from his bedside table.
“Han Myung-soo going somewhere without a book – what is the world coming to?”
Myung-soo had laughed and taken the book, and had, on impulse, leaned in to kiss Yeol in the doorway, slow and sweet like they had all the time in the world.
“I was never one for the outdoors,” Myung-soo said, when they had found themselves a nice warm patch of grass. He had his book propped open on his narrow knees but must not have read more than a page of it.
Yeol, in the meantime, had long forgone all semblance of dignity and was sprawled out on the grass beside him. “You spend an awful lot of time outdoors for someone who claims not to like it.”
Myung-soo laughed. “I only go because you love it so much.”
“Wait,” said Yeol, sitting up on his elbows. “Really?”
“You’re like a puppy in the sunshine,” said Myung-soo. “The first time we were out here with Bora and the others, you spent a good hour just gazing up at the sky. My friends thought you were mad, or stuck up.”
In those early days Yeol had still found it difficult to master interactions with people who were not Myung-soo. It had been fine in the fitness centre where there were a very limited number of things he needed to talk about, but Myung-soo’s friends were boisterous and inquisitive and spoke about a great many things that Yeol hadn’t the faintest idea about. Myung-soo, unflustered, had simply fielded all the questions that Yeol hadn’t felt like answering.
“The sky I know is nothing like this,” said Yeol, rolling onto his side and resting his head against his hand. “We never went outdoors unless it was for a mission. The air was poison, the sun was grey… I never saw grass until I got here.”
Myung-soo was quiet for a long time. Then he carefully placed his book down and turned towards Yeol. “I suspected it was something like that,” he said. “I’m glad you’re here now. The way your face lights up. It’s beautiful to see.”
There was nobody like Myung-soo either, back at the facility. Everyone Yeol knew was rough and wary, and had grown up accustomed to the casual cruelty of their daily interactions. To care for someone was to make sure you beat them badly in a fight, so that they knew to toughen up. To love someone meant to hide it deep in your bones. Myung-soo had kissed Yeol gently and wrapped Yeol’s fingers in his own, and had worn an expression so open and so earnest that it had hurt Yeol to look at him. It still hurt sometimes, especially now, when Myung-soo was looking at Yeol with such deep fondness.
“Nobody I know reads, either,” said Yeol, trying to sound brusque. “I don’t understand how you can sit still for so long and just look at words.”
“But there are books in the future, aren’t there?” asked Myung-soo, suddenly looking worried.
“I’m telling you that the Earth of the future is almost uninhabitable and you’re worried about the books?” Yeol asked incredulously.
“Young man,” said Myung-soo, in the stern, affronted voice he no doubt used when telling off a lecture hall of students, “we need to have a very serious talk about the value of literature.”
“We need to have a very serious talk about your priorities,” Yeol retorted, rolling onto his back.
“And grass stains,” Myung-soo added, swatting Yeol in the stomach. “We need to talk about grass stains.”
The second creature appeared near Lusaka in the early hours of the morning, tearing through a stadium and injuring fourteen people before Three and Four intervened.
They didn’t watch the footage on the news. When Myung-soo returned home from work Yeol met him in the doorway and kissed him urgently, backing him into a side table and knocking down a stack of letters in the process.
There were days where Myung-soo would be lazy and pliant and let Yeol lick into his mouth for long, breathless minutes. But today Myung-soo kissed back, hungry and eager, and it was not long before he had threaded his fingers in Yeol’s hair and was guiding Yeol gently down the length of his body. Yeol sank to his knees and tried to stop his hands from trembling as he undid the fly of Myung-soo’s trousers, tugging them down to reveal the outline of Myung-soo’s slowly hardening cock. Myung-soo lifted one of his hands from Yeol’s hair and cupped the side of Yeol’s face instead, sliding his thumb over Yeol’s lips.
“You’ll ruin me with that face,” Myung-soo whispered, as Yeol let his mouth fall open and Myung-soo’s thumb slid across his tongue. “With that mouth of yours.”
Yeol smiled as he pressed a kiss to the palm of Myung-soo’s hand. Then he pulled Myung-soo’s briefs down his narrow hips, taking in the familiar curve of Myung-soo’s cock as it began to tighten and fill. There had once been a time where all Yeol had known were hand jobs in dark corners of the facility, or frotting in their bunks after dark. Myung-soo had been the one who had taught Yeol this, who had held him gently and coaxed him down until the tip of Myung-soo’s cock had touched the back of Yeol’s throat. He hadn’t laughed when Yeol had gagged a bit and had needed a moment to pull away and catch his breath – Five and Thirteen from Squadron Eight certainly would have – but had wiped the tears from the corners of Yeol’s eyes and kissed Yeol softly instead.
Now Yeol was familiar with the weight of Myung-soo’s cock in his mouth, the way Myung-soo’s breaths quickened as Yeol swallowed him in, hollowing his cheeks and curling his tongue. Myung-soo still had one hand in Yeol’s hair and one hand framing Yeol’s face as he fucked gently into Yeol’s mouth. And Yeol let him, unable to help the desperate sounds that rose from his throat.
Then Myung-soo was pulling back, guiding Yeol off of his cock. He stroked the side of Yeol’s face and Yeol’s spit-slick chin while waiting for Yeol to take a few deep, heaving breaths.
“How are you here,” Myung-soo murmured in wonderment. “How are you mine.”
Yeol gazed up into Myung-soo’s face, at his parted lips and his eyes dark with want. Even now Myung-soo was utterly transparent to Yeol. Even now, even though Yeol was the one on his knees, Myung-soo was still unravelling for Yeol. Yeol was dizzy with this knowledge.
Slowly Yeol sat back on his heels, pulling away from Myung-soo’s hands so that he could strip off his t-shirt and jumper. He bent round to peel off his socks. He undid the fly of his trousers and rose up on his knees so he could shove both his trousers and boxers down, scrambling to his feet as he tugged them off his legs. Myung-soo drank this all in, eyes raking down the solid lines of Yeol’s body.
Finally Yeol stood naked before Myung-soo, as vulnerable as Myung-soo was. “Please,” he said.
Myung-soo’s breath caught audibly in his throat. He took a step towards Yeol and leaned in to press a kiss to Yeol’s cheek. Then his jaw. Then the hollow of his neck. Myung-soo’s fingers traced over Yeol’s hips and across Yeol’s back, along ribs broken and healed countless times. But for Yeol’s biochemically enhanced healing capabilities, his body would have been a mass of old scars. Now Myung-soo instilled in Yeol a different sort of ache, the kind that settled deep in his bones, never to leave him.
Myung-soo fucked him in the hallway against the wall, slow and deep, murmuring desperate things into Yeol’s skin. Yeol dropped his head against Myung-soo’s shoulder and let himself be filled; let himself be carried along in the heady, heavy pleasure of it. When Yeol came, with Myung-soo deep inside him and Myung-soo’s hands stroking his cock, it was with a cry like a sob.
“I think,” said Bora, waving her tenth glass of soju, “it’s two races of aliens.”
“No,” Joo-hyuk roared. “It’s one race of aliens versus guardian angels.”
Bora knocked back her soju. “Fuck off. Guardian angels don’t exist.”
“But aliens do?”
“Fucking yes, we’ve seen them on the news!”
Myung-soo leaned over to Yeol and whispered in his ear, “If you’d rather not stay, we can go.”
“It’s fine,” Yeol replied, “it’s a special occasion.” They had gathered at a neighbourhood bar to celebrate Bora and Joo-hyuk’s short film being selected for a festival.
“Myung-soo, talk some sense into Joo-hyuk,” said Bora. “Why would guardian angels need to wear those helmet things? It’s obviously some kind of breathing apparatus so they can survive in our alien atmosphere.”
Joo-hyuk nudged Yeol. “It’s guardian angels, isn’t it?”
“More soju?” said Yeol, picking up a bottle.
“I think they’re just people,” said Myung-soo.
“Who can jump ten storeys?” asked Bora.
“Biochemically enhanced people from the future,” Yeol added with a wry smile, as Myung-soo curled an arm around his waist.
“We have a third theory on the table!” Joo-hyuk cried. “Humans of the future have travelled back in time to protect their forebears!”
Bora waved her hand dismissively. “Sorry, you guys are cute but I’m sticking with aliens.”
In a different time, Nine might have led a life similar to Bora’s. Yeol liked to imagine it sometimes: Nine worrying about things like presentations and investors, going out for drinks with friends like this, or even having someone like Joo-hyuk, who would follow her to the ends of the earth and not begrudge the fact that she could beat him at arm wrestling. But in a different time Yeol wouldn’t have had this – Myung-soo leaning against him, getting steadily drunker, while Bora and Joo-hyuk ordered soju bombs and tried to one up each other in a complicated trivia game of their own devising.
“I like you, Kim Yeol,” said Bora at the end of the night. Further down the street, Joo-hyuk was holding up a stumbling Myung-soo while they tried to wave down a taxi. “Funny Yeol.”
“I like you too, Bora,” Yeol replied, trying not to think about how this might be the last time they would see each other.
“You’ve been good to Myung-soo,” said Bora, clearly drunker than she looked. “Silly Myung-soo and funny Yeol.”
“Bora, if I go away for a while, will you take care of him?” It was only because Bora and the others were so very drunk that Yeol could bring himself to say it.
Bora narrowed her eyes, swaying a little. “Where are you going?”
“Oh,” said Bora, nodding deeply. “Myung-soo will miss you, though.”
“You’ll look out for him, won’t you?”
Bora smiled, and patted Yeol reassuringly on the chest. “When have I not?”
It was close to three in the morning by the time they reached the apartment. Yeol helped Myung-soo out of his clothes and into the bed, where he fell into a deep sleep.
For several long moments Yeol stood there, watching Myung-soo breathe.
Nine had once found a bird in the easternmost tunnel of the facility. It had likely escaped from one of the labs, but the surface air must have been too much for it. She had taken it back with her, and together they had made a little nest for it in Yeol’s bunk where it lay, eyes sliding shut, tail feathers twitching as it dreamed of flight. For the better part of an hour Yeol had simply watched, afraid to touch it for fear of awakening it.
“Don’t leave,” Myung-soo murmured, truly honest only in his sleep. “Yeol. Don’t leave.”
They had taken the bird away during the night, and for days Yeol had wondered if it had been a dream.
This, however, was not a dream. Yeol climbed into bed and pulled Myung-soo into his arms, snaking their legs together. Myung-soo nosed against Yeol’s neck, sighing deeply into Yeol’s skin, and clung closer.
“What would happen if you didn’t go?” asked Myung-soo, watching as Yeol stripped off his bloodied shirt.
Nine had been particularly vicious this time, and it had not been at all pleasant to have been buried under a pile of rubble for a good fifteen minutes. Yeol had attempted to wash off most of the dust and blood before getting onto public transport, but he couldn’t hide his still-healing wounds from Yeol.
“People would die.” Nine surely would.
“People would die anyway,” said Myung-soo quietly.
The bones of Yeol’s right foot were taking longer than usual to settle, and it hurt terribly for him to take a step forward. He did so anyway, all too aware that he was trailing blood in the hallway. “Why are you saying these things?”
“I watched the news,” said Myung-soo. “Darwin. It was a Category Four creature.”
“We’ve talked about this,” said Yeol. “I’ve told you –”
“It ripped him apart,” said Myung-soo, his voice barely a whisper. “It ripped him apart and trampled him, and then it turned on her –”
“Did they kill it?” Yeol asked sharply.
“Does that matter?”
“I’m asking you if Five and Six killed it.”
“Yes.” There were tears in Myung-soo’s eyes.
Yeol used his shirt to wipe a trickle of blood that was running down his upper arm. “Then they did their job.”
He left Myung-soo standing there and limped off to the bathroom. His body had been engineered such that he could heal from most things, but dismemberment was not always one of them. The programme had made their soldiers nearly invincible, but had left for them the worst ways to die.
“I’ve got you some fresh clothes,” said Myung-soo, appearing at the door. He set them down on the towel rack and stepped over to help Yeol with his trousers.
“I’m sorry about the mess,” said Yeol, resting one hand against the wall so that his foot didn’t have to take all of his weight.
“If you were really sorry you’d stop doing this.” Myung-soo smiled bitterly, picking up Yeol’s ruined clothes and stuffing them into a bag. “But I suppose you can’t.”
“No, I can’t,” said Yeol.
Myung-soo gestured towards the gash on Yeol’s back where he’d been slashed by Nine’s iron rod, and the ugly swelling around Yeol’s foot. “Does it hurt to break yourself like this?”
“Why do you still do it?”
If Yeol closed his eyes he could still see the bridge and the city from his dream: the Category Five creature sweeping away the woman who was meant to be his mother. Once, amidst his meandering dreams, he had returned to that bridge and realised that it was not his mother who had been swept away, but Myung-soo.
“In another time, the creatures destroy whole cities. And then humankind destroyed ourselves trying to stop them,” said Yeol. “In another time, Seoul is a wasteland. It hasn’t happened now because we learned new ways to kill them. Cleaner ways. ”
“This way is still the old way,” said Myung-soo. “You’ll destroy yourself.”
It was slightly before midnight when Yeol found Nine on the roof of a building overlooking a bar frequented by university students. Together they watched the students that came and went – huddled together in the cold, giggling as they walked; the occasional latecomer texting furiously as they hurried towards the entrance. It all seemed so ordinary, these small dramas that unfolded on the streets and resolved themselves as soon as they began. And yet Nine and Yeol might as well have been looking in from another planet.
Nine had not mentioned any specific reason for calling Yeol here, and she didn’t need to. Yeol understood. She might have thought Yeol a fool for falling so easily into Myung-soo’s orbit, but it would have been impossible for her to have lived here for twelve months without once thinking, why can’t this be mine. They had each lost the same things, growing up in the facility.
“Have you ever wondered why they deploy two soldiers for each attack?” asked Nine. In the street below, a couple on their first date lingered nervously under a lamp post.
“What do you mean?”
“Why not three? Or just one?”
“If they sent just one he or she would definitely die,” said Yeol. “The chances are better with two.”
“The chances of killing a creature are better, you mean,” said Nine. “The chances of us dying remain the same.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“Can you remember any part of your life that was not calibrated in some way?” Nine asked. “I’ve been thinking about this. They sent us over here with exactly twenty chrono-kilograms of gear, exactly twelve months before the first attack. Back at the facility, they crafted even our dreams. What makes you think they haven’t calibrated this?”
“They want to be sure that we kill the creature –”
“And that we don’t survive, either.”
“Why would they do that?” Yeol asked, even though the answer was already dawning on him.
“Why would they want any loose ends?” asked Nine. “We’ve got no future to return to.”
The official name of their programme had been Terra Cotta II. It was only after Yeol had arrived in this time that he had realised its significance. Eight thousand clay soldiers, buried with the emperor to protect him in the afterlife. Now they had buried eight hundred living soldiers to protect an earth already dead.
Time would not be kinder than stone. They would not be remembered.
With so little time, even their disagreements were truncated. In the morning Myung-soo ran his hands over Yeol’s fading scars, and pressed his fingers into all the phantom aches of Yeol’s old injuries. They went to the park again, and then bought groceries, and while the soybean paste stew was simmering Yeol flipped through an album of Myung-soo’s childhood photographs.
He must have looked through them twenty times before, but still he never tired of them. Myung-soo at five years old, hiding shyly behind a table: at ten, studious and chubby with ears that stuck out. Yeol especially liked the ones where he was together with his family, sulking in his mother’s arms while his sister brandished a red bean bun at the camera, triumphant. In another, he peered over at his father’s newspaper with a serious look on his face.
“Those again?” said Myung-soo, settling in beside Yeol on the sofa. Myung-soo’s touch was a relief. At various points that morning Yeol had caught sight of Myung-soo trying to bite back his grief, to let the rhythms of their life together smoothen over yesterday’s argument. But their routine could not hide the sudden distance between them, nor could Yeol talk his way back into how they were before. “I’d have thought you’d be sick of staring at my sticking-out ears by now.”
“I happen to like your sticking-out ears very much,” Yeol replied, meaning it as a joke but hearing his words come out too earnest. “And the rest of you, for that matter.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” said Myung-soo in an attempt at banter, but it was clear he couldn’t quite bring himself to smile.
Yeol laughed anyway, uncomfortably, and was relieved once again when Myung-soo leaned his head against Yeol’s shoulder.
“And here you see the Cheongju side of the Han family,” said Myung-soo, flipping to the next page. “The ears are clearly a dominant trait.”
Yeol traced his finger over the row of children clustered uncomfortably in the front. A young bespectacled Myung-soo was among them, with what looked like a good-sized novel bulging from his jacket pocket.
“That’s my older sister – you’ve met her – and these two are my brothers. My youngest sister wasn’t born yet.”
“What was it like?” asked Yeol. “Growing up with a family.”
“Noisy,” said Myung-soo. “There was a lot of having to share things, and fighting over stupid disagreements. But there were good times too. My siblings and I stuck together a lot. Strength in numbers, you know.”
“I think we had that too, somewhat,” said Yeol. “At the facility. Some of the older ones could get cruel, and Nine looked out for me. So did Seven.”
“Did any of you have names besides your numbers?” asked Myung-soo, looking up at Yeol.
“If we did, no one talked about them,” said Yeol. “I don’t remember mine. I was always Ten, until I met you.”
In the months that passed, Yeol had grown to love the way the syllable rolled off Myung-soo’s tongue. He loved the promise of it. Someone called Yeol could have a name and a life and people who cared for him. Someone called Yeol could have family photographs of his own. Someone called Yeol could have a future to return to.
Ten may have been resigned to going out in the jaws of a dying creature after a life spent dreaming the same dream, but Yeol could no longer bear the thought.
“And how exactly are you planning on not dying?” asked Nine.
This was the first time Yeol had been inside Nine’s apartment. It was a one-room shoebox that was empty of all but the most basic of furniture, but she had filled the walls with neat rows of photographs. Where someone else may have put up photographs of places of interest or of people, Nine’s collection was entirely of houses and streets, of cats and birds and ordinary hills.
“You were talking about our chances, last night,” said Yeol. “With two of us, we kill the creature and we don’t make it out alive. But what if there are more?”
“But there aren’t,” said Nine. “In three days we’ll be the only ones left on this watch.”
“Seven and Eight are still alive.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nine snapped. “Seven and Eight won’t survive Kagoshima.”
“They might if we’re there to help them,” said Yeol.
“Did I ever tell you what the journey was like?” asked Yeol.
They had returned to Ansan, the site of their first hike together. This time, Myung-soo had planned the start of their journey such that they could catch the sunrise. The lookout post was empty when they arrived there.
“No, I don’t think so,” Myung-soo replied.
“First we packed our boxes,” said Yeol. “And then they had these pods, just large enough for us to fit in if we lay curled up inside them. So we got in, and they were meant to seal the pods off and put us to sleep. They told us we would simply wake up in another time.
“But there’s a moment between the point where they seal off the pod and the temperature gets low enough that your body shuts down. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of seconds, but for me it felt like an age. And I lost it, in those moments. All the things about doing a great service for humanity just fled me. I raged and wept and tried to escape. I wanted to live. It was the most human I had ever felt in my life up to that point.”
“And then you got here,” said Myung-soo.
“And then I got here, and I found all this,” said Yeol, gesturing towards the city below. “The sky, and people, and beautiful things. Fresh vegetables. Sunshine.”
“A helpful passer-by who asked for your number on the pretext of wanting you to return him five hundred won,” Myung-soo added.
Yeol laughed. “For the longest time I thought five hundred won was a lot of money.”
“Not my proudest moment, I must say.”
“I’m glad you stopped for me,” said Yeol. “I’m grateful you did.”
As he spoke, the sun began to rise over Seoul, washing the sky pink and orange as the city began to blink awake. They watched in silence as it bathed the skyline red, and then gold.
“If we don’t survive Kagoshima –”
“You will,” said Myung-soo fiercely.
“If we don’t survive,” Yeol repeated, “we need to make sure that people don’t get hurt. People need to know what’s going to happen in Busan, so they have enough time to evacuate. You need to go to the authorities.”
“Okay,” said Myung-soo. “But even if I tell them, they have no reason to believe me.”
Yeol shook his head. “You’ll have evidence.”
Yeol had borrowed Bora’s camera for the video, in which he and Nine had worn their suits and made it quite evident that they had come from the same place as the mysterious interveners from the news. “Please make your preparations and stay safe,” Yeol had told the camera, while Nine had carefully marked on a map the approximate location where the creature would appear. They placed the video in a flash drive that Yeol left on Myung-soo’s bedside table.
Then Yeol made a second video. He didn’t wear his suit for this one, and he didn’t leap any buildings. Instead, he talked. He brought the camera along with him as he cleaned the apartment; set it down on top of the television, facing the balcony, as he hung the laundry out to dry. He whistled, the way Myung-soo had tried to teach him, and laughed when he failed. He gave Myung-soo a heartfelt lecture about keeping eggs in a lower shelf as he sorted out the refrigerator. He did most of the things they would have done on any ordinary Saturday morning, and when he was done, he looked into the camera and told Myung-soo he loved him.
He put this video in a second flash drive and placed it on the bookshelf, behind the book that Myung-soo had taken to the park; the one he hadn’t managed to finish.
“Did you sleep?” Myung-soo asked.
Curled up against Myung-soo, Yeol shifted and sighed. “Yes,” he breathed.
“Did you dream?”
Half asleep, he could feel Myung-soo’s smile as Myung-soo pressed a kiss against his temple.
Wracked in pain and half blinded by sulphur and blood, Yeol lay on the beach and listened to Nine’s anguished shout as she plunged her sword repeatedly into the creature’s head. He heard rather than saw it fling her off onto the sand, roaring as it lumbered round to crush her under its massive feet.
There was a blast of blue light as Seven or Eight squeezed off another shot. The creature snarled in pain, turning away from Nine as it rose on its forelegs to take a swipe at whoever had fired at it. Yeol shut his eyes and continued to count. He could feel his leg knitting together again, and the large gash running from his stomach to his arm had all but closed. They just needed time; they just needed to stay alive –
Seven was back on top of the creature, slicing deeply into its neck before leaping clear of the blood that gushed from it. The creature staggered for a moment. Then it reared round to slam him into the nearby rocks. With a triumphant bellow it opened its mouth to pour poison onto Seven’s prone body, but Eight fired another shot at it, distracting it from its prey. Yeol was on his feet now, ignoring the excruciating pain as he half sprinted, half dragged himself towards the creature. He stumbled once but didn’t quite fall. With a ragged cry he broke into a run and made a flying leap onto the creature’s back, cutting his hands on the rough surface of one of its gigantic spines as he clung on to it.
“Here!” shouted Eight, tossing him her plasma rifle. Yeol caught it with one hand. He slung it over his back and began to clamber up along the creature’s body. As the creature reared back in fury he was forced to hold on for dear life, the gloves of his suit cut to ribbons as he reached for the next spine. He barely caught hold of it. The creature turned suddenly to round on Eight, slamming her into the ground with one of its forelegs.
“NO!” Nine shrieked, over the terrible sound of Eight’s bones breaking. But before the creature could crush her any further, Yeol swung himself up towards the creature’s neck, and fired a plasma blast right into the wound Seven had made.
He was thrown back by the force of it, covered in the creature’s liquefied, burning flesh as he fell backwards into the sea. He hit the water at the exact moment the creature’s blood ate through his suit, and was plunged into a world of agony.
The Korean he’d learned at the terminals in the facility was not the same Korean that people were speaking in this time. They spoke it faster than he’d practiced with Nine, and gave him funny looks when he tried to use the colloquialisms the programme had taught him.
He wondered whether Nine had found a place to stay and was blending in according to the protocol. The tiny room Yeol had managed to rent was good for learning the customs of the time; its walls were so thin that all he needed was to lie in bed with the door slightly ajar and listen to his neighbours as they talked to their families on the phone or muttered over their textbooks.
He moved too slowly for Seoul in those first few days, always getting in someone’s way as he stopped to look at the sky, or at a bug on a roadside tree. He tried to use the money he had with him, but the woman in the shop took one look at the note and told him to sell it to a collector.
Each day he set himself a little mission to find out something new about the time he had arrived in. He learned how to take a bus, to walk instead of leap up staircases. He learned the rhythms of a time where night and day were distinguishable by more than just the facility’s midnight siren.
It was close to evening when he decided to approach the machine he’d been observing all afternoon. People had been coming by at various intervals to put money in it and retrieve a can of some sort from a window at the bottom. Over the course of the afternoon he tried to discern some sort of pattern in each person’s choice of button. Sometimes they put money in and pressed a button and nothing came out, and they stormed off, annoyed.
Now that he was up close, he could read the individual labels on each of the cans. Not all of them made sense. He put some coins into the machine, but none of the buttons lit up like they were meant to. It was frustrating that they’d taught them about flying planes at the facility, but they hadn’t taught them this.
“Hang on,” someone said.
He looked round and saw that a man had come up beside him and was fumbling in his pockets for something. It turned out to be another coin, which the man slotted into the machine. The buttons lit up.
“There we go,” said the man. He was tall and stood with a bit of a graceful slouch, a book tucked under his arm. He probably hadn’t noticed the tiny leaf that had landed in his hair.
In a fight it was clear who would win, he thought.
“Take your pick,” the man said. “Though I must warn you not to get the apple tea; it’s quite vile and the button doesn’t work half the time.”
“That was your own money,” he said. “I don’t think I should –”
“Don’t worry about it,” said the man. “Or you could treat it as a loan and pay me back the five hundred won another time.”
That sounded fair. “All right.”
The man paused for a moment, looking surprised, and then he smiled. It was a most intriguing sort of smile, slow and shy and warm all at the same time. “If you could just give me your name and your number,” the man said, reaching into his coat pocket and pulling out a bit of paper and a pen.
Confused by the situation and distracted by the warmth of the man’s smile, he had forgotten all about the false identity he’d been given and had written ‘10‘ on the paper instead. By the time he realised he’d put down his real name, it was too late.
“Yeol?” the man asked, reading it in Korean. “That’s your name?”
“Well, uh… yes.”
“Very nice to meet you, Yeol,” said the man, bowing politely. “I’m Han Myung-soo.”
“—millions in Busan were evacuated to neighbouring cities, where they joined local populations in underground shelters to wait out the impending attack. The video, which was released to the media two days before the attack —”
It took Yeol an entire month to recover from the worst of his wounds, and even after that his vision came and went in the weeks that followed.
“—the creature was intercepted by not two but three interveners, who managed to neutralise it with the help of the armed forces —”
Pain aside, Yeol wasn’t accustomed to lying in bed for such a long stretch of time, with no one allowed in except a group of doctors who kept appearing in order to nervously scribble into clipboards and take samples of his blood. The only benefit to all this was that it kept him hidden away during the ensuing scramble by the media to interview the first mysterious interveners to ever survive a creature attack.
After the sixth week, they let Myung-soo come to visit him.
He entered the room the way he always did, in a quiet little sideways-step. He was wearing glasses and looked rumpled and gaunt, but when he laid eyes on Yeol his face broke into a smile, slow and shy and warm all at the same time.
“I finished the book,” said Myung-soo, as he approached Yeol’s bed.
“How did you like the ending?” asked Yeol.
“I liked it very much,” Myung-soo replied, “but this is far better.”