There’s a reason everyone lives underground, but it’s never been stated officially, clearly, or in an enforceable way. The short version is poison gas. Nevertheless, Bae Yoobin is a law abiding citizen who’s scared of all the lore her mother has told her about the land above. “It causes disease, it’s the reason so many people died in the second apocalypse,” she said. “People go up there and don’t come back.”
Most importantly, “there’s nothing to see up there.”
So Yoobin never goes. She spends a lot of time thinking about it, though. The emptiness in her life kind of leaves a lot of room for that.
Today’s a normal day in the underground. There’s no precipitation to fear, especially now that the earth’s climate has devolved into seasonless dry spells most of the year, but they have some measures like humidity and temperature, anyways. Fluctuations in the natural functioning of things. Something to talk about.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of projects that there just isn’t money for. The government has talked about planning to launch imitation weather eventually because as it is, this is kind of like seasonal depression, except constantly. Hyojung’s mother is like that. She longs for the sky, but her lungs are in especially bad condition, so Hyojung never lets her out of the neighborhood, even. Her older sister shows their mom pictures of sunny days, but it doesn’t help when their main sources of “outdoor light” are industrial-style fixtures on the high ceilings of the cavern.
Life is hard and understandably, people haven’t fully adjusted. Hyojung was seven when the underground was declared liveable and people moved down en masse to escape the toxic air, leaving everything they had behind. It’s been almost sixteen years since then. Yoobin was four. She can hardly remember anything.
Yoobin works in construction. That’s what most kids end up doing, if their parents aren’t rich and they don’t find a way to pay for a degree. Messed up that the world can shift on its axis and the price of an education remains skyscraper-high. (A dying metaphor these days, but words are passed down through usage and one day that’ll end up in a textbook too.)
The pay for construction work is high because the demand is high, though government money is a little weak all around. One day, Yoobin’s father says, the value will plummet, so don’t bother saving it up. And again, there’s not much to buy with it when the focus of life is survival and not entertainment. Yoobin tries to have fun with the money anyways.
This month the main project she’s assigned to is building a food manufacturing factory. Kind of dull, but her best friends work with her, so she accomplishes that well enough. Yoobin’s mother approved of them too, way back then, but if she could have seen this exchange as it occurred, Yoobin would have been grounded.
Thankfully, or not, Kang Kyungwon and Baek Yebin successfully goad her into this one thing. Pride is on the line, and Yoobin grits her teeth. She tries to concentrate on the wall they’re putting up, but Kyungwon talking her head off proves to be more than she can ignore.
“Siyeon went up there the other day when she was skipping class, she said. The air was kinda thin but there wasn’t any poison gas. Plus she told me that Hyeri went up at night! But apparently it’s spooky even in the day time. Oh, and she came back alive, obviously.”
This is usually when Yebin would say something like “We get it Kyungwon, you have a lot of friends and you like to talk,” and Yoobin would have to peacekeep between them.
Today Yebin is smiling enthusiastically. That two-timer.
“Well, Siyeon’s crazy,” Yoobin says, shrugging and pretending to be unbothered. Only two more hours of moving stone and pouring concrete before she can go home.
“There are ghosts out there, Binnie!”
Yoobin sighs. “There are not, Yebin. Ghosts aren’t real. They weren’t real up on the surface and they aren’t real down here either. Though it didn’t stop people from porting the stories over when we moved, I guess.”
Kyungwon pats her on the shoulder. “Our rational Yoobin. If there are no ghosts, you should go and prove it to us.”
“Your mission is to find them and kill them,” Yebin quotes, a line from some old movie.
Yoobin glares at them just as the manager pops his head out from behind the half-finished door frame to check on their marginal progress. Unfortunately, she feels the most shame out of all of them. Damn her work ethic.
“Yoobin, you’re really no fun,” Yebin says, after he leaves. She’s pouting and sounds like she’s given up. But after knowing these two for years, that’s the last thing they’re going to do. They’re relentless.
“Nothing is stopping you except yourself.”
In the end, isn’t that all the push she was looking for?
This is how Yoobin ends up in the upper-lower barrier.
The barrier to outside ground is usually guarded, but there are a lot of blind spots in the entrance-exits. Especially #9, #11, #18. The ones that were built for individual use. Beyond what’s already been done, there’s no more money in the system to allocate towards keeping rebellious teenagers in government confines.
The uneven ground slopes up steeply. This illegal exit is a detour around the guard stations, a narrow passageway that was designed for emergencies. Of course it wasn’t designed for comfort. Yoobin holds her breath until it connects back with the main path. #11’s distance between the surface and the cavern is half covered by the long sloped walkway away from town. The rest is a straight climb up. Needless to say, it wasn’t meant for the elderly. Yoobin can only hope she has the energy to make it.
This entire experience is surreal. Now she’s going to see what she’s only seen in the photos, and well, that one tour she took in elementary school to the museum at the 5th gate. “There’s nothing to see” echoes in her mind. “People don’t come back-”
“Mom’s not here,” Yoobin reminds herself. She starts climbing the ladder.
It’s hard to know what to expect when so much is held back from you. At the same time, nothing could have prepared her for the reality of it. Yoobin is not used to natural light, and it takes far too long and a tight grip on the metal rungs for her to adjust.
The sky is subdued in color compared to the brightness of nature before the apocalypse, which is what she’s typically seen in the pictures. And she can breathe clearly. That much alone is so different from what she’s heard. The land is hilly, covered in forests of trees that are almost bare of life. Dead leaves litter the ground and the dirt is like dust.
Just meters from the exit, she sees a group of kids drawing pictures in the earth. When she gasps, they turn and freeze in fear. Yoobin feels her own stomach curdle with anxiety. She wants to tell them to go back - they’re just teens by the looks of it - but she keeps walking. Curiosity is calling.
There are a few more people that she hears as she continues. They don’t hang around as transparently as the kids, but once in a while she catches a glimpse of them. It makes sense in retrospect, because if you come up here illegally, nothing can really stop you from anything else that’s against the law.
As she walks, the remnants of houses and neighborhoods start to show themselves. And the farther that she gets from gate 11, the less people she notices. That’s odd to her, when it would be a lot easier to avoid police. Maybe no one ever comes up here to check on them. Though the emptiness scares her, believing the chances of being caught have just been reduced to zero gives Yoobin some confidence. It’s very odd, compared to the density of population in her neighborhood. Instead of hearing endless feet walking along the stone streets, construction machinery and working noises, she can only hear the whispers of the wind. It’s peaceful but kind of eerie-
Then, suddenly up ahead, there’s a figure at the top of a hill.
Yoobin sees the girl from behind, and she’s crouched down to the ground. At first she looks unassuming because she’s just wearing normal clothes, but when she pulls out glass vials from her suitcase and turns to make her profile visible Yoobin is scared.
Yoobin’s breath catches, and she steps behind a dead tree to hide, clutching at the trunk to support her. It’s a surprise when chips of bark crumble in her palm.
The gas mask on the girl’s face is kind of horrifying. (*) Yoobin’s never taken well to such imagery. Maybe it’s a manifestation of her subconscious - there are a lot of things her mother won’t talk about from the great move. Yoobin moves closer, out of morbid curiosity. But she has no experience in sneaking around, so of course she’s noticed.
The girl whips around, and Yoobin falls backwards onto the dirt, sullying her hands. “Hi,” the stranger says. It’s said straightforwardly, curiously, but not urgently. “You don’t look harmful.”
“I’m not,” Yoobin answers automatically. Maybe she should have kept her mouth shut. Yoobin is usually quite trusting of the girls in her neighborhood, but when you leave what you know, anything goes. The person facing her is almost too calm for this situation. Though at the same time, her youthful appearance makes Yoobin a little less afraid.
“What are you doing out all the way out here?”
Yoobin raises an eyebrow. “Isn’t that what I should be asking you? With the metal briefcase and all.”
“You really wanna know?”
Well, what’s the harm in it? She’s made it this far, might as well head back home with a story to give her friends. “Yeah. Go ahead and tell me.”
“Mm, exchange of information. I’d like to know who I’m speaking to.”
Yoobin scoffs. This is suspicious enough.
“You can call me Jiho,” the girl continues. “It’s not my real name, but too many things could go wrong if... things go wrong.”
“Yoobin,” she answers, boldly.
“I take it that’s your real name,” Jiho says. It was too obviously a declaration of defiance - something like, I have nothing to be afraid of, and you should be ashamed you do. “I wish I could tell you,” Jiho says, almost competitively. “I have to use my brain, though. Hold yourself back,” she says out loud, balling up her fingers in a fist aimed at her own face.
Yoobin looks at her skeptically.
Jiho won’t give her details on her own project just yet, and she locks one of her cases up before she gets to take more measurements.
Aside from cutting dead trees for timber, this area is untouched by the government, they don’t have the funds to do any field work up here, Jiho tells her. Yoobin has deigned herself to hang around for a little while longer, though it comes to mind that her mother will be waiting. (“I went to eat with my friends” is the excuse she had prepared for afterwards. Kyungwon, of course, was ready to back this up.)
Then the storm starts.
The sky lights up, more vibrant than literally anything Yoobin’s ever seen. Seconds later, the rumbles of thunder follow. And in turn, yellow gas flushes through the gaps between the trees. A less dense current reaches them before the heavier clouds. Yoobin’s body does not take kindly to the stench, never mind the potential chemical reactions inside of her. Everything in her mind freezes. She has no idea what to do.
Jiho takes a look at Yoobin’s quickly paling expression and drags her by the jacket sleeve across the dead leaves. “Don’t ask questions. You know there’s no time.” It sounds terrifying through the gas mask she pulled back on, like the speech of a government secret committee sent to kill opposition discreetly.
Jiho’s hand tugs on her wrist hard, and the feeling of being restrained is even more suffocating, even though it’s for her own good. As Yoobin’s breaths get shorter and shorter, it all makes sense. Staying close to the gate would have been safer. Why are you all the way out here? Pleading to the heavens for her life, she asks herself the same question.
Escaping the forest, they reach a circular metal door in a white grassy field. The gas trails visibly through the air behind then, and Yoobin shakes as Jiho twists the door handle to open it.
When they’re safely isolated in the locked room, Yoobin gasps for air and slams hard against the wall.
“You were lucky there was no wind,” Jiho says after taking the mask off again. “You’ll be okay recovering in here, I don’t think you need more oxygen. I’m sorry I didn’t have another mask to give you. Gas masks are... a commodity.” She doesn’t explain what could have happened if things had gone any other way. Still, she has a worried look on her face.
“I’m fine,” Yoobin says, resting on the ground, still against the wall. And in a characteristic gesture of ungratefulness, she adds, “Get away from me.”
Jiho stretches her hand out. “I don’t exactly think you’re okay.” Yoobin inches away slowly, turning back to make sure she isn’t hitting the tanks behind her labeled O2. “I’m not trying to hurt you,” Jiho says, frowning.
“Still. Keep a distance.”
Jiho shrugs, a little affronted. Yoobin realizes it’s not exactly wise to push away someone who can give you information, but in this situation, it seems like Jiho’s the one more desperate to talk.
“That’s the poison gas, I take it,” Yoobin says, satisfied Jiho has taken a seat on an old couch. “I guess it’s real after all. By the way, where are we?”
The room is a hollowed out block of the ground, so they’re back to being under the surface, though nowhere as deep compared to where they live. There’s furniture in the room, which is the size of a small bedroom. But it doesn’t look cozy in the least. “This is a gas shelter. I’ve been in this one a few times. People built these after the gas storms started, before the apocalypse. You can find some of these in the area, though most of the big shelters were above ground. These,” she says, waving around the room, “were usually made by families.”
“You sound really smart, but I didn’t see any house above this,” Yoobin says.
“Apocalypse,” Jiho reminds her, and Yoobin has to concede that’s a pretty good one-word answer for anything that’s out of place in the world. “The whole clearing where the ground is cracked and void of even trees is probably something that was wiped out by a combination of fire and wind. There were a lot of tornados.”
“Real smart,” Yoobin repeats.
Jiho stands up. “I read a lot. The records, in the Corridor libraries.”
“Ah, so that’s where you live,” Yoobin deduces. The Corridors are among the richer residential areas. “You sure give out information about yourself like free candy.”
“Not like I think you could do anything with it,” Jiho says shortly. After enough tries at being polite, it sounds like she’s given up.
The air is chilly.
“At any rate,” Jiho continues, walking around the room, “Yes, the gas comes around unpredictably. Weather stations tried tracking the patterns before the-”
“Apocalypse,” Yoobin cuts in.
“Apocalypse, but it wasn’t as helpful as they wanted it to be. It seemed like some of it was coming from underground, but other variants spread with the wind and they never fully investigated the theories before they abandoned it. The resources went to the short term. And setting up the underground.”
“You said,” Yoobin raises her finger, “that the gas was coming from underground. And we live? In the underground?”
“I don’t want to give you a history lesson,” Jiho says, and climbs the ladder to the trapdoor at the ceiling to look outside through the small glass window. Whatever she sees makes her wince. “It’s still bad outside.”
“But we’re not in danger?” Yoobin presses. “Living down there?”
“Well, who knows, Yoobin.” Jiho sighs, climbing back down. “They don’t think the gas can penetrate the cavern walls. But between their incompetence and their lies, I’d never trust any statement like that to be certain fact.”
“Hm. Makes sense.” Finally they can agree on something. Yoobin walks over to the cupboards, where she finds some plastic water bottles. “Wow, you don’t see these underground. Can i drink it?” She examines a bottle, twisting it every which way. Seeing through the water and plastic provides a distorted view of the world.
“Who am I to tell you what to do,” Jiho comments. Yoobin struggles with the cap seal for a few seconds before Jiho takes the opportunity to show off, pulling the bottle out of her hands and opening it. “It’ll help with the gas symptoms, probably.” Yoobin coughs roughly as if on cue.
“My throat hurts,” she says, gulping down water but feeling like it’s only getting drier.
“You could have it,” Jiho says, speaking of the mythical disease rumored to have killed at least 20 visitors to the ground above. It’s as big a part of the rumors as the poison gas itself. Latent genes that show no signs of effect underground, but react to the particles of the changed atmospheric air in life threatening ways.
“Or I could just have a cold,” Yoobin spits. Jiho is insufferable. Still, it makes her afraid. Jiho sounds like a fear mongerer.
When they open the trapdoor, it starts to pour. More accurately, Jiho is just locking the safehold when the drizzling catches Yoobin’s attention. But she swallows her suggestion to go back in; the combination to open the door looks ridiculously complicated and Jiho might get mad. (“We don’t want bugs to get in and risk contaminating the air,” Jiho says, though it raises a number of questions about the ethics of that.)
Yoobin’s mom is waiting for her, the run back home won’t be more than ten minutes if she can find the way - well, she doesn’t know the way, but asking Jiho that much won’t be hard - and the bottom line of this one is Yoobin doesn’t know if she can stand another period of time in a cell with Jiho. It was trying enough the first time around.
Jiho looks up at the sky. “Geez, it’s really all kinds of colors.” Dark purple and lightning yellow and swirls of brown. “I’d stay out to collect more data if it didn’t look life threatening.”
Jiho shrugs, but continues staring, looking concerned and yet awed at what she’s seeing. “I don’t think we’ve recorded a thunderstorm in a few months. Kind of abnormal for the season. We should get back to the city.” Jiho breaks into a sprint in some unknown direction, but hopefully she can be trusted. Yoobin has nothing better to go on anyway.
“Okay,” Yoobin says hesitantly, taking a last look at the trapdoor before it leaves her sight. If it’s that dangerous, Jiho would have insisted they stay there.
As it turns out, Jiho was gambling, too. They pick up speed as the panic sets in, and when a bolt of lightning strikes the trees somewhere in the distance, she says abort the plan, just look for cover. Yoobin’s eyes flood with terror.
They keep running, anyway.
It looked like there were four signs for budget hotels. Maybe there were more. They were different faded colors and sizes as well - they were like misaligned arrows on a metal stick with white borders - Save-a-Lot motel 0.3km right, or something like that. Yoobin hardly had the time to process what they looked like because Jiho was moving so fast and she could hardly keep up. Construction work builds strength, not stamina.
Jiho leads her into a building, and while the roof looks like it’s falling apart, there are concrete walls inside.
“We’re safe now,” Jiho says as the sound of thunder shakes the floor, and Yoobin recognizes that Jiho has saved her life again.
The storm rages for a few hours, and at risk of another bad judgment, Jiho decides they’re going to wait it out to the end. So they end up talking a lot, locked up in a room on the first floor of a motel. Yoobin can’t bring herself to say thank you.
“The air above, here, the land isn’t untreadable. As you know.”
Jiho is investigating the air and the earth. The earth for agricultural potential and the air for toxicity to the human body. By analyzing the content of the samples against recorded danger to humans, she wants to figure out if they can live up there again. Also by planting her own food.
“How do you know so much about this stuff? How did you get into research when you’re like... a kid?”
“Biohazard research was my mother’s specialty before it all went down,” Jiho says, waving her hand casually in the air like the apocalypse was nothing. “And I just followed in her footsteps.”
“Footsteps,” Yoobin repeats. “I know what you mean by that.” What’s been instilled in her mind and what she’s tried so hard to fight off.
“I do it for school, but for fun too.” It seems like she cares, but the words she actually speaks betray that idea.
(Maybe Jiho thought it was nothing. Maybe because she’s rich, you know, she bypasses all the hard parts.
Hunger, starting from scratch, making sacrifices.)
Jiho shows her to the barrier gate.
“I’ll see you around,” Yoobin says, unsure of what to say, and Jiho smiles.
“I’ll be here.”
Meetups. Meetings. Yoobin ends up referring to them as meetings, to herself. Because she doesn’t talk about what they are to Jiho. They’re too somber to be “hangouts”, they’re too full of emotion to be called “discussions”, and connotations aside, they aren’t arranged in the sense that they could even be “dates”. But over the span of weeks and months, Yoobin and Jiho meet over and over again. The first few times Yoobin comes up, Jiho is always there, already wandering on the ground or doing research. It gets her excited to be a part of it.
It starts with an intense desire to know more, inquisitiveness that overpowers any fear for the above or leftover distaste for Jiho. Distaste that was decaying fast, like Jiho thought the leaves seemed to be; transforming beautifully, like caterpillars used to turn into butterflies.
It becomes a pleasant thing to look forward to, something she never tells Yebin and Kyungwon about.
Dystopia stems from utopia. The desire to create a pure air, flooded with waste chemicals in the end. Faulty science, rushed by the desire for new technologies and better life, demand faster than the supply.
Jiho tells it like a story on the rotting wooden floor of Express Motel. (The name is so fitting, Jiho says with a laugh. They try not to stay up too long - she’s missed, Jiho tells Yoobin vaguely.)
It’s the place they hid during that first storm and where Yoobin found Jiho the next time she went to the surface. Since then it’s become their unofficial meeting spot. Not that first room 108, the right corner room closest to the check-in lobby, but they wander around the floors each time and Jiho tries testing the walls for toxins. Yoobin tries to help her, with the easy things. In return, Jiho gets her a gas mask.
Right now Yoobin lies on the hard mattress of the bed and holds a container for Jiho with her left hand.
Jiho tells her that’s what sped up the second apocalypse’s coming. It was always destined for earth, but attempts at purifying the atmosphere introduced a whole new slew of climate changes.
“In some ways, it was lucky the gas storms started up first. The cavern was supposed to be a large shelter for that, but then the apocalypse happened. Too many people died and only because the underground was almost ready for living did anyone else make it in this country.” Jiho spoons another scraping of wood into the glass. “Thanks.”
“The difference,” Yoobin says, “is that the apocalypse ended and the gas is still here.” Jiho takes the glass back, and Yoobin sits up, hair full of static electricity.
“I almost think it’s a scare tactic,” Jiho admits. “I think we could make it here. But everyone is scared to, that’s why you were told not to come up here.” Yoobin would argue she was told the opposite, but the gas is definitely what gets spread around the most as a reason to stay underground. People never come back- “The government refuses to try, on account of bigger problems. Which is fair, but life sucks down there for a lot of people.”
“Nature’s scare tactic?”
Jiho bites her lip. “Sure.”
Jiho rambles on about her work a lot, like she’s been holding it in for a long time. Yoobin listens. “Science isn’t even really concerned with what’s going on up there anymore. There are just bigger priorities. But I see a lot of potential in this.” She gestures to her research equipment. “There’s a reason humans lived on the surface of the planet for thousands of years before we were shoved into a manmade cavern.”
It’s something like Yoobin would have expected, cobbling together the conspiracy theories spread by word of mouth in her community. What is the government really working on? For one thing, it’s obvious they’re still trying to organize the infrastructure of the underground state. The administration is so murky, so far from transparency. When it comes to policies and funding towards improvement of living standards, things are shaky. It hasn’t been two decades, and plans are supposed to be distant visions of the future ahead.
People have to give up some of what they have for the good of others, it’s how taxes always functioned overground and it works the same way under, though typically paid in the form of uncompensated labor. Yoobin has experienced as much first hand. But what she knows about is close to home, the grocery buildings and clothing makers, low-scale stuff. Nothing like city planning or biological research, these long-term answers Jiho is searching for.
But Yoobin doesn’t know that much. Her education is limited to what’s free, after all.
“It’s not really legal, you know, what I’m doing,” Jiho ends up saying, weeks in.
“I thought it was for school?” Yoobin asks. From the start, something was off about being assigned to work in off-limits territory, but Yoobin had figured education made exceptions sometimes. Evidently not in this case.
“They want to use the funding on weaponry, sometimes medicine, not finding a way for us to live up here again. I think most professors have lost hope in that.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Yoobin says. “We hardly have any threats in need of defending against except for hunger.”
“That’s the state government for you,” Jiho says. “We never really know what they’re hiding.” It is hard to say there’s a need for politics either when the government isn’t elected, but that doesn’t stop people from disagreeing with authority.
Outside the motel’s front doors, Jiho has started an attempt at gardening. It’s those vegetables she wants to test for edibility. She confesses that it’s with stolen seeds, too, though she won’t say from where. The lot is small and made of dirt Jiho has turned over and watered repeatedly in hopes of cultivating some life. There is hardly anything to help her, but she’s seen the worms to know it’s possible. It was her exciting discovery on their third meeting.
Yoobin was greeted with frantic waving - not shouting, because sound travels far when there’s nothing to absorb the waves - and Jiho held up a petri dish of decomposers. They aren’t everywhere, but there are some, she proved.
“I’ve never been happier,” Jiho had said. Yoobin saw the natural life moving in front of her eyes, a far cry from the artificial that fills the underground, and had to agree.
Jiho is hiding something. Yoobin has always known this, but as the months go by it sticks out to her like a sore thumb. Mostly because Jiho is more open to admitting as much to her.
“The nice thing about not being afraid of anything is not being held back from doing anything. If I want to do something, I just do it,” Jiho says, scooping up a dirt sample. They are outside on the hill, sitting on dry, gray grass. Yoobin holds the jars for her. It’s itchy, but Yoobin’s taken to wearing long pants to combat the wind up here anyway. The only fear she has is how the dirt sometimes sticks to her - and there are a lot of reasons she won’t be able to explain that to anyone.
But she’s shed off her mother’s influence. Maybe for the worst, but that’s what’s brought Yoobin here, and it’s the closest she’s ever felt to making a difference.
“Not being scared and not being stopped, I would say,” Yoobin argues.
Jiho glances at her. The tone of Yoobin’s voice was more argumentative than she expected. “Yes, I have the ability to do all of this, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t people that are going to stop me when they get the chance.”
“But how will they get the chance? Are there really people that care enough to stop you?”
Jiho pauses her collecting, purses her lips and sighs.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m being followed.” She suddenly shivers, like she’s just recalled some dark fantasy. “It’s getting riskier, going out like this.”
“What do you mean?” Yoobin pushes.
Jiho goes back to fiddling with the portable matter analyzer in her hands. It’s an old thing, created for an aboveground lab and not quite functioning at optimal levels anymore. She traded for this at the black market, though she told Yoobin it was sitting in a junkyard and her techie older sister fixed it up for her. Jiho has a lot of secrets.
She’s also often reluctant to share information. Yoobin doesn’t understand it. If someone like Jiho is privy to so much, like government insider information and future development plans for the neighborhood, she should share it with the common people. Like Yoobin, a trustworthy intellectual who has shown conviction towards using knowledge for the good of all. But Jiho doesn’t seem to agree.
It seems like once in a while, she cracks. That’s when Yoobin can ask questions and she answers with shaky, vague tells that barely give Yoobin any idea of what’s going on. Ironically, the answers just create more questions.
The first one is maybe their 4th meeting. Once she knew the happenings of each of their meetings clearly in her memory, but when the numbers rose everything started to blend together.
“My dad is a government official,” Jiho says, breathing heavily, “and I can’t tell you what he does, but he’s working on a new construct that’s not ethical. My brother tried to convince him not to support it but then-”
Jiho shudders, blanks out, can’t speak. Yoobin puts a hand on her shoulder. “You don’t have to say anything.”
“Then,” Jiho says, as if she had already told that part of the story, “I found out that part of the plan is a series of new buildings. Of course, I can’t say what, but you work in construction.”
“Yeah,” Yoobin says, waiting.
“I can’t say anything more. For your sake, I can’t say anything more. But- I can’t not say anything.”
Yoobin must be proving herself to be a better confidant, because Jiho is more willing to tell her about her personal life. Yoobin was always free to say this and that to Jiho, filling the background of her work with stories about her poor family. It seemed hard for Jiho to come up with anything to say about her own. After probing a few times, Yoobin gave up on bringing that particular subject, but subconsciously it must have worked.
“My mother died,” Jiho says after two months, “because of her research.” There is almost no prompting on Yoobin’s part, which assures her it’s not like she made Jiho said it. Jiho had to say it.
Yoobin doesn’t know how to respond. “I’m so sorry.”
“My father didn’t approve.”
In the middle of their 11th meeting, Jiho says: “It’s safer for you not to know.”
They had never set a time for these meetings, never said, “I’ll meet you at 5:30pm on Monday evening every week by the oak tree,” or something along those lines that sounded like a commitment. It was never like that, but the expectation was created.
It was a system where Yoobin wouldn’t be surprised to be above ground alone, but one where Jiho was on her mind before she even saw her. It was a system where Yoobin wanted to go up almost any time she wasn’t working or with her family, but she chose to go up at the same time each day on that chance Jiho had a schedule. After enough visits, it became hers too.
So if one of them wasn’t there “on time,” the other had no right to be mad or upset or angry. No promises were made.
Yoobin, with nothing better to do, was always there around the same time by choice.
Yoobin believes in storybook happy endings. She believes they’re possible, but reality is often not so kind. Yoobin also believes the only reality that exists is hers, and that while happy endings and sad endings can happen to individuals, the world could be spiraling downwards as she speaks.
But she likes to hope. Even without anything to base her hope on, she makes her twenty-second birthday wish for a good ending.
Jiho starts to be late by the end.
The 13th meeting, she’s half an hour late, citing difficulty getting away from her parents. She’s out of breath as she says it and immediately launches into a hypothesis on the gas content in the air. Yoobin lets her go. The lies are transparent enough from her usage of the word “parents”; there’s no point in prodding at desperate dishonesty.
The 14th, Jiho never comes. Yoobin takes her usual walk along the hotel strip, looking for any differences and studying the different buildings. She used to do it when Jiho was collecting samples, but now she just goes while waiting for her to get there. Nothing is ever expected to change, and likewise, nothing ever does. It’s still kind of nice to keep an eye out.
When she arrives back at the motel, there is no sign of Jiho. Yoobin is desperate to believe it’s a singular occurrence.
She shows up for the real 14th meeting, saying she’s sorry, but offering no other explanation. It’s just as well. Jiho looks like an emotional mess, but Yoobin feels like there’s a reason she won’t open up.
“One of your flowers survived,” Yoobin tells her. The tiny purple flowers, once considered a weed, are almost the only thing Jiho can get to grow in the surface dirt. They’re so hardy, and yet even they keep dying due to lack of nutrients. The increasing inclement weather has been no help. Jiho has been smuggling some kind of growth serum from her lab, but it feels futile.
“I’m so proud of it,” Jiho says. She almost smiles. “I’ll go take a look.”
After that, the lateness and the absences don’t let up, and Yoobin just wants to ask, but she’s afraid.
Every time, Yoobin thinks she’s just overly paranoid.
It ends like that. Their last meeting wasn’t special.
(She considers finally confiding in her friends, but the mess of everything they’ve talked about - the secrets that, despite Jiho’s best efforts, Yoobin was able to piece together - is far too dangerous to risk leaking. Knowing things can be a weapon against you. In the end, there were ghosts out there, she wants to tell them. Ghosts of the past, evidence of atrocities once committed and covered up. Jiho was hunting them.
Yoobin understands now, why Jiho would fight to keep her own mouth shut. Yoobin, ignorant Bae Yoobin, fought her to get the knowledge out of her.
Jiho tried so hard to protect her.
Yoobin doesn’t know what she’s going to do with this information.)
In her dreams, Yoobin braves up and scours the city for Jiho. She infiltrates the government, finds out who’s been keeping her locked up for some political treason and launches a rescue mission. Well, it could be treason, or simply illegal activity such as theft or violation of environmental policy, all of which Jiho is guilty of to some degree. Yoobin would find out Jiho’s real name and Kyungwon would sputter at the blockbuster movie level of the narrative going on in front of her eyes. It’s an action-spy flick, probably, and she’d have a blast, though their lives would naturally be on the line during every minute.
Yoobin will storm into the prison, Yebin and Kyungwon blazing behind her, unlock the door and surprise Jiho with the movie quote of a lifetime.
It’s only in her dreams though.
A stronger Yoobin would take up the work in Jiho’s stead. But that’s awfully self-sacrificial. What can she do alone? A stronger Yoobin would pursue that last lead, the leaking gas, the unnatural gas made of a different composition from the natural storm gas, where was it coming from, Jiho would ask, grinding her teeth. She had to know. For that, she was willing to take the risk.
Risk isn’t something you can just fight through and come out on top of every time. With risk comes the real possibility of the worst.
The only way to forget is to live. Yoobin lets the days pass by naturally, pushing herself through the daily construction, watching the buildings she works on rise up before her eyes. It doesn’t come without her wondering if those are the ones Jiho was talking about. Did Yoobin help to build something out of a villain’s plan...? Is it better for her not to know?
The bomb comes after a long time.
Yoobin comes to find out through the newspaper that a girl by the name Kim Jiho went missing from the South Corridor and was found to have died after excessive mental torture. The South Corridor is where the officials live. She feels numb when she sets down the paper, pages rustling against the dining table.
Kim Jiho had given up that others had been told the information she was guilty of knowing and that should have been her ticket out. The names.
Yoobin shakes, right palm leaning against the corner of the table.
“Are you okay, Yoobin?” Her mom asks, stirring a pot of macaroni soup on the stove.
People go up there and never come back. In this case it is glaringly obvious things have been reversed.
“I’ll be okay,” she answers, trying to steady her breathing. “I just have a headache.” Yoobin’s mother has never suspected a thing. It’s why they’re such a happy family, she said one night at the dinner table. Because everyone minded their own business and never got involved in anything untowards and lived well.
“There’s medicine in the cabinet,” Yoobin’s mom says. Yoobin nods, thanks her and runs to the bathroom.
PROSECUTION ON THIS CASE HAS BEEN DISMISSED FOR CLASSIFIED REASONS.
It astounds Yoobin that they have the audacity to announce such a thing publicly. It’s so plainly clear to her that this is unjust. Hell, it should be clear to anyone reading the paper. This isn’t right - the government is supposed to work for the people. Someone should do something-
What’s worse is the churning feeling in her stomach when she knows it won’t change a thing.
Yoobin goes back up for what she decides is the last time. She’s tried to forget, but hope prevails.
The walk to the former hotel district is much like it was before. It doesn’t seem like activity around here has suddenly increased, as the ground flora is still as dead as ever.
Still, she is possessed to come up here by something other than the desire for escape or peace.
The motel remains dirty and dusty, but the equipment Jiho kept in room 108 is gone. Or was it 110? Yoobin checks all the first floor rooms, almost holding her breath in fear of seeing something she doesn’t want to see, but they’re empty. It’s not a stretch to assume all of it was confiscated and destroyed.
Maybe not knowing is better, she decides, only feeling worse after coming here. For that matter it could be a good thing she still doesn’t know for sure what happened to Jiho, maybe she’s alive and living well under a different identity. These little things could all be a coincidence - there were no pictures in the papers -
But no matter what, it wasn’t all for nothing.
Yoobin walks out of the motel and in the corner next to the stairs, a green seedling has sprouted out of the dirt, stronger than anything she’s ever seen out of this ground.