The whole ordeal felt to Pak like it was one long tunnel:
They had brought him into the border on a small plane. He was silent, because he knew better, but the rest of the passengers -two enforcers; a spritely flight attendant- and the pilot had no reason to be.
It freaked Pak out to be among such silence. In the world he was used to, someone always needed to be comforted or talked down from attempting something stupid. Normally, emotions sprung loose from everyone's pores. It was true chaos. Pak's ears had taken for granted, became used to ignoring the daily piles of rage, of turmoil, and of delirium.
But the enforcers that sat beside him didn't stir, or even look at him all that much. They were two flat tires, their lungs expelling lethargy not life. Black clouds above navy seats. They jarred Pak's vision (a terrible combination of colour) and he looked forward to the flight attendant, Jung, who would wheel in on occasion, with her fitting suit and wide smile. He regarded while he could, those bright yellow seams dotting her jacket before she went away again. In short, Pak was not used to this newfound quiet. He couldn't relax and so decided to try acquaint himself with the silence rather than break it.
Yet in transit Pak felt his mind moving, chugging along at its own pace inside the airborne tube. Where am I going? Why? Much was going that he didn't know. Yet he could not deny his longing to know, and so was not able to contain himself physically. Between his legs, he opened and closed the button of a clear folder that contained all his papers: His passport; College and family pictures; C class Identification card; His SIM. He wasn't able to bring his phone, but his SIM was required? He idly fingered through them, tallying the lot. He made sure and double-sure that they were all there.
Looking at all the memories, Pak tried to decide how he felt about being forced to leave his old life. It wasn't clear to him whether he would be happy or sad. In the recruitment phase, he was told that he may never see his family again. But they had been repaid with a class card upgrade. His going provided a life for them, one better than most. But he had thought that not having to bear the constant degradation of his sanity might be pretty okay too.
At least he didn't have to work as a grocer in a world without money.
Pak sighed. It was a reality he had long accepted. Nothing had meaning; each action was pre-determined by the government; observed by the enforcers; this action was selected.
At least he didn't have to stock shelves under the scrutiny of a thousand resentful eyes. Pak hoped that wherever he was going, it didn't involve working with other people. Pak sighed again. Quieter, calmer.
At least he wouldn't have to make any account for 'missing' stock. Or have to lie about them. He swiped a look at the enforcers beside him as one grabbed the air with his hands, stretching his fingers. Pak hoped that he never had to make another decision again. He would allow the broken world to run its course.
He held on hope, however. It bided its time. It dug into him after (somehow) living through every disaster, causing him to be certain that the enforced-peace couldn't last indefinitely. Maybe another year, or two, or three. A generation? No. He was certain that it would end.
Something would happen. One thing he enjoyed doing, in the midst of a raging queue, was keeping an ear out for the rumours. The cracks in the wall. He took fragments of conversation and fed it to his hope, which churned out dreams of large-scale riots, rebellion, an old-money cult takeover. Yeah, maybe one of those would happen, he would think.
"We're landing soon," the pilot said over the intercom.
It jolted Pak out of the loll of quiet. But he preferred the new sense, and so went quickly back to it. Back to the mute enforcers who were awful to look at, to the delightful hospitality of Jung who was making a charade of the safety procedures. Running his hands along his folder, he was careful not to crinkle and snuff out the safety of the silence. Leaning over, he set his belongings flat on the floor and buckled himself in. It made a light 'click', but, thankfully, it made no dent in the ozone silence.
But it didn't last for long. Slowly, even though he was hurtling downwards on a rickety, pre-millennial aircraft small sounds began to permeate the hull. The air whistled low and long. The engine yawned. The seat frames idly tapped away. Pak's inner ear tumbled in a dance to the rising pressure, and it took great big breaths of joy.
They landed. The sounds followed with him through the exit procedure and coddled him. They helped Pak to distract himself as the guards did one last check all over his body and escorted him out of the plane. Yet as soon as Pak took the first step off the boarding ladder, that first 'thud' erased it all. It snuffed them out, and suddenly Pak knew true silence. And it was most unnerving.
He stood on a runway lit orange by sleepy columns of flight lights. Outside of their brief glow was an expanse of black. It was huge and eyeless and empty. It was eyeless because it was devoid of people, and so full of emptiness that it must have helped more darkness to fill it. Compared to the city, Pak didn't recognise this as an environment people could live in. No social laws operated inside of a place like this. There was no one to see what you were doing. At least in the bustle of a metropolis, you had the safety of the public to judge, to deter the enforcers. Here…Pak unconsciously remembered events he had pretended not to have seen and felt the sudden urge to run. He felt compelled to cause a commotion, to fight the silent black.
But Pak was pulled back by a familiar, ugly glove. The enforcer ordered him, in a voice like burnt gristle to, "KIP ON WOK-EEN". Keep on walking.
Pak headed off as he was told, following the amber road. He was trying to decide whether the enforcer's broken English made him tougher or not. He led the pack, with Jung and the pilot sandwiched between the enforcers. They walked together, in sync as a solemn procession, towards a huge dome shape that emerged out of the void. As they got closer its marble colour became apparent. It might have been a spinal segment of one long lost colossus, and Pak felt miniscule being in front it.
All along, Pak had avoided thinking much about the purpose of his recruitment. Too enticed by its benefit, Pak had off-handedly decided that it was worth any price. But, now that a border sign loomed 'North Korea' before him, fear had finally metastasised within him. Again, he felt the urge to run. And again, a familiar arm gave him a swift prod, causing Pak to stumble inside the belly of the beast. This was where the real tunnel began.
Inside border control were two new burly-boys that were to switch with Pak's previous enforcers. The pairs sized each other up until, satisfied, Pak's airplane buddies promptly nodded and left. The new pair seemed way more enthusiastic than his old guards. They paced around impatiently. They fumbled with their pockets, scowling at him whenever he caught them at it. To Pak, it seemed that his arrival must have been taking the place of something really interesting. However, he didn't care what it was enough to ask them, and in any case, he was too busy trying to figure out what on earth experimental 'volunteers' were needed for in the disbanded land of North Korea.
There should have been nothing in these lands. Pak thought back to hearing the news, trying to remember the details. He reckoned that it was about almost immediately after the 2020 crash when North Korea's genius of a leader decided to start invading his country. He remembered an interviewer explaining his reasons: That he thought that the other countries would be too slow to act under the circumstances. Idiot! Of course every nation under the sun was in a deep, UN dialogue at that time. Obviously! It might even have been the worst possible time to act out. The whole place was exterminated.
Oh fuck, that's right! Pak had forgotten all about that. His own life was desperate and busy enough with survival that he had never stopped to consider what had happened to the civilians. He thought hard. No, he couldn't recall ever meeting a North Korean refugee. Amongst the hundreds of people that he had served at his store daily, Pak had never met one.
"The value of life has dropped" was a popular phrase that gained traction over the past years. The governments were too preoccupied with trying to create temporary systems to police their populations, but Pak found it incomprehensible that the phrase was accurate. That so many people had really been silently snapped out of existence. Pak was sweating, he felt guilty, somehow responsible, know that he knew.
"But it must be true," Pak thought, as he passed over his folder for examination. He stood with his arms outstretched inside a tubular x-ray scanner. He wondered if the same fate would find him. The shutters of the machine snipped away like a huge pair of scissors, and Pak swallowed.
After it finally ended, he nodded to the attendant and she gestured for him to move on. Pak grabbed up his folder. He scooped up his allotted clothes suitcase with trembling fingers and tried to exhale. His 'honour' guard took no notice, checking something out on each other's phones with their backs turned. Pak tried to calm himself, but taking a look around the hall, Pak only saw white. White desolace. There were no refugees at all, were there?
He kept walking through long walkways built for lines and queues. The hall was lit up by ghastly rows along the ceiling which wobbled overhead as he stepped past. The beams of light bore into him. As Pak went through, he muttered a few quick prayers and bowed. The guards began to eye him, so he only did it whenever they went back to their phones, lowering himself and then bending back again.
The group arrived at the passport checking point. Meandering through layers or rope banisters, Pak was still utterly confused as to what could be happening here. He reached the front of the 'line' and stood, waiting for a signal from the booth in front of him. A bald, emaciated-looking man waved him over. His formal uniform was far too large for his body, causing him to make ruffling noises as he moved about in his seat. He was far too happy and excited, Pak thought. However, he quickly realised that the examiner's excitement was not directed at him but over his shoulders at the guards. Pak watched himself be ignored. The examiner bounced about. He gave wide grins to the guard on the left, which were returned. The other crossed his arms and pouted. What is this place? They're all acting like children.
Pak was staring so much, and in so much anger that his left eye began to twitch. The bald child had no choice but to stop ignoring him. He coughed, and turned to Pak, saying,
In Korean. Finally. Thank God. Pak let go of his anger for a moment. He forgot the idiocy that just transpired, for now he didn't feel the least intimidated by the inspector. So he decided that he would try something. "Here you go. That should be everything".
The inspector flicked open the passport sideways and let the bottom hang down as he compared the picture to the real thing. Or pretended to. He was glancing over Pak's shoulder again, ignoring his job. Snapping it shut, he stamped each accompanying document and hastily shoved it back to Pak all in one quick motion. "Here, here. Thank you."
Shit, that was too quick. Determined, Pak leaned in close to the booth towards the inspector. The glass that separated them was freshly cleaned, and shone into his eyes as he asked, "What's emm… what's going on here?"
The inspector cocked his head like a confused bird. Pak suddenly became aware that it may have been the wrong call to ask. The ecstatic man let out a laugh too round for his spindly body, screeching his chair backwards, and stood up over Pak. "I really shouldn't tell you." He drew out his arms. "It's not my job, you see," he added. He began unbuttoning his jacket. Each finger was only about half the size of the button holes. "One of the people behind the project will explain everything to you, there's no need to worry."
As soon as he finished unhooking the last one, he flung the jacket over his shoulder. He was probably finished now. It's not like Pak had seen anyone else enter through the border. With a few high and jolly steps, the inspector exited his booth. Giving Pak wink of confidence, he strolled right past. From behind him, Pak hear him say, "Enforcers are just for the outside world. Go on through the door behind the booth, you'd best not keep him waiting. John! Are you ready for-"
Pak heard nothing else. His brain had been handed the ultimate bamboozle. He couldn't get a straight answer out of theses unhelpful, crazy civil servants. He needed to know. He unstuck his feet from the floor, floating weary step after step forward, up towards a plain, light grey door which apparently held all of the answers. The edges had a glow much brighter than the room, like the light at the end of a tunnel. Pak had been kept in the dark for too long. Cursing the idiots behind him one last time, Pak felt exhilarated, felt his heartbeat thrusting through his hand as he turned the handle.
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