I looked around. I was in some sort of alleyway, a fairly typical one in the sense of tall buildings and fire escapes. The oddest part of the place was not the scenery, but the smell. It wasn't a bad smell, but a weird one with unusual spices and vegetables. I sniffed it again, remembering that even if the food smelled different, I hadn't had anything to eat since lunch that day, maybe four hours ago. I could stand some Korean food.
Of course, I looked down at my loose clothes and realized that I was the weirdest thing about the place. Koreans are all about dressing right in public -- no going on in pajama pants -- so too-large men's clothes was definitely out.
Turning around, I saw the electric light-cloud that signified the Protoss recall. As expected, it was Cheonha, teleported this time without the sofa chair and blanket. Poor Cheonha clutched her skinny arms, standing there shuddering as if it were colder than it was. Her clothes were old North Korean rags, and that was definitely not good Seoul streetwear either. Fortunately for both of us, Cheonha had the suitcase of won with her.
Cheonha didn't like the look I was apparently giving her (pity, I guess) and said something that was probably nasty. I'm not really sure what, because I haven't learned korean swears yet. Wasn't planning on it, to be honest.
Cheonha got over it pretty fast. "Chigum odee-eh?"
"Morugessawyo." I answered, peeping out from the alleyway. "Wait a minute...yeah! I know this place!"
I came out of the alleyway, to find myself in a place that didn't look too dissimilar. But this street I'd seen before. It was a quieter road (for Seoul) that ran between two busier streets. To the left, I knew it went over to the youth hostel I'd stayed at five years ago. To the right, if you went down far enough, you could run across a Dunkin Donuts and a Paris Baguette. Even further that way, if I remembered right, was the Bang Bang clothing store, a trendy place with posters and catalogs full of bad english. I love bad english.
Turning around, I saw the little convenience shop that confirmed everything. It was the same little place, with a register on a tiny counter, huge bags of Korean instant coffee I could see through the front window, and there right in front of the door a metal, heated display that showed some white buns full of pork or something. I'd meant to try them my first trip to Korea, but I never got the chance.
"I know where this is!" I exclaimed. "Namdaemun shijang-iehyo! Seoul-iehyo!"
Cheonha choked. "...Seoul?"
Cheonha had already joined me on the street and she could see the loaded convenience store for herself. She could see the pork buns in their stand, peacefully displaying themselves in public, without the shopkeeper worrying about starving children stealing them. Cheonha wandered a few steps, where she could see the end of the quiet road, where five cars drove by. That kind of traffic in ten seconds was about as much as Pyongyang saw in a whole day, and I didn't know if Cheonha had even been to North Korea's capital.
The North Korean could see, and smell, for herself. Only then did I remember the real trouble: Cheonha had been lied to all her life. In the North, they were told that everyone else in the world was more poor than North Korea (just imagine a world where that's true...), and now...well, no matter how much she'd believed that lie before, there was nothing to believe in now. She shuddered only once, refusing to look at me -- or at anything. Cheonha lowered herself slowly to the ground, leaning against the brick wall of a multiplex. She tried to sob, but she was already so tired all she could do was let her head drop unto her knees. Then she was still.
I stood there a minute, waiting for Cheonha to do something. When she didn't, I went to the brick wall and slowly settled myself next to her.
"Cheonha-shee...." that was as far as I go before remembering precisely how limited my korean was. I sighed and just kept going in english, for some reason. "Colleen...I sort of know what you've been into up in North Korea. Sort of. You've got a lot of false images about how the world is. Just...just don't hold onto them too tight. The people of the world are nothing like what you were told about them. This place, Seoul, is like what the North should have been, except not separate from the rest of Korea. This is what happens when people accept competition, capitalism, and just freedom in general. Oh, what am I saying? We're going to get you some clothes, some dinner, and then we're going to go to the cops, and then everything is going to be fine. Okay?"
"Okay?" Cheonha lifted her head to look up at me. "...chincha 'okay'?"
Uh....did she understand me or something? Oh well. There was only one way to answer. I nodded.
There really isn't much purpose in me describing what happened next. We just went to the Bang Bang store, which thankfully was more or less where I remembered it. It was really awkward to go around in our unfashionable threads, and Cheonha had somehow hurt her ankle, but it wasn't that far of a walk. People stared at her, but, awful as this may sound, Cheonha has a really good "cornered badger" glare that can make people look away in about two seconds. It's not all that bad an ability.
As much as I love everything about the Bang Bang shop, with colorful clothes, shiny shoes, and bad english galore, neither me nor Cheonha had all that good of a time. The store clerks were nice enough, but they sort of freaked her out somehow, and she didn't like it when they asked her questions. I'm pretty sure they were just asking things about what Cheonha was looking for, but she didn't like it. I took to distracting them whenever they got too close, and since none of them really knew english, they backed off a little.
Besides trying to find something for Cheonha, I had to find something for myself. Quite frankly, if you're not an Asian, there's few activities worse than pants-shopping that can make you feel ever so fat. Where I'm from, I'm pretty normal. Thus, I'm not an adorable Korean twig. Thankfully I found a couple of shirts that were large enough for me, but ended up stuck wearing the man's jeans. Yuck. Cheonha found shopping about as fun as walking barefoot on cobble, so as soon as I found some jeans that fit her, I grabbed a couple more of the same size and let that be it.
Cheonha didn't try on a lot of shirts, but I bought her some anyway, along with two pairs of shoes and a bag to hold her spare stuff. I took the tags off the stuff she was wearing so that I could pay for it. I'd already taken some of the won out of the suitcase while I was in the dressing room, because it'd probably look really creepy of me to pull some out of a suitcase full of cash.
It was really odd when Cheonha turned down my offer of food. We passed by another alleyway, except this one was full of vendors cooking various foods on the street. Both sides and a "lane" in the middle of the alley were all crammed chok full of little stands of various things, like kimchi stands and old women cooking fresh potato pancakes. Cheonha's eyes practically exploded as she passed by the fruit stands, where not only where there tons of fruit out, but also arranged in shapes like turkeys and roses.
Cheonha followed me as if I knew where I was going, but I didn't. I was looking for a police station or government building, because I don't really know where you're supposed to take smuggled North Koreans. Thankfully our random wandering brought us out to a place that looked like a police station. It was a stern, grey building, with a thing that looked like a police badge on the front wall.
"Well, let's go in." I tell Cheonha. "I sure hope someone in there knows english."
Cheonha walked up beside me and put her hand on her shoulder. And then she said something. My eyes widened with the blank stare of ignorance. She said it again, slowly this time. I blinked. Cheonha facepalmed. She walked out in front of me, getting between me and the police door. She said a few words, and did a lot of gesturing with her hands. She pointed to herself and said "na-nun" and then pointed to the police station -- "kayo". She then pointed to me, and crossed her arms.
"Um....na-nun..." I strained my memory for the right words. "an kayo?"
"Ne!" Cheonha almost laughed with relief. She took my hands and bowed her head slightly. "Kamsa-hamnidah. Anyongikahsehyo."
"Chon man-ehyo." I answered. "Anyongikehseyho."
She let go of my hand and went into the police station. Well, I was bumfuzzled. She didn't want me to go with her when she turned herself in. She trusted me enough to follow me when I wandered around Seoul, so I guess I can trust her to handle getting help from the South Korean government. I just wish I could have explained to her what was going on.
I suddenly grimaced, making a face so awkward that a Korean couple passing by began walking a little faster. Cheonha knew about Protoss! Korea's such a Starcraft-obsessed country, they'll think she's nuts if she starts talking about Aldaris. I turned back toward the police station and winced, wondering if I should go in. To Cheonha, all of Seoul is crazy simply for existing. She doesn't have the background to realize aliens are weirder than South Korea.
But I didn't go in. Cheonha must have had a reason for telling me to stay out here. Maybe she had some story in her head she'd already made up about how she got here, and if I walked in, I'd ruin it somehow. I have no clue what she could tell them that would make them accept that she'd escaped from North Korea and made it this far south without being seen even by South Korean border patrols. I was just going to have to trust her.
Besides, I want some ttoekbokki anyway.
With a sigh, I turn away from the door and start walking. Seoul's a pretty crowded place, with lots of tall buildings and crowded streets everywhere, and I'm not an urban person. As much as I wanted to go to that one familiar part of Namdaemun, I was now so dang turned around from the wandering that I had no clue where I was. Nerd girl ain't that urban. It didn't matter too much. If Aldaris wanted to find me again, he probably could just scan or something.
There wasn't much to do at that point but make my stomach shut up. The time change between Korea and America was so weird. Back home, it was early afternoon. Here, early morning was wasting away, and I really wanted a nap. But there was a street vendor nearby, and in one of the metal bins on his heated cart there was a familiar food: little cylinders of rice cake covered in a brilliant red hot sauce -- ttoekbokki. As I dug into my pocket for some won, I walked up to the stand and hoped that the brown stuff in the next bin over was some kind of beef.
For the next hour, not too much happened. I got some food and ate it on one of the little plastic seats around the vendor. And then nothing. Aldaris didn't call me. I started to wonder if maybe Al only could call me from this distance using the little breathing ring I used with the sevengills, but eventually figured that if Al could call Toby in New York without one, then he could call me now. What was going on in that ship?
It got to the point where I had to assume that Aldaris wasn't going to come and get me. The vendor was starting to look at me weird, so I got up and walked around as I thought about things. Even though it felt like forever, I'd really only been away from Fayetteville for maybe three or four hours. Since it takes about eighteen hours -- not counting layovers -- to fly from here to home, I was going to have a lot of explaining to do when I got to the American embassy. Yeah, it was the only place I could think of to go. As much as I rant on about Korea, I don't actually have any friends here. Maybe I should get one. It's not like they monitor email here like they do in China. Seriously, don't bring your personal technology to China unless you don't mind the Chinese government copying your hard drive.
So walking. Yeah. Nothing remarkable happened, so I'll just skip to half an hour later, when I'm completely lost and pondering on how many Korean shirts and toys for my nephews I can get with the money in the suitcase. I'd all but given up on Aldaris picking me up again when suddenly the now familiar sound of electric warping appeared around me. I'd been hiding in a corner while I peeked at the won, so I guess Aldaris didn't feel the need to warn me I was being recalled.
So it takes me completely by surprise when I look up and once again I'm on Aldaris' ship. I really hope that all this teleporting doesn't mess up my brainwaves or something. Anyway, I notice right off that the feel of the room was completely different. It got a lot darker. Aldaris refused to look at me, and stared straight at the screen before him.
"Uh....where are the guys?"
"Gone." The way he said it, I was worried for a minute. Thankfully, he clarified. "I have sent them back to Earth."
Aldaris sounded....melodramatic? The way he oppressively and firmly stared at that screen of my planet...well, it was clear he was trying his hardest to be objective. He wanted me off the ship, and he wanted me off now. But he didn't tell me to point out where on Earth I lived.
"Bethany..." he said slowly. "Is it true that at the end of Starcraft, Kerrigan has won?"
Aw crap. He'd been talking to John. Knowing how John acted out in front of me, there was no telling what he'd said to Aldaris. Oh no. I wish he'd waited until I was on the ship before talking to him.
"Just answer my question."
"At the end of Starcraft," I answer slowly. "Kerrigan defeats a combined force of UED, Dominion, and Protoss. She lets Mengsk go because it amuses her, she lets the 'Toss go because...I don't actually know why, and she kills all the UED guys. From what I am able to guess from the Zerg missions, Kerrigan was, to a degree, losing her desire to pursue universal conquest. Actually, she might have let the UED live too, only the fleets attacked her. I think she killed them so that the UED back on Earth wouldn't understand the true nature of the K Sector, and if they sent another force in, they wouldn't ally up with you guys and the Dominion."
I paused a minute. I hadn't really answered his question. "Um, the Protoss are sort of okay, though. Kerrigan doesn't try to kill you guys off. At that point, she'd already got revenge on all the Protoss that had ever pissed her off. The game implies she just got sick of killing people and decided to give everyone a 'respite'. I think it must have been because she pissed off Raynor."
"Raynor?" Aldaris acted surprised. "James Raynor died upon Aiur, allowing many of the Protoss to escape. Or did he manage an escape of his own?"
"Oh yeah, you wouldn't know." I realized. "Um, the game implies that Kerrigan saved him. And Fenix too, because he was hanging out with Raynor."
"Raynor is as blunt as a brick," Aldaris said thoughtfully. "And is not thus not easily deceived, or so I may guess from what little I know of him. He is of little use to her if he cannot be tricked into fulfilling whatever twisted plans she had in mind."
"Zeratul didn't tell you they used to work in the Dominion together? Didn't it come up at some point when you talked to him?"
"Neither of us had concerns at that time more pressing than our survival on Shakuras." Aldaris paused a minute, and a disgusted expression grew on his face. "Raynor and Kerrigan were...lovers?"
I couldn't blame Aldaris for being grossed out by that one. He'd never known Kerrigan as a human, and no amount of bad fanfiction would ever convince me that those mental images were anything but scarring.
I shook my head. "No, nothing like that. I don't know if this means anything, but Kerrigan's original voice actress in Starcraft said that they were just good friends. If she's wrong, then it simply never got to that point before Kerri got infested. Raynor just always felt like he was responsible for what happened to her."
"Oh." Even though he didn't say anything I could hear, I could tell that he had some choice expletives in mind dedicated to Raynor. This only distracted him momentarily, and soon enough his grim gaze was back on me. "John...he said that...do I really die?"
I don't have to say any more. Aldaris turns away bitterly, only to be confronted by the planet on the viewscreen. Even looking at the human planet offended him. With a quick motion and a clenched fist, Aldaris snapped off the screen.
"Well, the good news is that when you get back, you can always prevent your death." I say optimistically. "And besides, here you are, but farther than that, exactly how accurate is Starcraft? We have no way of knowing what details are real and which are not. Well, besides what you can tell us. If you're up to seeing the game, at any point."
"I suppose I should." Aldaris muttered. "I do not want to."
"Eh, don't let John manipulate you." I went over and sat on the chairs in the back. "He's just cranky because he thinks you're going to blow up Earth or something. I don't really get his reaction."
"Hmph." Aldaris finally turned back to me, more calm but still suspicious. "Bethany, what exactly is this game about? John told me little, and I would not ask him more."
"Well, I'd rather you see most of the content for yourself, because I'm not all that confident in my ability to describe what happened adequately. You've got to make your own judgements on it." I think a second. "The game itself, if you put it really simply, is just about the Zerg, 'Toss, and humans duking it out for the K Sector. It begins with the Protoss destroying Chau Sara, and ends -- well, the first Starcraft game ends with Tassadar's sacrifice. From what you've told me about Raynor, I'm guessing you saw that happen already."
"Tassadar destroying the Overmind?" Aldaris nodded. "Yes, I saw the battle footage."
"Okay, so Brood War, the expansion set of Starcraft, picks up right after that when the Protoss are getting away from Aiur. It ends with...well, with Kerrigan pwning everybody, but then deciding to wait. It's never specified what's she's waiting for. Presumably something human remains in her, and she's not willing to kill anyone else, at least until she sorts herself out. The Zerg side versus the human. When you see the game itself, you can figure that part for yourself."
Aldaris said nothing, patiently waiting for me to continue. He raised an eyebrow at my confusion. Huh, I guess John didn't tell Aldaris how he died. I was expecting him to react to me mentioning Kerrigan. Instead Aldaris just looked at me funny. Great, now at some point I have to tell him. Yay.
"So yeah," I say before the pause gets too awkward. "I don't know if you care, but the game's pretty popular. Especially in South Korea. Um, it was made by Blizzard Entertainment, also known for making Diablo and Warcraft. Of the three games, I'm really happy it was someone from Starcraft. A Diablo character would have been horrible. There's all kinds of monsters and crap in those games."
Aldaris is not amused, and his stare suggests I get back on topic.
"They made Starcraft on a break from Warcraft, back in 1995. Brood War came out in 1998-"
"Stop!" Aldaris froze. "Say that again."
"Brood War came out in 1998...?"
"Last I heard, it was 2501 by human reckoning." Aldaris practically gasped. "This game you speak of was produced five hundred years in the past?"
"Uh, no, it was eighteen years in the past. It's 2013 now."
"The past..." Aldaris gradually straightened in his chair, almost as if he were floating. "I have become trapped in the past?"
"That I'm not so sure about. If this is really the past of the Starcraft era, then you have to wonder why nobody then remembers anything about the game. We know plenty about five hundred years back from now, and since we have computer databases, figuring out about the game would be as simple as entering the word 'Protoss' in a search engine."
"It remains unlikely that your people would have stored information on the vessels they sent to the K Sector."
"Well, yeah, but you figure the UED would have at least figured it out. I guess technically it's possible that the entire game was forgotten about, but somehow I doubt nowadays would have turned into those. Starcraft is really distopian -- that means it's more gloomy than realistic -- and I don't think everyone's going to turn into a bunch of rednecks."
Aldaris didn't respond. He turned sideways to look at his computer, and half-heartedly punched a few buttons. Evidently whatever data came up on the screen caught his attention, because as soon as he saw those green Protoss figures, he turned all the way a round and started to type some more. The computer showed more data, scrolling downwards as more filled the screen. At the bottom, some Protoss letters flashed, and Aldaris stopped typing. He just stared at the screen, thinking intently, and after a moment began to rub his forehead. Evidently he wasn't happy about what he saw.
"Oh hey, you probably should see the game." I mention. "I mean, do you want to?"
"Okay, cool." I chattered away merrily. "I've got vanilla and Brood War, and I can get footage of Starcraft 2 from the internet. Um, I doubt your computer can read cds, and even if it could, your computer is probably way too fast. Playing games on too fast computers is buggy. Hm....if we could hook up my laptop to your viewscreen....hm. Oh wait, yeah! Do you have a flat, blank wall somewhere on this ship? Worst case scenario we can hang up a sheet or something. My dad can get a projector from his work, and I'm pretty sure a USB cable can hook that up. Now all I'll need to do is figure out how I can get a power source for my laptop, and we'll be good to go!"
Aldaris wasn't paying me any attention. He lowered his hand as if to press another button on his computer, but in a moment of irritation, he just buried his face in his hands. Apparently the computer wasn't telling him anything he wanted to know. I bit my lip. Poor guy.
"Hey um, Aldaris..." I tried not to be too nervous as I spoke. "I'm sorry I'm being so mean."
That got his attention. The confused alien turned around, finding me all sheepish and whatnot.
"I haven't been thinking about this from your perspective." I explain. "I'm all happy because I got to go into space, meet an alien, swim with the sevengills, and go to Korea again. For you it's been nothing but getting zapped to the planet of the weirdo midgets and messing with an unhelpful computer. You haven't been having nearly as much fun as I have, and I'm not being sensitive to your feelings."
Aldaris blinked. As he spoke again, his voice was heavy, as if exhausted from the day's events. "...Fun. You could have died any number of ways in these short hours, and you say you have had 'fun'. The chances of my malfunctioning recall unit turning your mind into a slew of organic matter were remarkably high."
"What really?" I couldn't help it. I had to laugh. "Wow, that's pretty dang funny. Well, it's no big deal. I'm not going to die. Trust me, I've had this conversation with God before."
Aldaris didn't bother responding. He simply brought up the picture of Earth back up on the computer, focusing in on the Western hemisphere. I guess he already knew that's where America is, because John would have had to tell Aldaris where he lived to get off of the ship. The Protoss didn't have to say anything for me to know it was my turn. He simply watched me and waited.
"I'm on the eastern side." I pointed. "See right where the land bends right there...wow, looks so different from up here. I live a couple of hours from the coast driving..." Aldaris zoomed in the screen at this point. "Okay, thanks. Hey, I recognise that. That's Fayetteville, I think right over by the coliseum. So if --"
Okay, I was really starting to get sick of all the teleporting. To make it worse, even though it turned out that I did know where it was, I didn't have a car with me, and walking would take at least two hours, by my reckoning. And since I'd never walked that far before, I was probably wrong; it was going to be longer. Well, the road near me was the only way I could guess to go.
I suddenly dug in my pocket, and as my fingers met with paper, I sighed, remembering that these were my pants. Even if I did have a dollar, it would have been in the pants I was wearing this morning, not the ones I was wearing now. All the money there was just won. Getting a ride on the bus wasn't going to happen.
I looked down at my feet. The suitcase full of won was there. Weird. I guess Aldaris wanted me to have it, though I can't guess what I'm going to do with a suitcase full of foreign money I didn't earn.
He should have kept this. There's no telling when he might need some money. I grin, picking up the suitcase. Hey, I'm an accounting major. Maybe I'll just hold onto this for him. It beats trying to explain this cash to the feds.