First loves were better left in the past. Even if she’d gone to the trouble of seeking him out, she would’ve been disappointed. Back then, she was a kid who knew nothing about the real world, and so was Minso. It would be easy enough to see in their old photos. She didn’t have to look at them to know. Minso would no doubt be pictured sporting what now seemed like an old-fashioned hairstyle, an old-fashioned outfit, and a boyish grin. Beaming artlessly. Eunsoo found herself missing that artless grin.
“How do you know Minso?” she asked.
Byungsoo looked at her and continued uncertainly, “I’m not sure if I can say I know him or not. It’s a long story. Do you have a moment?”
“How long would it take?”
“Maybe five minutes? Ten?”
Eunsoo hesitated for a second, but then led Byungsoo to the break room.
“Could you wait here? I just have to wrap up what I was doing, I’ll be right back.” Eunsoo’s heart pounded. How could she possibly forget Minso? They may have drifted apart, but how could she have forgotten the boy?
Her memory skipped back to the day she moved into Beanstalk Tower five years ago. It was a warm day in May, at the height of spring. The day she crossed the Beanstalk national border for the first time, having landed an internship on Level 599. Minso was walking behind her, pulling her luggage. They stopped before the crosswalk.
“You should go now.”
“I’ll walk you to the border.”
Minso gazed at her. Unable to meet his eyes, she looked down at her toes without saying anything.
Minso said he felt like this would be it, once they said goodbye.
“You know that’s not gonna happen,” said Eunsoo.
The cars stopped. Eunsoo and Minso had barely reached the middle of the crosswalk when the green light began flashing to rush them. Slowly, Minso trailed after Eunsoo.
“Hurry!” she pressed. “Or you’ll get hit!”
She grew frustrated watching Minso feebly cross the road.
“I’m not going far away, I’ll be here. Just twenty minutes away.”
“You won’t be out often.”
“I got in, I might as well work hard.”
“You won’t even get to call.”
“Like I said, it’s for security reasons.”
“What security bans interns from calls and emails?”
“Look, Minso, that’s the way things are here. Everyone accepts that. They can teach interns the business because the security is so tight. Otherwise, they’d never teach me. I’d rather hang out with you, but think of my age. If I did everything I wanted, when would I ever get anywhere?”
“A year’s still too long.”
“You were in the army for two years.”
“I didn’t sign up for it.”
“Do you think I’m going because I want to?”
But the truth was, she did want to go—badly. E & K was the best satellite design firm in the world. Newbie designers like Eunsoo would kill to work there.
“Then don’t go,” said Minso.
“Minso, I told you. In the satellite biz, so long as you have the name E & K on your resume, you’ll get hired even if you forgot to write your own name.”
“Even if all you do at E & K is make copies?”
“Of course! Even if all I do is make coffee the E & K way.”
Recalling these old memories, Eunsoo hastily wrapped up her work and hurried back to the breakroom. As soon as she saw Byungsoo, she casually asked what she’d been dying to know.
“So, what’s Minso up to these days?”
Byungsoo’s face suddenly darkened. He said, in what sounded like a rehearsed tone, “He’s gone missing. In the Taklamakan Desert. For the past eight hours.”
“His jet was shot down. The military is tracking him right now.”
Was he asleep or unconscious? Dreams kept mingling with reality. He knew he was in a barren desert, but when he opened his eyes, he saw a long stretch of shade. His eyes followed the shade and found Beanstalk. The wind blew sand as Beanstalk eroded before him. No, that wasn’t possible. It must be an illusion.
In Minso’s eyes, Beanstalk was another Tower of Babel. He didn’t like that Eunsoo had found a job there. It was only an internship, but Eunsoo seemed to think moving into Beanstalk would make all her dreams come true.
It wouldn’t. Beanstalk was not welcoming to unestablished immigrant workers like Eunsoo. Ignoring the fact that the entire building sat on foreign territory, Beanstalk didn’t grant visa-free entries even to that country’s citizens.
Minso thought back to that day five years ago, the last time he saw Eunsoo. They exited the subway and walked another block before they reached the crosswalk at Beanstalk Intersection. Cars stopped and the lights changed. They had barely reached the middle of the crosswalk when the green light began flashing to rush them. Minso felt a stab of frustration. Eunsoo didn’t need to be rushed; she’d leave soon anyway. She’d cross that border without hesitation, maintaining her pace. Eunsoo was that kind of girl. Once she set her mind on something, she did it.
You think you’re the only one? I’m like that too.
Minso was suddenly resentful. Eunsoo’s ultimatum was unfair. She’d left him no choice, having already decided to break up with him.
“If you disagree, we’ll just have to break up.”
But even if he didn’t disagree, he knew they’d break up. Letting Eunsoo go with a smile was the same as a breakup for him.
That place was going to wear her down. The thought of sending Eunsoo into that devil’s den! He looked up. Beanstalk Tower loomed before him, too tall for him to see to the top. He knew Beanstalk wasn’t pure evil, yet it somehow irked him. Its territory was a mere building, but it had the gall to exercise internationally accepted sovereignty, giving it the infuriating right to draw a strict border between his house and its 674 stories, when all that lay in between was a twenty-minute bus ride. Still, it bristled when referred to as the Tower of Babel.
“What bastards, right?”
Eunsoo nodded awkwardly at Minso’s words.
Minso looked up at the sky amid these flashbacks. The sun was already high above the horizon. He must’ve broken his leg. Or had he hurt his neck? He couldn’t move at all. Nor could he see any shade to rest under.
He was a fighter pilot working for that nation of bastards, and was returning from his bombing mission when he was struck down by a surface-to-air missile. If the enemy found him first he would be in deep trouble. Unfortunately, the odds of being found by the Beanstalk Defense Force first seemed close to zero. Since the main bulk of the Defense Force was stationed on Level 24 of Beanstalk, the point of his crash was probably closer to enemy lines than Beanstalkian forces.
I sure am one unlucky bastard.
He only had six months left of service. He’d planned to spend two of those months on vacation. Had he made it past that half a year, he would’ve obtained Beanstalk citizenship. After enduring four long years, he was short of just six months of luck and landed in this mess.
“I hear Eunsoo got a full-time offer from E & K. She’s going to settle down in Beanstalk. Didn’t she consult you?” Minso remembered someone asking him. Of course, this was news to him. He had lost touch with Eunsoo three months before. They’d gotten into a seemingly small fight but had not talked since. Eunsoo did wither away in the end. She eroded into sand, and blew over to him in the dry wind.
The hot, sandy wind jolted him awake. Judging by his blackouts, he must’ve lost more blood than he thought. But as he felt no pain, he guessed he had hurt his neck or spine.
He would be in trouble if the enemy found him first, but in deeper trouble if he wasn’t found at all. He had a feeling it would come to that.
“It’s a long story.”
Eunsoo listened quietly to Byungsoo talk. He went on, “I don’t know Mr. Kim Minso personally. The first time I heard his name was four years ago. Back then I was . . . ”
Four years ago, Byungsoo was an administrative officer on the city’s steering committee and an ordinary thirty-five-year-old family man. Born and raised in Beanstalk, he genuinely loved his city. He found it deeply irritating whenever Beanstalk was compared to the Tower of Babel. Admittedly, Beanstalk was something of a symbol of modern capitalism where every inch and moment on its territory was commercialized, but it wasn’t a devil’s den either.
“People who’ve never lived here have no clue.”
Everyone in the country next door considered Beanstalk cancerous. Although the country’s capital and Beanstalk had a border between them, they shared the same language and racial makeup and practically formed one society. Except Beanstalk was the especially commercial and inhuman side, in the country next door’s opinion at least.
Byungsoo disagreed. A completely urbanized nation didn’t mean life there was dry or lacking in humanity. In a society of high anonymity, there formed a kind of trust that only existed between anonymous people, and in that sense Beanstalk was a city-state with impressive levels of trust in others. Locals usually pointed to the Blue Mailboxes beside the elevator stops as evidence.
Byungsoo was no exception. As the city’s Public Relations Officer, he went on frequent business trips across the border to persuade people that Beanstalk wasn’t a cancer. He’d bring up the Blue Mailboxes on these occasions.
“Mail deliveries are free in Beanstalk. You might say that makes no sense, when we even charge people for going just a stop on our elevators. But oddly enough, sending mail is the one thing you can do for free in Beanstalk. It’s not subsidized by the government, either. The city has a separate postal system, but we don’t use it unless we’re mailing important documents because it’s a paid service. Instead, we just address the package nice and clear, go to the nearest elevator stop, and pop it in the mailbox. A Blue Mailbox looks like a bookcase and has—well, every neighborhood is different, but—it has fifty slots, give or take. Each slot is labeled by floor number, say from floor A to B. We put our mail in the relevant slot, and voilà! It reaches the destination of its own accord.”
“Is this supposed to be a ghost story?”
“Nope. Elevator passengers deliver the mail. Before they get on the elevator, they check the Blue Mailbox and take any mail going to the floor they’re headed to. When they arrive, they drop it off at the mailbox next to the elevator. Then the people who live on that floor come by and sort everyone else’s mail into more detailed addresses. Whoever’s heading there keeps on delivering. Not everyone does it, but some people obviously do, because the letters get delivered.”
“Wouldn’t there be a lot of delivery glitches then?”
“Not very many, actually. Beanstalk Tacit Power Research did a study of it. While there is some difference among the districts, apparently 93.57 percent of mail on average gets delivered within two days. Even letters from across the border reach their destination 94.74 percent of the time.”
“But I don’t know if you can trust super important deliveries with that.”
“Ah, the important letters should be sent through the paid postal service. Which doesn’t mean Blue Mailboxes are meaningless, they’re not mainly used for work purposes anyway.”
“Then what for?”
“To talk. To ask after one another, share news, express feelings. Not to talk about money or lawsuits, but about people and their lives. Tens of thousands of these letters go around Beanstalk every day. That’s why Beanstalk is not the Tower of Babel. Because our language never split in two.”
“Even so, how can you have private conversations over a channel like that?”
“We trust each other. Absolute faith, only possible in a country with an urbanization level of 100 percent. In Beanstalk, we trust individuals.”
At this, Byungsoo’s audience would be struck silent. His chest would swell with pride.
Then one evening, after dragging his tired body home on Level 599, Byungsoo tried to find receipts for meeting expenses from his last business trip across the border. As he rummaged through a briefcase reserved for business trips, his eyes fell on a strange bundle of paper.
Letters. They were from the Blue Mailbox. He must’ve forgot he put them in his briefcase and brought them home.
His heart sank. This was a misdelivery. When was his last business trip? He did a mental count and realized it was over four months ago. He doubted the bundle contained any important letters, but something gnawed at the back of his mind. He pored over the letters. He came across a postcard addressed to a Cho Eunsoo at the E & K Design Department, sent by a man named Kim Minso from the country next door.
I’m sorry. I want to apologize. These past ten days I’ve thought hard about what you said, and I admit I was being too impatient. Okay. Let’s start over, like you said. Love you.
Oh no. Byungsoo’s face flushed.
Why on earth did this guy send such an important message with the Blue Mailbox! Why didn’t he tell her in person? He could’ve told her over the phone at least.
This is not my fault, Byungsoo thought.
But it obviously was. To be fair, it was the sender’s fault too. At every mailbox location, signs were invariably put up outlining instructions and disclaimers. One of the finer points included: “On average, 6 percent of mail or more may get lost, in which case the sender shall assume sole legal responsibility. Various records, original documents that cannot be reproduced, or important letters containing personal information must be sent via the paid postal service.”
I mean, when the misdelivery rate is as high as six percent, what was this dolt thinking, letting strangers handle such an important letter?
Byungsoo put the postcard back into his briefcase and went out into the living room. He sat on the couch and lapsed into thought. He tried to tell himself this was no big deal. Wanting to clear his head he switched on the TV. The award ceremony of some film festival was on, and a dog that had just won a Special Recognition Award hopped onto the stage.
“Are you making an acceptance speech?”
The host’s quip drew a roar of laughter from the audience. Byungsoo absently watched the scene. His eyes were staring intently at the TV, but his ears didn’t take in any sound. In the end, he returned to his room and fished the postcard out of his briefcase again.
Ms. Cho Eunsoo
E & K
Byungsoo jumped to his feet and hurried out of the house. He set out for the East District, where the E & K office was located. The postcard was long overdue, but better late than never.
Hang on, what should I say when I see her? Should I just stick the postcard in the mailbox and run for it? But that could make matters worse. Their situation might’ve changed by now.
Five minutes later, Byungsoo began to have second thoughts. The situation might be resolved already as four months had passed. There were plenty of channels to communicate other than the Blue Mailbox. If Kim Minso didn’t receive a reply after sending a message like that, he would’ve tried to contact her some other way. Unless he was stupid, he would’ve gotten hold of her however he could. He was bound to, assuming he wasn’t a fool.
Byungsoo turned back home. It was only when he reached his house when something occurred to him.
What if he really was a fool?
Byungsoo drifted off to sleep. He woke up the next morning and went to work. He spent the day without thinking about much, until it was almost time to leave the office and the postcard crossed his mind.
Byungsoo grabbed his bags as soon as the clock struck six. He dashed to the elevator and scoured the Blue Mailbox. The incoming mail section was packed with letters. He set about sorting each letter by address, causing passersby to give him a warm, appreciative smile. Byungsoo didn’t smile back. There were no letters from Kim Minso. He did spot a few international packages, so the letters in the mailbox right across the border had been collected.
Byungsoo went back the next day. The moment he got off work, he rushed to the mailbox on Level 599. He wanted to check it before anyone else did. Fortunately, no one seemed to have gone through it yet. As he had the day before, he sorted the incoming mail and stacked it into different slots according to the delivery address. But again, not a single letter was going to Cho Eunsoo.
Byungsoo told himself this was no cause for alarm. The absence of letters didn’t necessarily mean the couple had split up. Cho Eunsoo could’ve changed jobs or gone on a business trip, or a letter could’ve been delivered in the morning. Even if it hadn’t, Byungsoo couldn’t jump to conclusions about their relationship status simply because they’d gone two days without corresponding.
A week went by, then a fortnight, and still no letters from Kim Minso.
“Ms. Yang Hyunmi, you know the Blue Mailbox? How do young people use it? Not everyone uses it to send letters and things to someone they’re dating, right?”
“Actually, everyone does.”
“Why? Why not email or call?”
“You’re asking me sir? The city PR Officer? If we don’t use it, we’d be totally out of the loop these days. What else would we use it for other than dating?”
“No, I meant there could be exceptions. Maybe one in ten people.”
“More like one in thirty.”
“You think so?”
Byungsoo’s fears appeared to be confirmed. The situation was worse than he had expected.
That night, Byungsoo went to see Lee Gyung-hwan. Lee was a private detective he’d once hired to spy on his wife.
“What a pleasant surprise, sir. Is it your wife again . . . ?”
“No, not her. It’s these two.”
Byungsoo held out the postcard from Kim Minso. The detective examined it in silence. Then with a sly smirk, he said, “This must be very trying for you, sir. First your wife and now your lady friend . . . ”
“My lady friend? What are you talking about?”
Another two weeks passed. Having paid the detective an advance with every last penny of his slush fund, Byungsoo was seized by misgivings. It was normal for couples to separate. Young people especially—they hooked up just so they could break up, so to speak. Of course, he couldn’t say for certain true love was completely extinct. That was a matter of probability. The odds of Minso and Eunsoo, of all people, being a pair of star-crossed lovers who’d found true love was perhaps thirty to one at best.
The thought made Byungsoo want to kick himself. What was the point of spending all this money? In truth, the amount of money wasn’t a big problem. The problem was that the money had been laundered.
It would take me at least five years to build up that kind of capital again. Do I really need to go to all this trouble? Even if I clear up the misunderstanding, they won’t live happily ever after anyway.
Byungsoo considered his own married life. It was lousy. But whenever he remembered his delivery blunder, his face still burned with embarrassment. He had no choice but to straighten this mess out.
Yet another week passed. When he revisited Lee Gyung-hwan’s office, the detective chuckled unpleasantly, “Your lady friend sure was an eyeful.”
Byungsoo took the papers back home. His job required a happy family, but his wife was never home unless required. Then, in times of need, she would come back and play the part of the good wife and mother. She didn’t do a slapdash job of it either; in fact, her performance was impeccable. Byungsoo was at once impressed and taken aback on more than one occasion.
“What is it you want?”
His wife wouldn’t reply. She would simply leave the house without a word.
That day was no different. Byungsoo walked into a house that didn’t exude an ounce of warmth. Maybe this was why Beanstalk was the Tower of Babel.
He opened the envelope from Lee. On top of the enclosed papers he saw a photograph of Eunsoo, who looked battered and burnt-out. Another photo showed Minso looking as if he were giving up on life.
I found nothing on them. There has been zero contact.
That was the conclusion Lee Gyung-hwan had drawn. But Byungsoo was even more troubled by Kim Minso’s recent activity.
He recently applied for a contractor job in the Beanstalk Navy. His application was for an additional four-year enlistment and overseas tour. Since he finished service in his own country, he will likely be awarded extra points. As you may be aware, applicants for Beanstalk citizenship can earn extra points of 27 percent by completing four years of overseas service. This appears to be what Kim Minso is after.This was utter stupidity. The Navy? When he’d already served his full military term?
Kim Minso seemed bent on getting into Beanstalk at whatever cost. It was foolishness. Could his heart stay foolish after four years? Would Cho Eunsoo even be in Beanstalk then?
Surely not. Surely, things would change. He couldn’t go on being twenty-five when he turned twenty-nine. The twenty-five in him would wither into nothing before the four years were up. Only then would Beanstalk grant him citizenship. Wasn’t this the sort of attitude that earned Beanstalk the nickname “Babel”?
Byungsoo put the papers down and went into his wife’s room. Thick dust covered what should have been signs of life. The residue from his wife weathering away. He sat alone in his wife’s empty room for a long time, pondering. If he and his wife had somehow managed to communicate each other’s feelings on time and avoid misunderstanding, would this room still be empty?
Argh, what am I getting myself into for this fool?
Byungsoo called up his old classmate who was working in the navy and offered a few words of “advice” on hiring contractors.
“Kim Minso? Sure, hiring him isn’t a problem, but what’s up? You’re not one to ask these kinds of favors. He a friend of yours?”
“Not in the least. Just do me this favor, alright?”
This was all Byungsoo could do to help.
But had he made the right choice? He kept thinking, I shouldn’t have helped him get the pilot position. Flying is supposed to be much safer but. The poor bastard has the worst luck.
Byungsoo’s reverie was interrupted by Eunsoo:
“Where in Taklamakan is he lost?”
“They’re trying to find his exact location.”
“So you don’t know yet. If he’s been shot down, does that mean he might already be dead?”
Byungsoo nodded in lieu of answering. He added, “But there’s a good chance he’s alive. The faster the rescue team gets there, the higher his chances of survival. Trouble is, it doesn’t look like rescue operations will start any time soon.”
“Why not? A jet’s been downed.”
“The Beanstalk Defense Force isn’t supposed to be there. If it acts now, it would essentially be admitting to a preemptive strike attempt on that missile base.”
“But how can it not do anything when one of its own men crashed in the middle of the desert?”
“Well, technically speaking, Mr. Kim Minso isn’t considered a Beanstalk soldier. He’s an employee of a defense contractor hired by the Beanstalk Navy, not a pilot belonging to the Navy itself . . . ”
Eunsoo opened her mouth to say something, but stopped and fiddled with her teacup.
“So, what can I do for you now?” she asked finally.
“I wanted to give you this.”
Byungsoo held out the postcard Minso had written four years ago to Eunsoo.
“This is what I told you about. It’s very late, but I wanted to give this to you now rather than later, which is probably why I’m here.”
Byungsoo couldn’t bring himself to mention that he was the one who made Minso a Navy aviator. He had come to tell her as such, but he sensed that she didn’t want to hear that sort of information.
Eunsoo peered at the postcard. The handwriting was unmistakably Minso’s. An old memory rushed back to her.
“Eunsoo. I’m scared you’re going to waste away.”
“Oh, please not that again. Why do you keep going on about that? Tell me, did I ever say I want to break up?”
“It’s just, I feel like that’s what’s gonna happen if you go there.”
Eunsoo was irritated by those words back then. By Minso’s expression when he said them, by his seemingly theatrical, dejected voice. Why did his apologies not feel like apologies? At the time, everything he said seemed like lies.
“Cut it out, Minso! You’re acting heartbroken to guilt trip me.”
Eunsoo remembered saying that to Minso. What was she thinking? What exactly did she want to hear? Even now, Minso was trapped inside the postcard, apologizing endlessly.
Eunsoo told Byungsoo, “Please don’t beat yourself up. Even if this postcard had been delivered on time, I’m sure we’d have gotten into another fight. We had so many reasons to fight. We didn’t break up because of this postcard. I’ve always thought we slowly drifted apart; I didn’t even realize there might’ve been another reason until you mentioned it. Besides I’m engaged to someone now, and I’m not so unhappy as to desperately wish things had worked out with Minso.”
Eunsoo meant it. She was a full-time satellite designer at E & K now. She’d gotten her dream job, and she had met great people. Beanstalk had not disappointed her. One undelivered postcard didn’t change that.
“As for Minso, I’m sorry I can’t be of any help.”
Byungsoo exchanged courtesies with Eunsoo and stood up, feeling let down. He regretted meeting her.
What did I originally come here to do? I came to pass something on to her, but what? I’m sure it wasn’t just this postcard. I wanted to pass it on before the body’s found.
Byungsoo returned to his office. Minso’s crash point was still unknown. It was because the jet he’d flown out on wasn’t equipped with the navy’s tracking device. Even if a full-scale search party was sent out immediately, there was a slim chance of finding the pilot before it was too late.
The Navy meant to abandon Minso. No, it as good as gave up on him already. The Defense Force had no intention of deploying any units. Instead, it seemed to have scouted around the surrounding region and secured civilian rescue helicopters that didn’t bear the Beanstalk military logo. It had only rounded up six such helicopters, which was nowhere near enough to search the entire Taklamakan Desert in one or two days.
The situation was in the enemy’s favor. According to intelligence reports, Cosmomafia had already claimed the routes leading into the area. It was a militant group based in Russia that had the missile technology to intercept satellites. It had recently started attacking not only military but civilian satellites, emerging as the greatest threat to Beanstalk’s biggest industry of satellite services. The Beanstalk Defense Force’s official stance on Cosmomafia was to always strike first. But if it found any Cosmomafian anti-satellite missile bases in a country banning pre-emptive strikes, it couldn’t send Navy fighter jets to bomb them.
In this case, the Navy hired personnel through civilian defense contractors. Mercenary pilots were recruited as leased employees who would work for Beanstalk but never belong to its forces. This was the Navy’s way of saying it would hold zero responsibility for problems that might arise. In short, the Navy didn’t plan on saving Minso from the outset. It was casting him aside, according to some rule it created seven years ago.
“We can’t take risks when we don’t know if he’s still alive or not.”
“Shouldn’t you say you can’t give up because you don’t know if he’s still alive or not?”
“Well, it’s not like he’s our citizen.”
The Beanstalkian constitution didn’t limit the Defense Force’s responsibilities to protecting the lives and property of citizens only, since Beanstalk was originally not a nation. It used to be just a building. Initially, the Defense Force’s duty was not to categorize people into nationalities but to ensure the safety of both residents and visitors. That was the Beanstalk way. That’s why Beanstalk was not Babel.
But not anymore, it seemed. The Beanstalk Byungsoo knew now was mere promotional rhetoric.
There was no way to turn Beanstalk back to what it had been. Resourceful civil servant though he was, Byungsoo couldn’t conjure up on a moment’s notice the enormous amount of equipment needed to rescue a pilot downed in foreign territory. The most he’d managed to do was to rent two firefighting helicopters for two days.
If only I could try finding him by satellite.
But the Navy would never release a military satellite image. Its official position on the incident was: “We are not aware of any such occurrence.” Even if Byungsoo obtained the image, poring over a photograph of the entire Taklamakan Desert unaided by professional analysts was a reckless undertaking that may not even be worth the try.
“I should get the military to act.”
“I’ve no clue.”
Byungsoo rang up an aide to a congressman who served on the Defense Committee, reached out to his newspaper contacts, and explained the situation to activists at private organizations whom he’d met several times, but their responses were the same. There was little they could do. The situation was impossible to resolve unless the government stepped in.
“You know during World War I, the German fleet never even got as far as the North Sea. But if you look at the British navy’s internal documents, there was serious talk of losing the war against Germany. Why? Although the mainland wasn’t under attack, British trade routes were almost cut off because of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare. It was called ‘unrestricted’ but really, there were only thirty-odd German U-boats out in the Atlantic. Same with Beanstalk. Are U-boats more expensive, or are satellites? Beanstalk isn’t going to change its position, it’ll never send out a rescue team,” said the congressional aide, who was Byungsoo’s old college friend. Byungsoo clenched his fists.
Eunsoo sat still glaring at the tabletop, her fists clenched.
“Cho Eunsoo, aren’t you gonna eat? Is the salad talking to you?”
“What? Oh, sorry. I was thinking about something.”
“So it’s today huh? The day that supposedly comes around once a quarter—Cho Eunsoo’s Thinking Day.”
“Ha ha, very funny.”
Eunsoo’s mind wandered again. Her fiancé, Jinsu, didn’t push the conversation either. How was Minso now? Was he alive? As he’d fallen in the middle of the desert, perhaps being alive was the more painful outcome.
Why did he enlist when he didn’t even like the military? He had come close to deserting when he was a conscript. And when did he learn to fly? To think that he’d trained only to get himself into this wreck. Strange. It wasn’t like Minso at all to behave this way. Why? Was it really because of that postcard? If so, it would be her fault. No, it couldn’t be, he wasn’t stupid. Wait. She remembered he was.
“Can you rent me a satellite?”
“Why? For how long?”
“How long? I dunno, maybe twenty seconds?”
“What do you need it for?”
“I want to take a photograph. Of the entire Taklamakan Desert. It has to be high resolution.”
“Sure. I’ll look into it tomorrow.”
“I need it now.”
“The sooner the better.”
“Okay so you need it ASAP, for twenty seconds. Is this for personal use? I’m guessing it’s not for work.”
“Nope. Is it expensive?”
“There are expensive ones. Hmm, let me check the timetable. Would the resolution for tourist site images be enough? You wouldn’t be able to see faces close-up though. But it’d be affordable. And any satellite passing over there shouldn’t be booked at this hour.”
“Okay. Can you rent it with your employee discount?”
“Aye yai yai, I save a damsel in distress only to have her rob me? I can see you’re up to something alright. Taklamakan, huh. What is it this time? Are you stalking an ex that got away or something?”
When Eunsoo nodded, Jinsu snickered.
Eunsoo phoned Byungsoo. She told him about the satellite image. Byungsoo listened quietly for a while, but then interrupted, “I can get tourist site photos on my end too. But we need a much higher res image to run it through a computer. Even if the jet were in one piece, making out its shape might be next to impossible depending on how it’s positioned on the ground. As we don’t have much to go on except smashed bits and pieces, imagine how much harder that would be. Even more so with a blurry image.”
“Can’t computers still read the image? Is there no other way? What if we were to go over it manually?”
“We can do that, except we’d need to set a hundred people on it for five or so years to find him. These aren’t exact numbers, but you get my point. We’ll find him eventually, but who’s to know when?”
“Let’s get a higher res image, then.”
“I’ve been trying to, but they wouldn’t give it to me. The Navy, I mean.” After ending the call, Eunsoo asked Jinsu if Byungsoo’s information was accurate.
“’Course. He’s right. Even if you can get a sharper image, it’d be useless without the software to analyze it. The military owns that technology, so you wouldn’t be able to tinker with it, either. You’re really cooking up some scheme, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Eunsoo’s shoulders slumped. “Because of some dummy.”
“I see, this is for a dummy. Something tells me I’m not supposed to ask who this dummy is. Anyway, you don’t need me to rent the tourism satellite anymore, right?”
Eunsoo replied, “Actually, I do.”
It was early in the evening. Eunsoo came back home and switched on her computer. Then, with a satellite image viewer, she pulled up a picture of the Taklamakan Desert. She zoomed in on a section and examined the image in greater detail. She needed more detail, just a little more. She zoomed in as far as she could. The portion of the file that showed onscreen grew smaller and smaller until it became a tiny dot.
Nothing was there. The Taklamakan was a sand desert. Ancient oasis cities or winding silk roads might lie somewhere in its midst, but Eunsoo couldn’t know where just by looking at the picture. All she saw were sand dunes.
Eunsoo zoomed out until the whole image was visible on the screen. This was a picture of Minso. She had no idea where he was, but she knew he was definitely in the picture.
What are you doing out there, dummy.
The phone blared. Eunsoo was filled with foreboding.
“Hey it’s me. Is everything okay? What’s up with your voice?” It was her friend. A sense of anticlimax washed over her.
“Why do you sound so startled? Were you doing something naughty?”
“Nothing naughty per se, but I was looking at a picture of my ex.”
“Oho, enjoying your last days of being single, I see.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Is he cute? Pretend you’re not his ex and post the pic online. I want to see.”
“You do? I wonder if you’d be able to see him though.”
Eunsoo put down the phone. She was gripped by sudden apprehension, and called Byungsoo again.
“I’ll look for him. Even if they don’t know where he crashed, wouldn’t they have a rough idea of where he might be? Can you try to find out?”
“As I said, this isn’t something you can do alone, Miss Cho. Rescue helicopters have gone out to search, so let’s wait and see.”
“I just feel so restless not doing anything. Can you tell me which way the rescue helicopters were generally headed? Then we’ll know where the Navy suspects he is.”
“I wouldn’t bank on it. The Navy seems pretty clueless too.”
“Then I’ll look where the helicopters haven’t looked yet. You said there isn’t anything else we can do anyway. I’d be able to do at least one helicopter’s share of work, wouldn’t I? I’ve got to try. Even if I can’t find him.”
One helicopter’s share of work.
“OK. Give me a minute.”
Byungsoo hung up and called a private environmental monitoring agency, based across the border, that received funding support from the Beanstalk Bureau of Public Relations.
“It’s not an order, I’m asking a favor. I just need you to set up a website. I’ve got a situation here. Yes, we have servers here too, but—sticky situation, you know. We can’t set it up ourselves, our government can’t be involved. You can take it down after, say, two days. That’s right. Uh-huh. That’s right. ’Course not. Why would I ask you if this puts you at risk? Come on, you know me. Yes. And I’ll send you a satellite image, so if you can put that up on the site. Oh, and one more thing . . . ”
Byungsoo got the satellite image from Eunsoo. He tried to find one with a higher resolution, but there were no suitable satellites passing over the desert. As soon as he received the image, he ran to IT and asked them to draw gridlines over it.
For an untrained eye to spot the crash point based on plane debris alone, the grid had to be divided into fairly small squares so that when you zoomed in on one, you could see the image in sufficient detail.
“How many squares do we have?”
“About two hundred thousand.”
Supposing one person took thirty minutes to search a square, it would take a hundred people a thousand hours to search the full image.
If I get ten or so guys from the Bureau to help, and factor in the number of helicopters . . .
It would still take around a year. Six months if they narrowed down the search by half to priority areas. This was a lost cause. But he couldn’t sit there and do nothing, not when he’d just heard someone say she would take on one helicopter’s share of work. He forwarded the gridded image to the environmental monitoring agency and dialed Eunsoo.
“Miss Cho, can you stop what you’re doing and take care of something for me? I had the image uploaded to another server. I’ll give you the link so you can access it in an hour. But before that, I need you to do something. Since I can’t get the administration to act . . .”
While the government sat idle, individuals dashed around Beanstalk. Eunsoo wrote to her acquaintances.
My dearest colleague Kyunghee,
I moved into Beanstalk four years ago. I’ve fulfilled my dreams here and I couldn’t be happier. Yet, when I moved here, I left someone behind across the border. He was a smart, kind person. All these years I’ve been too busy to think about him, but I finally received news today.
At this very moment, he is stranded in the desert, a downed mercenary pilot of the Beanstalk Navy. He extended his military service for an overseas tour in hopes of obtaining citizenship. I want to believe that he didn’t do this for me, but knowing how foolish he can be, I can’t be sure. He was shot down in the Taklamakan Desert, but the Navy is doing nothing to save him. Claiming it has no jurisdiction over the matter, turning a deaf ear.
Dear Kyunghee, and beloved citizens of Beanstalk, your government has given up on him. For he is not a Beanstalk citizen. But it is my belief that you will not do the same. A square-shaped border may be drawn across the twenty-second floor of Beanstalk, but I know your hearts are not so boxed.
I’ve secured a satellite image and am looking for his crashed jet. While he lies abandoned in the desert alone, I wander that desert on my own to find him. He could be seriously injured or dead. After tonight, the latter will become more likely. Desert winds may also blow sand over the aircraft debris.
Please help me by going to this link. There, you will find the image divided into squares. The squares I have already checked are marked blue. Those I am checking are green. Click on an unmarked square and look for any signs of the jet. The more squares you check the better, but if you can check at least one or two, or even just the one . . .
Eunsoo could not write a new letter for every one of her acquaintances. But she put her heart into every word. She printed the letters and put them in the Blue Mailbox, some of which were addressed to people at the Bureau of PR. Then she went back home and opened the satellite file.
Byungsoo sent his entire Bureau team home early.
“But we’re supposed to be on standby.”
“Just go. Listen, go to the Blue Mailbox next to the elevator on Level 599, and deliver everything that’s in it. Some of the letters should be addressed to you. Read your letter and do whatever it tells you to do. Make ten copies and send them to your friends. Consider it overtime, and keep at it until 2:00 a.m.—no, 4:00—and don’t worry about coming into the office in the morning. Got it?”
Byungsoo returned to his seat and pulled up the satellite image. Three squares had already turned blue. Their goal was to get a hundred and fifty people to help, including Eunsoo’s acquaintances as well as friends and family of his staff. It was a pyramid scheme, but they had no other choice. They’d try it: they had nothing to lose.
Byungsoo clicked on a square and enlarged it. He didn’t see sand dunes in the area. There was even some green here and there, but that didn’t make the landscape any less dry or hopelessly vast.
There was nothing. Although he wasn’t peering into the universe but a tiny fragment of the Earth’s surface, nature was so boundlessly immense that most of the things in it looked utterly insignificant. Even so, he couldn’t leave any stone unturned. Nor presume there was nothing.
Had he checked thoroughly enough? He kept doubting his own eyes. Had he perhaps zoned out for a split second and missed a spot? He scanned and rescanned the same places before finishing a square. That took forty minutes, but he didn’t find anything. He marked the square as completed on the map.
When he zoomed out to the full image, he saw that seven squares were checked and five were being checked. Five other people were working online.
He turned back to the desert.
The Blue Mailbox was modeled after an internal document delivery network used by SATlease, a satellite leasing service. When it was founded, SATlease occupied a long, narrow space in the South District of Beanstalk from Level 394 to 472, which made it difficult to send documents up and down the floors. In an attempt to save costs, the company set up a test document station that was just like the current Blue Mailbox. The experiment failed. The daily delivery rate stopped at 90 percent. On the other hand, office romances grew fivefold. SATlease shut down its document delivery network, but Beanstalk created the Blue Mailbox. Not for efficiency, but for human connection.
Eunsoo’s letters began to circulate. They left Level 599 and traveled quickly down to Level 450 and up to Level 600. The Bureau of PR staff were hand-delivering them. Within the next hour, the Bureau staff made copies of Eunsoo’s letter and fired them off across the building. Although there were slightly over three hundred letters, they traveled slowly due to the late hour. But thanks to Beanstalk’s large population of night owls—something that always astonished foreign tourists—the speed of delivery never quite slowed to zero.
Two hours later, new letters were sent out. Not by Eunsoo, nor any of the Bureau staff. They were mailed from places that Byungsoo could never have guessed. The same thing was happening in other parts of Beanstalk. Letters generated more letters, which generated even more.
Eunsoo had been lost inside the desert for hours when she finally zoomed out to the satellite orbit screen. She lifted her gaze slightly, and only then did she register the real world outside her monitor.
Her eyes hurt. Maybe she was imagining it, but her eyes felt dry after staring at the desert for so long. She put in a few eyedrops and returned to her map. A strange sight met her eyes. She called Byungsoo.
“I think something’s wrong with the website.”
Byungsoo exited the desert view and looked at the full map. The entire northeast section was blue.
“You’re right. What time is it? Not sure if they’ll pick up this late, but I’ll find out what’s going on and get back to you.”
Byungsoo phoned the environmental monitoring agency that had created the website. His call went through immediately.
“What are you doing up this late?”
“Huh? I’m working on the thing—that thing you gave me earlier.”
“What? Setting up the website? But you’ve already done that.”
“Yeah, but I’m searching too. On my fifth square now.”
“You are? Why?”
“To look for that person.”
“Person? How’d you know about that?”
“What do you mean how? The whole country’s buzzing about it! Everyone’s been busting their butts all night, and the man who started it doesn’t know?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m saying there’s 27,470 users right now.”
“You really don’t know? Users on the site I made for you. They’re searching for the plane that crashed in the Taklamakan Desert.”
Byungsoo was suddenly wide awake. “Huh? How could twenty-seven thousand people be online this late? It’s the middle of the night.”
“Oh, let’s see. There’s a little over six thousand from Beanstalk, another five thousand from my country, and the rest are from other countries.”
“What do you mean why? They’re just searching, that’s all.”
“I know, but why them? Are you sure this isn’t a bug or something?”
“There’s no bug. What’s there to be a bug, it’s just a simple picture file. The letter that Eunsoo lady sent around Beanstalk was translated and forwarded to other countries. So they’re searching, just because. Do they need a reason? You know how these things work on the Internet. They just do it.”
In an hour, the user count hit over 40,000. In another hour, 75,000. More and more blue squares lit up. A green band was rapidly forming around the blue squares like a ring of fire. Byungsoo stopped what he was doing and gaped at his screen. He couldn’t make sense of what he saw.
Eunsoo couldn’t either. She was stunned when she heard it wasn’t a bug.
“If it’s not a bug, what is it?”
“You tell me.”
By daybreak, a whopping 220,000 people were double-checking the squares that had been marked blue. As Minso was still missing even after the whole map had turned blue, someone must have overlooked him.
Soon a new website appeared. Byungsoo told her about it over the phone. Created in Germany, the site not only showed whether the squares had been checked, but also made them a darker shade of blue every time they were re-checked.
Then 340,000 people set to work again. Within half an hour, that number soared to 500,000. In the blink of an eye, the map turned several shades darker, creating the illusion that the contour lines of the desert were shooting up in altitude.
Eunsoo gazed at the map. Progressively turning a deeper blue, the Taklamakan Desert looked as if it were slowly being lifted to the sky. As if people were offering up the desert and the missing contract pilot to the heavens through sheer will.
Five minutes past 7:00 a.m. Beanstalk time, a red dot popped up on the map. The phone rang. It was Byungsoo.
“We found him.”
In that instant, the number of users flickered before Eunsoo’s eyes.
When she magnified the blinking red dot, she saw an unconscious Minso. Tears stung her eyes.
“He’s managed to get out of the aircraft but he seems badly injured.”
“When will they send help?”
“I’ve told them his location.”
Minso jerked awake. He had the feeling he was being watched. But there was no one in the vicinity. As he slipped in and out of consciousness, he mused that the threshold for death was too high.
Right, I’m still alive. Is it always this hard to die?
The world was awfully quiet. Even if he hadn’t fallen onto the middle of the desert, at this moment when his body had cut itself off from the outside world, he would be in a desert wherever he was.
Maybe he had always been in one. Even when his limbs were sound and his nerves in working order, the world might have been a meaningless place all along. Things like love, grief, and regret might have been a mere mirage created by our senses.
What am I thinking? Is this enlightenment?
Strangely enough, he did wish to enter nirvana. He had believed in one God for as long as two decades, but faced with a life-and-death situation, enlightenment seemed easier to reach than salvation.
I can’t believe I’m having these crazy thoughts. Maybe it’s not my time to die just yet.
He lost consciousness.
He came around moments later. Once more he felt someone staring down at him from above. The sensation was so strong that he knew his time had finally come.
This must be God. The gaze filled his entire soul. The gates to heaven had opened. Somewhere in the distance, Minso heard the Angel of the Lord flying toward him. But the loud flapping of God’s messenger rather sounded like the engine of an HH-60G.
That’s bizarre. This isn’t how it should happen.
God’s helicopter hovered above his head. Minso was confused. This didn’t fit the genre.
He grew too curious to enter nirvana.