Chapter 2

Baby Blue Ithaka O. horizontal

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Ben would’ve whirled around, like he’d done earlier with Mr. Kang, if he’d thought that the speaker was someone you’d usually find in Itaewon. And that included all kinds of people. Foreigners, natives; little kids, old folks; people of all genders whether or not others accepted them as real.

Truly, he would’ve whirled around if he’d expected pretty much any normal person. Because, well, who did that person think they were, to command Ben like that? Just because they told Ben “Do not move,” what, did they expect Ben to say, “Aye, master, mistress, aye,” and just maintain the same pose, even though he wasn’t being paid to work as a life drawing class model?

But Ben didn’t whirl around. Couldn’t. Froze. Because, his brain warned him within a split second that this was no normal person, even according to Itaewon standards. In fact, his brain silently screamed “CAUTION! BEWARE! CONFUSING!”

What had confused him was the language in which the voice had spoken. It was neither Korean nor English, which were the only two languages Ben spoke.

Yet he’d understood exactly what the voice had meant.

The sentence had been projected into his mind.

Ben shivered. The message had been utterly toneless. Not cold or warm. Not high-pitched or low-pitched. Not smooth or rough. Because no vibrations had traveled through the air from the speaker’s mouth to Ben’s eardrums, all such characteristics of a normal voice couldn’t be expected of this message.

Idea, in its purest form—that was the only thing the message carried. No context, subtext, undertone, or overtone. Ben felt as if he stood inside a thick fishbowl, even though he could still hear the noises from the street and perceive the glows from the nearby store signs. And maybe because all the pores on his skin had tensed, he couldn’t smell a thing anymore, not even the blue baby’s pleasant fresh-laundry scent.

<That’s right,> the mystery message spread in his head. <Now, very slowly, turn around.>

Ben closed his eyes. Damn it, he was terrified. But to obey the mystery voice felt far from great. If he’d been the type to do what others expected of him, he wouldn’t have crossed an ocean to live in Seoul.

And he would’ve quit after day one at the World’s Fair. Mr. Kang might be a person of practical neutrality, but not everyone was so. Not even in Itaewon. That’d been why he’d snuck out for a break. The food smell had been a great excuse for himself, but if he was honest, the true reason had been some idiot customers who’d pointed at him and giggled. They’d simply assumed he wouldn’t understand them at all, or not well enough. Or they hadn’t cared. Such were the people who made Ben wish he had a more “suitable” shell. But every time he thought that, he ended up laughing at himself. What the hell did “suitable” even mean? Suitable for whom?

Sera had spent her childhood in the Netherlands. Because of that, she’d had to go through years of being deemed “not Korean enough,” even with her “perfect shell.” Some people, always, would see the difference and not the commonality. Such idiots made Ben want to do everything they told him not to.

And so it was in the case of the mystery message.

But then again, there was a line between bravery and stupidity. And in a case like this, Ben definitely preferred one side over the other.

So, Ben turned. Very slowly.

His shoulders slumped. He’d expected aliens. Like, real aliens. All slippery-looking, with giant heads and thin limbs and watermelon bellies. But no. Two men in stereotypical salarymen suits stood in the middle of the alley. They didn’t even wear sunglasses, which might have given them a spy/agent/secret-identity type of vibe. The only slightly surprising thing about them was that they looked like identical twins. And those twins apparently went to the same barber who cut their hair short in exactly the same way. And they bought their dress shoes at the same store. Also, they’d learned how to smile by using each other as a mirror. That had to be why their smiles were so creepily indistinguishable.

<Give us the baby,> they said.

Neither one moved his lips, but Ben got the sense that both men were speaking.

“I’m not giving an abandoned baby to strangers who’re clearly shady,” Ben said.

He was proud of himself. His voice didn’t shake. Neither did his arms. He securely held Baby Blue in its silk bundle.

The underwhelming mystery creatures didn’t stop smiling despite Ben’s refusal.

<That baby wasn’t abandoned.>

“Is that so?”

<It fell.>

“From where?”

<Hard to explain.>

“Try me.”

<The human mind isn’t equipped to comprehend the truths of the galaxies beyond the planet they call the Earth.>

Aliens indeed! Ben’s heart jolted. He wasn’t sure if it was from fear or from pure excitement. When he’d decided to move to a different country, he’d expected to experience a lot of weird shit. And once he got here, he’d learned that even shit that he hadn’t expected did happen. But this? This was something he hadn’t expected to experience and hadn’t learned to give up expecting.

Soon, Ben concluded that the jolt stemmed from a sudden sense of duty. He was beginning to feel an odd sense of solidarity with Baby Blue. A little helpless creature, hunted down, alone!

“If you’re not going to explain, too bad.”

Ben marched toward the enemy aliens. His plan was to keep on marching straight to the street. And if these two bland simulacra of Seoul’s salarymen attempted to stop him, he was going to scream. Might as well try that right away. The longer he lingered, the more he’d be giving them additional chances to attack.

Ben had learned this the hard way. The first few times someone points at you and giggles, you can’t believe what they’re doing, so you tend to freeze. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working at a pub halfway across the globe from home, or whether you’re the awkward kid in P.E. who doesn’t know what to do with his ridiculously-long, beyond-reasonable, too-inconveniently-non-average limbs. But soon you learn that you either have to leave the situation or challenge such idiots. At work, the best thing to do was the former. This situation seemed to call for the same tactic.

The aliens didn’t attempt to stop him. They let him pass. They kept watching him.

In front of Ben was the light. The crowd. If only Ben could mingle, what were the aliens going to do, attack everyone? Blow up the block? Clearly, they didn’t want to draw too much attention. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have chosen such bland outfits. Maybe he really should go to the vet’s at exit 6. If you were dealing with an alien, wasn’t it better to go to a doctor who’d studied the anatomies of mammals, reptiles, and fish, instead of one who was only familiar with the human one?

A sudden force sucked Ben backward. Yelping loudly, he flew over the aliens and landed on the heap of trash bags. He groaned. The baby cried at the top of its lungs—or the corresponding organ or organs that aliens carried inside them.

“Help!” Ben said, as soon as he’d made sure that the baby hadn’t been hurt. “Mr. Kang! Sera! Somebody!”

But he could see that was no use. The air in the alley vibrated visibly. Yet the tourists and Seoulites passed the alley, unaware of the alien attack in this tiny part of the city. It seemed that the aliens had cut off this alley from the rest of Earth’s reality.

<Give us the baby.>

Ben glared at the aliens. “No,” he said. “If you cared about its safety, you wouldn’t have flung us back like that.”

<That baby can’t be harmed. It’s only pretending it can be harmed.>

“Well, that’s what every abusive asshole says, isn’t it?”

Ben pressed the cold, heavy baby closer against his chest. At home, Mom still called him “My baby” when it was just their family. In fact, embarrassingly, sometimes Dad showed signs of wanting to do the same thing. Dad only seemed to stop himself from doing so because he figured both he and Ben would find it awkward afterward. As much as the world had changed in the past few decades, there were some things that moms did to sons, whereas dads simply didn’t do them. Calling sons “My baby” was one of those things.

Anyway, point being, Ben was very aware that he’d never needed to protect someone else besides himself in his entire life. Yeah, yeah, some people pointed at him, giggled, made sexual jokes. But he could handle that. In fact, he was proud he could handle that. Maybe that’d been part of the reason he’d wanted to move so far away from home. In a way, it was better to be laughed at away from home than in P.E. class, where you hoped to fit in like everyone else. Here, at least, Ben hadn’t come with such expectations. It was a place where he knew nobody. And often, nobody knew what to expect of him and how to behave toward him. Those who pointed and giggled were few and rare. Most people looked away. And Ben moved through the world, prioritizing his own safety.

But Baby Blue here had presented itself in front of him of all people, so he was darn well going to try to protect it.

Ben wildly looked around. The smaller trash bins behind the big bags had detachable lids. Ben easily grabbed one of the lids. At various points in his life, his unnecessarily long limbs had led to humiliations, but not tonight. They were so useful. He held the lid against Baby Blue for extra protection. Like a rhinoceros, he planned on storming through the invisible barrier—

<There they are!> someone said. <Let go of me!>

The entity that had spoken wasn’t the aliens. But they’d heard the voice too. They looked up at the sky. Ben followed their gaze. Above the World’s Fair, a bright blue dot hovered. It came from a flying object. An unidentified flying object. It was shaped like a flying saucer.

Soon, more blue light shot out from the saucer. The beam reached the trash bags and bins and dumpster, and drenched them in beautiful mysterious light as if they’d been thrown in the ocean.

<Let go of me!> the voice said again. <Don’t you hear me? Let go!>

The bland simulacra held nothing in their hands. And other than the trash bin lid, the only thing that Ben was carrying was Baby Blue.

This voice had to have come from Baby Blue. It wanted to leave.

But so firm had been Ben’s resolve to not let go of it, he couldn’t just switch gears abruptly. Besides, he hadn’t expected Baby Blue to speak. If Baby Blue could project a message just like the aliens, why hadn’t it communicated with Ben sooner? This had to be a trick of the enemy aliens. Maybe that flying saucer was theirs. And their intent was to confuse Ben to the point of giving up Baby Blue.

<Argh!> the voice said in frustration.

Then a loud BANG! resounded from above. The beam of blue precariously swept over the alley, apparently because the saucer had been blasted off from its position. Ben threw himself over Baby Blue and pressed them against the pavement, still wet from the shower earlier. The salaryman-simulacra also ducked.

Then, the air ceased to vibrate. Massive amounts of rain poured down. The crowd on the street yelped in surprise. A little past 2 a.m., pleasantly or angrily drunk, they hadn’t been prepared for another surprise shower tonight.

Ben looked up. Above him, a second flying saucer had appeared. It and the first saucer were shooting blue beams at each other, instead of on the alley or anywhere else.

Alarmed, Ben glanced at the crowded street. Were people getting hurt?

Well, people did run around in panic. But to Ben’s surprise, they were giggling. None of them had noticed the alien spaceships. To them, the greatest present danger was the downpour that might ruin their hair and clothes.

Again, Ben looked up. The saucers flew so close to the ground, their bellies looked yellow, pink, and green from the store signs, just like the sky farther up.

“I don’t believe this,” he muttered.

<Believe, and do so quickly!> the voice said.

Ben couldn’t tell if it came from Baby Blue, the two salaryman-aliens, or from someone else. He couldn’t tell anything anymore.

<Now I’ve missed my chance to reunite with my people! What are you going to do about that?>

Ben couldn’t possibly answer that question. But then one thing gave him hope: the two salaryman-aliens seemed as surprised as he was about the fight of the saucers. And, right, the air had stopped vibrating.

Without thinking twice, Ben picked up Baby Blue’s bundle from the ground and ran out of the alley, toward the street.

The aliens whirled around, reached, jumped—

Too late. Ben had joined the chaotic crowd. He glanced back. He did stand out in this crowd, so he worried they might come after him.

But the aliens were only looking left and right. They hadn’t found him. Several times, they looked straight at Ben—yet they didn’t recognize him. Incredible! Ben chuckled. It seemed they weren’t that skilled in telling various human shells apart. Maybe it was like most people being unable to tell one raven from another. Just as the aliens’ communication didn’t rely on vibrating air and receiving ears, they were completely incapable of catching visual details. To them, Ben was just another person who didn’t carry an umbrella. Talk about practical neutrality. Theirs was total and absolute when it came to humanity.

<What are you doing, you fool!> Baby Blue said. <Run! RUN! It’s the least you can do for me now!>

Ben stopped chuckling. He ran.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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