January 2020

The giant apartment complex was unfinished, like almost everything else in Pyongyang. It loomed over the city, a grey, oval-shaped mass rising like a fungal growth on the bank of the Taedong River, swarming with half-lived lives. The western side was wall-less, held together with sagging electrical wires and iron bones stripped of their skin. Multitudes of drones hovered outside windows, transporting deliveries or simply spying, like mechanical wasps searching for a nectar that no longer existed.

The air inside the elevator was thick and sour, with a pervading stench of rotten eggs. A dead rat lay in one corner, the toes of its pink feet bent pathetically into its body. Sora couldn’t drag her eyes from it as they ascended, the elevator shuddering and groaning at intervals.

“I hate this city,” Gyuri said, digging her hands into the pockets of her trench coat. “Reunification was the worst thing that could’ve happened to this damn country.” She looked to her superior. “I keep forgetting. You voted for it, didn’t you?”

Sora kept her eyes on the dead creature next to Gyuri’s foot. “We thought it was the most humane thing to do,” she said carefully. They were passing the eightieth floor and she felt the pressure building in her ears; she swallowed to equalise it.

“Yeah, well maybe sometimes it’s best just to cut the dead weight loose. Imagine how the south would look now if we hadn’t blown our money on this wasteland.”

Sora said nothing. Gyuri was too young to remember how it was; she never saw the horrors that came with the first nuclear missiles. The war was over as soon as it had begun.

When the doors jerked open on the hundred and twelfth floor, Gyuri used her foot to drag the rat corpse into the dark corridor.

“Now we won’t have to look at it on the way down,” she said, rolling it onto its back.

The corridor was low-ceilinged and narrow, flanked by steel apartment doors. Black bags of waste were courted by swarms of flies, and a communal bathroom leaked yellow light and a fetid smell. Sora led the way, stopping at the final door on the right.

“This one,” she said.

Gyuri checked the engraved number and knocked. A moment later the door opened inwards just a fraction, enough to reveal a suspicious eye and a silver chain. A TV was blaring behind it.

“What do you want?”

Sora flashed her badge. “Yoo Sora,” she said, “Seoul National Detective Agency. This is my partner, Kwon Gyuri. We’re looking for Jeong Hoon.”

“That’s me.”

“In that case we’d like to speak to you.”

The eye blinked twice quickly. The door closed and the women heard the scratching sound of the latch being removed. When the door opened again, Jeong Hoon stood back to let them inside.

The room was little more than a shoebox. The walls were grey concrete, decorated only by blotches of blood forming purple halos around the flattened, mangled bodies of mosquitoes. A mattress was folded in one corner, a pile of clothes strewn on top. An ancient Samsung TV took up a quarter of the room. Jeong Hoon shoved his clothes to one side and sat cross-legged on the mattress, gesturing for the women to take seats on the lino floor.

Sora tried not to inhale through her nose; the window was closed, and Sora guessed from the intense smell of body odour that it had been closed for a long time.

“Would you mind turning the TV off?”

Hoon furrowed his brows briefly before reaching for the bulky remote at his side. He pointed it at the screen, pausing with his finger over the power button. A man in a white coat was describing the benefits of a new respirator; a map behind him showed a yellow cloud moving from the great landmass of China to the Korean peninsula. Hoon turned off the TV and a sudden, heavy silence filled the room.

“What’s this about?” Hoon asked.

The window allowed a shaft of dusk light to fall across his coarse-looking crew cut. He had a wide nose and a prominent forehead, and one of his ears stuck out more than the other.

“Have you ever heard of a Seoul-based company from the 2030s that went by the name of Choice?” Sora asked.

Hoon shook his head.

“Choice was one of several private companies that performed surgical abortions in the thirties and forties,” Sora went on. “However, the staff of Choice didn’t believe in abortions at all; in fact, they were staunchly pro-life.”

Hoon watched her without expression.

“In the years following reunification, birth rates on the peninsula were lower than ever, and one of Choice’s goals was to find a solution to the rapidly ageing population of the New Republic. They were sponsored by certain high-ranking officials to use artificial wombs to keep aborted foetuses alive, all without the mother’s knowledge. Once the babies reached the end of their gestation period, they were taken to orphanages and eventually fostered around the country, often to families here in the north, where birth rates were lowest.”

Hoon scratched behind his ear. Gyuri watched him intently, drumming her fingers lightly on the floor.

“Of course,” Sora said, “once these activities were exposed years later, Choice was shut down and everyone involved was arrested, with many facing lengthy prison sentences.”

Hoon shrugged. “And what does all that have to do with me?”

Sora tucked her bob behind her ears and glanced at her partner.

“How was your relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Jeong?” Gyuri asked. “The people who brought you up?”

It was the first time the younger woman had spoken and Hoon’s eyes lingered on her silky black hair, then on her pale, youthful face. It was a face that could have been pretty, the men in the office often reminded her, if it hadn’t worn a perpetually disgruntled expression.

Hoon shrugged again. “They were just parents. They left me enough money to get by after they died.”

“They weren’t your real parents, Hoon, that’s what we’re trying to tell you.”

Sora winced inwardly, but was grateful for her partner’s candor.

“So what?” Hoon said, fingering the lobe of his protruding ear, “You’re telling me I was one of these aborted babies? I was born in a lab?”

Sora nodded slowly. “At fifteen weeks you were transferred to a sophisticated artificial womb, where you were provided with the necessary nutrients and conditions to keep you alive.”

Hoon pulled himself slowly to his feet and turned to the window. Sora and Gyuri exchanged a glance behind his back. Gyuri reached questioningly for the stun gun on her belt, but Sora shook her head.

“So are you hooking me up with my real parents or something?” Hoon asked, turning around. “Is that what this is?”

“You saw our badges, Hoon,” Gyuri said. “We’re not some charity. Setting you up for a reunion isn’t our priority.”

Hoon fixed the young woman with a penetrating stare. “Then what is your priority?”

Sora raised a hand to quiet her partner. “The aborted babies,” she began falteringly. “At first they appeared to show no signs of ill-adjustment. At a young age they were often quieter, more detached, but that’s not uncommon in adopted children anyway. However, recent studies have revealed changes, usually when the subjects reach their mid-to-late teens. On average, subjects of the Choice births show significantly lower levels of empathy than natural-born people of the same age. They are also far more likely to commit crimes — violent crimes.” Sora watched for the boy’s reaction. “You’ve had a few run-ins with the law, haven’t you, Hoon?”

“I’ve never killed anyone.”

“No, we know you haven’t,” Sora said.

“You might be a danger to society,” Gyuri cut in. Sora closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “That’s what we’re trying to tell you, all right? Sooner or later all the subjects start going off the rails, and we’re going to put you somewhere safe and run some tests until we’re sure you’re not going to go the same way. Got it?”

Sora took a deep breath. “We believe these aspects of your personality may have been due to the supplements you were given in the artificial womb.”

“Yeah,” Gyuri said, “and the fact that you spent more than half your gestation period inside a fish tank instead of the body of a loving mother.”

For a moment Hoon said nothing. He stared at Gyuri before turning back to the window.

“Gyuri,” Sora said. “Would you mind waiting outside?”

Gyuri muttered something as she stood and exited, closing the door forcibly behind her.

For a moment Sora sat in silence, watching the back of Hoon’s head.

“Are they still alive?” he asked.

“Who?”

“My parents. My real parents. Are they still alive?”

Sora peered at the flexible display strapped to her forearm. She swiped through the case files and skimmed the brief on Hoon’s parents. “Your mother is alive, yes. In Pyongyang, as it happens. According to the documents she signed at the time of the abortion, she didn’t know the identity of your father. She cited the reason for the abortion as—”

“Can I see her?”

“Our job is to take you directly to the institution in Seoul for tests,” Sora said. “It’s a safe environm—”

“I just want to see her once,” Hoon said, and for the first time Sora heard a note of anxiety in his voice. “Once, before I go. Please. I want to see my mother.”

Sora looked searchingly into the young man’s eyes. None of the subjects had shown such interest in their birth parents before. Perhaps, she thought, glancing over her shoulder at the door, this was the subject she had been waiting for all these months.

“The chief is going to be pissed if he finds out,” Gyuri said.

“Then he won’t find out,” Sora said.

The Taedong Ferry chugged south-westerly through the city. The river was clogged with rusted tankers and smaller fishing boats cushioned between islands of floating garbage. Shanty houses clung to the riverbanks like layers of plaque on rotten teeth. They were mostly empty now; millions had fled to Seoul after the treaty and now Pyongyang festered, half in squalor, half forgotten.

“It won’t take long,” Sora said, absently scanning the deserted hovels.

Gyuri pulled her dust mask down over her chin and lit up a cigarette, blowing a cloud of smoke into the misty evening air. “You always want to give them a chance,” she said, inspecting the cigarette between her fingers. “Like one of them’s going to turn up with a dumb smile and tell you it’s all a mistake, that there’s nothing wrong with them.”

Sora stared across deck at Hoon, sat on a bench out of earshot, his shoulders hunched.

“They’re bad eggs, boss,” Gyuri went on. “You can see it just looking at them. The only surprise is how long it took for the gov to give us the green light to round them all up.”

Sora turned back to the water, leaning on the railings.

“You don’t believe in it, do you?” Gyuri asked. “Abortion.”

Sora sighed. “There are only two outcomes of an unwanted pregnancy, and they’re both as tragic as each other. The only thing that matters is that the mother makes the decision. That’s why Choice was so deplorable; they stole that right from those women.

“When you look into their eyes, Gyuri,” she added, “don’t you see the tragedy of it all? Their mothers never meant for them to be born. They were so close to never existing. The way Hoon looked when he asked about his mother. I don’t know, maybe they don’t all have to turn out like we expect. Maybe there’s hope for them.”

Gyuri dropped her cigarette to the floor and crushed it under her shoe.

“Still,” she said, replacing her dust mask, “you’ll be in deep shit if they find out. The mother knows we’re on the way?”

“She’s one of the minority; most of them didn’t want to know when the news broke. Imagine finding out that the child you aborted had lived on.”

Gyuri shrugged and brushed her hair behind one ear as the ferry approached the city centre. Skyscrapers pierced the sky around the crumbling remains of Juche Tower, some crowned with redundant cranes, others dotted with amber windows, the refuge of after-hours office workers desperately shackling themselves to their jobs. The network of back-alleys behind the dock bustled with street food smoke and the sorry exhausts of ancient scooters.

“Let’s get this done quick, then,” Gyuri said. “Before we’re both out of a job.”

The boarding house was in a dilapidated building above a rowdy bar that served home-brewed makgeolli and greasy pajeon. Sora led the way through the wood-paneled bar, stepping carefully past a red-faced man on the stairs, bald, wrinkled, and weeping quietly. Hoon’s mother’s room was at the end of the third-floor corridor, and she opened the door almost as soon as Sora’s knuckles were done rapping on it. She was close to Sora’s age, somewhere in her mid-thirties, though she looked older. Short and slight, she had a careworn, mousey expression and stringy hair that looked as though it hadn’t been washed in days.

“Ms. Han,” Sora said, flashing her badge. “Yoo Sora, we spoke on the phone.”

Hoon’s mother opened the door wider. “Is he here?”

“He is,” Sora said, stepping aside to let Hoon through.

There was no great embrace as Hoon met his mother for the first time. Her eyes filled instantly with tears but she struggled to look directly at her son; she squinted and inclined her head slightly, as though he were an especially bright light. Sora and Gyuri followed them inside the modest room, uncluttered and half-clean.

“We can only give you five minutes,” Sora said. “This is quite against regulations.”

Hoon’s mother nodded meekly, wringing her hands. She showed Sora and Gyuri onto the veranda and closed the door behind them. Sora pulled up her dust mask while the younger woman lit a cigarette.

“I don’t want to hear it,” Sora said.

“Whatever you say, boss. I just want to get this done and get back to Seoul. Who are we after next, anyway?”

Sora swiped at the monitor on her forearm and scanned the assignments folder.

“Well, who is it?”

Sora shook her head. She had known this day would come eventually, that she wouldn’t be able to protect her partner forever.

“What’s wrong? We’re not in Pyongyang again, are we?”

“The system’s down,” Sora said, swiping the screen off. “I’ll check again later.”

Sora felt Gyuri’s gaze on her as she regarded the smoky, blinking neon parade of Pyongyang’s backstreets. A stray dog with three legs stopped outside the back door of the bar to piss on a pile of black sacks. Gyuri’s eyes didn’t leave Sora’s face, and the stare seemed to gain in intensity with each passing second, like a branding iron being held to her cheek.

“Maybe we should give them a couple more minutes,” Sora said, nodding over her shoulder.

Her partner, ignoring her, flicked her cigarette over the railing and pushed the door open into the apartment. Gyuri froze in the doorway, and Sora had to push her aside to see within.

Hoon was on his knees on the floor, his mother’s head cradled in his hands, her hair between his fingers.

“Hoon,” Sora whispered, “what have you done?”

Hoon dropped his mother’s head to the floor, her body limp, her neck clearly broken.

“Eighteen years ago she tried to kill me,” he said, his voice empty of emotion. “Now we’re even.”

He stood, wiping the palms of his hands against his legs. “I’m ready to go to the institution now,” he said, holding his hands out before him.

Gyuri returned to the veranda to call headquarters. Sora found a bed sheet and spread it over the body of Hoon’s mother. Hoon was sat next to her body, his hands cuffed and his legs crossed beneath him.

Sora knew she would lose her badge. She might even face manslaughter charges for gross negligence. It hardly mattered. She’d always known it would come to this, ever since she located Gyuri and recruited her.

“She doesn’t know, does she?” Hoon said, looking up at her morosely.

“Who?” Sora asked.

“Your partner. How old is she?”

Sora stared down at the boy. “Eighteen, the same as you.”

“You must have been young.”

Sora said nothing. Hoon nodded.

“I’m guessing your bosses don’t know about her, either.”

Sora shook her head.

“You don’t want her to turn out like me. I get it. But what if she doesn’t? What if she lives a normal life? Are you going to tell her? That you had her aborted?”

“I never imagined—” Sora began, but the words caught in her throat. “I thought you might be the one to change everything. That if you showed forgiveness, empathy, then Gyuri…”

The smile that formed on Hoon’s lips was almost sinister in its simplicity.

“If it’s really like you said, they’ll take it into account, won’t they? When they sentence me. The supplements you mentioned, the gestation tanks. That’s the reason, isn’t it, for everything in here?” He tapped his temple with a finger. “I mean, it’s not me. It wasn’t my choice.”

Sora considered him. No, it wasn’t his choice. It wasn’t his mother’s choice, either.

Hoon gazed at his cuffed hands, his palms open, as though trying to measure something. “Fifteen weeks,” he said, almost to himself. “Is there a heartbeat at fifteen weeks?”

Sora stared at the space between his hands and nodded.

Gyuri re-entered the room. “They’ll be here in ten.” Kneeling, she pulled the sheet down and looked into the dead woman’s face. “I wonder what she felt after they took the baby from her. I wonder if she ever regretted it.”

“What does it matter?” Hoon said in his expressionless voice.

“She regretted it,” Sora said, her voice shaking. “But what would you have done? Maybe she was poor, maybe she was too young. Maybe… maybe the father was a faceless man who forced himself on her. What would you have done, Gyuri, if it were you?”

Gyuri glanced at Hoon. He returned her gaze with his flat, impassive stare.

Gyuri rubbed her face and closed her eyes for what seemed like hours. When they opened, Sora expected to see tears gathered on her lashes, but there were none.

Gyuri stood gingerly, her eyes fixed on the face of Hoon’s dead mother. She advanced slowly on Sora, who was blinking away tears, her hand hovering close to her belt.

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