There’s a noodle shop tucked behind two equally run-down dry cleaners in a narrow alleyway that dead-ends and which is always full of puddles even when it hasn’t rained. Fiona eats lunch here every Thursday. Today is the fourth day since the sky spots appeared over Seoul, but class is on, so life is on, and it’s lunchtime.
In the days previous, no one seemed terribly worried about the black spots in the sky. Around the world, satellites are pointing Seoulward, trying to see if they could identify the mystery objects. Combined with the efforts of local meteorologists and astronomers and military personnel and conspiracy theorists, still no one has a solid grasp of what is going on. They simply agree that it is definitely something — solid masses, suspended, waiting.
Fiona walks a block from her university’s office and hooks a sharp left, splashes in the damp alley, bumps into the unavoidable smoking man bulging in his apron, perpetually on break, and she opens the jangling, steamed-up door. She sits where she can have a good view of Min-jun, the young owner in a yellow t-shirt and bandana who both cooks and serves the food while the big guy is smoking or chopping dough for noodles aggravatingly slowly.
Min-jun holds a long-handled colander over the sink and shakes the noodles out before swiftly pouring them into bowls and adding broth to cover. Fiona likes the dexterity with which he manages this, the overlapping motions, and the way the triceps tense and relax.
He sees her enter and shouts a welcome to her. He does a quick couple gestures near his face, a Vogue-like move from a K-pop video Fiona and he had laughed about on her previous visit. She mimes it back to him and suddenly the weight of loneliness lifts, even if only a fraction. Her friends usually only lasted a year or two and left with a parade of going-away parties. And any Korean friends she’s had have gotten married quickly, had children, and dropped off the social map. She and Min-jun only talk here at the restaurant, but after months of post-lunch conversation, he’s the closest friend she has.
She calls her order to him in Korean.
“Oh kay!” Min-jun says back as two distinctly separate words. The little hint of English comes with a half smile, shirking eye contact. She chose the kalguksu, a dish with fresh-cut noodles and green onions and heaps of tiny shellfish, because it is fantastic on a chilly, early spring day with strange dark spots in the sky overhead. It is also the only thing they serve. She pushes aside the water jug, the cold metal cup, and the wooden box of thin, tiny napkins she still hasn’t gotten used to during her years in this country.
Min-jun announces the arrival of the kalguksu in overly formal Korean, sets the gigantic bowl down, and gives Fiona a small bow. She digs into the noodles to show appreciation, show she’s good with chopsticks, show she loves Korean food — all that. She listens to the people at the other tables, mostly groups of three or four students, trying to see if anyone is talking about the discs in the sky. Despite her efforts, her Korean is awful, so she hears little more than conjunctions and a lot of loud slurping.
She wants these kids to be saying something about what is happening above them. But here, life carries on. And the sheer panic from home — the American media bursting with dread, the constant e-mails from friends and family and Facebook acquaintances asking if she is okay — all of that is absent here. K-pop still blasts from broken speakers outside the cell phone shops, fried chicken pubs never close, and food delivery bikes still zip past on the sidewalks.
The air-raid sirens eventually went off later that first evening. Nowhere else in the world have people become so inured to the threat of imminent doom. The evening the spots appeared, Fiona cut a class short when she saw Western media outlets suggesting a war had begun.
“We cannot cancel classes,” her boss, Dr. Che, told her. “There are no problems.”
“But the sirens went off,” Fiona said.
“They go off many times,” Dr. Che said. “We have class.”
Fiona was stunned. Her hands trembled, from the fear and frustration. She looked to her fellow professors for support, even though she knew they never paid much attention to the foreigner in the office. They just poured another cup of instant sugar-coffee and either ignored her entirely or shrugged.
Fiona always comes to Min-jun’s shop late in the lunch rush so she’s finishing up just as everyone heads back to class. Then when the bowls have been bussed, Min-jun will come and talk to her. The noodles are good — pretty exceptional for how cheap they are — but Fiona would be lying if she didn’t say she came here to be around Min-jun. He’s friendly to her, and they talk about the students and about good bars in the city and what she misses about home and what she likes about being here. Plus he wears these Japanese shirts with a wide collar that show off his perfect collarbone that glistens with sweat from working at the stove.
These moments are a reprieve for Fiona. After college, she took some atrocious adjunct positions in the U.S. teaching intro biology classes, latching onto field studies whenever they scraped up enough funding. Eventually she gave up and took the cushy job in Seoul, with long vacations and far more pay than she got at home. Of course, the job doesn’t really go anywhere, and she probably couldn’t have chosen a less biologically interesting place. Her school visited the Upo Wetlands to see the spoonbills but the whole plot was far smaller than she’d been told. As for Seoul, the city and its surroundings are devoid of all wildlife but for a few birds and some particularly thuggish cats with missing eyes and tails that creep around her apartment and hiss at her as she walks to school.
Min-jun takes a metal cup from the inverted stack on the cooler and pours himself some water from a plastic carafe.
“Kyosu-nim,” he says her with a smile. They are the same age, so normally these formalities are dropped, but Fiona likes to be called this — professor — even if something about that title feels overblown. He pulls up a chair at the table next to hers. “You have seen?”
He points towards the ceiling, and Fiona looks up at the track lighting, the water stain on the plaster. She nods, wipes her mouth with a tissue and sets down her spoon.
“What do you think it is?” she asks. “North Koreans?”
“President says it is,” he says. “So of course not!” He laughs at his own joke. It does seem like quite a leap from missiles launched into the sea to large hovering disks in the stratosphere above Seoul. Even though they looked like pinpricks from the ground, they were actually huge. Eighty meters across — that was the guess Fiona had seen come up a few times.
The heavy man, who had been in the kitchen playing on his phone, walks by, slapping his box of This Plus cigarettes against the palm of his hand. He mutters something to Min-jun without looking at him and heads outside.
“Gwang-il says aliens.” He gestures towards his partner outside. Fiona can see through the foggy glass that as Gwang-il smokes — she’d been coming here for a year and this is the first time she’d ever had cause to learn his name — he’s craning his neck back towards the sky, squinting against the brightness.
The idea wasn’t new, of course. Lots of people, even rational thinkers like Fiona, couldn’t quite let the thought escape. It had been seeded for so long, planted in books and in movies, so entrenched in the American narrative that aliens were the first thing she thought of. The night after they appeared, she even dreamed of them coming down, hovering low and beautiful. A panel beneath the vessel would slide open, and an elevator would snake down. And then she would be here — ready to be on the scene to meet them. Even in her dreams she could never quite see the beings. Instead Dr. Che, who would head the biological exchange program with the visitors, would intercept Fiona’s approach to the vessel, handing her a giant stack of visa applications to fill out. She always woke up before the visa ever came through.
In waking, the idea of being in the right place, finally, to explore a new frontier of her field — it was a fantasy she couldn’t shake. As a grad student on a field study in Ecuador, the team from another university had confirmed the discovery of the olinguito, a chubby tree carnivore that Fiona found adorable. No one from her school got any credit for their efforts.
“There are people coming here,” Fiona finally says, trying to steer the conversation away. “To Seoul. They want to study what is up in the sky. Or they want to be here when something happens.”
“What will happen?” he asks. He is staring directly at Fiona when he says this, and she detects something suggestive, just beneath the surface. She’s certain there’s an attraction. She just can’t get him to take it a step further.
“Maybe we will see,” Fiona says, raising an eyebrow.
“Saturday,” Min-jun says. He shifts in his seat. “My friend’s band has show in Hongdae.” He swallows hard, looks away at the ground a moment. He looks wonderfully nervous and Fiona can feel her face flush. He must have sensed her cue. “Do you like, um,” he searches for the right word, snapping his finger as he tries to translate his thoughts.
Before he can find it, Gwang-il slaps the door open and shouts to Min-jun in Korean — Fiona picks up none of it. She hears the roar of a crowd through the doorway. Gwang-il’s eyes are practically bulging out of their sockets, his mouth agape showing his gnarly yellowed teeth, and then he’s back outside, neck pitched back and running forward, oblivious to the risk of crashing into someone, charging towards campus.
Min-jun stands and seems to want to say something. His mouth chomps at the air, and nothing but, “Keu, uh, keu,” comes out as his head bobs and nods. Then he bows to her, a look of pain on his face.
“Sorry,” he says. Then he runs out the door. He looks to the sky, and then looks back to Fiona. Then he bolts out of the alley.
Fiona sits at a noodle shop in Seoul, completely alone, with a half-inch of lukewarm broth at the bottom of her giant black bowl. She stands uneasily, and trips as she scoots herself away from the table. There are shouts muffled from beyond the glass. She looks back at her bowl, and though she knows something horrible is outside, she feels a completely irrational obligation to drop a few blue thousand-won notes onto the table. When she opens her door, the noise erupts again. The alley is completely empty, but from the main road she hears car horns and people shouting. A sea of people rush by the narrow opening, flashing in and out of view, heading both directions. Some look up, some straight ahead.
Fiona looks up and sees the disaster. Two of the black spots, two of the specks in the sky, are much larger now. But they are not, as she had seen in her dreams, gently floating down like snowflakes, the majestic visitors’ spacecraft turned to discs on fishing line in a B-movie. Instead they careen downward, a trail of smoke streaming from each of them. One is already nearing the southern horizon; its immense size showing it can’t be all that far away. She cannot really make out details of it because it falls too fast — a purple-black ring like a fresh, deep bruise, plummeting out of the sky.
She looks at the main street, and she doesn’t see Min-jun anywhere. She allows herself, very briefly, to feel the sting of an impressively awful rejection — abandoned in the guy’s own restaurant. How does that even happen? And where is everyone going? Fiona wonders if there is some kind of protocol for what to do for this kind of situation. High above, two more of the spots have begun to fall. Whatever they are, they’re coming down fast.
The first disk disappeared behind the height of the engineering building of her school. A second groaning explosion propagates to her, a thunderclap in her feet and in her head. She hears glass breaking nearby. She crouches to touch the ground as if to make sure it is still there. She looks up, and there are two Chinese students standing on the corner next to her, and they’re both sobbing into the sleeves of each other’s letterman jackets.
The rest of the dots are now unstable, wobbling from their perch above. It’s so hard for Fiona to look away. Though the crowds of university students and shop owners seem to scatter haphazardly, the general flow heads toward the subway station. Not a bad idea. But Fiona lets herself drift in the dense crowd until she’s ejected on a side street that goes straight to the Han River. At the end of the road, there’s a staircase up a small hill to a riverside park. She races to the top where a small pavilion overlooks the river to one side and the university’s neighborhood to the other.
A third concussion hits her, louder than the others, closer. It shakes the little temple behind her. She flips off her shoes and steps up onto the wood planks and takes a full, stuttered breath. Smoke rises in thick black plumes from behind the buildings and mountains ahead at various distances from her — the closest has to be less than a kilometer, somewhere just beyond the back gate of the university. People live there, she knows. It’s Seoul — people live everywhere. There are sirens roaring from all directions.
Above her, the final spot has swollen in the sky, blooming above her. It looks like it will come down right onto the temple. She notices with surprise that she’s not afraid.
Instead, her thoughts appear and fade without her really understanding why: her mother in a low frame-rate video-call singing to her for her birthday, the little olinguito she got to study up close that winter vacation. She needs to get toothpaste, she suddenly remembers. She needs a new lunch spot.
The enormous thing passes over her, and she breathes out with relief. A moment later it slams into the Han River with a booming splash. Though the temple blocks the worst of it, though she’s a good distance from the crash, a mist of mud washes over her. Fiona clears it from her eyes to see the craft wedged at an angle and split in two halves, each partly submerged in the shallow waters. Huge waves ripple through the shallow waters and onto the highways along the river, towing some smaller cars over the guardrails. For a moment, when the water settles, everything feels still.
Then the survivors begin to emerge from the rift in the craft. They are climbing down their broken vessel, helping each other scramble onto the top and scoot down towards the water. At this distance, they’re mostly just smudges — not clearly like her or different. Fiona tries, briefly, to analyze their gait, to discern some classification, but she stops herself. For now, they’re people stuck in the water. Fiona is already making her way down from the temple to the edge of the river.
TONY CLAVELLI is a writer and stop-motion animator. He also plays drums for some bands in Seoul and really likes cartoons. His animation work can be seen on the Korean children’s series Galaxy Kids. He recently published a mixed media fiction piece on The Awl called “Excavate.” You can follow him on twitter @tonyclavelli or anywhere else for up to 100 meters or so without upsetting anyone.