Hyungwon's world changes one day when he is in the backseat of his mother's car, on his way home from the park. He's covered in dirt, breathing hard, and not entirely sure of what just happened. He is so young.
He remembers everything in dizzying succession: the picnic, the soccer match, hearing the rapid pop pop pop of something too early to be fireworks and then the chaos of everyone pushing and shoving and getting away. Hyungwon had fallen and scraped his palms and knees, and no one had helped.
"Everything will be okay," his mother whispers, words so quick and unstable around the edges that Hyungwon isn't sure if he's supposed to hear them. "It'll be okay."
The automated voice in the car's security system begins to recite the too-familiar emergency protocol for their district and informs them of what number to call for mandatory check-in. Hyungwon knows it by heart.
It's to be expected, says one of the guests on that night's news broadcast. Combine a collapsing society in the wake of pandemic with desensitization to violence, and you have a recipe for disaster. "It's a miracle that we've been able to maintain safe zones this long," he says.
The park Hyungwon had visited is only mentioned in passing. It's understandable since the anchorman must list numerous other zones that are no longer considered secure, and he only has so long to announce them before broadcasts shut down until morning.
Hyungwon is lying in bed, only half-listening to the man's final statements as he repeats the same reminders that he says every night: to stay safe and check in with the district's census bureau. Tonight, though, is different; after his usual speech, the anchor again looks into the camera and says: "This is an official update about the District Safe House Project."
Since the last few districts to participate have shown great success, he says, Hyungwon's district has been invited to join the experimental community. On the screen, an image of a building longer than it is tall stands hidden in a forest. The windows mirror the greenery so clearly that the building would be easy to miss if someone wasn't paying attention. It is huge, and beautiful, and awesome.
"The safety, security, and comfort of the community were at the forefront during its development," the anchor says. "We hope that everyone will participate in this revolutionary new way of life."
As he tells everyone to report to the district's census bureau for further instructions and information about the screening process, images of the building continuously cycle across the screen until the broadcast ends, and Hyungwon is staring at color bars.
Hyungwon's family, like many others, is eager to arrive at their new home. The promise of safety in their world these days is unbelievable but welcome, too good to be true but something for them to desperately jump at and have them hoping again.
The receptionist at the front desk welcomes them when it's their turn to sign in and presents them with their new identity cards.
She says, "Community is very important to us. We're sure that you'll feel welcome," and smiles. The shape is a little too perfect.
The person who Hyungwon assumes is his new teacher stands before his class. She's wearing the same casual style of dress to fit the code for their community, relaxed and unassuming and comfortable. She could be anyone, for all Hyungwon knows.
In the world outside, she explains just as the news anchor had many nights ago, the biggest problem was desensitization. There had been violence in movies and television and books and games... with such constant exposure, it was understandable why the panic during the outbreak had continued into lasting hostility. Her words are stable and unemotional--a speech very well rehearsed.
"We want to create a world where everyone can live without worry," she tells them. "And I want you to think of me more as a friend than a teacher."
Hyungwon wants to say that he misses his friends; he misses playing games outside, chasing each other through the house, sleeping over and staying up past their bedtimes to watch movies their parents didn't know that they were watching. He misses everything that he is now being told was wrong, so not wanting to be singled out, he stays quiet, like everyone else.
Conformity, Hyungwon will learn, is a great motivator.
Hyungwon is busy eating lunch when someone takes a seat next to him and says, "I miss pizza."
It's a boy Hyungwon's age who he vaguely remembers seeing in class, far too energetic and smiling too brightly for the time of day. He introduces himself as Minhyuk.
"You'll miss it more if you keep talking about it," Hyungwon says. Just like anything from the world outside, their teacher had told them.
"I'll miss it more if I don't," Minhyuk responds.
Hyungwon takes a bite of his carrot sandwich, the same kind he receives every Tuesday, and plays absentmindedly with the straw in his milk carton.
The building's community radio, Hyungwon quickly learns, is their lifeline; they have finally escaped from outside, yet every night from the moment they arrived in the building, people crowd around it in the common room. They pull their seats close and fall silent, hanging onto every word of their last remaining connection to news of the rest of the world: where any attacks are happening, how far away they are, who is behind them. They are so far off, the reporter says. There is nothing for them to worry about here.
"It definitely reminds us why we're better off," someone says one night after the radio host finishes announcing the latest list of cities lost.
Others nod in agreement, and spend the rest of their time together anxiously talking about how the stories could have been about them.
Most of Hyungwon's memories of the world outside are brief, passing images of the city streets and buildings seen through the windows of his mother's car as they traveled around their district's safe zone. He remembers the empty sidewalks of what once must have been bustling areas, the frequent sight of governmental vehicles racing down the road, and stores lining the streets as long-abandoned sentries stretching on for miles. The world was gray, and suffocating, and scary.
"At least now we don't have to listen to the car's safety instructions everyday," Hyungwon's mother tells him. She's too busy straightening her shirt to continue their conversation, preparing to leave for a job that Hyungwon was never told about, at a location in their building that he doesn't know.
Everything in their community has been constructed with great attention to detail, and it is obvious. All homes are identical. All clothing follows the dress code. Everybody selects food from the same menu. Nobody receives pay--nobody needs to, because all services are provided for everyone at no expense. There are no promotions at work, no grades in school, and no winners or losers in games. It is uniform and mundane and safe and perfect.
Competition, the reporter on the community's news station says, breeds contempt. It had been part of society's downfall, more so than the outbreak itself, and that's why their community works so hard to eliminate it. Politics, money, and religion were the greatest dividers, and now that those do not exist, they can finally focus on peace.
"I don't know. We used to play soccer a lot," Minhyuk tells Hyungwon. He smiles, nostalgic, without the bitterness he should feel. "I was pretty good. How about you?"
Hyungwon thinks of his life before and tries to remember.
"Creativity," Changkyun declares, "is dead."
His concentration is focused on trying to balance his history textbook on the tip of his pencil, which ultimately proves not to be difficult. These books are much thinner than the ones Hyungwon was familiar with, lighter, and with far more revisions. Hyungwon supposes someone would remember if anything important was missing.
"It's a poster that we have to throw together in the next five minutes," Hyungwon says. "It's hardly creative."
Changkyun frowns. "That's what I'm saying."
Minhyuk sighs. "If stuff like this was all we had to do at my old school, we probably never would've complained about anything ever."
"Nobody's complaining about anything now," Hyungwon says with less conviction in his words than he intends.
The textbook Changkyun had been balancing topples over and falls to the floor, interrupting the calm silence of the classroom. Changkyun says, simply, "Yet," like a promise, and Hyungwon doesn't have to look up to know that every eye in the room is on them.
Stories that the radio broadcasts tell of the world outside are so surreal that they are almost unbelievable, as though their community is watching an old Hollywood movie unfold. Over time, a gathering of people starts to form after the broadcasts to discuss the most memorable parts, what they thought was wrong, and what people should have done differently. At some point, receiving updates about the world where they used to live becomes a review, critical and dissociative.
And then, one evening, there are suddenly extra sound effects: far-off background noises of rapid popping, too familiar to Hyungwon, and it takes a moment for them to realize that it is their background noise following the pinpoint flashes they see throughout the woods.
When their community starts to raise concerns, the news reports continue, reassuring them that all necessary steps are being taken to ensure the safety of everyone inside, and all issues will be addressed at an upcoming forum.
Their building's government is, at the moment, unavailable to comment directly.
The forum is like nothing Hyungwon had ever been to before, mostly because it appears to be more casual than he would think the situation demands. By the time he arrives, everyone is wandering and eating and mingling, but the chatter is a low hum, and the distance between them is cautious.
"We need to put the 'unity' back into 'community!'" their community's director announces at one point during the evening. It's the first time Hyungwon has seen him in person, and the impression is lasting; he's holding hors d'oeuvres made of ingredients Hyungwon didn't know they had and standing at his podium, just a little higher than everyone else.
The director proceeds to announce new, upcoming projects to assist with the development and sustainability of their building. As he speaks, he grins too widely and with too much enthusiasm, even as he skirts around questions surrounding the concerning sights and sounds occurring just outside their windows, offering little other than reassurances of safety.
Eventually, one person calls out, demanding to know what, exactly, is happening outside. More voices gradually rise from a new crowd that's forming, growing louder and more insistent. They fire questions so fast that it's impossible to make out anything other than words and phrases like outside and locked away and cowards. Hyungwon finds it amazing that their director is able to continue responding without ever actually saying anything.
When the defense force finally reacts, they are swift and organized, calculated, and too well prepared. As Hyungwon and his family are ushered away from the growing crowd at the podium, he's told that they just want to make sure that everyone is safe.
Safe from what, though, Hyungwon isn't sure. Their world is perfect and protected, and yet.
People, Hyungwon realizes, are unpredictable.
He lies in his bed when he arrives home, unmoving and kept awake by thoughts of the events that night and echoes of Changkyun's voice.
During the news the next morning, after the coverage of the strange events at the gathering and the closing images of individuals involved being led away for "counseling," the reporter encourages community members to reach out to their own assigned guidance counselors for any help through these stressful times.
"Please contact them to discuss any concerns, ask for assistance, or report any unusual or deviant behavior," she says. "Remember that it is our duty to protect and support our community."
By chance, Hyungwon encounters his section's counselor later that day; his name is Kwangji, and he is relaxed in one of the oversized chairs in the common room, smiling gently, and greeting passersby with an easy tone, low and relaxing. Hyungwon likes him immediately.
"Officially, I'm just being available for the community," Kwangji tells Hyungwon when he asks why he's there. "Unofficially, I'm here for everybody, individually."
At the time, Hyungwon isn't sure what he means. He mirrors Kwangji's smile, and says nothing.
The aftermath of the gathering is unlike the outbreak which had arrived so long ago, quiet and insidious. This onset is immediate, and obvious, and everywhere; it is a whole new kind of pandemic.
People talk and watch; they keep a safe distance and form their own smaller communities, huddled in groups around the building's common radio, clique-ish and private, speaking in hushed voices as they wonder how nobody had seen it coming and question how safe they are in their own world indoors. At the same time that they grow more cautious of others, they try to form their own stronger connections.
Humans are, Hyungwon will learn, innately, social creatures.
"It's weird, isn't it?" Minhyuk wonders one day. They're sprawled out in Changkyun's bedroom, listening to music that they shouldn't be listening to on a radio that no one knows they have. "It makes you wonder what everyone is talking about."
"Or what they're not talking about," Changkyun says, "and why they're not talking about it." His tone is casual, matter-of-fact, and Hyungwon feels like he's missing something important.
Hyungwon thinks back to before the events at the gathering and asks him, "What aren't you talking about?"
Changkyun rolls over, expression hidden from view, and fumbles with the dial on his radio.
Hyungwon does not talk about how, nowadays, he spends more time in class with his teacher than he does with his own family. He does not talk about the lessons addressing their misrecollection of history, or the aversion to discussions on where their updates about the outside world come from. (An honest question, in his opinion, since no one has exited the building since it opened years ago.)
And, now, Hyungwon does not talk about what Changkyun does not talk about: the stations that have been blocked on the community's radio, inaccessible to anyone without their own means of receiving information. Which, evidently, should have been everyone, if not for Changkyun and the people he simply refers to as "friends."
For the first time in so long, there is news; there are people outside talking about forming settlements or reclaiming buildings or discussing events in their own perfect safe houses. They're talking about politics and speculating why the safe houses were ready so quickly, like they were constructing them long before everything collapsed. There is music and there are stories of the world outside and Hyungwon is hanging onto every word--it is deviant and freeing.
"What do you remember?" he asks Kwangji one day. It's amazing how much Hyungwon has started opening up to him since meetings with counselors became mandatory. Extra precautions, reporters said, after rumors of future deviant behavior spread through their community.
Kwangji hums, soft and drawn out. Fond, maybe, and longing. "Enough," he finally says.
Hyungwon kind of gets what he means.
Sometimes, when Hyungwon has free time at home, he watches movies.
They are not the ones that he watched as a child--most of those are gone, left outside to collect dust like the CDs and books and games that were also deemed to have inappropriate material. These are the movies that survived the government's screening process or were produced by the government itself--thinly veiled ones about safety precautions and characters going out of their way for their community and how much better the characters' lives are without struggle or uncertainty.
Watching them is boring and repetitive, but Hyungwon is still looking for something. He obsesses over it, whatever it is, and wants to believe that one of these times, he'll catch it.
Every good story, Hyungwon will later remember, needs hope.
The advertisements begin shortly before Hyungwon's eighteenth birthday, right after sections of the building close off for repair. They air every hour, on the hour, on every channel; they are impossible to miss.
This timing, a person who goes by the name "Kihyun" says over Changkyun's radio that day, from some undisclosed location, is not an accident.
In the commercials, a downtrodden woman is surrounded by a group of friends. They are the ones chatting animatedly, but she is the one who stands out: she is quiet, and isolated, and does not belong. After pointing out everything wrong with her, the voice-over recommends that viewers discuss Anazac with their doctor during their next visit. Never feel left out again, the voice promises at the end.
Hyungwon sees the community change within days. It is amazing in the same way that the pandemic had been amazing.
People are walking and talking and interacting again. They're smiling and out and about, unconcerned or indifferent about the protest rumors that have begun to resurface in response to the release of the drug. For all appearances, their world inside is perfect.
Keep them happy, Kihyun says.
"Not feeling bad isn't the same as being happy," Minhyuk tells Hyungwon. His tone is forced and wrong.
Hyungwon tries to ignore the uneasiness that creeps along his nerves.
From his bedroom window, Hyungwon can watch the sunset. He does so, religiously, every night; it is gradual and recurring like so many things in his life, but it remains far more significant.
People always say: no news is good news. Hyungwon wonders how many more times he has to hear it before he believes it himself, especially when, in the distance, he still sees a glow over the horizon even after the sun disappears.
The trees sway in a gentle breeze, branches dancing enough to offer glimpses of the too-bright light at the edge of the skyline.
He tries to remember what the wind feels like.
"It's funny," Changkyun says, "how people always want to do what they're not supposed to."
He pokes absentmindedly at his standard breakfast of scrambled eggs, which he has decided to dress up with every available condiment in reach. Keeps life exciting, he says, and then squirts more ketchup on his blueberry jam. Kwangji has started referring to him as the community's number three risk of diminishing resources, right behind a dwindling bee population and broken incubators.
"Not like, 'ha ha' funny," Changkyun corrects, "but. Well, maybe sometimes. You know."
"People can't really control it, I guess," Hyungwon says.
Changkyun hums, a curious sound that Hyungwon now associates with a concerning train of thought. "Can't they?"
Hyungwon scans the room to see if anybody is watching them, out of reflex.
Hyungwon hears Kihyun saying in the background: deviance is contagious.
Changkyun pulls out a makeshift deck of cards from under his mattress. The arc of his shuffle and speed of his deal are impressive and have certainly taken longer to perfect than the gambling ban has been in place.
Whatever the hell they're calling it, it's fucking human nature, someone called Gunhee spits out, harsh, as though there is a foul taste in his mouth.
Kihyun tells him, so is conformity, and Hyungwon hopes that the walls of Changkyun's bedroom aren't listening.
Everybody wants to belong to something. Everybody wants everybody to belong, Hoseok says. That's what people hope for, anyway.
Minhyuk places a stack of fours on the table and asks Changkyun if he has any sevens. He doesn't, but Minhyuk draws his next card with such eagerness that Hyungwon is starting to feel a thrill in his veins.
With absolute certainty, Gunhee says, that's what this is built on.
Repairs of closed sections of the building continue longer than expected. So long, in fact, that people seem to forget about them entirely until Hyungwon mentions it during a community meeting one day.
"We're sure it's under control," a woman says, sharp. Many others nod. "It's a big building. Repairs are to be expected."
Hyungwon wants to ask what exactly needs repairing, but decides not to press for more information. The last person who did hasn't shown up to their meetings since.
"They've been speaking with counsellors," Kwangji tells Hyungwon when he later asks about the man. He adds, "Officially."
"Unofficially?" Hyungwon asks.
Absolute care was taken when constructing their world. Laws that are in place--the ones banning creation of certain kinds of art, the ones forbidding the practice of religion, the ones preventing advancement in school and in the workplace--are there because they have been carefully calculated and implemented with unanimous approval of their community; eliminating any factors that could contribute to hostility made the promise of safety worth the sacrifice of certain freedoms. We were less free outside, most people say. Nobody has taken anything away from us.
As their community watch groups continue to grow in number, Hyungwon sees fewer and fewer people walking the halls, and he notices how frequently people pause during conversation, scanning, tentative. He thinks in Gunhee's voice: we're taking it away from ourselves.
"I can't imagine living any other way," Minhyuk says one day, apropos of nothing. It's a phrase Hyungwon hears often, but it's different coming from Minhyuk, as though he's telling another story about a game he lost when he was younger.
"A lot of people would say it's perfect," Hyungwon tells him. Across the main hall, Hyungwon can see a group of people absorbed in conversation. He's too far away to hear, and their expressions are unreadable, but the way they occasionally gesture toward residence halls has his stomach coiling.
Changkyun agrees, "A lot," with just enough emphasis for Hyungwon to recognize the implied not all.
The thing about tight-knit communities is: word travels fast.
The other thing about tight-knit communities is: people are part of them, or they are not.
Meetings within their community become increasingly frequent and progressively more heated. It begins with discussions on food, and then rations, and then who they think is taking more than their share. They talk about work days, and then hours spent in the office, and then who isn't pulling their own weight. They mention who they saw recently, and who they spend the most time with, and--most importantly--who is never there.
Conversations about absences are inevitable and unsettling; regardless of the initial topic, they always revert back to the people who are absent, where are they, what are they doing.
Being noticed is not desirable; it means that someone is different. Deviant. Wrong.
"We have to be sure that everyone is on the same page," one person says, too eager. "Unity is what has kept us safe so far."
Herd mentality, Gunhee says that night, is creepy as shit.
Rebuilding society in the wake of the pandemic had been difficult and time consuming. Years passed before the raids on medical facilities and homes were under control enough for the government to allow people to begin to return to their towns. By then, so much of the medical supplies and food and water had been stolen or destroyed that staying within the government's established safe zones had been the only logical option.
Hyungwon hears stories, sometimes, about the way life was before it all collapsed: the night life in the cities, the freedom to travel anywhere in the world from ocean to ocean and everywhere between. He listens and feels the rush of something that isn't nostalgia. But, still, he wonders.
If things were so great the first time, why are we living like... Seokwon trails off, searching over the dead air.
In the silence, Hyungwon stares at Changkyun's ceiling and sees the faces of their community leaders from earlier that day, and tries to forget about the odd twist of their lips around the word deviants.
This? Seokwon finishes, eventually.
Hyungwon thinks of the safety they have learned from living inside, how he no longer has to report his whereabouts or worry about anyone harming them. Everyone is treated exactly the same, now, and anything that might inspire dangerous thoughts has been banned. They are safe.
He swallows and chooses to ignore the irony of thinking about this while huddled in Changkyun's room, listening to a radio broadcast that no one can know he is listening to.
This is life now, Jooheon tells Seokwon, firm, certain, and bitter. It's life, and it's perfect, and people have very short memories.
A day does not go by when their government does not reassure them that there is no longer anything to fear, because there is no longer any reason to hate; they are finally living in peace in their nondescript lives, without dividing beliefs, no more important than their neighbors, and frequently being evaluated to make sure their mindsets are stable.
Hyungwon keeps this in mind as he watches people from the back of the common room and swallows the ill feeling creeping up into his throat as they move swiftly, well-practiced, to whisk away one man who they believed might be the source of new rumors of dissent. Just to talk and clear the air, they had said, before guiding him toward counseling.
The next day, Hyungwon asks Kwangji about it. He says the man's name doesn't ring any bells.
"Something's not right," Minhyuk tells Hyungwon, casual, nonchalant, and not himself. Minhyuk doesn't bother to feign concern.
The next community gathering is in exactly eighteen minutes. Hyungwon knows, because he has begun to watch the clock obsessively since the day the man didn't come back. He forgets how he spent free time before, when he didn't need to remind himself when and where he needed to be, and who he needed to be around.
A voice on the radio, easy and low and familiar, says something about the extinction of the individual.
Changkyun tells Minhyuk, "Everything is so right." He sighs, exasperated, and maybe a little hysteric.
The clock ticks to ten before noon, and Hyungwon knows they should be on their way.
Outside, the world had been unpredictable. People had lived in their safe zones, fearful and uncertain of what would come of them. They didn't know when the next attack would be. They didn't know what had come of the rest of the world. They were isolated and unaware of what was happening around them, only told of news filtered through the media. When they had received news of the safe districts that had been built, they jumped on the chance at safety and stability. It has been years since their new lives had started and, ironically, Hyungwon finds it amazing how little has changed.
The only news station available to them reports that night about recent attacks on safe zones outside. It sounds so serious that it is almost unbelievable, and so conveniently timed to be reported when rumors of dissent have begun to spread once again.
"We have to look out for each other," one person says in the common room to nobody in particular.
Images of what is apparently a safe zone continuously cycle across Changkyun's television screen the next time they turn it on. The buildings are run down and burning, and the images are ones that Hyungwon is sure he has seen before. Over the radio behind him, he hears Gunhee say: there's no such thing as coincidence.
Hyungwon watches until the broadcast ends, and then he is staring at color bars.