The Green Machine
rating: +27+x

2021


January

Site-13K: Jeju Special Self-Governing Province, South Korea


"I've seen less fake-looking islands in video games." Dr. Harold Blank looked down at a nearly perfect oval of land, with a volcanic peak at the centre. He pointed at the volcanic peak. "They'd put that as the backdrop, paint it right on the skybox. Oval island with a volcano backdrop. Super fake."

The helicopter pilot didn't respond. He'd stopped responding half an hour ago.

The radio crackled: "We have you on radar, identify."

The pilot flipped a switch. "Transport Mu-15, hauling cargo."

"Your manifest says you're carrying personnel, Mu-15."

The pilot flicked the switch again. "Yeah, but he's a lot more like cargo. You'll see."


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Blank's contact at the Site, Dr. Tae-Im Hwang, was small but wiry; he got the impression she could snap him in half if he gave her a reason. He didn't intend to give her any more of a reason than he gave most people, but that still left a worryingly wide margin for error.

"You work with Dr. Lillihammer, right?" she asked, as they strolled the corridors. "I almost met her at that Site-01 conference, but I had to cancel."

Walk and talk, aren't we cool, he thought. "Why's that?"

"Pyongyang," she said bluntly. "The Foundation isn't super popular up North, and they give us trouble from time to time so we don't always get the chance to socialize." She looked at him appraisingly. "What do you know about Korea, anyway? I thought they'd send a security expert."

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Blank counted on one hand. "I know it's two countries in all countries but one, I know there was a war, and I know I like Kimchi."

"Everyone likes Kimchi. But seriously."

"I know Site-64K, which sounds like a computer thing but isn't, is in Mujin… which is basically Silent Hill by the Sea. And I know you've been fighting… environmental entropy terrorists?" He squeaked out that last term to underline his uncertainty. "And I don't know much of anything about 13K."

"That's why they picked you, right? For your genteel air of know-nothingness?"

"For this trip, you mean, or in general?"

She sighed. "Anyway. Jeju Island is the largest chunk of South Korea not on the mainland, a self-governing, self-sufficient district. It's also a potentially live volcano, and the topography means that there's no single area large enough for the facilities we wanted to build here. 13K is actually eight separate compounds, built up in the decades after Six-Two-Five and consolidated under one command just five years ago."

"What's 625 got to do with it?"

She shook her head. "Six-Two-Five. The 25th of June, 1950. The beginning of what you call the Korean War."

"Oh." Nice job, historian. "So, how do you manage all those degrees of separation?"

"Our primary MTF is stationed at the island centre. Each sub-Site has its own security contingent, and if they need direct intervention, we fly it in."

He frowned. "Sounds… slow."

She laughed. "It's slow here anyway. Only one Group of Interest has shown any interest in Jeju Island, and they haven't been a problem since, well, before we consolidated the Site. Beyond Entropy."

"Right, that's who I was thinking of. Ra's al Ghul."

She stared at him. "What?"

"Batman villain. Ecoterrorist."

She shrugged. "Not sure why you think I'd know that, but sure. Yeah. Ecoterrorists. A loose coalition of 'cells' — they're big on biological metaphors — dedicated to protecting mother Earth from external entropy. Human interference with natural systems." She rolled her eyes. "By interfering with human systems. Especially ours."

"Why especially yours? Ours?"

"Because Jeju Island is a world heritage site with some of the best untouched wilderness in the region. It's not subject to the whims of mainland politicians, and the permanent population is low… but it gets about fifteen million tourists every year, and we're seeing some pollution." They reached a glass-walled conference room. "That's our fault, for some reason."

"Groups of Interest, man. They'll getcha." He pointed at the conference room. "That where I'll be meeting the suspect?"

She shook her head. "You won't be meeting him at all. Two days after your Dr. Sokolsky finalized the candidate list, our assistant research director — the password candidate — was sent away to detention. He was, let's say, a deeply unpleasant man. The official reason I put on the detention paperwork was, and I quote, "all the sexual harassment in the world." I fought for that wording."

"Wow, wish you worked at Site-19. So, what was he planning? Do we know?"

"He won't talk, unsurprisingly. They're bringing his files up to the conference room, so you and I can go through them. Personally, since he was a big spender, I'm thinking it was a black market sales thing."


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It was a black market sales thing.


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The BES Moon Kook-Hyun sat on the north shore of Hachuja Island, awaiting its date with destiny. The Korea Strait was calm today, but that was no consolation to Captain Lee Yeong-Gi. He sat in the server room, head between his knees, letting the soft buzzing of the machinery calm his stomach. I hate water, he thought. I hate the sea.

There was a gentle ping from his pocket, and he sat up suddenly. This was a mistake; he nearly vomited, again, into the wastepaper basket beside the server. Nearly, but not quite, because he pulled out his phone and saw the notification.

The deal is on. Surprise momentarily overwhelmed his nausea. Beyond Entropy had engaged in a costly battle with Site-13K not five years prior, so the idea that a Foundation employee would willingly deal with them was… well, it was unlikely. He'd expected a trap; he was still expecting a trap. His cell had been insistent, though: this was too important an opportunity to pass up. It was worth the risk.

My stomach begs to differ. He forced himself to stand, legs wobbling, guts churning. He wondered if he'd ever get those mythical 'sea legs'. Oh, how weak the flesh. For the briefest of moments, he wished he'd joined a more radical cult.


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Blank tucked his tie under the labcoat flaps, and began buttoning buttons. He felt vaguely ridiculous, but that wasn't a problem. Ridiculous is good. Ridiculous is innocuous.

He stood on the deck of the unnamed Foundation cutter as it plied the waves between Jeju and the Chuja Islands. Hwang stood beside him, looking quite at home in the choppy waters; he was thankful now for a childhood which had included sailboat outings on Lake Huron. He didn't want to vomit up the anomaly rolling around in his tired brain.

Hwang pointed. "There she is." The Beyond Entropy vessel was visible on the far horizon, steaming from Lower Chujado. "They must have been hiding behind the island, waiting for our message."

"Waiting for their contact's message." They'd been thrilled to learn, from said contact's files, that his payment would be a dossier of classified info on a series of Groups of Interest operating in the area. Presumably, he'd meant to fence the data for a high price. Hwang couldn't wait to get her hands on it, but Blank had… concerns. "Has it occurred to you that I don't look very Korean?"

She shrugged. "It's the Foundation. Lots of ethnic variety."

"Yeah, but most of the Korean Sites are mostly… Korean. That's the reason for the "K," right? Not all of your staff speak English, because not all the best minds in Korea do."

She shrugged again. "I think the reason for the "K" is Overwatch being colonial, hogging all the good numbers for North America. But seriously, this doesn't matter. You might be more likely to be Korean, if you're from 13K, but it's not a guaranteed thing."

"I just don't like additional variables. We need them to believe I am who I'm… not, if this is gonna work."

She smiled. "It'll work. If this was a serious assignment, they'd have sent someone more serious."


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Captain Lee examined the haggard, middle-aged man with care. "First, tell me why."

The doctor who had identified himself as 'Blank' sat back in his chair and smiled. "You ever seen Catch-22?"

Lee shook his head.

"Well, there's this whole bit where an army quartermaster is running a side business, okay, selling off materiel to line his own pockets while the war rages on. He's not above selling his fliers' parachutes, or their rations, or what have you. Capitalism at its finest." He smoothed out his buttoned, bulging labcoat; Lee had scrutinized that very carefully, before determining there were no weapons concealed within. "That's what we're up to."

"A dangerous proposition. You even commandeered a Foundation vessel for this purpose?"

'Blank' laughed. "I've got my fingers in every pie at Jeju, my friend. One small boat for a diplomatic mission was hardly a stretch." He held up both hands, and flexed each finger. "I have very flexible phalanges."

Is this guy for real? Lee shook his head again. No, of course he's not, he didn't even give me a real name. "Fine, we'll see if you're telling the truth soon enough. Do you have the Word?"

A look of concern crossed the man's face, just for a fleeting moment, and Lee wondered if he'd overplayed his hand with the accidental internal terminology. But the moment passed, and the man nodded. "If you've got the payment, I've got the password." He reached into his labcoat pocket and produced a notepad and a pen. "Let me write it down, so we can confirm the transfer."

Lee nodded warily. "What you write down should look like gibberish to me, right? Until I have the anomaly in my possession."

'Blank', just think of him as Blank, nodded. "That's right." He began writing on the pad, slowly, tongue stuck out of the side of his mouth. He wiped his forehead. He exhaled heavily. He turned the pad to face Lee, and Lee saw… nothing he understood. Alien symbols. Nonsense. He nodded.

"Hot in here." Blank placed the pad in his lap, pen still in hand, and unbuttoned his labcoat. "Now, listen carefully," he said as the most garish tie Lee had ever seen came gradually into view. Incredibly, nonsensically, the man was wearing a hooded sweater beneath the tie.

"The manichean idol holds a key to the captive chaos," Blank intoned, as the last few inches of his swirling, technicolour tie swung out. Lee's breath caught. He saw stars in front of his eyes. He could see… he could see…

"I can see the letters!" he cried, leaping up. "I can see the Word!"

Blank smiled at him, climbing to his feet. "That's good, 'cuz I can't." He turned the pad to face Lee; there it was, in blue and white, the magic phrase in messy script.

Lee took a PDA from his pocket, and was about to thank the man when the room exploded.


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Hwang was in the captain's office when the second ship appeared, but because her skeleton crew was well-trained she'd been called back to the bridge just in time to see it open fire on the first ship.

"What the hell?" A series of small explosions on one craft resulted in a series of large ones on the other. "Who are these new assholes?"

"BES Choi Yul," a bridge officer responded. "Another BE vessel."

The Moon Kook-hyun's hull slid aside, and two sleek cannons of unknown make and model began returning fire. The muzzle flash was negligible, but the results were catastrophic. The Choi Yul reeled from the impacts.

"I'm not so sure they're both BE," Hwang spoke into the stunned silence.


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"Was this you?!" Lee screamed, scrambling for purchase. "Did you plan this?"

"I did have plans," Blank shouted, crawling along the deck as the world tilted crazily, "but these aren't them!"

Lee considered killing him, but as a series of cracks opened up in the walls and floor and the hull began groaning ominously, he decided it was hardly worth his time. Besides, I have precious cargo to offload. He darted through the door, leaving the fallen Foundation man and the PDA, dammit, behind.

He was halfway to the bridge when a stateroom wall burst outwards, peppering him with wooden shrapnel. His eyesight went fuzzy, and for a moment he thought he might forget the sacred phrase… but no, it was still there. He felt relief, even as he realized he was clutching his chest and his hands were wet with blood.

"Stand down, and prepare to be boarded!" Someone was shouting over the din with a very powerful speaker system, presumably from the attacking ship. "Fire again, and we'll send your metal filth to the bottom of the ocean!"

"Short-sighted tree huggers," he muttered. He reversed course, adjusting the mechanical cones in his eyes to account for infrared. There was still a safe path to the cargo hold, though the fires were spreading.

I hope the doctor made it to the sub.


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Blank had never liked opening his eyes. His body and brain only came online under protest, and opening his eyes was the first shot in a war he didn't really want to win. But it sounded like there was a real war going on, not far from where he lay, so…

If I open my eyes, and I'm in an afterlife, any afterlife, I'm going to be royally pissed-off.

He opened his eyes, and squinted against the sun. He was lying on the deck of a ship.

"Please don't let it be the exploding ship," he muttered. It was the only thing he'd resent more than an afterlife.

"No, the exploding ship exploded," Hwang remarked from somewhere he couldn't see without sitting up. My second-least favourite thing to do. He sat up, and was immediately greeted with a crushing headache.

He was back on the Foundation cutter, and he was soaking wet. He could see fire over the deck railing. He examined himself for injuries, his gaze lingering on the soaked tie for far, far too long.

He snapped out of it. "What happened?"

Hwang walked in front of him. "The Moon Kook-hyun wasn't BE."

"Yeah, I figured that out pretty fast, actually. You were right about the cells, but very wrong about the biological metaphor."

"Church of the Broken God."

He shook his head, feeling the aching, aging grey matter sloshing around in there. "Close. Maxwellists. Same cult, different rituals."

"How do you know?"

"Tons, and I mean tons of computer equipment. The captain was sitting in the server room, because he was seasick. They don't call 'em 'hummers' for no reason, they get off on atmospheric tech noise. It was nausea therapy." He rubbed his eyes. "Cultists for the digital age, trying to resurrect their dead god with bits and bytes instead of cogs and gears. Probably stole the ship from BE, who then came to steal it back."

She sat down with him, legs crossed. "They came to sink it, actually, which they did. But there was a sub in the Kook-hyun's hold, and the Maxwellists got away in that with BE hot on their heels. We scrambled Zeta-4 when the shooting started, and they tracked both ships across the Strait while I led a diving team to the wreck. We found you face-down in the water, clutching a PDA instead of a life preserver. There's a good chance we'll be able to save the data."

He plugged his nose and blew; there was a watery sound in his ears. "Because you saved me."

"Yep. " She looked thoughtful. "I suspect the Maxwellists were impersonating BE because they knew selling an anomaly to a death cult would weigh heavily on even the most crooked researcher's conscience."

He rubbed his temples. "Sank it, huh? Wow. They must not… like…" He started to chuckle, and he didn't stop, even though it hurt.

She was laughing, too. "Yeah, exactly. The machine apocalypse cult and the green apocalypse cult don't get along. Go figure." She leaned back, hands on the deck. "So, what do we do now? We lost the password."

He laid back down on the deck, and closed his eyes. "Nothing of value was lost." He yawned. "Am I injured?"

"No."

"Good. Please don't look at my tie, it's memetic." He fell instantly asleep.


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The doctor had made it to the sub, but he refused to even look at Lee's wounds until the sacred phrase was in the database. "We would rather you die, than the Fragmented One never live again," the explanation had gone. Lee couldn't argue with that logic.

How are we the only ones with any perspective? he wondered, as the system came online. Only WAN can cage the Demiurge. If the Broken God is not made whole, the seals will break. Secrecy and global warming don't quite compare, threat-wise.

"Is it really…" The doctor swallowed. "Is it real? The spark of consciousness? The compilation code?"

Lee nodded, wincing in pain as he input his credentials. "The fools. They think all the pieces are physical. They didn't realize what they had."

Finally, through three layers of identification, he was faced with a simple prompt. The only program in this secured system. A single text field.

He began to type, feeling giddier with each successive character. He spoke it aloud: "themanicheanidolis…"

He swooned, and felt the words slipping from his mind. He panicked. He tried to type faster, even as his fingers went numb. He struck the final key and exhaled, hard.

Hummers: one, hippies: zero.

He smirked at the doctor, who began opening up his medical bag… then frowned at the screen. "Who's the captive Chao?"

"What?" Lee looked back at the screen.

themanicheanidolholdsakeytothecaptivechao

"What the fuck?" He hit the "s" key again; nothing changed. "What the FUCK?!"

The doctor looked over his shoulder. "You must have typed it wrong. 'Manichean'? You know that has nothing to do with machines, right?"

Lee grabbed the doctor by his shirt. "They fucked up the database! It's one character too short!"

The doctor shook his head. "No, you're one character too long. We know 5109 is only forty-one characters, so that's how long the prompt is." He tapped the screen. "You've already got forty-one characters there. Are you sure you're remembering the words right?"

Lee opened his mouth to retort, then snapped it shut. He began to hyperventilate, and he couldn't hear the soothing whine of the servers, and as his vision began to cloud he realized he couldn't remember the words at all.


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"You didn't even need to call in for the second password," Hwang mused.

Blank nodded, humming to himself, as he squeezed the water from his labcoat over the edge of the ship.

"You didn't even use the first password. You tricked him into thinking you had, with a freaky memory tie, and now two GoIs that were fighting us are fighting each other."

He nodded again, still humming. Thanks for the freaky memory tie, Lillian.

"What are your plans for the rest of the day?"

He stopped humming, and considered.

"Thought I might brag, a little."

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