“Wayne? Is that you?”
I could barely hear Telders’ voice over the rumbling of machinery and what sounded like erratic gunfire. I put one finger in my free ear and thumbed the volume on the satphone to a suitable level.
“Telders! Yes, it’s Wayne! Where the hell are you? You sound like you’re in goddamn a war zone!”
“Robertson! Oh good, I’m glad you called! Hang on a second!”
I heard the sound of Telders’ hurried footsteps on gravel and a couple of loud, steady pops. Far off, a voice screamed in agony. There was another pop, some rustling, more footsteps, and then the sound of a door creaking open and slamming closed. The noise on the line abated accordingly.
“Hey, sorry about that,” Telders said in an even voice.
The rattle of muffled machine guns echoed in the distance.
“Uh, yeah,” I said, switching the phone to my other ear. “What the hell is going on there? Where the hell are you?”
I heard the sound of metal sliding against metal, then the distinct ka-chink of a semi-automatic pistol accepting a new clip. “I’m in Kaesong at the moment,” Telders replied.
“Kae…SONG?” I said, punching the syllables in disbelief. “North Korea?!”
“Well, a few miles outside of it. Close to the border. Hey Robertson, sorry man, can you hang on one more quick second?”
“I, uh, I, yeah, I guess.”
“Great, thanks.” There was a hollow thunk as the phone found a table or a shelf, and a few seconds later the sound of glass shattering, followed by the rapid bark of a pistol. Korean voices responded excitedly in the distance. I heard Telders yell something in their language. There were a few more distant shots, then the phone rustled, and he was back.
“Alright. I’m back. Sorry, busy day.”
“What?” I slammed my palm against my head. “Telders, what the hell is going on? What the hell are you doing in North Korea?”
Michael exhaled, and there was a thump followed by two smaller thumps, as if he had dropped into a recliner and kicked up his feet. “Well we had some trouble getting the Array online up here and then this whole war thing started and that put us behind schedule….” He trailed off and there was a clink of ice against glass. “Ahh,” he said. “North Korean scotch isn’t too bad you know? I really didn’t expect that. But, yeah, anyway, the war has been screwing with our schedule. And you know, if I had to do it again, I’d definitely pick a spot further inland. The South Koreans are being a real pain in the ass.”
The phone nearly slipped out of my hands.
“Wayne? You still there, buddy?”
“I’m here,” was all I could muster.
“Great. So how’s 151? Hey, you haven’t filed a report for a while. What’s up man? How’s the weather there? How’s Buzz?”
I swallowed and took a moment to gather myself. “Michael, you do realize that there has been a global nuclear war? Like everywhere?”
I heard Telders take another sip of his drink. “Yeah, and it’s really screwing with our timetable. But these things happen, you know. We’ll work around it.”
“These things happen?” I gasped. “Are you serious?”
“Well sure… one does try to make the best of things. You okay, Wayne? You don’t sound like yourself.”
I laughed. “Telders. The world’s blown itself up. You’re sitting in a shack somewhere in North Korea, apparently sniping South Koreans from your window while drinking Kim Jong-il brand scotch whiskey… and you think I sound a little strange?”
“Hrm. Well, yeah, I mean, if you put it that way. Guess I never really thought about it. Good point, Robertson.”
“You think?” I said sarcastically. “How the hell did you get there in the first place? There wasn’t supposed to be an Array in North Korea for God’s sake.”
“Oh, you didn’t know? That’s right, you’ve been off the radar for a while. Remind me to kick your ass about that later. You know, I was about to send someone down there and make sure you hadn’t frozen to death or something.”
I bit my lip, waiting for him to continue. He did.
“Anyway… Station250, as you know, was supposed to go in near Seoul, but we hit a snag with the South Koreans. It’s an election year, you know, and apparently the Array was being politicized by the challenging party. They drummed up all these crazy suspicions and all of a sudden there was a boat-load of public outcry and all kinds of messed up accusations and yadda, yadda, yadda you know how it is… politicians. Anyway, long story short, we had already arrived in the country with everything and then they told us that we had to basically get the eff-ing, eff out. So… North Korea seemed like as good of a place as any. We gave them a buzz and zing-zang-zoom, here we are.”
“Here we are.”
I rubbed my eyes. “And the North Koreans just let you in? Just like that?”
“Oh God, no. They wouldn’t even talk to us at first. But I had made a lot of contacts in China when we were assembling Stations48, 49, and 50, and they were nice enough to facilitate the negotiations. But even then North wasn’t interested. We offered money, food, oil, weapons… everything you could think of.”
“Oh, yeah, I… ignore that. Is this a secure channel? Oh hell, I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. Nevertheless… they weren’t having it.”
“Okay, but you’re in the country now, so how the hell did you do it?”
Telders paused. I swear I could hear him grinning on the phone. Finally, he said: “Steamboat Willie.”
“Steamboat Willie. You know, one of the very first Mickey Mouse cartoons? Actually, the very first cartoon, ever, with completely post-produced music, dialog, and sound effects. And you know Kim Jong-il is a huge Disney fan. It’s almost weird how much of a fan he is, what with all the stuffed animals and action figures and everything. But hey, live and let live, right?”
I shook my head. “Wait, you bribed Kim Jong-il, the brutal North Korean dictator, with a… a cartoon?”
“Wayne, Steamboat Willie is not just any cartoon.”
“Right, of course. The very first cartoon with completely post-produced whatever, whatever.”
“Music, dialog, and sound effects. But, no, I didn’t just give him some stupid DVD. For the privilege of building Station250 on North Korean soil, I traded Kim Jong-il the original hand inked cels from Steamboat Willie. All of them. And all of them signed by Walt Disney, who directed the effing thing himself!”
“Jesus, Telders, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Only you could pull off something like this.”
He laughed. “True. I mean, okay, they weren’t technically the original cels. And Walt Disney didn’t technically sign all of them, but what the hell, Kim Jong-il isn’t ever going to know, right?”
“What? You gave him fakes? Man, you better hope he never finds out.” I paused and scratched my head. “But I guess he’s probably dead anyway, if he was anywhere near Pyongyang when the fireworks started.”
“Oh,” Telders replied. “Don’t you know? Neither of the Koreas were even touched in the war, if you can believe that.”
“You mean we just went through World War III and no one thought to take a shot at North Korea?”
“Oddly enough. They don’t have nukes—at least not yet—so I guess they weren’t a huge priority.”
“I guess. Japan survived as well. I wonder who else?”
“Thailand, Malayasia, Burma. A few others, not really sure. But most of Eastern Asia seems to have dodged the bullet.”
But, okay, so if the Koreas didn’t get hit, why the hell is the South shooting at you?”
“Well, the Koreas survived, but their allies sure as hell didn’t. And with China, Russia, Europe, and the U.S. obliterated to hell, there’s no one keeping these guys in check anymore. I mean, we’re probably five miles from the border and there are South Koreans all over the place.”
“That could get bad real quick. You may want to get the hell out of there, Mike.”
“And go where? Antarctica?” He laughed. “I like you Wayne, but it’s like 85 degrees here today. And at least there’s a functioning government in North Korea. I’m legal for the time being, and well protected, so I’ll pour me another scotch and see what happens. But let me know if it warms up down there.”
I shifted in the chair and switched ears. “Yeah, well, you see, Mike, I’m, uh, not exactly in Antarctica right now.”
“Huh?” I heard Telders set his glass down. “Not exactly, Wayne? Then, where should I stop sending your paychecks?”
“Telders, listen, we need to have a serious talk.” I lowered my voice. “How long would it take you to get to Tokyo?”