When China condemned the U.S. incursion into North Korea. . . well, that's when things started to get really uncomfortable for poor Dave Graham.
Relations between China and the US were already pretty shaky -- though the US economy had mostly recovered, it hand't really made much effort to pay back the hundreds of billions of dollars it owed China. On top of that, President Crozier had been taking potshots at them in the media for a while now -- human rights violations, shady international trade, ignoring their poorest classes. Dave really regretted voting for the guy.
But none of those really figured into Dave's reluctance to go to China when his company had asked. It wasn't so much that he didn't want to go to China, he just didn't want to go anywhere, really. He was perfectly happy at home in Atlanta, getting through each day at work so he could go home, get baked, and play video games.
Dave worked in customer service for MobiTech, a Chinese cell phone manufacturer. They were doing tons of business in the states with cheap, tech-forward phones, and Dave had gotten hired on by them his first week out of Tulane. It wasn't what he wanted to do, but it was money.
He wasn't even supposed to go to China, actually. His boss, a guy named Jerry, was supposed to go and train the Chinese customer service agents to take over for some of their more expensive American counterparts. But Jerry had a car accident three weeks before the trip -- he was in no condition to go, and as his second in command, Dave was elected.
"Man, I envy you," Jerry had said the day before Dave left, driving his powered wheelchair into Dave's cubicle. "China's awesome. Great food, good-looking women."
"Sure, lead off with the food when you're talking to the fat guy," Dave joked.
"Oh, shit, Dave. I didn't mean --"
"Kidding, Jer. Kidding. How're the legs?"
"Still broken. But healing, they say. Seriously, man. . . when you're in Beijing, you gotta visit a little place called Huajia Yiyuan. It's pretty damn awesome."
Jerry seemed so excited about the restaurant that Dave didn't have the heart to tell him he hated Chinese food. Early the next morning, he left for a four-month stay in China.
The first month wasn't too bad -- the company put him up in a decent hotel and provided him with a driver to take him back and forth to work every day. He had an international smartphone (benefit of working for a phone manufacturer), and the company paid the bill, so he kept in touch with people back home pretty frequently. He did pretty much what he'd done back home -- go to work, do his job, go home, drink (he couldn't find weed so far in China), and play video games. He'd even found a little place not far from his hotel that served a decent approximation of American food.
It wasn't ideal, but it was liveable.
One thing that bothered him was the looks he got from a lot of the locals -- they seemed to eye him with something like suspicion, or maybe loathing. Dave knew he didn't blend in -- he as about six feet tall and 260 pounds (most of which wasn't muscle). Everywhere he went, he felt like people were staring.
still, no one was in any way hostile or impolite towards him. The looks were about as bad as it got, until the day the news of the incursion broke.
It was after work, and Dave was out of alcohol in his room, so he was sitting in the hotel bar, abusing his expense account. The bartender was actually pretty nice to him -- he'd been in a couple of times before, and he'd learned the guy's name, Johnny. Johnny spoke pretty good English, and he was a funny little guy.
"Haven't seen you in a couple of days, Dave," Johnny said, smiling as he poured a rum and coke. "You doing OK, my friend?"
"Yeah, just, you know, work. Been busy," Dave lied. Work wasn't tough at all -- the students in his customer service class were already better-trained than a lot of the guys he worked with back in Atlanta.
"See, that's why I tend bar. My father wanted me to go out and get a real job, but I'm lazy. I like drinking, and I like talking. I don't so much like working. It was either this or become a professional barfly. I chose this."
Dave smirked and took a long sip of his rum and coke. He glanced up at one of the many TVs mounted behind the bar -- one of them was tuned to CNN.
"Mind turning that up a little?" Dave asked, pointing to the TV with his drink.
"Sure, man. Helps me with my English, anyway," Johnny said, turning up the volume on the TV.
"We now have breaking news," the anchor was saying, "from North Korea. This footage was emailed to us this morning by the North Korean State Information Agency."
The image changed, and that was the first time Dave saw him -- that poor, beaten-up American soldier tied to a chair and bleeding. The image burned itself into his brain, and all of a sudden, he felt just as angry as he'd felt the day Los Angeles had been attacked.
"Chief Petty Officer Roger Daniels, serial number 586-4277B," the soldier said weakly. There was a harsh light shining in his face, and he was squinting with his right eye. His left was swollen shut.
The footage was replaced by the anchor.
"According to the statement sent with the footage, Chief Petty Officer Daniels was the head of a Navy SEAL team that, quote, 'illegally entered sovereign North Korea for purposes both criminal and reprehensible.'"
Johnny turned down the TV and looked at Dave, then back at the muted screen. Dave looked around the bar and noticed that everyone was staring at him.
"Um, how about I wrap you up the rest of the bottle to go, my friend?" Johnny said.
"Yeah. Yeah, I think that would be best," Dave said softly.
Work the next day was uncomfortable. Still, no one was even impolite, but Dave couldn't help but feel his students were quieter than usual. They'd never exactly been a rowdy group, but that day, extraneous conversation was totally nonexistent. Dave dismissed them early and went back to the hotel, where he had a message waiting on his phone.
It was Dave's mother. He called her back after he poured himself a drink.
"Dave! Have you heard what's been going on?" she asked without even saying hello.
"Yeah. The SEAL guy they caught in North Korea. It's pretty messed up, huh?"
"China came out and condemned the US today for sending military forces into North Korea. You should probably get out of there."
"I can't, mom. I'm working."
"So tell them to fuck off. Quit. I'm worried about you, Dave."
Dave's mom was like that -- she'd sworn a lot as long as he could remember.
"Come on, Mom. The job market's better than it was a couple of years ago, but it's not great. You really want me to quit? Move back in with you?"
"If it gets you out of there, then shit yes."
"I'll be fine, mom. Hold on -- work's calling on the other line. Let me call you back, OK?"
"You'd damn well better."
Dave clicked over to the incoming call. It was Jerry, back at the office.
"Hey, man. Did you hear?"
"Yes, I heard. I'm in China, not in a media blackout," Dave sighed.
* * *
It was a week later and two in the morning when the call came. Dave woke up feeling nauseous -- he'd put down a bit too much rum, but he wasn't drunk enough that he didn't recognize his office number on the Caller ID.
"Hello?" he grumbled.
"David. Steve Benford at MobiTech."
Dave straightened up immediately. Steve Benford was his boss's boss's boss -- the Vice President of the American division of the company.
"Yes, sir. How are you this morning, sir?"
"It's not morning here, David. Now I need you to listen -- the US Government has ordered all civilians out of China and Hong Kong. There's a ticket waiting for you at Beijing Airport, leaving for Tokyo in two hours. You need to be on it."
"Yes, sir. What's going on, sir?"
"I don't know for sure -- but the talking heads on TV say war."
Dave opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out.
"You still there, David?"
"Yes, sir," Dave finally choked out. "I'm leaving for the airport now, sir."
"Good. Don't worry about checking out of the hotel -- just go. We'll take care of it."
The line went dead, and Dave quickly got out of bed, threw on some jeans, and stuffed everything into his luggage. He was on the street in front of the hotel five minutes later, waving down a cab.
"Airport," he said to the driver, opening the back door and throwing in his suitcase. He was about to throw in his backpack, too, when the cab sped off, nearly slamming the door on his hand.
"Motherfucker!" Dave yelled after the cab. He still had his passport and wallet -- all the cabbie had gotten were clothes and sovenir crap. His hotel wasn't more than a couple miles from the airport -- he didn't like the idea, but Dave realized he was going to have to leg it.
"Jesus. I really need to lose some weight," he said as he huffed along. He'd made it no more than a mile before he was lost. He tried to wave down another cab, but no one was stopping. Dave leaned against the side of a darkened building to catch his breath and pulled out his phone to bring up a map -- the device wasn't getting a signal.
"Perfect," he sighed. He saw a young Chinese guy headed his way and waved him over.
"Yeah? What do you want?" the guy said, scowling.
"Hey, my man. I just need to get to the airport. Can you help me?" Dave asked.
"Sure, buddy. We can help," the young guy laughed, clapping his hands together. Four more young guys appeared from the shadows -- they were all armed with blunt, heavy pipes.
Dave had never been in a fight. He was a self-professed coward who had never even thrown a punch. He hadn't ever been angry enough, really. He considered trying to run, but something happened then.
He felt rage. He saw the image of that poor SEAL bastard tied to a chair, bleeding out, trying to open his ruined left eye. . . and suddenly, Dave wanted to fight.
"Right, then. Come on, you fucking bastards," Dave growled, bringing his hands up. As soon as one of them moved toward him, he threw a sloppy left-handed punch, catching the guy in the head and dropping him. It was the only punch he connected with before the other four were on him, beating the living crap out of him.
His vision was turning black around the edges when he heard a gunshot. Dave wondered why they waited this long to shoot him -- why they bothered beating him with lead pipes if they had a gun. The four guys were suddenly off him and running away, and someone was offering Dave a hand up. He took it.
"You look pretty bad, sir," the man connected to the hand told him. As Dave's vision cleared, he saw it was a police officer.
"Feel pretty bad, too, Officer."
"Trying to get to the airport?"
Dave nodded. Nodding hurt his neck.
"I'll give you a ride. Obviously, it's not safe for you here."
The officer helped Dave to his car and opened the passenger door. Dave realized his backpack was still on his back -- that meant he still had his passport. The officer got in and started the car.
"Pretty terrible morning we're having so far, isn't it?" the officer said as he turned on his lights and sped away from the curb.
"Yeah. Yeah, it sure is, Officer --"
"Zhang. You are?"
"Dave Graham. I work for MobiTech."
"Well, if the news is right, probably not for much longer," Zhang said.
"Yeah. Yeah, I suppose not."
"We'll be at the airport in a few minutes. I'll walk with you through security -- Americans aren't having a real easy time in the airports, either."
"I appreciate that, Zhang."
"It's no problem. Just, you know, when things get really bad between our countries. . . remember, we're just like you. Just people, you know?"
* * *
Four months later, Second Lieutenant David Graham graduated from Air Force Officer training school at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. He got his duty assignment -- Intelligence Analyst at Camp Justice in Russia, only a hundred miles from the Chinese border. During the last four months, he'd dropped forty pounds and could now run the 100-yard dash in 12 seconds.
When he got on the plane for Camp Justice, he had two thoughts in his head. The first was the image of Chief Petty Officer Daniels, beaten and tied to a chair. The second was of Officer Zhang smiling and waving as he got on the plane to Tokyo. He had no idea what the days ahead had in store for him, but he whispered to himself as he strapped himself in, "they're just like us. Just people."