Extended Epilogue – The Jump by Brittney Morris
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It sinks in all over again. This invitation could change everything.
It’s still dark outside. Mom isn’t even up yet.
My own umma is off to work, and my little sister, Tae-Yeon, is fast asleep in her bed next door for the first time in weeks. I breathe a sigh of relief now that she’s home from the hospital, mouthing a silent thank-you to Daeshim. He’ll be so happy to see she’s home when he wakes up. I give a silent nod into the darkness of his room before I duck out, gently shut his door, and hurry down the hall into mine. Realization washes over me like a wave. This teeny little space we all share above and beside Seoul Food? Might not be so teeny after I do what I’m about to do. My duffel is waiting for me, my phone sitting neatly on top. I sling it over my shoulder, stare down at my boarding pass, and breathe, wondering how reckless I must be to embark on something so impulsive.
. . . what would my father say?
He’d call me insane.
He’d ask, what makes you think this group that works in shadows would reach out to you—a computer science graduate student—for help with their operations?
Even I thought it was a scam at first. A simple encrypted email about an “operation” in an “undisclosed location”? Sus as hell. But when they followed up with a text containing a password to an ancient social media account I haven’t been able to log into for years, it told me two things.
1. They know my social media account passwords.
2. They know I haven’t been able to log into that one long enough to basically forget about it.
“Tae-Jin?” squeaks a sleepy voice from behind me. I gasp and turn to find Tae-Yeon, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes in her hot-air-balloon-covered pajamas that are quickly becoming too small for her.
“Good morning, Tae-Yeon. Why are you up so early?” I whisper, trying to act like absolutely nothing out of the ordinary is going on right now.
She looks past me, over my shoulder, straight at my bag.
And then the dreaded question comes.
“Where are you going?”
“To work,” I reply too quickly.
It’s not a lie . . .
“But you work here.”
. . . but she’s not buying it.
“Look, Tae-Yeon,” I say, kneeling and setting my bag down beside me. I reach up and rest my hand on her shoulder. “I’m going away for a while, okay? Just a little while.”
“Where?” she asks again.
“To an adventure far, far away.”
But really? I don’t know.
I know what city I’m going to, sure. But where in Philadelphia? Absolutely no idea.
“I need to go do some . . . exploring. Y’know?” I ask. “See the world. Have you ever been on an adventure, Tae-Yeon? Or a quest?”
She thinks for a minute, and then shakes her head.
“Well, I need you to go on a quest for me. Can you do that?”
She nods faithfully, a smile playing at the corner of her mouth.
I hold out the envelope for Daeshim, but I know I need to get it to him late enough to give me time to get to Sea-Tac Airport.
“Can you give this to Mom for me?”
“Our umma? Or Umma Umma?”
I chuckle at her smarts.
“Umma Umma. Daeshim’s umma. Can you do that? It’s very important.”
She stares at it. “When will you be back?”
I sigh, wishing I could give her a better answer. But I don’t have one myself.
“As soon as I can,” I assure her, running my knuckles along her soft cheek.
“Okay,” she says.
She finally takes the envelope as if I’ve just handed her the Holy Grail.
As I stand and pick up my duffel, she cocks an eyebrow and whispers up at me, “Are you going to do what Daeshim did?”
The hair on the back of my neck prickles a little at that question.
Does she know the extent of what Daeshim did?
“No,” I reply, the hesitancy in my voice strong enough to convince myself that I just might be doing exactly what Daeshim did—hacking into private messages, taking down a corporation, or at least putting a really big thorn in their side.
I guess I’ll find out when I get to Philly. Whatever the prize, it must be worth all this. Right?
“Can . . . ,” she begins, her fingers coming together nervously. “Can . . . I do what Daeshim did?”
“I want to do a puzzle,” she says with a smile so sweet and hopeful, it breaks my heart.
“Tae-Yeon,” I say, kneeling again, “you can do anything you put your mind to.”
She searches my eyes, wondering if this is a yes or a no, and I scramble to think of something to tell her. And then I find something.
“Okay, how’s this?” I ask with a grin, grabbing a pen and notepad from my nightstand. “Pike and Boylston, quite a hike from the Taproom. Have a single on me. Sodium chloride, and a vacuum.”
I tear the page and hand it to her.
“Whoa, is that a clue?!” she exclaims, looking down at the paper like I’ve just handed her a bar of gold. I shush her with a chuckle.
“Yes, yes, it’s a clue.”
She taps her feet in excitement, hands cupped over her face.
I whisper, “Now, back to bed, before our umma gets home.”
Her eyes grow wide before she darts back down the hallway to her own room. I sigh, hoping she won’t miss me as much as I’ll miss her. But I’m doing this for her. And for Umma. And for Daeshim and his mom.
Before I forget, I open an app to send a message to my friend James who works at “sodium chloride and a vacuum” a.k.a. Salt & Straw in Capitol Hill, one of the best ice cream places in all of Seattle. I send him four dollars with the caption “a single for Tae-Yeon, please :).”
I smile to myself, imagining the joy on her face when she figures it out. She never gets ice cream. Too expensive.
Still holding my phone, I take a deep breath and open the message again, the one that started all of this.
I entered the number as a URL, which took me to a QR code, which took me to a photograph of a boarding pass.
A boarding pass with my name on it.
Tae-Jin Kim. Name of the airline. Flight number. Boarding group 1. First class.
I re-read the number message again from my airline seat. It still doesn’t sink in that I’m here, flying to Philadelphia to meet the Order’s challenge.
If only I could’ve told Daeshim everything. But I’m afraid to say more. To anyone. I know he would’ve tried to talk me out of it, to convince me this is probably another police precinct trying to cash in on naive young people playing the game. But . . . why would anyone but the real Order fly me across the country to meet them? If it was a local police department, like Tacoma or something, wouldn’t they want to meet me locally?
And . . . who else but the Order have access to my online accounts like this? And for that matter, my identity? My real identity? Not the one Spider forged for me. My government identity.
My hands are clammy just thinking about whatever I’ll find in Philly. Or whoever . . . I look around at the faces around me, wondering if any of these people are on the same mission I am. . .
Or . . . if any of them are working for the Order? They have eyes everywhere, after all. Ugh, what am I doing? I’ve never even been to Philadelphia. I’ve never been to the east coast. Hell, I haven’t been east of Colorado. This is so impulsive. Have I lost my mind?
“More tea, sir?” comes the voice of the steward, making me jump. I look up at them as they hold out a hot silver pot.
“Uh, no,” I say back, glancing at my still-full cup of green tea. “No, thank you.”
He nods at me with a smile and exchanges the silver pot for a menu-size laminated card.
“My name is Ricardo. I’ll be taking care of you for the duration of the flight this evening. I noticed you haven’t chosen your meals yet. Is there anything I can get for you?”
I glance over the menu, floored by the options.
Beef Bourguignonne, marked with a star to signify that it’s spicy.
Lo mein with root vegetables.
“Is, uh,” I begin, realizing there’s no non-awkward way to ask this. I lean in to whisper, “Is this . . . free?”
“Of course.” He smiles, his teeth pearly white as he holds up a tall glass so delicate it looks like it might break in his hand. “Can I pour you a glass of champagne while you wait?”
Oh my god. Champagne too?
“On the house.” He winks, anticipating my next question.
“Yes, thank you.”
“I’ll let you take some time with the menu, and I’ll be back around in a little bit.” He flashes me one last smile before stepping back down the aisle toward the cockpit.
I glance over at the seat beside me, empty, and I wonder if the Order paid to have that vacant, for privacy reasons.
I feel my phone buzz in my pocket, and I realize the Wi-Fi I had been trying to connect to earlier has worked. I forgot it’s free in first class!
But my face pales as I stare down at the screen.
THANK YOU FOR ACCEPTING OUR INVITATION.
ONLY THE BEST MAKE IT THIS FAR.
TO JOIN YOUR TEAMMATES AND GET YOUR FIRST CLUE,
YOU’LL NEED A RED SQUARE WITH A GOLDEN STAR.
WHAT? Oh my god, it’s starting now?! I . . . I thought I had at least until I’d landed. I look around. I have . . . teammates? The other faces in first class seem unbothered. Everyone’s scrolling or reading a book or an e-reader.
Okay, maybe I’m alone after all.
Time to focus on the clue. Red square. Gold star. Red square. Gold star.
I look at the menu, front and back. Nothing.
Ricardo wheels a huge silver cart out from the front of the plane, passing another passenger a glass of champagne, and that’s when I notice it. Around his neck. The airline logo. A gold star, on a red ascot.
Ascots are square, right?
I gulp. I feel my forehead grow clammy with sweat. How the hell does the Order want me to get an ascot off a flight attendant? Don’t they, like . . . guard their uniforms with their lives? I’m pretty sure they have to pay to replace anything they lose. How can I do this . . . ?
Oh god, here he comes.
“Made your choice?” He grins, and I hesitate for a minute, clutching the menu like my life depends on it. This is it. If I don’t get the ascot, I’m . . . out, I guess. This will make or break my entire trip out here.
“Yeah,” I reply, my voice wavering, “Um . . . could I um . . .”
Borrow your scarf?
What a weird question! But if I can’t borrow his scarf, and I can’t steal it . . .
I absolutely will not resort to stealing. Not that I could swipe it off his neck if I wanted to. . . .
“Could I . . . have the beef Bourguignonne, please?”
He turns back to the cart, and I sigh, accepting that this is probably the end of the line for me. I can’t do this. I can’t even finesse a scarf off a man’s neck, let alone whatever else the Order expects. I might as well not even leave the Philly airport when I get there. Just turn right around and get on a plane back home, figure out something to tell my umma, and Mom.
She’ll wonder where I’ve been, and I’ll apologize and tell her it’ll never happen again, and we’ll go back to working in the kitchen downstairs and living paycheck to paycheck, wondering when our lives will loosen up enough to let us breathe.
My umma will continue on with life, working until the day she dies.
I close my eyes, fighting back tears, and then I hear a slip of paper meet the tray in front of me, and when I open them, I find . . . a red square?
The napkin. It’s a red square!
I immediately take it and flip it over, just as Ricardo takes the menu from the seat pocket in front of me.
“Excellent choice,” he says, his eyes lingering on mine, and just as he pulls the menu away, “Careful. It’s hot.”
I notice that star next to the beef Bourguignonne. The gold star.
A red square with a golden star.
I unfold the napkin to find a blank piece of paper. I flip it over. Nothing. I hold it up to the overhead light, and then look around to make sure no one else has been watching me. Forgot I was in public for a second.
Ugh, what does this mean . . . ? Come on, Tae-Jin.
And then . . . wait, was that a spot? Something appeared on the napkin out of the corner of my eye, I swear it. I turn it sideways, move it around over my tray, and right when I’m over the beef Bourguignonne, when the steam kisses my fingers, the letters emerge into being.
A BLACK CAR WILL TAKE YOU TO THE NEXT LOCATION.
BE READY TO PITCH IN.
LOOKS LIKE YOU CAN TAKE THE HEAT.
WELCOME TO THE KITCHEN.
“It wasn’t the ascot,” I whisper to myself as he leaves. “It was . . . right in front of me. And I almost missed it.”
This operation, this game, whatever it is . . . will not be easy.