Deus ex machina: god from a machine; a person who intervenes to solve a problem at the last minute.
Hongbin wakes up to the sound of a ping. He sits up where he had curled up on the floor of the observation room, about a hundred muscles aching all down his shoulders, back and waist. He lets out a soft groan and clutches his head when it starts to pound, but he fights it off as he pushes himself to his feet.
That ping only ever sounded when the drones dropped off his monthly supply of rations, but it had only been a little more than a week since the last delivery. His palm slides down the wall until he hits a button; there’s the hiss of the air-lock before the door to the hallway slides open. Hongbin shuffles out, squinting in the harsh lighting, eyes still glazed and sour with sleep. His brain was trying to catch up, telling him that something was wrong, something wasn’t right, that he should probably go back because he was just making things up now.
The station wasn’t big. Shaped like a tube, Hongbin could cross from his habitation module on one end to the docking station on the other in less than five minutes. The time from the observation room to the docking station was about half that, even at the slow amble Hongbin was managing.
The door to the docking station never opened unless Hongbin needed to pick up his supply of rations. The red light would always glare at him mockingly otherwise. And even when he could get in, he had about five minutes before they gassed the room and he passed out, only to wake up in his bed. He never did find out how he managed to get out of the room, but he figured that had connections in the pharmaceutical industry and would be able to induce him into sleepwalking. Either way, it had only happened once. Now he knew better.
It was a safety precaution. The people who locked him up didn’t want him getting under all the metalwork to the paneling to reprogram the security protocol. Not like he had any screwdrivers. Or wire cutters. Or any tools for that matter.
The light above the door was green. Hongbin takes a moment to contemplate it before pressing the button on the wall.
The door slides open and Hongbin isn’t greeted with a stack of boxes. He’s greeted by another human being.
A living, breathing human being staring calmly back at him.
For a long second Hongbin wonders if he’s having one of those lucid dreams again. They usually involved a different scenario, but he wouldn’t be surprised if his mind started making people appear again. But usually he only dreamt about people he knew, and the man in front of him was a total stranger.
He was tall and broad in the shoulders, dressed in a silver tracksuit with the GlobalTech logo emblazoned on the breast. His reddish-orange hair swept across his forehead, just above a pair of piercing narrow eyes. They were black, simultaneously lacking depth and being infinite, and Hongbin would have been stuck in his gaze if he wasn’t so struck by the oddity of this whole situation.
He wants to ask this stranger, but all he can manage is an inarticulate, “Wha…”
The man takes a step forward and Hongbin automatically steps back. Only by instinct is Hongbin aware that his five minutes was slowly ticking away. If this was a lucid dream, maybe he would black out and wake up in his bed.
“My name is Officer Jung Taekwoon,” the stranger says before Hongbin can ask for him to introduce himself. His voice is soft, foreign, but the sound of another human being speaking to him is almost enough to make Hongbin collapse to his knees and sob. He remains frozen though, listening, and Taekwoon keeps speaking:
“I have been assigned to your vessel as an increased security measure. I will be your warden from now until you finish your sentence, or until my position is otherwise terminated.”
Hongbin’s brain short-circuits and he has to grab onto the door jamb to keep himself upright. “The timer …” is the only coherent sentence that manages to slip from his mouth, all the others crashing and knotting together into a fray.
Taekwoon nods, somehow understanding what Hongbin was trying to convey. “The timer has been temporarily suspended for my arrival. You do not need to worry about it going off.” He cocks his head to the side. “Dr. Lee, you appear ill. Do you need medical assistance?”
No. No, Hongbin did not need medical assistance. He needed an explanation.
“Why are you here?” he asks, leaning back against the door, needing something to hold him up.
Taekwoon blinks. “I have been assigned to you vessel as an increased security measure. I will be your warden from now until you finish you sentence, or until my position is otherwise terminated,” he repeats.
Increased security measure bounces around Hongbin’s head for a while. “GlobalTech thinks I’m dangerous?” he asks. As if they didn’t watch him 24/7 on the security cameras installed in every room and corner of the space station.As if they hadn’t seen the life being hollowed out of him with every passing day aboard this prison. One-thousand eight-hundred and twenty-five days in solitary.
Blink blink. “You have not exhibited any behavior that would be warranted as suspicious.”
Hongbin opens his mouth to respond but Taekwoon holds up his hand, then continues, “But it is feared that isolation over an extended period of time may lead to mental degradation, including the ability to make appropriate decisions.”
“Appropriate decisions?” Hongbin scoffs. “Does GlobalTech really care if I sleep 7 hours or remember to feed myself?” Hongbin’s throat starts to feel scratchy. This is the most he’s spoken in the past five years, including those first few months when he would speak to his own reflection. He clears his throat when Taekwoon doesn’t provide him with a response.
Blink. Blink blink.
A thought strikes Hongbin. “Are you here to kill me?”
Taekwoon cocks his head to the side in confusion. “What purpose would that serve?”
“A cover-up. It would be easy to kill me here and no one would know about it,” Hongbin says. A silence settles over them and the pressure from it starts to give him a headache. He rubs at his eyes, even though he’s afraid that as soon as he opens his eyes the apparition will disappear right in front of him and he’ll wake up in his bed in a cold sweat. He looks up and Taekwoon is still there.
“Maybe I’m dead already.”
Hongbin is sitting on the floor of the observation room, his back against the always-black monitor set into the metal wall, staring at Taekwoon who was calmly sitting on the bench on the opposite wall. They had not exchanged a word since their first conversation and by now Hongbin has started to accept that all of this is not the effect of sleep walking or lucid dreaming. It causes a strange feeling to bubble in his stomach.
He wonders if this is punishment or a blessing. If GlobalTech really believed that he was incapable of carrying out basic functions, shouldn’t they just cut off all his supplies and let him die in a pool of his own drool and vomit? Or better yet, cut off the oxygen reserve so that he asphyxiated. Maybe this was just a precursor to that.
Then again, he finally wasn’t alone. Sure, it was a warden of the state—highly trained and professional, able to kill him with just a flick of his hand, but it still was another human being. Someone who walked and talked, with eyes that moved and hands that could touch. Hongbin had to resist the urge to go over to Taekwoon and map out the planes of his face, just so he could remember what another person’s features could be and how they felt and moved.
A thought strikes him. “There’s only one bed in the habitation module. Where are you going to sleep?” he asks. It’s starting to feel oddly like he’s the host of this space station, except there’s only one guest and there was no budget for hors d'oeuvres.
“Comfort is the least concern for my position,” Taekwoon answers without hesitation. Hongbin can only laugh, a strange, bitter sound that he hasn’t heard in a long time either.
“Odd that the prisoner gets to be comfortable while his warden sleeps on the floor,” Hongbin hums but Taekwoon doesn’t offer up a response to that. Hongbin knows he should be unnerved by the way that the other man is silently observing him, just the same way that Hongbin is observing him back, but there’s something calming about the way he’s holding himself, how it’s just the slightest bit domineering but not overpowering.
Taekwoon is quiet for a moment before he replies in a careful voice, “There are many things odd with your situation.”
One of the walls in the observation room was a floor to ceiling window overlooking the infinitely black universe with the tiny blip of Earth floating off in the distance. Hongbin’s favorite pastime was sitting in front of this window until his eyes burned from tiredness or his stomach growled for attention. Hongbin hardly ever concentrated on what was outside—what was there to look at anyway?
Hongbin stands and walks over to the window. In the reflection of the glass he can see Taekwoon still watching him, head turned slightly, but otherwise still. “What do you know of my situation?” he asks.
“You have been detained in this facility as a prisoner of the state for a sentence of twenty-five years,” Taekwoon replies automatically, but he pauses before he adds, “You are the first person to be placed in isolation in a spacecraft.’
Five years down, twenty to go, Hongbin tells himself. The thought rattles around in his brain and it’s a hollow sound. “Do you know what I was sent here for?”
Taekwoon’s answer makes something painful spike in Hongbin’s stomach. “You violated the Ban on Construction of Artificial Intelligence.”
“The law states that the prison sentence for violating the ban is life in jail,” Hongbin replies. He focuses again on the expanse in front of him, the dead stars millions of lightyears away winking teasingly at him. “But because of my previous contributions to GlobalTech they decided to shorten it for me.”
Hongbin wonders what would have been worse. At least on Earth he would’ve had people around him. A solid ground under his feet. A taste of sun on his skin. Out here all he has is himself, and he’s long grown tired of that.
“There’s something different about being forced to fly into space alone, and working your whole life for it,” Hongbin says when Taekwoon fails to respond. He turns to face the warden, a tight smile on his face. “I’m sure you can tell which category I’m in.”
All of a sudden Hongbin feels lightheaded and he sits down on the floor, pulling his knees up. His chest feels tight. “Even the people who wanted to be out here in this fucking hole weren’t in flight this long. They talk about how they want to make colonies on other planets, but nothing gets past the drafting table because everyone is afraid of being out here.” His fingers twitch where they’re clutching his thighs and he swears he could claw his way through the metal body of this ship. “Everyone is afraid of being out here, but they send me out here to be alone.”
Hongbin looks up all of a sudden and he sees that Taekwoon has risen from his seat. He holds up his hands in defense. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he protests and slumps back against the window. He rubs his fingers over his eyes. “I’m usually calm, it’s just sometimes … sometimes I think too much and I get angry.”
Taekwoon doesn’t move, still on alert, and Hongbin sighs. “It’s fine,” he repeats. “I’m fine. I won’t do anything. To myself or you.”
Hongbin turns to look out the window and leans his head on the glass, shutting his eyes. “I’ve been stuck here powerless for five years. I’m not about to do anything that’s going to make my sentence worse.”
One of the rooms in the space shuttle was a small study, equipped with a desk, a chair, and a full-length bookcase. No computers, of course. The desk is now overturned and against the wall from where Hongbin had thrown it two years ago. Many of the books are on the ground, some of their pages torn out. Some of them have no pages at all.
They stopped sending him books with his rations after that.
Hongbin picks up a book from the shelf, a brown leather tome with the words World History 15th Century embroidered in gold on the spine.
“What do you think people fear the most, Taekwoon?” he asks, flipping through the book a few pages before replacing it neatly on the shelf. He picks up the next volume. He can feel Taekwoon’s gaze on him from where he’s standing by the door. It prickles up the back of his neck and makes it impossible to read any of the text in front of him.
“Death?” is Taekwoon’s reply after a measured moment.
Hongbin shakes his head and puts the book back on the shelf, turning around. “I think what people fear the most is being forgotten.”
He bends down and picks up a handful of the faded paper scattered on the ground. Without their brethren, just loose like this and unbound, the neatly printed lines of characters are nothing but nonsense now. They reminded Hongbin of his scattered thoughts.
“We put so much emphasis on history, on legacies,” he continues. “Who did what and when? Why was it important? At school, students are told to memorize dates and names until they become more recognizable than their own family members. The prize for doing well at work are golden plaques with our names engraved in them for everyone to see.”
He lets the pages slip from his hands and flutter down to pool at his feet. “And what about those who didn’t make the cut?” He squashes the paper with his bare heel. “Well, we just don’t know. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it? It’s as if they never existed as real people, only the idea of them.”
“Does this mean our lives are insignificant?” Taekwoon asks, surprising Hongbin out of his thoughts. “Unless we contribute to the society?”
Hongbin rubs the back of his neck and leans against the bookcase, looking at how all the crumpled up words formed new shapes and dialogues, an entirely new story scattered across the floor. “Well, no. That’s an extremely defeatist way to look at things,” he says, then meets Taekwoon’s gaze. Though his expression is still as closed as always, there is something sparking and curious in his eyes. It’s something he hasn’t seen in a while, even back when he was still in contact with humans. He hasn’t seen it since …
“That’s just what seems to be popularized in this day and age,” he says before his thoughts can take over. He gives Taekwoon a wry, bitter smile. “Who knows; perhaps things have changed since I’ve been on Earth.”
But his tactic fails and soon tendrils of his thoughts start to crawl into his brain and wrap around his nerves until they’re drowning him, making his heart pound and his stomach churn. Images of his laboratory being overrun with soldiers flicker behind his eyelids every time he blinks. He starts to think of her and how … Hongbin sinks to the ground with a deep breath, but even as the air fills his chest he hardly feels the refreshing breath.
“I never … I never intended to gain a legacy from my work,” he says quietly and runs his fingers through his hair. “Whether people support it or not, the digital world is expanding faster than our predecessors could have ever imagined. The creation and evolution of artificial intelligence is inevitable. Even with the Ban in place, someone was going to successfully create an android.”
“Like you,” Taekwoon supplies.
Hongbin sighs. “Yes, like me.” He shakes his head and looks away from Taekwoon, refusing to meet his eyes. “I wouldn’t dub myself successful, though. My research was interrupted before I could complete all of the necessary components. And still …” He looks at his hands.
“I originally started my project in spite of the Ban. I never was the type to riot or anything, but I had this burning curiosity. Why would GlobalTech want to stifle such progress? Don’t we have something to learn from creating intelligent machines?” Hongbin says. He doesn’t know why he’s telling Taekwoon all of this, why the words are flowing out so easily, but he can’t find it in himself to stop either. He’s sure that all of his records and notes in his laboratory had been destroyed as soon as he was caught, all of his progress turned to ash and steel carnage. But all of the information had stayed in his brain, suffocating, and now that Hongbin had an outlet it all wanted to come out.
“The main problem that engineers and programmers have run into when creating these AIs is how to see if it can recognize itself outside of the program. Can it say ‘I am a machine, and I have a purpose’ without being told to do so? Can it learn to understand that on its own? Can we learn what the android’s desires are without inputting them ourselves?”
“I started my research to learn from the android I created,” Hongbin says and looks at Taekwoon, who had come over to sit down on the chair opposite him. “What could it tell me about how we become self-aware?”
Taekwoon cocks his head to the side. “Aren’t you supposed to teach the android itself how to become self-aware?” he asks.
“Yes, but how?” Hongbin shoots back. “Our understanding of being self-aware is either based on literature, or it tells us how it affects our psyche. Not where it comes from.”
“We teach a dog that it has the ability to sit, to lay down, or to fetch. Of course, it can do all of these things innately, but the dog learns through human discipline how it can be prompted to do such things,” Hongbin continues and he can see a question on Taekwoon’s lips, but he ignores it for now as he finishes: “So to learn about how we become self-aware, we must take discipline from the AI.”
“You don’t believe that you’re smarter than a machine?” Taekwoon asks, voice quiet.
Hongbin scoffs. “Just because I am self-aware? Or that I have an innate capacity for emotion that is so far unexplainable to myself?” he asks. “Certainly not.”
Taekwoon frowns a little. “You know why you’re happy or sad.”
“I know what chemicals in my brain can make me happy or sad. I know which glands release the hormones that make me feel happy, or tired, or excited,” Hongbin says and turns to the ground, picking up one of the pages. It’s an illustration from a children’s book of a family sitting around a dinner table, all holding hands with smiles on their faces. He doesn’t know why this book was given to him, but he supposes that someone at GlobalTech must have a sick sense of humor. He holds up the page to show Taekwoon the picture. “I can’t tell you why this image makes me smile, but it does. Sure there is some psychological explanation, but then where does our personality come from? Can it be entirely genetic?”
Hongbin brings the page back to his lap and slowly tears it in half. “Perhaps it is egotistic of us, though. We barely understand everything about ourselves, about our world, and yet we try to build things far more advanced than us.” A bitter smile crosses his face. “Perhaps that’s why the Ban was established.”
He looks at Taekwoon and he can practically see the gears turning in the warden’s head, even as he just stares at his hands. Suddenly he looks up. “What did you learn from your android, Dr. Lee?”
Hongbin shuts his eyes and leans back against the bookcase. He feels like his heart is breaking all over again, but this time the smile that touches his lips is warm and soft.
“I learned why God found beauty in the man he had created.”
There had been days aboard the prison where Hongbin forgot to eat. Stretches of time where he subsisted only on half a packet of freeze-dried food that he could barely swallow down. He was sure he was going to throw it back up if there had been enough food in his stomach to do it. Sometimes he went crazy with hunger, nearly inhaling packet after packet. Sometimes he would eat his entire month’s rations by the second week and he starved until the next shipment came in.
There were times when he forgot to sleep. He would lie on the floor of the observation room despite how his back protested and his body ached. He lay on the ground until his body became numb and he wasn’t sure if he was awake or dreaming. He never kept track of time anymore, gave up on counting days after the first year, but he was sure that there were times when he went to sleep and would wake up days later.
But even if every day Hongbin felt his mind crumbling, there were memories that still stuck just as crisp and bright as if he were watching a movie of them.
The first was of his brother, Sanghyuk, when he took him to his first baseball practice. Sanghyuk was ten years old then, eyes bright with lingering childish curiosity and a smile that never seemed to fade. Hongbin was completing his studies at graduate school at the time, but he remembered to pencil in a chance to take his baby brother to the park.
“The whole way to the field Sanghyuk was talking about how this was just one step on his way to a professional team,” Hongbin tells Taekwoon. It had been five days since the warden’s arrival onto the prison. Though they weren’t totally friendly with each other, a mutual understanding had been established. At least, in Hongbin’s view.
Either way, he had already spilled so much of his thoughts out to Taekwoon; it was only a matter of time before his heart followed suit. For some reason it didn’t matter that the cameras were on him now, surely with an audio feed too. Hongbin only cared that Taekwoon was listening.
“He was still smiling after practice, all caked in dirt and sweat,” Hongbin remarks fondly and looks out the window. He swears he sees an asteroid whizz by in the distance. “It was gross because he was getting dust all over me, but I didn’t care. I was so happy that he was happy.”
Taekwoon normally didn’t say much, but now he was particularly quiet. Hongbin looks over his shoulder at the warden and cocks his head to the side. “Do you have a family?”
Hongbin wonders if that was the wrong question to ask, if he was allowed to get that personal with someone who was supposed to be monitoring him, but he couldn’t help it. He watches as sadness (and confusion?) line the corners of Taekwoon’s mouth.,"
“I don’t have anyone,” the warden replies. His simple response provides no room for prying, and Hongbin feels his shoulders sink at the implication of Taekwoon’s words.
“I’m sorry.” It’s the only thing he knows to say. He turns back to the window and places his hand on it, pressing down, and when he pulls it off there’s a foggy handprint on the glass. It fades in a few seconds and Hongbin wonders if he, too, was somehow fading into nothingness. “Maybe it’s better that way, though.”
He focuses on the view outside of the ship, straining his eyes through the darkness to try and find that familiar dot of Earth floating somewhere out there.
“Then there’s no one for you to miss.”
The second memory is a longer one. It’s the one that’s been haunting for the past five years. The reason he was on the station in the first place. It’s the memory of her. The memory of her creation.
Hongbin stares sightlessly at the ceiling above him, laying spread-eagle on the cold metal floor. “I was originally going to make the android genderless,” he tells Taekwoon. It had been two days since they had last spoken, or so Taekwoon had informed Hongbin when he had stumbled out of the habitation module, limbs heavy with sleep. Hongbin wasn’t even phased that he had slept that long.
“But for some reason I thought that tailoring the programming to incline to a gender would make things easier,” he continues then laughs sharply. “Maybe I was just lonely. Why else would I have made a female android? I don’t know anything about women.”
Hongbin sits up and looks out the window. Taekwoon is behind him, surely burning holes into his back with his stare, but Hongbin ignores him in favor of the view. “I had lead programming projects for GlobalTech’s branch in the Pacific, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with their programs dealing with artificial intelligence. But they were all programs that took in massive amounts of input and generated a complex output. There was no consciousness there that existed when the technician stepped back from the computer. That’s what I had to figure out.”
“How did you?”
Hongbin’s focus slides back from outside of the station and back into the metal room, and he has to laugh. “Of course you would ask me a question like that,” he says and looks up to a far corner of the room, his gaze settling on the shiny black lens set into the wall above a black monitor. “I’ve already shared so much of my mind with you, why shouldn’t I tell you this, right?”
He looks at Taekwoon. “Were you ordered to ask me this?” he asks. Hongbin can’t help the slight undercurrent of worry in his tone, paranoia creeping up his spine and into his nerves; he feels stupid for not realizing that there might’ve been a bigger agenda.
To his surprise, though, Taekwoon shakes his head. “I am merely facilitating your story,” he replies and Hongbin feels his shoulders sag despite himself. He knows he should be on alert, that he should stop telling any more tales about his past or his research or anything.
Hongbin can’t listen to that logical part of his brain, though. He’s already had too much of this good thing, of Taekwoon’s patient listening, and he feels addicted to it.
“Ask me another question, then.”
Taekwoon thinks for a moment, looking at the ground, but he lifts his head after a brief moment. “Did you love your creation?”
Hongbin takes a deep breath, the same hollow feeling filling his chest, and he stares at his hands. He traces the little wrinkles running across his palm, mapping the galaxies written across his skin. “Of course I did,” he says after a moment. “How could I not? I was proud of what I had made. I was proud of her.”
“Can you imagine that first conversation that we had? The first instance where I saw all of my work blooming into reality?” Hongbin closes his eyes as he goes back.
He had built his laboratory in the basement of his home, adding an extra lock to the door just in case. When he started to build his super computer, buying all of the hardware, power distributors, and cooling systems, he knew his electrical footprint would be enormous on the map, even living in a highly populated capital city. Anything bigger than the standard WiFi router and CPU would be detected by GlobalTech in a second. So he had to pay off the electrical company to write off false reports about the electrical usage in his home.
He spent hours after work sitting at the desk in his basement pouring over lines of coding, papers scattered on his desk that only kept piling on top of each other every day. The whole time he felt like he was on a timer, that any second his whole operation would be shut down, so he hardly spent more than a few hours a night with his eyes closed.
He had to go out of the city to start working on the mechanics. If he started buying parts in the city his credit card receipts would start to look suspicious. He had managed to track down where GlobalTech would dump their unused parts there. They were all still shiny and chrome and Hongbin felt like he was a kid in a candy store with a terrible sweet tooth.
And when he was done building every fiber and wire, done typing the last line of code, the exhaustion that had seeped into his bones gave way to an electric anticipation.
“That first day I told her my name and where she was. I told her that she was different from other people. That she was special.”
Hongbin finally opens his eyes and he stands up, turning to face Taekwoon. For the first time Taekwoon looked almost, soft. Hongbin feels a magnetic pull towards the warden and he walks over to him, sitting down on the seat beside him. He looks back down at his feet even as Taekwoon’s gaze is on the side of his face. A gentle smile still touches the corners of Hongbin’s lips.
“There were some rough patches in her programming in terms of language and face-to-voice coordination. She was very quiet most of the time, listening, always listening, and when she did speak she didn’t emote much,” Hongbin explains and he shakes his head. “But I swear, she knew how to smile.”
Whatever light had been bubbling in his chest suddenly puffed out and he sinks against the wall, slumping slightly. “Of course, I never go to work on fixing that part of her coding. There was so much I had planned to do and …. GlobalTech ripped it all away from me.”
He wishes he could go over to the lens in the wall and smash his fist into it until his hand broke and he was tired of fighting. He wants to break all of the cameras, all of the walls and the wires, wants to wreak havoc on the company that ruined him. But he’s frozen on the bench, knowing that Taekwoon would stop and suppress him anyway if he started acting violently.
“You violated the ban,” Taekwoon answers simply. Hongbin snaps his head to look at him, eyes suddenly filled with hot tears and a rough feeling crawling up his throat.
“Why the fuck does it matter? I put my heart into making her and I watched as GlobalTech officers came in and ripped her away from me.” Images flash across Hongbin’s brain at a rapid pace and he feels like he’s going to be sick. “They made me watch as they dismantled her and shut her off.”
An ugly sob is ripped from Hongbin’s throat and he doubles over, mashing the heels of his hands into his eyes to try and block the memory. “When I was building her I had installed nerves into her skin fibers in order for her perception of the world to be more rounded and realistic,” Hongbin says quickly, voice thick with tears, and he dry heaves. “Her databank included a capability to understand pain.”
He feels Taekwoon shift beside him. “So she felt like she was being ripped apart.”
Hongbin lifts his head and looks at Taekwoon. He feels so fragile next to the warden all of a sudden, as if just a single breath could blow him away into particles of dust. His heart beat is too loud in his ears and his muscles ache and the air filling his lungs feels like spikes are sliding through his chest.
“It’s a cruel thing to be human, isn’t it?”
Hongbin wakes up and there’s a weird feeling in stomach. It’s something like anticipation and nervousness and it makes his skin feel like there’s an electric current running through it. He exits his habitation module and Taekwoon isn’t there to greet him. This wasn’t entirely odd, since the warden could sometimes be found lingering in the study, but it still makes Hongbin’s stomach sink.
He wants to call out but his voice is scratchy from sleep. But then his stomach growls, and that takes precedence. He goes into the observation room.
Hongbin pops open one of the drawers set into the wall with a press of a button, finding stacks of tin-wrapped packets inside. He pulls one out and rips the seal off, reaching inside and breaking off a piece of freeze-died something. He lets it melt on is tongue, barely having the energy to chew, and when that piece is done he shoves another into his mouth. A voice in the back of his mind nags at him that Taekwoon still hasn’t shown up.
When he steps out into the hallway he notices something odd. A little ways down, above a door he had never gone into before, a little green light was blinking. By the fault of his nature Hongbin starts to go towards it.
A vague flashback sends him to his first day of incarceration when a fully-suited GlobalTech officer was showing him through the station, telling him what all the rooms were and where he would pick up his monthly rations. When Hongbin had asked what the purpose of that room was, the officer brushed off his question with a curt, “Maintenance” and the door was shut tight ever since.
Hongbin stands in front of the door with an odd feeling tingling up his neck. He shouldn’t be so concerned. “Maintenance” couldn’t mean more than just a ton of generators and electrical boxes packed into a room. He slides his hand onto the panel beside the door, and he hears the air-lock go off.
The door to the room opens and Hongbin’s heart sinks into his stomach.
Taekwoon is standing with his back to him, spine straight and arms still at his sides. What makes Hongbin’s stomach turn is the sight of the skin of Taekwoon’s neck peeled down, revealing a network of thick wires and metal framework. A large cable is attached to an access port at the base of his head, glowing dimly with an eerie blue light.
Hongbin has to grip the door jamb to keep himself upright, his knees weak, and this is just like the feeling he had on Taekwoon’s arrival day.
Except Taekwoon wasn’t human.
There’s a moment where the warden turns and they make eye contact. Hongbin can only register that there is something sad in the way Taekwoons lips are drawn before he sees him reaching for something in his belt. A cold bolt of fear shoots down Hongbin’s spine.
But Taekwoon is fast, and Hongbin barely manages to make his feet function to get him out of there before something sharp strikes his leg. He falls back into the hallway with a cry of pain, and the door slides shut automatically in front of him.
He sits up and tries to move his leg, but that sends a shot of pain through his nerves and he groans loudly. He’s afraid to look but he does anyway, and the hilt of an army-grade knife is sticking out of his calf. A dark red patch is blooming on his pants and he can feel blood trickling hotly down his leg. His first instinct is to run.
Taekwoon isn’t human.
Hongbin can’t make himself stand, so he crawls down the hall, his injured leg dragging like a dead weight behind him. Fear is the only thing keeping him moving right now and he winces each time he hauls himself forward. He doesn’t know if this is a dream, desperately hopes that it is, but all at once everything feels too real too.
He manages to make it to the door of the observation room, but he can’t reach the panel from the floor. Gritting his teeth he forces himself into a crouching position and slams his hand onto the panel as he forces himself up, half-using it to keep his balance.
Just as the air-lock clicks on the door Hongbin hears one go off behind him from the maintenance room. Hongbin all but leaps inside, crumpling to the floor again as his legs give out.
His vision goes hazy and he curls his fingers around the hilt of the knife. He pulls it out and it feels like the knife is slicing through him again.
“Fuck,” he growls and dares to look at the blade, shining crimson in the fluorescent light. He knows Taekwoon is going to find him soon. If he didn’t hesitate to slice his leg to stop him, Hongbin didn’t want to know what would happen if he got close.
He clutches the knife to his chest, trying not to feel woozy from the metallic smell, and uses his other hand to brace himself on the wall. He leans back against the wall adjacent to the door, breathing hard, a mix of pain and exhaustion and sheer terror making his heart beat triple time.
The door slides open and Taekwoon steps in. His skin is back in place on his neck, but Hongbin can’t get the image of how it looks underneath out of his head.
Adrenaline surges through Hongbin’s veins and he lunges for Taekwoon, knife brandished to him. It feels like everything is moving in slow motion until Hongbin knocks into the warden and they collapse onto the ground. Hongbin tries to pin Taekwoon’s arms with his knees, but the warden is bigger and stronger than him, and then Hongbin’s next instinct is to stab down.
The knife makes an awful grinding noise as it jerks through Taekwoon’s chest. Taekwoon tries to grab at him; there isn’t fear in his eyes, just a mechanical need to stop, and that’s when Hongbin snaps.
Taekwoon isn’t human.
Hongbin brings the knife down over and over again, stabbing it into the warden’s face, shredding his skin mesh into strips. There wasn’t any blood, only sparks and bits of wire flying out, and Taekwoon’s limbs twitch with every jab. Hongbin gouges him until his arms become numb, and even then he doesn’t stop. His whole body is trembling and he doesn’t realize he’s sobbing until he sees wet droplets falling on the warden’s tattered face.
He stabs until Taekwoon’s convulsions stop and he falls still, the light behind his one intact eye fading out. Hongbin swears he hears his name puff out from warden’s lips before his head lolls to the side, the knife sticking out of his temple.
Hongbin slides off of Taekwoon’s body and collapses onto his back, breathing hard, and the ceiling spins above him. The world seemed strange and different and unreal, and Hongbin didn’t know what to do with himself. He turns his head to look at Taekwoon, the warden staring lifelessly back at him.
Did he even have life? There was no heart in his chest, only a whirring generator.
Hongbin can’t help but think he was a murderer anyway.
A little red light blipped above the black monitor in the wall. It never did that. Hongbin drags himself over to it and collapses to his knees, staring at the dot blinking incessantly at him. He presses his finger to it, wondering if he could wipe it away, if maybe God was reaching down and doing the same to him too.
The monitor buzzes and comes to life, and after a few moments of white noises and static someone comes onto the screen. Someone he doesn’t know, staring up at him. Hongbin would jump back in surprise if his legs didn’t feel so numb.
“Salutations, Lee Hongbin,” the person chirps and gives him a wide smile. He’s only visible from mid-chest up but Hongbin can tell he’s wearing a lab coat, the dress shirt underneath buttoned up to his neck. “Thank you for participating in our little experiment.”
Hongbin shakes his head, eyes going wide. “Experiment? Who are you? Who’s ‘our’?” His mind feels dulled from adrenaline and it pounds at the same rate at his heartbeat. He feels like it’s going to explode at any moment.
The man keeps smiling. “My name is Cha Hakyeon, head of robotics research down here at GlobalTech.’ He looks down at supposedly his notes or a compute or something. “Admittedly, you survived with Taekwoon a considerably longer time than we anticipated. We figured you would have found out his little secret already, but perhaps that’s a good thing.”
“What the fuck is going on?” Is all Hongbin manages to croak out. He can still hear Taekwoon fizzing and sparking behind him and his pulse skips a beat every time he hears something.
“Doctor, do you know what the Turing test is?” It’s a test to determine whether a machine has the ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to a human—“
“I know what the Turing test is,” Hongbin snaps. “I built an AI. I know what—“
Hakyeon cuts him off. “This was rather helpful in our research on android to human interaction. We haven’t yet determined whether Taekwoon passed the test or not, though that will only take more examination of this data and comparison to old data.”
“That’s my data, you son of a bitch,” Hongbin screams and he wants to throw something at the monitor, but theres nothing in reach, and he dares not step close to Taekwoon to pull the knife out of his head. He’s frozen to the floor.
Hakyeon continues as if he hadn’t heard him. “Though we also must consider if you were a proper candidate for this experiment. You are the first man in interstellar isolation so we picked you automatically, also considering your prior experience with artificially-intelligent machines, but I suppose there are a few things to consider.” His gaze is direct and Hongbin feels it in his back, making him sit rigid on the cold floor.
“Doctor, do you think you believe you are a human being?”
The questions slams through Hongbin’s body and his vision goes red. “Of course I’m a fucking human being,” Hongbin snarls and slams his fist into the monitor, though that does nothing but make a loud thudding noise and a jolt of pain shoot up his arm. He feels something thick and hot and prickly well up in his throat, and then he starts sobbing because it’s the only response he knows now. “I bleed, and I cry, and I can feel. I’m a human fucking being.” Hongbin has never felt emptier in his life.
“Is that what it means to be human, doctor?” Hakyeon asks, unaffected by Hongbin’s break.
Hongbin drops his head on the floor between his knees, pulling at his hair as he shudders and weeps and screams.
“I’m human, I’m human. I’m only human.”
Hongbin stares out into the infinite blackness. He wonders what Sanghyuk is doing now. Maybe he’s still on that baseball team hitting home runs. Or maybe he’s met someone cute and taking them out for smoothies. Maybe he took a science class and is really enjoying it; maybe he wants to take up research like his older brother.
Hongbin picks up a gun that he had found on Taekwoon’s belt.
He desperately hopes Sanghyuk doesn’t take up research. Hongbin desperately hopes that Sanghyuk prefers literature or art or music. He hopes that curiosity doesn’t burn in his gut like it had for him all those years ago.
Hongbin points the gun at the glass panel. He wonders what it’ll feel like when there’s no atmosphere. Years of studying can’t compare to the actual feeling of your lungs being crushed as the air disappears in an instant. Maybe it’ll happen so fast that it won’t hurt.
Hongbin’s eyes burn but he can’t cry anymore. He feels dizzy from blood loss and confusion and sadness. He wants to go back to his home. It’s all he’s wanted for the past five years.
Hongbin shuts his eyes, and fires the gun.
Hongbin wakes up and everything is red.
He tries to lift his head but everything swims in front of him and he has to shut his eyes, dropping his head to the floor again.
He wonders if he’s dead, if this was the afterlife. But then his leg starts throbbing dully and his head pounds, and he doesn’t think that death should feel so painful. He groans softly. He feels so tired.
There’s a loud bang and then the sound of metal screeching against metal. Hongbin moves to sit up, wanting to see what was going on, but his arms give out when he tries to lift himself off the ground again. Fear constricts his heart as he wonders if Taekwoon had survived his attack. There’s the sound of a pair of feet approaching and Hongbin opens his eyes, seeing boots beside his head.
An unfamiliar voice floats down to him. “He doesn’t look good.”
“Of course not. You were watching the camera, right?” The second voice is much deeper than the first. “I’m going to have to carry him.”
All of a sudden Hongbin sees the ground getting further away from him, a pair of solid arms sliding under his knees and under his back, and Hongbin sags against a very broad chest. He lifts his head and he can’t recognize the man carrying him. His gaze is returned by a warm smile.
“Oh good, you’re awake.”
Hongbin wants to ask why he isn’t dead. Why didn’t the bullet pierce the window and let the vacuum of space suck him up? How did these two even get up to the station so fast? He has so many questions, but his mouth is so parched that he can only heave a rasping breath. He tries to loll his head to look at the window but the man holding him starts running towards the door. He can hear the second pair of footsteps right behind them.
The whole station is bathed in this dim red light, and Hongbin is sent back to a time when he was back working at GlobalTech’s headquarters in one of their many computer labs. There had been a power outage for no explainable reason and the building had to switch to a reserve generator. The lights had dimmed down and everything looked like it was covered in blood in the next instant, the dull hum of backup power thrumming all around them.
That thrumming sounds fills Hongbin’s ears and he closes his eyes, the feeling of being carried making him dizzy.
“What’s happening?” he manages to mumble. He looks and sees that they’re heading in the direction of the docking station. “Where are we going?”
The other man reveals himself to the side and he smiles at Hongbin, bright eyes turning to half-moons. “We’re breaking you out, Dr. Lee,” he tells him. “You’ve been in this simulation far too long.”
Hongbin’s eyebrows knit together as he tries to piece together his words. “Sim…simulation?” he asks.
His “rescuers” exchange looks, and then the one carrying him shakes his head. “We’ll tell you everything when we get to safety. Right now we have to focus on an escape route.”
They enter the docking station and go towards another door that Hongbin had never been through before. He wonders if they were going to go into their ship, though he still can’t wrap his mind around how they managed to fly to him at just the right time. But then the word ‘simulation’ is still stuck in his mind and he can’t understand that either.
The one holding him speaks up again, “Jaehwan, how much longer do we have?”
Jaehwan pulls out a device that looks like a phone, its screen glowing bright. “We have about twenty minutes before the main generator comes back on and the officers will be able to find us.” They run into a dark hallway. “There’s a hidden door here. Let’s go.”
Hongbin doesn’t know what comes next, the shaking and his dizziness and the blood loss making him weary, and he doesn’t realize that he falls asleep until he wakes up and it’s blindingly bright.
He has to squint to keep out the sunlight, and then realization hits him like a slap in the face. He sits up suddenly, ignoring his sudden head rush, and he looks around.
Sunlight. Warm sunlight on his face.
He’s in the cabin of some kind of aircraft, and a small window by his head giving him a view of the blue sky. This must be a dream. He notices Jaehwan out of the corner of his eye and when he looks at him he sees the other man smiling at him.
“Where are we?” he rasps. He’s been shocked into a stupor. “This isn’t …. This can’t be …”
Jaehwan nods. “We’re flying to an undisclosed location to get you to safety. We must be somewhere over the Pacific Ocean right now.”
“But how?” Hongbin can’t help but ask. He turns his gaze to the window again, needing to stare at the sky, addicted to this view that had for so long seemed like a distant memory. “I was in space.”
“I know that this is going to come as a surprise to you, but … none of that was real, Doctor. You never left Earth. Your station was located in the basement of GlobalTech under observation.”
Hongbin feels sick to his stomach and he slumps slightly against the wall. “I ... I don’t … why?” he asks and shakes his head. “Why did they do this to me? Why couldn’t they have told me?”
It’s obvious that Jaehwan is attempting to hide the pity in his expression but he’s not doing a very good job. “From my understanding, GlobalTech wanted to examine the effects of long-term isolation without the cost of an actual flight. They wanted to see if it was a viable form of punishment to be used in the future.” He sighs. “I am assuming that they chose you because you were the first person to violate their Ban.”
Hongbin needed to know. “Am I the only one who violated the ban?” he asks.
Jaehwan nods. “GlobalTech’s security and surveillance over the Pacific region skyrocketed after you were caught, but I don’t think anyone else was even capable of doing what you did,” he says and a broad smile spreads across his face despite the nature of their conversation. “That’s why Wonsik and I became such fans of yours. You did something that seemed unattainable, and all without the technology or funding of a giant corp behind you.”
“Who are you again? Why … why did you come after me?” There are still so many things that Hongbin doesn’t understand, and he’s still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he actually wasn’t in space for five years like he had believed. All of the projections of Earth, all of the formalities of picking up rations, all of the fear of losing oxygen and power and floating endlessly into the infinite darkness … all of it was a ruse to get a reaction out of Hongbin and observe him. Hongbin thinks spitefully that it was more than successful.
“Wonsik and I were members of one of the observation teams on your project,” he says, slowing slightly in his words and looking slightly uncomfortable when Hongbin frowns deeply. He clears his throat and continues:
“We didn’t really expect that they would actually keep you in isolation for as long as they did. It wasn’t until Year 5 that they revealed the completion of Taekw— the android … to the staff on the project. I’m not entirely sure why they decided to test his capabilities with you, though. They could have picked any ordinary number cruncher in the office.”
Hongbin scoffs. The mere mention of Taekwoon makes a cold clench of fear grip his stomach. “Isn’t it obvious?” he says shakily. “My technology is what made him possible. I would know the questions to ask him to determine if he was really human or not.” He rubs the heels of his hands over his eyes. “And I was still fooled anyway. GlobalTech has a sick sense of humor.”
A long stretch of silence follows, the dull whirring of helicopter blades the only thing breaking it. Finally, Jaehwan speaks again, a mix of curiosity and apprehension in his tone:
“Why did you … destroy Taekwoon?” It prompts Hongbin to look up at him. “I had assumed you were … for the creation of artificial intelligence?”
Hongbin shakes his head. “I needed him to be human,” he rasps and makes sure Jaehwan is holding his gaze. “You don’t understand how it felt waking up every day for those past five years knowing that no one else was ever going to be there, and then knowing it would be like that for fifteen more years …” He sucks in a breath. “I didn’t care if Taekwoon was a warden, or if he had been an officer or a maniac or a complete buffoon. I just needed someone to be there.
“No one understood better than me the limitations of the artificial intelligence programming that I had created. I loved my android, yes, but I think in part it was because she was mine. Taekwoon was everything that I had feared about my invention going out of control.”
Hongbin feels like he’s aged ten more years and he looks away from Jaehwan, pulling at the cuticles of his badly-bitten fingers. “I’m not even sure if that was the case. I think I just … anything would have set me off at that point. I was a ticking time bomb.”
“Dr. Lee …”
When Hongbin looks up Jaehwan is pointing to his injured leg. Hongbin looks down and it’s already been wrapped up, but the phantom pain from earlier is still there, lingering. “When Taekwoon struck you with his knife, he destroyed a tracking device that had been implanted in your leg,” he says and Hongbin’s eyes widen as he takes in this information. Jaehwan offers a small smile.
“I think Taekwoon was trying to get you out as much as we were.”
Hongbin watches the sunrise and he lets the warmth fill him up. He’s been on this little island for almost two months, and he’s watched the sun peek out over the horizon every single day. He’s missed this so much and now he can’t let go, knowing what it feels like when it’s all taken away. He loves the feeling of fresh air in his lungs and grass sliding between his toes and just being able to touch real things.
The little house that Jaehwan and Wonsik brought him too is far from extravagant, but it fits the three of them well enough. Hongbin doesn’t care, though. He would take anything that wasn’t metal and was solidly on the ground.
He eats real food now. He has real conversations with the two friendly, if not a little eccentric, programmers. He’s starting to feel like a real person.
Sometimes Hongbin sits on the shore and catches himself thinking about Taekwoon. It’s been long enough that he doesn’t feel the threat of an attack anymore, and he’s had the time to think about the android. Had he really been as dangerous as Hongbin thought him to be?
Hadn’t they had real conversations? Hongbin thinks that perhaps if the circumstances had been different, if they had been brought together in another time and place, if Hongbin had perhaps made Taekwoon himself … maybe then they would have been friends. They would have learned from each other. It would have been … good.
He doesn’t let himself dwell on these thoughts for too long.
Hongbin goes to sleep at night and dreams of soft, dark eyes and warmth.
Hongbin wakes up and he’s calm.