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Twisted Path to Freedom

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It’s a ridiculously cold night and pollution levels are maxing out, but Dongwoo still dons a pair of black slacks and a starch white dress shirt, pressing a soft kiss to his sister’s forehead before he leaves.

“You don’t have to wait up, Yejin,” Dongwoo insists with a wan smile, when he comes home to find her always stationed in front of the window next to the door. Yejin, however, always protests that she’s never minded sacrificing sleep for him. Which results in both of their sleep schedules becoming irreparably ruined.

“And it’s not like I have anything else to do,” Yejin says once, biting her lip to hold back tears that only fall when Dongwoo’s out of sight. (More than anything, Dongwoo hates to see his little sister cry.)

Because the city’s pollution has permanently wrecked Yejin’s lungs—causing even the lightest activity to be painful—Dongwoo is working every waking hour to scrap together enough money to move out of the city. To where, he doesn’t know yet, but anywhere is better is better than Yejin’s personal hell.

~

Tonight, Dongwoo’s walking the daily mile to work, hand clutched over his face and weaving through late-night pedestrian traffic. The rumble of a few hovercars gliding along overhead is a soothing contrast to the harsh fumes of pollution.

Bright lights of the towering corporate buildings twinkle above, almost making up for the permanently dim stars.

Familiar disgust rises up inside Dongwoo as he arrives at a modest skyscraper (titled Infinity Analytics) at the end of a block. Oscillating on the front steps, hands trembling and stomach turning, it’s only the thought of Yejin that propels Dongwoo through the glass doors retracting at his touch. For Yejin, he reminds himself.

Dongwoo’s dress shoes click against marble as he reaches the front desk. The receptionist, Woohyun, allows Dongwoo access to the elevator after subjecting Dongwoo to one of his sharp, searching gazes.

Once inside the elevator, a retinal beam scans Dongwoo’s eyes. There’s a soft affirmative beep, and then a series of negative numbers are projected over the ordinary floor buttons. Dongwoo presses the glowing red -4.

The elevator shoots downwards, disappearing into the earth. After the momentary weightlessness, chrome doors slide open, revealing a narrow steel hallway that’s only illuminated by old-fashioned fluorescent lights.

A strained voice from the lab at the end calls, “I was expecting you.”

Dongwoo hurries in past tempered glass walls, where he’s greeted by Dr. Kim’s sweating face as he attempts to hold a thrashing figure down. Chemicals and surgical instruments, along with the frantically fighting figure, are strewn all over a steel-topped table. The table takes up most of the space in this part of the lab, besides the other perpetually humming equipment.

“The DNA implants reacted negatively in his body,” Dr. Kim shouts over the animalistic snarls of the man pinned beneath Dongwoo and his straining arms. “I’m going to inject the sleeping serum.”

Dongwoo doesn’t reply, turning his head away as Dr. Kim shoots bright blue liquid into the struggling man’s body. It’s only when the man twitches to a stop that Dr. Kim grins, a feverish excitement in his eyes.

Pushing his sweat-drenched hair out of his eyes, Dr. Kim picks his tablet up. “It’s all right that this one failed; I have a task for you. I want this man—he’s actually a year younger than you—alive, and perfectly healthy, by next week.” Dr. Kim pushes his tablet towards Dongwoo, the file of a young man with a strong jawline and the darkest eyes Dongwoo has ever seen staring back.

Dongwoo takes the tablet, tucks it into his briefcase that has never held financing papers or statistical reports. Then he expressionlessly heads out to dispose of the body sprawled out on Dr. Kim’s operating table. He doesn’t throw up until he’s in the storage cells.

~

It’s not that Dongwoo is stupid, it’s just that when Dongwoo had applied for a position in Infinity Analytics’ financing firm, the job description did not say—in any way—that he had been hired to help a psycho surgeon with his illegal experimental projects. And that he was stuck, stuck in this insanely long contract, unless he wanted to become one of Dr. Kim’s test subjects.

All for Yejin, Dongwoo thinks, nauseating feelings long gone as he steps through the retracting front door. Yejin’s lying against the desk beneath the window, slumped against her arm, her gentle features glowing in the rising sun. The bright screen of her messenger is still on, and Dongwoo knows that he’s probably got a hundred cheerful messages in his own inbox right now.

Dongwoo’s face crumples when he realizes that her state has deteriorated so badly, she can barely walk to her own bed. Sometimes, he forgets that she’s younger than him.

The only advantage of Yejin’s youthfulness is that it’s easy to lie, to say that he works in finance, to say that they’re going to be out of the city, soon. Soon, Dongwoo echoes in his head. Hopefully, with enough money, they can get away from Dr. Kim. If Dongwoo doesn’t get arrested first.

~

The man Dr. Kim wants Dongwoo to bring to him is Lee Howon.

One light, breezy weekend, Lee Howon is just getting into his hovercar to take the day off, when Dongwoo’s own hovercar crashes into his, and the two vehicles spiral down with a crash to the earth. Dongwoo repeatedly apologizes, dragging Howon out himself to “the nearest hospital”. Onlookers don’t realize that an ambulance should’ve come instead until Dongwoo and Howon are long gone, the doors to Infinity Analytics rolling shut just as the real paramedics get on the scene.

“He’s perfect, see? I followed him for months,” Dr. Kim’s eyes are delighted slits. He then proceeds to show how supple Howon’s body is, how nicely proportioned and muscled his body is.

Dongwoo just stands there, a funny feeling in his chest.

He can’t quite place it, but it’s somehow along the lines of wondering why Lee Howon is the victim, not him.

“You need something to do while I get the nasty stuff out of the way.”Dr. Kim sends Dongwoo out into the storage cells, rolling up the sleeves of his white lab coat before he stabs Howon with anesthetic.“Why don’t you check on the girls?”

Dongwoo obeys, sidling up to the -1st floor, before he can do something he’ll really regret.

~

“Hello, Dongwoo,” A girl with fiery red hair mechanically tilts her head to the side. She’s standing behind thin bars, four identical girls in the same cell behind her.

The storage cells are more like a line of jail cells, with onlyenough space to walk four strides in them. There’s a continuous lack of light; sometimes it looks like the projects are part of the shadows. Dongwoo doesn’t even know if Dr. Kim feeds all ofthe occupants of the cells.

“Dongwoo’s here? Did you bring food this time?”The girls are all color-coded by hair, Dongwoo remembers, and a blue-haired girl reaches a deathly white hand out to touch.

Dongwoo scrambles backwards despite himself, nearly hitting the cell behind him in a row parallel to these. “I—I—no, I’m actually not allowed to feed you…”

“I don’t think he wants to see us. I wouldn’t even want to see myself,” A girl with an auburn pixie cut muses.

“Actually, I was going to check if you’re all right,” Dongwoo peers into the cell, fear subsiding. A girl with flowinggolden hair is curled up in fetal position on the only narrow bed.

She’s gone through intensive plastic surgery to look like a carbon copy of the other four girls. Although her legs are slightly longer and her neck is slimmer, she still looks exactly the same as them—except that she’s not breathing, and her eyes have gone dull. Dr. Kim has starved them all beyond recognition.

His living dolls.

“Sulli?” Dongwoo whispers, and the other four girls slink around her, their movements eerily similar.

“Looks like you have another disposal to make,” the cool, slightly nasal voice of one of Dr. Kim’s imitation humans observes.

An ice-cold sensation wraps around Dongwoo’s chest. He whirls, and although Dr. Kim doesn’t give his projects names, Dongwoo squints into the cell behind him. “Is that you, Myungsoo?”

“Never mind him,” Inky black hair flashes in front of Dongwoo, and he shivers, staring into the solid black eyes of the oldest girl. “How long do you guarantee until one of us’ll follow her?”

Dongwoo’s named her Victoria, and Victoria looks like she doesn’t care who her long white fingers strangle, as long as she can escape.

Pity takes over Dongwoo. He remembers, a very long time ago, his fingers slipping and sliding over one of the locks on the cells, and a project emerging through the shadows, out the disposal chute to freedom.

Dongwoo has sworn not to do it again. For this time, if five of Dr. Kim’s most prized experiments go missing, it’s kind of obvious who set them free.

“Dongwoo...” Sulli stirs, sensing Dongwoo’s presence.

Victoria gasps. She sinks onto her snow-white knees, checking Sulli’s pulse, a terrifying, accusing look shot straight at Dongwoo. There’s a whisper that seems to travel through the storage cells, a whisper that Dongwoo suddenly feels like is suffocating him.

That night when Dongwoo goes home, he washes his hands vigorously, for at least ten minutes. Yejin wheezes as she teases about how much soap he used, but the amount of rust on the five girls’ lock was honestly unbelievable.

He wonders when Dr. Kim will upgrade the storage cells, because they’ve been there even before the technology boom. Maybe then, Dongwoo wouldn’t be so tempted to let all the projects go.

~

Dr. Kim pats the metal stool next to him, his smile freezing.

“Now, now, Dongwoo, let’s speak like friends, not colleagues. You can address me as Sunggyu. Obviously, I’m going to continue to address you as Dongwoo.”

Dongwoo heavily sits on the stool, his heart crashing against his chest. Howon, limp in the corner from whatever Sunggyu has done to him, fizzles and sparks intermittently. The robotic crane-like arms Sunggyu uses to transport equipment around the cramped lab have been gathered up in one corner of the lab, leaving space for Sunggyu to have dragged two metal stools in. Dongwoo can’t help but peek with foreboding at Sunggyu’s unusually calm face—before the storm breaks out.

“My precious dolls have disappeared. Have you any idea where they have gone?”

Dongwoo swallows. His mouth is so dry, he couldn’t have spoken, even if he wanted to. So he settles for a shake of the head, sweat pooling at the collar of his dress shirt.

“Good, because besides the lovely programmer I just hired the other day, you’re the only one who knows about my little projects. I guess Woohyun does too, to some extent, but he doesn’t have access to the sublevels like you do,” Sunggyu sighs, leaning back. His eyes flash, though, and Dongwoo feels his stomach drop to the floor.

“I guess I have to install the retracting cell doors now—the old locks are insanely easy to pick. Why don’t you watch over my newest project while I’m gone? Make sure it doesn’t go anywhere…”

Sunggyu’s white lab coat brushes ominously against Dongwoo’s bare arms when he leaves. It’s a full minute after Sunggyu is gone, that Dongwoo has the strength to stand up.

Dongwoo almost has to sit back down again. Howon has been sliced from the inside out, strips of titanium and sparking wires running through his skin. His now blue-white eyes have lines of code running through them. Every visible part of Howon’s body—muscle, bone, and all—have been fused together with metal and programming.

Howon turns his head with a creak to look up at Dongwoo. Dongwoo imagines himself in Howon’s eyes. A horse-like nose, gigantic mouth with more teeth than an ordinary human, slumped shoulders because of his terribly unconventional occupation. Dongwoo’s lips curve in spite of himself.

Then his face falls, and Howon’s intelligent eyes beg Dongwoo to speak to him—Dongwoo is his only link to sanity.

It would be even easier to get Howon out, but the problem is, Howon has already been damaged beyond repair. Escaping wouldn’t make much of a difference.

~

Dongwoo has been put in charge of Howon as Sunggyu bustles three levels above touching up the storage cells. Against his will, Dongwoo works on completing the cyborg that Howon will be.

Dongwoo doesn’t know how much human is left in Howon, but it’s enough for Dongwoo to talk for hours—about his sister, fears, Sunggyu: everything. Although Howon can’t reply, because Sunggyu took out his vocal chords, and can’t do much either than blink or nod, Howon seizes Dongwoo’s hand imploringly one day.

Don’t go, Howon’s eyes say. So Dongwoo stays.

They don’t do much, because Dongwoo’s the only one talking, but Howon is always listening.

Yejin was probably sick with worry that night, when Dongwoo didn’t return till the next day’s mid-afternoon. Dongwoo leaves her a string of messages, telling her that he’s going to be stuck at work overtime even longer.

In a way, Dongwoo manages to finally get a little bit of balance in his life. Half of the day is Howon, half of the day is Yejin.

Sunggyu, however, has other plans, to throw Dongwoo back into the dizzying pit of spontaneity.

“I’m auctioning off my best projects,” Sunggyu announces one day.“A lack of funds has forced me to part with the best. But no matter—I have enough connections, so that I can sell them in a clean, easy manner.”

Dongwoo doesn’t know how, and doesn’t want to know how Sunggyu organized the auction. He works slower on Howon—to buy them extra time—and it’s with bated breath and weak knees that Sunggyu frowns, and lets Dongwoo stay at the lab to polish up Howon. Howon is thankfully not included in the batch of auctionees due to incompletion.

The two artificial humans, however, are included. They’re brought to the lab, to be checked over.

Myungsoo was Sunggyu's first attempt at an artificial imitation of life. As a result, Myungsoo's emotions are quite detached, giving him a cold city-boy personality. Sungyeol, on the other hand, is the perfect replica of a human: even Dongwoo has had trouble distinguishing him before in the past.

Sunggyu hooks up a projector for Dongwoo, and leaves with his projects in tow. "If Howon starts short-circuiting, just fix the wires. I’d prefer if you didn’t reset him."

Dongwoo and Howon watch (the first in anxiety, the second in apathy) as Sunggyu claims a podium several hours later, the scene of an ampitheater-like auctioning site coming to life on the screen of the monitor. There are so many people, of all occupations and ages, gathered in the cavernous seating area.

As Myungsoo—all dolled up in a suit—steps up the catwalk with easy grace, Dongwoo's stomach twists.

Myungsoo is looking straight at the camera that's projecting his image to Dongwoo and Howon. Myungsoo's lips are twisted in a sardonic smile.

There are many ways Dongwoo decides that he can interpret this. One: run (like Dongwoo hasn't tried already). Two: it's a warning. Three: or maybe this is just Myungsoo's way of saying good-bye, to the only person that has cared enough in the past to make small talk with him in the storage cells and to even give him a name.

Without even turning the projector off, Dongwoo slings Howon over his lithe body, because Howon still isn't completed yet. As Myungsoo is finally given to a beautiful woman who’s broken her money card to buy him, Howon’s arms tighten around Dongwoo’s neck—and Dongwoo feels his chest clench.

Finding his own efforts to delay the inevitable thrown back into his face, Dongwoo staggers out of the lab, and actually makes good distance—before trackers in Howon's body cause Howon to temporarily shut down.

When Sunggyu gets back, it's not pretty.

~

Howon is placed in the storage cells when he’s completed under Sunggyu’s no-nonsense gaze. It takes a whole week for Dongwoo to finish him, Sunggyu providing sad means of nourishment and a sleeping area in the lab.

When Dongwoo is finally able to come home, his and Yejin’s apartment is completely empty.

Dongwoo shouts Yejin’s name, checks the two small rooms a billion times—all that’s left of her is her messenger on the desk she’s usually waiting at, a short message typed out for him.

Try as he might, Dongwoo can’t find any sense out of the message. It’s gibberish.

When Dongoo arrives at work, bleary eyed with worry and anxiety clogging up his throat, only Howon can imagine his horror as a familiar girl is sprawled out onto the steel-topped surgical table.

“He said he was going to fix my lungs,” Yejin is crying, breathing labored, anesthesia slowing her senses, as Dongwoo frantically scrabbles at the metal strapping her down. “He said you were in trouble. He said, if I didn’t come quietly, you would get hurt.”

No, shh, shh,” heat burns Dongwoo’s own eyes as Sunggyu strolls in, twirling a scalpel and slowly advancing.

Dongwoo sidesteps Sunggyu, his arms thrown wide open to cover his sister. Sunggyu looks like he’s eaten something bitter.

“This is only fair,” Sunggyu justifies, as he easily reaches for a needle of liquid. “I know you let my precious dolls go. You haven’t stopped for one second to consider how I feel.” Before Sunggyu can react, Dongwoo leaps towards him— hands reaching for Sunggyu’s throat.

Now clear of her brother, Sunggyu plunges the scalpel into Yejin’s throat the second Dongwoo and Sunggyu collide against an array of lab equipment.

Yejin’s scream will haunt Dongwoo forever.

~

Bright yellow stains Dongwoo’s hair, from the chemicals that splashed against him when Sunggyu shoved him off. Sunggyu’s condition—where Dongwoo had strapped him to the steel-topped table, having no choice but to leave the body of his sister behind—is only temporary.

Dongwoo shakily runs the length of the dirty floor of the storage cells after he sprints off the elevator.

Howon is there, in the last cell. Howon touches his fingers to Dongwoo’s through the high-tech glass wall, and Dongwoo, with supreme effort, does not completely break down. Instead, half-crying, half-laughing, he relays what has just happened to Howon’s increasingly worried face, Yejin’s limp body still fresh in Dongwoo’s memory.

Suddenly, there’s a quiet hiss as all of the glass cell doors of the storage room slide upwards—except for Howon’s—leaving Sunggyu’s projects free. Free to attack Dongwoo’s who is standing frozen, behind Howon’s glass barrier.

“You do realize that we’re stillon the same level of the monsters that he’s releasing on us.” Howon’s voice is mechanically garbled, a recorded version of his past voice.

Dongwoo can’t move or speak. After losing his sister, everything feels numb.

“There’s only one way out,” Howon picks at his control panel, an eerie calm settling over him.

(“I’m a walking bomb,” Howon had said once to Dongwoo, a sadistic glint in his eyes. “You’d think Sunggyu would realize.”)

If not for Dongwoo, Howon would’ve set himself off much earlier.

When the first project—a man with an extra set of legs—scuttles towards Dongwoo, Howon’s already got his fingers plunged inside his control panel.

Dongwoo refuses to run, even when teeth are snapping at his own legs and someone’s fingernails gouge out his flesh. He stays, back against the glass wall separating him from Howon till the last moment, stays until Howon yanks the deactivation command in his neck.

Dongwoo sees Yejin’s smile somewhere, hovering near Howon’s own wide grin in the blast that follows. AsInfinity Analytics is leveled to the ground, everything Sunggyu has ever worked for collapses and islocked underground forever.