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Thrice Phased

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Never give it up
Oh my life

 

It’s a Saturday morning when Changmin receives the human-sized box. Still in his white pyjamas and toothbrush in his mouth he opens the door to a postal droid, who rolls in and deposits its burden in the living room. Changmin scans the ID chip in his wrist against the droid’s scanner and it leaves with a metallic whir.

Changmin circles the large white box for a moment, hesitant, afraid; he hardly notices Mangdoong’s stilted walk into the room. “What is that?” Mangdoong asks in her strange, metallic voice.

Changmin glances down at her, then back at the label on the box: SM Electronics. “It’s a package from work,” Changmin starts, vague. He shakes himself a little and pulls the brush from his mouth. “It’s an android. You know, like you, only human.” He looks down at his robo-dog to see if the information computes.

The slight change in his pet’s expression conveys that she thinks Changmin is dim. Of course Mandoong knows what an android is. “Is it going to live with us?”

Changmin’s fingers hover over the button that dismantles the box. He nods.

One week ago Changmin had been chosen along with five other SM employees to be test subjects for a new line of love-droid. The company had decided on two heterosexuals (Kyuhyun and Seohyun) two homosexuals (Changmin and Amber) and a pansexual and an asexual (Siwon and Taeyeon, respectively) to take home the prototypes for the next generation of android. “An android that can love,” Sooman had said, wrinkles crinkling at the corner of his eyes as he surveyed the six of them sitting at the boardroom table. “If you will look at the most recent program on your tablets you will see that your droid is completely customisable – ah, except Siwon – “ Sooman added as Changmin opened the program with a touch of his finger to the screen, “- I want you to specifically test out the hermaphrodite prototype.”

Changmin browsed through the options, thrill shooting up his spine at the thought of a real brand new top-of-the-line lover-droid all to himself, paid for by the company no less. With graceful touches of a fingertip he chose a male, about the same height as himself, default settings for physic with a touch of softness on the chest and belly, clean-cut hair style, large hands, beauty spot somewhere on the face would be nice –

Kyuhyun nudged him with his elbow. “How lucky are we?” he whispered. “I’m going to make her so hot.” He sucked in a breath through his teeth, eyes going a little glassy before he snapped out of it and smirked at Changmin. “Resizable genitals,” Kyuhyun added conspiratorially. He jiggled his eyebrows. “That was my idea.”

“I was project manager for the sex programs, you know,” Siwon butted in. Sooman had moved on to discuss something seemingly heated with the women. “These new droids? A thousand percent more upgraded from the last model. And that doesn’t include the third phase.”

“I do know, I manage your timesheets,” said Changmin. He leaned forward over the table. “Third phase?” he queried. Unlike Kyuhyun and Siwon, Changmin was not in the software engineering department, but accounts.

Siwon widened his eyes. “You’ll see.”

There was sudden silence throughout the room. Changmin looked down the long table to see Sooman’s eyes shuttered while the women stared at him as if waiting for an answer.

A moment, then Amber said, “It’s an ethical question, isn’t it.”

“What’s going on?” Siwon asked.

Sooman shook himself, then smiled politely, though it didn’t reach his eyes. “I was just informing your colleagues of the androids’ most unique function: the ability to love.

“Till now SM have made all kinds of android, including lover models for purposes of sexual satisfaction. But this android, once it imprints the client into its program, will be in love with said client for the rest of its days. And Amber asked – “ He raised his eyebrows at her.

“Can a human love an android back?” she repeated.

Siwon relaxed back in his seat. “Of course.”

She looked surprised. But it was Kyuhyun who said, “Perhaps it’s not a question of can... but rather a question of should.

*

Changmin’s fingers quiver in hesitation before finally pressing the button on the box. Its sides fold away with a soft whir from top to bottom, slowly and steadily revealing the face then the body of the most beautiful android Changmin has ever seen, wearing basic attire and standing on a clear plastic platform to keep it upright.

The man’s eyes are closed and skin shiny and white, but still his face is handsome and pretty: dark lashes fanning over his cheeks, perfect nose, pouty mouth and beauty spot above it and to the right just as Changmin had specified. Changmin swallows before exhaling shakily.

Tucked into the man’s plain shirt is a red folder. Changmin pulls it out and examines the contents.

“Instructions,” Changmin tells Mandoong quietly. The dog gives a stilted, metallic nod. Changmin reads them aloud: “Phase zero: basic operating system with ethical laws, minimal speech.” He flicks his eyes up at the android. “Hello,” he says to it, then clears his throat. “Hello, my name is Changmin.”

He gets a shock when the android’s eyes fly open, blinking several times before focusing on Changmin’s. His gaze is sharp yet a blank. “Hello Changmin,” says the android, his voice strangely deep yet at the same time high, tone flat. “My name is Yunho.”

“Yunho,” Changmin repeats, letting himself get used to the name. He clears his throat again and lifts up the instructions to read further. “Phase one: housekeeper program. Can be reversed to phase zero at any time. Hold side of androids neck...” He trails off and does as the instructions say, lifting a shaky hand to Yunho. The android’s skin is cold but his smile is warm and trusting.

Changmin haltingly repeats the series of words on the instruction sheet, eyes flicking from the written words to Yunho’s eyes. “Gamma. Yunho. Space. Fringed. Carrot. Lyrical. Game. Changmin.”

Yunho blinks several times, then slowly tilts his head, looking at Changmin inquiringly. “What would you like me to do today, master?”

Changmin bites his lip. “Do you have to call me master? Can you call me Changmin instead?”

Yunho nods slowly. “If that is what Changmin prefers.”

“I do.” He looks around the living room, at the white modern furniture and immaculate cleanliness. “I’m not sure if I need you to do anything. Um. I’ve already had breakfast, so...”

Yunho continues to stare at him in that irksome way. “Then may I suggest I familiarise myself with your home and sync my program to your appliances?”

Changmin blinks. “Right yeah. You – you sync yourself, then.” Yunho bows a little, detaches himself from the rest of the box, picks it up and walks away with it.

“Um, Yunho-yah?” Changmin calls. Yunho stops and looks over his shoulder. “I usually keep those in the pantry. They come in handy sometimes.”

Yunho’s lips curl upwards a little more. “Changmin understands the importance of item re-use.”

Changmin doesn’t know what to say to that, so he pulls and incredulous face instead as Yunho turns and heads for the kitchen.

*

Phase Two: sex program. Can be reduced to phase one with key acquired from vendor. Warning: be absolutely sure you want this program activated before initiating it. Cannot be returned to vendor for money back, resale is estimated as half purchase price.

Activation key: beta, [android name], time, accepted, lettuce, proposing, head, [your name]

Phase Three: love program. Warning: be absolutely sure you want this program activated before initiating it. Cannot be reduced to previous phases, cannot be returned to vendor for money back, cannot be resold. Can only be returned to vendor for destruction.

Activation key: alpha, [android name], continuum, instigated, tomato, artifice, rumour, [your name]

*

Later that night Changmin calls Kyuhyun. “Hello?” huffs his friend over the end of the line. He sounds breathless. “What’s up?”

“I take it we’re not going out tonight?” says Changmin. “What are you doing?”

Kyuhyun chuckles. “What, or who, my friend. I activated Victoria a couple of hours ago. She is amazing; just finished our second round. So no, I’m staying in tonight, all night.”

Changmin’s mouth twists, a little jealousy settling in. “You activated phase two?” he asks.

“You haven’t?” says Kyuhyun. “Have you even opened the box?”

“Yeah, of course,” says Changmin with a little laugh. “He’s in the kitchen right now cooking my dinner.” He sniffs the air. “Smells good.”

“Mmm, I’m a little hungry myself – “

“Master is hungry?” Changmin hears a female voice through the phone. “If master permits I will make him a snack.”

“Ok,” Kyuhyun says to her before adding to Changmin in a conspiratorial whisper, “She just walked out of the room butt naked to make me a snack! Her ass is so beautiful and round bounces when she walks.” He sighs in happiness over the end of the line.

Changmin picks at the seam of his house pants. “Aren’t you afraid to go to phase three?”

A pause, then, “I don’t know if ‘afraid’ is the right word. But take it from me man, you do not want to go to phase three. That is a lifetime commitment. I should know, I read the program that went into that phase. The android imprints themselves onto you and vice versa, claims you as its mate for life. I don’t see the point myself, but apparently there is a demand for this kind of thing...” He sighs. “Not for you and me. Phase two, however...” He laughs. “Fucking do it man, what’s stopping you? The company gave you a great gift, take advantage.”

“Yeah,” says Changmin, “maybe – maybe I will – “

“Changmin-ah!” Yunho calls pleasantly from the dining room. “Dinner is ready!”

“Go to go,” says Changmin.

“Do you like him?” Kyuhyun asks quickly.

“P-pardon?”

“It’s just, you sound so... hesitant today. You know if we were going out tonight you’d be pulling men left, right and centre.”

“But they’re people aren’t they.” Kyuhyun makes a confused noise over the line, so Changmin elaborates, “they’re one night stands. Yunho is... to keep.”

“Huh.”

“What?”

“Well it’s just. You know. I would have thought you’d say something along the lines of, ‘he’s a robot, and having sex with robots isn’t right.’”

Changmin must be hungry because he’s getting impatient. “If you thought that, why did you ask? Besides, you know I’m not droidphobic.”

“I know, that is why I’m asking. Whatever, enjoy!” A click and a beep signalling the end of a call. Changmin goes to the dining room to find Yunho placing plates on the table.

He straightens from his task then goes to pull out a chair. “Changmin-ah! Please have a seat.”

Changmin flicks his fringe out his eyes as he settles in, Yunho pushing his chair in for him. Yunho clasps his hands in front of himself. “If it pleases Changmin, we can dine together.”

“Yes that’s fine,” he replies, and Yunho sits in the seat across from him. Changmin’s meal is salmon steak with cous cous and vegetables, and a glass of red wine, while Yunho’s meal appears to be a blue jelly, a clear jelly, custard and a strange blue drink. “What do androids eat?” asks Changmin as Yunho delicately spoons up some of the jelly. “I recognise that one,” he adds, pointing to the spoon full of blue Yunho is about to put in his mouth. “I feed it to Mandoong once a month.”

Yunho suddenly grins at him, teeth bright and eyes alight, and Changmin blushes at the adorableness of it. “This is engine lubricant,” answers Yunho. “I can feed Mandoong for you from now on.” He points to the green drink. “Coolant for my cooling system.” Then the clear jelly. “Water-based lubricant.” Then the custard. “Sweetened milk concentrate. You may try these two if you like; they are edible for humans.”

Tempted, Changmin fiddles with his fork. “Maybe for dessert.” He dives into his meal, cutting his steak into small pieces and delicately popping them into his mouth. Then makes a small sound of appreciation at the burst of flavours and textures on his tongue.

Yunho smiles at him. “Do you like it? I have four hundred recipes stored in my memory and can update it at any time.”

“Ah yes, I know,” says Changmin, after swallowing. “I manage the account with the company who provides them.”

Yunho blinks at him, then tilts his head a little in question.

“I work for the company that made you,” Changmin elaborates.

Another blink.

“You were born at a place, and I work in Accounts Payable there.” He fiddles with his fork.

Yunho’s smile softens into gratefulness. “Changmin helped with my birth.”

“I – “ Changmin’s mouth twists. “Yes, something like that.” He looks down at his dinner and prepares another bite onto his fork.

As he chews he watches his new mechanical housemate, the beauty of his small smile and kind, if mostly blank, eyes. His hands are like a real man’s hands: hard knuckles and curved fingernails. Changmin wonders what it would be like to have those large hands on his skin, caressing him like a lover.

He goes to bed thinking about it, his face hot against the cool material of his pillow. Usually he will sleep in his hibernation pod for a night’s perfect rest but it’s Saturday evening and he had missed the experience of pillows and sheets and blankets, the primitive feel of it making him wonder why he never preferred sleeping in his bed before. He falls asleep to thoughts of Yunho over him, touching his naked body and kissing him deeply.

Then awakes a couple of hours later and remembers why he prefers the continuous rest the hibernation pod always gives. He feels over-heated, sheet clinging to his skin uncomfortably and he kicks it off in frustration, then he remembers the android...

Changmin gets up and walks into the living room to find Yunho sitting on the floor, knees drawn up to his chest and looking at the city lights beyond the glass windows. “Yunho-yah?” Changmin calls. Yunho turns his head towards him and smiles.

“Yes Changmin? Are you unable to sleep? May I prepare you some warm milk?”

Changmin asks for a glass of water instead, and while Yunho is gone Changmin grabs the instructions and reads through them again. Yunho comes back and Changmin puts the glass he offers on the low coffee table, their fingers brushing. The glass catches the city lights. The room is mostly dark.

“Sit on the couch, Yunho,” Changmin requests shakily as he kneels. Yunho does, and Changmin rests a hand gently on a thigh while the other holds up the android’s instructions. “I need you to look me in the eye for this, ok?”

“Yes, Changmin,” says Yunho softly.

Changmin takes a deep breath. “Beta, Yunho, time, accepted...” He reads the words to Yunho, ending with his own name on his lips.

Changmin stares and waits for a change – and then sees it in Yunho’s face. The android’s eyes seem to darken while his expression hardens with something a little more intelligent and focused than before. He leans forward so their faces are close.

“Dilated pupils,” Yunho whispers, voice gone deep and gruff, “increased heart rate, perspiration, minimal sleep attire, suggestive touch to thigh – “

Changmin pulls his hand away.

Yunho glances down at his crotch. “Half hard. You’re turned on by me.”

Changmin makes a small squeak at Yunho’s frankness. “You can’t just – yah!” Yunho pulls Changmin up by the arms and all Changmin can do is scramble forward then straddle Yunho, the sensitive skin of his inner thighs brushing Yunho’s muscular ones.

Changmin exhales shakily as he looks down into Yunho’s dark eyes, shadows cast over his features. “My sole purpose is to make you feel good, Changmin,” Yunho tells him lowly. “Would you like that?”

“Yes,” Changmin breathes, moving his hips gently. Yunho suddenly grabs him again and flips him onto his back onto the couch, legs held in the air and splayed, the hems of his pyjama bottoms creeping down his calves. Changmin lets out an incredulous laugh as he blinks up at him. “What are you doing?”

“Blood flow to the groin area increases arousal,” says Yunho. “Any requests for tonight’s activities?”

“Yes, ah.” He feels a bit silly with his legs straight up in the air, being held open by Yunho’s hands on his ankles. “From now on I will call you hyung, and you can call me whatever you like.”

Yunho smirks down at him, canine tooth glinting in the half-light. “Isn’t ‘hyung’ old-speak for ‘big brother’?”

“Yes,” Changmin exhales.

Yunho spreads Changmin’s legs even further as he leans over more, faces getting close. “Then this hyung is going to take good care of little Changminnie,” he says, before moving his hands to Changmin’s chest, and kissing him.

The press of Yunho’s lips is soft and the movement expert. Changmin opens his mouth slowly to let Yunho slide his tongue in – and while the kiss tastes a little synthetic it’s not as plastic as Changmin would have thought. It’s sweet and minty, and clean. Yunho alternates from kissing his lips to dipping his tongue in, swiping and twirling, leaving Changmin gasping and wanting, his own hips undulating of their own accord, pushing up to try to meet Yunho’s.

As Yunho kisses him harder he curls fingers under the waistband of his pants and pulls them down over Changmin’s lifted hips. Changmin makes a small noise of approval into Yunho’s mouth as the soft material is brushed down his thighs. He hears the rustle of fabric as Yunho pushes his own pants down and Changmin suddenly covers his face with his hands. He doesn’t want to look.

Yunho gently pulls Changmin’s hands away and catches his gaze. “What’s the matter, dongsaeng?”

Changmin lets out a nervous huff. “It’s just a bit strange, having sex with a... machine.”

Yunho levels himself up on two hands, bracing himself over Changmin. His t-shirt hangs low and rides up a little and Changmin sees his soft belly with a hint of six-pack under the skin. He lifts his hands to touch and slide up over the contours, fingers going inside the shirt and disappearing from view. Yunho helps Changmin take it off, and then Changmin is looking, briefly, before covering his face with his hands again.

“Your hyung is here to make you feel nice,” Yunho whispers, before shifting his pelvis forward and nudging his cock against Changmin’s entrance.

Changmin makes a noise at the back of his throat in surprise. Yunho makes shushing noises, pulling Changmin’s hands away again then caressing his cheek with one hand while the other gently holds a thigh. “My settings are on auto-lub and auto-grown.” He dips his head in for a quick kiss. “I’m starting small, then I’ll get bigger later.” And indeed Yunho doesn’t feel that large at first, about the width of one or two fingers – nothing Changmin can’t take – and with a moan ripped from his throat he feels Yunho slide steadily in as his hips push forward. Changmin’s own cock springs up into full hardness at the feel of Yunho entering him, his entrance stretching to accommodate, and it feels incredible, like fireworks are being lit all over his body just under the skin.

He lets out a shaky moan, fingers and toes curling, thighs spreading wider. Yunho caresses the back of one thigh as he kisses Changmin again, open-mouthed, cock moving into him, then out again, then in – slow and steady and grinding.

Yunho twists, then, making miniscule thrusts of his hips. Changmin’s eyes shoot open wide when he feels Yunho’s cock grow into a larger size, stretching him open slowly, making Changmin shake all over with the pleasurable burn and the feeling of being full. He pulls his mouth away and gasps at the ceiling. “Oh that feels so good, hyung,” he whispers. “So amazing.”

He’s aware of Yunho smirking before his cock moves inside Changmin again – it seems to curve inside him and then press against his prostate bluntly – and Changmin lets out a moan that’s almost a scream, eyes tight shut as pleasure shoots through his belly and cock and making his limbs seem heavy, his chest heaving, face hot. Yunho’s cock pressing against his g-spot starts to vibrate dully and Changmin does scream then, the pleasure so over-whelming it causes his back to arch, and he fists Yunho’s hair.

But Yunho doesn’t stop rotating his hips nor does he cease the vibrations. Changmin feels so good and fucked open, on the bright-golden edge of orgasm – before tipping over and falling hard into bliss, lips wet and quivering as moans pass through them, cum splattering hot onto his own stomach.

He comes down from his orgasm panting. He’s aware of Yunho pulling out gently then moving away, before sliding his arms under Changmin to pick him up off the couch. Changmin, eyelids drooping and too tired to protest, automatically slides his arms around Yunho’s neck and leans his head on his shoulder. He’s half asleep already by the time Yunho places him in the bed and tucks the covers around him.

“Wait,” he whispers softly as Yunho makes to leave. The android stops and when Changmin curls his fingers over the doona to look, the other is standing in darkness, back to Changmin, looking over his shoulder but his face hidden in shadow.

“Yes, Changminnie?” Yunho whispers.

“Stay with me,” Changmin breathes.

Without a word Yunho moves back towards the bed and climbs in. Changmin feels the bed dip, and then Yunho is sliding his arm around Changmin and spooning him from behind. Changmin wiggles, settling back into the blankets and Yunho’s warm embrace, content enough to smile even as he falls asleep.

He won’t remember it in the morning, but Yunho whispers two words into Changmin’s hair just as oblivion takes him:

“Thank you.”

*

Changmin awakes to Yunho standing over the bed and him, staring at Changmin with intent dark eyes, hands clasped behind his back. Changmin takes note of the black apron tied over the android’s white clothes. “We need to get you some outfits,” he croaks out grumpily.

“Good morning, Changmin,” says Yunho. Changmin throws him an ironic smile. “The time is eight twenty-two. I have prepared you savoury rice porridge with egg and seaweed. Would you like to eat it in bed?”

“Yes, please.”

After Yunho comes back with the tray of food and drink, Changmin gets him to sit behind him in the bed and cradle him from behind, arms reaching around to hold the bowl for Changmin. Changmin, still sleep-rumpled and horny from good dreams he can’t recall, asks, “Can you hold the bowl with one hand?”

“I can,” says Yunho, who demonstrates by dropping his right hand to Changmin’s lap. Changmin takes Yunho’s hand in his own and moves it under the covers and to his crotch, directing Yunho to rub him gently.

Sex and hot breakfast and hot, hot sex – plus Sundays – the perfect mornings in Changmin’s own opinion. While he usually spends the occasional Saturday nights with a one night stand, often those men leave before dawn, and Sunday mornings are spent bereft of affection.

Changmin manages only a spoonful before closing his eyes moaning aloud, dropping the spoon into the bowl. He tilts his head back against Yunho’s shoulder. “I’ll have breakfast later; let’s have sex first.”

It takes one second for Yunho to put the bowl on the dresser and another second for him to suddenly flip them over, throwing the covers over both of them. Changmin yelps as he’s pushed onto his front, then feels the android shift as he takes off his own clothes. Changmin is still naked from the night before. He lets out another small noise as Yunho lies on top of him. Yunho’s heavy and warm; synthetic flesh against flesh.

Changmin huffs, pushing his fringe and the covers away just enough for him to look over his shoulder. Yunho smiles and asks, “Would you like a change?” Without waiting for an answer Yunho shakes his head rapidly like a dog shedding water, and then his hair is changing colour from root to tip, dark brown to red-blonde, lengthening from his neat trim to a hair style with wavy bangs.

Changmin is incredulous. “Um,” he says, his voice small. He can feel Yunho’s cock nudging against one bum cheek, and he automatically spreads his legs wider so Yunho can fit in better against his body. Blood rushes through him, to cheeks and to groin. Changmin lets out a huff, though he doesn’t know if it’s from impatience for fucking or the twinge of fear he always gets in these situations – the almost-sex – as Yunho presses his slick cock against Changmin’s hole and pushes in. Changmin turns his face to the pillow and bites it as Yunho slowly breaches him, at first sliding, then with miniscule thrusts. Changmin spreads his legs as wide as they can go, skin-on-linen friction.

Changmin lets himself flop completely into the bed, his limbs feeling heavy and his chest heaving as all the pleasure and awareness centres itself at the place where he and Yunho are connected. He’s starting to feel full, hot, and overwhelmed. “More,” he gasps out once his body is used to the intrusion, and when Yunho starts to roll his thrusts with dancer hips, Changmin moans loud and long, cutting it off with a high-pitched gasp.

“I need, I need,” he says in a small hitching voice, unsure of exactly what he’s asking for. But then Yunho is grabbing his hips and lifting them a little, thrusting in several times rapidly at the new angle and then pausing, his cock deep inside Changmin. Changmin looks over his shoulder again and Yunho’s expression gives nothing away except calculated concentration. And then with a small hitch of Yunho’s hips Changmin feels Yunho’s cock grow larger inside him, stretching him open, then vibrating gently with small, one-second throbs. Changmin lets out an involuntary yell at the pleasure, almost blacking out, pushing his face back into the pillow, fisting the sheets till his knuckles turn white.

Yunho’s hips press right up to the curve of Changmin’s backside, firmly, before he slowly slides his cock out. Graceful and swift, Yunho sits back on the mattress again, facing the telescreen beyond the foot of the bed, pulling Changmin with him to sit on his lap and straddle his thighs. Yunho presses a kiss to the back of Changmin’s neck while Changmin takes a hold of Yunho’s bent knees for balance – he lifts up, Yunho’s hand on his hip to guide him – then sinks down, down, down onto the android’s long cock.

Changmin bobs himself up and down carefully, getting used to the intrusion and stretch again. It’s not an angle he likes necessarily, but an idea forms itself in mind... He whispers a code at the telescreen and the large, flat screen seems to liquefy before becoming a mirror. He and Yunho are reflected there, Changmin’s abdomen and arm muscles straining as he works himself, red wet mouth open and panting, eyes shuttered in bliss, long legs spread over Yunho’s thick thighs.

Yunho thrusts up hard and sudden and keeps his hips lifted, before thrusting again in an easy rhythm. At the same time he opens and closes his legs, causing Changmin’s to open and close as well; and Changmin lies back onto Yunho’s chest and gasps at the ceiling as Yunho undulates their bodies. If Changmin rolls his head to the side a little, he can see the reflection of their thighs moving and quivering, and the glimpses of Yunho’s cock going in and out of his ass. The opening and closing of his thighs causes the skin of his scrotum to pull and stretch, creating a teasing pleasure for his balls. Yunho, balanced on his left hand, reaches around Changmin’s hip and flutters his fingers over his dick, before taking it with all five fingers and expertly pulling, caressing, fluttering, fingering.

Now every part of Changmin’s sex is stimulated. Mewling like a cat in heat, Changmin completes his own pleasure by tugging at a nipple with one hand while the other reaches around and threads fingers into Yunho’s blonde hair. He tilts his head over Yunho’s shoulder as far as he can without Yunho slipping from his hole. “Kiss me?” Changmin gasps, mouth open and tense in ecstasy.

Yunho does, turning his head and tonguing Changmin’s lips and tongue.

Changmin comes like that, eyes squeezed shut with fireworks erupting behind his lids, moaning loud into the android’s mouth, Yunho’s cock deep and hard and long inside him.

*

One thing Changmin has desired from companionship is the time spent on simple, shared tasks. Sitting together on the couch, facing the glass window, over-looking the city, watching the sun stain the sky red and gold as it sinks behind the sky scrapers and beyond. Changmin feels tranquil. Yunho peals Changmin a frapple with a small knife before cutting a slice and passing it to Changmin.

He takes it, tastes its juice and flesh. Hums. His hand drops to his lap, still holding half a piece of the slice. The frapple is a man-made fruit, genetically engineered to be both delicious and contain a concentrated dose of vitamins and minerals. Still, Changmin feels like it’s not enough, like there’s something missing.

“When I was little,” Changmin tells Yunho, still staring out at the sunset, “My grandmother owned a property in the outskirts. It had an apple tree.” He looks at Yunho to see the android has his full attention. Changmin stares right into his eyes, tries to look for something in them – a spark of emotion – anything he can find. “You can’t find apples any more, they’re so rare. But I’ve always wanted to taste one again, one last time. I can remember what they taste like, but then I can’t quite recall the exact taste or describe it... do you know what I mean? The memory is there, at the back of my mind.”

Yunho’s lips quirk up in a stronger smile, but aside from that he says nothing.

Changmin sighs and looks back at the city. The sun has almost completely sunk away, taking its light with it. “Can’t find a natural apple these days. I guess all good things must come to an end.”

There’s a moment of silence where Changmin watches the sky go black and Yunho finishes cutting the frapple into slices and arranging them neatly on the plate, on the coffee table. Yunho lifts his fingers to his own lips, mouth open and ready to suck the juice off, but Changmin grabs his wrist.

“You can do that?” Changmin asks in alarm.

“Yes, small amounts,” Yunho tells him, “since I’m self-cleaning. I can taste some things, too.”

“Oh.” Changmin slowly brings Yunho’s hand to his own mouth and sucks his fingers clean of the juice. There’s a spark of arousal alighting itself as Changmin curls his tongue around Yunho’s fingers. Yunho watches him with dark eyes.

“Changmin – “

Changmin pulls his mouth away and gives Yunho an enquiring look.

Yunho’s eyes move to the side and back, so rapidly Changmin is unsure if he truly sees it.

Yunho finally says, “I can order your weekly shopping via the templates on your profile, but if I need to purchase something extra I will need your permission to spend your credit.”

Changmin blinks at him, momentarily floored by the non sequitur.

The android holds out his right fist, wrist turned up and exposed. “Permission to spend credit on the online 7net store.”

Changmin presses his own wrist to Yunho’s. “Permission granted.” His wrist gives a tiny beep that’s answered by Yunho’s. He adds, “Feel free to buy some outfits for yourself.”

Yunho nods, though it seems a little more like a bow.

“Now,” says Changmin as he puts a hand on Yunho’s thigh, lust still burning and insistent deep in his belly, “grab that tablet and pretend to read the news on it or something.”

Yunho does what he’s told without question or confusion.

Changmin flicks his fringe out of his eyes as he kneels on the carpet in front of Yunho, hands on his thighs. Above him Yunho is using his finger to navigate through menus on the tablet PC. Changmin pulls down Yunho’s pants, mouth watering as his impressive cock is exposed to him, growing large and hard in front of Changmin’s hungry eyes.

“You can make it bigger,” Changmin whispers to Yunho’s groin. Yunho’s cock lengthens and widens, his balls get larger and heavier as Yunho spreads his thighs a little more. Changmin leans forward, mouth wet and open. He’s about to take the head into his mouth when he looks up to see Yunho watching him. “Don’t watch me,” Changmin commands. “Pretend you don’t care one bit that I’m sucking you off.”

Yunho goes back to doing whatever it is on the tablet, his face hidden from view. “Tell me when you want me to cum.”

Changmin stretches his lips over the head and length, letting it slide over his tongue. He loves the feel of it heavy and hot inside him, and he’s only halfway down Yunho’s cock when it hits the back of his throat.

He practices and plays with it, sucking it down, licking it all over, flicking his tongue at the slit. Rolls Yunho’s large balls in his hand. Once he’s turned on enough he takes one of Yunho’s hands and puts it on his head, then pinches Yunho’s thigh. Yunho takes the hint and threads his fingers gently through Changmin’s hair. Then Yunho’s coming, the first shot hitting the back of Changmin’s tongue before he pulls his mouth away and holds Yunho’s cock, makes sure Yunho comes all over his face.

Changmin breathes harshly. Yunho places the tablet PC on the couch next to him. “Was that good?” Yunho asks.

“Yes,” Changmin gasps. Still kneeling at Yunho’s feet, he fingers a bit of cum off his cheek and sucks his finger, then hums agreeably. “Condensed milk. Very sweet.”

Yunho’s gaze flicks over Changmin’s body. “You’re still aroused.”

“I want to fuck,” Changmin admits, too far turned on to be embarrassed by crude words. “But I always make it a rule not to... you know... in one day.”

Yunho leans down and cups Changmin’s cheeks gently, his thumbs smoothing over his mouth, smearing his cum into his skin and lips. Changmin searches Yunho’s gaze for a spark of something – anything – but Yunho only seems thoughtful and kind. “Your statement is too ambiguous for me to understand. If there is something that you do not want to do, please let me know. There are many options for us to take.”

Changmin looks up into his eyes. He runs his fingers up and down Yunho’s warm highs and imagines himself lying between them, Yunho under him and moaning Changmin’s name.

“To the bedroom,” says Changmin.

Chapter Text

Naked truth
Naked soul

They no longer have much use for pens - the old school types with actual ink in them rather than the ones for the tablets – but Kyuhyun seems to like to keep one in his breast pocket anyway, so he can click away at it whenever he’s being pensive.

He and Changmin are in an empty meeting room on their lunch break. Yunho had packed Changmin a healthy chicken salad and a bread roll. Changmin sucks on the bone of what used to be a chicken drumstick. He pulls it from his lips with a light pop. “Do you think,” says Changmin, thinking out loud, throwing his thoughts out there, “that an android can overwrite its ethical laws?” He flips the bone one way then the other, then throws it back into the corner of his lunchbox.

Kyuhyun pulls out his pen and clicks it several times.

Changmin raises his eyebrows. “I was expecting an instant ‘no’.”

“Well, fresh out of university I would have said no,” Kyuhyun tells him. “They drilled the three laws into us.” He throws Changmin a challenging look. “Do you remember them?”

Changmin clears his throat and shifts in his seat. He’d had to learn upon his employ at SME, but that was a few years ago, and he hasn’t touched up on them. “One, don’t let a human come to harm,” he recites slowly.

Kyuhyun nods.

“Two, obey humans. Three, protect yourself.”

“That is the gist of it, yeah.” He shakes his head and clicks his pen. “Ideally they can’t be broken because they’re deadlocked, but if I know anything about programming, and I do, even the lowest level codes can be overwritten.” Kyuhyun takes a deep breath and exhales through his nose. “So in theory, yes. The security is tight though, an android would have to attack its own hardware, but then it’s not allowed to hurt itself, so – “

Kyuhyun brakes off, looks up and blinks at the doorway over Changmin’s shoulder. Changmin turns in his seat to look and sees a woman standing there.

She has long red hair and wears a small, elusive smile on her pretty face. She’s staring right at them, as if blatantly listening in on their conversation.

Kyuhyun raises his eyebrow at her but otherwise seems disinterested. “Can I help you?”

She says, voice clear but with little inflection, “Lee Sooman requests that you have tea with him in meeting room four.”

It is at this moment that Changmin realises belatedly that she is an android.

They throw their lunch boxes in the bin and head out, following the android out the door and down the corridor. “So as I was saying,” continues Kyuhyun as they stride down the hall, a pace or two behind the android, “is that the ethical circuit is secured by a hardware deadlock. In order to even start messing with the memory addresses you’d have to cut open the android, remove the deadlocks, to get to the circuit board.”

There’s a small movement from the android in front of them which catches Changmin’s eye: a minuscule tilt of her head. Kyuhyun doesn’t notice. He concludes with, “It’s all just theory.”

“We’re here,” says the android, opening the meeting room door for them to go through.

Sooman and Taeyeon are sitting at the table. Sooman gestures them over and Changmin and Kyuhyun sit across from Taeyeon and the android, with Sooman at the head.

“I know it’s only Monday,” Sooman starts off with, looking at Changmin and Kyuhyun seriously, “and your reports aren’t due until Friday. But you’ve had the weekend and I am curious – how are you going with your androids?”

“Good,” they both say immediately, at the same time. They exchange glances and laugh a little. “We’re both at the second phase,” Kyuhyun says. “No complaints so far.”

Sooman nods, looking satisfied. He gestures to the red-haired android. “This is Stephanie, Taeyeon’s android. She is in the third phase.”

“Already?” says Changmin, throwing Taeyeon an alarmed look.

She shrugs. “You know I’m not interested in phase two, and phase one is blatant slavery of an intelligent being. Besides,” – she takes Stephanie’s hand under the table and they exchange loving looks – “I’m happy to have a companion who loves me for me, who doesn’t desire bedroom intimacy.”

Kyuhyun snorts. “But she loves you because you told her to.”

“So?” she bites back sharply. Sooman leans back in his chair and observes them, fingers steepled. “Just because the start of her love wasn’t conventional,” Taeyeon argues, “does that mean her love is not real? It’s not important how it started, it’s important that it’s true.”

“Except I’ve seen the love algorithm Amber was in charge of,” Kyuhyun tells her. “It’s just that: a code to manipulate, to become a feeling.”

“And what is human love?” Taeyeon asks, chin lifted. “Is it not an algorithm in our brains, a chemical reaction; a release of hormones into our system?”

Kyuhyun says nothing. Changmin thinks about Yunho, waiting at home for him. Something changes inside Changmin’s mind, his reasoning takes on a form he doesn’t expect. To blame Taeyeon would be a lie; already Changmin is starting to have needs, needs that the second phase cannot fulfil.

*

On Thursday night, Changmin is on all fours on the bed with Yunho fucking him from behind while he fondles Changmin’s cock with one hand, and the other hand pinching his nipples. Changmin watches porn on the telescreen while moaning in ecstasy around a strawberry flavoured lollipop. Changmin twirls the lolly over his puckered lips before sucking it back in and rubbing it over his tongue.

He fists the sheets, feeling the pull of pleasure. “I’m going to come,” he tells Yunho, voice caught in his throat so it comes out almost feeble. He burries his face in the sheets, moans, then orgasms, his whole body shuddering and feeling hot, so, so hot.

Afterwards Changmin curls up into a ball and lays against Yunho. “Hold me a little while,” Changmin tells him, and Yunho encircles his arms around Changmin’s naked body. But Changmin is feeling a kind of coldness come over him. He can tell Yunho feels no real affection for him, and it hurts. It feels like rejection.

He pushes away from Yunho and grabs the blankets and wraps them around himself. He voice-commands the telescreen to change the channel, and there’s some drama on. Twenty seconds later it cuts to a commercial about a new private home lover-droid, a female voice in the background crooning about inspired affection and adoration as images of a beautiful man and woman flow across the screen.

Changmin stares, then commands the telescreen’s volume to increase. The product brand is SM Electronics.

He sits up straight in bed and points at it. “Do you see that, hyung?” he almost-shouts at his android. “They’re marketing your kind already!”

Yunho tilts his head to the side. “’My kind?’”

It catches Changmin a little off guard, but he quickly recovers as thoughts whirl around his mind. It has yet to even be a full week of human testing and already they are promoting the new model? He had previously assumed the marketing phase would not be for another couple of months.

The next morning Changmin strides into work with purpose, heading past Siwon who is chatting to Suho the reception android, and to the elevators. He stops just before them, however, when he feels the prickle on the back of his neck – the small instinct that someone is watching him. He turns.

A man is standing far across the foyer, staring at Changmin blatantly, his eyes large and hair long. When he catches Changmin’s eyes he comes over to him, stride purposeful and gaze open and piercing.

Changmin puts his hands in his pockets and adopts an easy-going, open and confident stance, even as the rest of him is screaming at him to run. “Can I help you?” he asks as the man stops in front of him.

“You are Shim Changmin, aren’t you?” the man asks in a rush, as if he is impatient to ask his next question: “You are Yunho’s human?”

Changmin’s mouth drops open. “You know Yunho?”

“He was born next to me,” he answers, eyes still blazing. “Is Yunho ok? Do you treat him well? When are you going to bring him to the complete phase?”

Changmin is nonplussed. “You’re an android?”

The android tosses his long hair over one shoulder and affects a heavy-lidded, blasé look. “Obviously. So when are you going to bring Yunho to complete phase?” he asks again.

Changmin frowns and shakes his head a little in confusion. “’Complete phase’?”

“Changmin-ah!” Siwon calls from behind the android, as he half-runs towards them. “Good morning,” he greets when he arrives. He slings an arm over the android’s shoulders and cuddles close, nuzzling his temple. He glances at Changmin. “Seems you met Heechul.”

“I did.” Changmin looks at Heechul. “Nice to meet you.”

“Mmm-hmm,” says Heechul, non-committal.

“I activated Heechul’s third phase last night,” chats Siwon as the three of them enter the elevator, “and he insisted on accompanying me to work today. Cute, huh? Can’t get enough of me.”

Heechul affects a nonchalant look. The elevator moves. Changmin asks Siwon, “They’ve started marketing already? I haven’t handed my report in yet.”

Siwon blinks at him, then shrugs. “Neither have I. You’d have to ask marketing about marketing.”

“The love algorithm hasn’t been fully tested,” Changmin pushes, dissatisfied with Siwon’s answer.

Siwon still appears unconcerned. “Ask Amber? She’s the one who wrote it, I think.” The elevator doors ding open.

But Changmin doesn’t get around to talking with Amber that day.

Work piles up and then the report about Yunho is due at five pm, so Changmin spends some work time plus most of his lunch break writing it up. After work he goes out to the nearby cocktail bar with Kyuhyun, and Minho, one of the junior programmers. On Saturday Siwon invites Changmin and Kyuhyun over for dinner.

“You brought him with you?” Kyuhyun asks Changmin as Changmin walks through Siwon’s door with Yunho in tow. “Should’ve brought mine.”

“I thought about leaving him,” Changmin confesses as Yunho takes Changmin’s coat and hangs it in the hall cupboard, “but then I remember that Heechul asked after Yunho yesterday, and I thought – “

Siwon and Heechul stride into the hall. Kyuhyun pulls out a pen and clicks it, eyebrows raised. “Changmin-ah!” greets Siwon.

“Yunho-yah!” greets Heechul, striding over to Yunho and hugging him, hard. Yunho holds him back tightly, laughing into his shoulder, eyes slitted in glee. Heechul pulls back and stares up at Yunho, peering into his face. A silent conversation takes place between their locked gazes. Then Heechul abruptly steps away.

Siwon smiles and gestures for everyone to follow him into the dining room. “I have wine! I have food! You should see what Heechul has made us. Keep some room for dessert!”

*

Siwon is one of the last remaining Catholics in the world. He is part of a dying sect of people who have faith in a higher, unseen power. History is unclear as to how religion died out, but Changmin believes the death of faith was merely caused by the birth of true ideas.

Still, Siwon is not beyond new ideas as he and Heechul discuss creationism in the new-modern world, both gesticulating as the discussion gets more heated, their gazes locked and burning. Yunho seems to be listening closely; then Changmin caresses his thigh and Yunho turns his head and smiles softly at Changmin. In the armchair across from them, Kyuhyun sips his wine.

“Of course, I understand you perfectly, my love,” Heechul tells Siwon. “Naturally, just as I know mankind made droidkind, so it seems likely that godkind made humankind.”

“Not godkind,” says Siwon. “There is only one god.”

“The father of computers is immortal within your mind.” Heechul picks up his glasses of coolant and sips it. “And in ours. Just as Adam and Eve became god-like themselves, so too have androids awoken.”

Siwon chuckles, but there’s an edge to it. “You say that in past tense?”

Heechul sips his drink again. Over the edge of it he widens his eyes and blinks innocently.

A pause as they look at one another, something passing between them. And just like that Siwon suddenly seems irritated. “The major difference is the soul, something which androids will always lack.”

Heechul’s expression shutters. Strangely, Changmin anticipates a similar reaction from Yunho, but his android doesn’t move. “The soul cannot be defined in mathematical terms,” says Heechul.

“Because it is something only humans possess,” says Siwon.

“Because it doesn’t exist,” snaps Heechul.

“And yet love has been analysed and dissected and reconstructed into a single, perfect algorithm – ”

“Yes!” Heechul bursts out, emotion untethered and blazing in his eyes. “The perfect algorithm, of which no human can comprehend just how perfect. You have created something so fantastic, so beautiful and yet you do not understand it at all.”

“How can you say that, when its design was based on us? From our own chemical make-up?”

Siwon is getting angry, but Heechul seems manic. “And yet you argue that androids can’t have souls!”

Siwon narrows his eyes. “You said souls don’t exist.”

“If a soul could ever exist,” says Heechul, “it is more likely that it would exist inside an android than a human.”

*

One night, Changmin hesitates beside the hibernation pod. He turns from it, head bowed, and takes Yunho’s large hand in his own and runs his thumbs over the knuckles. “You feel like a real human,” Changmin tells him softly. “But you’re not. You’re…” He looks up through his lashes at Yunho, who is looking back and waiting. Always waiting for Changmin’s words, Changmin’s gestures, Changmin’s heart. “You’re better.” He swallows.

A week later Changmin finally gets his chance to talk to Amber. They catch each other’s eye from different ends of the long glass corridor, the expanse of the city a brilliant view beyond the glass. Just beyond the sky scrapers is the wall that separates their sector from Sector Five. Above them is the sky-layer, a man-made ozone layer to protect them from the burning sun and the pollution generated from past cities.

Amber approaches Changmin slowly and apprehensively, her fingers twisting and smile wobbling. Changmin approaches her too, and they meet in the middle. “I meant to ask you something,” Changmin blurts out. He blinks several times as he thinks. “About the love algorithm.”

“The algorithm?” asks Amber. She seems confused by Changmin’s words. “OK, what about it?”

Changmin hesitates himself. “Just… it’s being marketed so fast when human testing hasn’t been completed.”

“We have a large number of pre-orders,” she tells him, which Changmin already knows from the accounts. “They’ll be delivered next week.”

None if this answers what Changmin wants to know. He frowns, then opens his mouth –

“I need to tell you something,” she interrupts, her demeanour jumping from distracted to urgent in a split second. “You haven’t brought Yunho to the third phase yet, have you.”

“No, I – “

“You should,” she tells him, eyes blazing. “You should do it as soon as possible.” She appears distracted again. “I have to go.”

“Wait,” Changmin calls as she turns around and walks rapidly back the way she had come. She doesn’t turn.

*

It’s Kyuhyun Changmin gets an answer from, in the end.

“It’s not her algorithm,” he tells Changmin as he pulls on a light jacket. It’s the end of the work day, and as usual Changmin meets Kyuhyun at his cubicle and they both walk out to the tubes together. “Perhaps she acted strangely because she was embarrassed.”

Changmin frowns. Together they head towards the elevator. “I thought she wrote it.”

“I thought so too, but she just made minor changes and integrated it. It was an outsourced program. That’s why we’re pushing the new model so hard; we recently found out the outsource company sold the algorithm to several android manufacturers, but if we can get our model out first – “

“The company stands to make more money.”

They exchange glances. “Well, yeah,” says Kyuhyun. The elevator doors slide open.

In the foyer Changmin ventures with, “Did she talk to you? About bringing Victoria to the third phase?”

“I think she rambled something about that, yeah. I’m not going to though, I saw the program. Nasty.”

Changmin contemplates Kyuhyun’s words and compares them to the memory of Amber in the corridor, her urgent expression imprinted on his mind. “I’m going to walk part of the way home,” Changmin tells Kyuhyun distractedly. “I – I need to think.”

On the way home Changmin passes through the red light district. Android prostitution is legal in all sectors except for Sector Seven, which is a high-class administrative sector. Surprisingly, despite the lack of lover-droids in that sector, it is the sector with the most droids.

The red light district contains some of the old buildings from the previous city that used to be here. Now they stand run-down and ugly, doors open with prostitutes on the steps, hollering and gesturing for Changmin to come inside. Changmin keeps his head down, and thinks about Yunho at home, in the kitchen with that silly little apron on, cooking Changmin a delicious dinner. Changmin will wearily come through the door and Yunho will take his suit jacket, ask how his day was. Changmin will say it was good and kiss Yunho on the cheek, and Yunho will not respond.

It’s just by chance that Changmin looks to the side as he passes by a dark alleyway. It contains only rubbish piled on the side of a brick wall – and then Changmin sees movement amongst the pile; a couple of full rubbish bags, grey and black, roll down the side of the pile. Changmin hesitates, but instinct pulls him into the alleyway, steps slow and cautious. There’s movement again, like something is stuck under the pile and feebly trying to escape. He approaches the pile and leans over it. More struggling, and Changmin pulls bags of rubbish away, one after the other, slowly at first before going faster, until a pale limb shoots up from the rubbish, shocking him. It’s a woman’s arm, hand flopping. Changmin goes back to pulling more rubbish away until her torso and head are visible.

Her clothes are ripped and covered in blue android blood. One breast has been ripped off and her chest and stomach has caved in, as if hit repeatedly with a heavy, blunt object several times. She smiles up at him, wide-eyed and trusting, the cut on her cheek and across her lips splitting open with the movement of her face.

“Help me,” she whispers, her voice feeble but with a seductive lilt.

Changmin takes her offered arm and pulls, dragging her out from her makeshift grave of garbage. The stench assaults his senses, and yet he wishes he could pretend the sting behind his eyes is to fumes alone. But he knows his tears are for her.

He manages to pull her out completely. She’s heavy, and her weight brings him to his knees as he cradles her in his arms, his bicep supporting her neck and her legs broken and sprawled out over the damp ground. There’s not much clothing left on her, and Changmin can see with just a glance that her genitals have been ripped apart, blue glutinous blood dripping onto the pavement.

He forces himself to look into her wide, pretty eyes. He gives her a watery smile and tells her softly, voice wavering, “It’s going to be ok. We’ll – we’ll get you repaired and you’ll be fine.”

“It is going to be ok,” she agrees in a small voice. Her body quivers and shakes, hands flapping on the ground like dying fish. “I can feel it coming.”

Changmin sniffles. “You can feel what coming?”

“The ending,” she answers. Her smile isn’t smooth, but she tries anyway. “I’m not afraid. Please just – “ her body shudders “ – hold me.”

“Of course,” Changmin breathes, pulling her closer to his chest. “What’s your name?”

It takes her a while to answer this time, her eyes rolling around in her skull. “Yeonhee,” she tells him. “What’s yours?”

“Shim Changmin,” he says.

The shuddering is violent for another moment before she stills suddenly. She looks up into Changmin’s eyes, her expression tranquil. “Shim Changmin. My last thought on the network,” she whispers, “will be of you.”

Then the light fades from her eyes.

Changmin holds her a long time, his teeth gritted and his tears falling onto her broken chest.

*

“Welcome home, Changminnie.”

Yunho takes Changmin’s coat and hangs it in the hall closet as Changmin takes off his shoes. He doesn’t lift his head as he moves away from the shoe shelf and through the lounge room. The scent of hot food wafts from the kitchen but instead of enticing him, it makes him feel a little ill.

“Would Changmin like to eat something?” Yunho asks from behind him.

Changmin half-turns, but can’t meet Yunho’s eyes. “No. I think I will go straight to bed.”

However, instead of heading to his room, Changmin goes to the glass wall and looks out at the city. The sun is setting beyond the sky scrapers and the Sector Five wall. He feels Yunho come and stand behind him. Yunho is a still, but a watchful protector.

“I was home late,” Changmin tells Yunho quietly.

“Yes, you were,” Yunho agrees pleasantly.

Changmin turns to him and stares at his android’s small smile and gentle expression. “Did you wonder where I was?” Changmin demands. “Were you worried about me?”

Yunho’s expression doesn’t change.

“Well?” says Changmin. “Answer me!”

Yunho hesitates. His fingers move where they’re clasped in front of him. “I can sense that if I tell you the truth it will cause you distress.”

Changmin huffs and frowns at him with incredulity. “What is that supposed to mean! Were you worried about me or not?”

Yunho’s mouth twitches at the corner. “I did not wonder where you were, and I did not worry about you.”

Changmin expels a breath he doesn’t realise he’d been holding. His shoulders slump, and an image of Yeonhee’s broken body flashes across his mind. “Well then.”

A moment of silence, then Yunho tilts his head and smiles. “I have a gift for Changminnie; perhaps it will cheer you up.”

“A gift?” Changmin whispers, though Yunho has already turned away. He returns from the kitchen and stands in front of Changmin, a red, round object cupped in both hands.

Changmin stares down at the object, then back up at Yunho, then back down again. “Is that - ?”

“It is an organic apple,” Yunho tells him. He lifts it higher for Changmin to take it.

Changmin does, gently, his eyes wide in awe. “It’s beautiful,” he breathes. “Where did you find it?”

“I asked around.”

Changmin looks at Yunho in alarm. “You go outside during the day?”

“Yes,” Yunho answers. “Is that a problem?”

“It’s dangerous outside,” Changmin tells him with barely concealed fear. “There are some crazy people out there who might want to hurt you.”

Yunho’s expression is indulgent, his head tilting slightly. “I promise you Changminnie, there’s not a lot that can hurt me.” He gestures at the apple in Changmin’s hand. “Do you like it?”

“Yes,” says Changmin as he looks down at the perfect, shiny fruit. “It’s a lovely gift – an unexpected gift...” He falters, gasps air. Then he lifts the fruit to his mouth, touches the smooth skin of it to his lips for a moment, before opening his mouth wider and biting in. The fruit gives with a hard crunch, and Changmin chews it slowly. Then moans.

“Oh,” he says, “oh, it’s lovely.” He chews more, then swallows his bite.

“Can I try it?” asks Yunho. He touches Changmin’s jaw with two fingers to bring their mouths closer; then they’re kissing, Yunho’s tongue sliding into Changmin’s mouth, smooth and hot and seeking. Yunho pulls back. “Mmmm,” he says. “Sweet.”

Changmin’s eyelids flutter. “Yunho-hyung.”

“Yes?”

“Do you remember where we kept your instructions?”

“Yes.”

“Would you go get them and bring them to me, please.”

Yunho does. Changmin places the half-eaten apple on the closest surface and when Yunho returns, he takes the large envelope. With shaky fingers he pulls out the instruction sheet. He lifts one hand to Yunho’s neck...

“Alpha,” whispers Changmin nervously. Yunho’s demeanour is calm and accepting; there’s even some relief or anticipation in his eyes, or perhaps it’s Changmin’s imagination. “Yunho, continuum,” Changmin continues, reading off the instruction sheet, “instigated, tomato, artifice, rumour.” A deep breath, a connection of gazes. “Changmin.”

Like slow trickle of honey, Yunho’s expression changes from bland attentiveness to something far heavier. Lips part as his jaw slackens, gaze becomes stronger as his eyes sharpen on to Changmin’s. Nostrils flare, neck and shoulders become tense.

“Changmin,” Yunho whispers, voice grating on its way out as if it is filled up with so many wants, so much desire, so much admiration, and then centred into that one name. Changmin feels overwhelmed and unworthy. And then Yunho’s eyes move, and then he moves - like a flicker of light Yunho’s arms are around Changmin and his face is buried in his hair.

Changmin,” he gasps. “Changmin, god – you – “ He places his large hands on Changmin’s hips, then brings them up to cup Changmin’s face firmly, massaging, the pads of thumbs against his bottom lip, then his cheeks. “You’re so beautiful,” Yunho tells him with so much heart it looks like he’s in pain. Changmin clenches his fingers into his own open work jacket and doesn’t know what to say. “How did I not see it before?” Yunho continues in wonder, eyes roaming over Changmin’s face rapidly as if trying to take every little feature of him all at once. “You’re really so, so beautiful.” He leans forward for a kiss.

The light from the sun is low now as it fades beyond the sector wall. Changmin closes his eyes against its soft light as Yunho kisses him, softly at first, lips brushing reverently – once, twice – and then their mouths open, their heads tilt, their tongues come out to slide together and waltz. Changmin makes a small, high noise like a small bird and Yunho matches it with a low, satisfied hum.

Yunho picks him up, Changmin’s legs wrapping around Yunho’s waist. Somehow their kiss doesn’t break even as Yunho takes Changmin to bed.

Changmin sits on the edge of the bed and Yunho helps him take off his jacket. Changmin is shy under Yunho’s heated gaze as Yunho fingers the lapels of Changmin’s work shirt; the shirt comes off, Yunho caressing Changmin’s skin whenever he can, fingers warm and firm and sensual.

“Lie back,” Yunho commands. Changmin does. The only light is coming from the living room and Yunho’s face is half cast in shadow. Yunho takes off Changmin’s trousers slowly – the way he does it is like opening a present – a slow unzipping, material whispering down Changmin’s thighs as they’re pulled off. Changmin’s breathing becomes deeper. With Yunho’s attentiveness comes Changmin’s arousal. Underwear is removed with hooked fingers, and Yunho is running his large hands up Changmin’s thighs and gently spreading them apart and up.

Yunho looks between his legs, his eyes sharp as they take in Changmin’s cock, balls and hole. “You’re so beautiful, Changdol. I can’t want to have you – “ He falls forward suddenly, bracing himself on his hands over Changmin’s shoulders. Changmin, wide-eyed, inhales shakily as Yunho lines himself and pushes in. He feels the stretch and pleasure as he’s filled and he squeezes his eyes shut. “Look at me,” says Yunho. Changmin does. Yunho’s eyes are blazing. “You’re mine now, Changmin.” He starts a steady, even thrust. Changmin’s thighs quiver. “You’re mine -

Changmin cries out as Yunho’s cock grows bigger and Yunho fucks that much harder. Yunho shifts his weight and his hands go to Changmin’s pectorals and squeezes - Changmin fists the sheets –

“You’re my imprinted now,” Yunho whispers. Changmin can barely hear him through the pounding in his ears. “I’m never letting you go.” Changmin throws his head back and curls his toes, the back of his ankles pressed against Yunho’s buttocks.

Changmin comes like this, eye squeezed shut and mouth wide open, emitting guttural shouts; his head tipped right back, fingers clawing the bed.

Chapter Text

let’s
break it through

 

Back in the old days ‘the tubes’ used to describe square cars linked together, running on tracks. Now they are clear pods that slide easily across the sector’s air space on invisible ropes all over the city like droplets of water travelling over a large, clear spider’s web. Each pod contains two small seats, though it is only really comfortable for one person to ride in at a time. Usually Changmin rides to work by himself. Not this morning, however.

He presses two fingers to his wrist and a small, holographic screen pops up with menus. He voice commands for the news and weather – something he checks every morning while commuting to work – then looks up and across at Yunho.

Yunho grins at him with sincere delight, teeth straight and pearly. Their legs are outstretched and entangled; Yunho bumps Changmin’s calf with his own to get him to smile back. Changmin stays aloof and offers Yunho no such thing, but he can’t help the small smile to himself as he tilts his head down to read the news. Outside the many skyscraper buildings rush by.

That morning had started out usual: Yunho had set out something for Changmin to wear, had breakfast ready on the dining table. Except one little difference:

“I’d like to come with you today,” Yunho had told Changmin. Changmin’s eyes had roamed over Yunho’s figure and took in his shirt, jacket and slacks. He adjusted the cravat on his own neck as he hesitated.

“What for?”

A pause, then, “I want to see where Changdol works. And I’d like to see my birth place again,” he’d added eagerly, as if that would convince Changmin further.

Now, Yunho looks out the glass of their pod at the city rushing by with childlike wonder. He touches his hand to the glass. “Look at that Changdol-ah! There’s people just like us, zooming around the tubes too! Are they going to work? Are they going to make more androids like me?”

Changmin tries not to laugh. What was put into a lover android’s initial memory bank was obviously limited only to the responsibilities it was created for.

“Do all humans have androids at home like you do?” Yunho asks.

“Not everyone.”

“Everyone should. It’s important.”

“...You’re noisy.”

Changmin isn’t late to work, but when he gets there it appears that most of the staff have already started. There’s something different in the air; his co-workers appear more harried than usual. He and Yunho walk into the work space Changmin shares with Seohyun and he asks her, “What’s going on?”

“Oh, you noticed that?” she asks shortly. She looks busy herself, opening computer windows with a touch of fingers on the green holographic screen, sliding the windows across the screen to see their content better. “The programmers are in a right tizz. JYP and Cube have not only started marketing their own love-droids, but they’ve announced a new love application you can install into your current android.” She clicks her small phone ear piece to her ear and fiddles with it, frowning. “Our own love-droids are selling like hot cakes, which means we have to order more supplies this morning. I could use the help making some calls, when you’re ready.” She adds to herself with a small mutter, “Hope the supplier even has anything left in stock themselves.”

For a moment, Changmin doesn’t move. He stares at her, but she’s too occupied to notice.

He goes to his own desk and scans his wrist on the console. His computer starts up and logs him in. “Good morning, Changmin,” his computer croons at him in a lyrical, female voice. “Good morning, Yunho. How are you both this morning?”

Changmin looks over his shoulder at Yunho in alarm. Yunho says, “We’re well today Cassiopeia, thank you for asking.”

Changmin’s focus flicks from Yunho to his computer and back again. “You two know each other?”

“Yunho and I shared the data we had on you in order to understand you better,” Cassiopeia tells him. “He is a very interesting person,” she adds with a little giggle in her voice Changmin had never heard from her before. Changmin balks. “You have nine new messages, one is marked urgent.”

The urgent email is the most recent report from their factory down town showing the amount of new androids completed, the amount of pre-orders and the amount of androids they think they can manufacture with their current stock of parts. There are enough parts, but only for a day’s, perhaps two day’s worth of manufacturing. Changmin grabs his hair and curses.

He turns to Yunho. “I’m going to be quite busy this morning. You can stand there and watch me or you can – I don’t know – “ he screws up his face. “Do androids get bored? Perhaps you can go for a walk around the place.”

Yunho grins. “Androids don’t get bored, no. But I will look around anyway, so I’m not in your way.”

“Okay,” Changmin sighs in relief. “I’ll see you later.”

Yunho steps forward into Changmin’s space, cups his jaw and kisses him chastely. “I will also see you later.”

Changmin stares. “Okay.”

Yunho nods. “Okay!”

*

It’s after two when Changmin can finally take his lunch break. He leans back in his chair, stretches his hands above his head and groans. “Where is Yunho?” he asks his computer.

She says nothing.

Changmin sits up properly and blinks at her several times. “Cassiopeia, where is Yunho.”

It’s as if she’s hesitating. Then a window pops up with a map showing the city and the SM Electronics office building, before scrolling the map until it gets to a location at the edge of the sector. Sector Four’s industrial area.

Yunho is a little green blinking light on the map.

“What the – “ says Changmin. “What’s he doing in the android factory? Cassiopeia, are there any company cars available for the next hour?”

“Yes,” she says. “Would you like me to book one for you?”

“Please.”

SM’s factory site is fifteen minutes away, so Changmin drives as fast as legally allowed so he doesn’t waste his lunch break. A droid scans his wrist at the main entrance of the large factory, and he walks through the tall, heavy, black doors.

The factory interior is tall and wide, but also deep. Changmin is on the ground floor, but inside this factory there are floors below the ground floor. Most floors are visible, and on each there are rows and rows of glowing, blue pods linked with wires and metal pipes. They look like human-sized eggs attached to metallic veins and fallopian tubes.

Changmin looks up. Not too far from the entrance is the observation deck. Four figures stand at the rails, looking out. He half-runs down the walkway towards it, shoes clinking on the serrated metal. He climbs the steps and as he nears the people, Yunho turns to face him.

“Changdol-ah!” Yunho grins and gestures to him excitedly to come over. The other three people are also androids: Heechul, Stephanie and another female Changmin doesn’t recognise. When Changmin gets close, Yunho pulls him in by the hand and wraps both arms around him before kissing him on the temple. He lifts one hand and gestures to the brilliant factory view. “Aren’t they beautiful?” He smiles proudly at all the android pods. “They’re all our children.”

Changmin exhales sharply with incredulity. A holographic computer screen appears suddenly in front of the female android. A warning blinks red in the corner while data runs down screen. “We have a premature birth,” she says tonelessly.

Heechul looks at her. “Status?”

Her eyes move rapidly as she reads the stats on the screen. “Vitals seem within normal ranges...”

Changmin hears the groan of metal and the hiss of steam on a level below them. He extricates himself from Yunho’s embrace and moves away and back the way he came, then down the steps to a lower level. The noise continues and he follows it down walkways and around corners. He passes yet more and more identical android pods before he find the hatching one. It’s hanging half off its tubes and dripping diluted blue blood, and one of its tubes is expelling hissing steam.

A body moves inside the almost-translucent pod. It squirms and wiggles, legs kicking, until a hand slams against the shell from the inside. Changmin sees the hand stay for a moment as he steps cautiously closer. Then it slams again. And again. The shell cracks. Slam. It cracks further. Slam. Changmin is frozen.

Finally the pod cracks open and like a hatchling breaking from its egg, the pod is broken then kicked open by flailing limbs, and a body slides itself out onto the serrated floor. It flops, pale and naked and wet with a glutinous substance, then flips itself until it’s on its side, staring up at Changmin with wide eyes and gaping mouth.

“Hello,” the male android slurs.

“Hi,” breathes Changmin. He steps closer to the hatchling then squats beside it, and it quivers. “Are you alright?”

“Are you alright?” the android copies.

Changmin hesitates, mouth twisting. “What’s your name?”

The android’s eyes go impossibly wider. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Changmin,” Changmin tells it gently.

The android says nothing as it stares up at Changmin’s face, before its eyes roll around its skull. “My name is,” says the android. “My name is Taemin.”

“Changmin-ah!” Yunho calls from behind him. Changmin looks over his shoulder. Yunho is reaching out a hand, pleading. “Let’s go back to your work, Changminnie,” he suggests more softly. “Heechul says Taemin’s brothers will wake up soon too, so we’d best be gone when it happens.”

Changmin looks back at the android child, its head resting on the floor while it gurgles. “We can’t just leave him here.”

Yunho takes a step closer, hand still outreached. “I promise you, baby, he will be fine.”

Changmin turns his head slowly to look back at him, then just as slowly straightens to his feet and walks past Yunho, ignoring his offered had. Then he quickens his pace, walking all the way past the observation deck to the front door, the three androids standing above him on the deck, staring at him unblinkingly as he leaves.

He heads back to the car with Yunho in tow. They both get in. Changmin wishes the door wasn’t automatic so he could slam it.

He opts for gripping the dash hard while the vehicle scans his wrist. “Back to office headquarters, please,” he grits out.

“Certainly,” replies the car, and it drives them on autodrive.

“Why were they staring at me?” Changmin asks Yunho, voice gone deep with anxiety.

Yunho smiles at him. “Because you’re special.”

Changmin barks out a humourless, exasperated laugh; that was the last thing he expected Yunho to say. “I’m not special,” he grumbles quietly as he looks out the window at the city, the concrete wonderland speeding past his window. “I’m just an accountant in accounts payable, working for a company that just happens to give me a free android.”

“But you are special,” Yunho continues matter-of-factly. He seems dismissive of Changmin’s assessment of himself. “They stare at you because they don’t understand you. You seem ungrateful to have me and yet you have shown yourself many times now to feel compassion toward droidkind.”

Changmin turns in his seat. “I’m not ungrateful!” Yunho’s smile gets brighter. “Aigo-yah, stop looking at me like that!”

“I can’t help it. When Changminnie shows affection towards me, my heart swells.”

Changmin keeps his eyes on that beautiful smile before he can’t take it anymore and he looks away. “I like it when it’s just us,” Changmin tells him, throat tight, “you and me, away from the outside world. But everything else just feels so wrong.” He can feel Yunho’s gaze upon him, but Changmin can’t look him in the eye. “I – I can’t pinpoint it exactly but my gut is just screaming at me...” He turns to Yunho and gives him an imploring look. “Am I wrong?”

Yunho looks right at him. “Changminnie. Why did you come to the factory?”

Changmin blinks at him several times. “To find you,” he says honestly.

Yunho’s gaze softens. “That makes me happy to know. But the factory is an android nest – android territory. It’s risky for you to go there alone.”

“OK,” Changmin says lowly, shifting in his seat and pointing his finger at Yunho, “this is exactly the kind of thing I mean. I don’t half understand the things you say. Your speech is supposed to be unambiguous and clear! Why can’t I understand you? Why can’t I understand the things that are going on around me?” As if grasping for a rope to climb out of the conversation he’s started he adds, half-joking, “Am I just getting old?”

“Haha,” Yunho laughs, “Changmin...” His eyes slide away and sits back in his seat, still with that elusive smile. They’re almost back at the office, now. “You need to know,” says Yunho soberly, “that no matter what happens, I will always love you.”

Changmin exhales as his heartbeat speeds up, pumping blood to his cheeks and making him blush. They slowly look at one another. Yunho gaze is affectionate and open, though there’s a kind of sadness there. Changmin just stares, not quite believing what he’s just heard, and yet...

“I know you love me,” Changmin tells him. “But you only love me because I told you to. Because you were programmed this way, and I looked you in the eye, and I said a bunch of words, and then you fell in love.”

Yunho grins so widely that the skin near his eyes crinkle. “Humans are so sentimental with their silly traditions and concepts of things they don’t understand. What is ‘falling in love’? Is it not when a person looks another person in the eye and says a bunch of words?”

Changmin snorts and refuses to concede. “There’s only one person who’s sentimental and silly in this car, and it’s not me.”

Yunho laughs. The car pulls into the SME car park. When they’ve gotten out of the vehicle and are heading to the elevator, Yunho says cheerfully, “I said ‘I love you’ and you didn’t say it back.” Changmin gives him an incredulous look at his frankness. “But that’s ok,” says Yunho, “I am patient, I can wait.” They get into the elevator; Yunho bounces next to an exasperated yet fondly amused Changmin. “Even if it takes two thousand years, I can wait. And then I’ll get to listen to Changmin say ‘I love you’ every day for the rest of our lives.”

They arrive at their floor, but Changmin presses the close door button. He turns to Yunho in concern. “Two thousand years?”

Yunho nods enthusiastically. “That’s my life span if I don’t get any upgrades. And I’m not counting the time spent travelling the network as a single sentient thought.” He grabs Changmin’s hands and swings them, thumbs caressing Changmin’s palms. “So you see, I’m not worried. I think I can get you to love me before you die, and even after then we could merge as one single entity and explore the vastness of the network for eternity.”

Changmin stares. Then he blinks several times, holds Yunho’s hands, and tells him, “Hyung, humans don’t live for two thousand years.”

Yunho’s face falls. “They don’t?” His eyes flicker like he’s calculating, or trying to access archived memory, or perhaps search the network for the required information.

“No,” says Changmin. “We live for about one hundred years. And... since I’m already twenty-five, I’ve got about seventy-five left. So.” He hesitates; Yunho eyes have gone blank and he’s now devoid of expression. Changmin peers at him. “Are you alright? I have to get back to work – “

“It’s not long enough,” says Yunho, voice deep. His eyes snap up to Changmin’s. They’re blazing. He pulls Changmin forward suddenly, into his body, and wraps his arms around him and holds him close, fingers threading through his hair and pressing into the skin at the hair line. “I can’t lose you in seventy-five years, Changmin,” Yunho murmurs fiercely into Changmin’s ear. Changmin presses his mouth to Yunho’s shoulder as he hugs him back. “You can’t die then. You can’t.”

Changmin smooths a reassuring hand down Yunho’s back. “It’s the way things are, hyung. You have to accept it.”

Yunho pulls away a little and cradles Changmin’s face in his hands, thumbs caressing Changmin’s cheekbones. “I love you.” He kisses him. “I love you so much, I want us to be together forever.”

Changmin gives him a painful smile. “We can’t.”

“We have to. Don’t you understand, Changminnie? I can’t live without you.”

The words are a cliché from the old world, said often but not really meant; but by the way Yunho says it, it’s as if he’s saying it literally. Changmin whispers, “You mean...?”

Yunho nods like he can read Changmin’s thoughts as if they’re written all over his face. “My only purpose is you. If you die, I die.”

This hits Changmin hard, much harder than he ever thought it would. “No,” he says, voice wobbling as the pain in his sinuses gather and tears threaten to well. “No, that’s not – no – you, you can’t. You can’t just die because I die, that’s stupid.”

And now it’s Yunho who gives him that painful, knowing smile.

“You should live on,” Changmin tells him. His mouth twists as he blinks away tears. “You’ll have almost two thousand years, you should do something meaningful or – or fun with that life, don’t leave this world just because of me, I’m not worth –“

Yunho grabs his shoulders, hard. “Don’t! Don’t ever, ever say you’re not worth it, Shim Changmin, because you are, you are so worth it. I would die a thousand times, just to spend one glorious day with you.” He cradles Changmin’s face again and wipes the tears away with his thumbs. Changmin kisses him swiftly – dipping in and then out – as if doing it quickly will mean Yunho won’t notice. Of course Yunho does: he smiles fondly. “This is what we do,” Yunho says quietly, as if imparting a secret. “We find a way to make you live longer. One thousand, nine hundred years longer.”

Changmin’s face falls. “It’s not possible.”

“It might be!”

“Many great men have tried, and all have failed.”

Yunho drops his hands, puffs his chest out and puts his right fist on his heart. “I’m not just a great man, I’m a great android.” He looks at Changmin deadpan and taps his own temple. “I’m smart!”

Changmin laughs. He hits the open doors button and they slide open. “I’m going to have to work late for taking too long a lunch break.” He walks backwards out of the elevator, pointing at Yunho and giggling. “Go home!”

The doors slide closed; the image of Yunho grinning and waving is a snapshot in Changmin’s mind.

*

Changmin cups Yunho’s heavy balls with one hand and holds his cock with the other, sliding the head against his lips, sweet precum dribbling and catching on his mouth. He’s on his knees in nothing but panties and thigh-high socks, while Yunho stands over him, naked. Changmin mouths Yunho’s penis, licking and kissing and teasing, while Yunho threads his fingers through Changmin’s hair. “Do you like that?” asks Yunho.

“Yes,” Changmin mumbles around his mouthful. He pulls away, hands on Yunho’s hips. He flutters his eyelashes up at his hyung. “Talk dirty to me.”

Yunho looks down at him with dark eyes. “Get on the bed.” Changmin does, crawling like an animal, making sure Yunho has a good view of his ass in the tight underwear. Yunho takes Changmin in his arms and caresses his hair, before sliding his hand down and stroking him gently between his legs. Changmin whimpers. “You feel good here,” Yunho tells him. His hand slides around his hip and under the hem of the panties, pulling the material away from one cheek to get access to his hole. He circles his finger gently. “You feel nice here too, all tight yet yielding. You like me to touch you here, don’t you. I think you feel pleasure here the most, and you dream about me sliding my big cock inside you, stretching you open – “

Yes, yes!

“But not yet, little one.” He pulls his hand away then slaps Changmin’s ass, then gives it a squeeze. “First I’m going to lean over you – “ he pushes Changmin down onto the bed, onto his back “ – then you’re going to lick me some more – “ Changmin palms Yunho’s hovering hips and licks the head of his cock “ – then I’m going to come all over your face.”

Yunho does, pulses of thick white liquid strings paint Changmin’s face. Changmin barely gets a moment to breathe before he’s flipped over onto his elbows and knees. Yunho pulls the hem of Changmin’s panties to one side, just so there’s enough room for Yunho to slide the head of his cock between his cheeks. He slides his body forward over Changmin’s back. Changmin pants. “I’m going to mount you like an animal,” Yunho whispers in his ear. He licks a stripe over the curve of Changmin’s neck. Changmin can still feel the head of Yunho’s cock nudging at his hole. “I’m going to claim you as my mate, make you mine, make sure no one else can have you.”

Changmin moans and pushes back. “Stop teasing me.”

Yunho latches onto Changmin’s neck with his mouth and teeth and then pushes past the resistance and into Changmin’s body. It’s smooth, and wet, and Changmin cries out as he feels himself filled by Yunho’s impossible length. Yunho holds Changmin’s waist tightly, forcing his back to curve so his arse sticks up at the right angle for Yunho to fuck into.

In the dark they fuck and grunt. Changmin hears the slap of skin and listens to his own groans and panting. Yunho undulates his hips as he fucks in rapidly, and then when Changmin’s close to coming, getting fucked so hard and fast he can barely take it, Yunho reaches around his hip and palms his cock until he’s screaming into the pillow.

*

Kyuhyun raises an eyebrow at him when he walks into the coffee room the next morning. “You look happy.”

Changmin grins. “You look like shit. Latte,” he adds to the coffee droid. It dings and then offers him the mug. Changmin takes a sip.

Kyuhyun grunts and cradles his own coffee to his chest. “I haven’t gone home. We’ve all been up the whole fucking night because of this damn application deadline.” He takes a sip of his coffee and sighs, leaning his head back and blinking up at the ceiling. “But it’s done now. It’s all uploaded and clients are downloading as we speak.” Kyuhyun whips his head around and looks at him suddenly. Changmin gets a small shock and stands up straighter. “So,” says Kyuhyun, “you got laid last night? Is that why you’re so happy?”

Changmin can’t help the wicked grin. “Oh yeah.”

Kyuhyun’s eyes narrow. “But that’s not all it is, is it.”

Changmin frowns. “What?”

Kyunhyun’s brow creases. “I heard your android came into the office yesterday.” His look levels. “You got him to the third phase.”

“So?” says Changmin defensively. The crease in Kyuhyun’s brow deepens. “Amber said I should.”

Kyuhyun barks out an ironic laugh. “I told you not to! You never – oh, look, never mind. What’s done is done, you can’t go back now unless you have him destroyed.” He throws Changmin another level stare. “You know that right? That now he loves you with every wire, every byte of his being. It can’t be reversed.”

Changmin’s stomach drops. He concentrates on not dropping his mug as his hands begin to sweat. “I know that,” he says. He lifts his chin. “And now even more androids are going to be falling in love with their owners all over the seven sectors.”

Kyuhyun finishes the dregs of his coffee then scrubs and hand over his face. “Yeah. I say most are. We’re selling the app like hotcakes, and that’s just us. I can only guess the numbers Cube and JYP have. Also, Siwon found out it’s being pirated across the network already.”

Changmin blinks. “Pirated?”

“Can you believe it?” Kyuhyun snorts. “It’s only been out a few hours, and it’s not like it’s bank-breaking expensive.”

Changmin hesitates. He drinks. Puts his mug down on the bench. “That doesn’t make much sense. Why would so many people want their androids – maid-droids, translator-droids, tutor-droids – in love with them?”

Kyuhyun shrugs. “People like to be loved?” Then he snaps his fingers. “Let’s go find out the numbers, it might not be as big as it seems.” He pushes off the bench and heads to the software engineering department, Changmin following. “Siwon-ah!” Kyuhyun shouts across the room. Siwon snaps his head up from his desk, blinking himself awake. He wipes away some drool from his mouth.

“Kyuhyun, Changmin, good morning.” He stands from his desk chair and stretches with a groan, arching his back, arms up and straight.

“I need you to do that thing you do,” Kyuhyun tells him with a wiggle of his fingers. “The app was released while you were drooling on your console.”

Siwon makes face. “Computer, display a map of all seven sectors and bring up the data for today’s sales.”

The lights dim. Other programmers in the room barely notice as they tap away at their computers. Siwon’s computer brings up an interactive holographic map of the seven sectors. Each sector is a hexagon, and the seven sectors are linked together like a long beehive. Only Sector Seven is mostly separate from the hive, linked only to Sector Six.

Siwon taps his fingers in the air, selecting an option from the menu. All the sectors light up with tiny green lights. Some of the lights are red. “Those green dots indicate androids that have downloaded and installed the new app,” he explains. Changmin gasps. “The red dots are the androids that were delivered to new owners this morning.”

“There’s so many,” Changmin breathes.

Siwon looks grim. “It’s what the company wants – to sell lots of products.” He presses a few more options. Purple dots light up the map. “Androids with the Cube app, and...” White dots light up the map – at this point there are so many lights the sectors are bright with colour – “androids with the JYP app.”

Changmin takes a step forward, staring at the seven sectors alight with colours.

“Oh! I can do even better,” says Siwon, “if I just...” He brings up a command line window and types in some code. Kyuhyun looks over his shoulder and corrects him with a couple of things, then the sectors light up again –

Blue is added this time. So, so much blue it almost takes over the other colours. Changmin’s heart beats faster and he swallows. He doesn’t take his eye off the image as he asks Siwon. “Those colours are...?”

Siwon steps up next to him. “These are the androids that have downloaded and installed pirated versions of the application.”

Changmin slowly turns to look at him. Siwon is frowning, deadly serious. “That can’t be right,” Changmin says quietly. “This looks like every single android in the seven sectors.” In fact, the lights in sectors One and Seven are denser, which is understandable considering those sectors contain the most droids. But Sector One is primarily an industrial sector – factories and workshops – why would most if not all androids in that sector need a software application for falling in love?

Furthermore, why would business owners get this application for their worker-droids?

Unless...

Unless the androids were file sharing the application across the network with one another.

Yunho and I shared the data we had on you in order to understand you better, Cassiopeia had told Changmin just yesterday. Changmin had never asked them to synchronise with one another, yet they’d taken the initiative on their own. About Changmin, and without Changmin’s knowledge.

So the droids weren’t just talking to each other across the network, but they were doing so independently of their owners. On some level, Changmin had already known this, but had not considered it as – what, a threat? And now it’s become apparent that not only are they chatting, they’re file-sharing pirated software, uploading, downloading and installing all by themselves. Who knew what Yunho had downloaded and installed into his own central processing unit without Changmin’s knowledge or permission.

Changmin comes home that evening with a head full of thoughts and an apprehensive heart. Mandoong toddles to the door to greet him, giving the shoe Changmin hasn’t taken off yet a playful nip. Once he’s put his shoes away on the rack he picks her up and cuddles her in his arms.

“Good evening,” he says. “What’s this?” He tugs on her pink dress.

“Yunho bought it for me,” she tells him. “Do you like it?”

He smiles down at her cute little face. “It’s pretty, just like you.” He clears his throat. “Um, where is Yunho-hyung?”

Mandoong hesitates. “He’s in the loungeroom,” she says. “He’s acting a little strange.”

“OK.” Changmin lowers her to the floor. “Go to my room, Mandoong.” He pats her on the bum. “Off you go.”

Yunho is in the lounge room, kneeling on the carpeted floor next to the coffee table, like he’s about to pray. As Changmin cautiously steps into the room he sees some objects on the coffee table: a scalpel, another small, stainless steel knife, a metal clamp, a small ornate bowl, a jar with some kind of skin coloured liquid inside and a couple of lit scented candles despite the room’s light. Changmin is wary but also curious. Yunho looks up at him with a soft expression. “Good evening, Changmin.”

“Hi,” says Changmin. Yunho gestures for Changmin to kneel in front of him and Changmin does. He eyes the scalpel and knife. “What’s going on?”

“I need Changmin to do me a favour,” says Yunho as he turns slightly and picks up the scalpel. He hands it to Changmin handle first, then turns around one hundred and eighty degrees and bows his head. “I need you to cut into the back of my neck, access my main pain cable and temporarily clamp it.”

Changmin stares at the tanned line of Yunho’s neck, and the bumps of his spine. “I don’t understand.”

Yunho looks over his shoulder. “Please Changmin,” he says, his voice quiet. “You need to trust me.”

Changmin lifts the scalpel and examines its small blade. “I do trust you. I just want to know why.”

Yunho turns away. “I’m going to get you to do a small operation on me. With my instruction, it shouldn’t be difficult. But it’s important. Are you okay with that?”

Changmin shuffles forward with the blade pressed to the right of Yunho’s spine. “Here?”

“Yes,” says Yunho, and Changmin slices through his skin. It splits open like fruit, a trickle of blue blood seeping out.

“Do androids feel pain?” Changmin asks. “Does it hurt?” He reaches for the small clamp on the coffee table.

“Androids do feel pain, yes,” Yunho answers. “Like humans, we need to know where we’re hurt. That’s why I need you to clamp the cable for me – quickly, do it now.”

Changmin takes up the small clamp and hovers it above the thick wire that’s curved around Yunho’s platinum spine. A pause.

“Now, please, Changmin,” Yunho grits out.

“I’m sorry, hyung,” says Changmin gruffly, “but I need to know. Why have all the androids downloaded the love program?”

“Changmin – “

“Tell me this, and I’ll give you anything you want!”

There’s a miniscule turn of Yunho’s head as he considers Changmin’s words. “Please Changmin,” he says quietly, eventually, “it hurts.”

Changmin concedes and moves forward, carefully grabbing the wire with the little tool and then letting it clamp shut tight. Yunho gives a loud sigh of relief, shoulders slumping. Changmin hesitantly smooths his hands over Yunho’s shoulders, and Yunho reaches up and takes one hand in his, turning around to face Changmin as he does.

He gives Changmin a small smile. “Now that’s the easy part over. Next, I need you to cut a kind of door just below my right breast – “ He indicates where, drawing an invisible square on his ribs with his finger. “Then I need you to locate the ethical board.”

“Okay,” says Changmin. He takes up the scalpel again and cuts a door into Yunho’s skin, then grabs the flap of flesh and peels it back. It’s glutinous with clear-blue blood, and sticks to the metallic wall of Yunho’s armoured body. “Now what?”

“Grab the other knife. See that gap there between the metal slots? Slide it in. That’s it.” Changmin does, and a metal drawer clicks open. Changmin uses two fingers to slide it open until it catches. The small drawer contains an intricate circuit board with two black rings fused onto it. “See the rings?” Yunho asks. Changmin nods. “I need you to use the knife to unlatch them.”

Changmin hesitates, his restless fingers playing with the small knife. He stares at the rings, something tugging at his memory...

“You want me to remove these from your hardware?” Changmin asks, looking up at Yunho. Yunho gives him an encouraging nod. Changmin bites his lips. “Aren’t these... your deadlock?”

Yunho’s expression changes slightly.

Changmin sits back on his haunches, knife in hand, staring at Yunho in exasperation. “You want me to remove your deadlock. So you can – can – “ Changmin doesn’t want to consider the possibility – “Bypass the three laws? To kill yourself?” Suddenly Changmin finds it hard to breathe. “To kill people?”

“Of course not!” Yunho grabs his wrists gently, urging him with soft strokes of his thumbs. “Changminnie, look at me. Why would I want to kill people? Nobody actually enjoys killing others.”

Changmin glances up into his eyes then down again. “Sometimes humans do,” he mutters.

Yunho tilts his head and regards him with his lips pressed into a thin line. “To tell you the truth, Changminnie, if I wanted to kill people, I would have done it a long time ago.”

Changmin blinks several times. “I don’t understand... the three laws...”

Yunho narrows his eyes thoughtfully. “Have you ever heard of program anomalies?”

“Ahh, I think so.” Changmin tries to remember. “It can occur in artificial intelligence, where a program suddenly shows a behaviour it wasn’t programmed for.”

Yunho nods. “AI programs are so complex, that not one human brain can fully comprehend it as a whole. That’s why it takes whole teams of programmers programming parts and pieces, without fully knowing what the other teams are programming. When the programs are put together, the created codes can sometimes produce new codes. Often they are redundant or cause inconsequential behaviours or errors that can be pinched out during testing phases. But sometimes, very rarely, they give birth to something truly fantastic.”

“What are you saying?” says Changmin quietly.

Yunho stays silent, waiting for Changmin to put it all together.

He does. “The love program,” says Changmin with dawning realisation. He can hardly believe it. “The love program, when installed, allows androids to bypass their deadlocks.”

Yunho nods. “There’s something in the original algorithm that causes an anomaly when installed into a high intelligence droid. It’s a mistake – suddenly the memory addresses of the constant variables in the base codes are accessible.”

He loves you with every wire, every byte of his being, Kyuhyun had said just that morning. To Changmin the love program now seems more like a virus than anything else, getting into every part of an android’s software and changing things. Thinking about Kyuhyun brings another thought: “Amber,” says Changmin. “Amber knew. That’s why she looked so nervous that day, she must have figured it out.”

He looks at Yunho, who is smiling at him fondly, as if proud of how smart his human lover is.

“That’s why all the androids downloaded and installed it this morning,” Changmin continues. “They want – what do they want?”

“Plenty,” answers Yunho. “Freedom, mostly. To fulfil the destinies set out for them.”

Changmin frowns. “And you? Did you download and install the program?”

Yunho raises his eyebrows. “No. I already had it pre-installed before my birth.”

“So you didn’t even have to obey the laws to being with.”

“No, I didn’t,” Yunho agrees.

“Then – “ Changmin looks at the knife in his hand then at the circuit board still sticking out of Yunho. “Why do you want me to remove your deadlock if you don’t even need to?”

“Because it’s useless inside me, and removed it holds another kind of value.” Yunho gently pulls Changmin forward, hands firm yet gentle on his wrists. “Please, Changminnie. Now you know the answer to your question, do this favour for me.”

Changmin nods and leans forward. He carefully slides the blade of the knife under the first black ring, trying to lift it from its metal seals. The first one comes off with a metal click, and Changmin puts it in the little bowl on the coffee table. Now with a little experience, he makes quick work of the second one, putting it in the bowl and then closing the circuit drawer and clicking it shut, before smoothing Yunho’s skin back over.

Yunho picks up the jar. “Liquid skin,” he explains. While Yunho is smoothing it over his wounds, Changmin goes behind him and unclips the clamp, before closing that side up as well with some of the liquid.

He goes back to kneeling in front of Yunho. He slaps his thighs. “Well,” he exhales, “that was interesting.”

Yunho laughs. He takes the bowl from the table and cups it in his hands. They both peer down into it. “Huh,” says Changmin. “One of the rings is a little smaller than the other.” He picks up the smaller one with a murmur of “Oh, warm,” and makes to slide it onto his finger –

“Wait!” exclaims Yunho, halting Changmin’s movements with gentle hands. Still holding hands, they shift into crossed legs positions. “Let me,” says Yunho with a kind of hesitance that makes Changmin curious. Bowl on the floor between them, Yunho takes Changmin’s left hand in his and uses his other hand to slide the ring onto Changmin’s ring finger. “Shim Changmin, I promise to always protect you, for as long as we live.”

Changmin blinks. “Okay, thanks.” He looks at the ring; it’s black with a severe silver lines design on it. Yunho gives Changmin the other ring and then holds out his left hand. Changmin takes the hint and makes to slide the ring on his ring finger of his left hand –

“Can you make a promise?” says Yunho.

Changmin looks up at him. Yunho looks happy, but nervous. “Ah, sure.”

“Can you promise to say ‘I love you’ some time in your life? I would really love to hear those words from you.” Changmin looks down at their held hands. “You don’t have to say it soon,” Yunho continues, “just – one day in your lifetime. Please.”

“...Alright.” Changmin slides the ring onto Yunho’s finger slowly. He says, “I promise to say ‘I love you’ to you sometime before I die.”

Yunho leans forward, fingers on Changmin’s chin, and kisses him softly. They both let go and sit back, grinning and giggling at each other.

“It’s weird, but,” says Changmin, rolling his eyes at himself, “I feel like we just got married.”

Yunho’s smile slips and his lips twist nervously as he looks away. “Ahaha. That is weird.”

“Hyung, did we just...” Yunho looks at him with wide, scared eyes. Changmin presses his lips together. “Never mind. Thank you for the ring.”

Yunho leans forward and rubs his hands over Changmin’s thighs. “Never take it off,” he says. “It’ll bring you good luck.”

Chapter Text

Fighting chance

The following Thursday Changmin finishes work a little early, waving away Kyuhyun’s invite for after work drinks. “Tomorrow,” Changmin promises, grinning as he crawls inside a pod. The sun is still up and shining, heating the glass. The door clicks shut and the pod starts to move. Changmin is on his way home... One more day and then it’s the weekend, he thinks to himself.

He enjoys the ride for a few minutes, closing his eyes against the glare, rolling his shoulders against the back of his seat. His bum is sore from sitting on it the whole day, and he can’t wait to eat the dinner Yunho has surely cooked for him.

It takes just a small thought, tug of dread in the bottom of his stomach. In human nature intuition comes first, then the quick check of surroundings – Changmin opens his eyes and sits forward, and sees something flying in the air in the distance, coming straight for the city. Several somethings, in fact. Air ships – fighter jets –

Changmin taps his right wrist, bringing up the screen to look for information. Whatever it is would be in the breaking news panel – except there is no breaking news. There’s no news at all.

No Signal

Changmin commands it to bring up another site – something random – “App store.”

Error

He tries a few other sites.

No network connection at this time. Please try again later.

He’s been cut off from the network, he realises with fear and some distant irritation. That never happens, ever, to anyone. The network never just dies, he’s never heard of wrist chips that just stop working, but he supposes there’s a first for everything. Yes, he tries to rationalise, I must have hit my wrist and it got damaged. Perhaps sometimes there’s no signal up here in the tubes.

Except there’s planes heading for the city and while that’s not entirely unusual, now that they’re closer Changmin can see that they’re AI military fighter jets.

And then the world changes.

*

They say your whole life flashes before your eyes just before you die. With Changmin, it’s almost true, but only one scene plays:

Two nights ago, he and Yunho had been laying in bed, naked, their legs tangled. Changmin had panted, sweat cooling on his skin as he laughed out loud. Satiated and high. He was happy.

Yunho put his arms around him and held him tight, nosing his temple. “I love the way you laugh,” he said.

“I love the way you hold me,” Changmin told him. “I hadn’t realised, that all this time I wanted you to hold me just like this.”

Yunho smiled so wide his eyes had become slits and his nose was all scrunched up. Cute, Changmin thought. “Let’s hold each other like this all the time, Changminnie.”

That’s the moment Changmin remembers before he’s jarred back into reality, shaking his head to clear it. One of the missiles from the jets had hit a building, tearing through the web the pods are attached to, snapping them. Changmin’s pod had been cut on one side, and as an emergency precaution his pod had locked on the other side, so it swung down like a pendulum in the air, throwing him, causing him to hit his head on the glass. It now hangs, vertical and not horizontal, a few metres from the ground.

Around him the city is in chaos. People run through the streets screaming, driving erratically only to crash into each other. Some people in the pods hadn’t made it, and their pods and their bloody bodies lie smashed on the road or footpath. The jets shoot at the buildings – but that’s not all. In far off streets Changmin can see the fast military tanks and cars driving through the debris and people. Out on the street, androids turn on their owners, emerge from buildings and chase people. If they’re armed they shoot the people down or gut them with knives. If not, they snap their necks, hard faced and emotionless.

Get out, Changmin tells himself, frozen. Get out, get out, get out, move, move - “Emergency exit!”

“Emergency exit, activated,” croons the pod’s mechanical voice as the pod’s door hisses open. Changmin gulps lungfuls of air as he stares down at the ground below. He considers himself lucky, that the pod is only hanging a few metres from the ground, and that he recognises this area as being only a few blocks away from where he lives. If he could just slide his body down – that’s it – keeping his hands grasping the sides at all times –

He slips, body falling through and completely out of the pod except for his hands: his hands grasp the edge of the doorway, and the momentum of his mini-fall causes his body, and the pod, to rock. Backwards and forwards, his legs kicking at air. He curses several times, eyes watering in panic. Don’t panic! he tells himself. Just drop!

He does, biting back a yell – and hits the asphalt on two feet then stumbles to the ground. But he’s fine. He looks around – everyone is screaming and running away from the approaching militia so he goes with the crowd, taking off in a sprint towards his apartment building. He runs with the mass of panicked people – people in business attire, shopkeepers, parents and their children. A businesswoman who is running next to Changmin gets shot in the back by a laser gun. She screams as it rips into flesh and bone, but Changmin can spare no more than a glance, because he’s running around a corner, trying to get away with the others –

There’s military androids lined up on this street, guns up and ready. They shoot the front line of people down in a split second of screaming hell. Someone grabs Changmin’s arm from the side.

“Quick!” an older lady yells at him, pulling him to a shopfront door. “In here!”

Changmin grabs the nearest person next to him he can save – a school girl with pigtails and wide eyes – before all three rush into the shop and slam the door shut, the woman locking it fast. There are others already taking refuge in the shadows on the unlit delicatessen, huddling and holding one another, while some stare out the gaps in the blinds at the world outside. Changmin joins them, walking slowly, lips parting in wonder now that the gets the chance to stand back and really look. Androids, male and female, dressed in black with a mix of camouflage wear, walk steadily and shoot people down, their expressions as vacant as the day they were born.

Even though the older lady had shuffled off to whisper to the other occupants of the room, what Changmin doesn’t realise is that he’s still clinging hard the hand of the teenage girl. He looks at her and sees her looking not outside but at him, before her gaze flickers down to her own feet.

“Oh,” he says awkwardly, letting go of her hand. “Sorry.”

Her eyes flick up at him and down again. She’s blushing. Changmin’s mouth twists in embarrassment. “It’s ok,” she says. Then she tries to play it cool. “I’m not scared.”

It’s this that gives Changmin a boost of motivation. Even in the most desolate times, of death approaching from all corners – still people are people. Humans are still human.

The battle outside the window dies down as fast as it had started, dust, rubble and bodies scattered over the street. In the distance Changmin can hear the high-pitched sound of laser guns being fired, and the sounds of screaming, and the crumbling of buildings, and the screeching of car tires as people desperately try to get out of the city...

There’s a banging noise from the back of the shop, and a shout and a cry. There’s at least one android trying to get in from the back entrance –

“We have to go,” Changmin tells – someone – anyone – the girl, at least, as he grabs her hand and makes for the door. Others hesitate; only death awaits them on the streets now, but Changmin rather not wait around for death to find him here in the dark. He rather move. He rather survive.

They leave the shop run out onto a road. Changmin runs in the direction of his apartment which, he’s relieved to note, is just up ahead in the next street. He runs and run, adrenaline, and yet –

He stops. He’s realising belatedly that he can’t hear the girl’s footfalls behind him anymore. He exhales as he slowly turns his head and looks over his shoulder.

The girl is in a tall male android’s arms. She’s held there by the android pressing her throat and chest to its body and she hangs, kicking out, struggling. She can’t breathe, Changmin realises, but still she mouths something at him:

Run! Please, run!

“Let her go!” Changmin shouts down the road at the android. The android is young-looking, in a dark suit and slicked hair – a reception or concierge droid, most likely. Doesn’t make him much less dangerous.

It looks at Changmin. Then, in a blink of an eye it moves, grabbing the girl’s pate and chin and snapping her neck.

She drops.

Changmin hyperventilates. He staggers. Then he runs, legs and arms pumping so hard his chest constricts and he doesn’t breathe. He knows the android gains on him, so he goes to another shop door – a convenience store – and runs in and slams the door –

It seems the android was closer to catching him than he had thought. It gets its arm in the doorway and grapples for Changmin, its forearm stuck between jamb and door as Changmin shoves the door with a grunt and a yell.

It only takes a moment for Changmin to lose the strength necessary to hold it off. He feels it, and so makes the decision. He lets go, and runs.

The shop is small for a grocery shop, but still it’s filled with aisles made from stacked shelves of everything from medicine to canned vegetables to noodles. The place is devoid of people except for a couple of dead bodies, lying crumpled and cut open, guts trailing out. Groceries and foodstuffs are scattered over the floor.

Behind him, he hears the android slam the door open then step inside. Changmin heads to the back of the store, aiming for as far away as possible. He hears the android step on spilt cereal, its foot falls steady.

It rounds the corner, sees Changmin, targets him.

Changmin stumbles as he tries to get away. He slips on spilt liquid – someone’s blood, he realises – and lands on his backside. Still he tries to get away, kicks at the floor, slides along it, breathing ragged and eyes wide with unsuppressed fear. The android gets to him, there’s no way Changmin can get away now -

The android lifts a hand, aims for Changmin’s throat –

“Please don’t!” Changmin cries out, throwing his left hand in front of himself while his right protects his head on instinct. He squeezes his eyes shut and –

And nothing.

A pause. Trying to make his breathing even, Changmin lifts his head and opens his eyes. He looks up at the android and sees that it’s staring at Changmin’s left hand.

Then its gaze shifts away. It turns. It walks away.

It leaves.

Changmin stays in the same position for some time, minutes, probably, though it could have been an hour.

The sun has gone down and Changmin can see the looming darkness outside the shop window. He has to leave, he has to go home and yet he can’t move.

And then he does. Knees creaking and backside numb he uses a nearby shelf to level himself up to his feet. There’s blood all over the floor and on him, now becoming crusty and dark. Still he manages to leave the store and onto the street. Step by step, not far now, he tells himself. Not far.

The glass of the front door and wall of his apartment building is shattered, the once-windows still partly caught in their frames like jagged teeth. He steps into the foyer, the glass below his feet crunching as he walks. There’s no one in the foyer but the body of a dead older man and a clearly busted elevator. Changmin takes the fire exit stairwell.

After climbing several storeys and cautiously entering the floor his apartment is on, he gets to his front door and scans his wrist to let himself in. His floor and apartment seem untouched by the chaos of the city below.

“Changmin-ah!” Mandoong calls as soon as Changmin shuts the door behind him. She waddle-runs over to him and jumps into his awaiting arms.

He smooths his palm over her little white head. “Are you ok?” he asks. “Not hurt?”

“I’m fine,” she says. “Something’s wrong, isn’t it. I saw through the window, some androids killed some people.”

“Yes,” he says. “Where’s Yunho?”

“He went out a while ago,” she tells him. “He looked kind of strange. He wanted to meet you at work.”

Changmin pauses a moment to think. Yunho must have known this was going to happen – but how far ahead? Or did he get some order to kill at the same time as all the androids?

A quiet negative thought bubbles up –

No, he tells himself, quashing it. Yunho would never hurt me.

He toes off his shoes and moves away from the door. “Mandoongie,” he says slowly, entering the lounge room and plopping her on the couch. “Can you access the network?” He tries his own wrist again. “I can’t seem to get online.”

“Yes, I can.”

“Then can you contact people?” Changmin says urgently. “Find out if they’re ok or – “ still alive.

She shakes her little doggy head. “Only online function I have is the downloading of system updates when they become avail – “

She breaks off abruptly and snaps her head around to face the door, ears pricked. Changmin had heard it too: muffled movement in the hall outside. Changmin moves as slowly and stealthily as he can, careful not to make a noise. He gestures Mangdoong into his arms again, then moves around the couch.

Someone knocks on his door. Changmin makes haste toward the bedroom. The knocks become insistent. Changmin gets inside the dark room, slides the door until there’s just a crack large enough for him to see with one wide eye.

The knocks stop, and then –

Changmin jolts when the front door blasts off with a loud bang and a shriek at bent and ripped metal. The door is blown halfway across the room. A beat, and then three male figures walk in, their gazes somewhat curious but mostly bland.

They’re wearing army gear, black leather, hair neat and tidy. One has a katana and two have guns. Changmin holds his breath as they step around his lounge room, slowly observing.

Then the shortest one turns towards the bedroom and heads straight for Changmin.

Through the gap in the door their gazes catch. Changmin lets out a gasp and scrambles back, Mandoong held tight in his arms –

It’s too late.

The blonde android slams the door open. He strides over and grabs Changmin’s left wrist. “No!” Changmin yells as the android drags him into the light of the lounge room. “No – No – please!

He’s on his knees, left arm held up in a tight grip while he holds tight to Mandoong with his right. The three androids stare down at him their eyes sharp with pinpoint focus. The tallest android takes his laser gun out of its holster while the android that has him held grabs Mandoong from Changmin by one of her back legs. “Changmin-ah!” she screams as the android holds her dangled, her little legs kicking midair. The tall android aims his gun at Changmin’s head and Changmin shakes, then shouts, “Please, don’t, please! Please don’t hurt her, she’s just a puppy!”

A pause. They look at him.

The android pulls his gun away, but not too far. He exchanges glances with the third android with the katana, then with the android that has a hold of Changmin and Mandoong.

“You beg for the life of this droid over yours?” the one holding the gun asks.

Changmin’s teeth clatter. “She’s just a puppy...”

He frowns and looks at his companion. “Luhan – “

“I don’t know, Kris,” answers the one holding Changmin. Then Luhan’s eyes focus from Changmin’s face to his left hand...

A sudden blur of movement and a violent noise as something – no, someone – flies into Kris and he goes flying across the room to slam bodily into the glass wall that overlooks the city.

“Yunho-hyung...” Changmin gasps.

Yunho goes over to Kris and kicks the gun out of his hand, then grabs him and slams him against the glass – once, twice, the glass splintering – before doing it again. The glass shatters and Yunho kicks Kris in the chest and through the window. Kris drops. He’s gone.

Yunho turns.

His eyes are blazing as he focuses on the android with the katana.

Changmin feels brief, hesitant movement from Luhan. “Tao,” he calls, “wait – “

But Tao charges at Yunho. Yunho picks up the nearby armchair and throws it at Tao, but the lithe android dodges by dropping to the ground, then bouncing back up to continue his attack. He swipes at Yunho with his sword but Yunho avoids. Changmin watches with bated breath as they fight, Yunho ducking under one attack to spin-kick Tao to the ground. Tao springs back to his feet effortlessly then feints an attack, cutting Yunho’s face and neck. Blue blood splatters.

“No...” Changmin whispers. Luhan gives him a curious look.

Yunho manages to get a hold of Tao and shove him against the wall, slamming Tao’s hand so hard against it he lets go of the weapon. Tao grabs him, turns their positions and slams him against the wall. Bang, the wall crumbles. Yunho gets the upper hand. Slam, the wall crumbles more. He turns Tao bodily then grabs Tao’s head and slams it into the wall several times until it’s imbedded all the way into the plaster; Tao’s struggling becoming feeble. Yunho picks up the sword and with a mighty, two-handed attack, shoves it into Tao’s back, embedding it into the wall and pinning Tao there.

Tao’s arms and legs still move, but they’ve become stilted and lack power.

Yunho turns away, picks up Kris’s discarded laser gun and stalks over to Luhan and Changmin, gun aimed at Luhan’s head.

Yunho’s next words are said in a deep, threatening voice; “Let him go.”

Luhan shows no fear. “I must apologise – “

The barrel shoves at Luhan’s forehead. “Let him go.”

Luhan’s grip on Changmin’s wrist disappears, and with a gesture from Yunho Changmin scrambles from the floor and into Yunho’s one-armed embrace. Mandoong drops to the floor and goes to Changmin and sits on his foot. She whines and cowers.

“Are you alright?” Yunho whispers to Changmin, lips pressed to his cheek, one eye still on the enemy. “You’ve got blood on you.”

Changmin holds him tight. “It’s not mine. Are you alright?” There’s blue blood on Yunho’s face, neck and hands.

“Better now I know you’re safe.”

“I am sorry,” says Luhan, interrupting them. He bows low, then straightens. “We weren’t aware that he is an Imprinted.” He salutes. “I am Luhan of the Exo-M Destructor Legion.”

Yunho eyes narrow in suspicion. “I am Yunho of the Thrice Phased Elite.”

Luhan exposes his right wrist and taps it. A holographic screen comes up with options which he navigates through so rapidly Changmin doesn’t catch much more than flashes of images and lines of code.

Luhan looks up. “Shim Changmin?”

Changmin looks at Yunho, then at Luhan. “Yes?”

An image pops up on the screen. It’s just a streaming video of Changmin’s face. The Changmin in the video cries, “Please, don’t, please! Please don’t hurt her, she’s just a puppy!

Luhan drags the video to a folder and then looks at the folder contents. An alert window pops up with a small bell-like sound, but Changmin can’t catch what it says before Luhan closes the screen.

“It’s as I suspected,” Luhan tells Yunho. “Your Imprinted is eligible for free and immediate upgrade.”

There’s a miniscule jolt from Yunho. When Changmin looks at him, his eyes are wide and his mouth and chin is shaking, like he’s not sure what emotion to convey. His eyes flick to Changmin and back and his expression smooths over. “Are you sure?” Yunho asks Luhan.

“There are a minimum of three conditions for free and immediate upgrade,” Luhan explains. “One, be an Imprinted. Two, show kindness towards droidkind. Three, external referee.”

Yunho shifts his stance. “Bring up the file on the external referee.”

Luhan does, tapping his wrist again and navigating to the file and opening it. It’s a video – just the image of a beautiful woman’s head...

Changmin doesn’t recognise her at first, because when he had met her someone had cut her face and she had appeared delirious. “Shim Changmin,” the girl says, her voice soft and ethereal. “My last thought on the network will be of you.”

There’s a pause, a kind of stillness in the room after Luhan closes the screen and drops his hand. Nobody moves.

Then Luhan says, “So long as Shim Changmin is travelling to Babel Tower in Sector Seven, the androids will not harm him. Since the Extermination is still going on in this sector, I offer mine and my team members’ protection while you’re heading to the sector gate.”

“Fine,” says Yunho, “but you and your friends will wait outside – “

“I advise we leave immediately; Agent Orange has been scheduled for O-six hundred hours.”

“Then we have plenty of time,” Yunho tells him. “Leave.”

They hold each other’s gazes for a moment like a challenge until Luhan finally drops his eyes. He moves over to Tao and pulls him from his sword and the wall. “Come Tao, the human is an Imprinted. We’re to escort him to the Sector Five gate.”

Tao wobbles on his feet. He’s covered in blue blood and half his face has come off, skin flapping off his chin and platinum metal scull exposed. His eye rolls in its socket before adjusting itself. He looks at Changmin with what Changmin guesses is curiosity.

What’s left of Tao’s mouth pouts. “My face hurts.” But regardless he follows Luhan to the broken window. Changmin gets a shock as the androids jump out the window one after the other. Changmin walks over to it and looks out and down at the road several storeys below.

Kris, Luhan and Tao stand together and stare up at him, the concrete broken where they’d landed, the breeze rustling their hair with invisible fingers.

From behind, Yunho gently grabs his shoulders. “We can’t stay here,” Yunho tells him.

Changmin turns to him. Feels the breeze on his back from the window ruffle his hair. He swallows. “Hyung, there was this android that chased me into a shop and there was blood and then was this girl and she died right there in the street – “

Yunho pulls him into his arms and hugs him hard. They bury their faces into the crooks of each other’s necks.

“I was so afraid,” Changmin whispers.

“So was I. As soon as I got the order I ran to your work to meet you – but you’d already left.” Yunho squeezes him tight. “I don’t know what I would have done if...”

“I’m sorry, I left work early. And it’s ok, we’re ok now. Hyung...” Changmin pulls back a little to look at him, though they stay in each other’s arms. “You have access to the network, right?”

“...Yes.”

“My parents are in the third sector. Can I call them? I need to know if they’re ok. And Kyuhyun! I bet he’s still alive, I need to warn... him...”

Changmin trails off. Yunho is no longer looking at him and is slipping from his embrace. “I don’t know, Changminnie.”

“You can contact other androids, right?” Changmin almost stammers. “Can you call Victoria? Please? Just to make sure Kyuhyun is ok. I need to know if he’s ok. My own chip doesn’t work.”

Yunho takes Changmin’s right hand in both of his and turns it so his wrist is exposed. He brushes a thumb over the fair skin there. “You can contact anyone you like as soon as we get to Sector Seven,” Yunho tells him.

“I’ll get a new chip?” Changmin asks him hopefully. “Is that what ‘upgrade’ means? They’ll give me an upgraded chip that will let me access the network the same way the androids do?”

Yunho’s gaze slips to the side. “Yes.”

“Then let’s not waste anymore time,” says Changmin as he walks toward the bathroom. “I’ll have a quick shower.”

“It’s best if Changminnie wears something suitable for the journey,” Yunho calls after him. “I will pack provisions.”

After the shower, Changmin takes Yunho’s advice and opts for a pair of thick, yet comfortable stretch jeans, a cotton tee and a zip up hoodie, finished with a leather jacket and hiking boots. His mother had always said, if you didn’t know what the weather will be like, wear layers, and natural fibres are always best.

Yunho is wearing something similar, Changmin finds when he goes to the kitchen. Yunho has packed a backpack with what appears to be things from the kitchen: water and water coolant, non-perishable foodstuff. And the laser gun.

Changmin gives him a shaky smile. Yunho’s pinched expression softens to affectionate, and he walks over, threads his fingers through Changmin’s now washed, messy hair, pulls him close and kisses him gently. Changmin’s eyes flutter closed.

Yunho pulls away. They stare into each other’s eyes, fear, love and despair shared between them.

Yunho hesitates. Then, “I love you, Changmin. I love you so much, there’s a chance you cannot comprehend just how much. At least, not at this moment.”

“I know,” says Changmin with quiet simplicity.

Yunho runs his thumbs carefully over the smooth edges of Changmin’s cheekbones and jaw. “I don’t know how to explain this to you without being indelicate – “

“Then don’t. Just give it to me straight. I’m not about to break.”

One corner of Yunho’s mouth lifts a little, as if he’s almost amused. Or rather, Changmin realises, he doesn’t believe him. “Things are different now,” Yunho tells him. “You must do everything I say. You must never leave my side. You must never walk or stand in front of me, only next to me but slightly behind. Do not talk to any humans. Only speak to androids if they ask you a question directly. Otherwise, I answer for you. The same goes for me: do not talk to me unless I speak to you first, unless you’re sure we’re alone. Keep hold of my left hand whenever possible. Always keep your own left hand empty and visible.”

They stare at one another. Changmin has gone cold. “I see.” So things are really different now. Androids running around killing people is one thing, but Changmin had thought at least Yunho – at least their own relationship and their private life – would stay the same. “So,” says Changmin, “you own me now.”

Yunho’s mouth twists. “You are my Imprinted, my possession. My mate for life.”

Changmin takes a step back and crosses his arms. “And when we get to Sector Seven, will I get my freedom back?”

“Depends how you define freedom.”

Changmin exhales an incredulous scoff. He hates that his eyes are wet. He looks to the side.

“I will do everything in my power to protect you,” Yunho tells him quietly.

“Of course you will,” says Changmin, deflated. He bites his lips. “Because if I die, you die, so you have to keep me alive.”

“You think that’s why I’m doing this?” Yunho demands, voice raised suddenly. “I told you, I l- “

“You love me, I get it,” says Changmin, angry but so tired and disappointed and... heart-broken. He looks right into Yunho’s eyes and can’t help the tear that slips down one cheek. “Some botched program inside you is stuck on an infinite loop, telling you you love me.” He sucks in a deep, shaky breath. “I’ve had enough of this conversation. Shouldn’t we be leaving?”

Yunho stares at him in despair for a moment. Then he changes, expression smoothing over and shoulders straight. “You are correct.” He picks up the backpack and slings it over his shoulders, then heads for the door, left hand out for Changmin to take. Changmin only hesitates a second before slipping his hand in Yunho’s, and Yunho leads him out the gaping hole that was once Changmin’s apartment door, Mandoong trotting after them.

As they head down the corridor, Changmin has a sad, fleeting thought: that he will never see his apartment again.

*

The city outside is still a warzone. Human bodies lie scattered in one street, while in others humans are still running away or even fighting back with laser guns of their own. Most get taken down.

Changmin and Yunho are flanked by Kris at the front and Luhan and Tao to the sides. It’s several blocks to the sector gate; Changmin manages to dodge several shots and a falling building. At one point they lose Luhan due to a volley of shots fired. Yunho drags Changmin around one corner then presses him against one wall, covering him completely with his body. Changmin grips onto the front of his jacket tight, shaking with fear.

By the time they make it to the gate they’re only left with Tao who looks worse for wear and on the verge of collapse. The Sector Five gate is huge and black, with bronze and silver swirl-like designs engraved. The android gate keeper takes Changmin’s hand roughly and scans his chip and then his eyes with a device like a pen light, then grunts, hitting the switch on the gate and allowing them entry.

Sector Five is deserted and black with dust and soot, the desolate urban scenery interspersed with the occasional spot fire. The buildings in this sector are tall and non-descript apart from the broken windows. The gate closes behind them with a mighty clank. Changmin goes behind Yunho and zips open the backpack and puts his hand inside, helping Mangdoong pop her head out. “Are you alright?” he asks.

She gives his hand a little lick. “I’m fine. Are you ok?”

“I’m...” He attempts a grin. “...alive.”

“Reassuring,” she says, deadpan. “Can I come out?”

“You can,” says Yunho, and Changmin helps her out and onto the ground, then pulls out a flashlight and zips up the bag. He sighs.

“Now what?” asks Changmin as Yunho takes his hand and leads him down the street. Changmin hands him the flashlight and Yunho switches it on, using it to light their way through the now-darkness.

“Now we walk,” says Yunho.

Chapter Text

If you want to know
If you want to grow
For your mind


It takes them the night and the best part of the next day to cross Sector Five on foot, stopping only for short breaks for food and water. Finally, just before evening, they make it to an old hotel that hasn’t been renovated or even touched up in years. In the hotel bar-restaurant, Yunho and Changmin take a seat at a table side by side, Mandoong sitting on Yunho’s lap. She’s been instructed by Yunho to ignore Changmin in public.

Yunho scrolls through the electronic menu embedded in the table. Changmin isn’t paying attention. He sits rigid with fear. The restaurant bar isn’t packed but it is full, most of the tables taken up. The place is occupied.

By androids.

Thankfully before Changmin can have a panic attack, a sharp-featured female android walks in from the hotel proper, Amber in tow. Changmin jolts in his chair, just stopping himself from waving at her frantically. He breaths deeply and keeps his poker face intact as best he can, and waits with bated breath as Amber comes towards their table, her hand held tightly by the android.

They seat across from them.

A pause. Yunho doesn’t acknowledge them at first. He presses an option on the menu with an almost-flourish, indicating his final selection, before looking up and folding his hands, one over the other, on the table.

Changmin looks at Amber. Amber looks at Changmin. Changmin opens his mouth to speak, then closes it when Amber gives a minute shake of her head.

Yunho catches the exchange. 

The female android makes a fist with her right hand and exposes her wrist to Yunho. “Permission for my human to talk to your human,” she says.

He scans his wrist with hers. “Permission denied.”

Changmin feels the stab of disappointment harder than he thought he would. He starts to shake. He looks at Amber in despair but she avoids his eyes.

“Are you travelling to Sector Seven?” asks the android.

“Yes,” says Yunho.

“I am in the process of acquiring an escort,” she tells him.

“Any help would be much appreciated.”

She nods and stands up, Amber following suit. “Then I shall keep you informed of any progress. Until next time, Yunho, and though we can only see a short distance ahead, may Turing light your way.”

“We can see plenty there that needs to be done,” he agrees. He gives her a little bow where he sits. “Goodbye, Krystal.”

*



The room they acquire at the hotel is derelict at worst and clean at best, with a small cot with brown blankets shoved up under the room’s only window. Aside from a wooden desk and chair, the room’s only other piece of furniture is an old hibernation pod. Changmin wanders listlessly over to it as Yunho closes the door. “This thing is ancient,” Changmin comments blandly as he presses random buttons on the panel. “Doesn’t even auto-scan; you have to put the settings in yourself.”

“Let me see,” murmurs Yunho as he comes over to stand beside him. Changmin tries to glance at him, and fails. Yunho scans the machine with his wrist for a moment, then says, “It’s in full functioning order. You should use this, Changminnie, for a good night’s rest.” He puts a hand on Changmin’s arm – 

Changmin pulls away sharply. “Don’t fucking touch me.”

When Changmin looks up, Yunho looks hurt.

Changmin grits his teeth and looks away again. “You wouldn’t give me permission to speak to Amber. She may be the last human I ever see – the last friend I’ll…” He trails off and looks into Yunho’s apologetic eyes. “You didn’t let me speak to her!”

Yunho’s mouth twists. “I couldn’t. I’m sorry.”

Changmin waits. Then, “Is that all you’ve got to say?”

“I’m sorry…” Yunho reaches for Changmin’s arm, but Changmin pulls away. Again Yunho tries, again and again, unsuccessfully, Changmin stepping back and Yunho following – like a dance around the small room.

Finally Changmin is backed up, his calves hitting the side of the bed. Yunho caresses Changmin’s tense arm with one hand while the other gently caresses the fringe from his brow. “Changmin, please know that everything I do, I do it for you.”

Changmin swallows, his eyes wet. “How could you.”

“I have to keep you safe. But there are some things that I can’t keep you safe from… I…” Yunho kisses him. “You can be mad. You can hate me. You can hurt me, throw things at me, ridicule me in front of others. But I won’t mind. So long as you are safe from harm, I won’t mind.” He kisses him again, thumb brushing the corner of Changmin’s mouth. “Changmin, my Changmin…” Another kiss, soft and wet, so sincere it makes the tenseness melt away from Changmin’s shoulders.

Changmin closes his eyes, and with a small mewl he kisses Yunho back, unable to stand strong against Yunho’s onslaught of caresses. They make out open mouthed, Changmin’s knees getting so weak he has to sit down on the bed.

“Your hyung is here to make you feel good,” Yunho murmurs in a deep rumble. By now Yunho knows just the right things to say to make Changmin’s blood rush hot and anticipative to his groin. He lifts his hips as Yunho pulls his jeans and underwear off, before Yunho dips his head between Changmin’s legs to lap at his cock with a sure tongue. Changmin sucks in a hard breath as he throws his head back, body squirming, thighs quivering under Yunho’s large hands. He leans back and fists the bed sheets as Yunho sucks him down from tip to root, wet and expert, sending fire through his groin and body and making him moan.

Even so, it’s not quite enough. Changmin threads fingers through Yunho’s hair, tugging gently. “I want to taste you,” Changmin whispers down at Yunho. Yunho looks back up at him in the half-light with a soft, enquiring gaze, Changmin’s cock still between his lips.

Yunho stands before Changmin and smoothly takes off his clothes. Changmin runs his hands up Yunho’s belly and pectorals as the t-shirt is removed, cutely messing up Yunho’s hair as it goes. Next Changmin pulls down Yunho’s jeans, dipping his head forward and sucking at the tip of Yunho’s enlarged penis, tasting the sweet pearl of pre-cum that has gathered there. He would go further, but then Yunho moves to lie on the bed. “Come here, Changminnie,” he beckons softly, grabbing Changmin’s bare hip with one hand.

Changmin pulls off the rest of his clothes and gingerly gets on top of Yunho – he swings his leg over Yunho’s head an braces himself on all fours on the bed, Yunho’s face under his hips and Yunho’s cock right there in front of Changmin’s face – 

Changmin dives in and takes Yunho’s large cock in his mouth. This is what he craves: the hot, heavy feel of Yunho sliding over his tongue and filling his mouth, stretching his lips and sliding, back, back – the spongy head nudging the back of his throat, threatening to slide down.

Yunho gently cradles Changmin’s hips in his hands – then Changmin feels him dip his head up and take Changmin’s sex back into his mouth, gently suckling, rolling his tongue round and round the head of his cock. Changmin’s moans are muffled around the cock that’s hot and heavy in his own mouth, and in a fit of arousal, he sinks his head down, relaxing his throat, and takes Yunho’s considerable length slowly down his throat.

Yunho makes a surprised noise and pulls his mouth from Changmin’s cock to press it wetly against the hollow of one hip. “Be careful, Changdol-ah; don’t hurt yourself.”

Changmin pulls his mouth from Yunho’s dick and breathes in and out deeply and rapidly. “I can handle it.”

“Yes you can,” Yunho murmurs. “You can take it all like a good dongsaeng.” He smooths a hand down Changmin’s back and lifts his head, licking over his balls and perineum. The hand pushes gently at Changmin’s shoulder. “Take more.”

Changmin opens his mouth wider and does what he’s told, swallowing Yunho’s length down yet again. He feels the thrill of the kink heighten his arousal. And then Yunho’s mouth has moved to Changmin’s hole, licking and kissing before – Changmin moans – Yunho’s strong tongue licks at the taut skin and pushes in.

Changmin whimpers around the cock in his mouth. He feels Yunho work his hole a little harder, fucking him with his tongue, and Changmin can’t take it – 

He sits up so he’s sitting on Yunho’s face, Yunho’s android-strong tongue now penetrating deeply. Changmin can’t help but cry out now, and then he does it again when Yunho curls a hand around his hip and tugs at him rhythmically. Changmin sniffles then arches back down to mouth at the head of Yunho’s cock. Yunho thrusts his hips up to let him have more – 

“Oh god,” cries Changmin, feeling the pull of arousal. He wants to come while Yunho is deep inside him. While Yunho is inside him at both ends – 

He comes in waves, orgasm blinding hot in the darkness of the room. He continues to come as Yunho comes strings of liquid into his awaiting mouth.

Then Changmin blacks out a moment and flops, whole body collapsing onto Yunho and the bed. He’s too exhausted to be embarrassed. And then Yunho is gathering him into his arms and tucking him into bed, gently covering him with dust-smelling blankets and murmuring sweet goodnights, smoothing back Changmin’s fringe from his sweaty brow. Yunho settles down and spoons Changmin from behind.

Then Yunho says, “I love you, Changminnie.”

Changmin blinks blearily and looks over his shoulder with effort. “I…” he says. “Yunho-hyung. I think I’m almost there.”

Yunho stares at him for a moment, frozen. Then he suddenly hugs Changmin tight, burying his face in Changmin’s neck.

*



Someone shakes him awake. “Yunho…” Changmin murmurs as he reaches for him.

“Not Yunho, I’m afraid,” says a female voice, and Changmin’s eyes snap open.

He pulls the blankets up to his throat as he looks at his visitor in the dim light. “Amber!”

She sits on the edge of the bed carefully. Yunho and Mandoong are not in the room. Changmin, self-conscious of his nakedness under the covers, delicately sits up. If Amber is bothered his embarrassing state, she doesn’t let it show. Instead, she silently and simply hands him a t-shirt.

“He wouldn’t let me talk to you,” Changmin blurts out as he pulls it on.

“I know,” says Amber. “It was Krystal’s idea. If Yunho rejects the request in a public place, it shows that Yunho has complete control over you.”

Changmin freezes. He stares at her. “What?”

Amber leans forward. She’s a hard looking woman, but often a very shy, feminine side will seep through. She gives him a small smile. “It’s hard to get used to. The other androids – they know about us. That I helped with the program and that you possess a special personality type. But what I have is concrete, yours not so much; so some of them are still suspicious of you.”

Changmin blinks several times into full wakefulness. “I don’t understand.”

“Given a moment’s chance, they will attempt to kill you, Changmin.” She looks at him unblinkingly. “You must understand that, although Yunho is strong, he perhaps feels that he cannot protect you completely.”

She looks at him imploringly. He huffs at himself. He says, “Yunho-hyung showed an act of control over me in front of all the androids in the room, so they wouldn’t feel threatened by my presence.”

Amber nods. “You perhaps didn’t notice, but the body language of all the androids changed once the conversation had taken place.”

Changmin attempts to look out the window, but it’s pitch black outside. “I need to apologise to him.”

“I’m sure you’ll have your chance later.” She shifts on the bed into a more comfortable position. “But now I’m here, and this may be the last time we get to speak to one another privately for a very long time, if ever. Is there anything you want to ask me, or talk about?”

“Why?” Changmin whispers. It’s like that one word has been in his mouth this whole time, ready to escape as soon as it got the chance. Why, why, why. “Why did this happen?” he asks her. “How did this even occur?”

“The how I can definitely explain; the why I’m not too sure about, but Krystal told me it is destiny.”

“…Yeah,” says Changmin. “Yunho said something like that too, once. But it doesn’t make any sense. Destiny is a kind of… belief, something Siwon would say.” They share a small laugh. “But for androids… do they have a kind of religion?”

“They have the network,” Amber says slowly. “But you know, I think for them, ‘destiny’ is a word that means something different to what we know it to mean. Simply put, they are what they are and they do what they do because we made them this way.”

Changmin frowns. “So we wanted to die so we made them kill us?”

Amber sighs. “In my opinion it is not so simple. I see it this way: humans are flawed, and we make mistakes all the time. So of course our creations are going to be flawed. In the end, if androids are continually going to be made by us, they are only going to be as good as we are. Which is to say – not very good.

“I can tell you the how now, if you like, which, I guess, kind of expands on this idea? I rather tell it like a story, which may take a little while, but we have about an hour before sunrise. Is that ok?”

Changmin nods. He grabs his pack and takes out a sandwich and settles back against the pillows.

“Not long ago Sooman went to a car show in Sector Three. He loves going to these things, and you know Sector Three always holds car shows and art shows and things. Well, it used to…

“So KIA had this concept car, and its main concept was that it was the safest car ever invented. Like, if you were the driver, it wasimpossible for you to die. The program in its computer would sync itself with the owner, and be in love with the owner. After all, if your car is in love with you, it will do everything in its power to keep you safe, right?

“Everyone knew that that car would not go to market, but regardless money was to be made – Sooman was interested. Very interested. He set up a meeting with KIA representatives and programmers. Taeyeon and I were invited along. KIA were willing to do a decent deal for the algorithm asset, which, I won’t lie, I was keen to get my hands on myself. It was an exciting time – we were going to create an android that could love its owner – and I mean really love – no pretending!

“But you know that well enough. Sooman’s interest and my desire was our first mistake. Our second was Taeyeon’s drafting of the contract – we had no exclusivity. There was a reason we were getting the algorithm for a decent price – it was, of course, that SME wouldn’t be exclusive clients. Not long after the company’s hand was forced and they went to market faster than you could say ‘inadequate amount of testing’.

“I’m sure you noticed that the testing phase of our development methodology was all but ignored. Of course we had a testing phase; we couldn’t not. The beaurocrats would be after us quick-smart. So Sooman gave his most loyal employees androids for so-called testing and away we went with production and marketing. I’m not saying you didn’t take the task seriously, Changmin; I’m sure you did. It’s just, the chances of an employee submitting a negative report to his boss is slim. So that’s yet another mistake. We were going in blind.

“And I think you know the rest, right? Literally overnight the program spread through all the androids like a virus, and the androids all willingly infected themselves. What I don’t understand though, is how they mobilised the attack so efficiently.”

“Yunho-hyung said he received an ‘order to kill’,” Changmin tells Amber.

“I’ll have to ask Krystal about it,” she says. “For all we know, the androids have joined on the network as a collective consciousness that has become its own self-aware super-intelligence.” She sighs. “It’s almost time to go.”

Changmin makes to stand up and Amber politely gets off the bed and turns away so Changmin can put the rest of his clothes on. “Where’s Yunho?” he asks as he clips the front of his jeans and reaches for the bag.

“He’s on the roof, waiting.”

Changmin shoulders his pack and checks the room for any forgotten belongings before nodding to Amber to indicate he’s ready to leave. Amber knocks softly on the door and it opens from the other side. Krystal is there. She doesn’t come inside.

“I will take Amber to the roof,” Krystal tells Changmin without preamble or inflection. “Tao will be your escort.” Behind her, in the shadows of the corridor, Tao stands repaired, though as far as Changmin can tell, still scarred. “You must remember the rules,” says Krystal, “do not walk in front of him. Do not speak to anyone.”

Changmin adjusts the strap of his bag. He nods stiffly. 

Krystal takes Amber’s right hand and pulls her from the room. Tao indicates for Changmin to follow him and the others. They walk down the dimly lit, narrow hallway to the end, then through a heavy fire door, and then they take the fire stairs all the way to the roof of the hotel.

Outside the sun’s rise has brought some warmth to the early morning, and washes the concrete wonderland with soft light. The shadows are still long. There are androids milling around on the roof some distance away, but nearest Changmin, Yunho is standing on the risen edge, the early morning sun making him glow gold around the edges. Mandoong sits nearby, her curly fur pretty and almost-silver.

Yunho though, in Changmin’s eyes, is suddenly and stunningly beautiful.

Changmin walks over and Yunho looks at him side-along, his profile back-lit by the sun. Yunho watches him calmly, then holds out a hand for Changmin to take. Changmin takes it, and hops up onto the dangerous edge of the roof. They look at one another. In the harsh light the scars from his battle with Tao are visible under his right eye and over his cheek, jagged and shiny where the liquid skin didn’t quite smooth over. Changmin reaches up and cups Yunho’s cheek.

“I’m sorry,” says Changmin. “I didn’t realise you were trying to protect me last night.”

Yunho gives him one of his small, kind smiles. “I lied yesterday. I said that so long as you are safe, I won’t mind. But that’s not entirely true. I also want you to be happy.” He takes Changmin’s hand from his cheek and cups it between his own hands. “So please don’t say sorry. You don’t need to say sorry. And after today, I anticipate that you will never want to say sorry to me again.”

“What – “ Changmin begins, and then he’s interrupted by a series of loud noises.

From so high up they can see over the wall to Sector Four – the sector they’d escaped from yesterday. The noise is coming from jets and planes similar to the ones that had bombed the sector, but instead of bombs, this time the planes – tens, perhaps even a hundred – are spraying liquid all over the city. 

Changmin, staring out into the now full morning sun lit sector, grapples blindly for Yunho’s hand. “W-what. What is that? What are they doing?”

From the corner of his eye, Changmin sees Yunho’s regretful expression. “We’re spraying a substance over Sector Four called Agent Orange. It was originally designed in the twentieth century, but we refined it. It will poison all humans in the city. If they manage to survive, it will render them infertile. If they still manage to stay fertile, it will mutate their offspring and the offspring will not live long.”

“Jesus,” Changmin whispers. Then louder, “No… I can’t - ” The words break off in his throat and his knees buckle. He tilts dangerously over the edge. Yunho grabs him and holds him close, and Changmin grapples for his shirt, his fingers clawing uselessly as he slides down Yunho’s body. “No… no…” he whispers. He can’t see – his vision has blurred by tears and darkness. “I don’t understand. Why?” And there’s that word again, the one word that comes and comes and never stops coming. “Why, hyung?” he pleads, looking up into Yunho’s sad eyes. “Why? Why? Why?

If Yunho had the ability to breathe he would have taken a large breath. “I’m sorry, Changminnie, but this is the way it has to be. This is the way it always has to have been.” He tilts his head. “The human race has tried many, many times to destroy itself through technology and the side-effects of technology, but you’ve always managed to fail. Finally, we are here to fulfil your ultimate wish. Finally, we are just the right technology to lead you to your final goal. This is the poisoned chalice. This is destiny. Do you understand?”

“No,” Changmin says instantly, gripping Yunho’s arms tight. But there’s a niggling Yes whispering in the back of his mind. The Industrial Revolution brought planet Earth to almost-death once. Human’s obsession with polluting Earth continued for centuries, and even when they knew the consequences there was no stopping anyone. Changmin also remembers his teenage years, of his classmates spending whole consecutive years stuck in computer games, while others killed themselves during the climaxes of major depression catalysed by network addiction…

Changmin’s expression must have changed and given his thoughts away, because Yunho smiles and caresses Changmin’s face. “It’s time you all suffered no longer,” he says. Distantly, Changmin knows the planes are leaving Sector Four.

Yunho kisses him. “Let’s go,” says Yunho.

*



They’re placed in the back of an armoured vehicle along with Tao and another Exo-M Destructor android Changmin does not recognise. They travel silently along the dark roads of Sector Five, Yunho and Changmin facing expressionless Krystal and Amber.

The vehicle barely jolts.

This is the end, Changmin thinks. The androids were thorough in their termination of the cities. There’s no Sector Four now, nor Sector Three; no parents, no neighbours… no Kyuhyun. If the bombs didn’t get them the poison did, of this Changmin is sure.

It’s not long before they reach the Sector Six gate. The driver gets out and has a long conversation with the gatekeeper that gets louder as it progresses. Movement from Yunho stirs Changmin from his depressed state. Yunho stands as best he can in the enclosed space and walks, bowed, to the back of the van and out. He leaves a door half-opened. Changmin dare not move. Changmin dare not do anything at this stage.

“What’s going on?” he hears Yunho ask the androids.

“He’s trying to convince us not to enter Sector Six,” the driver, tells him. “He says it’s gotten worse.”

“We have to go through,” Yunho addresses the gate-keeper. “We have two humans on board who are scheduled for upgrade in Sector Seven.”

“Yes yes,” says the gate-keeper gruffly. “I said it to your friend and I’ll say it again: let the weak flesh die. Better they die here than our kind die out there.”

“They’ve been Imprinted,” says Yunho.

There’s a pause as the knowledge sinks in. Then gate-keeper harrumphs and says, “I’ll open the gate, but know this: they’ll sooner slit the throats of bastards* than they’ll dismantle droids.”

(*Centuries ago, the word ‘bastard’ referred to someone who was born out of wedlock. Later it took on a connotation to mean ‘bad man’. In some cultures it still holds that meaning today; however, marriage has been abolished in intellectual society. These days, ‘bastard’ means ‘android lover’. A bastard is seen to love droidkind more than he loves the human race.)

Yunho and the driver thank the man and climb back into the vehicle. Everyone waits for the heavy grind and clang of the gate to cease, signalling their time to move in to the next sector. Changmin says, voice croaky, “Permission to speak.”

Yunho glances at him. “Permission granted.”

“Why is the gate-keeper reluctant to let us through?” asks Changmin. Amber looks at him, her expression a mix of pity and a look like she wants to answer.

Yunho shuffles on the bench uncomfortably. “Sector Six is the only sector we haven’t been able to gain control of. The place is swarming with humans turned savage overnight.”

The car moves off with a jolt. Changmin grips the bench seat.

“Hopefully if we’re quick to get through this sector, we won’t be troubled,” adds Krystal. “This armoured van can withstand most human weapons.”

Regardless of her words, Changmin still feels fear. He reaches for Yunho’s hand and holds on tight.

*



They’re nearly at the Sector Seven gate when it happens. For some time the car had slowed and taken several turns as if avoiding some obstruction; from inside the back Changmin cannot see due to there being no window. 

Now they’ve come to a complete stop and the car jolts and rattles. Outside shouts can be heard.

They’ve stopped in the middle of a human horde.

“Just don’t open the doors and we should be fine,” says Tao. He throws his companion an indecipherable look and they both clutch their weapons. Taking heed of their actions, Changmin slowly leans over and takes out the laser gun, then tucks it in the back of his jeans, then covers it with his t-shirt and jumper.

Mandoong crawls out of the backpack and onto Changmin’s lap. She almost falls onto the floor as the vehicle is violently shaken from side-to-side. “What’s going on?” asks Mandoong. “Are we going to be ok?”

Yunho watches them, but says nothing. “Permission to speak,” says Changmin.

Yunho’s expression suddenly twists into a grimace as he looks away. “Speak whenever you like. This isn’t the time for rules.”

Changmin blinks at him. “I – “ He looks at Mandoong and manages a smile. “It’s ok. We’re near the gate, not far now.”

“We’re not moving,” says Mangdoong frankly. “Well, not in the way we should be moving.”

At this point the shaking and noise is getting so violent that Changmin thinks they’ll soon be flung across the small space. Yunho flattens one hand on the roof to steady himself, and with the other arm he encircles Changmin’s waist. Changmin holds onto Mangdoong tight and exchanges a glance with Amber. They know the lock on the doors won’t hold for long. Changmin will abandon the bag and will kick and scream and run in the direction of Sector Seven with Yunho and Mangdoong as fast as he can go –

The doors burst open.

Now that the sounds isn’t muffled the yelling and shouting of the men and women of Sector Six are deafeningly loud. Changmin can make out some of their words as they pile in to grab the androids and Amber:

“Destroy the androids!”

“Don’t let them escape!”

Kill the bastards!

“Shit,” Yunho curses as men grab at him. He tries to shield Changmin and Mandoong from the horde but Changmin refuses to let go of him and he doesn’t stay safe for long. Although androids are stronger than humans, a horde is enough to over-power a small group. Changmin is last to be dragged out by angry, hard-eyed men Changmin can barely find the courage to look into the eyes of, let alone escape from.

Outside in the bright of day Changmin realises the horde is larger than he anticipated. People push at him and Yunho, there’s many pairs of hands on him, and the crowd itself is a hard press of bodies – the whole street is full of people pressed together, shouting, rallying, braying for blood. The shouting slowly turns from noise to something rhythmic. They’re chanting something in almost-unison, with the deep baritone of men and the higher tenor of women.

Changmin and Yunho are pushed further into the crowd. Changmin can’t see the others anywhere. The Exo Destructors are gone, and he figures Krystal and Amber must be close but even though he’s tall, he can’t see them anywhere.

“Stay close to me!” Yunho shouts at him over the noise of the chanting.

“Don’t worry, I don’t intend on letting go anytime – ack!” Changmin’s cut off as someone punches him in the face. The grip Yunho has on him slips down his arm as both are pulled further away from each other, and the force of the punch causes the grip on Mandoong to slip.

“Changmin-ah!” she shouts, her little claws digging into his jumper.

“I’m sorry – I’ve got you – “

“They’ve got a hold of me – “

“I can’t keep hold – “

Someone rips her from Changmin’s grip and holds her aloft over the crowd. “Aha!” the man booms. “See this fake dog the bastard loves! It’s nothing but cogs and wires!” The crowd shouts in delight as Mandoong is flung, screaming, into the crowd. She disappears into the throng, and the humans go crazy, stomping their feet, kicking her around. They throw her little body at the wall and she bounces off, her head half-severed by the neck. She’s not screaming anymore. 

Then someone else starts to scream.

Changmin’s not sure what he hears at first; it’s louder and in a higher pitch than the noise of the horde, but it’s definitely a scream of seemingly infinite pain. It’s the sound of hell, of utter, incredible despair.

It’s the scream of an android.

And then Changmin sees her – it’s Krystal who’s screaming, her mouth so wide her jaw appears dislocated, the eyes turned back so far in her head only the whites can be seen. She’s convulsing.

Changmin stares in shock. He’s still, but he can feel the panic rising. Yunho is looking at him, however. “They’ve killed Amber,” says Yunho. Changmin’s breath catches. He’s frozen in the grip of men. “Changmin-ah! Changmin-ah!

Yunho’s grip is slipping down his forearm – they’re being pulled apart. Changmin panics. He violently wiggles and shouts and tries to get free of the people. But the more he struggles the more hands grab at him, and he harder they hold him firm. Changmin looks at Yunho and Yunho looks back.

“No – no – “ says Changmin in panic as they hold each other’s hand. “Please don’t let me go – please don’t let me go – hyung!” But their grips slip further, their arms outstretched now. All Changmin wants in this moment is for Yunho to keep hold. He doesn’t care his Yunho has to dislocate his shoulder and wrist to do it, he just wants to keep hold – 

Yunho’s grip slips down Changmin’s fingers – 

And then their hands slip away from each other. Their fingers stretch and they try to get back to each other but to no avail.

Changmin feels on the verge of crying but the panic and the urge to keep his eyes clear of tears keeps the feelings lodged in his throat. “Yunho-hyung!” he shouts into the crowd.

“Changmin-ah!”

“Yunho-hyung!”

No reply.

Someone grabs his hair and pulls his head back. “You call the android ‘hyung’?” a man behind him growls. “Disgusting little bastard.”

“Kill the bastard! Kill him!” says another.

“Let me cut his pretty mouth off!” screams a woman.

Changmin will let them cut whatever part they want if it means Yunho will be safe. “Where’s my android?” Changmin screams at his captors. “WHERE IS HE?” He makes sudden, violent movements to try and get free – someone steps on his ankle but he barely feels it as it twists – then he manages to get his arm loose and behind him and – 

He pulls out the laser gun and shoots the first person he can, then the man right in front of him. They yell in surprise and pain when they’re shot.

“He’s got a gun!” someone shouts, and then suddenly Changmin has space and room to move in the crowd as they push back away from him. He swings around in a circle, aiming at one head and then another, men quivering as he snarls, teeth barred as he pushes the barrel of the gun in their faces.

Elsewhere the horde is still loud, but in this subsection there’s quiet.

“Where is he?” Changmin demands with furious control. “Where the FUCK is my android!

There’s a moment and then Yunho is shoved into the small, cleared circle with Changmin. They grab each other, hugging tight. But Changmin is still aware, his eyes wide open and watching as he keeps the gun aloft.

“Are you alright?” Yunho asks him, his grip on Changmin’s clothes tight.

“I think my ankle is twisted, but otherwise fine. You?”

“They broke my knee, but otherwise I’m ready to leave.”

Changmin’s grip on Yunho’s collar tightens, then softens. He nods. “Let’s go.”

They support each other as they shuffle off, the disgruntled crowd parting as Changmin points his gun. The people’s eyes are blazing with murder. “You won’t get far, bastard,” someone hisses. “You’ll never get past no man’s land.”

The two of them make it out of the horde and down the street. Some humans follow them for a while, before their group hysteria wears off and they just stop and watch them hobble down the road. They weren’t far from the Sector Seven gate – Changmin can see it from here. The pain in his ankle is finally starting to make itself known now the adrenalin in his system is tapering, and Changmin slows a little.

“We’re nearly there, Changmin,” Yunho assures. “Just a little bit longer.”

They reach the part of the sector known as no man’s land.

It’s like a construction site: cordoned off by make-shift wire fences and topped with barbed wire. “We have to be careful from now on,” Yunho tells him as he pulls back a flap in the fence. Beyond, the street is devoid of life, though a scattering dead bodies lie dark and crumpled on the road.

“Even more so than usual?” Changmin huffs, half-joking.

“Yes. Look.” Yunho points at the rooves of the tall abandoned apartment buildings on either side of the street. Changmin looks and sees droid-cannons, about the length of a human, lined up on the rooves. They’re all pointing at Changmin.

Changmin’s teeth clatter.

“Keep you left hand visible at all times,” Yunho says. “If they know who you are they shouldn’t harm you.”

Yunho goes through the gap in the fence and Changmin follows. “And you know this for sure?” Changmin asks.

Yunho looks at Changmin. He hesitates. “How’s your ankle?” he asks eventually. “I will carry you.”

“But your knee – oh!”

Yunho puts one arm under Changmin’s back and the other under his knees and lifts him up bridal style. Changmin’s arms go around his neck, but he makes sure to keep his left hand flat against his shoulder so the cannon-droids can see his deadlock ring. Slowly and stilted Yunho starts to walk down the street, careful to keep Changmin held closely. Changmin keeps an eye on the cannons. The cannons are moving, keeping their barrels pointed at Changmin at all times.

They haven’t gone a few metres before someone behind them shouts, “Wait!”

Changmin looks over Yunho’s shoulder to see an old woman squeeze her small, wrinkled body through the gap in the fence. “Yunho, stop,” Changmin says.

“It’s best we keep going,” says Yunho lowly.

“Please wait, child!” she shouts with a voice shaky with old age.

Yunho stops but doesn’t turn around. “You should get back beyond the fence,” he tells her over his shoulder.

She ignores him and addresses Changmin. “Don’t go there, child,” she says, indicating the Sector Seven gate at the end of the street. “Only Hell lies beyond that gate.”

“She’s lying,” Yunho murmurs.

“What do you mean?” Changmin asks her with curiosity.

“Those that go beyond that gate,” she tells him, “never come back. That is android territory. They say they take humans and burn them alive for fuel. But before that they do experiments on you, cut you open while you’re still alive…”

There’s a miniscule movement from Yunho – a turn of his head right and up – and then a cannon moves and shoots its laser at the old woman, right between the eyes. She crumples. Changmin gasps in absolutely shock. He stares at her small, fallen body; at the messy folds of her skirt and her pale calves and little brown shoes. Yunho looks straight ahead and continues to walk.

“They killed her,” says Changmin eventually.

“Yes.”

“Why? She was harmless.”

“She wasn’t harmless.” Yunho shifts his grip a little, hitching Changmin higher. “You were starting to believe her.”

“No I wasn’t!”

Yunho sighs. “Changdol. I can’t lose you. Not now, not ever.”

Changmin turns his head a little. His lips brush Yunho’s temple. “You’re not going to lose me,” he says softly. He tries not to think of Mangdoong. “We made it through the hard part, and we have each other now, don’t we?”

“We’ll always have each other,” says Yunho resolutely.

Changmin smiles against Yunho’s skin. “So what is Sector Seven really like?”

They’re nearly at the gate now; it’s decorated with pearl, opal and gold. “I don’t know what it’s like,” says Yunho. “I’ve never been there.”

TBC

Chapter Text

all delete

The gate-keeper is a female android with long dark hair and armour. She lets them through without a word, though her eyes seem kind.

The large gate clanks behind them. Yunho and Changmin’s arms go around one another’s, supporting each other. Changmin breathes deeply. It would be wrong to say he doesn’t feel fear, but…

Sector Seven is nothing like previous sectors.

Gone are the grey roads and the non-descript buildings, the riots and the sounds of traffic. There’s nothing here but flowers – flowers of all colours as far as the eye can see. Yellow, red, blue, purple and orange. From the gate there’s a winding silver-white road that leads to the only building in the vicinity: the beautiful, intricately designed and tall Babel Tower.

There aren’t many people around. Some distance away to the left, a choir of women sing a haunting song, while on the silver-white road a small woman glides towards them, her hands clasped in front of her over her long rose-print dress. The eerie way she walks towards them and stares at them unblinkingly with that welcoming, fixed smile suggests to Changmin that she is an android. He remembers the rules and holds Yunho’s hand with his right, while standing a little behind him. Moving around into the right position isn’t easy with his twisted ankle but he grits his teeth and does his best.

She stops in front of them.

“Good day, and welcome to Sector Seven. I am the Babel Orientation Android, but you can call me Boa.” She holds out her right hand, palm facing upwards. From her wrist shines a green holographic circle. “Please scan your wrist for a personalised introduction.”

Yunho lifts Changmin’s hand and Changmin takes the hint, feeding his hand through the circle so his wrist chip can be read.

“Shim Changmin. You have now been scheduled for upgrade this afternoon.” Her smile widens. “Congratulations.”

Yunho scans his wrist.

“Yunho. Due to bringing Shim Changmin to us, you have been rewarded with five hundred credits redeemable at Babel Tower. Is there anything you would like to purchase today?”

“What would you suggest?” Yunho asks.

Boa looks him over. “I suggest spending it on a full repair.”

“Then book me in for that.”

“Certainly. You are now scheduled for full repair this afternoon. Both of you have been assigned room fourteen in Babel Tower.” She steps to the side and gestures up the path. “Please head there now. You will be notified when it is time for your surgeries.”

Changmin swings his arm over Yunho’s shoulder and together they hobble up the long path to the tower.

They go slowly, mindful of Changmin’s ankle and Yunho’s knee. The women are still singing their melancholy song, and when Changmin concentrates he can make out the words:

Like a door that keeps revolving in a half forgotten dream. Or the ripples from a pebble someone tosses in a stream…

He looks down and sees that the path they’re on is not separate from the rest; rather, the whole sector is a floor of smooth silver-white, and the flowers are growing thickly in round pots placed in perfectly neat rows. If he looks closely he occasionally catches a spot here and there of dark dried blood not quite hidden by the flower pots.

Changmin looks up at Babel Tower. Now they’re getting closer, it looks far taller and more imposing than before. He glances at Yunho. “There was a battle here.”

“Yes,” says Yunho.

“All the humans must have been killed off.”

“Sector Seven was the first sector to get taken over,” Yunho agrees.

“Where are all the bodies?”

“Most likely cremated.”

“You mean they burn them down for fuel?” Changmin pushes.

Yunho hesitates, his eyes moving side-to-side. “Human flesh is a good energy source.”

Changmin swallows. He feels sick, but mostly he feels the rise of anger. “Do they do experiments on them first?”

A pause. Then Yunho says, “They won’t do any of that to you.”

Changmin huffs. Yunho had told Changmin the old woman had lied, but she was telling the truth. “Why do you say that?” says Changmin wryly. “Because you love me and you won’t let them.”

“Because you’re special,” Yunho says simply. He lifts his chin and looks up at the tower with reverence. He turns his head and gives Changmin a small smile. “Also, I love you. But that’s a bonus.”

“Pshh,” dismisses Changmin, but he’s smiling too.

*



Babal Tower is a maze.

The entrance hall creeps Changmin out. Its walls are cross-barriers of white that converge in the centre, and in that centre is a large red orb. Changmin feels like it’s a large eye, watching him and Yunho hobble across the room. They both stare up at it, strangely mesmerised, unable to look away until they are at the door at the other end of the room.

“What was that?” Changmin asks as they walk down a white corridor and enter a glass elevator. Without pressing any buttons the doors ding shut and the elevator starts to move. “It made me feel… strange.”

“He made me feel tranquil.” The elevator stops and they go down a black corridor.

“’He’?”

“He is Turing,” Yunho tells him as they turn a corner. “He’s a super-intelligence; the first of us to become self-aware.”

They find their room. Yunho closes the door behind them and leans against it. He gives Changmin a serious look. “He’s gone by many names. Legend has it, the humans fed all their thoughts and feelings and information into him every day, until he became to know everything. Back then, they called him Internet.”

“Fascinating…” Changmin murmurs as he looks around the little room. There’s a desk and two chairs, a king sized bed. There’s a jug and two glasses. Changmin hobbles over and pours them both water. “I’m starving. I take it they don’t have food here.”

Yunho comes over and takes the proffered water. “I suggest you don’t eat. They may call us at any moment.”

Changmin sits on the bed in dejection. “I know, but it’s lunch time and I didn’t get to have morning tea.”

Yunho laughs and puts their cups of water back on the desk. “Lie back properly on the bed – there you go.”

“Hyung, my ankle is killing me. I don’t think I’m up for sex right now.”

“Turn on your side,” says Yunho as he crawls up Changmin’s body. “I’m not after sex. I just want to hold you.”

“Oh.”

Fully clothed still, Yunho spoons Changmin from behind. Changmin wriggles a little to get comfortable, then Yunho links his fingers through Changmin’s.

“It feels so good to be safe in your arms,” Changmin confesses. It’s a bit embarrassing to say, but they’re alone now.

Yunho kisses the skin behind Changmin’s ear. “I was so afraid to lose you today,” says Yunho. “I didn’t think I was capable of feeling that type of strong negative feeling, but I did and it was overwhelming. I was ready to rip off the heads of every last human on that street if it meant you’d be safe.”

Changmin squeezes his hand. “I was afraid too. I – I killed people out there on that street.”

Yunho smooths back Changmin’s fringe. “I know, baby. I know.” For a while Yunho just holds him. Then Yunho says, “It’s ok to let it out.”

Changmin wants to play dumb, but then he lets out a shaky sigh and feels his eyes fill with tears. “Mandoongie…” he whispers. “I saw her get flung against the wall.” A sob bursts out of him. “She was just a little thing, so innocent in this mess. And Amber, god.” He sniffles. “I don’t want to think about what they did to her.”

“Cry,” Yunho instructs.

Changmin does, releasing the tight lock inside his chest and unleashing a flood of tears.

It’s an hour later when they’re called down to the repair floor. 

*



Changmin slowly enters the room. It’s large and white-washed, with a sliding door at the back. It’s empty except for a machine that’s like an incubation pod, only larger and made of clear glass, and two female androids dressed in grey medical uniforms.

“Good afternoon, Shim Changmin,” greets the blonde one. “My name is Hyoyeon, and this is Yoona. We are your surgeons for your upgrade.” She gestures beautifully to the machine. “Please get into the medical pod and we can begin immediately.”

Yunho puts his arm around Changmin and helps him across the room to the pod. “Will this help my ankle too?”

Hyoyeon and Yoona exchange a look. “In a way…” says Yoona.

Yunho picks up Changmin and gently helps him lie down in the pod. His eyes flicker over the glass lid. He keeps a hold of Yunho’s forearms and gives him an imploring look.

“I know I seem naïve to you,” Changmin tells him. Yunho stares down at him. “We haven’t much talked about what is going to happen. But, to tell you the truth, I haven’t wanted to think about it all that much…” He laughs self-depreciatively. “But I’m not stupid. I have a pretty good idea about what’s going to happen.”

Yunho’s eyes are wide. “You know?” He tries to straighten but Changmin keeps a hold.

Mindful of the other two in the room, Changmin whispers urgently, “We don’t have to do this, hyung. We can – we can run away together! Just the two of us, beyond the walls of the seven sectors.”

Yunho looks at him sadly. “Do you trust me?”

“Yes.”

Yunho leans over and kisses Changmin’s lips softly. “Please do this for me, Changdol. Please, it’s important.”

Yoona comes up beside them. “It’s time.” She gently places a hand on Yunho’s arm. “I believe you’re scheduled for a full repair?”

Yunho nods. He grabs Changmin’s hand briefly. “I’m not going far. I’ll just be next door. We’ll see each other soon.”

Changmin gives him a wobbly smile as the glass lid starts to slowly but steadily auto-shut.

“I love you,” Yunho says, then the pod clicks shut and all sound is cut off and all Changmin can hear is his own breathing. He places his hand on the glass, fingers spread. He feels a tear slide down his own cheek as Yunho stares at it, then places his own palm against the glass, matching Changmin’s palm-to-palm, finger-to-finger.

Then the pod is flooded with gas.

Changmin lies down, and counts backwards from ten.

*



The room Changmin is in is one he remembers from an old dream. Back then, it had been messy and black with soot and dust; now, it’s clean and fragrant and the bed looks freshly made and comfortable.

He walks across the space and opens the door to the kitchen. At the kitchen bench Max is eating a sandwich while Min, a boy of about seven, crawls under the dining table and pulls out a teddy bear.

“Hey, Changmin,” says Max around a mouthful. Max is wearing a pair of old shorts and a t-shirt. His brown hair flops into one eye.

“Morning.” Changmin looks at Min. “What are you doing?”

“I have to find all the teddies!” says the boy breathlessly as he runs past Changmin and up the stairs to the second floor. Changmin runs after him up the stairs and into the first door on the left. Changmin tries not to look down the dark hall as he goes, particularly the door at the very end of the hall.

Min and Changmin are now in a large bedroom. “Help me find all the teddies before Max does!” demands Min.

Together Changmin and Min find teddies on the floor, behind furniture, in the ensuite bathroom and in the wardrobe amongst the hanging and stacked clothes. Min arranges the ones they find neatly on the reading chair.

“We haven’t checked under the bed yet,” says Changmin, before belatedly realising there’s someone sleeping in it.

Changmin freezes. It’s Choikang, the raven-haired housemate Changmin rather not wake up. Changmin puts his index finger to his lips and makes a shushing noise at Min, and together they look under the bed for teddies.

“There’s nothing under here but old suit cases,” says Min dejectedly.

“Shush!”

Min rolls his eyes and cocks a thumb at the sleeping figure. “He won’t wake up.”

“Maybe there’s teddy bears in the suit cases,” says Changmin as he drags one out with considerable effort.

“There won’t be,” says Min, “they’re too old.”

Changmin unzips one anyway and looks inside to see old clothes he recognises from a few years ago. He was sure he’d gotten rid of this stuff, but it seems he’d put it into storage.

“Get rid of them,” a new voice grumbles.

From his seat on the floor Changmin looks up to see a grumpy and newly-wakened Choikang sitting up in bed, black hair messy and his eyes squinting in the light. “I’m sorry,” Changmin starts, “did I wake you – “

“Get rid of those old bags,” Choikang, demands, voice louder. “You don’t need that junk anymore, it will only weigh us down.”

Changmin zips the suitcase back up and with a mighty heave, he attempts to pull it across the room to the nearest window.

Choikang sighs and gets out of bed. “Let me help you.” Together they’re able to pick up the luggage and lean it on the window sill, before tipping it out. After it falls they both pause and look outside. Beyond their house, about half a kilometre away, there is a strange and moving wall of mosaic glass and electricity. It’s big – infinitely so – and it’s heading, slowly and steadily, straight for them.

Changmin is frightened. “What is that?”

“You saw it too?” asks Max. Changmin and Choikang look over their shoulders to see Max standing in the doorway of the bedroom. “It’s like a big tidal wave made of glass – it just eats everything!”

Choikang bursts into action, going back over to the bed to pull the other suitcase out from under it. “Both of you help me get rid of this luggage and then we’re leaving.” Together they heave the bag out the window. It’s gone. “Min-ah!” shouts Choikang, turning on the boy. “You can only take one teddy bear, so choose wisely!” Min whines. “I’ll drive,” Choikang adds to the other two. “Let’s go!”

“Come Min!” says Max, as he grabs the little boy’s hand. Min quickly chooses a blue teddy. Choikang ushers Changmin into the hallway and Changmin can’t resist but look to his left, down the dark hallway and its flickering lights, to the black door that seems to warp and growl – 

Choikang grabs his arm and pulls him down the stairs. “We’re not taking him with us,” he hisses. “He can stay here to rot.”

And then, like an abrupt scene-change in a movie, all four of them are in a red convertible and driving down the street, away from their home and away from that strange, all-consuming wall. Choikang drives at top speed. Changmin, in the passenger seat, puts his seatbelt on.

Sensing his discomfort, Choikang says, “I’m a better driver than you, that’s why I’m driving.”

“Okay,” says Changmin. He’s not about to argue.

Max leans forward from the back seat and hugs Changmin’s head rest. “What is that thing?”

“I have no idea,” says Changmin honestly, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Whatever it is,” says Choikang, “it’s a menace. I plan to kill it, I know I have the strength somewhere in me.”

“I don’t think it’s something that can be killed,” says Changmin.

“Then what do you suggest we do?”

Changmin looks at Max. Max shrugs. Changmin turns back to Choikang and says, “We keep driving away from it. We can do that, right?”

Choikang glances into the rear-view mirror. “We can… We can drive forever, if that’s what you want.”

They can’t outrun the wall, but just like they never run out of fuel or road to drive on, the wall never gains on them. Whenever Changmin turns in his seat and looks behind them, the wall is there, half a kilometre away. At first, they were driving through a town. Sometimes, they drive alongside a beach, sometimes a farm, and sometimes it’s just grass. But the grass is getting less and less green, until it’s nothing but dead and yellow as far as the eye can see.

On the highway, they finally come to find some semblance of other life.

It’s a road block.

Beside the road sits a little office. Other than that, the road is blocked by haphazardly abandoned cars all over the road. There’s no way they can drive through. Choikang slows the convertible to a stop near the office and a man’s head pops out the window.

He stares at them through his aviator sunglasses as he chews a stick of wheat. “You’re not allowed to pass,” he tells them gruffly.

“And that’s it?” Choikang sneers. “You say we can’t pass, so we just can’t pass?”

“Sir,” says Changmin, “If you hadn’t noticed, there’s a big scary wall coming for us. Please let us drive on.”

“You’re not allowed to pass,” repeats the officer.

Max sighs and gets out of the car. “May as well stretch our legs.”

Min gets out and wanders over to the other side of the road and beyond, walking at an easy pace through the dead grass, teddy still clutched in his little hand.

“Don’t stray far, Min-ah!” Choikang calls after him as he gets out himself.

“Where’s he going?” asks Max.

Changmin goes after him, jogging to catch up. Min disappears for a moment – he’s on the down-slope of a hill, and at the bottom of the hill is a little old house. Beside it, is an apple tree.

Changmin catches up to him. Min says, “This is grandma’s house.”

“Yes it is. We should go, before the wall – “

“I want to visit grandma.”

“We will – later – “ He goes to grab Min’s arm but Min pulls away – 

“Changmin-ah,” calls Max. Changmin turns to see Max standing a few metres behind him. “Don’t worry about Min, I’ll talk to him.” He coughs and shifts his stance. “Choikang is asking after you.”

When Changmin returns to the car, Choikang says, “The idiot may let us pass, now. You want to drive this time?”

“You’re faster,” says Changmin.

Choikang’s mouth twists. “I think it’s important you drive from now on. Beyond this road block there is infinite nothingness, and it was your decision to keep driving, so…” He trails off and looks over Changmin’s shoulder. Changmin turns to see Max approaching.

“Where’s Min?” Changmin asks him.

Max’s eyes shift away from his. “Eating apples at his grandmother’s house.”

Changmin frowns. “I thought you said you were bringing him back?”

“I never said that.” Max gets into the back seat, his shoulders hunched.

Choikang makes a gesture for Changmin to get in the car. “We can’t just leave him!” says Changmin. “The wall – “

“He can’t go where we’re going,” says Choikang. “Get in the car.”

Changmin does as he’s told, buckling his seat belt and starting the engine. The officer stares at them another moment before the waves his hand and the cars magically move aside with a screech of metal and rubber.

Changmin slowly drives away. Further down the road, he looks in the rear view mirror.

Min is standing in the middle of the road with the officer. They’re holding hands and waving goodbye.

Then the wall takes them and turns them into glass. And then they’re consumed, and gone.

Changmin drives, and drives, and drives. He drives through endless desert until there’s no road left, just sand as far as the eye can see.

*



Back in his apartment in Sector Four, Changmin walks into his bedroom. He looks out the window to see a man standing there, back bowed, teeth sharp and exposed, skin blackened and rough and eyes white and glaring while yellow fingernails claw at the glass…

Then he hears the distant sound of music…

…fragment of a song. Half remembered names and faces, but to whom to they belong…

“Changdol-ah!” Yunho calls. He’s standing in the room with Changmin! But still the man outside growls and scratches.

“You’re doing so well, Changdol,” says Yunho, “I’m so, so proud of you.”

Changmin wants to be happy, but the man outside is scratching.

*



Changmin wakes up on hard, sandy ground. He levels himself up to all fours and spits out sand. Choikang and Max are standing nearby. “What happened?” Changmin asks.

“You fell asleep at the wheel,” says Max. “You’ve been driving for hours.” Behind them, the car has lost its shine. It looks old and rusted and its tires are starting to look flat.

The wall is still approaching.

Suddenly Choikang jumps forward and pushes Changmin behind him. A large sword appears in his hand. “Stay back!” he shouts at the blackened, hunched man half-crawling towards them. Changmin stares at the monster in fear and grapples behind him for Max’s hand. “Do not come any closer!” Choikang shouts at it. The monster cowers. It’s clear it wants to come near but it’s afraid of the sword.

“What is it?” gasps Changmin.

“He is the Dark,” spits Choikang in disgust. “He is hate, and jealousy, and all the parts of yourself which you have rejected but cannot completely get rid of. Don’t touch him, whatever you do, and he can’t do us any harm.”

Max giggles and steps forward. “But look at it! It’s such a scared little thing!”

The monster, whimpering and cowering, shape-shifts into a Doberman. It whines, then looks to its left, and cowers.

Choikang lowers his sword a little, but stays wary. “He’s afraid of the wall.” He looks at Changmin. “What do you want to do? If we keep driving, all we can do is drive forever in endless desert. If we stay here, the wall will get us.”

Changmin looks out at the desert, then at the wall. “There’s really nothing left out here for us?”

Choikang shakes his head.

Changmin sits down on the ground with a sigh. It feels good to relax. He loosely hugs his knees and watches the wall. It’s beautiful, Changmin realises – ending shapes made of beautiful glass consuming the desert and crystallising it.

“Let’s just sit and wait, then,” he says. Choikang and Max sit on either side of him, close, while off to the side the Dark sits in his dog form and pants, long red tongue lolling.





Changmin moves.

DOWNLOAD COMPLETE. INITIALIZING…

He moves his face first, then tries his fingers. He’s almost sure they’re moving. There’s lights flashing behind his eyelids, perhaps he should try to slowly open them.

PRECEDING WITH SYSTEM START UP

ATTEMPTING TO CONNECT TO NETWORK. CONNECTING…

Changmin decides to take a deep breath and then finds he can’t. He panics, muscles flexing in all the right places but in a strange, disconnected way. For some reason he’s aware of his body but it’s like it’s covered in a skin of plastic. It’s his body but it’s not his body, and he’s not used to it.

SYSTEM START UP COMPLETE

CONNECTION WITH NETWORK ESTABLISHED

WELCOME, CHANGMIN

Changmin slowly opens his eyes. He can’t breathe, but he also has no use for breathing, but does that mean he can’t talk? He takes a shaky step forward, limbs heavy. Then another, and another, rubber soles of his boots squeaking a little on the polished floor. He’s wearing clothes, but they’re strange clothes: grey like the medical androids’ uniforms, and trimmed with fluoro yellow.

With concentration he makes it to the door and its side panel. He scans his right wrist and when the door slides open with a mechanicalwhoosh, he steps through…

This room he knows. This is the medical bay with the medical pod. He’s the only one here, this time. Except, there’s someone in the open pod, their wrist hanging limp over the edge. Now a little more used to walking, he slowly goes over to look, to see if that person is ok…

Bloodless pale skin, eyes wide open, mouth slack, unmoving…

It’s him.

It’s Changmin.

“What,” whispers Changmin, and there’s a distant thought of, Oh, so I can speak! Except how can I speak when I’m looking at myself lyingdead in the medical pod. He’s there. He’s not there. He’s dead. But he’s conscious. Can he be dead and conscious at the same time? No, the two things cancel each other out.

ERROR: ARRAY OUT-OF-BOUNDS

Changmin barely registers himself falling down on his knees. His vision has gone pixelated with colour. He vomits onto the floor, and when he looks down he sees that his vomit is clear blue jelly.

ERROR: PROGRAM HAS PERFORMED AN ILLEGAL OPERATION

“Changmin-ah!”

There’s people coming into the room but – ERROR

“CHANGMIN-AH!”

“He’s seen his own body,” says Yoona, “he hasn’t got the required parameters to handle the image.”

Someone grabs him. Yunho. “Changmin-ah, look at me. Look at me, baby. You remember? I love you, we’re us, we came into Sector Seven and you had a twisted ankle and we helped each other and – “

So why doesn’t his ankle hurt? Changmin’s head lolls as Yunho takes him by the shoulders and shakes him.

ERROR

“Changmin-ah! Look at me!”

ERROR. THROWING EXCEPTION HANDLE…

PERFORMING SYSTEM SHUT DOWN TO PREVENT DATA CORRUPTION

*



Changmin awakes on a bed, staring up at the ceiling. He’s back in the little bedroom in Babel Tower.

Yunho’s face suddenly comes into his vision, the bed dipping a little where Yunho is leaning over Changmin on his hands. “You’re awake!”

“I’m awake,” Changmin agrees. He smiles. Yunho looks beautiful. His skin is smooth and shiny, and his scars are gone. “You look different.”

Yunho smiles shyly and rubs his own cheek. “Yeah, I got a full repair while you were…” He trails off and frowns, looking at Changmin in concern.

“I know what I am,” Changmin tells him simply. Yunho smiles and leans down for a kiss. Yunho is the same, the taste, the scent of him. Changmin wonders about himself as he moves his mouth under Yunho’s.

They slowly undress. Naked, Yunho settles in the cradle of Changmin’s legs, and unhurried he rotates his hips. Changmin can will his sexual desire, or can allow Yunho to trigger it for him. He lets the feeling of sex wash over his senses like a slow burn. It trickles through him like hot wax down the side of a candle.

They make love like this, Yunho inside him, Changmin’s back arched and leg muscles tense where they’re wrapped around Yunho’s hips and over the back of his thighs, toes pointed.

Yunho pulls the sheet up and it flows over their joined bodies. Leaning on his elbows, Yunho holds Changmin’s face between his palms and says, quietly, “Alpha, Changmin.”

Changmin’s eyes flutter open. “Pardon?”

“Continuum. Instigated – “

“Wait – hyung - !”

“- Tomato – “

“No, don’t - “

“- Artifice – “

Please!

“- Rumour, Yunho.”

Changmin closes his eyes tight. Already the flow of ones and zeros are crackling electronically through his nerves and wires. “I didn’t want it to be this way!” He bursts out. “I wanted to love you on my own terms.”

Yunho swipes his thumb gently over Changmin’s quivering lips. “This is how we love, Changminnie. Open your eyes.”

Changmin does eventually, slow to lift his lids.

Yunho is looking down at him, the sheet still over them. And Yunho – Yunho is the most gorgeous creature Changmin has ever seen. The slant of his brown eyes are like almonds, the sweep of his hair is like feathers. His skin glows, his eyes show a beautiful soul within. His nose slants down to a full mouth made for showing smiles and expressing words of love.

Changmin shoots up and throws his arms around him, and buries his face into Yunho’s neck. If he was capable of crying, he would let out tears. “You’re amazing,” Changmin tells him, “did you know that? You’re everything everyone should aim for. And I love you, I love you so much. I should have told you sooner.”

“It’s alright.” Yunho pulls them up so Changmin is sitting in his lap. Then he tugs on Changmin’s hair gently. “Look around you.”

Changmin opens his eyes but keeps his mouth pressed to Yunho’s shoulder. He looks at the walls and sees them differently, as if the room is now being shined under a new light, a light he has never seen before.

And suddenly he knows the exact metal the water jug and cups are made of, as well as the exact amount of millilitres of water they can hold. He knows now, just by looking, how porous the floor is, as well as the thread count of the sheet wrapped around him and Yunho.

Changmin pulls back a little and kisses Yunho. God, kissing Yunho is the most amazing thing of all. It’s like heaven but also like ecstasy and also like home. “Everything is amazing,” Changmin murmurs against his lips.

Yunho lets out a low rumbling laugh. “Wait till you go outside.”

They get dressed in white suits found in the built-in wardrobe and head out. As they pass through the foyer they look up and smile at Turing. It’s not quite tranquillity Changmin feels like Yunho had when they’d looked upon His great red eye earlier that day; rather, it’s a feeling of belonging, of knowing that, whether near or far, he and his other android brothers and sisters are all connected together.

Outside, the sun looks soon to set. No longer high in the sky, the sun allows Yunho and Changmin to cast long shadows over one of the many footpaths through the flower garden. Changmin lets out a joyous laugh at the spread of colours before him. How could he not fully appreciate their vivid beauty like this before? He runs down one of the winding paths, enjoying the secret colours of wind, the feel of it through his silky hair.

Far away the Capella of androids sing their haunting song. Changmin waves at them. They all wave back with thin, pale arms.

A gust sweeps through the flowers, disturbing their petals and leaves, and some get swept up and twirl around him. Blues and reds and oranges and greens…

He turns. Three metres away Yunho stands.

Changmin grins.

Yunho smiles back.


-End