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.
“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.
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!”
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.”
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 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.
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.”
“Do you remember where we kept your instructions?”
“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.