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