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panic switch

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will you step in line or release the glitch?
can you fall asleep with a panic switch?

(SILVERSUN PICKUPS)

 

 

#

 

Everything we know about the world began the same way: a passing thought, a hook into the brain, a well-constructed theory. This is the way it’s always been and it’s the way it will always be.

Theories become fact through testing. That’s why Wonwoo’s here.

“I’ll pay you two hundred dollars a day,” Junhui says. He sinks into the dark brown leather chair across from Wonwoo, crossing his legs at the thighs. Wonwoo thinks Junhui dresses oddly for a scientist: a loose t-shirt and jeans ripped at the knees with his hair dyed blonde.

And you’ve met many scientists, Wonwoo? He hasn’t. The closest he gets is a medical doctor. Junhui is not a medical doctor.

“How long will you need me for?” Wonwoo asks.

Junhui shrugs, “as long as it takes, not sure. Once we get started I might be able to put together a better time frame.”

“Okay,” Wonwoo agrees. He realizes he’s been wringing his hands, just slightly, where they’re folded together. He drops the hold and slides them against his jeans. They feel damp with sweat.

“Great,” Junhui smiles, “would you like to meet him?”

 

#

 

Jihoon is sixty-four percent inorganic material and twenty-two percent organic.

“What’s the other fourteen percent?” Wonwoo asks. They’re walking down a long, white hallway. The lights are bright and their footsteps echo.

“Variables,” Junhui replies, “as scientists, we always try to whittle everything down to it’s most exact degree. As scientists, we also accept that not every equation will be perfect. So, fourteen percent of variables.”

They stop in front of a door, same as all the other doors they’ve already passed. Wonwoo hopes he won’t be expected to find his way back here on his own tomorrow. He’ll spend hours just opening doors. At least he’ll be getting paid for it.

Wonwoo is not sure what he’s expecting to be behind the door when Junhui opens it. He knows, logically, that it’s Jihoon, the android Junhui’s been working on for the past year and a half. But Wonwoo has never seen an android. He imagines Jihoon plugged into sockets, half-deconstructed, part exposed metal skeleton and part properly dressed in artificial skin.

Behind the door is a lot less science fiction then that. It’s just a boy, who’s not really a boy, but looks exactly like just another boy, sat in a large room at a desk, head bowed.

“Jihoon,” Junhui says quietly. Wonwoo follows him a few steps inside. The boy at the desk, the not-boy with his head bowed - he looks up and directly at Wonwoo. His eyes do not settle their after noticing him. It’s as if Jihoon knew exactly where Wonwoo would be standing as soon as he walked into the room.

“Jun,” Jihoon answers, his voice just like any other person’s voice. It does not sound scratchy, or like it’s coming through a speaker, it sounds like the organic hum of vocal chords. Wonwoo can’t believe it, even after Jihoon speaks again. “Who’s this?”

“This is your new friend,” Junhui explains, “his name is Wonwoo.”

Jihoon looks - he looks curious. It’s in the look in his eyes and the height of his eyebrows. Wonwoo has to remind himself Jihoon is not curious - not really, not in any way that’s not superficial. Because he’s not a person.

But god, does he look like a person.

“Isn’t he amazing?” Junhui turns to Wonwoo, smiling. He catches Wonwoo staring at Jihoon, who stares at Wonwoo in return.

Jihoon doesn’t blink.

“Yeah,” Wonwoo breathes, “yeah, he is.”

 

#

 

Junhui leaves them to get acquainted.

Nothing about Jihoon suggests he is anything less than he seems.

Wonwoo expects him to creek, or to hum, or something, anything. But he doesn’t. He sits in a chair across from Wonwoo as silent as any human would be. There are things, if you’re really looking, like how Jihoon does not fidget. How their is a distinct calculation to every single move he makes.

“You don’t breathe,” that’s something else, something Wonwoo says out loud.

“No,” Jihoon replies. “Would you prefer it if I did?”

Wonwoo shakes his head. “You don’t have to.”

“I’m programmed to make humans feel at ease,” Jihoon presses, “if me not breathing makes you uncomfortable I can pretend I am.”

The idea sours in Wonwoo’s mind as soon as Jihoon suggests it. The only thing more off-putting then Jihoon’s lack of breath would be him faking it.

“No,” Wonwoo shakes his head. “What were you doing when we came in?” Wonwoo asks, mostly to distract by Jihoon’s lack of inhales and exhales.

“Oh,” Jihoon sounds surprised, he would be surprised if he knew how to be surprised. “I was writing sheet music.” He picks up the piece of paper on his desk and hands it to Wonwoo.

Wonwoo looks at it - the swooping arches and curves of musical notes, fitted neatly into the confines of three lines. They look like gibberish to him.

“It’s Chopin,” Jihoon supplies, “I’m not - I don’t know how to write my own music yet, but I’m good at figuring out songs I’ve already heard. Jun says my next update he’ll see if he can get me to write my own stuff.”

“Do you like music?” Wonwoo asks. He’s not sure what else he’s supposed to do with Jihoon. When Junhui had left he had said get to know him, when Junhui was explaining Wonwoo’s job in the larger scheme of things, earlier, he had said ask him questions, treat him like a person. Wonwoo had not quite understood the last part. The first, however, he could do.

“I do,” Jihoon smiles when he says it. It’s not an odd sight - people smile all the time, of course Jihoon is built to smile, even if he’s not built to breathe.

Wonwoo doesn’t know why he stares so long.

 

#

 

This all started as follows:

An ad in the paper. The smell of newsprint, black text on a grey background, a small section of the classifieds.

It said, opportunity to work with amazing, brand new technology and, chosen candidate will be housed and compensated and, if interested call this number.

 

#

 

Artificial intelligence is still a largely untapped scientific field. No one has quite gotten it right yet. This makes Jihoon is nothing short of a breakthrough.

Over dinner, thick cuts of steak and domestic beer, Wonwoo asks Junhui, “where do you even start with something like that?”

“Like what? Jihoon?” Junhui raises an eyebrow, incredulous. “Graduating MIT when you’re eighteen helps.”

Wonwoo chews through a slice of his meat, dripping blood and juice into his mouth. It’s soft, still warm.

“Is he finished?” Wonwoo asks next. He looks finished. He looks - he looks human, and that’s hard for Wonwoo to admit, because it’s unsettling, but it’s the truth. If he didn’t already know Jihoon was an android he would never guess.

“In technically terms, I suppose,” Junhui shrugs, “but also, there’s the whole thing where people are never really finished, about how we’re always learning and changing and growing,” Junhui is gesturing all this with a wave of his hand, knife still clutched in the other. “Jihoon is built to never be finished, in that respect.”

“How did you. . .” The words escape Wonwoo’s mouth before he can catch them, carried out by the amazed lilt in his voice.

Junhui smiles, crooked, and cuts off another piece of his dinner. “You and a lot of other people would love to know, I’m sure.”

 

#

 

“Do you like being like this?” Wonwoo asks.

Jihoon blinks at him, a measured and calculated tilt of the head. “I don’t understand the question,” Jihoon replies.

“A robot, an android, whatever,” Wonwoo dismisses proper terms with the wave of his hand, “do you like it?”

Jihoon looks no less confused. “I’m not sure how to answer that question. I don’t fully understand how to be anything beyond this.”

“Isn’t that the whole point of this?” The room is dimly lit. Jihoon looks like he’d be soft if Wonwoo touched him. Wonwoo does not touch him. The theory remains untested. “You’re supposed to convince me you know exactly how to be human.”

“That would be very easy,” Jihoon faces Wonwoo straight on again, no inquisitive small tilt to his head, “is it not a more challenging test to have you believe it without me really trying?”

Wonwoo doesn’t answer the question. “If you could pick,” Wonwoo says instead, voice slow and calculating, watching Jihoon blink at him. A habit he’s picked up. He never used to blink. “If someone let you pick, would you stay like this?”

Jihoon seems to consider the question for a very long time. Wonwoo listens to the stillness of the room, his own breaths punctuated by the lack of Jihoon’s.

“I’m not sure,” Jihoon finally answers, “which way would you prefer me?”