September 1st, 20XX
“...The level of violence is reaching a concerning level. Already seventy four members of these dreadful riots have been injured or killed, and nine emergency responders have been caught in the crossfire. It remains to be seen whether the conflict will die down or escalate. That’s all we have on the civilian protests for this segment, more to come later.”
The man lounging in front of the television groaned. The media’s demonization of the protesters was much too obvious when the clip showed the military obviously terrorizing peaceful civilians who were protesting the government’s response to a recent terrorist act. The fact that the media still even attempted to paint the government in a good light was simply atrocious.
“And now, we take you live to the grand re-opening of the Artificial Intelligence Rehabilitation Facility. This May marks its eleventh year of service, discounting two months of inactivity earlier this year during which new security measures were installed and employees were taught breaking-edge programming techniques designed to repair artificial life forms in record time and quality. The president is now approaching the ribbon sporting a- oh, look at his scissors, Seulgi, those are snazzy-“
The screen shut off with a satisfying click, the reporter’s infuriating voice vanishing into the room’s newfound darkness.
Lee Donghyuck tossed the remote aside with a sigh. This footage was technically three months old, not that it made any difference to the news outlets— nor their consumers. They simply replayed it, over and over, since it was related to the same news that had been “breaking” for the past five days. This was no surprise; after all, the world was still reeling from the events which had transpired involving the AIRF.
Donghyuck was definitely tired of it, though.
What had happened? What was the drastic event that had sent news outlets, governments, citizens, the entire world, into shock?
This message would be revealed, but first, a message from the sponsors that make this show possible.
Five Days Previous: August 27th, 20XX
“Hey there Hyuck, any exciting news today?”
Donghyuck paused in unlocking his lab door and turned to Lucas, who was leaning against the wall with a casual grin. Rumpled behind his back were fliers tacked to a cork board, reminding rehabilitation facility employees and engineers to stick to the new techniques. They littered the halls, the labs, even the containment cells where the hazardous AI’s were kept. Donghyuck thought it was a bit over the top.
“Nothing really, Lucas. I’m still getting the hang of the new protocol, it’s an entirely different language.”
“You can say that again,” Lucas sighed. “It’s nothing like we studied in school. I don’t even know what I’m programming into these things most of the time.”
Donghyuck nodded. They had attended school together, studying engineering with a focus on artificial intelligence. Donghyuck had been a model student: arriving to class impeccably dressed, turning in papers at least double the minimum page requirement, receiving top scores in exams and field studies.
Lucas had ridden on his coattails. He was more focused on his vintage motorbike, a relic from the early 2000’s that still ran on gasoline.
So, when Lucas said he didn’t even know what he was programming into the AI’s most of the time, this wasn’t anything new. What was new was the fact that Donghyuck was now in the same boat.
“It makes me a little nervous, if I’m being honest,” Donghyuck said, turning the key and opening the door. “I prefer to know what I’m doing.”
“You could contact Kun. You know, the guy who trained us in this new stuff. Then maybe you could dumb it down for me,” Lucas suggested, winking.
“Sure thing,” Donghyuck said absently. He wasn’t interested in contacting Kun, nor in teaching Lucas how to program. Again. This job got monotonous sometimes; figuring out the coding for himself would be a good way to spice it up for a bit, at least for a few days.
“Well, you’re a busy guy,” Lucas said, pushing himself up from the wall. “I’ll leave you to your programming.”
“You should go do the same,” Donghyuck replied, already inspecting the AI’s lined up for him to reprogram.
Lucas quirked an eyebrow and left, shutting the door quietly as he passed.
Then, it was just Donghyuck and a room full of robots. They took all different forms. Some were designed for housekeeping, having nothing nuanced or independent about their functions or appearances, while others were high security guards and escorts, human shaped and titanium plated, equipped with a full range of weaponry and surveillance technology that could spot a spider moving a millimeter a minute on the wall three hundred feet away.
Donghyuck didn’t have time to waste. He was an ambitious guy; he had plans, and they all depended on his performing well during his first year at the facility. If things worked out the way he desired, he would soon be designing the programs instead of installing them.
And so, he set to work. Input coding in a janitorial droid. Input coding in a factory arm. Input coding in a crowd control bot. The morning dragged on, and Donghyuck’s mind was gripped only by his curiosity about the new programming system and by the occasional fantasy. Every twenty minutes or so he would stand up to unplug a bot from his computer and move it out into the hallway, where somebody would pick it up for redistribution.
This was how every day went. Nine to five, forty-five minutes for lunch, fifteen minute breaks every so often. An expectation to reprogram at least 10 bots a day (14 for Donghyuck, since he was so outstanding), without question, without deeper thought. Really, a college education did nothing to justify this routinely bland labor. At exactly 11:45, Donghyuck pulled out a microwaveable meal and walked the quarter mile through the winding halls to get to the cafeteria.
Many people attempted to make conversation with him. Few succeeded. Most of it was just mindless drivel— ‘oh, Donghyuck, I wrote up this report, would you look it over for me? Hey Hyuck- can I call you that? Lucas says it all the time- I was wondering if you were free Friday night. Do you drink? Good morning Donghyuck, you’re looking as bored as ever. Coding getting to you?’
It was a lot of questions, and he didn’t have the answers that would satisfy those who asked them. Therefore, most people got a nod or a five-word clipped sentence in response. There were a few people, however, that Donghyuck actually made an effort to speak with.
“Donghyuck, your productivity is simply incredible. You’ve reprogrammed an average of 400 AI’s a month, which is 25% more than your peers.”
Donghyuck’s supervisor sat stick-straight, graying hair slicked and perfect, wrinkles appearing only where she allowed them to. She sat with other Important People at a relatively secluded table next to the microwave. Her associates paused their conversations to look at Donghyuck with interest. He unconsciously readjusted the screwdrivers sticking out of his chest pocket so they sat up straight.
“Thank you, ma’am. I do my best.”
“Well, it’s paying off,” she said approvingly. “Would you like to come into my office this afternoon? We could discuss your position here. There is an opening in the hazardous AI department that could use someone like you.”
Donghyuck did an internal fist pump. Today was the day.
On the outside, he remained humble and submissive. “I would be honored,” he said, bowing deeply. “Thank you, ma’am.”
“It’s due to your own achievements that you stand out, Donghyuck. Your food is done.”
The microwave shut off with a beep, making Donghyuck jump. He collected his lunch quickly, bowed to his supervisor once again, and hurried out of the cafeteria. He could eat while he programmed.
Donghyuck shuffled his feet awkwardly. It was technically the afternoon, which was the time his supervisor had suggested. Today he had the opportunity to impress her, to make his way up in the facility. He had already knocked on the door, already received permission to enter. This was a good thing.
So why did he feel like everything was about to go wrong?
The nerves had begun earlier, right after lunch, when he had made a breakthrough in the code. It wasn’t anything major— simply an override option that gave the government control over the bots, for emergency situations. It wasn’t anything major. Nothing major.
Was it major?
He breathed in, out, gently turned the knob, and stepped inside. His supervisor’s office was much nicer than his own lab; a posh carpet with elaborate designs covered a good portion of the hardwood floor. Artwork- the originals, not a copy in sight- hung on the walls, all depicting rustic mountains or the savanna or some other raw and primal landscape that no longer existed. A panoramic view of the city lay behind spotless windows that were manufactured to block the sun’s most extreme brilliance and maintain a pleasant vista.
“Good afternoon, Donghyuck,” she said, shuffling papers into a uniform stack on her desk. “Thank you for coming to see me. Go ahead and have a seat.”
Donghyuck had a seat. He realized the chair was lined with the fur of some poor monkey or jaguar or something. The pit in his stomach grew.
“Now, a warning about this position I’m going to offer you. It’s a little dangerous, as you’ve probably guessed. You must be sharp and decisive in order to deal with hazardous AI’s.”
Donghyuck nodded, all serious-like.
“You’ll still be programming the same things. In that regard, no further training will be necessary. The hours, however, are different. There is no set schedule…”
Her voice faded as Donghyuck fixed on this information. He figured those working in hazards would have a higher security clearance, would know what they were programming into these dangerous machines. Was there a single programmer in the facility who knew what they were doing?
“...on a need-to-know basis. Does that make sense?”
Donghyuck, who hadn’t internalized a single word from the past fifteen seconds, nodded.
She continued talking. Donghyuck didn’t listen. Not because he was thinking about something she had previously said, no; he wasn’t paying attention because something had appeared in the panoramic window.
It was small, and hard to make out, but it was approaching fast. The most alarming thing: it was accompanied by a trail of smoke, which was never a good sign.
Donghyuck did some quick math. At the object’s speed and trajectory, it was headed directly towards them, and would arrive very, very soon.
“Excuse me, ma’am, I think we have a problem,” he said, jumping out of his chair and pointing at the window. His supervisor turned around just in time for the object to crash through the window and obliterate the surrounding wall.
Everything went fuzzy for a minute. Donghyuck’s instincts kicked in, moving his arms to shelter his head from falling debris as he made himself as small as possible. His ears rang and- was that blood? What was bleeding? Donghyuck found he couldn’t focus. As soon as a coherent thought entered his mind, it slipped right back out again.
So how long did Donghyuck cower there, amongst the dust and the rubble? He couldn’t tell you.
When he was sure he wasn’t dead, or at least dying, he slowly lifted himself from the ground.
The room was a disaster zone, if one could even call it a room anymore. Paintings were punctured by splinters of chairs and frames, the powerful scenes marred by scratches and tears. The window was jagged and dangerous, a massive hole cut out of the middle like some toddler had acquired scissors and paper and was feeling destructive. The sun shone through the dust and turned everything yellow. Donghyuck could’ve almost appreciated that one, if he hadn’t come this close to dying just seconds ago.
He sat up straighter. In the middle of the room, his supervisor was shaking rubble out of her hair. Her professional, immaculate skirt was torn and frayed and she looked lost, eyes wandering the room in a daze.
That’s when Donghyuck realized they weren’t alone. There was a person standing right in front of the door, the only exit (Donghyuck didn’t think he was desperate enough to consider the shattered window to be an exit quite yet). Donghyuck blinked a few times and tried to focus.
The person was a man, right around his age. He was not tall but he was not short, either. What he lacked in size was made up by the pure energy he exuded. His hair was blonde and curly, mussed up from his slightly dramatic entrance. He wore black and silver and big heavy boots, and crossed his arms in front of his broad chest. He surveyed Donghyuck and the supervisor with a cool, judgemental stare, his lip curled with disgust.
Donghyuck blinked a few more times. If that impact didn’t kill him, this guy certainly would.
The guy in question prowled over to the supervisor and lifted her by the arm.
“Call them off,” he snarled.
The supervisors eyes widened, and for just a second, they darted over to Donghyuck.
The guy picked up on that. He dropped the supervisor and stomped right on over to Donghyuck and did the same thing, dragging Donghyuck up by his left arm.
Donghyuck squeaked in pain. So that’s where the blood was coming from.
“Your bots,” the guy said. He was scarier up close, but the unpleasant expression seemed like a mask, as if his face had been built for smiles and uplifted eyebrows instead.
“I don’t understand,” Donghyuck managed. His brain was screaming you’re injured! You’re injured! You’re injured! And if Donghyuck was honest, the scary guy was not at the top of the priority list for that very reason. And so, his answer was less than satisfactory, as usual.
“You’re supposed to be smart, ” the guy sneered. “I said call off the bots!”
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” Donghyuck said, gritting his teeth to ignore the throbbing in his arm. “We don’t control them.”
“Lies. You know exactly what you’re doing, you’re the people programming them to subjugate the citizens of this town because you can’t stand them having free will.”
“Excuse me? We fix robots, we don’t turn them into man-eating, house-burning monsters!”
“Tell that to them!”
The guy gestured at the window. Donghyuck hadn’t heard because he was too focused on regaining his senses, but now that he listened, he could hear screams, gunshots. The city itself was on fire.
And all of a sudden, it clicked.
The civilian protests; the new programs; the secretiveness of his superiors. The code he had figured out just hours earlier, that installed a government override in every AI.
They were quelling the civilian protests from the inside. And not in a pretty manner, no; they were subjugating them.
The angry guy was watching Donghyuck carefully, so he saw the moment he realized what was happening.
“I- we- no, that can’t be right,” Donghyuck said, sliding out of the guy’s grip. “There’s no way we did that. There’s no way I’ve been programming orders to kill into these robots for three months. ”
He looked at his hand. It was quivering. Some odd part of him was embarrassed about it, so he grabbed his wrist with his other hand. Unfortunately, that one was as unsteady as the first. He realized he was shaking like a leaf, the impact of his role in this massacre too much for him to handle. He wrapped his arms around himself; it only made him feel marginally more secure.
“I… I did this? I’m the reason why all these people are dying?” He peered up at the angry guy through blurred vision. He had every reason to hate Donghyuck.
He should have been more critical. Pushed more. Although would that have gotten him killed? He wasn’t even sure anymore. All he could think about was the people out there who were dying because of him, because he didn’t ask enough questions. Because he thought it would be fun to figure it out on his own, because never in a million years would he have thought that this facility that was supposedly dedicated to helping people was instead a factory for their demise. Because he was too ambitious, and asking questions would’ve gotten him kicked to the gutter.
The angry guy crouched down next to Donghyuck, who turned his head away. He didn’t want his last moments to be spent stuck staring at the face of justice, the being who had come to settle the balance.
This may be why he jumped when instead of, for example, having his throat slit, the angry guy put a hand on Donghyuck’s shoulder.
“Hey, take a few breaths,” he said, a far cry from the impassioned fury from just a minute ago. “That’s it. Just like that. I’ll tell you what. It just sounds like you were unaware of what was happening here.”
Donghyuck hiccuped. A truly dignified response.
“So, I’ll get you out of here. I’ll even be your personal escort, if you wish. Although I’d understand if you don’t.”
He guided Donghyuck to his feet, keeping a strong hand on his back at all times. He turned to the supervisor, who was still on the ground. She was glaring murder into the guy. Obviously, she had been fully aware of the facility’s intentions. She probably would’ve done something to stop him, had her hip not been shattered like her panoramic window.
“We know who you are,” she snarled. “Your group. We’ve seen people like you before, we’ve crushed you before, and we can do it again.”
Donghyuck paused in his recovery to be confused. The guy’s people? What kind of “people” crashed through windows and threatened cruelty in the name of justice?
He kinda grimaced at his supervisor. She didn’t look good; her body, frail as it was now, could not handle her sheer fury. She trembled with it, calm control gone, chalky hands clenched into fists, nails buried so deep in her palms that they drew blood.
The guy seemed unbothered. “You may have dealt with our predecessors, lady, but I’ll tell you now— we’re a whole new kind of trouble for corrupt brutes like you.”
And with that, he turned around and led Donghyuck out the door, still with one hand placed solidly on his back. In any other situation, Donghyuck probably would have felt like a prisoner. But for some reason, despite the previous death threats, the contact felt gentle.
The guy closed the door behind him, waving his hand over the knob. The lock clicked.
Hold up, what?
He sighed heavily and leaned against the door for a second, then pushed himself back up and stuck out a hand to Donghyuck.
“Sorry for kinda accusing you of murder back there,” he said to the still shell-shocked boy. “My name’s Mark.”
“You just locked the door,” Donghyuck said, instead of taking Mark’s hand, shaking it, and introducing himself in return, as he should have done.
“You locked a door. Without using a key. You didn’t even touch it.”
“That’s quite the astute observation.”
Donghyuck crossed his arms and gave Mark his greatest pout. A sullen look, if you will. Mark sighed, again.
“You’ve ever heard of superhumans?”
Donghyuck’s jaw dropped; he heard it slam against the linoleum floor. “Superhumans? You’re kidding. I think I’ll see myself out, thank you, goodbye.”
He turned on his heel, fully prepared to walk away, but Mark’s hand shot out and grabbed his arm.
“Just… just trust me,” he said. “My ability may not be flashy, but it’s useful. When you see the others in my team, it’ll be easier to understand.”
“And what exactly is it you do?” Donghyuck said, skepticism showing on his face just as he had practiced in the mirror in middle school. They began jogging down the hall, towards the AI processing and redistribution office.
“It’s kinda like telekinesis, but less crazy. Some people can cause like… a whirlwind of knives, right?”
Donghyuck scoffed at the surprisingly childish example, but nodded.
“Mine is more practical, less flashy. I’m really good with stealth missions.”
Donghyuck thought back on Mark’s destruction of the office. “Uh huh.”
“So I can like... lock doors, move heavy objects, lift things. If I focus really hard, I can propel myself, but not long enough to really call it flying. And once I get moving, I can’t do anything about my trajectory or speed.”
Donghyuck, once again, thought back on Mark’s destruction of the office. “Uh huh.”
“So that’s what I do. The others in my group, they’re a lot more interesting.”
They ran past a willowy man with raven black hair and feline features.
“Doyoung,” Mark said, nodding. Donghyuck nodded as well. He didn’t want to be mistaken for a murderer again. Wait, wasn’t he a murderer, no matter his intentions? He pushed that thought out of his mind; no time for that now.
They turned the corner and passed by the willowy man again.
“Doyoung,” Mark said, nodding again. Donghyuck nodded too, but with more hesitance this time.
When they passed Doyoung a third time in the cafeteria, Donghyuck lost it.
“What’s going on,” he cried. “How is this guy everywhere?!”
“Oh, sorry,” Mark said. “I should tell you what everyone can do. Doyoung can clone himself.”
Donghyuck rolled his eyes. Of course.
“Johnny can think things into existence, Jaehyun can read minds and control people with his voice, Yuta’s got super speed and super charm, Taeil can see into the future and has control over it if he really works hard, Taeyong can manipulate air with his motions- it’s more powerful than it sounds-“
They entered the redistribution warehouse.
“And this guy can deconstruct things, Thanos style,” Donghyuck breathed.
It wasn’t hard to figure out. A delicate looking man with a tragic bowl cut stood in the center of the room, fending off murderous- yes, murderous, and Donghyuck hated to admit that- robots with only his hands. Every time he made contact with a bot, no matter how brief, it disintegrated into glittery dust.
“He didn’t get to decide what happens after he touches them, by the way,” Mark added. “That’s Jungwoo.”
It certainly was Jungwoo. Donghyuck watched in shock as he eliminated the entire room of bots in front of his eyes.
“You never told me your name,” Mark said, a little amused. Donghyuck quirked his eyebrows at him. There were so many other things they could be doing; asking for Donghyuck’s name now? That was bad judgement. In Donghyuck’s opinion, anyways.
“I’m Lee Donghyuck,” he said. “Engineer extraordinaire, apparently not as curious as I thought I was, or should have been.”
“Works for me,” Mark said. “Now, we need to collect everyone and do something about this city. We’ve destroyed the threat at its source, but we need to do some major clean-up outside. Oh, and overthrow the government, too.”
Donghyuck laughed at that, taken by surprise by Mark’s casual mention of absolute anarchy. Mark looked surprised too, whether by his own nonchalance, or by Donghyuck’s sudden mirth.
(Donghyuck knew he had an infectious laugh. He was foolish, not stupid.)
And so, to spare the absolutely mundane details of gathering a group of superhumans and skedaddling out of the AIRF, they did exactly that. Donghyuck felt both out of place and somehow at home, running with this strange group of strange men. More at home than he did in college, or alone in his lab, or surrounded by adoring wannabe’s in the cafeteria.
They scattered once they left the campus. Mark decided that Donghyuck, as a normal person, would be safer hidden away. Donghyuck protested greatly, of course, but that was before a traffic bot nearly squashed him flat.
After that, he was a little more willing to hide out.
They decided Donghyuck’s place was too risky. The police probably knew of his betrayal by now, thanks to his supervisor (they saw her on TV, playing the victim. How despicable), and so they went to the next best place: Mark’s apartment.
Donghyuck vaguely pondered how strange this situation was, but he couldn’t think too deeply about it. Then he would freak out and Mark would have to talk him through it again and he didn’t think he could take that.
And so, he sat in Mark’s apartment, growing antsier by the day. All he could do was watch the television, occasionally catching glimpses of Mark’s team dealing that good, old fashioned justice.
He especially liked it when Mark showed up, for reasons he couldn’t even begin to fathom if he thought about it too much.
So he didn’t. He sat around and watched the same news every day, cleaned Mark’s apartment over and over and over (not that it needed much cleaning— it seemed as though Mark was naturally a tidy person), tried to recall the coding he had been taught so he could dismantle it and maybe, possibly, do something to help.
Meanwhile, NCT 127 (that’s what they called themselves, anyways. Donghyuck thought it was ridiculous, so he didn’t ask Mark as to why they chose that name, out of everything) set about to cleaning up the city. They deconstructed robots, urged cameramen to point their cameras in a certain direction, whispered in the ears of government officials.
And it worked, sort of. At least, the fighting robots part did. It resolved much easier than Donghyuck had expected it to, actually. The team barely broke a sweat. It was nothing like the superhero movies Donghyuck sometimes watched, where the heroes were beaten within an inch of their lives and somehow still managed to come out on top.
Mark said a lot of real life conflicts were like that, initially setting the heart racing and mind spiraling into fantasies of apocalypse, but eventually leveling out into routine clean-up and diplomatic compromises— the stuff they didn’t show you in the movies.
Anyways, the murder bots were all gone, and with it went all of Donghyuck’s hard work. He didn’t resent it; his fire of ambition had died down to a little candle flame, just barely there, one misplaced breath and it would be gone forever. He never actually mentioned this, of course. That would be admitting defeat, and if Donghyuck had faith in anything, it was in himself.
He just needed some time to think about what he was going to do next.
If the protests had been frequent before, they were now non-stop; city hall was constantly overrun with angry citizens whose own flames of ambition had raged into a bonfire as a result of the government’s ill-made decision.
This, and not NCT 127’s efforts of coercion, was what made the government begin to change. Was what made the mayor resign, was what made the AIRF shut down for good.
In his place, the people elected someone younger, a woman who had been on the forefront of the protests. She vowed to flush out the corruption, to justly deal with the people’s complaints.
And so, NCT 127 slipped into the shadows.
November 18th, 20XX
“Hey Hyuck, anything wild and crazy happen at work today?”
Donghyuck set down his bag, stretched his arms over his head, toed off his shoes, and padded into the kitchen.
Mark was attempting to fry something on the stove, the key word here being attempt. For all his nimbleness (Donghyuck had been surprised to learn that Mark was actually being truthful when he said he was stealthy), he couldn’t cook to save his life. Donghyuck pushed him away and took command of the kitchen.
Mark sat down at the counter. He knew a loss when he experienced it.
“Nothing, really,” Donghyuck said, throwing in loads of spices to (hopefully) resurrect Mark’s concoction. “It’s just like working in the AIRF, but with a lot less… corruption.”
Donghyuck was working in a small mechanic shop as the residential programmer. He wrote his own codes now, and made sure to tell the customers exactly what they did. It wasn’t exactly high security clearance, fluorescent lights and hushed whispers, meetings with government officials, but it was enough. Perhaps better than what he had hoped to get out of the AIRF.
Mark had gone back to school. To Donghyuck’s surprise, he had gotten his bachelor’s degree in poetry. If Donghyuck really thought about it, though, it wasn’t that strange at all. Poetry, denim jackets, scrunched noses and deep laughs, soft strums of the guitar, they all suited Mark much better than violence, than forced cruelty.
Now he was studying music composition. He had once said something about writing music that had a purpose, that made an impact. Perhaps he would someday.
The thing was, Donghyuck had sort of inserted himself into Mark’s life. Neither of them knew how it happened. One day Donghyuck was temporary, waffling on whether to return to his own place or to rent an entirely new one. The next, he was hanging up his jackets in Mark’s closet, storing his leftovers in Mark’s fridge, playing Michael Jackson on Mark’s stereo and moonwalking over Mark’s floor.
Of course, there were still hardships. Mark leaving for days to go on missions that Donghyuck knew nothing about until Mark returned and told him everything he could recall, or 2 a.m nightmares where Donghyuck woke up in a cold sweat, quaking, his own mind terrorizing him with the memory of what he had done. But in any case, one was always there to comfort the other, to distract them with pretty words and gentle touches. And so, Donghyuck began to heal.