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Care

Michael W. Cho writes science fiction and fantasy in Tempe, Arizona, and plays Spanish guitar for his day job. You can catch up with him at michaelwcho.com.
You feel hungry," Care told Makato. The food tray in front of him contained pureed carrots, boiled spinach, and protein cubes. Care had been made with placid eyes, a doll-like nose and mouth, and straight brown hair. Makato looked at the front of his belly, and it grumbled.
Later she wheeled Makato through a corridor with windows opening onto a park. People in tracksuits or hospital gowns, accompanied by those dressed in white like Care, were on the lawn, none of them moving. She let Makato look out the window for a while, but she didn't say anything. They went to a room floored by multi-colored rubber tiles. People in wheelchairs sat at tables with building blocks or other toys on them.
She parked him in front of a white box with shapes cut out of the top. Plastic objects corresponding to the openings lay next to it.
"Would you like to play with this?" said Care.
Makato picked up a red triangular solid and reached toward the circular hole, but when it didn't work, hurled it away. It spun, a blur of red, and struck the bald head of a woman facing in the other direction. She had been playing with action figures, paused, and then resumed without turning around.
"You feel angry," Care told Makato. A fiery sensation ran up from his stomach to his chest.
Makato repeated the word, his voice creaky from lack of use. He rested his hands in his lap and refused to do anything else Care suggested. She took him away from the room, through an elevator and other halls that echoed with the squeak of her rubber shoes, and brought him into the park.
A soft pine breeze brushed his cheek, and the sun made him squint. A red spark lifted up from the horizon like a firework, but didn't dip back down; it rose up until it went so high it disappeared. A man in a blue gown raised a limp hand, the gesture sloppily tracking the spark. The man gulped air and shook in his wheelchair, as if trying to get out.
Care wiped Makato's cheeks with a cloth. "You feel sad," she said.
It was different from the playroom or when he'd looked out on the others from the window. Makato's hand hadn't lifted up to point at the spark, but maybe it had wanted to.
The man in the blue gown wouldn't stop jerking around. On his way out, he and Makato came face to face for a moment. The man was Lieutenant Cowles. His face was skinny, blue eyes bulging, and little blond hairs poked out of his scalp. There was a long scar there.
When Cowles saw Makato, he stopped shaking and just stared. They let the two of them sit there for a minute, and then Cowles was wheeled away.
Care didn't say anything. That evening, she helped Makato get into his bed and tucked in his covers. It wasn't dark quite yet. Zumpt, Pegram, and Kim had also been tucked in.
Kim spoke to himself: "It's caused by the degradation of the catecholamine neurotransmitters caused by the planet's unusual pattern of ionizing radiation. There never was a possibility of determining this via remote probe."
He had been saying this forever--years, or days, or however long Makato had been there. Dr. Kim hadn't known what was happening any more than the rest of them. At first, all mission benchmarks had been achieved. Then, errors began to occur. The Executive Support System had informed them of shortfalls and failures. Eventually, it relieved them of duty. Maybe Kim had started saying the nonsense words back then.
Makato touched his cheeks in the darkness, and they were wet.
Care came to get him the next morning, and she brought him to the cafeteria. A video was playing on one wall, showing the planet called Proxima B. A cross-shaped space station made of three conjoined ships hung above the blue and white jewel. A woman on the video said the new shielding on the suits would protect the astronauts from the injuries the previous crew had sustained. Makato felt the same way he had last night, sad, but not exactly, because it was mixed with something else. He didn't know what it was called.
His food tray had yellow, curdled protein, an off-white porridge, and twelve soft red grapes. Makato looked at Care until a grumble came from his stomach.
"You feel hungry," said Care.
Makato ate. When he was done, it felt different in his stomach, and he rubbed it. Care was smiling at him now, something she rarely did.
"I'm not hungry anymore," said Makato. He knew it was because Care had taught him. He forgot about the food and the space station and looked only at Care. He put his hand over his heart.
"What is this?" he asked, throat dry. Care's eyes were large and liquid.
"You feel love," said Care.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, December 5th, 2018


Feedback on my stories had me thinking that character emotions was a weakness of mine. Shying away from the labor of correcting that, I manufactured the idea of a main character who had no emotions, as a workaround. The image of a damaged space explorer who had lost the ability to identify his feelings came soon after, and then his empathetic caretaker, and then, emotions after all.

- Michael W Cho

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