He opens his eyes and the first thing he sees - the first thing he ever sees - is the great golden globe of Mato receding against the dark blanket of space. He closes his eye, and opens them again.
His name is Junhong, and he is a Zero-G Emotional Load Optimizer class android, model 1015XCVI. ZELO class androids are designed to ensure emotional stability among bio-stasised crew during prolonged intergalactic space travel. Junhong is assigned to the star-faring vessel of Captain Bang Yongguk, on course from Mato (planet 01TU77A#, system 13532) to Earth (planet B12AP224, system 98939).
He knows all this without knowing how he knows it. There is more knowledge in his head than he knows what to do with, lifetimes upon lifetimes of knowledge just submerged beneath the hum of his operating system.
Each ZELO class android comes standard with a 15.3 terabyte practical knowledge database containing the most relevant knowledge packs for his or her particular mission. Additional knowledge packs are available for download upon request.
Ah. His user manual. He reaches out then - he doesn’t know how; he just does it - and touches a fluttering, shimmering stream of information that dwarfs what’s rattling around in his head. If he drew all that in he feels like he would hold the entire universe inside him. There’s so much everything …
*not so fast, little guy*
The voice is booming and everywhere. Junhong sits up (so that’s a body!) and glances around. XCVI model ZELOs come standard with upgraded and more realistic reflexes.
He has a catalog of a thousand, thousand races in his hard drive, and there’s nothing that resembles any of them in this small, sterile room. He’s alone.
“Captain … Captain Bang Yongguk?” He already knows how to talk, but the sound of his own voice startles him.
*nope. try again*
That voice is not like his voice (which is organic in quality, even if he is capable of vocalization at volume and speed that flesh and blood creatures can’t approach). That voice is in his head.
“Are you … You’re the Mato, aren’t you?”
*geeze, they do build them smart these days. correct. i am the master computer of the starship mato. some call me manager kang, but you can call me hyung. we're family, you and i*
Junhong nods. "It's nice to meet you, hyung. I am sure we will be very good friends." His programing tells him that introductions are an important first step in developing emotional intimacy.
*we will, but not if you fry yourself by trying to pull down the entire data web five minutes after you've booted*
Junhong bites his lip. His programing indicates that is an appropriate response to a mild rebuke. There are limits to that dark well in his mind. He can sense them now. He's got plenty of room still - the bits of knowledge in there now bounce around in deep recesses of open space - but there are limits. If he tried to pull down all the information up in the data web … well, it would be like trying to fit an ocean into a thimble.
"I'm sorry, hyung. I won't do it again."
*i know you won't. you're smart, junhong. now, why don't you pull up a schematic of this beautiful ship of mine? you already know where everything is, but it's different to see it with your own two eyes. so they tell me, anyway*
The Mato is unusual for an intergalactic vessel. Junhong thinks so anyway. He has basic information about most of the major classes of starships, and although the Mato isn't as fast as some and isn't as large as some, she's elegant. She's designed to hold a crew of eight, but for this mission she holds only five. Her hallways are paneled in smooth ceramic composite, brightly colored - pink and red and blue and green and yellow and white. The common areas and cabins are well equipped and meet all the standards described in his manual for appropriate quarters for intergalactic travel. There are big windows on the command deck through which you can see thousand and thousands of stars. It's funny. Junhong knows the name and the history of each and every one of those stars, but he still likes to sit there and look.
At the end of one hallway there's a sealed door with a little window that glows with a cool blue light. Behind that door is where the crew sleeps, deep in bio-stasis.
The journey from Mato to Earth is charted for 4.6 standard galactic years, traveling at .6 light speed. That is the equivalent of 437 Earth terrestrial years.
The people of Mato are very long-lived, but even still that is, Junhong gathers, a long time.
For most of that time, the crew will sleep. One at a time, they'll wake and spend .5 galactic years out of stasis. Then they'll return for the duration of the journey. Captain Bang Yongguk will spend two rotations awake: the first and the last. Junhong's entire purpose is to provide sentient-level emotional companionship to the crew during their time awake. It is an important purpose. Good men lost their mind before the introduction of the ZELO class androids.
It's the fourth Earth year after Junhong booted. They've just passed outside the arms of Mato's home galaxy into the colder emptiness of deep space. Sitting in the captain's chair on the command deck, he watches the spiraling arms and brilliant heart of the galaxy shrink into the distance. They are approaching maximum speed now.
He hears something he's never heard before: it's a kind of pinging beep beep that echoes loud.
"Hyung, what is that?"
*hmm, didn't i mention? gukkie is waking up today*
"Gukkie?" Junhong assesses the bio-demo files he has on the crew. "Captain Bang Yongguk." Information about speech patterns indicates that Gukkie is an affectionate diminutive, but not appropriate for a subordinate to use.
*correct, kiddo. gukkie's had enough beauty sleep. the alarm went off*
Junhong doesn't get nervous, but he feels different as his redundant processors come online. This is what he's here for: to be a friend to Captain Bang Yongguk and his crew. His programing is robust and he does not doubt that he will be able to provide them with appropriate companionship, but … but. There's a whole section in the user manual he hasn't accessed titled 'Rejection, Resentment, and Anxiety: Reactive Approaches to Improve the Android-Person Relationship'. That is a section he hopes he’ll never have to access.
Besides, he's curious. He's never seen a real person before.
The door to the hall slides open with a hiss. A man of above average height is standing there. He stretches his arms over his head and says, "Ah, Kang, I see you didn't run us into a black hole while I was out cold. Thank you."
Captain Bang Yongguk walks over to one of the consoles and brings up a star chart with practiced ease. He leans forward to study it, humming something to himself.
Junhong sits very still. It is appropriate to wait for the subject to initiate contact.
*aren't you going to say hello to our new friend?*
"Hmm?" Yongguk looks up. Junhong's facial recognition program is giving him all kinds of information he’s never had any need to know before. Yongguk is surprised - that's what the wide eyes and drawn mouth mean. "Ah. You must be the ZELO." He smiles them, very wide, showing a lot of teeth and gums. The program tells Junhong this is a good indicator of sincerity.
He stands up. "Hello, Captain Bang Yongguk. It is a pleasure to meet you. My name is Junhong. I am a ZELO class android, model 1015XCVI. I am eager to provide you and your crew with realistic emotional companionship. I contain significant functional improvements over the last model of ZELO class android. My mannerism library has been completely updated…"
Yongguk laughs. "Woah," he says. "Slow down there, kiddo." He shakes his head. "Kang, what have you been teaching him?"
*me teach him? what am i going to teach him? i'm just a big brain in a box … he's practically one of you*
Junhong must have done something wrong. He's not sure what. His introduction is word for word from the user guide.
Yongguk turns to him, and holds out a hand. Junhong stares and starts cycling through his mannerism library. Right. Handshaking is a common method of greeting among new and casual acquaintances. He holds out his own hand.
They shake. Yongguk's hand is cool and soft. It doesn't feel that different that Junhong's own, even though he knows his skin is just silicone polymer.
"It's very nice to meet you, Junhong," Yongguk says. "Has Kang ever mentioned something called breathing to you?"
Yongguk hyung (Captain Bang Yongguk is too stuffy, he says) would be the nicest person that Junhong ever met even if he had met more than one person. He's very smart, and a very good captain, and Junhong is not the first ZELO he's known.
"You're doing really well," he says. "Breathing when you talk … how would you have known that? Everyone needs a little practice."
They're in the common room. Yongguk hyung has finished exercising (he explains that people don't come with titanium fiber muscles: they have to move theirs to make them strong) and he is relaxing now.
"I know," Junhong says. "I'm sure it says it somewhere in the manual. I should have seen it."
Yongguk shrugs. "Being a person is really hard, Junhong. Believe me. I've been doing it a while now, and I’m still not that great at it.”
Junhong doesn’t know how that could be true. He’s got copious information about physical and psychological illnesses, and Yongguk does not demonstrate any concerning symptoms. He seems to be doing a very good job at being a person.
“You seem like you’re in very good health, hyung,” Junhong says. This is a compliment. The user manual says that people like compliments.
Yongguk’s smile is reserved, though.
Junhong frowns. “I’m sorry. Was the wrong thing to say?”
Yongguk shakes his head. “No, Junhong. It was fine. A bit odd, but fine. Thank you.”
Junhong stares at his lap. He isn’t meant to be a bit odd. He does not want the crew to feel stress because his interactions do not conform with their expectations. But still, Yongguk is the captain, and he said it was fine.
“I think interacting with people must be much harder than interacting with something like me or Kang hyung,” he says.
Yongguk puts his hand on Junhong’s hand. “You’re a person too, you know. Just a different kind, is all.”
Junhong smiles. He knows that’s not true, but it’s okay if Yongguk hyung wants to believe it.
Junhong learns so many things from Yongguk.
He learns about the operation of the Mato. Kang hyung represents the pinnacle of sophistication, and he is capable of processing amounts of data that make Junhong’s CPU get hot at even the thought but there are still a lot of things he cannot do on his own.
*hands, kiddo. there’s a whole universe of things that having a body makes possible. i’m just sitting here in a matrix of wires and chips. you can get out there and touch things*
Junhong stares down at his hands. His programing allows him to take his humanoid physiology for granted, but when he focuses on them he can sense how much he’s capable of doing with them. He can pick huge things and tiny things up and move them around without thinking about it The circuits embedded in his skin transmit information about heat and texture. He is strong enough to compress compress most light metals, but he can also regulate his strength to be gentle enough to hold Yongguk’s hand in his own.
Yongguk claps him on the shoulder. “They’re pretty amazing, aren’t they? Now let me show you what you’re going to do with those hands.”
Junhong is glad he has hands help shift the algae trays that help recycle air for the crew, but if he is perfectly honest he is not very fond of the task. The algae has a smell he does not like.
Yongguk also tells him about the mission.
“When the first Euak birds died, nobody thought it was anything out of the ordinary.” He looks down as he speaks, and his tone is low. Junhong understands this means that this topic is painful or unpleasant for him. “But then more died,and nobody could figure out why. They started rationing power. The smaller villages went dark completely.”
Junhong nods, although he doesn’t really know what Yongguk hyung means.
“The ViceRoy ordered teams be put together - scientists and warriors, space ship captains and people who had worked to care for the Euak. Some were sent out into the galaxy to explore planets with known inhabitants, to see if other sources of fuel could be found. Some are still on Mato, working to breed and preserve the Euak." He shakes his head. "They were when we left, anyway."
"You've been gone a long time," Junhong says. His comforting program is designed to work based on response; Yongguk has not needed any comforting, so he does not have any data as to whether this approach will be successful. "You must miss your home and your family very much, but I know they're proud of you for doing this for your people."
Yongguk smiles at him, and shakes his head. "My family is right here," he says, slapping one of the consoles.
*watch it, gukkie*
"Hyung, I'm sorry." He pats the spot he slapped.
Junhong nods. None of his information about common family structures on Mato planet account for kinship with a starship. "Is it usual to have a machine in your family?"
Yongguk grins. "No, but nothing we do is usual. I've been together with Kang and most of the crew for a long time, so even though they're not my family by blood, Junhong, they're my family by choice."
Junhong hadn't known families could work that way.
He wonders if anyone will ever choose him to be in their family.
Yongguk hyung also teaches him about sleep.
That happens early on, actually.
They are sitting in the common area. Yongguk is eating his rations, slowly. Music is playing. Yongguk likes to listen to music, and the user manual recommends it as a means of relaxation and pleasure. Junhong is programed to be skilled in a variety of means of musicality, in fact.
Yongguk pushes his plate away from him and leans back. He closes his eyes and opens his mouth and makes a curious sound.
A yawn, the mannerism library tells him. That means Yongguk is tired.
"You're tired," Junhong says. "You should rest."
Yongguk nods. "You're right," he says. "Thank you, Junhong."
He puts his unfinished food in the recycling unit, and presses the panel next to one of the doors Junhong hasn't opened. He cannot enter the crews' cabins without explicit invitation.
He does not get up from the table.
Yongguk pauses in the doorway and looks back over his shoulder.
"Are you going to stay out here?"
Junhong does not have an appropriate response to that question. "Where would you like me to go, Yongguk hyung?"
Yongguk grins then, his big gummy smile. "I'm sorry, Junhong. I forget how young you are, sometimes. We're not fully staffed. There are extra cabins, and you can have one, if you'd like."
Junhong has not had many things. He has clothes - the user manual recommends remaining clothed so as not to highlight certain anatomical differences between the ZELO class android and a flesh and blood person. He's never had anything else.
"I would like that," he says. Since Yongguk made the offer, it would be rude not to accept.
And … Junhong would like it. He thinks.
He gets up and walks to the doorway. Yongguk lets him pass first. Five of the doors are shut, and three are open. Yongguk pauses at the first open door. "This is your cabin, okay? None of us will come in if you don't want us to."
Junhong nods. He looks inside. The room is no more than four meters by four meters square. There is a storage vessel with several compartments against some wall, and some shelves on another. Against the far wall is a pallet covered in cloth.
"Hyung," Junhong asks. "What is that for?"
Yongguk puts his hand on Junhong's shoulder again. "That's a bed."
"Oooh." Junhong has references for a bed, but things on the starship don't look like things on Mato did. Sometimes it's hard to know what he's seeing. "A bed. Am I supposed to sleep there?"
Yongguk nods. "Do you know how to sleep, Junhong?"
Junhong shakes his head. He knows what the user manual says, but he hasn't done it yet. It sounds so strange - just turn himself off? Where would he go? What if he didn't come back?
"It's good," Yongguk says. "I need to do sleep. I think you'd like it too."
Junhong nods. Okay. Yongguk wants him to sleep. "Should I do it now?"
"You can do it now," Yongguk says. Junhong is relieved. He knows what to do when it comes to the people he cares for but he doesn't know what he should be doing for himself. He's an android. He doesn't really need to do things for himself.
He steps into the room, and sits down on the bed. It's not too soft, but it has some give. The cloth coverings are soft. Blankets. That's what they are. Blankets, and a pillow.
"Is this right?" He knows it's not - he hasn't executed the sleep program, but it's scary.
Yongguk shakes his head. "Can I help you?"
Junhong nods. Yongguk steps into the room. He motions for Junhong to stand up, and then he pulls the blankets back. "Now, lie down."
Junhong lies. He hasn't spent very much time horizontally reclined since he booted. It's odd, but not unpleasant. The pillow cradles his head.
Yongguk nods. "That's how I sleep," he says. "I don't know if it's the most comfortable way for you to do it, but it works for me."
Junhong stares up at the white ceiling. Little lights flicker on and off in an aesthetically pleasing way. "If I go to sleep," he says, "how will I know when I wake back up?"
Yongguk smiles at him. "You'll open your eyes, and you'll be here again."
"Ah," Junhong says. He stares. The lights blink. Yongguk steps towards the doorway. "Hyung. Do you think you could stay here while I go to sleep? To make sure I don't go anywhere?"
Yongguk grins. "I can stay," he says, and he sits down on the floor at the side of the bed. He reaches up and takes Junhong's hand in his. "I have your hand. You're not going to go anywhere."
"Thank you hyung. I'm going to go to sleep now." He executes the sleep program. There are a few seconds where he feels things slowing down: programs closing, whirring fans inside his body stopping. The tactile sensors remain on. Yongguk's hand is still in his. The program finishes. Then, nothing.
He wakes up six hours later. His eyes open. He's back.
"Oh," he says out loud. "That's sleep."
He notices … hmm, Yongguk's hand is still in his. He turns his head. Yongguk is still on the floor, but his head is resting on the bed. He is sleeping too. He must be: his eyes are closed and his pulse and respiration rate are very slow.
Junhong smiles. He does not need more sleep right now, but he does not want to disturb Yongguk, so he stays in the bed - not thinking about anything or reviewing the user manual, just lying there, feeling strangely content.
They spend a long time together, although it doesn’t seem so long - not for Junhong, who only knows the passing of time as changing numbers on a clock, and he thinks not for Yongguk, either. They spend a long time together, but it is an even longer journey, and one day, Yongguk’s time is up.
*tomorrow’s the big day. you ready, gukkie*
“What is tomorrow?” Junhong frowns. It is the 429th standard galactic day since they departed Mato.
*gukkie’s going under*
Yongguk nods. “My rotation is over tomorrow, Junhong.”
Junhong understands. “You’re going back into stasis.”
“For a while, yes.”
He goes into his cabin while Yongguk is exercising. He doesn’t go to sleep, but he stays there, alone, for a while.
When it’s time, he follows Yongguk to the doorway of the stasis chamber.
Yongguk smiles. “It’s gonna be a long time before you see me again. Don’t let the other guys mess with you too much, okay?”
Junhong’s eyes widen in a realistic expression of alarm. “Are they going to reprogram me? It is not advisable to perform any modifications to …”
“No, no,” Yongguk says. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way, Junhong.”
The red light over the door blinks.
“I’m going to miss you, Junhong.”
Junhong does not fully understand his usage of the word ‘miss’ in that context.
“I’m going to miss you too, hyung.” He knows that it’s the right thing to say in this context.
It’s not a lie. He just doesn’t understand.
Yongguk grins and waves once, and the door slides shut behind him.
"Wow. You really are an upgrade!"
Junhong isn’t capable of being startled, but it has been a while now since Yongguk hyung went to sleep and he wasn't expecting anyone.
He looks up. This person is nearly the same height as Yongguk hyung, but he has longer, darker hair, and sharper features.
Junhong stands. "Hello Commander Kim Himchan. It is a pleasure to meet you." Pause, as though for breath. "My name is Junhong. I am a ZELO class android, model 1015XCVI. I am eager to -"
"I don't need to know all of that," Himchan says, waving a hand. He is regarding Junhong critically. Junhong wonders if he has done something to offend. "You're really top of the line, huh, Junhonggie?"
Junhong nods. "Yes, Commander Kim Himchan. The model 1015XCVI represents a significant leap forward in terms of emotional apprehension functionality. My mannerism library contains …"
Himchan shakes his head. "No, no," he says. "I don't care about that stuff - you'll have to wait for Youngjae to wake up - but they really made you pretty cute, kid."
*someone's jealous, eh?*
"I was wondering why it was so quiet around here." Himchan waves in the general direction of one of Kang's sensors. "I missed you, hyung."
*i missed you too, you terror. go easy on the new guy, okay? he's a baby*
"Cute?" Junhong frowns. Yongguk hyung never commented on his outward appearance. "I'm cute."
"You are adorable, kid."
"Is that good?" Junhong doesn't have any information available about his own appearance, other than that he was designed to be soothing and easily approachable in both personality and physicality.
"Of course it's a good thing!" Himchan looks scandalized. "What did Bbang teach you, anyway?"
There's a mirror in Junhong's room he's never really bothered to look at before. He's caught glimpses of himself, sure, but the only person he ever saw was Yongguk hyung - what did it matter how he looked?
He looks after Himchan hyung wakes up. He looks, because Himchan hyung calls him cute and tells him he's lucky to have such perfect skin, and that his nose should win an award.
Luck has nothing to do with it, really. He was designed.
The face in the mirror is just a face, anyway. Two eyes, a nose, a mouth. He looks like a person, of course. Not that much like Yongguk hyung, and not that much like Himchan hyung either. He realizes people look very, very different. His nose is rounder than Himchan's, and his eyes are bigger, and there's a softness to his jaw and his cheeks that his own facial recognition software tells him is an indication of late adolescence.
He doesn't know if he's cute. He doesn't have parameters to evaluate cute. It's not an emotion.
But Himchan seems to like it. And if Junhong being cute makes Himchan happy, well, he supposes it's a good thing.
He's glad he's cute, if that's the case.
Himchan hyung is very different than Yongguk hyung. Yongguk hyung was fine with Junhong sitting quietly and asking questions. Himchan hyung wants a lot more than that. The user manual says that many people find physical contact to be comforting and relaxing. Junhong finally realizes what that means.
Himchan hyung likes to put a hand on his shoulder when they're standing on the command deck looking out at some glimmering distant nebula. He likes to put his arm around Junhong's shoulder when they're both waiting for his rations to heat up. He likes to pinch Junhong's cheeks. He likes that especially.
He shows Junhong what the big screen in the common area is for. He presses some buttons on one of the wall panels and it starts to glow, and soon a menu appears.
"Wow," Junhong said. "I thought maybe that was just some kind of decoration."
Himchan shakes his head, disgusted and amazed. "Are you telling me Bbang spent half a galactic year with you and you didn't even watch one movie?"
Junhong shakes his head. "Yongguk hyung had a lot of work to do …"
Himchan rolls his eyes. "Oh, please. We've got more time than we know what to do with. He could have shown you a movie or two. Poor Junhonggie. You've had a deprived childhood!" He pats the couch right beside where he's sitting.
Junhong sits down.
Himchan sighs. "No, not like that. I swear, you're as stiff as Yongguk. Loosen up."
He shakes his arms and moves his head from side to side.
Junhong is quite glad all of his extremities are fastened on tightly. Still, he mimics Himchan's actions.
Himchan bursts out laughing. "That's not it, kid."
"I'm sorry, hyung."
"Don't apologize, just …" Himchan takes him by the hand and pulls him closer. "Look, sit back against the cushions. There you go. And why don't you cross your legs kind of … Right!"
He sits down too, and puts one arm over Junhong's shoulder. With his free hand he hits play the control panel. The images on the screen on the wall start to move.
This pose is not in Junhong's mannerism library.
"Hyung," he asks. "What do you call what we're doing right now?"
Himchan looks downright giddy. "Cuddling, Junhonggie. We're cuddling."
"Ah." Text scrolls across the screen, and a man appears. "Hyung, what does cuddling mean?"
Himchan tilts his head, thoughtful. "Cuddling is when the world seems really awful and bad, and you just want to be close to someone you care about to remind yourself that it's not all emptiness and badness." He squeezes Junhong.
Junhong is designed to facilitate emotions attachment; still, it seems rather soon for Himchan to care about him. It must not be a bad thing, though. "Hyung, you make emotional attachments very quickly. Thank you for caring about me."
Himchan laughs and "In other words, I’m a pushover? Wow, you really are Bbang’s kid.” He reaches down to lace his fingers through Junhong's. “But hey, you're one of us. You know that, right?"
Junhong nods. He knows, anyway, that Himchan hyung and Yongguk hyung both have gone out of their way to make him feel welcome. He did not have any expectations that they would.
Himchan presses another button on the control panel and the lights dim. The images on the screen flicker bright and fast. There's sound too - representative of the images speaking. Junhong understands motion picture in theory, but he hasn't experienced it before. His sensors are very sophisticated, though. He knows the images on the screen are only depictions, of course.
Himchan hyung shifts, and Junhong wonders if that's a signal for him to stop cuddling. Their fingers are still laced though. He isn't quite sure what would be appropriate in a situation like this. The mannerism library presents several possible options. No, a scalp massage would just be distracting. Ah, that seems right, Junhong thinks.
He leans his head on Himchan's shoulder. He waits for a long moment, for a sign that he's done something wrong, that this wasn't the right option.
But Himchan only cuddles him closer.
“See, she’s in love with him, but his twin brother was engaged to her sister, and now that the sister died the brother wants to marry her.” Himchan shakes his head. “She better not marry him though. They couldn’t make it any more obvious he’s the evil twin if it started thundering and lightening every time he appeared on screen.”
Junhong nods. Himchan really likes movies, so cuddling on the couch has become a regular pastime. With practice, his cuddling skills have improved greatly. He smiles and holds Himchan’s arm closer to his chest.
“The objective of marriage is to cement a romantic bond and perpetuate the nuclear family unit for purposes of financial, emotional, and reproductive stability,” Junhong says. “But hyung, why would that man want to get married? He has a lot of money, and I don’t think he likes children very much.”
Himchan makes that exasperated snorting noise of his. “That’s what they told you marriage was about, Junhong? I’m gonna write a letter of the complaint to the company when we get off this tin can.”
*hey, watch it*
“Oh, hyung, you know I’m just kidding. You’re the only tin can for me.”
*i love you too, kim himchan*
Kang hyung makes a loud squealing noise that Junhong surmises is supposed to represent a kiss. His vocalization capabilities are really impressive.
“Anyway, Junhong, marriage is about all that dry cardboard stuff you mentioned, I guess, but really, at the heart of it, it’s about love.” Himchan’s gaze is soft now. “It’s about loving someone so much you want to do something crazy, like spend the rest of your life with them.” He sighs, and then adds in a softer voice, “Or travel to some backwater planet on the other side of the universe to be with them.”
Junhong nods. He knows about love. Love is a profoundly tender expression for another person; a feeling of warm person affection and deep attachment; sexual passion or desire.
He knows, but he doesn’t understand. Even Kang hyung understands, but he does not.
“How do you know when you have love for someone, hyung?”
Himchan watches him for a moment without answering, his eyes narrow. “When you love someone,” he says, “you just know.”
“That sounds very poetic, hyung,” Junhong says.
Himchan shakes his head. “I’m not the poet, Junhong.”
Himchan likes to talk, usually, but he doesn’t say anything else. He presses closer to Junhong, and stares at the floor in front of the couch with a distracted, half-lidded expression. Junhong does not think he is paying attention any more.
On the screen, the evil twin is on his knee making an offering to the sister of his dead fiancé. Junhong understands relationship terms, but this movie has twisted everything up so much he’s needed to start a chart. Love. The evil twin wants to marry her, because love. Junhong looks for clues in the way the man moves, in the words he says, but the only clue he sees is in the way the he looks at her, like she’s the only and most beautiful thing in his world.
Love. Huh. He doesn’t get it.
They are in the common area and Junhong's head is resting on Himchan's thigh. Himchan's fingers card through his hair. The sensation is pleasurable, and Himchan seems to enjoy it a lot. Himchan has been telling Junhong stories. Tomorrow his rotation is over and he is going to back to sleep. He saved the best story for last.
"So Bbang and I were isolated deep in enemy territory," Himchan says. "I don't want to say it's his fault, but I wasn't the one that insisted we had to go make sure the people in the village got out before the Mato army got there." He shakes his head.
"You and Yongguk hyung have known each other a long time," Junhong says. It's funny to think that Himchan hyung and Yongguk hyung have known each other so long, and in so many different places, and all Junhong has ever known is the Mato. Well, the only thing he's known first hand, anyway. He knows a lot.
"A very long time," Himchan says. "Don't know why I've stuck around so long. We met when I tried out for his mission team - he hated me at first."
Junhong frowns. "I didn't think Yongguk hyung was capable of hating things. I have never seen him express displeasure."
Himchan snorts. "Oh, don't let him fool you, Junhonggie. He gets as mad as as anyone else. He's good at hiding it now, but he wasn't so good back then."
"Maybe I'm defective," Junhong says, "and I just can't detect his displeasure. Recognizing emotions and responding appropriately is a main part of my purpose."
Himchan's fingers stop moving. His thumb is resting on Junhong's cheekbone. "Don't say that, Junhong. You're not defective. Bbang is just a weirdo.You're great." The light pressure of his fingertips against Junhong's skin is making Junhong feels something he thinks is called ticklish. "Don't ever call yourself defective."
"I won't hyung," Junhong says. He doesn't understand why Himchan sounds so serious. "Thank you."
Himchan is silent for a moment before he continues. "So Bbang and I were in this wreck of a village, which, of course, had already been evacuated way before we finally got there. We knew the Mato troops were coming and the enemy troops were pretty badly beaten, so we figured we'd just hide out in one of the houses until our guys arrived."
Junhong nods against Himchan's thigh. It's not as soft as Junhong's pillow, but it's not uncomfortable or anything.
"So we're sitting in this little hut when all of a sudden on Bbang's comm unit we get a broadcast that there's one detachment of enemy troops headed towards coordinates that are basically right on top of us."
"Oh wow," Junhong says. He's gotten a lot better at interjections since he started listening to Himchan hyung's stories.
"Mmm," Himchan says. "So of course we figure we better get out of there and find somewhere else to hide. And that would have been fine, except someone stepped in a ditch and twisted his ankle."
"Yongguk," Himchan says.
"Oh," Junhong says. "Right."
"Anyway, we could see the transports carrying the enemy troops approaching - this planet was the biggest, driest, flattest patch of nothing anywhere in the universe. They were a few kilometers away but they were coming fast. Bbang, being the big self-sacrificing idiot he is, tried to get me to leave him there."
"Oh wow," Junhong says. "Did you leave him?"
Himchan snorts. "No, of course not. I carried his heavy ass all the way back to the line." He shakes his head. "They tried to give me a commendation for that. I told them I didn't want it; I just wanted Bbang to be okay."
"You're really brave, hyung."
Himchan moves his hand so it's resting on Junhong's side. Cuddling is nice, Junhong thinks. It always seems to make Himchan feel better, and it makes Junhong feel good too. He will need to observe how the rest of the crew react during their rotations.
"I'm not brave," Himchan says after a while. "I'm actually a coward. I was so scared at the thought of being without Bbang that I did something crazy and reckless. We could have both ended up dead."
Junhong rolls over onto his back so that he can watch Himchan's face. It's not the best angle for seeing his expression, but he can see that Himchan's gaze is soft and half lidded, and the tension that usually animates his face is absent. He doesn't look happy or sad, but thoughtful.
"Oh," Junhong says. He gets it. "You're in love with Yongguk hyung."
Himchan nods. "Pretty stupid of me, huh?"
Junhong doesn't know.
Himchan sighs. "You should go to bed, Junhonggie."
Junhong sits up, and nods. He doesn't really have to go to bed, of course, but he knows Himchan hyung likes this. "Okay."
Himchan walks him to his cabin and turns down the covers on his bed. Junhong realized a while ago that it made Himchan hyung feel really good to take care of someone, even Junhong, who is designed not to need much taking care of. Junhong gets into bed.
"Goodnight, hyung," he says.
"Goodnight, Junhonggie," Himchan says. He leans forward and presses his lips to Junhong's forehead. A kiss. "I love you."
"I love you too, hyung," Junhong says. Himchan's dopey smile lets him know that's the right thing to have said, even if Junhong still doesn't know exactly what it means. He's not lying; he's just not sure. "I'm going to sleep now."
"I know," Himchan says, smiling.
Junhong goes to sleep. When he wakes up, Himchan is back in bio-stasis and he is alone again.
Daehyun is different than both Yongguk and Himchan. It's really interesting. Junhong wonders if every person he ever meets will be different again from the last.
It hasn't been long since Himchan hyung went to sleep when Daehyun wakes up. He yawns as he emerges on the command deck, and before Junhong can even introduce himself he says, "Kang hyung, I'm starving. Please tell me there's something other than rations."
*i don't think gukkie or channie touched the supplies, daehyun. everything should still be there*
Daehyun lets out a long sigh. "Good. I was so worried I'd have to eat grey mush for the next half year."
Junhong stands. He knows this isn't the best moment to interject, but his programing makes it imperative that he introduce himself and establish his make and purpose as soon as possible after meeting a new person. "Hello Jung Daehyun. It is a pleasure to meet you. I am Junhong. I'm a ZELO class android, model 1015XCVI, and I'm …"
"Junhong, hmm?" Daehyun eyes him. "Do you know how to cook?"
"Cook?" Junhong shakes his head. "Do you mean prepare rations? I have observed Yongguk hyung and Himchan hyung doing it, but …"
Daehyun's eyes go wide. "Are you telling me you've just eaten mush the whole time? They didn't even make you anything good?"
Junhong shakes his head again. "I don’t need to ingest organic material to provide energy for myself while I'm inside the ship's power field."
Daehyun looks scandalized. "You've never eaten anything? You poor, poor kid." His eyes narrow and his mouth takes on a determined set. "I'm going to make you a birthday cake, Junhong." He pauses, then he adds, "After I get something to eat."
They don't end up making the cake until a few days later.
A quick perusal of the user manual while Daehyun prepares and eats something called pizza reveals to Junhong that not only can he ingest organic material if needed, but in fact sharing a meal is a very important way of cementing an affectionate bond.
When Junhong asks Daehyun why Himchan and Yongguk hadn't mentioned this, Daehyun snorts. "Please, Yongguk hyung would eat cardboard if someone told him to, and Himchan was probably worried about the bio-stasis messing with his metabolism or something."
Junhong actually has a whole knowledge pack he's never accessed full of recipe and information about food customs. The ship has one too, and Daehyun has the recipe for yellow cake pulled up on the control panel.
Junhong isn't sure why, because he doesn't seem that intent on following it.
"Hyung, the instructions say you're supposed to combine the dry ingredients in a separate bowl."
Daehyun waves him off. "That's a waste of time. Don't worry, Junhong," he says. "Get me two eggs."
The eggs don't look like the ovoid things that Junhong's knowledge bank suggests they should; they're little hermetically sealed cubes you open by pulling a tab. Daehyun opens them up and dumps them in the bowl.
"Hyung, the instructions say to add them one at a time …"
"It'll be fine, Junhong." Daehyun stirs vigorously. "Trust me."
In the end, the batter is kind of lumpy and more grey than yellow.
Daehyun frowns. "These space-packed ingredients are never any good."
"I'm sorry, hyung," Junhong says.
Daehyun sighs. "It's fine. I knew what I was in for when I signed up for this. Junhong, how long does it say it needs to bake for?"
While the cake bakes, they make frosting. Daehyun dumps a bunch of white powder and some yellow solid in the blender, and presses a button. It makes a terribly loud noise, but when it's done spinning Junhong is surprised to see it's combined into a pleasant-looking cream. Daehyun dips his finger into the cream, and brings it to his mouth. His eyes close and he smiles. It must taste good, Junhong realizes.
"You try," Daehyun says.
Junhong hasn't eaten anything before. He's not nervous; he understands the mechanics and the user manual is very clear that he is designed with a capacity for digestion. Still. He doesn't really understand this taste thing.
He dabs a little of the cream on the tip of his finger, and stares at it.
"It's not going to poison you or anything," Daehyun says, a little impatient.
Junhong puts the tip of his finger in his mouth.
Daehyun grins. "Your face is amazing. Kang hyung, take a picture of him."
*got it. he does have a pretty funny face. almost as funny as yours, daehyunnie*
"Is this taste?" Junhong asks. "Do all thing taste like this?"
Daehyun shakes his head. "No, no. This is frosting, so it tastes sweet. Different food tastes differently, Junhong. Only those mushy rations taste the same."
Junhong can't describe what sweet tastes like, but it's good. He likes it. "Yongguk hyung and Himchan hyung must have been really sad."
Daehyun bursts out laughing. He laughs so hard that tears run out of the corners of his eyes and he has to grab onto the counter to hold himself up.
Junhong wonders if this is concerning behavior. "Are you okay, hyung?"
Daehyun wipes his eyes on the back of his hand. "I'm fine Junhong. It's just funny that you're already so much smarter than those two hyungs."
Junhong frowns. "Well, I do come with 15.3 terabytes of knowledge, you know." He is a very advanced model.
Daehyun bursts out laughing. Junhong isn't sure what's funny about that at all.
When they take the cake out of the oven it's a pretty golden brown, and it smells good. Junhong is acquainted with smell, but mostly the Mato just smells like sterile recycled air. The cake smells rich and good. He understands why cooking might make a person feel better.
Daehyun takes it out of the pan, and covers it with the frosting. "Okay, I'll do the rest, Junhong. You go in the common area or something."
Junhong sits in the common area and watches the next episode of the drama Himchan got him started on. The dramas provide excellent exposure to an entire range of emotions. He only keeps watching them because they're educational.
Just as the heiress's lover is about to admit that she's actually the daughter of her childhood nanny, the lights dim. Junhong looks up; he can see quite well even in very low light.
Daehyun comes in from the kitchen with the cake. Junhong jumps up.
"Hyung, why is it on fire?"
Daehyun rolls his eyes. "It's not on fire. They're candles, Junhong. I was lucky Youngjae thought to pack them - of course with those stupid checklists of his I'm not sure it would have been possible to forget anything."
He puts the cake on the table. "Now sit down."
Junhong sits down, and Daehyun starts to sing.
Yongguk hyung and Himchan hyung listened to music, and he's heard more in the films and dramas he's been watching. He's heard enough to realize that Daehyun is a very talented singer.
When the song is over, Junhong claps.
Daehyun shakes his head. "You're supposed to blow out the candles."
"Oh," Junhong says. This is a very odd ritual. He exhales towards the cake .. and the flames do go out. Some of the wax has dripped down on the frosting, and he can see now that Daehyun has written on the cake in some kind of blue coloring 'Happy Birthday Junhong'.
Daehyun claps and shouts. "Congratulations!"
Junhong grins - his involuntary reactions have gotten a lot better. "Thank you, hyung. Um. What did I do?"
Daehyun makes a disgusted noise. "It's your birthday today. Well - I figured we could celebrate it, anyway, since you weren't really born exactly. But everyone deserves a day where they get cake, Junhong." His tone is serious.
Junhong understands what it means to be born - he knows all about reproduction, even if it's not something he has any reason to be particularly concerned with. He's also aware of the various rites and rituals surrounding birthdays. On Mato, for example, people are given a second name when they turn 500 and are directed to one or another guild for further occupational training.
None of the rituals Junhong has information on mention cake, but he remembers how nice the frosting tasted. It can't be a bad thing.
Daehyun is watching him. "You can pick another day, if you want," he says. "I didn't mean to act like I was just appointing this your birthday. I just thought it would be nice for you to have something special, and cake's about as good a present you're going to get until we get to Earth." He pauses. "Cake is always pretty good to get, though."
Junhong thinks about the day he booted, when he woke up alone and knowing very little. He thinks of the even longer ago day when he passed inspection at the manufacturing plant - that information is there, buried deep, in case he ever needs to be repaired or … exchanged.
He doesn't like to think about those things, really.
"No," he says. "This day is great, Daehyun hyung. Thank you so much for the present. Nobody's ever given me a birthday before."
Daehyun gets bashful. "It was nothing," he says, cutting the cake. "Here, first slice is yours."
Junhong picks up the fork and takes a bite. "Cake is really good," he says.
Daehyun nods vigorously. "I knew you were a smart kid," he says, mouth full.
Sometimes, Daehyun gets sad. Sad is new for Junhong, but he understands it better than other emotion. Sad is when Yongguk hyung went to sleep and he was alone. Sad is thinking about how Himchan hyung used to cuddle with him and wondering if they'll ever get to do that again.
Junhong does not know why Daehyun is sad, but he knows he should try to make him feel better.
"Do you want to watch a movie, hyung?" Junhong asks. "There's a really good one Himchan hyung showed me about a princess and a mirror and these …"
"No," Daehyun says. "That's okay, Junhong."
He's started wearing a lightweight respiratory mask ,and it makes his voice sound muffled and strange. He doesn't say anything else, just stares out at the black nothingness of deep space.
Junhong does not like not being able to make Daehyun happy. That's the whole reason he's here - to keep the crew from being too lonely on this long, long journey. There is only limited information about Daehyun in the crew files. He'd only joined six months before they left Mato, and much of his past information has been redacted. Junhong thinks he could get past Kang hyung's encryption and access an unredacted version, but it would be very embarrassing if he gcaught. Besides, it isn't fair to Daehyun if he does something sneaky.
Instead, he decides to bake cookies.
It's so strange though; Junhong is sure he follows the instructions step by step, but something about his cookies is off. They're flat and kind of crumbly, and although the taste good they don't look anything like the ones in the picture do.
"Junhong, what are you doing? I smelled something burning …" Daehyun's mouth waivers like he's trying not to laugh. "Junhong, you have flour everywhere."
Okay, maybe Junhong did not clean up as he went along. And maybe it was harder to pour the flour into the bowl than he thought it would be.
"Hyung, it's not that funny. It was hard to pour.” He sighs, and pushes the tray of crumbly cookies forward. "I made you cookies, but they're broken."
Daehyun picks one up and puts the whole thing in his mouth. He chews and then says, "They're great, Junhong. Thank you."
Junhong thinks that Daehyun is just being kind, but he does look a little bit happier. "You're welcome," he says, pleased. "I noticed you were feeling sad. I hope the cookies make you happier."
Daehyun swallows. "I'm fine, Junhong. That was really nice of you, but I'm fine."
"But hyung, you've been spending a lot of time alone, and your appetite has been bad. Those are symptoms of …"
Daehyun shakes his head. "I'm not scared," he says. "I'm just worried."
Junhong nods. He understands worrying, too. "What are you worried about?"
Daehyun shrugs. "I don't know. Nothing really. I'm just nervous for when we make landfall … Yongguk hyung and Himchan hyung, they're real pros, you know? They've both been doing this for a long time, and they're really good. And Youngjae and Jongup have been working with them for a long time. I'm just … I don't come from that kind of background, and I haven’t known these guys very long."
Junhong nods again. "It’s hard feeling like you don’t belong," he says. He understands that.
Daehyun nods. “I mean, I know I’m good at what I do, but there’s a lot of stuff I’m not good at.” He purses his lips. “I don’t want to be the one to bring the team down.”
Junhong nods. He knows what Daehyun means. He too worries that he isn’t good enough at the task he’s been assigned. “You’re a really nice person. You gave me a birthday, and nobody’s ever given me anything like that before,” he says. “I think you just have to try your best.”
He nods again. That sounds right.
Daehyun is look at him with a bemused expression. Junhong does not think his speech was humorous; he was going for sincere. He doesn't know what else to say. "Um, do you want another cookie?"
Daehyun bursts out laughing, and takes it. "Of course I do." He takes two, actually. With his free hand, he ruffles Junhong's hair. "You're a really good kid, Junhong. Thank you."
"You're welcome, hyung," Junhong says. He's a bit puzzled. He knows his advice was not very good, but Daehyun seems much happier, which doesn’t make sense.
In the long run, though, if Daehyun’s happier that's the only part that matters.
It's not as sad when Daehyun's rotation is over and he has to go back to bio-stasis. Not because Junhong doesn't like Daehyun - he does, very much. But he's starting to understand his purpose better. Daehyun will go to sleep, and someone else will wake up, and Junhong will make a new friend, and then the whole thing will happen all over again.
Daehyun's return to stasis also marks the halfway point of the journey. Kang hyung celebrates it by battling Junhong in a game of holographic ping pong - which he is very good at despite not actually being corporeal. Junhong has to use the clumsy electronic paddle. Kang just manipulates the hologram. Of course he wins.
"That's not fair." Junhong frowns. "You know exactly where it's going to go, and you don't have to move to get to it. It's not fair."
*i know that, junhong-ah. why do you think I wanted to play this game? give me some credit*
The halfway point also means Junhong starts thinking about the end of their journey, rather than remembering the beginning. He isn’t configured to operate outside of the Mato’s power field. He doesn't know what will happen to him when they finally reach Earth, although the user manual suggests that ZELO class androids can be powered down and stored safely for several dozen standard galactic years without any deterioration.
Junhong does not want to think about that long sleep. It scares him.
"Oh wow, you're great. You must be the ZELO, right?"
Junhong has been beaten to his introduction, this time. "Hello Yoo Youngjae. I am Junhong. I am a ZELO class android, model XCVI1015."
"Yongguk hyung really went top of the line," Youngjae says.
Pleased, Junhong continues. "I represent significant functional improvements over the last model of ZELO class android. My mannerism library have been completely redesigned to allow for significantly more realism. My adaptive and enrichment capabilities are substantial, and I can …"
"Cool," Youngjae says. "Do you like to play Star Craft?"
Junhong really likes Youngjae hyung. Of course he has liked all of the crew so far, so it's not surprising. Youngjae likes to hug Junhong and throw his arm around Junhong's shoulder, although he doesn't like to cuddle quite as much as Himchan hyung does. He enjoys playing video games, and teaches Junhong quite a bit. Junhong knows what a MMORPG is, now - even though they're so far out that they can't connect to the data web to actually play one. Youngjae is also very smart. He is the ship's technology officer, after all.
*no, not that one, kid. be careful. do you want me to run us into a black hole? you almost disabled all the external sensors*
Youngjae is under one of the consoles on the command deck. Kang hyung suspects there's been a short; Youngjae is investigating it.
"I know, I know," Youngjae says, muffled. "I wasn't going to do anything with that one, hyung. What about …"
*no! not that one!*
Youngjae laughs. "I know, hyung. You are too easy to mess with."
Youngjae fixes the short and helps debug one of the lighting subroutines (although Junhong never minded that the lights in that one hallway flickered purple and green and blue - it was pretty). They pass near a settled system and hook back into the data web. Youngjae downloads and installs some updates for Kang hyung. He listens to a message from the Viceroy of Mato (the situation has not worsened significantly, but it has not improved; the people of Mato are still counting on them) and sends a brief response.
Then, just before they're out of range again, he asks, "What about you, Junhong? Any updates you need installed?"
Junhong frowns. Of course he knows he's an android, and of course he knows that Youngjae hyung knows that, but …
"No, hyung, I'm fine," he says quickly. "I don't need you to upgrade me."
He goes into his cabin that night, rather than watch Youngjae hyung try to defeat the final boss in the game he's been playing. (It's a shame, because Junhong had looked forward to watching him battle the boss).
It's really stupid to be mad that Youngjae offered to upgrade him. Junhong knows what he is; he knows that he's not capable of modifying his own programing. Updates have to be initiated by a person. He can only download information.
Youngjae was just trying to help, but Junhong doesn't want someone else putting stuff into his head. Kang hyung trusts Youngjae. Junhong knows it would be fine. But what if he downloaded a new personality patch or something by accident and Junhong woke up and wasn't the same at all?
He knows he's not a real flesh and blood person. Of course he knows that. But he looks like one: he smiles like one and his skin feels like a person's skin, and before this talk of upgrading, it was easy to pretend.
*kiddo, you're in a bad mood*
"Hyung, I'm fine."
*you've been lying on your bed listening to really melodramatic soundtrack music for three hours. it's starting to get me down*
"I'm fine," Junhong says again. "I'm fine, okay?"
He rolls over. It doesn't matter. Kang hyung doesn't even have eyes. He can just see everything anyway.
*okay, kid. i'm going to leave you alone, but if you want to talk just tell me, okay?*
Junhong nods. He curls up tighter. He's got a program for crying. He's not really supposed to execute it when he's alone; what'd be the point?
He does anyway though. He’s seen people do this in dramas and stuff. The tears run hot and wet down his cheeks. Junhong didn't really understand crying before, but he does now. It makes him feel better and worse all at the same time.
It doesn’t help him figure out why he’s so upset, though.
Youngjae, who is more than smart enough to realize that something is wrong, apologizes when Junhong comes out for breakfast.
"Junhong-ah, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you. I should have …"
"No, hyung," Junhong says. "I'm sorry." He frowns. "You didn't do anything wrong. I shouldn't have gotten upset. I know I'm … I know I'm not a person."
Youngjae bites his lip. "You are a person, Junhong. Some people don't agree, but I've known a lot of androids. You're not the same kind of person that I am, but you are."
Junhong stares at the floor. It's stupid to talk about this. His programing is suggesting strongly he not do so. But - he wants to understand.
"I'm not a person," he says. "I'm a machine, run by a bunch of programs. I can't even update myself without having you do it."
Youngjae frowns, thinking hard. Then he asks, "Do you think flesh and blood people can just upgrade themselves?"
Junhong opens his mouth … but he doesn’t know. People upgrading themselves? He sifts through his knowledge database as quickly as he can - body modification: tattoo; piercing; implants; historical and contemporary practices. Mechanical and / or electronic modifications: risks and benefits; cyborg reform laws; backlash; legal protections for. Cyborg: origins; presentation in popular media; current approved modifications; proposed areas of …
"We can't, Junhong," Youngjae says. "Not legally, and not safely. If a flesh and blood person is sick or if they want an upgrade, they go to a doctor. If a metal and wire person is sick or needs an upgrade, they go to a technician." He looks down. "That's all."
Junhong forwns. "I know, hyung, but … it's different."
Youngjae shakes his head. "From the way I look at it, it's not any different, Junhong. I'm really sorry I upset you, but to me - and to the rest of the crew too - you're a person."
Junhong nods, head still down. He knows Youngjae is right, but he doesn’t feel any better. He is silent for a long time. Youngjae doesn’t say anything either. Junhong knows he should make the situation better - it’s so wrong that Youngjae is comforting him, and not the other way around - but he doesn’t know how.
*hey kid, look on the bright side. at least you have hands* Kang sounds miffed.
Junhong can't help it. He laughs. Youngjae laughs too, in his giddy childish way.
*that's right, laugh at the guy who doesn’t even have a body. real funny*
Junhong sniffs, and wipes his cheeks. It's funny; he doesn't remember running the program, but somehow he's started crying again.
Youngjae is lying on the couch playing a game on his tablet when Junhong decides it’s his time to apologize. The mood lighting in the living room is yellow today, warm and sunny (not that Junhong has ever seen a sun, but he’s seen it in movies - close enough). He likes that.
“Hyung,” Junhong says.
Youngjae looks over. “What’s up, Junhong?”
“I made you some cookies.” Junhong holds out the box. “I made some for Daehyun hyung, but these are better. I think I needed to practice.”
Youngjae sits up. “Let me guess. Daehyun ate them all anyway, right?”
Junhong nods, fighting not to smile. “He really likes food.”
Youngjae laughs. “He really does.” He takes one of the cookies. “Junhong, these are really good.”
Junhong can’t not smile them. “I’m glad, hyung.” He looks down. “And I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to apologize again, Junhong.”
Junhong shakes his head. “No, I want to. I really didn’t mean to get mad …” He shuts his eyes. It makes it easier, somehow, not to have to look at Youngjae. “It’s really hard to figure out what you guys are feeling, and even harder to know what to do make you feel better. How can I think about being a person when I’m not even that good at being a ZELO?”
“That stuff is hard for me too, Junhong,” Youngjae says. “It’s hard for everyone. You’re a person because those things are hard, not in spite of it.”
Junhong shakes his head, but he doesn’t understand. It’s this hard for everyone? It seems unbelievable - unbearable that living should be so hard. It was easier when he didn’t understand anything.
“What should I do, hyung?”
Youngjae shakes his head. “I don’t know, Junhong.” He holds out the box of cookies. “Have a cookie. That’s a good place to start.”
Junhong takes one and smiles. “You’re right,” he says. “It is.”
When Kang hyung says it’s time for Youngjae to go back to sleep, Junhong is unsettled and nervous in a way he hadn’t been with any of the other hyungs. It’s not that he likes Youngjae more, exactly. He likes them all differently because they are all different.
But he thinks about what Youngjae said all the time: you are a person. Junhong wants to believe that so badly, but he’s worried it might stop being true (or might stop mattering) when Youngjae is back in bio-stasis.
It’s not like Youngjae really has a choice. The trip was resourced based on precisely scheduled rotations.
Youngjae hesitates by the door of the stasis chamber. The right light above it is blinking, as though annoyed. Junhong smiles, because it’s not fair of him to make this sad for Youngjae.
“Thank you so much, hyung,” he says, and he wraps his arms around Youngjae.
Youngjae hugs him back. “You’re welcome Junhong. I know it’s really hard, but you’re a great person. Just remember that.”
The blinking red light blinks more angrily still.
The door slides open. Youngjae nods, and waves, and disappears through the doorway.
Junhong waves back.
The door slides shut.
Alone again. Junhong swallows and sits down on the floor with his back against the wall.
“Hyung, does it hurt this much every time?”
*you’ll see them again, junhong, and soon* Kang hyung pauses. *but yeah, it does*
Junhong nods, but he stays there on the floor for a long time.
Moon Jongup has a dot on his nose.
He has a dot on the side of his nose, and he has two front teeth that are just slightly too big, and he has a good-natured smile that Junhong doesn’t understand.
When Junhong introduces himself, Jongup says, “Ah, you must be really exhausted. Keeping the hyungs entertained for so long is a lot of work. Did Himchan hyung make you watch really silly dramas with him?”
Junhong nods. He wouldn’t say they’re silly, but ...
“And I bet Daehyun hyung tried to get you to cook him stuff?”
Junhong nods again. He likes cooking for the hyungs, though.
“And did Youngjae hyung do that thing where he gets really excited and punches you way too hard?”
Junhong frowns. “No, he never did that.”
“Oh,” Jongup says. “Huh. I wonder if there’s something special about punching me or if he just likes you better.”
Junhong has absolutely no idea.
Moon Jongup is really strange.
Sometimes Jongup disappears.
Kang hyung knows where he goes. Kang hyung is charged with monitoring every sentient being aboard the Mato, so he has to know where Jongup goes.
He won’t tell, though.
*that would be cheating, Junhong*
Junhong rolls his eyes. “Hyung, what does it matter if you tell me or if I ask him? I’m going to find out either way.”
*you tell me, smarty pants. what’s the difference?*
Junhong wrinkles his nose. Kang hyung is too smart for his own good, sometimes.
Junhong has the schematics for the ship. He can figure it out by process of elimination. Jongup is not in the gym; the exercise equipment is dusty and unused. He’s not in his cabin; the door is open. He’s not on the command deck or in the common area or in the kitchen. He’s not back in the stasis chamber, or down in the engine room.
The Mato isn’t that big. There really aren’t that many other places he could be, just a bunch of half-filled storerooms down on the lower level. And what would he be doing down there?
It’s not Junhong’s place to ask, but (he reasons to himself) if Jongup is going down there to do something because he’s sad or upset, Junhong needs to know to make him feel better.
So, it’s really just part of doing his job.
“Hyung,” Junhong asks when they’re both in the common room. Junhong cooked dinner tonight, because he thought Jongup might be tired of the dull gray rations, and because he wanted to. “Hyung, where do you go when disappear?”
Jongup stares at his hamburger with his brows knit. “Do I disappear?”
Junhong nods. “You do,” he says. “Every day you go somewhere. Where do you go?”
Jongup nods. “Ah,” he says. “I go dancing.”
Dancing. Dance: to move one's feet or body, or both, rhythmically in a pattern of steps, especially to the accompaniment of music.
Junhong knows about dancing. The characters in his drama danced once, at a big party with sparkling lights hanging on the walls and pretty music playing. The woman wore a dress that shimmered as she moved, and the man wore a black suit. That’s the only dancing he’s seen.
“Can I watch?” he asks.
“Of course,” Jongup says.
Jongup’s dancing is nothing like the dancing in the drama.
Junhong sits cross legged on the floor with his elbows on his knees and just watches, because he’s never seen anything like this. He doesn’t know the song playing, but it doesn’t matter, because he can tell what it means by the way Jongup moves. He is fast and graceful, but it’s a hard, quick, fun grace, not anything soft. This isn’t the kind of song where you’d wrap your arm around your lover’s waist and whisper sweet things into their ear. This song, and Jongup’s dance, seem like they’re meant to squeeze all the weird hurtful feelings out of you all at once, before they can do worse than they’ve already done.
The beat of the song slows. The instrumentation changes. Jongup balances on one foot for a moment, and then the other, and then quickly and easily as if he weighs nothing he flips himself over, heels over head. He lands lightly, chest heaving, and his expression, which so often is blank and guarded, is totally different too. He is beaming, smiling so widely Junhong can’t help but smile back.
Junhong claps so hard his hands hurt. “Hyung, you were amazing.”
Jongup sits down heavily and grins. “Thanks, Junhong.”
Junhong waits a moment, and then asks, “Do you think you can teach me to do that?”
Dancing is like nothing Junhong has ever done before.
“I don’t know how I learned,” Jongup says. “I just started dancing one day, and I guess I never really stopped.”
Once Jongup hits play on the control panel and Junhong starts moving in time with the music, he understands why.
It’s so easy and so hard, all in ways that are completely new. It doesn’t have anything to do with figuring out what someone is feeling, or how to make them feel differently. It doesn’t have anything to do with figuring out how to position his head or arrange his limbs so they look natural and not artificial. He doesn’t have to worry about being something he’s not. It’s just about movement, and the beat.
He doesn’t know if what he’s doing looks good or if it’s right. The beat picks up and his feet move. Junhong lets his hips move, lets his shoulders shift, lets his neck roll. There’s no time to consider every action; he’s just doing it. He’s dancing. It’s not good because; it’s just good. It’s amazing.
The song ends. Junhong closes his eyes, reluctant to let go of his pose.
Jongup claps, grinning. “You’re really good. You’re a natural, Junhonggie.”
“I’ll never be better than you, hyung.” Junhong can’t imagine dancing like Jongup does.
Jongup shrugs. “You’re a lot better than I was the first time I tried dancing, so if you keep practicing you’ll probably be better in the end.”
Junhong isn’t sure if that makes sense. “I’d have to practice a really long time.”
Jongup hums, indefinite.
They don’t have a really long time. They don’t have much time at all.
Junhong grabs Jongup’s hand and pulls him to his feet. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s do it again.”
Jongup hits play on the control panel. The music starts again, and they move.
That dot on Jongup’s nose, though.
They’re in the common room. Jongup is sitting on the couch, scrolling through some of the data fees Kang hyung downloaded last time they were near a civilized system. Junhong is lying within his feet crossed in Jongup’s lap, watching him read.
Himchan hyung tried to explain ‘good looking’ to Junhong once. It had a lot to do with big eyes and straight noses and cheekbones, and bemoaning a lack of cosmetic products Himcahn hyung hadn’t been able to bring on the trip. Junhong didn’t understand it then, and he’s not sure he understands it now, but he really likes Jongup’s face. He likes that dot, too. He wonders what it means.
“Is there something special about that dot on your nose?” Junhong asks.
Jongup looks up, eyes wide. He touches his finger to his nose. “This?” He shakes his head, mouth wide. “No, why?”
Junhong crawls on hands and knees to the end of the couch where Jongup sits. He’s so close to Jongup’s face he can see his pores, and each one of his eyelashes. “It’s not an embedded microchip, is it?”
Jongup looks at him like he’s crazy. “It’s a freckle, Junhong. You’ve got one too.” Jongup reaches out, and touches a spot on Junhong’s chin, just a little below his lips.
Junhong doesn’t want to move. He had no idea he had a freckle. There’s something about about the way that Jongup is looking at him like he doesn’t want to see anything else that just makes him want to touch more.
“I like your freckle, Jonguppie hyung.”
Jongup smirks. “I like your freckle too, Junhong.”
Junhong blinks, and sits back on his heels. “I like yours more, hyung. I like your whole face. It’s really nice.”
Jongup is giving him that ‘what are you talking about’ look again, but Junhong doesn’t care. He doesn’t know a lot of things but he knows he’s right about this, no matter what Himchan hyung might have said about too small eyes and too big noses. Jongup has a great face. Junhong loves it.
“What do you want to do?” Junhong asks.
Jongup shrugs. “I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
Junhong frowns. “I want to do what you want to do.”
Jongup’s mouth stretches into a thin determined line. “But I want to do what you want to do, Junhong.”
The other hyungs were all really great. They made space for him in their little lives inside the Mato, but none of them ever particularly wanted or expected Junhong to decide what to do.
Junhong closes his eyes. He doesn’t want to go over the mission plans like Yongguk hyung would. He likes watching dramas because Himchan hyung liked it and because he likes cuddling. He does like to eat things that taste nice, but not as much as Daehyun hyung does. Video game are fun, but he’s not nearly as good at them as Youngjae hyung is. They spent all morning dancing.
“Do you want to go to the command deck and watch the stars?”
That’s something he likes to do.
They get the blanket from Junhong’s bed and they drag it up to the command deck. They spread it on the floor and lie on their backs and stare up at the great thick glass windows and beyond at the darkness of space.
Jongup doesn’t talk much, but it doesn’t feel weird or awkward. Junhong has no indication that he’s not talking because he’s sad or upset. The quietness is calm and easy and it makes Junhong feel comfortable speaking first.
“I do this a lot between rotations,” he says. “When all of you are asleep.”
Jongup nods. “It must get really lonely.”
Junhong blinks. “It didn’t at first,” he says. “I don’t think I understood what lonely meant.” It seems like a long time ago now when Yongguk hyung went back to sleep. It was a long time ago, in Mato years and in Earth years and even in the life of an android. Junhong has learned so much since then. “I was really sad when Youngjae hyung had to go back to sleep, though. I think that’s when I first started to get it.”
Junhong doesn’t say it, but he’s going to be sadder when Jongup has to go back to sleep. He’s going to be so sad he can’t even think about it.
Jongup doesn’t say anything, but he reaches over and takes Junhong’s hand. His fingers are warm and dry, and he holds on tight. Stars and planets and delicate waves of green and purple gas float vivid against the black of space. The Mato is moving fast through all that vastness. Before, Junhong liked to look at the stars because he could pull up each one in his knowledge library and find in the facts and figures a richness that he didn’t understand but maybe even then wanted so badly. Now, he looks up at the stars and he wonders if all the thousands of them in this entire sector of space mean even half as much as his fingers laced through Jongup’s.
“You make me feel better,” he says, puzzled.
“Huh?” Jongup looks over at him.
“I’m supposed to make you feel better, but you make me feel better.” He frowns. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. That’s not what his programing wants him to do. He’s doing it wrong …
“Come here, Junhong,” Jongup says, his arms open. He pulls Junhong close, so that Junhong’s head is resting on his chest, and his arms are around Junhong’s shoulders. “You make me feel better too. Maybe I make you feel better because you make me feel better. Or maybe you make me feel better because I make you feel better. ”
Junhong doesn’t even know what Jongup is saying. “You’re just saying that because I’m here to make you feel better. That’s what I’m made for …”
“No,” Jongup says. “That’s not why. You make me feel better just because you’re Junhong.”
Junhong frowns. “You’re really weird, hyung.”
Jongup nods. His chest moves up and down as he breathes, and Junhong can hear, beneath that, beneath the constant hum of the ship’s engines, a faint thumpTHUMPthumb that repeats, over and over.
It’s Jongup’s heartbeat. Junhong has never heard one before.
“Hyung, maybe you can take a detour.”
Junhong is sitting on the command deck, in the big captain’s chair. He’s not looking out at the stars, though. It is late - for all that late really exists out here, thousands of miles from the nearest sun. Jongup is asleep. They do not have long left.
*a detour around what, junhong?*
“Anything … I don’t know. Maybe a star that might go nova, or a system harboring lunar pirates, or a black hole, or …”
*you know that we’re not going to run into any of that way out here*
“I know,” Junhong says. He presses his face into his hands. “I just want more time. I’m … I’m going to miss him so much.”
*i know, junhong*
“It’s not fair, hyung.”
*things usually aren’t, junhong. i’m really sorry*
Junhong doesn’t want sympathy. He doesn’t want consolation. He cries, loud sobs echoing in the empty ship. He cries so hard that his cheeks sting and his eyes hurt and he shakes. He doesn’t have a heart that pumps blood but something inside him aches so bad it might split in half.
The lights flicker green and gold and blue and red. Junhong asked Kang hyung to do it as a favor, and he did, after a little good-natured grumbling. Jongup watches, grinning.
“It’s like being inside a kaleidoscope,” he says. He holds up his hand and watches as the colored light changes.
Junhong doesn’t know what that is. “I thought it might be a little bit like dancing inside of a nebula.”
Jongup says, “It’s beautiful,” like that settles the matter, and maybe that does, because it is.
They dance, just because they can. It’s not good dancing. They jump and wave their arms. Jongup bobs his head back and forth and shifts his shoulders up and down and says it’s an artistic interpretation of the lights on the dishwasher in the kitchen. Junhong laughs so hard he falls down. Junhong grabs Jongup by the hand and spins him around and around until he’s begging, laughing, red-faced, for Junhong to stop. Junhong gathers him up in his arms and then collapses again, pulling Jongup down on top of him.
“Ouch,” Jongup says. “I think you scrambled up my brain.”
Junhong wraps his arms around Jongup’s waist. “You’re fine,” he says.
“You’re like an octopus,” Jongup says, squirming. He squirms and wriggles and rolls away to lie sprawled on the floor.
He doesn’t let go of Junhong’s hand, though.
Junhong shrugs. “You’re a good size for cuddling, little hyung.”
Jongup frowns. “I’m a perfectly good height,” he says. “Not everyone is a giant like you, Junhonggie.”
“You’re a perfect height,” Junhong says, then he feels stupid and giddy and he rolls over and hides his face in Jongup’s side. Jongup doesn’t move or anything, though; he lets Junhong stay there for as long as he wants.
It’s over so soon.
“I don’t want you to go.” Junhong closes his eyes and grabs hold of Jongup's shirt.
Jongup swallows. "I'm not going anywhere you're not going. We're both on the same starcraft going to the same place, so where could I be going?"
Jongup is going somewhere Junhong can never go. He's not alive; he gets shut off, not put in bio-stasis. That's not even the problem.
"I know," Junhong says. He doesn't know how things could be the same on some distant planet none of them have ever seen. All the hyungs will be awake. There will be other, realer people competing for Jongup's attention.
The red light over the door to the stasis chamber is blinking frantically. It's past time. Jongup hugs Junhong tighter. "I don't want to go, either. But …"
Junhong nods. He opens his eyes. Jongup isn't crying, but Junhong is glad for that. He can't even imagine Jongup crying. The door slides open.
Jongup opens his mouth.
"I love you," Junhong blurts out, and he leans forward and kisses Jongup on the mouth.
It's not a very good kiss. It's not like the chaste cheek kisses and friendly smooches Junhong has in his mannerism library. It's not like the artful, posed kisses in dramas. It’s nothing like the time Himchan hyung kissed him on the forehead. It's messy and Junhong doesn't know where to put his nose and he forgets to pretend to breathe and just keeps kissing until Jongup is panting into his mouth.
An alarm sounds, something shrill and electronic.
Junhong stands up and smiles.
Jongup stares, wide eyed. "Junhong …"
"I'm really going to miss you." He's still crying, but he feels better, like that kiss loosened a valve and let off some pressure.
Jongup nods, and blinks, and maybe even his eyes are looking a little glassy. His mouth twitches like he's going to say something, but then he just waves and steps through into the dark, cool stasis chamber.
The door slides shut.
Junhong feels like someone's punched a hole right through the center of him, but he's glad he said it, even if he waited until the very end.
There's only the final approach left. Just one short rotation awake for Yongguk hyung, and then they'll spiral down towards the mottled blue and white planet Junhong's seen on Kang hyung's monitors.
It's been a long, long time. They’ve been traveling towards this stupid planet Earth his whole life and now he doesn't even want to get there.
He doesn't have a choice, though. Pretty soon it's the day Yongguk hyung is supposed to wake up. He wanders into the common area groggy, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
"Yongguk hyung! I missed you so much!" Junhong hugs him. He has a feeling Yongguk hyung might not like hugging that much, but Junhong really needs a hug right now.
Grinning, Yongguk says, "Junhonggie, I missed you too. Did you get even taller when I was asleep?"
Junhong rolls his eyes. "Hyung, you know I didn't get taller."
Yongguk narrows his eyes. "I don't know. You've got to be at least a hundred and eight centimeters now … Maybe we need to measure."
"Quit teasing me, hyung." He picks up the cake he made from the table. "Look, I made you a 'Welcome Back' cake." This one is vanilla and chocolate marbled, with fudge frosting. Junhong's cake skills have improved a lot, but then he's had a lot of time to practice.
Yongguk is just staring at him with a funny little expression on his face.
Junhong bites his lip. "Do you not like chocolate? I should have asked Jonguppie hyung or Kang hyung or someone … I just figured everyone must like chocolate."
Yongguk shakes his head. "I like chocolate fine."
"Why are you making that face, then?"
Yongguk grins. "You've really grown up a lot, Junhong." He walks over and puts an arm around Junhong's shoulder. "Now tell me about this cake you made."
The last transmission from Mato is grainy and incomplete. Viceroy Hyosung's voice is faint, but her pleas for help are clear.
Yongguk's expression is grim.
"Kang, have you pinpointed a landing site?"
*i have a primary site and three backups identified. atmospheric conditions at the time of entry will determine which we use*
They are a month out from Earth.
Yongguk nods. Junhong rests his chin on his fingers and peers out at the plans and maps spread across the table. Yongguk makes a note on one schematic, and then pushes it aside.
"Hyung, what are we going to do if we don't find anything on Earth?"
Yongguk's face goes blank for a second before he forces a stiff smile. "I don't know, Junhong. We'll have to wait and see what we find there before we make any other plans."
It's weird, Junhong thinks, but it helps to know that everyone gets scared.
Junhong has to boot down.
He doesn't have any choice. He doesn't have the systems redundancies that Kang hyung does, and if he's booted on when they enter Earth's magnetic field, he'll get fried. He'd rather not have that happen.
Still, booting down is not like going to sleep. Sleep is fine, now. Sleep is nice. Sometimes he goes to sleep even when it's not night, just because closing his eyes seems like a good idea.
Booting down means he needs to wait for someone to turn him back on.
Yongguk hyung holds open the door to the chamber where Junhong is going to be stowed. It's the same place he first booted, so, so long ago.
Junhong climbs onto the table. He waits while Yongguk fastens the straps around his ankles, his waist, his chest.
"Hyung," he says, feeling something like panic, "promise me you'll wake me up, okay? I know I'm only meant for the trip, but … I'm really smart. I can learn to do a lot of things."
Yongguk is looking at him with a strange sympathetic expression.
"I want to see you again. I want to see all of you hyungs again … and I want to see Jonguppie again. I really need to see him again. Please, hyung."
Yongguk takes his hand and squeezes, hard.
"I promise, Junhong. I promise you'll see him again."
Not letting going of Junhong's hand, he reaches around to press the power override button behind his left ear. Junhong closes his eyes and then … everything stops.
For a long time, there's nothing. No light, no sound, no air, no Junhong. Nothing at all.
When Junhong opens his eyes again he's confused. "Why did you paint the Mato blue?"
Someone nearby laughs. Junhong tries to sit up to see who it is, but he feels really funny. Heavier, like someone tied weights to all his limbs. Slowly, he puts out one hand, and pushes himself upright.
Oh. He's not in the Mato. He's …
They're on Earth, and the Mato sits a few hundred meters away. He is lying on a blanket, and there are tools and some scrap metal bits spread all around. The sky is blue, not the ceiling, and the ground is brown and green, and there are more colors and scents and sounds than Junhong has ever known or imagine. He blinks.
And there's Youngjae hyung, grinning, and Daehyun hyung standing beside him. Yongguk hyung and Himchan hyung are standing a little further away, and right beside him is Jongup.
"I told you it would work," Youngjae says, excited. "It's not the most sophisticated battery, and he's going to have to remember to keep himself charged, but I told you it would work. Junhong, how do you feel?"
Junhong shakes his head. He doesn't know. His eyes start to water, and it's not just that the sun is so much brighter than anything he'd ever imagined. He buries his face in his hands.
They didn't forget him. They're all here, and he's here with them. They didn't forget him, and they didn't leave him in that closet on the ship like some forgotten piece of luggage.
Someone puts a hand on his shoulder. "Junhong, what's wrong? Do you feel okay?"
Junhong nods. "I'm sorry," he says. "I thought …"
Someone crouches down right beside him. It's Jongup. "Junhong, do you know who I am? How many fingers am I holding up?"
What a ridiculous question. He’s not even holding up any fingers. "Of course I know," he says, and he throws himself into Jongup's arms.
Jongup isn't expecting that, because he falls over onto his back with Junhong on top of him.
"Ooph," he says, eloquent.
"I missed you so much," Junhong says, pressing his face into Jongup's neck. He looks up awkwardly at the other hyungs. "I missed all of you. Thank you for not forgetting about me."
Himchan hyung's hand is in Yongguk hyung's. Youngjae and Daehyun's eyes are sliding to the side, like they'd rather not see all this mushy stuff, but they're both smiling so widely their cheeks must hurt.
"We couldn’t forget about you, Junhonggie," Himchan says. "Whenever you're ready, why don't you head over to the Mato? We're still using her as a base of operations." He smiles.
The hyungs walk slowly back towards the ship. It looks so small against the huge blue sky. Junhong can't believe that little thing was his entire world.
"You know I wasn't going to let them leave you, right?" Jongup says. "I mean, not that they wanted to. Youngjae was drawing up plans as soon as we landed, and Himchan hyung would have made him if he hadn't volunteered, but even if they hadn't I …I would have figured out something. You know that, right?" There's something tentative and a little doubtful in his voice that Junhong doesn't ever want to hear again.
"I know," Junhong says. "Thank you. I can't believe I'm here with you." He swallows nervously. "You're going to have to teach me so much, hyung. I'm going to be stupid about everything again. You know I'm only …"
"You're a person," Jongup says, not giving him the chance to finish saying that stupid thing, "who I love." He looks down, shy and grinning with those cute bunny teeth.
Junhong nods, and scrunches his nose. "Me too," he says. "I mean, you too." He swallows. "I mean, I love you too."
This stuff is really hard, and the entirety of Junhong's programing has got not one single helpful thing to add. He's on his own, but it's okay. He's got Jongup, and that's more than enough.
He waits a moment, and he pokes Jongup in the side. "Hyung, now we finally have enough time for me to prove I'm a better dancer."
Jongup frowns. "Isn't the master always better than the student? Is that how that expression goes?" He tilts his head to one side.
"Dream on," Junhong says, and he rolls off Jongup and stands up. The green stuff - grass - is damp and cool and soft underfoot. He takes off towards the Mato at a run, and Jongup chases close after.