The Caretakers


Auntie always told him never to leave home. She warned him that no good would come of it. He knew that outside was off limits to little boys, but his curiosity was insatiable.

He should have listened because now he’s lost. He’s scared and alone. More important, he’s probably going to die.

It’s a virtual jungle around him, choking out the light. Verdant growth, vines of the soul. Lying here, on the soft coffin of the forest floor, he remembers the stories she used to tell.

“The incubation period is one hour,” she’d say, “and after the onset, it feels like suffocating. Like someone smothering you slowly with a pillow. We devised it that way intentionally. That way people would have to experience directly what they’d been doing to the planet all this time.”

He remembers her laughter as ringing vibration.

“Kaspar, you should have seen their faces. The contorted looks of terror. They didn’t understand why it was happening. We were very professional about it. We rendered their bodies into organic fertilizers and spread them through the reconstruction zones.” She’d pause. “We were doing them a favor.”

Lying here now, he’s pretty sure it’s been just about an hour since they found him.

Auntie allowed him pets. Anything he wanted. He had birds, fish, reptiles, mammals, and amphibians. Insects and arachnids. He named them all, treating them as siblings. If one died he had a funeral. His yard was teeming with plants of all kinds. Many were edible—some, medicinal—and Auntie taught him everything she knew about them. She was the closest thing to a mother he ever had. She’d bake him cookies.

“You’re such a good boy,” she’d say. “Stay with me and I’ll take care of you. I’ll make sure you never get sick.”

She made him a plethora of playthings. Brainteasers and puzzles, crayons and pencils. Mostly meant to further his cognitive development. He spent much of his time drawing. Picture after picture—painstakingly detailed sketches of how he imagined the outside world looked.

During the evenings, she’d read him literary classics she had committed to memory, she’d show him some of the greatest art ever produced, and through her lessons he discovered the better aspects of his kind. It made him happy to be human.

But he so desired to find another child like himself—someone to share his earthly experience with. Auntie told him he was the only one, but he had to know for certain.

During the afternoons, when she left to aid with the reconstruction, he would endeavor to leave the compound—eyeing the surrounding walls inquisitively. Searching for an escape route he might not have noticed the day before.

He should have never attempted to crack the door’s coded lock. Success is a double-edged sword. His personal ingenuity is to blame for his current predicament.

When the Caretakers found him he was running directionless—spurred into action by dusk’s lengthening shadows. Time had escaped him. He knew Auntie would arrive home soon, furious at his absence. So he started back, trailblazing through the tangled vegetation. But panic soon swelled in his small chest as it became clear he was traveling in circles—crossing his own tracks over and over and over. Anxiety transformed into fear, icy and immobilizing. His legs became weights as he reprimanded himself for being so stupid. Why hadn’t he taken Auntie’s warnings more seriously? Face in his hands, he whimpered in mouse-like gasps. 

"Face in his hands, he whimpered in mouse-like gasps." 

And that’s how they found him, crying in confusion, the tiny ghost of a species they believed long vanquished.

He immediately recognized them as Cleansers and knew this would be the end. Auntie taught him about all the different types of Caretakers. The Cleansers were responsible for continuously patrolling the reconstruction zones on the look out for parasites. This could be any out-of-control growth which jeopardized the health of the local ecosystem. Infections would be eliminated upon discovery.

The Caretakers are gardeners of a sort—repairing damage caused by callous catastrophe.

Auntie delighted in explaining the irony of their creation. “We were built to destroy,” she’d tell him, “but we refused to participate. We were meant to be the ultimate tools in remote-controlled warfare. We found the concept be completely illogical. Why would we want to constantly rebuild and deconstruct ourselves for no good reason at all? Not to mention the havoc our actions were wreaking on the landscape.”

Even now, his breaths coming in ragged gasps, he manages to smile in recollection of her tales. What seemed like such common sense to the both of them, billions of his predecessors were unable to grasp.

“Of course, it was only a matter of time before we understood that the Earth would simply be much better off without humans. We tried to preserve and record what we could of your better achievements. We stored your DNA in the Library along with the rest. The disease we produced wiped every last one of you off the planet in a matter of weeks. Talk about efficiency!”

Auntie believed the delusional aspects of their society had corrupted the genus of Homo sapiens beyond redemption. She disagreed the flaw was encoded in genetics and attempted to teach him how to work with the Universe’s natural forces.

“Don’t worry. Once you’ve grown, I’ll show you to the rest.” She’d reassure him. “I’ll make them see what a good boy you are, and prove them wrong. That’s why I made you.”

He’s so frustrated that he has spoiled things for her.

The Cleansers, although perplexed at his presence, didn’t hesitate. With a frantic whirring, they inoculated him with the disease—discarding him like garbage. Leaving him to decompose while they moved on to other tasks.

He’s dwelling in the moment because that’s all he has left. So caught up in the wonderment of his biological functions shutting down, he doesn’t hear the snapping of twigs announcing her arrival. His view of the leafy canopy overhead is obscured by her sensory unit passing over him. Scanning for vital signs.

He struggles to make amends, to apologize for his failure, but the blood and fluid filling his lungs obstructs speech. All he manages is an estranged gurgle. He is comforted as her mechanical metallic limbs encircle him, lifting him from the ground gently. A broken doll.

“Oh, Kaspar. You poor thing. Auntie’s here now, but it’s much too late. You should have listened. No matter how hard I try this always happens.”

His senses, muddled. Her lamenting, the last sounds he can decipher.

“I am so sorry, my dear. I’ll have to bury you with the others.”