It has become a tradition for me to post my first day’s NaNoWriMo output to these hallowed pages. This year I’ve got a setting I like very much, and an opening that I can get behind, and little Malika promises to be a handful. But I don’t actually have much of a story figured out yet.
This part works, though, if you ask me, and sets up perhaps a Young Adult hard-sf story centered on a female character.
If it looks familiar, it’s because it’s based on a little piece I did a while back, but from the point of view of the more interesting person.
The children walked single-file along the path, gravel cruncing softly beneath their feet. Malika was near the back of the line; only Remi was older than she was. She had walked this same path almost every day since her fourth traditional birthday, at the very front to start with, until Barry had come along and taken her exalted spot. Over the years new kids started at the front of the line and the older kids dropped off the back, to begin their vocational training and take the next step toward adulthood.
She had resented Barry at first, but after years of staring at the back of his curly-haired head, it had come as a shock the day he wasn’t there anymore. Now she followed Abigail’s pony tail.
They reached the half-bowl-shaped depression in the center of the garden, its gently-terraced sides providing seating in the lush grass. The little ampitheater was large enough for the whole clan to gather, but most of the time it was just the children, come for their daily histories.
They filed down the slope, and occupied the first two rows. The ground was cool beneath her, moist to her touch. She pushed her finger into the soil, then raised it to her nose to breathe its life. The garden was the center of her tiny universe.
Malika loved the history stories. It meant time in the garden, with the smells of the soil and the plants and the air heavy with moisture and oxygen. It was a symbol of their weakness, the older ones said, this desire of scarce resources, the drive that had been the undoing of her kind. But Malika didn’t care. She was a mammal, and she liked what she liked.
At the focus of the arc Evie waited for them to settle in, her pale face with that half-smile that almost never wavered. Evie was much paler than most of the children she faced, which was one reason Malika’s clan had traded for her. New Blood. Even now Evie’s belly was starting to grow for the second time. Malika’s family said that this baby was probably going to work out better than Evie’s first one had.
Most days, Evie would open her book of history and tell the children about one of the times a general or an ambassador had made a difference. These were the moments when all the other lessons the children recieved in the sterile classrooms outside the garden, from calculus to psychology, were put in context. When Malika was younger she had revelled with stories of success, tales of clever planning and dexterous adjustment, but now she was more interested in the failures. That was where the true wisdom was to be found. If Malika was going to be a general one day — which she most certainly was — then she needed to learn from the mistakes of those who came before.
Remi, to her right, would not be a general. Remi was smart, but he was a dreamer, and there was nothing in the universe worse than being one of those. When Malika leaned close she could feel his intelligence radiating from him, but he was unable to apply it to anything useful, anything that would justify his oxygen allowance. It’s not that he didn’t try, but his thoughts were often slow to develop. When he reached that thought it was often profound, at least to Malika’s ear, but profundity had little value. If he was better at math he might become a scientist, but numbers were as slippery as ion-repellent lubricant for him, never lining up in the orderly way they did in Malika’s own head. But there had to be some way he could contribute.
Thinking black thoughts, she pushed a little closer to Remi on the soft grass. The moisture from the earth soaked into the seat of her uniform, a feeling she could only know during the history stories.
Except this day, Evie did not open the usual book of history. She opened the Book of Earth. “It is time we remember where we came from,” Evie said in her soft voice.
While the little kids in the front leaned forward eagerly, Malika groaned. Once she too had been eager to learn of Earth, but not anymore.
“It used to be, in a garden like this one, the air was filled with music.” Evie waved her hand and cocked her head, as if she could hear the sounds. “All around were creatures called birds. They were like reptiles, but covered with lightweight, fibrous things called “feathers”. She held up her book so the children could see the illustrations. On one page was a strange creature with a pointed bone for its nose, an insect crushed in its mouth. The bird had its wings outstretched, to show the feathers. The other page showed one of those feathers; it resembled a leaf to Malika’s reckoning. Birds were reptiles that grew leaves and could fly. At least they ate bugs.
“Earth,” Evie said, her voice reverent. “It was a place like no other in the galaxy. A place of such rich variety and vast resources that mammals could flourish and build a civilization. Imagine,” Evie said, gesturing up to the dull metal over thier heads, measured by a grid of lights that emitted a set of wavelengths calculated to match Earth’s sun. “Imagine the sky, like a cieling but far above, blue, but not the sort of blue you can touch. Sometimes water would fall from the sky, and people would dance with joy.”
Malika closed her eyes and took a breath. She had loved that image as a child, she had imagined herself standing under the blue sky as water blessed her, but now she was almost graduated and she could see Earth for what it was: a mythical place. A story you tell the children. And the reason they made it sound so magical was to drive home the real lesson. All the stories of Earth ended the same way.
“No one knows what the music of the birds actually sounded like,” Evie said, her eyebrows sad over that same half-smile. She paused to turn the page of her history book.
“And then the mammals fucked it up,” Malika whispered to Remi. He turned to her, his eyes wide with surprise.
Evie hadn’t heard her. She held up the book again, this time to an image of desolation; trees burning and birds crying in fear as they were immolated. “But we know their music was beautiful. The first histories lament their loss.”
Evie pasted on a sad face as she turned to the next page of her history book. Malika didn’t have to look to know it would show their reptilian saviors.
She whipped her head around to see Creche Master Willi rise from a bench in the foliage. The children went silent. Evie lowered her book, her eyes wide, her complacent smile forgotten. Willi held out his hand. ”Could you come with me, please?” It was not an idle question. The Creche Master held the power of life and death. It was the same question he had asked Barry.
Remi grabbed her hand without looking at her, but he let go as she stood on shaky legs. You don’t cling to compost.
Malika was having a hard time breathing as her heart tried to jump out of her chest. “Master Willi?” Her throat was so tight she could barely speak. She wanted to look him in the eye but inhaling was about all she could do.
His hand was still outstreatched. “If you could come with me.”
She didn’t have to stumble over anyone to shuffle up the slope to where Willi waited. Just breathe, she told herself. You’re going to be a general. She knew that wasn’t true. Not anymore.
Behind her the others were silent. She reached Willi, and he kept his hand out until she took it, gripping him tight. Her legs wobbled but Willi supported her through that link.
“Am I compost?”
Willi smiled, but it seemed forced. “We are all compost. You know that. Will you walk with me?” He didn’t wait for Malika to answer; he turned up the path to the bulkhead door, her hand still in his. The door opened and they both passed through quickly, allowing it to close again before too much magic leaked out.
The air outside the garden was brittle and cold, and left Malika always a little hungry for more. She followed Willi along a corridor, the deck the same gray metal as the bulkheads, stained here and there where humans were likely to touch. They turned in a direction that led to a door Malika had never passed through. A door to a differet world. No one ever came back through that door.
“Please,” Malika said. “I can be good.”
Willi gave her a sad smile. “I don’t think you can.” As her knees gave way he wrapped his arms around her, lifting her back up, supporting her. “But we’re not here to be good, whatever that means. We have to earn our way.”
They reached the portal that led from Malika’s tiny world to the domain of a star-conquering species. Willi lifted an oxygen tank from a rack by the door an Makila copied him, slinging the gas cylinder over her shoulder and putting the mask over her nose and nouth. “You are about to be judged,” Willi said. “I have told them you show promise. Don’t let us down.”