The children sat in a semi-circle in the grass, seventeen of them, aged three to nine in traditional years, their eyes fixed on Evie the storyteller, who sat cross-legged at the focus of the children, the Holy Book in her hand. The petite brown woman smiled, a little wistfully, and opened the Book. “Today I would like to tell you about Earth.”
Willi had to smile as he watched the younger kids sit forward eagerly while the older kids rolled their eyes. Will relaxed on his bench, partially concealed by the lush vegetation of the creche, but not actually hiding.
“Earth was a beautiful place,” Evie said. “It was like this,” she said, waving at the vegetation as it flourished under the lights of the creche, “but the air was sweet — and above,” she glanced at the gray metal over their heads, “above was the sky. It was like a ceiling, but far, far, above. And sometimes, water would fall out of the sky, and the people would dance with joy.”
Willi watched as one of the older children leaned over to the boy sitting next to her. With a thought and a gesture Willi tapped into her audio. “And then we fucked it up, because we are greedy mammal bastards.”
Willi groaned but he was watching today for precisely this event. He stood and cleared his throat softly. “Malika, would you come with me, please?”
The girl swung around and looked at him, her brown eyes wide in her pale face. “I didn’t…”
“Come with me.”
She stood and pulled at her jumpsuit, which didn’t fit her very well. Too small. They grow like weeds at that age, Willi thought. But there was no place for weeds here. Not in this garden.
Tears were escaping her eyes as she walked away from the other children. They watched her go with stony faces, internalizing the most important lesson of the day: There are some things you never say out loud.
Malika stood in front of Willi, her eyes fixed on his feet. He reached out and put his hand on her skinny shoulder and felt her shaking. “Am I compost?” she asked.
Willi let out a slow breath. He used his hand on Malika’s shoulder to steer her toward the exit. “We are all compost. But before we are fed to the grinder, we must justify the resources we consume.” To make his point he touched a control and the heavy door cycled open, revealing the stark passageways of the starship. Even outside the creche, the air in the sections used by the mammals was heavy with moisture and fizzing with oxygen. Expensive air.
“It is delicate,” Willi said, knowing that all his words might be heard, the same way he had eavesdropped on Malika.
She was crying now. “Please,” she said, as fluid ran out of her eyes and her nose. No matter how efficient the recycling was on the ship, the crew would never be able to condone such waste.
Willi leaned in close and whispered, “They resent us.” Her eyes widened and Willi gave her a tight smile. “For any one of us, the ship could support ten of them. Ten of them awake.” The lizards would hear those words, but that was all right. This was just part of the curriculum. Every kid got this lecture eventually, in one form or another.
“They hate us? Why do they keep us?”
Behind them the door to the creche closed, and they walked down the sterile gray passage, with no particular destination.
“No, they don’t hate us. They don’t — they aren’t capable of hatred. Which, indirectly, is why they keep us. But without them, we are lost,” Willi said. “Earth is gone, just a radioactive cinder orbiting an ordinary star. Our ancestors did that to themselves. This is our home now, and we have to earn our way.”