Author Topic: Chapter 7  (Read 6441 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 7
« on: July 21, 2022, 03:02:52 AM »
Chapter 7

Noah let them stew for most of the morning, and it showed with Valae. She was nervous and agitated, as best he could tell, and distracted. Eventually, he talked with her as Cindy, explaining that wanting to look up at the stars wasn't the problem. Doing it without permission or supervision was. Just a few years older, and the problem would have been doing it with a boy, but he didn't mention that bit just yet. She was excluded from the landing, as punishment, and she accepted it gratefully. As Karl had once told him, sometimes kids dreaded the anticipation of punishment more than the punishment itself.

As usual, Chif was an entirely different story. Noah let him stew even longer, because of his disrespect the night before, but it didn't seem to have any effect on him at all. He went to the Bible reading, and the prayers, and then in to classes just as he would have done otherwise. Chif was quiet, just as he usually was, but answered questions whenever prompted. Sandra was teaching the class, but Noah directed most of her attention to the others.

After lunch, the landing occurred. It was an almost monthly occurrence by now, though months themselves were more of a formality than a reality. Months on Earth were based on a lunar calendar for the most part, but with four moons up above them, that was much more complicated here. He'd been programmed to name this planet New Eden, but he would have to come up with other names for the continent, region, and settlement eventually. Or perhaps leave that to the kids as well, once they were old enough.

The nicknames he'd chosen for each of these kids were based on phonemes from the various languages he'd been programmed with. That was why they were short, for the most part. And easily remembered, he hoped, even by young people. One of the main views of the Faith was that people could only be named by the people who loved them. Since Noah couldn't comprehend love, he could only give them training wheels, as it were. He'd given nicknames to the twenty newborns this morning as well, and some of them were being carried around by the older girls, as everyone clustered up on the second floor of the dome. It gave the best view for the landing.

Precisely on schedule, a bright light appeared in the sky above them. Descent thrusters kicked in, as they had on all previous modules, slowing the fall of the cargo container. The Mary was now down to about a third of its original mass, having sent a bunch of these down already. Noah coordinated its navigation systems from the ground, using the settlement's beacon to guide it even more closely. Attitude stabilizers fired as well, leveling out the module as it fell. A few minutes later, kicking up clay dust and particulate in a massive cloud around the domes, the module hit the ground.

"This one contains animal cell samples for the settlement," he explained to the group, as himself for a change. "We'll use them to get you some actual animals for a change. Dogs, cats, mice, even goats and sheep eventually. The agro dome can't support any cattle just yet, but someday we'll have entire fields in bigger domes, with cows and bulls, and grass for them to eat."

The kids started whispering to each other excitedly at the prospect of a real-life petting zoo, and not just the pictures and videos they'd seen of animals. Still, it wasn't quite so simple. Cloning a sheep might be easier than a human, but it still took months, and then even longer before the sheep was healthy enough to be cared for by toddlers. On the plus side, sheep's milk would make a superior nutritional alternative to what he was feeding the newborns for now. It would be easier to give them, and easier for them to digest, though he felt he'd done pretty well so far without them. Still, why make it harder than necessary? He sent out drones to retrieve the animal samples right away. Perhaps a few rabbits would make a good holdover for the kids until he could get something of the feline or canine variety. Though knowing Zwax, he would prefer snakes. He loved reptile videos.

He excused himself from the group, and had the remaining caretakers get the younger kids out to recess. There wasn't room for a full jungle gym outside the dome, but there was a slight outcropping with some swings. He'd even brought in sand from a nearby beach to make a play pit. After testing it for anything toxic, of course.

Chif was waiting for him in the medlab, as instructed. Not entirely sure how this conversation would go, Noah brought his drone inside, and sealed the door behind it. "You wanted to speak with me?"

Chif nodded briefly, opened his mouth, but then closed it again. Perhaps he needed more time, so Noah tried to fill in the silence. "Andrew told me what happened last night. He has my full authority to look after you kids, and to punish you as necessary. So why did you want to talk to me instead?"

"Where's Valae?" Chif asked suddenly, as if the idea had just occurred to him.

"She's already been punished. She's in the girls' dorm right now."

Chif's eyebrows furrowed. "If we did the same thing, shouldn't we get the same punishment?"

Noah shook his head. "By your own admission, it was your idea to go out there. You were both in the wrong, but to different degrees. Now answer the question. Why did you want to see me instead of Andrew?" He was very interested in hearing Chif's reasoning, and hoped that it was the right kind of reasoning.

The boy just shrugged at first. "You're in charge."

"Yes, but as I said, Andrew has the authority to look after all the kids in the settlement."

"No, you don't get it. You're in charge. Of everything. Andrew's not. Cindy's not. None of them are; it's all you."

He sighed. "Woad's in charge of us kids, because he's the oldest boy. But if he does something stupid, we can tell him. We can tell jokes about it, or whatever we want. He can get mad, but he can't stop us. You're in charge of all the caretakers, but you don't do anything stupid. Or if you did, I don't think any of them would tell you. None of them do anything you wouldn't do, or say anything you wouldn't say. It's like they're not even there. Or you're everywhere. Same thing either way."

So that was it. Chif was not even ten Earth years of age yet, and he'd already figured out the truth about the caretakers. And he was the only one so far—there was no indication of any of the other kids starting to question it. They treated each caretaker differently, probably just because of the slightly different shape and build, and the obviously different voices.

"I'm impressed, Chif," he responded truthfully. "And you're perfectly right. The others are all me, in a basic sense. I control everything they do, and I see everything they see. The different voices are just for show."

He looked confused at that, tilting his head slightly. "Isn't that a lie? In the Bible stories, people who lie get in trouble. Abraham lied to the king, and everybody started getting sick!"

Noah paused, trying to determine best how to explain this. "Do you remember when you used to have nightmares? Night after night, without fail?"

Chif nodded, grimacing a little.

"You're probably too young to remember exactly why, but they started after Scad had a medical emergency. He had a seizure, right in front of you. You were terrified, and you ran to the nearest caretaker, just as you were supposed to. I took him here, and treated him. He's fine now, as long as he has regular treatments for his epilepsy, but you took it particularly hard." So had Noah, upon first learning Scad had the condition. He hadn't suffered any traumatic head injury that Noah could recall, so it must have been oxygen deprivation. Scad's incubation pod had malfunctioned once during the third trimester. That was probably the cause of his brain disorder. Still, he was functional most of the time.

Noah tried to focus on the matter at hand. "Anyway, you would wake up screaming after seeing that. Night after night. The other kids were worried, but they hadn't seen it like you did. I tried talking to you about it—tried explaining that it was normal for kids to act out after seeing something terrifying like that—but you wouldn't hear it. You thought something was wrong with you. That you were the problem."

Chif swallowed hard. This couldn't be easy for him to relive, even though it had happened years ago.

"That's why I had Sandra come into your dorm at night. You remember how she used to sing you to sleep? She'd tuck you in, night after night, and stay until well after you were asleep."

"But it wasn't her. It was you!"

Noah nodded. "True, but you didn't know that. I couldn't help you as me, but I could help you as her. And that's the whole point. The goal was to help you, not to keep trying and failing. You needed a mother, and I couldn't even get close. But she could at least convince you. Do you understand? I was programmed to create a stable human society on this planet, and that starts with you. You and the other kids. I will do whatever it takes to help you. Usually, that's just feeding you, and teaching you, and cleaning up after you. Sometimes that's teaching you to do some of those things for yourself. And sometimes it's tricking you, especially if you're very very young, into thinking someone else is helping you."

Chif was quiet for a long while, but eventually looked back up at Noah's 'eyes'. "I get it. It's like Santa. Kids like thinking he came through the dome with presents. Even Woad does, but I know it's just you."

Noah recalibrated his expectations yet again. "You know about that, too, huh?"

Chif shrugged. "You said it took you eighty years to get here. I read that animal database you have, and it says reindeer don't live more than twenty. Wait, do you have reindeer cells up on the Mary??" He leaned forward eagerly.

"I do. I have multiple samples from most animal species, actually. But I won't be creating any reindeer for a while. Not until we have a lot more oxygen in the air, and they can live outside a dome."

"That's a shame. I'd put a red ball on one's nose and call him Rudy."

After simulating a laugh at that, Noah straightened his features. "Listen, it's important that you keep this secret for now, all right? Kids can find out the truth about Santa without any real harm, but Santa isn't their primary caregiver. It's necessary to have multiple personalities looking out for you kids, or at least have them think that's the case for now. It certainly helped you, and there are some girls who react better to Marsha and Cindy than they do to Clive."

"All right, I can do that." He paused. "But what about Valae and Yuun? They're my friends."

"I know. It makes sense that you'd want to tell them. But I'm asking you not to, all right? Unless they ask you straight out, just keep pretending that we're all a bunch of different people."

The boy hesitated, looking down. "Ok, but Valae's pretty smart. Yuun might not figure it out like I did, but she could. What if she asks me?"

"Then tell her," Noah responded confidently. If a child was old enough to put it together on their own, they were old enough to have it confirmed. "Or send her to me, and I'll tell her."

Chif nodded. "I like that. Let them figure it out on their own. Man, being a dad is hard, huh?"

Noah was tempted to try a laugh, but he held off on that. "I'm not a father."

"Meh. You look after us. You're close enough."

"If you say so. In that spirit, though, we still have your transgression to talk about. You were outside without permission. I can't ignore that, even if I want to. Now tell me. Have you brought anyone else outside without my knowledge? You might have put them in danger if so."

Chif shook his head. "It's always just Valae and me. Well, we brought Yuun with us once, but he didn't like it."

"Does anyone else know the door code?" Once Chif again shook his head, Noah went on. "Good. Now you can stargaze all you want, all three of you, but I do need to know about it when it happens. Be sure to let a caretaker know when you plan on it. And I don't want you out too late. No more than a half hour at a time, understood?"

"Understood, sir."

That was strange. Military parlance had been included in a few of the films they'd seen, but not many. Chif must have picked it up from context. "My punishment for you was to make you skip your free period, but our conversation went so long that we already did that. So I'll consider it time served." He extended a drone's hand. "Deal on the secret?"

Ignoring the hand, Chif lunged in and wrapped his arms around the drone's midsection. Surprised, not at the hug itself but at the fact that it was Chif doing it, Noah returned the embrace. "I love you, Noah."

"Love you too, Chif." That was another lie, but an easier one to simulate. Besides, if history was any indication, Chif would figure out the truth about that before long as well.

-.-

Noah watched them from a distance using various caretakers, but it seemed their conversation had had the desired effect. Chif seemed more at ease with the caretakers now, and often gave them what Noah could only assume was a knowing smile.

Valae seemed to think she'd gotten lucky with her punishment, and was a model student and daughter for the morning. She still had lots of restless energy to burn, but she did so in the makeshift playground and not by wandering out at night.

Yuun was his usual quiet, introverted self. He did the limited homework expected of him promptly, but then usually followed Chif to the terminal room and sat next to one of the displays. Unlike his more forceful friend, he didn't read up on animals and plants. No, Yuun's poison of choice (a phrase Noah had picked up from Karl at some point) was music.

Noah had a large number of songs provided by the Faith, which were mostly worship music. Yuun seemed to have a very wide palate when it came to his music, though. He usually just listened to a few of them, such as “Awesome God” or “This Little Light”, but then branched out to other artists and song types. Usually at this time of year, with snowfall increasingly likely outside, he listened to Christmas music. Strange. He was studiously avoiding that collection for now. Noah had stationed a caretaker near the terminals and dialed up the gain on its mic so he could hear what was going on. Not that it was strictly necessary; the terminals had mics as well, and he could tell which entries each one was displaying or playing for the kids.

Chif apparently noticed Yuun's choices as well. Tearing himself away from a dictionary entry on emus, he gave his friend a concerned look. "No “12 Days of Christmas”, or “Holly Jolly Christmas”? I thought you liked those."

Yuun shook his head. "I don't like Christmas anymore. Santa's fake, like you said. He's made up."

That definitely grabbed Chif's attention. He reached over to pause the song that was playing on the headphones, and gave his friend a close look. "I remember saying that. I was wrong, ok?"

"You were?"

Chif nodded forcefully. "I told you that reindeers couldn't make it all the way from Earth to here, right? Well, I was right about that, but Santa doesn't need them here."

As if an ember of hope was being fanned in his heart, Yuun's eyebrows raised slightly. "He doesn't?"

"Nope. Santa's got another workshop, right here on New Eden. It's, uh, up there," Chif pointed outside the dome. The terminals didn't get the best view of the outside, but they were at least close to the edge. "See up in those hills? There's a cave there, that Santa visits when he's in New Eden. He's got a workshop inside, and some elves. They make toys, and bring them down here to us."

"But... how could Santa get all the way over here in just one night? Don't the kids on Earth get toys too?"

Chif shook his head. "Remember how New Eden years are longer than Earth? Christmas over there isn't the same time it is here. That means that Santa can do Christmas over there, and then come all the way over here to do it for us, too."

"Really?"

"Really really." Chif reached out to the terminal again. "Come on. Let's listen to one of those songs. What do you think... “Merry Little Christmas”?"

Yuun nodded happily, and Chif swiped through the songs and selected the right one. As it started though, his eyes strayed back to his own terminal, to the article on emus. At least he was pretending to be interested in the music, for his friend's sake.

Noah wasn't sure this was a completely positive development. True, Chif was cooperating now, but he'd also just lied to one of his peers, repeatedly. Perhaps Noah's advice yesterday wasn't as helpful as he'd assumed. Redirecting his processing power back to the new seeds being planted in the agro dome, he reflected how he couldn't wait until some of these kids were grown up. Human instincts were much better attuned to what was right for children than his could ever be.
« Last Edit: July 21, 2022, 03:07:18 AM by Daen »