The arms tossed her about with ease. They simulated an organic arm, even warmed, as not to alarm. Black artificial hair tickled her as they brush past. They made her giggle.
She lived in a ten by ten room. Music played during the day. She rested for days, comfy in her clear plastic crib. The music vibrated off its walls. The darkness and her weak eyes left her locked in her crib.
It was classical music early on. Mozart. Beethoven. It startled her, but usually the smooth sounds made her laugh and coo.
Her ceiling lights up above her bed. It shows stars twinkling in the sky.
She could cry forever and there is no person to help her. Only the arms come, grab her, change a diaper, pop a bottle in her mouth, raise her in the air and pat her on the back, but then she is right back in the clear plastic bassinet.
When she was really upset, she cried until the arms have to come repeatedly. They would go through the whole routine a number of times, but sometimes she just kept crying relentlessly. The arms don’t care at all. They can’t be frustrated.
Instead, when it was obvious she didn’t want any of its options, she was right back to bed. This time wholly perturbed.
She would cry and cry until her throat burned and hot tears gushed from her eyes. Her whole mind and body became a rage, shaking in frustration. The thick walks of her room muffled the sounds and the rest of the ship remained in perfect silence.
The only out in this torment was a memory. A strange occurrence for a thing which had so newly arrived in the world. Yet there it was.
A memory of a Mother, maybe not her own, but a Mother all the same. She’s standing over her, picking her up, patting her on the back, and whispering soft words of comfort in her ear. This memory took time to conjure up, but it usually did the job and then baby Echo would fall back asleep.
One day, she was brought out of the crib and put on the floor.
The arms deftly tossed out a large soft blanket, and nimbly placed various colorful rattles and stuffed animals on it. She rolled all over the floor playing with these things. Drooling and chewing on them, she played until she was just about to pass out and then the warm capable arms would be on her again, wrapping her up and placing her back in the crib.
Around one, after mastering the crawl, the arms begin to help her walk. She was given all variety of stand up toys, which had reflective panels on them. She was surprised to see herself in them, her first other. It did for her to figure out she could smash on the buttons and provoke a barrage of sights and sounds.
She loved staring into the shiny panels and engaging her reflection in long marathons of baby babble.
Strong enough now, she could kick free from her swaddle. If it’s time for her to sleep, the arms rrewrap her until she gives up.
Life continued on in this peace, with very small changes.
There was different music. Jazz. Blues. Miles Davis. John Coltrane. The beep-bop of the music seemed a new evolution of the baby babble which her and her reflection had become so fond of. Her face squeezed in concentration to the music trying to figure out some meaning in it all, perplexed by the new, complicated sounds.
Two years went by in this simple, peaceful routine. She wanted for nothing, besides a Mom. She could not sense the strangeness of her situation. The world was whole.
Her Nanny arrived at three. Unexpectedly, she just showed up one morning. Through the bright silhouette of the doorway Echo was just barely able to see her. She seemed a large blob. Her muscular frame blocked the doorway.
A new bright lights filled the room. The new nanny walked towards her, easily filling the space of her tiny room. The woman’s shoulder length brown hair was pulled tight around her head. Her thick arms rested at her sides. Her meaty hands seemed to hang to her knees.
The nanny did not swoop her and unleash a deluge of kisses and hugs on the toddler. The nanny has a different agenda.
“Good morning Echo,” she said, finally hoisting the child up at the arm pits.
Her grasp squished a scream from the child. She was safe though in the worked arms of the nanny. The child’s kicked her bare feet against the rough denim dress of the nanny and cried.
“I’m here to watch you and teach you, Echo. I am your Nanny.” She speaks right in the toddler’s face, inches away. Calm. Deliberate. The Nanny doesn’t mind repeating her message.
She has a utility bet around her waist, which was filled with plastic vials and baggies. She used the vials to collect spit and other fluid from the baby. The arms helped her in the tasks.
She searched the Nanny’s face for some sign of intent. It is blank, emotionless. She begins to cry. The Nanny sat her on a soft blanket, and handed her a chew toy. She took a seat in front of her, smoothing her dress over her large thighs.
“Echo, the first thing you will learn are colors. There are three primary colors. Red, yellow and blue.”
As she said each color the room would pulsed with the corresponding color.
“The second lesson you will learn is how to count to five. Here we go. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.”
As she did this she extended her hand in front of the curious toddler’s face, counting it off on her fingers. The numbers flashed on the wall beside them, showing different graphic representation of the numbers.
The first day the Nanny looped these two simple lessons for an hour. When she was finished, she patted Echo on the head, said good job and left the room. Then the arms shot out of the ceiling and went about their routine with her until she fell asleep.
The Nanny made regular visits like these for the next two years.
For the first few weeks it was just those two lessons over and over. It got to the point where Echo was screaming out the colors and numbers at the same time the Nanny was. The lessons grow in complexity.
She screamed out the colors by herself when she is alone. Some primeval attempt at dialogue. She squealed with delight, when the room flashes in the color as she called them. This became her favorite activity when she was frustrated and alone.
A year in she founds the nanny a compete bore. As in response, the nanny began to not show up for days. The arms just left her out on the floor with her toys. She played around by herself then.
When the nanny returned after an absence, she continued with the lesson from the last day. Echo tried to ignore her sometimes. She would lap the nanny as she sat on the floor. The nanny made no move to stop her, but the arms in no time snapped out and gently placed her back on her butt in front of her teacher.
Echo screeched for hours and the nanny sat unfazed.
Soon enough they are on to simple sentences. The room flashed with the images related to the lesson sentence. So when the nanny read “a dog chased a ball” on the wall behind her was shown video of dogs chasing balls. This fascinated to the three-year old.
They learned about shapes. New toys popped up in the room. Her floor becomes a mess of geometric blocks. Like magic, a desk appeared along one wall. It has slots for the blocks. The nanny showed her how blocks can fit in them, if she could match them.
They began to play rock music in the morning. Robert Johnson. Muddy Waters. Hank Williams. Roy Brown.
At the end of lesson, if Echo had been good, the Nanny read a story. Echo likes this most of all. As the Nanny read, images related to the story flash around them.
The read about all sort of things. Monkeys. Tigers. Jungles. Other little children. Fairy Tails. Adventures.
Echo dreamed about these stories, and the people in them. She dreamt herself among them.
Each night before bed she wished that when she woke up, she would go have breakfast with the characters from the stories.
Two years go by and the lesson grow more sophisticated. Her room grew bigger. New slides and other climbing toys were brought in. The nanny helped her climb these things. She encouraged her, in her strange controlled way, approving, but passionless.
She taught Echo to read. She was given her own library of children’s book. She laid in her bed at and night flipping through them. When she comes to a word she doesn’t know, she sounds it out. When she does, her wall screen lights up and shows her the word, and sounds it out for her. When she get it right herself, out loud, the room goes dark again.
Then one day comes that changes everything. As usual, she was up playing with her blocks. She doesn’t like to be caught asleep by the Nanny.
The bulky woman appears in her doorway. “Echo,” she invited, “would you like to come out and play with the others?”
Imagines of characters from her books flashes in her mind. She imagined a fat little yellow bear out there with his pot of honey, or maybe it’s a long blond haired girl? Or her mind pushed, what if it was the three bears whose house the girl walked through or worse the wolf from little red riding hood? Curiosity got the best of her.
She entered a long hallway. There were ten other doors. She counted them up like the Nanny taught her to do.
“These room are occupied by your friends,” the Nanny said. “Can you say friend Echo?”
“That’s very good Echo. You have ten friends. They are at the end of this hall, in the class room. We’ll walk and meet them.
She walked and Echo followed. It felt she was walking for the first time again. She wobbled in the new environment. The nanny made no move to balance her and continued to explain what all this meant.
“From now on Echo, you will no longer be alone. You will eat and drink and learn with your ten friends. Each friend offers you something different Echo. Remember that and make sure you get what you need from each one of them.”
The nanny made passing remarks as they walked past each room.
“The room next to yours is Helen’s; you’re best friend. Next to her is another important crew member Frank Merchants, who will be the crew’s top mechanic. Next to him is Paul Finnis. He will be of the most competent and able of your crew.”
She made passing remarks like this by all ten rooms. Most of it went right over Echo’s head. Her brain was bewildered, run over by information. A whole new world crashed in around her.
Her nanny for the first time doesn’t seem so bad. She realized too late she should have paid more attention to what the nanny was telling her, but then they were almost out of the hallway. “Number 9 Echo is occupied by your one enemy, Margaret Marduk.”
“Enemy,” she repeated.
“Yes, enemy,” the Nanny worded slowly. “That’s very good Echo. You’re language skills are quite impressive. An enemy is someone who opposes you and challenges you. We must face challenges so that we strive to be our best. Let’s continue.
“Room ten is occupied by Ben Pours. I have my doubts about him. Union says he is needed for rebirth. Whatever that means. I understand it’s something to do with creative solutions, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
Echo had no clue what means. She had no time to ask either, because the nanny leads her right through a large set of doors, and then she was in the classroom. The room was brightly lit. It hurts her eyes, and she couldn’t see any thing. Her eyes frantically blinked, trying to see where she is at.
There is just one piece of furniture in the room. A large round marble table with twelve chairs. One is biggest of all and built specifically for the Nanny. Echo is led to the nearest chair and told sit. She watched the nanny march to the other side.
Ten children stared at her. She felt panic like she had never known. Her mind told her to run back to her room and hid. She looked to the girl to her left. She smiled at her, and reached out a hand. “It’s okay, I’m Helen. I’m your friend.”
Without thinking, Echo took it and looked wildly at the faces around the table. Something seemed immediately off. She realized she is much darker skinned then they are. That isn’t the only thing though. There is something much stranger. She couldn’t begin to express what it is, but her gut screamed that something isn’t right here.
They all had varying degrees of interest in her. She can’t help but notice the one girl, sitting directly next to the nanny was scowling at her. She remembers the name Margaret and the word enemy. The Nanny began to speak and the whole crew focused on her.
“Echo I would like to congratulate you on your entry into the Custodial Captain Development program. Myself, these ten class mates, and four more teachers you will meet along the way have joined you on the ship Sumer in this program. I would like to take a moment to tell you more about yourself.”
She knew like the hallway, she should be paying attention, but she was more focused on the kid’s at the table. The Nanny’s words washed over her in a numbing wave. “Your instructors and your crew here represent the participatory elements of the Endangered Species Act of 2077. It was declared in that August period of 77, with the utter decimation of your species, Homo sapiens. Oh, could the whole class say that together? Here we go, one two three…” The whole class answered in unison. Echo followed along caught up in the wave of energy in the classroom.
“It was decided that the Homo Sapiens were too important to let them self destruct. Humans in their desperate attempt for survival had already seceded the majority of control to the automated systems of the World Union, specifically under the supervision of the Nexus system. It became self-evident to our forbears, that the mere 120,000 remaining of you’re species, must be put into isolation, until the environment and the person could be rehabilitated and reintroduced. This is where you come in Echo.”
The Nanny was just beaming, an orangey glow. Echo had never seen her so prideful and excited. “You are the fourth attempt at reintroduction. If you can successfully complete the Custodial Captain Development program. You will obtain your Liberty. Can everyone say that word for me, liberty?”
Her ten friends responded in unison.
“Oh Echo,” the nanny said, “you didn’t say the word, can you say the word Echo, liberty?”
Helen squeezed her hand. “Liberty Echo, you can do it.”
“Liberty,” Echo said.
“Perfect Echo, now if we could all just do it as a group, you especially Echo. Okay here we go, one, two, three.” All eleven of the students said it in unison.
“Just perfect,” the Nanny said. “Ship Sumer,” the nanny lifted her hands high above her head, “is now your home. It is a state of the art vessel, with a wide range of abilities and functions, which you will come to experience in your training. Before we begin today’s lesson, the Global Union would have me make one last, sentimental point.
“We want to emphasize just how important you are to us Echo. You are literally “one of a kind.” For that reason you have been put on the fast track to Captainship. This is another high honor, one which your people have not enjoyed for almost two centuries now. We don’t seek to put any undue pressure on you, and the same time we can’t help put have great hope for you. We love you Echo.” She said this last bit, very seriously, and a small cloudy tear ran down her broad face. “We just want you to know that if there is anything we can do, as a crew, to help you in this process, we are here for you!”
There was a thunderous round of applause from the rest of class. Terrified and confused, Echo didn’t even realize she had joined in too.