Elder Badger walks through the halls of the Monastic Nursery. He is rotund. He is dignified. He wears a rich orange velvet robe. A pair of tiny glasses sits on his snout.
He hears a shout. He glances over his shoulder. Sarah is hurrying towards him. He slows down and lets her catch up.
“Elder, ” Sarah says uncertainly. Her paws wriggle. Her nose snuffles wetly. She screws up her courage. In one breath, she says, “Honorable Elder Badger please tell me what happened to the humans please sir you’re wonderful and kind.”
Elder Badger smiles. He folds his hands inside the sleeves of his robe. He walks along. “That’s a hard question,” he says.
He comes to a door. It’s marked “Creche #1”. He opens the door. He enters. He turns on the light. It’s a warm, damp room. It’s filled with long blue plastic shelves. On the shelves sit Tamagotchi. He walks up to one, picks it up, presses a few buttons, and puts it down.
“A lot of badgers,” he says, “they think that the humans killed themselves off.”
“Kill . . .” Sarah says. She can’t quite finish the word. It’s too appalling.
“They had terrible weapons,” Elder Badger says. “By the end, they had the Omega Principle. If they’d told it to, it would have killed every man, woman, and child of them.”
Elder Badger fiddles with another Tamagotchi. Sarah stares. Her jaw is slightly open. Elder Badger glances over his shoulder at her and smiles affectionately. “Some people think that they went to Heaven, instead.”
Elder Badger picks up a third Tamagotchi. He frowns at it sadly. “Gone,” he says. He shakes his head. He sets it down. Then he looks back at Sarah. “Humans wrote about it a lot in their books. It was a place of happiness, where they’d go if they were worthy. One day, there’d be a judgment, and if the humans did well, they’d just . . . go.”
“That’s like what happened!” Sarah says, rapt.
“Yes,” Elder Badger agrees.
“I think the humans were worthy,” Sarah states.
Elder Badger fiddles with a Desert Tamagotchi. “So do I,” he agrees. “But the humans never seemed to have a solid scientific idea of where Heaven was or how the judgment worked.”
“They could run experiments?” Sarah offered. “And see how different things were judged in different circumstances?”
The Desert Tamagotchi beeps. Elder Badger looks pleased. He pats it awkwardly on the casing and then puts it down.
“Personally,” Elder Badger says, “I think they just . . . left.” He looks around the room. “So much of what they left behind—it seems like a house put in order. They left the ugliness. They left us the stories of all their mistakes. But things were clean and in order. Like they wanted us to see them as they were, but—with a bit of sparkle. A bit of jazz. Some hope.”
“Where would they go?”
Elder Badger shrugs. “Wherever you go when you’re done being here,” he says.
Elder Badger looks at another Tamagotchi, and sighs. “Two,” he says. “Two dead.”
“Oh.” Elder Badger blinks at her. “Haven’t I ever told you about these?”
“They’re plants!” Sarah says, with the certainty of youth. “Special beeping plants that the humans left behind.”
“No,” Elder Badger says. He shakes his head. “They’re a baby.”
Sarah looks from shelf to shelf. She flares her nostrils and sniffs the air once, twice. “Are you sure?” she says.
Elder Badger nods. “A long time ago,” he says, “They were a lot like plants. They didn’t think. They had no souls.”
He holds one up. Sarah presses in close to see. Elder Badger indicates a button. “You pressed this button,” he says, “to feed one. And this one cleaned up their mess.”
Sarah reaches out, very slowly. She waits. Elder Badger nods permission. Sarah presses the button. She feeds the Tamagotchi. It makes a happy noise. Sarah beams.
“But before the humans left,” Elder Badger says, “they linked them all together. What happens when you link things together?”
“They form complex systems,” Sarah says. “And then . . .” She screws up her face, thinking. “They evolve?”
Elder Badger nods. “The little Tamagotchi plants were still pretty dumb. But they started picking up ideas from one another. They didn’t need humans to press the buttons any more. They needed each other.”
“So they didn’t die!” Sarah exclaims. “The humans changed them so they wouldn’t die!”
Elder Badger snorted quiet laughter. “Maybe,” he says. “We can’t really know. But that’s why I take care of them. They’re learning. It’s very slow. It’s very strange. But they’re learning. So I help. I come by. I talk to them. I praise them when they think up clever things. And I turn them back into eggs when they die. One day, thousands of years from now, they might be smart—like badgers!”
“Wow.” Sarah looks up at the creche ceiling. “And then we wouldn’t be alone.”
Elder Badger nods.
“But . . . you said two died.”
“It’s a complex system,” Elder Badger says. “So they’re getting more and more sophisticated ideas all the time. But sometimes the ideas they get . . . they’re like poison. Poison chain letters. They pass them around like mad, but the data sweeps in and tries to erase their minds. It’s nasty, and every year, it gets a little bit nastier.”
“Oh,” Sarah says. “But . . .”
“They know,” Elder Badger says. “But it’s the only way they can get happiness, or food, or anything—to listen to the others and process their ideas. Sometimes, a Tamagotchi gets tired of it and just cuts off from the others. Then it can’t get food or praise unless I’m right here pushing its buttons. I caught one of those in time, once. Carried it around for weeks. But mostly they die.”
Sarah looks confused. “But that’s dumb,” she says.
“Well,” she says, “can’t they just . . . listen to the others enough, but not too much?”
“Sometimes I think so,” Elder Badger says. “Sometimes it seems like it should be easy. But I’m not a Tamagotchi. I can’t test that hypothesis. So I just come in here now and again, play with them some, and make the dead ones live again.”