Colony Collapse

To bumblebee is to become a bumblebee; and the price of that becoming is your death.

The news is always full of stories.

Bumblebees are squished;
Licked up;
Yakked out;
and, lastly, wiped.

The Lady Devereaux—as all the ladies Devereaux had before—expresses bombastic disdain.

“We need them, yes,” she says.

One arm waves, broadly. A length of lace cuts the air.

“As we need all those sorts. The grouting ants, the toilet skinks, and the far-too-serious badgers of City Hall. But it is . . . hymenopteraic,” she says. “Segmenting your eyes; growing the antennae; carrying about the slops of flower sex—it is not done.”

“Hymenopteral,” says Emeline, behind her too-large glasses.

Grammar constrains the Lady Devereaux. She feels it binding her as her corset might—not literally, but still a certain coarse constraint.

“The adjective is hymenopteral,” Emeline concludes.

The Lady Devereaux sighs. She sinks down into her chair. She gestures Emeline to her lap, and gently she brushes Emeline’s hair.

“So it is,” she says.

“Mum Grayden,” Emeline says—here referring to Heloise Grayden, across the road—“is proud of Robert; so she says.”

There is a peculiar misery to Emeline’s expression now. Robert had been a funny child, in his too-tight suits and his niceties, but he was more to her than her brother Adric or the Skevinses down the road. And you can follow the story of a bumblebee in the papers—the government was always very proper in keeping towns up-to-date on the accomplishments of their bees—but you cannot play with a bumblebee. You cannot drink hot cocoa with a bumblebee, if you do not want it to drown or become sick of chocolate poisoning or burn up after coming too close to the chocolate and forgetting how to fly. And you certainly cannot play Scrabble, gin, or DS Pokemon while doing so. Even a fantasy tea party is somewhat stifled when it is only yourself and a bee; and Robert had flown on not long after his transformation in any case.

“Mum Grayden,” says the Lady Devereaux, “is putting her best face on.

There were five of them living in Emeline’s house, which is to say, the Lady Devereaux; her daughter Morgaine; her son-in-law Edward, of whom nothing further shall be said; and her grandchildren Emeline and Adric.

In the mornings Emeline would eat breakfast, always a toasted bagel with a cream cheese spread, a glass of orange juice, and occasionally an egg. She would shower and change from her pajamas into clothing suitable for school; then she would catch the bus. Later, after receiving an education, she would return home and while away her evenings on study, family time, and play; and on no occasion did she reveal herself as anything other than the kind of person who remains human all their life.

It takes a peculiar kind of dignity to live as a human all one’s life—given, of course, that one should have the means—

But the ladies Devereaux mostly did.

Now Heloise Grayden visits one afternoon for tea; and Emeline breaks her silence to say, “I think that they should let the bees come home.”

It is one of the opinions voiced in the local paper; and she is quoting Harvard Elling of that paper when she finishes, “It is a matter of simple justice.”

Mum Grayden makes a noise; it is a strange sort of noise, half-gasp, half-snort, indelicate and covered shortly after with a napkin to her lips.

“Naturally, no person ought to be—constrained,” says Lady Devereaux.

It is surprisingly kind of her to say; then she spoils it altogether by continuing, “Although I’m sure there are considerations— stinging and flying in people’s eyes and such. If there weren’t some regulation, wouldn’t bees just do as they like and make the ecosystem worse? I’m sure the government bees as compassionate as it can.”

“Mum,” murmurs Morgaine.

Morgaine looks away from Lady Devereaux and extends a hand towards Heloise. Heloise follows it with her eyes but does not take it. Instead she places her napkin down with great delicacy and offers Lady Devereaux a kind of wet-eyed grin.

“When the flowers bloom on the trees, and the orchards live—I think, we wouldn’t have anything to eat, would we? We wouldn’t have the means to live, not like this anyway, without our boys in yellow—there’s no way to say it—without our boys in yellow, busy in the hives, inseminating the queen. Isn’t it so? So I think, isn’t it good? I don’t know what I’d do if he came home.”

The Lady Devereaux fixes her expression in a porcelain smile.

“Yes,” she says. “God save them.”

Emeline frowns.

“Inseminating is Latin,” she says, deep in thought. “Inseminare: to sow, implant. Pray, if you could tell me—”

The Lady Devereaux stands abruptly.

“A wonderful tea,” she says, in sharp swift cadence. “Thank you for your visit, dear Heloise, and may you come again. Children ought, dear Emeline, be seen and not heard. Have you entirely completed your studies for the weekend? I feel I need a walk; adieu.”

Her bustle proves eponymous as she retreats from the room.

“Do not be a bumblebee, Emeline,” says Heloise.

Her hands come down on Emeline’s. They grip them tight.

“Not a bumblebee. Not even a queen. Not even some other kind of bee. Do not.”

Morgaine says, sharply, “Heloise!”

Heloise stares at her hands and Emeline’s for a moment. Then she shakes her head. She looks confused, as if she does not understand how she has come to this place, this time, and this position.

Slowly she pulls away.

I think,” Adric says, in what shall be his only line, “that she’ll become an owl.”

But this is the fallacy of Lamarck; and for his deviation from evolutionary orthodoxy Emeline punishes him with itching powder in his sheets.

At school the next week three boys are singing in the playground:

“I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee;
“Won’t my mother be so proud of me?”

Emeline, who is walking past them to the library, stops to hear them out.

“I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee.
“Ouch! He stung me!”

She frowns at them distantly.

The version of the song she’d always heard began with “I wish I were—”

A good devotional song, that one. This one—

This one was perverse.

“I’m squishing up my baby bumblebee,” the boys are singing, squishing their hands together.
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I’m squishing up my baby bumblebee,
“Eww! It’s all over me!”

Stop it,” she says.

Her body is rigid. Her arms are at her sides and trembling. The boys turn to stare at her.

Stop it,” she says. “They’re bees.

“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee,” one of the boys starts, in a soothing, pacifying, and entirely sarcastic tone. He scrubs off his hands. The others join in.
“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee,
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee—”

They sneer at her.

“Look! All clean!” they say and show her their hands; but she cannot see them through her furious tears.

Stiff-legged, she walks away.

Behind her, she hears,

“I’m licking up my baby bumblebee—”

That day she scores a 92 on her spelling test, mangling phylopraxy and palingenesis entirely and with two furious strokes of her pen.

It is not an error the Lady Devereaux accepts; Emeline goes without her evening meal that night.

Bumblebees—

It is not like it is with honey bees.

A bumblebee can sting and then survive; it can leave the hives, abandoning its peers, and make its way along the roads to home; it is fearsome-furred and powerful and strong—

It has a better life than a honey bee’s.

But to bumblebee is to become a bumblebee, and the price of that is death.

It may wait twelve months for you—fifteen, if you are lucky, young, and strong—but death, for a bumblebee, is as inevitable as the snow.

That winter, the papers tell Emeline of Robert Grayden’s death, and Mum Grayden hangs the yellow wreath upon her door.

“Sometimes I think that Adric ought become a llama,” Emeline says.

This suggestion is one students find quite clever—entirely deniable, if one knows certain details about Tibet, and while undignified not so harsh as to be cruel.

But at the table where she and Lady Devereaux are taking a late and solitary tea, the suggestion falls quite flat.

“A Devereaux does not become a beast,” the Lady Devereaux says.

Emeline swallows a bit of scone and many unwise remarks.

“I don’t know how Robert became a bee, and then he died,” she says, after a time. “And everyone says it was heroic, but they don’t— they don’t honor it.”

“It is very hard for poor Heloise,” says Lady Devereaux.

She tidies up the crumbs on her plate.

“Perhaps we should invite her by; speak about . . . a breath of air, you know, taking down the yellow, coming back into society again. It is not good to spend your time in melancholy; she still is healthy enough, I’m sure she and Mr. Grayden can fill their house again.”

“But—” says Emeline.

“Tut!” says Lady Devereaux. “Finish your scone, young lady, and then we shall draw your bath.”

In Church they sing,

“I wish I were a baby bumblebee;
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I wish I were a baby bumblebee;
“A male! Or a queen!”

“I wish I were a military boar;
“Tusks and hide and shouting a great roar;
“I wish I were a military boar;
“Charge!”

But even when they sing about service, the minister mostly talks about hellfire and money.

That is why when Emeline finds herself at the transmogrification office, staring down at the clipboards and wondering, she feels utterly and entirely alone.

“If you’re under 18,” the recruiter says, “Your Mum or Dad’ll have to sign.”

“I’m 18,” Emeline says.

The recruiter looks at her. If you didn’t have access to her sanitary cupboard, you’d be hard pressed to prove she’d hit puberty.

“12 at most,” he says.

“I just have to say I’m 18,” Emeline says. “You don’t have to believe me. And it just means I live longer, after, if I’m not.”

His eyes go carefully and formally blank.

“Can’t get your Mum or Dad to agree, then?”

“‘A Devereaux doesn’t become a beast,'” Emeline quotes. “‘A Devereaux is always gracious. A Devereaux always uses perfect grammar.’

“— even if she doesn’t!” Emeline adds, in mild outrage.

“It’s tough,” the recruiter says. “It’s not— you understand that it’s not a way to get away from too much homework? Or spite your parents for grounding you?”

“Everything is dying,” Emeline says, “because the bees are dying. The plants will die. The animals. The people. All the web of life come undone.

“If you ask me,” she says, and realizes as she says this that she has become everything that is not a Devereaux, “there ought to be a draft.”

The recruiter makes one of those faces adults sometimes make.

“18, huh?” he says.

“18.”

And that is how she took the change.

The walk home afterwards is the hardest thing she’s ever done. She tells herself it is because her body is changing, but this is not so, not yet. That takes a few days to start.

It is because she is still human, rather, and knows what will happen.

“Mother,” she says, “Grandmother. It is my intention; I mean, I want to—I mean, I will— bumblebee.”

And the Lady Devereaux goes white, which is exactly as expected, and her breath rattles in her corset-constrained chest like the ball of a pinball machine, thumping back and forth.

“I said,” Emeline adds, jutting her chin, “I was 18.”

But what Emeline did not expect was the reaction of Morgaine.

They do not strike Emeline’s mother down, these words—though they strike her, yes, wash through Morgaine like lightning; but there is motion and not stillness, the bending of sleeves and jacket and the crinkling of skirts; and her mother wraps bloused arms around Emeline like package paper around a treasure, and her hug is deep and warm and faintly crackling.

“Oh, Emeline,” she says.

And there is strange wonder here; strange pride and fear; there is something here that is more than sorrow.

It is everything, and more, for thirty seconds of her life.

After that, Emeline begins to understand what a corset must be like, and why the Lady Devereaux is with such great frequency so strange.

Ink Inapplicable (VI/XVI)

The hunger that woke Riffle from the sleep of the rats still burns in him today.

He is surrounded by the dead.

He is holding a sword at the throat of the imago, and trying—so very hard, with muscles that are not very strong—to drive it home.

All around him is Riffle’s crew, that ragged lot that build up scaffoldings towards the ceiling of the cave. They do not build for longevity. They build for speed. All around him there are the sounds of hammering, climbing, and crashing, tumbling wood.

He is hungry to be more than a rat. That is why he has grown to nearly four feet in height and developed a human brain. He does not want to be a rat.

He wants purpose.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

The Island of the Centipede

Minister Jof’s hand closes on Riffle’s arm.

The room has gone deathly still.

Where did Minister Jof come from? Why is he here? These questions remain unanswered. But he has enough decency to him to do this: to grab the arm of the rat and stop the sword.

And suddenly Ink sees a thing, and her fear dissolves.

“Do you happen to know the history of this sword?” asks Ink Catherly.

Her voice is dry and confident, like a pedant’s right before it strikes.

Riffle looks at the sword.

He shakes his head.

Ink steps back. She rubs at her throat. She looks at her injured hand. She says, “A long time ago, there were men and women and children who believed, more than anything else, that the crust of the world was evil and that they had to destroy it. They had to destroy it so that the storm that surges below could rise to reach the mortal world.”

Riffle struggles against Minister Jof’s grip.

“We’re losing valuable scaffolding time,” hisses the rat.

But after a moment he spreads his free hand conciliatorily, and adds, “If you leave aside this distraction of my crew and depart then I will let you live.”

There’s a crash behind them. Minister Jof starts. It’s one of the rickety scaffoldings coming down.

“They were formed,” says Ink, “like all of you were formed, from the substance of the world. They were worms, or bugs, or rats, that developed over the long courses of their lives into something better. And they understood their holy mission in those terms. But they were not alone.”

Riffle drops the sword. He pulls away from Minister Jof and turns his back.

“The matter has no relevance to our holy mission to maintain as many height-amortized scaffold-inches as we can,” he says.

“There were those, O Riffle,” says Ink Catherly, “who believed more than anything that righteousness was to preserve this crust, this sanctuary, this seal that severs world and storm.”

Riffle puffs up his cheeks.

He exhales.

He says, “Very well.”

Another pair of scaffoldings crash down.

“Go home,” says Riffle.

He shoos his crew.

“Go home; go home; I’m calling this year’s break.”

And there is one of his crew with long thin legs and a carapace covering its face and a long thread-like bifurcated black tail. It skitters along the corpses and is gone.

And there is one of his crew that is like a heart in a nest of veins, save that it may stand on some of its veins and others have been split to form fingers, thumbs, or spines. This one skulks back to the corpse of a badger-creature and ducks into its mouth; mechanically, the corpse’s throat works and strains, then swallows it and it is gone.

And in that fashion one by one they disperse.

And Ink is saying, “And they worked for a time, each under their own direction, until they came to appoint a man named Riffle as their leader and charged him with the maximization of their effective goals: that is, from the one side he found employment to organize them towards their ends of speedily destroying the crust, and from the other in leading them in its salvation.”

A scaffold crashes.

“I did my job,” says Riffle.

Minister Jof stares at his back.

“It was a devil of a project,” Riffle says. “Reconciling those aims. But then I figured, well, they can’t very well both have what they want, so I could serve one of ’em tautologically, if I just figured out which one it was. Turned out t’be both.”

“In darkness,” says Ink, “in a cave of ivory where centipede-elephants would crawl to die, a woman made this sword to serve her in this glorious cause. And she came here to the war and used it to cut open one man, one woman, and one vaguely genderless bat-creature. Then she tripped on a spear and died.”

Riffle says, “You’ve made your point.”

“I had a point?”

“You can obviously interfere with my work any time,” Riffle says. “Can’t let my workers hear that kind of talk. So it’s all down to this: is it more cost-effective to placate you, or to escalate the violence? Right now, you’ve got an edge on the violence, so I figure, you should tell me what you want.”

“I’m actually just passing through,” Ink says.

Riffle says, “There’s nowhere to go.”

“I’m going to find whomever’s sitting on the throne of the world and kill him,” Ink says.

Riffle turns. He looks at her.

“Why?” he says.

His voice is different when he says that. Everything up till now has been a little distant, a little detached, pouty at the most. Now it’s hungry. Now it’s got urgency to it. It’s like he’s thinking: She could have a cause. She could have something worth doing. She might need competent management like me.

But:

“I’m a destroyer,” Ink says.

And Riffle shrinks.

It’s like he’s deflating beneath his skin.

He says, “That’s not a reason. That’s a resource.”

“It’s exploiting an untapped niche!” Ink Catherly protests.

  • Tune in NEXT WEEK for the next exciting chapter in the histories of the imago:
    THE DOCTOR OF THE DEEPS

Laying the Moral Groundwork

It is bad to badger witnesses. It is worse to badger witnesses with weasels. It is worst of all to badger witnesses with sharks, unless the witness can turn into a shark and fight back. Then it’s entertaining!

You can’t badger people with lasers. For one thing, you use lasers to zap people, not to badger them. For another, the lasers are the wrong color.

Some lasers are red. These lasers are made with red crystals.

Some lasers are blue. These lasers are made with blue crystals.

Some lasers are weasel-colored. There are no weasel crystals so these are made with non-crystalline weasels.

The cool thing about using a weasel-colored laser is that weasels are highly resistant to the energetic impact. If your target is standing in front of a weasel and you want to use a red or blue laser, then you must wait until the target moves. Otherwise you might hurt the weasel. With a weasel-colored laser this is not true. You can fire straight through your target and the weasel will remain unharmed.

This also has benefit in medical situations where you need to operate on someone who is laying on a bed of weasels. You can carve gently and surgically through such a person’s body and rely on the underlying weasels to squeak in mild discomfort when the laser touches them.

The reason this works is that weasels inherently reflect the color of weasels. If they didn’t then they would be invisible—all of the weasel-colored light that hit them would be absorbed and you would be unable to see the weasel. It is very very rude to shoot an invisible weasel with a weasel-colored laser, since this will highlight its deformity while simultaneously inflicting a terrible weasel-colored burn.

Perry Mason was the first lawyer to use a weasel-colored laser to solve crimes. (He was not the first detective to do so; that, of course, was Sherlock Holmes, who made detection into a science and could use weasel lasers to highlight even the smallest non-invisible-weasel clues. As he put it, ‘the weasel reveals the game.’ However, given the rising use of weasel-colored lasers in important court cases, Perry Mason’s contribution remains significant.)

Perry Mason first used the weasel-colored laser in his classic clash with prosecutor Hammerhead Durgan. Hammerhead Durgan’s reign of terror relied on his use of a shark-colored laser to reveal the various defendants’ moral flaws. Perry’s weasel-colored laser cancelled out the shark-colored laser, since sharks are a totally different color than weasels, allowing Perry to see through to the facts of the case. Durgan went into a blood frenzy, murdering everyone in the courtroom but the quick-witted Perry and his client. This left the courtroom permanently cursed. Anyone whose trial the justice system holds there transforms into a shark or a weasel when badgered, reverting only when asked a leading question. Some of these witnesses are never asked a leading question—they stay a badger or a shark forever, just like people who win third prize in a “turn into a dangerous animal” lotto!

Lotto makes the state a lot of money, which it can use to build roads and pay police officers. Turning witnesses into weasels is not as good—it’s illegal to sell the weasels or the witness chair, so the whole process is actually terribly expensive! That’s why it’s so important not to badger witnesses. It costs the state money it could otherwise use for fixing potholes, manufacturing parents for needy orphans, or for graft.

Don’t badger witnesses! A balanced budget depends on you!

Thyestes (III/IV)

It is 1223 years before the common era. The sun shines white, then later red. The golden lamb plays upon a hill.

The lamb gambols.

Thyestes makes a wreath of flowers. He sets it on a stone beside him; and Artemis is there.

“She’s pretty, ” Thyestes says. “The lamb.”

“Yes, ” Artemis says.

“Golden.”

“Yes.”

“She was supposed to have been sacrificed to you,” Thyestes says. “A long time ago. But instead, my brother chose to keep her.”

“I suppose he thought that I’d been deceived.”

“Later, we wagered a kingdom on it—on whomever could provide the best lamb. And I seduced his wife, and she brought it to me, and when I and my brother brought forth our herds, mine had the superior sheep.”

Artemis turns over her hand. The gesture indicates that these things happen.

“But Zeus wanted my brother to be King,” Thyestes says. “So he became King anyway. And I left. And one day he invited me back.”

“I’m sorry,” Artemis says.

“It wasn’t your affair,” he says.

“No.”

“He killed my sons,” Thyestes says. “To punish me for sleeping with his wife. He killed my sons, and he fed them to me, and I didn’t know what I’d eaten until he brought out their cooked heads.”

Artemis reflects on this for a bit. “It happens,” she says. “If someone did that to me, I’d turn them into a badger. But I have divine powers and a temper.”

“I could get revenge,” Thyestes says.

“Ah,” Artemis says.

“I asked an Oracle how. She said to lay with my daughter Pelopia, and sire a son who would avenge me.”

There’s quiet for a bit. The lamb plays in the sun. “You can’t imagine,” Artemis says, “that I’d help you.”

“No,” Thyestes agrees.

“Then what?”

“My house is cursed,” he says. “Cursed for Tantalus. Cursed for Pelops. Cursed for me, for all I know.”

“Ah,” she says.

“Do I have a choice?”

She looks him over.

“If you ask me to,” she says, “I will turn you into a squirrel. Or a woman. Or an arrow for my bow. Or a wave out in the sea.”

“These are hard options,” he says.

“It is these,” she says, “or become a monster.”

“Like the Nemean Lion,” he says.

A long moment passes. “No,” she says. “The word is ill-suited to Echidna’s brood. In time, I think, it would be your kind that would bear the name.”

“You could threaten me,” he says. “It would make it easier. To take the hard road.”

“I can’t. Your house is cursed.”

“Oh.”

There’s a silence.

“Tell me of monsters,” he says.

“If you do this,” she says, “then one day your line shall rule even over the gods; but you shall be as empty as your victims. Your heirs will be born in horror, and raised in horror, and grow into monsters that work horror of their own; and then, like the serpent biting its own tail, that horror shall come back to them at the end, and they shall die in sickness and in pain, saying, ‘This is not fair.'”

“And how does this compare to squirrels?”

Artemis rises. Her aspect becomes terrible.

“Make up your mind,” she says.

After a while, she goes away, and the wreath sifts to the ground, and the lamb gambols against the setting sun.

With A Bit of Jazz

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.”

“Heaven?”

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.

“Oh.”

Elder Badger looks at another Tamagotchi, and sighs. “Two,” he says. “Two dead.”

“Huh?”

“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.

“Oh?”

“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.”