X or Y? Utopia or dystopia? In a world in which death has become a thing of the past the answer may well depend on X or Y.
Author: Clea Saal
Genre: Science Fiction/Novella
Page count: 118
Laira 4 was overwhelmed when the 5 was placed in her arms for the first time. She had seen babies before, of course, but the mere notion that something so tiny could actually be a human being had always amazed her. She was reassured by the presence of the others, all five of them were together, as they were meant to be. It had been almost thirteen years since they had had a 5. Granted, there would be one only for a few years, but that didn’t really matter.
Almost instinctively, Laira 4 looked for the 3’s guidance, and the 3 answered her unasked question with a slight nod, letting her know that her thoughts were appropriate, that they were to be expected. After a few minutes Laira 4 placed the 5 in the 3’s waiting arms. In turn the baby was then handed to Laira 2, and finally to Laira 1. Unaware of what was happening around her, the 5 began to cry, and was promptly returned to the safety of the 4’s arms.
The older Lairas were smiling down at her, as they began to consider their upcoming birthday. Laira 5 had arrived almost two weeks before that day, and that in itself would give them something special to celebrate. She was the twig that would ensure the survival, and growth, of the tree.
Their thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the doctors who had delivered the child. Their arrival had been expected. Kyasha 1 approached the bed, followed closely by her own 3. The Kyashas examined the youngest Lairas for any obvious signs of trouble, but everything was fine, and soon enough they departed, leaving the Lairas alone.
When Laira 5 was three days old she was finally released from the hospital. Once they arrived at their home the baby was taken to what would be her room for the next few years. The older Lairas had been careful, they had made sure that everything was as it was supposed to be.
Each one of the toys was in its exact place, and the ones that had been broken by the previous 5 had been either repaired or replaced. The familiar crib had been given a fresh coat of paint, and then it had been returned to the exact position it had always occupied, with the same old mobile made up of different plush animals hanging over it.
Preparing that room was almost a ritual, one that was performed for every 5. There was no place in which keeping change at bay was more important than in that room. That place was to be, after all, the sanctuary in which the frailest twig was to be kept safe. The older Lairas exchanged a knowing glance. That room had once housed each and every one of them, it was full of memories, memories they shared, memories that helped make them one.
They looked at each other, knowing that what they were seeing was a mirror of time. Five incarnations, each of them separated by almost exactly twenty years. The oldest one had begun some eighty years prior, the youngest one was barely three days old, and yet, in spite of that, they were all the same. They were one being, eternal.
Looking into the eyes of Laira 5, the 4 understood for the first time what she had looked like when she had first begun, and looking around she could see what she would look like twenty, forty and sixty years into the future. The exact same features at different stages of life. She had known that since her earliest days, of course, but she had never given it much thought. She had always known who she was. From the very beginning her likes and dislikes had been known, and that had served to ensure that she would be spared the pain of having to discover those things by herself, through a process of trial and error, just as it ensured that there would always be someone there to guide her.
The older Lairas knew that they still had a few days to get used to their routine, to adjust yet again to the presence of a 5 in their midst. They knew what they had to do, and they knew how to do it, so the child’s presence wouldn’t really be all that disruptive. It was merely another change of season, like the many that had come before it, and the only one that seemed to be somewhat overwhelmed by the whole situation was the 4, but that too was only natural, and it was already accounted for.
The others understood that the only reference Laira 4 had to what having a 5 in the house entailed came from her own earliest memories, and even those stemmed from an entirely different perspective. She had been taught how to handle the 5, of course, but the three oldest Lairas knew just how surprised and disoriented Laira 4 had felt the first time she had heard the 5 cry. They remembered the first time they had held their own 5’s in their arms. They knew every thought currently going through the 4’s mind before she became aware of it, and they were ready to help her deal with each new possible crisis long before it arose.
Laira 1 approached the crib in the middle of the night. The 5 was sleeping peacefully, and the 1 was careful not to disturb her as she picked her up. She held the baby for a long time, knowing that this would be her last 5 and that it would be up to her to guide her through her first few years, to make sure that she would have a strong foundation on which to grow. Laira 1 knew that the baby she now held in her arms would one day find herself in that same spot, holding a newborn Laira 5 and facing the enormous challenge of helping that child become a Laira in turn.
On a rational level the 1 knew that having a 5 in the house was always the same, but at the same time it was also slightly different. She had been overwhelmed when she had been a 4, she had been excited as a 3, as a 2 she had been able to remain calm and in control, and now as a 1 she found herself oddly reassured by the certainty that the tree would continue to grow long after she was gone.
The fact that the 5 would only exist for a few short years didn’t really bother her. It was, after all, the way of the world. The 5s were rare and precious, they almost never existed for more than ten years, though the 1 could remember having met a 6 once. That had come as something of a shock, the 6s were so rare, and their existence brought about such confusion. Of course, when there was a 6, she was usually left under the care of the 2 rather than the 1, but under those circumstances the 1 too tended to require at least some care, and as a result the 2s found themselves more than a little overwhelmed by their unusual circumstances. Having a 6 was definitely not a good thing, not from the tree’s perspective, but the 1 knew it happened sometimes. It couldn’t be avoided, though at least that was a disruption that tended to resolve itself fairly quickly. That was not the case when a twig began as a 4.
That was a situation that took much longer to correct itself. If a twig was forced to begin as a 4 then that meant that the branch itself had been damaged somewhere along the way, and it usually took all of the tree’s energy to repair that damage and to keep it from spreading. When a twig began as a 4 that tree’s growth was all but stunted until a 5 could actually come to be.
Laira 1 was exhausted. Trying to keep up with the 5 was rapidly getting to be too much for her.
At two years old, Laira 5 was beginning to push the limits, to test how far she would be permitted to go. She questioned everything, and she was determined to see everything for herself. The day in which she would first be entrusted to the development center was still four months away, and Laira 1 was beginning to wonder just what it would take for her to survive that long.
Sure, all four of the oldest Lairas were involved in the care and upbringing of the 5 to a certain extent, but the other three had their work, a work that kept them away for hours at a time, a work that had been a major part of her life for well over sixty years but was no longer hers. That was the one thing that, even after two years, she was still having a hard time trying to come to terms with.
Laira 1 looked toward the 5. The child was playing with some blocks. Laira 1 knew that in guiding the child she was making sure that her work would go on. They were both part of the whole that was Laira. Twigs in the same branch, part of the same tree… and yet Laira 1 couldn’t help but to acknowledge that it wasn’t the same.
The arrival of Laira 4, and the 5’s ensuing squeaks of delight, brought a smile to the 1’s face. That meant that the others had wrapped up their work for the day, and it also meant that she would finally be able to relax and maybe even enjoy a bit of adult conversation for a change. The others would also help her keep an eye on the 5 for a couple of hours, until the time came for them to put the child to bed.
Laira 5 was doing her best to tell them all about her first day at the development center. The other Lairas were listening to her indulgently, even though understanding her baby talk could be difficult at times. That day had marked her first real contact with other 5s, and she was extremely excited as a result. For the first time in her life she had been away from the other Lairas. For the first time the girl had found herself surrounded by people who were unlike her.
The others had barely any memory of what that day had meant for them, of course, but the three oldest ones could easily remember seeing the same excitement they now saw in the current 5’s eyes in the eyes of those Lairas that were younger than themselves. They had all lived through it, and because of that they had a fairly good idea of what it was that the 5 was going to say long before she said it. If nothing else, at least that helped them figure out what she meant. They already knew the girls she had met, and they knew the ones that would go on to become her closest friends, though they had been careful to prevent any premature encounters. Everything seemed to be as it should, but then the 5 mentioned one unexpected name among those of her new friends: Zaya.
The older Lairas exchanged a worried glance at that. No words were needed, they all knew what that meant, and what they had to do. They knew that that friendship could not be allowed to grow. Laira and Zaya had never been friends, but unfortunately their 5s were still too young to realize that. It was a difficult situation, one that would have to be handled very carefully, but the older Lairas were reassured by the certainty that the older Zayas too would do all they could to put an end to that budding relationship, so there really was no need to bother the Mornias with it. The Lairas knew that, as the one in charge of the development center, Mornia not only knew who the friends of each twig were expected to be, but she also knew how to ensure that those friendships would come about. Yes, they could afford to take a ‘wait and see’ approach for a couple of weeks in the hope that the problem would resolve itself.
As they listened to what the 5 was saying, the older Lairas were carefully looking for other signs of trouble. The time was right for the child to start learning about her likes and dislikes. Up to that point they had been extremely careful, exposing her only to those things she was expected to enjoy, but now she was finally old enough to be curious about the things she was told she didn’t like. The fact that the girl simply refused to take their word for it, and insisted on trying everything for herself instead, was somewhat troubling for Laira 4, who could not remember a time when she had done the exact same thing. That ‘discovery and exploration stage’ was one of the most difficult periods in the upbringing of a 5, as there was always the fear that they would not succeed. There was always a remote possibility that a 5 would decide to like something no matter what they told her –or what they did– to prove its unpleasantness, or the opposite could happen, and a twig could grow up to dislike some of her favorite things.
That was one of the reasons why so much emphasis was put on the first five or six years of a twig’s life: they all knew that the slightest disruption at that stage could endanger all future generations. Because of that for the first three years of their lives the girls were kept virtually isolated within the safe confines of their own homes, and under the watchful eye of their respective 1s. After that they were exposed for the first time to different people through the carefully controlled environment of a development center.
There were supposed to be no surprises there. The girls and the teachers in each one of those centers had been together for generations, and that served to ensure that the twigs’ first exposure to the outside world would be as stable and as controlled as it could be. Everyone understood what was at stake, they all realized that those twigs were still unformed, that they were still extremely malleable and therefore they were also incredibly vulnerable. Of course, the ones in charge of those places knew the twigs left under their care well, and they also knew what was to be expected out of each one of them. They were careful to encourage and discourage certain friendships, and they knew which skills were to be developed in each one of their charges. It was a good system, one that ensured that each child would make the most out of her natural abilities, and it was also one that spared the twigs the frustration of discovering, after numerous failures, that there were certain skills that simply weren’t theirs.