“The children are here,” Eight announced. It stood in Thimet’s office with that peculiar stillness of the not-quite-human.
Thimet wiped her hand through the hologram projected before her. The noisy newscast cut off in mid-report; the projection disappeared. “How many today?” she asked.
The synthagen, its blue skin gleaming in the dim light, turned to face her. “Six males and five females. Average age is ten point one Earth years.”
“A lively age group. Let them into the Anteroom.”
“Yes, Zookeeper.” Eight’s response was as neutral as a computer’s despite its humanoid (if androgynous) appearance. It turned, the solid wall behind it dissolved into mist, and it walked through. The wall re-formed behind it.
Thimet felt a little thrill of anticipation. She never tired of the tours, of the children. She wondered how much longer she would be able to enjoy them. The newscast had disturbed her; with the final failure of the life support system in Pod 4, the lifeship was down to seventy percent of its original capacity. Thimet thought of the families being evacuated to other Pods, and wondered when Command would finally decide to shut down her bestiarum and move a bunch of refugee families into the animal exhibits.
Focus on the tour, she thought. One thing at a time.
Thimet made her way down the corridor, noting the dying float light at the intersection of one passage. As she approached the end of the corridor, the wall dissolved, reforming behind her as she stepped into the Anteroom.
Accustomed to her dim, quiet office, Thimet flinched at the light and noise, as shouting children dressed in every color of the spectrum ran and jumped around the ten-meter diameter space.
“Silence!” Eight’s amplified voice boomed in the enclosed space. Children cried out, then crouched down with their hands over their ears. One girl began to cry.
“Thank you, Eight,” Thimet said dryly. “Go prepare the exhibits.”
Turning to the cowering children, Thimet put her kindest smile on her face. “Namasté!”
The children put their palms together and bowed, uttering a ragged chorus of “Namasté!”
A tall bronze-skinned woman wearing the silver braid of Pod 91 stepped forward, hands together in greeting. “I am Cysteinyl,” she said. “I am Mentor to these children today. We have scheduled a field trip tour.”
“Of the Fifth generation,” the woman said proudly.
They grow up so fast, Thimet thought. She herself was of the Third Generation from Earth, and yet here was a woman young enough to be her own granddaughter, teaching the next generation. Thimet felt very old for a moment.
She put her hands together and bowed to the children. “I am Zookeeper Thimet. Have any of you ever seen animals before?”
A short girl with almond eyes said, “We were at the Aquarium last tenday. And at the Arboretum the tenday before that.”
“Silly. The Arboretum is for plants, not animals,” said a boy with the facial tattoos of Pod 33. His name tag read Tek. Thimet remembered that the Sixth Generation was named for genes. Tyrosine kinase: TEK. She felt old again.
“These are the rules: Do not run. Stay with your group. Do not throw things at the exhibits. Do not damage the animals.”
“But they are not real animals, are they?” A small brown-skinned female at the very back spoke up. Her hair was trying to escape from two pigtails and her tag read Olah. “How can we hurt them?”
“They are very old, and very fragile. Like Eight, they are synthetic genetic forms, or synthagens. They look and feel real, and you can touch them, but they are only biological copies. What’s more, we do not have facilities here on the Ship to replace them if they were broken. Some of them are over five hundred Earth years old. That is longer than two human lifetimes. ”
Olah’s eyes got round and big. “Five hundred years?”
“They were created on Earth,” Thimet said. “Before the Ship even launched.”
To read more of “Bestiarum,”
pick up a copy of Quantum Zoo.