In Spider in the Web, Talia talks a little about her childhood. Elsewhere, she says she was raised in "The Center" on Mars, which seems to be the name of the Psi Corps facility there. I assume that given Mars' entire human population of two million, there would be only about two thousand telepaths, so there would only be one Psi Corps school on the planet, and it would be small.
Talia, to Garibaldi: I never really knew my father or my mother. I was raised by Psi Corps from the time I was 5. Of course, there was Abby.
Talia: She was my support during my first year at the Center. When telepaths first come, a senior telepath guides them through the program. The first day I was crying all the time. I was scared and confused and hurting. And then Abby came. She held me for a very long time, never saying a word. I didn't know it then, but she was scanning me, ever so gently. And little by little, the pain and fear and confusion melted. And all that was left was this warm, safe place in my mind. It was wonderful. But the next year Abby was assigned to another newcomer.
And... that's it.
Emily Harris entered the world in a Psi Corps medical center, surrounded by her kin and kith, the insular community of New York City’s other telepaths.
She lived with her parents until April 12th, 2228, her third Birthday, when she officially joined the Corps. Such was tradition. Her parents brought her to the city's Corps school, where she moved into a small "cadrehouse" with other children her age.
Emily didn’t remember her first day at school, but in later years she would remember that moment through her parents’ eyes. Three years old (by telepath age reckoning), her parents had decided, was a good age. Any younger would be too soon. Older, and the other children would have already bonded as cadres. And though children could enter the Corps at any time of year, many traditionally entered on Birthday.
“How could you forgive your parents for sending you away?” normals would ask her in later years, as if the question made any sense. “For abandoning you to the care of complete strangers?”
She didn’t know how to tell them that her early years had been filled with love – different, perhaps, from the experience of growing up with one’s parents, a childhood she would never know. But hers had been an early childhood filled with warmth and safety and love nonetheless.
In the cadrehouse, the children all slept, bathed and ate together under the care of experienced nannies. In the New York school, the 3-5 cadrehouse wasn't actually one "house" at all, but a cluster of small houses around a small central courtyard with a big tree, a sandbox and a set of bars for climbing. Each little house had two bedrooms, a large bathroom, and a common room for meals and celebrations.
Ms. O'Brien, the Housemother, watched over all the children in the 3-5 complex. She woke everyone in the morning, got them to "class," oversaw their meals, and put them to bed at night. Ms. Wu was younger. She looked after Emily's cadre specifically. She bathed all the children all together in the giant tub, boys and girls together. When Emily scraped her knee or elbow playing, Ms. Wu was always there with first aid. She sang the cadre little lullabies, wiped runny noses, and changed bedsheets.
Emily had nothing to fear in her cadrehouse - if she became afraid of the dark, or if she’d had a bad dream, there would always be grown-ups nearby to hold her hand, and take away her fear in the way that only grown-ups could.
Any feelings of abandonment she may have had on that first day of school had been short-lived. The nannies and teachers had ways, Emily had wanted to tell these concerned normals, of flooding a child’s heart with love, helping them make new family connections. A telepath child was never “alone,” inside or out. The Corps made sure of it.
They never seemed to understand.
They were normals. She didn’t expect them to.
It had hurt her parents to send her to school, but for them there could be no other way. Family – the collective family of the Corps – meant sacrifice, as it did to all right-thinking telepaths. Her parents owed everything to the Corps – their home, their jobs, the food on their table, the clothes on their backs – and in a certain sense, Emily had never really been “theirs” to begin with. The Corps was Mother and Father to all. Even if normal laws had permitted telepaths to raise their children at home – and the laws hadn’t for generations – her parents would have still dropped her off with the Corps that day. They were traditional people. Both had themselves been raised in Corps schools, and neither knew any differently.
And so, in moments of sadness and pain, in the moments when they missed her, they quietly reminded themselves of the sacrifices of other telepaths. Every day, Psi Corps and bloodhounds put their lives on the line to defending the Corps and telepath-kind, even died protecting their people. Everyone’s sacrifice was different, but all were equally and vitally important. And everyone in the Corps had to make sacrifices, young and old, even those still too small to understand the sacrifices that were required of them.
Her parents brought her to school on Birthday, and left.
She and the other children – either dropped off that day by their parents, or raised in the Corps nursery – were divided into two cadres of approximately eight each, affectionately named the “Puppies” and “Tadpoles.” Emily was a Tadpole. Emily’s day began at 6:30 in the morning with the Pledge of Allegiance to the Earth Alliance, and breakfast in the house’s common room, followed by a few hours of school, nap time, lunch, and evening play and children’s vids before supper and bed.
In the 3-5 cadrehouse, no one was separated by gender. Everyone slept and ate and bathed together. The children of the cadre often bonded through touch, piling together on the bed or the floor and collectively stroking one child at a time on their arms, legs, back. Rarely receiving physical affection from their caretakers, the children became very close with each other instead. Teachers scolded children for playing too competitively; cooperating, sharing with one's cadremates, was most important. What hurts one, hurts all they were taught.
The Tadpoles shared one bathroom, with a huge tub big enough for all the children at once, with lots of room to spare. All eight children went into the tub, all eight children climbed out, all eight children snuggled into their pajamas and climbed into bed. Emily and the others usually wanted to play, and would keep crawling out – and if they were especially restless, they would sneak next door to the Puppy cadre house and visit their friends. It would often take the nannies several tries to get them all asleep at last.
No adult ever yelled at the children, or hit them – instead, misbehaving Tadpoles got “the look.” No one wanted to get the look – a wordless reprimand that would wiggle deep into you brain and stomach and warn you in no uncertain terms, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, that you were never, never, to do that thing again. Once students got “the look,” no further threat or warning was usually necessary. They never made the same mistake twice.
School ran six days a week, and parents came to visit on Sundays. One of Emily’s earliest memories was waiting for her parents’ weekly visit, standing by the cadre door, on a box of toys, trying to see through the window out to the small courtyard where her parents would appear. Pedro, Emily’s little “boyfriend” who slept in the same room with her, pushed her off the box so he could see, and so she pushed him off and climbed back up.
“My turn!” He shoved her back off the box.
“No, mine!” She shoved him back, and climbed back up.
The teachers gave them a warning look – no more pushing or they would get the real look.
One Sunday, her parents were late. There had been some unexpected delay, of no real importance, but the change in routine terrified little Emily. She watched as one by one, all the other parents arrived for their weekly visit, and when hers were nowhere to be found, she sat on the floor and cried, scared that her parents weren’t coming this time, that they were never coming back. One of the nannies from an older year sat with her, held her hand and reassured her that her parents were on their way, but Emily carried on until she almost threw up.
At last her parents did arrive, and took off their gloves and scooped her up, and everything was all right in the world again. The nannies, kind as they were, rarely hugged the children or showed them physical affection, and so Emily’s rare moments with her parents, with hugs and kisses, were sacred. She longed to be held and cuddled. Her parents’ hands were always so soft.
She didn’t let go of her mother’s hand for that entire visit, afraid this time that if she let go, her mother might disappear forever. And she cried again when, after a few hours, the visit came to an end and her parents put on their gloves to leave.
Every year on April 12th, the cadre held a Birthday party, celebrating the day the Corps was founded. The children got a big cake with candy and confetti. There were no classes on Birthday. Older students put on short plays for the entire school community. Grown-up alumni came back to visit. If the weather was nice, everyone would play outside.
The teachers and nannies would give the children presents. These presents were never creative, and usually were new versions of the same toys they already had – new clickblox to replace the sets with missing pieces, new paints to replace those that had been used up, and the like. Presents from parents and other family members, however, were special and personal – a hand-made hat or scarf, a pretty bow, a fancy and unusual toy. These presents were the most highly treasured. They were unique.
The teachers told the children that all presents came from the Corps, but everyone knew which ones had really come from their parents.
Day to day, children in the cadre all dressed the same, in similar second-hand outfits passed down from older cadres. But only Emily had sparkly hair clips. Only Erika had pink mittens. Only Pedro had a green hat. The one time Quinton daringly snatched it from him on the playground, Pedro chased him across the cadre’s courtyard and hit him. The teachers gave him “the look” – we are all brothers and sisters, they told him, and “what hurts one hurts all” – but at least he’d gotten his hat back.
Emily knew Pedro had been bad for hitting Quinton, but she liked him all the more for it. He was her favorite because he broke the rules sometimes.
On their fifth Birthday, a new boy joined the cadre. He had straight black hair and dark eyes, and looked a little like Pedro, only his skin was lighter and his eyes were almond shaped. The teachers introduced him as Victor.
“His parents live far away,” Ms. O'Brien told the group. “There are no Psi Corps schools up there – ours is the closest. So the Corps let him enter a cadre a little bit later.”
For some reason, Emily and the other children decided they hated Victor. Emily had no idea why – it couldn’t have been anything Victor himself had done to them. Perhaps, she reflected years later, they had been jealous of him for having been raised with his parents and getting to spend so much time with them. Or perhaps, as the newcomer, he was competition for the nannies’ attention, or a disruption to the tight-knit order of their little cadre. Maybe he was simply the “new kid,” and that automatically put him at the bottom of the pecking order.
Emily pulled his hair when the teachers weren’t looking. Xander smashed his clickblox castle. Jackie called him “Hippo” because he was a little bit fat. Harriet threw spit balls across the table at lunch, and someone, Emily didn’t remember who – probably Pedro – put an ice cube down his pants. The nannies tried to stop the teasing, reminding the group that all children of the Corps were equals, that “one hurts one hurts all,” but the cadre had a personality all its own, and they didn’t like the newcomer, no matter what anyone said.
That first week, Victor lay in bed and cried every night. Emily slept in the other bedroom, but she could still hear him crying through the walls, and wished he would shut up. Everyone wanted to see their parents, and crying never did any good, because parents only came to visit on Sundays. Although Victor’s parents did visit him that first Sunday, on subsequent weeks he sat alone and sullen, with the nannies, during visiting time. His parents lived too far away to come to see him every week.
One day, a few weeks after Victor’s arrival, Emily took pity on him. The cadre was playing one of its usual stroking games, while Victor sat in the corner alone and excluded. When her cadremates had finished rubbing her belly and singing their made up belly-rubbing songs, Emily looked over and invited him into the group. She felt sad that she had seen her parents that afternoon, but Victor had no one but the cadre. She remembered how upset she had been, long ago, when her parents had been late for their visit. She felt that Victor must also be sad, and thought a belly rub might cheer him up. It always cheered her up after her parents had left for another week.
The boy’s face light up with hope the instant the invitation had passed her lips, and he ran over and jumped onto the bed, crashing into the group and sending arms and legs flailing. The other children, for reasons Emily also didn’t understand, followed her lead and accepted him into the pile. They taught him the belly rub song.
Emily realized suddenly, in the tangle of limbs, that the cadre listened to her. She had the power to include, or to exclude. Maybe they had been following her lead all along.
Under her watchful eye, no longer did the cadre prank him or call him mean names. If anyone hit him, she told them to stop, because they were all brothers and sisters and the Corps was Mother and Father. The teachers praised her leadership and spirit of inclusion, and gave her extra stars for good behavior. The other children followed suit: Pedro even said he was sorry and let Victor wear his special green hat, as a way to make up for all his teasing.
Victor was part of the group now.