Emily’s sixth Birthday brought many changes.
The Puppies and the Tadpoles were combined into a single cadre. Nap time was eliminated. The school day ran longer. The children began instruction in reading, math, history and science.
But most importantly, graduation meant moving to a new house - the 6-10 cadre complex next door. Emily had always known that older children lived next door - she'd seen them playing every day - but nothing could prepare her for the move herself. What she hadn't realized until moving day was that the nannies would not be coming with them. She and her cadremates were simply handed over to the next group of teachers and caretakers, just as Emily had passed her old clothes down to younger children once she’d outgrown them.
The transition made no sense to her. What did I do wrong? she wondered. What did we all do wrong, to deserve this? Why did Ms. O'Brien and Ms. Wu abandon us? Ms. Izawa, the cadre’s new Housemother, was a very nice woman, but she wasn’t Ms. O'Brien or Ms. Wu.
All at once, life rapidly switched from certain to uncertain. Children cried. They acted out. They sat sullenly through their lessons, sad and disengaged.
Erika began wetting the bed. Every night, she would wake up crying in wet sheets, and Emily and the others would run to the wall panel to deliver a familiar, collective cry for help for their sodden friend.
“Teacher! Teacher! Erika went pee pee in the bed again!”
The staff member on call - not a familiar nanny - would come downstairs, change the sheets, wash Erika up and leave the children alone once again. In the 6-10 cadre house, the night was silent, save for the occasional hissing or squeaking from the air vents, a sound the older children had told Emily were from the snakes and bats living in the walls. Maybe even an alligator or two.
She didn’t believe the stories, but she still was too scared to sleep.
A teacher would come by several times a night and check that all the children were still in bed, but when all was still, the children would knock on the walls to their classmates in the next bed or next room.
One knock: are you awake? Two: yes!
Sometimes, the children crawled out of bed to play. One night they decided to build a fort from their bedsheets and pillows. As they built their "fort," they debated its meaning. Was this a castle? Were they bold knights defending it from a dragon? Was it an EarthForce base, attacked by a new, unknown alien race? And so it was when the night’s teacher found them out.
“Sleepy children are no use to the Corps,” Teacher Jay spat, pulling apart their little fort. “Back to your beds, all of you, right now, on the double.”
The children knew they weren’t supposed to, but they cried for their old nannies nonetheless.
“None of us grown-ups are your parents, the Corps is,” Ms. Izawa told the children, as gently as they could. Yet no matter how nice the grown-ups were, it did little to erase their sense of loss, and longing for their former nannies. Only Emily’s weekly visits from her parents remained constant. Victor didn't even have that.
One night, Emily decided to run away back to her old cadre house. There was no longer a night nanny – if the children needed anything, they had to page one of the teachers keeping watch over the whole 6-10 complex. Emily had no trouble slipping out the door in the middle of the night and running barefoot across the grass, dirt and duracrete to her old home. Under the moonlight blanketing the sleeping campus, she ran from house to house, peeking in the windows, trying to find Ms. O'Brien and Ms. Wu. One of them had to be awake, she knew. The windows were a too high – she had to jump and climb to get even a quick peek into some of the houses. She saw some of the other nannies, but not her nannies.
When she finally found the house she used to live in, her nannies weren’t there. What if they’d left the school entirely? she wondered. Terror set in, clamping in her belly like a tight knot. She’d occasionally seen her old nannies across the campus during recreation time, but hadn’t spotted either of them in over a week. What if they’d been sent away? Emily knew there were other schools, both on Earth, and out in the colonies. What if they’d been sent way out into space?
She sat down in the grass and cried, then dried her tears and resumed her search, as determined as ever. She would check every single cadre house. They had to be here, they had to.
She finally found Ms. Wu in the fifth cadre house she checked, one of the houses for the smallest children. The caretaker was sitting in the common room and reading on her digital device.
“Ms. Wu!” Emily shouted, running into the cadre house in tears, waking up all the babies. “There you are! I miss you! We all miss you!” She threw herself at the young woman, clawing at her clothes and hair as she climbed up into her lap.
“Emily! Goodness, what are you doing here?! You’re supposed to be in your own cadre house, asleep!”
“No no no I’m supposed to be here with you!”
As Ms. Wu tried to console her, Emily gradually became aware of the younger children, now awake, coming to their bedroom doors to see what the commotion was about. Six tiny faces looked up at Emily, curious and frightened.
“Children, this is Emily Harris. She lives in the 6-10 cadre house. She used to be one of you, and I used to be her Nanny.” The words “used to” stung. Ms. Wu didn’t “used to” be her nanny, she was her nanny, and that was all there was to it.
“Emily missed me, so she came by for a little visit.”
“I’m not going back! I won’t!”
“But Emily, you’re six now. You can’t live here with the three-year-olds. You belong in your own cadre.”
“No! No! I belong with you and Ms. O'Brien!”
“Emily, you’re a big girl now. The little ones look up to you. You need to set an example.”
“Would the Corps be proud of you, barging in here like this, and waking all your little brothers and sisters?”
The nannies had always talked like that, describing their good behavior as conduct “the Corps would be proud of” and their bad behavior as conduct “the Corps would be ashamed of.” She hesitated. She knew she wasn’t supposed to do things that would be unfitting of a member of the Corps.
But she also realized that she hadn’t simply been abandoned, she’d been replaced. They all had been. The nannies had new cadres to care for.
For a moment, she hated those new children.
“Of course I still love you, Emily,” Ms. Wu said, holding her hand and making her feel all warm and squirmy inside. “You know that’s true. And I will always love you, that’s never going to change. But we all have our duties, Emily, and we have our responsibilities. You have to live in your new cadre house, and go to school and make the Corps proud, and I have to look after the new children just as I looked after you, and the cadre that came before you.” Emily had never considered that long ago, the older children had once been in the 3-5 house, and they must have had the same nannies. She and her cadre had taken away these other kids’ nannies. They’d done it to the older kids and now these new babies were doing it to them.
“Everyone in the Corps makes sacrifices, Emily. Haven’t your teachers told you that?”
She nodded, solemnly.
“When I was your age, I also moved to the 6-10 cadre house. I had to make the same changes. The Corps is your parents – not me, not Ms. O'Brien, not any of your teachers. We all are. Do you understand?”
She didn’t, but she nodded anyway.
“Good. And you’re going to be a good girl and run on back to your cadre, where you belong.” She stood and walked Emily to the door. Emily hesitated at the threshold. “Go on, I’m going to watch you, make sure you go back. You need to be asleep. Sleepy children are no use to the Corps.”
But she said it in a funny way, with a smile.
Emily walked back to her cadre house, solemnly in the moonlight.
When she returned, she saw that her cadremates were all awake, worried about her. Erika had noticed Emily's absence first - when Emily didn't come back, she'd checked the bathroom and the common room. When there was no sign of Emily, she'd woken all the others. They were still debating whether to call the teachers when Emily had reappeared.
The other children practically pounced on her when she slipped back in. She told them where she'd gone. Pedro was crying - he was afraid she'd been eaten by alligators.
"How could you just leave us?" he asked. "We're a cadre. We have to hang together."
Emily flushed with embarrassment. How had she not seen it? She'd missed her old nannies so much, she hadn't thought at all about her cadremates, and how they'd feel if she disappeared. She'd been selfish.
It was cadre against the world.