Sequoia Cairn tapped the BlueBoard with her pinky and faced her third grade class. Behind her, the stilted voice of the AncientEarth Roll System called out her students' names:
"Here!" the little blond girl shouted out.
"Here!" The child scrambled her jacket off.
There was no answer.
"Nesh Eteea?" the AERS repeated.
"She'll be here in three minutes," Sequoia said and stuck out her hand to catch the small metal chair one of her rowdy boys had started to knock over. "Watch your body, Moshiri."
"Ms. Sequoia, I have to go to the bathroom!" Fendel called over the AERS, causing it to halt.
"Give me a smart ticket after the AERS registers you." Sequoia tried to hurry him along, not wanting the AERS to deliver the standard "no talking until after roll" lecture.
In the old days, any lectures given by the AERS counted as demerits toward her retirement. Demerits could add up over a lifetime. But Sequoia didn't care about that anymore. She cared about starting her lesson, cared about each moment spent with her students.
"Bogdan Fendel?" the AERS continued as if on cue.
"Here!" Fendel dug a little paper ticket from his aluminate pencil box and pushed the scrap toward Sequoia. She opened her palm, avoiding contact with his grubby, moist hand. The little piece of paper floated in the air for a moment and disappeared before it settled on her skin.
Sequoia took a deep, rattling breath and looked at eighteen third-grade faces. She studied them, as they wiggled about noisily, stowing their gear, settling in, and quacking out the contents of their brains for everyone to hear. Even this early in the day, a few pouty faces indicated the ubiquitous, "he hurt my feelings" and "she said she's not my friend." Disasters on the third grade front, though Sequoia found the complaints farcical at best.
Five years ago, she had been counseled to take the depth of the children's experiences more seriously. But she'd never viewed her students as children. Their parents could coddle and spoil them, treat them like babies and leave them helpless parasites sucking up the colony's resources. Her job was to teach. And these eighteen, twenty when all were accounted for, miniature adults were the promise of the future. Had been.
AncientEarth had refused the colony's request for additional bodies three years in a row. The last request, sent five years ago, had never been answered — as far as she knew.
Sequoia suspected AncientEarth's motivations, but she had kept her thoughts to herself. Her brand of questioning had never been appreciated by the colonial families. Speaking out, she'd been told, could impact her yearly credential renewal. Fear of losing her status had kept her silent after the initial interview.
"Fendel," she reminded him sternly, "make sure you H2O and ANTIBac your hands after you use the facilities."
He plodded out the door.
"Run like a bunny," she called after him.
The boy took off at an accelerated speed walk.
"Ingo Wickramaarachi?" AERS finished roll call.
"Here!" Wickr scooted into his SeatPod.
"Engage your spelling NoteStreams," Sequoia said and consulted her own Imbedd. "We have fifteen spelling words today and —"
"Sixteen," Eteea, late as always, screamed out as she raced to her SeatPod, nearly toppling over the rolling table stacked with science cubes.
"Eteea, watch the cubes," Sequoia said and put a hand out to steady one of the towers. "Boys and girls." She took the teachable moment by the throat. "I want to remind all of you that these plants are more than just experiments—"
"They're Mother's Day gifts!" Ambrielle bawled without bothering to raise her hand.
"Yes, Ambrielle is right." A fleeting thought triggered a tick on the side of Sequoia's face, and she felt her right eye vibrate. "The cubes are gifts for your moms, but it's more than that. Plants are rare. AncientEarth had many, but here we can only grow a few."
"My dad grows tomatoes," Seneca threw in without raising his hand.
"We're getting off topic," Sequoia said firmly. " NoteStreams. Now. We have fifteen words." She continued quickly before Eteea could interrupt again. "And a bonus word. That makes it sixteen."
Sequoia watched her students manipulate their Imbedds, finding the SpellingLine among the colorful NoteStreams. "We're focusing on the long u words." Sequoia rolled her head back and forth, trying to alleviate the tension in her shoulders. "Ready?
"Word number one is 'rude.' /r/ /oo/ /d/. Rude. Don't be rude to your classmate. Rude."
Twenty sets of fingers moved quickly through the Streams.
"Word number two is 'clues.' /k/ /l/ /oo/ /z/. Clues. A detective looks for clues."
The children worked unhesitatingly, with real confidence. The rote memorization Sequoia taught, despite strong objections from her colleagues, never failed her students. The next level of learning would start them on Artirian and Portuguese. Sequoia knew they would be ready — would have been ready.
"Word number three is tube. /t/ /oo/ /b/. Tube. My brother came from a test tube. Tube."
By the time Sequoia had finished the bonus word — "multiply," the clock chimed for early recess.
"You have twenty minutes for recreation on the yard, " the AERS droned.
Sequoia desperately wanted to stop the clock. But there was no changing the schedule, unless she turned off the entire system.
Sequoia Cairn picked up her old-fashioned coffee mug with the hand-drawn tree, a gift from a student a decade before, and watched the children pull on their boots and button themselves into their suits. Breixo struggled with his mask as usual, and as usual Sequoia told him to adjust the clasp.
"Thank you Ms. Sequoia," the little boy sang out and ran toward the playground.
Sequoia headed toward the cafeteria, the halls already empty.
She passed through the stainless steel kitchen chamber, stopping only to wipe the last digit of the kitchen BlueBoard with two fingers. She replaced the four with a five.
She thought about turning off the system. Again.
That day she had stepped into the walk-in Fridgger to get a milpot of cream for her coffee.
She thought maybe it was time to let go. Time to stop replaying their last hours. Time to give the H-graphs a rest.
She took the last rations box from the shelf next to the stoves. She pried open the styroid fold. Two round containers and a grey tube rattled around in the small box. She'd known there were only two — supplies for one more week, if she didn't eat for the rest of the day. She squeezed the contents of the tube in to her cup.
Sequoia read the kitchen BlueBoard out loud.
"One thousand nine hundred and twenty-five days without an accident."
The recorded sounds of children playing had ceased when she'd stepped into the cafeteria.
Her H-graph program only went up to the moment the Rippers had unleashed hell on the colony. The destruction was locked away in the banks. Sequoia had lived through it; she didn't need to examine it further.
She'd programmed the AERS to replay the record of the morning until first recess. She'd run it every day since.
The morning was her solace. Her sanity. Pretending it wouldn't happen again. But it always happened again.
Sequoia didn't want to forget their faces. Her children.
Logic told her, she would die keeping the knowledge of the attack. All communications had been disrupted that day. And she was certain, if she attempted to call out, the Rippers would come back and kill the last human cockroach they'd missed.
"Cockroaches, that's all we've ever been to them." Sequoia spoke in a loud, angry voice.
Initially, she'd rationalized that it was better if AncientEarth never found out about the attack. Even though they'd ignored all requests from the colony beginning with the last election, an outright act of war from the Rippers could not be ignored. She thought keeping the secret would save billions of lives. Human lives.
Dying of starvation years later, she didn't feel as charitable. She wanted the fate of her colony known. She needed to not keep this secret.
A week ago, she'd programed the Streams to send out one beacon. One cry for help. It had decimated her power source, shutting down the replenishment of resources. She didn't regret her decision.
Sequoia Cairn stepped onto the empty playground and looked up to the swirling grey clouds above.
Far away she heard a hum, as if a drone were approaching.
"That's it then." Sequoia sipped her lukewarm coffee. "The Day of the Keeper is the Death of the Keeper. Rip away."
She was ready.
But through the clouds, she spotted the glow of a familiar light.
"Cherry red." The words flew from Sequoia's mouth. "It can't be!"
Happiness and hope washed over her like a warm ocean wave. Sequoia Cairn dropped her coffee and started running toward the cherry red lander.