Chapter 9 (cont)
Children on a battleship? Granted, a battleship with a park on a peace mission, but however much the Shalash might hope to end the war, they couldn’t predict how things would work out. How incredibly irresponsible. Words finally started up my tongue and I snapped my teeth around them. Think out of the cubicle. Try to see it a little differently. Maybe kids on board could be taken as an assurance of intention. ‘Look, see, we brought children. We’re not going to start a fight with our kids here.’ Had the Asoolianne and the Hoon brought their children, too?
“They are.” Staring at the kids, I didn’t see if Mahyul reacted at all. “Triumphant has sixty-seven children aboard of varying ages. Most serve as apprentices to parents or other relatives, but with the ship at rest, apprentice duties are lighter so the children have much free time each day, though some of this is devoted to studies.”
I watched the first rudimentary attempts at communication, hand gestures and smiles. The smaller of the two Shalash children jumped into the tree, catching the lowest branch easily. “They don’t have implants.”
When I turned back, Mahyul didn’t but kept watching the children interact. It seemed strange that an ambassador would have interest in kids playing. “An implant is not recommended until the brain chemistry has settled into adult norm. It is better for a developing brain to learn things for itself, particularly socialization. An implant is likely to interfere with such learning. Yet it would seem beneficial for communication at this moment.”
“Language is no barrier to children who want to play.”
The Ambassador pulled her eyes back to me. “An interesting insight, Intermediary. How do you come by it?”
“It’s hardly original, Ambassador. Something I’ve observed before.” I moved just enough to see what the kids were doing and still watch Mahyul. All five children hung or sat in different branches, chattering and pointing at one another and things around them. Starting to build a common vocabulary. “We go camping every summer.” Not exactly my favourite activity, but the beach was nice. “The campground we usually go to is also a popular destination for tourists from Québec—the province in my country next to this one—where the primary language is French rather than English. Kids who want to play together find ways to communicate. They pick up a few words of each other’s language and add gestures to help get their point across. I’d bet the same thing is already happening here.” Five little monkeys swinging in a tree. Actually, my biggest wasn’t so little anymore and the older Shalash child might as well be adult size from where I stood. “How old are those two?”
“The orbit of our home world is a little longer than yours, but not so much to change reckoning significantly. Their ages are six and nine, approximately the same as your oldest two offspring.”
Ignore the white hair and whiter skin. Ignore the toothpick limbs and ridiculously long fingers. Ignore all the physical differences and the supposed language barrier, because my children did. The adults watched as the children played in the tree for a while then all hopped down into an impromptu game of tag. Breathless laughter, some bizarrely high-pitched, and soon they collapsed into the blue grass.
Sharon broke our silence. “They’re aboard as apprentices?
“They are.” Did I read surprise in Mahyul’s voice? And was that suspicion in Sharon’s? “It is a traditional practice, less common than it once was, but still of cultural significance in many of the provinces of Shalar and its colonies. Apprentice children are not expected to assume the careers of their parents as they were in ancient days, though a surprising proportion of apprentice children do follow similar paths. The practice of apprenticeship is regarded more as a matter of personal choice in education. The children learn both academics and practical skills and develop earlier the ability to socialize with people of a wider range of ages than those in traditional education.”
I tried to see how it would work translated to a human society. “A little like homeschooling but not at home.”
Sharon nodded. “Apprenticeship is still practiced in many cultures on earth. In our society, it’s mainly done in technical trades after normal education.” I tried not to smile. Something I didn’t think of, but clearly demonstrated why I needed her help. Her brother did apprenticeships as both an electrician and a plumber. I would have remembered that an hour or so later, long after it mattered. “The apprentices are paid, of course.”
“Of course.” I had no trouble hearing the shock in Mahyul’s helium voice. The reaction disappeared, suppressed as she pulled it back to a gentle, almost flat tone, and I wondered about the implant’s translation mechanism for a moment. “Wages are paid commensurate with experience. The amount of time spent on job related tasks versus formal education depends on the age of the child, ranging from two fifths of a shift for the youngest apprentices to four fifths for those nearing adulthood. A beginning apprentice receives a certain basic wage, increased for each year of experience. Beyond an allowance pre-determined by the child’s parents, the pay is mainly kept in reserve and awarded as a lump sum when she or he achieves the age of majority.”
Sharon wasn’t quite satisfied. “There are places on Earth where children are exploited for labour, forced to work long hours for little or no compensation. The work is often dirty and unhealthy, sometimes dangerous. Greed motivates unscrupulous people and some nations allow such exploitation and shelter these people.” Apprenticeship to child labour while I was still thinking about how neat the blue plants were. Wow.
Mahyul locked eyes with my wife. “Such occurrences are not unknown on primitive planets and have occurred in our own history. Those times are long in our past and you will not find such conditions on this ship or anywhere among our people. I hope you will believe my words.” Her voice remained nearly flat as Mahyul stared at my wife with pale, intense eyes.
Sharon held the gaze for a long moment, then nodded and I let out a breath. My wife always had something to surprise me. I couldn’t remember ever discussing child labour with her before. I was certainly against it, beyond a few chores I often let slide towards an allowance, but it had never come up before. Sharon had strong feelings on the subject and probably a very well informed opinion.
Satisfied or not, the ambassador nodded in return. “Aboard the ship, children have considerable freedom but their locations are monitored by the central computer at all times.”
I smiled and went for the joke. “Nice for parents who want to know where their off-shift apprentices are.” Microchips in the clothing maybe? On second thought, I doubted it. Shalash scanning or tracking technology probably didn’t need microchips or their alien equivalent. They’d plucked me off the jetty without anything fancy attached to me, but then human physiology was probably very different.
Mahyul missed my attempt at humour, anyway, I think. “Certainly. Even still, children under seven must be accompanied by an older sibling or responsible adult at all times. Your female offspring would not be permitted to wander alone.”
I laughed. “Don’t say anything to Martin please, Ambassador.” Sharon jabbed me in the ribs with an elbow without taking her eyes from the kids. Picturing my son off on a solo adventure through the Shalash warship gave me a feeling somewhere between paralyzing fear and wishing I could go with him. I watched the mixed group of kids running across the grass and smiled again. Hard to explain, but I always found it warming to watch them make new friends so easily. “But there aren’t any parents with those kids. It might occur to him independently.”
“In fact, their mother is here.” We turned from our parental moment back to the Ambassador. “Siizuk and Malor are my offspring.” And that threw an entirely new alien light on the subject, one that hurt my brain instead of my eyes.
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