Six generations after its founding, Planet 138 still hasn't got a name of its own, as if its inhabitants aren't really planning to stay. But with a total population that has never risen above 50,000, no ecosphere, and an economy far too small to support an independent space program, they haven't got much choice. Most of the inhabitants live in a single complex, which is divided into three sections. Although the bulk of the colony is underground, three domes can be seen rising above the planet's rocky surface. One part is the city, the manufacturing and residential area; the second is the hydroponic zone, and those who tend it live there. The third part is the library, and where the dead are buried.
It's recess time.
The suns are out today - and they will be for another five standard days, thanks to the planet's slow rotation - but they are not bright enough to spoil the view of the sky. The girls in Miss Orizhend's third-level class are discussing the mysteries of life as they get suited up for recess.
"I heard they make babies in a big lab'ratory," says Casima, whose mothers both work in bioengineering.
"Uh-uh", retorts Svadhi. "Maybe they do it like that sometimes, but mostly people get pregenant. They grow their babies in their tummy."
"I heard about a lady who got pregnant all by herself. Her spaceship crashed somewheres an' she was stuck an' she decided to have babies." It's Urkni, who has heard lots of stories.
"No way," says Svadhi, dutifully checking the radiation tag just inside the collar of her suit, "a lady can't get pregnant by herself."
Jharid has joined the group. All eyes turn to Jharid, because Jharid is Mature, and she Knows Stuff.
"She can," Jharid says deliberately, "but she's not s'posed to, 'cuz then the babies could grow up all 'tarded and stuff. That's why she's gotta get married. 'Cuz she's sposta have somebody with her when she makes the baby, so's the genes don't come out all the same."
"Yeah," Casima jumps in, eager to prove she's known it all along. "It's like when you clone a bean plant or something, they always get defective later."
"And that," Jharid continues, taking no notice of Casima, "is why you gotta have a Mama and a Nana, a birth mommy and a bond mommy. 'Cuz your bond mommy's gotta be around when your birth mommy gets pregnant."
"Yeah," Casima explains, undeterred, "she's gotta hold her hand an' stuff."
Svadhi, overcome with horrified fascination, says, "An' do they, like, kiss an' stuff?" Grownups kissing is still gross for her.
"Oh yes," Jharid says mysteriously, "an' not just on the mouth."
Svadhi is certain she doesn't want any more details, but somehow she looks at Jharid, silently begging her to explain.
Jharid, deeming her ready for the information, whispers something in Svadhi's ear. Svadhi shrieks and throws her hands to her face, her helmet bouncing noisily along the floor. "Jharid, that's the grossest thing I ever heard! You're lying! I hate you! I'm not ever going to talk to you again! You're a horrible person and I hope you die!"
In twenty years, Svadhi and Jharid will be married. But that is another story.
As Svadhi runs headlong into Miss Orizhend, the teacher is wondering for the billionth time why she does this. She'd been hoping to have a break from watching thirty-five girls (hers and Miss Hara's seventeen) and making sure they don't get lost, rip their suits, or overstay their recess and exceed their radiation exposure limit. Now she has to inspect Svadhi's helmet for damage, and just to be on the safe side, she should probably keep her indoors anyway.
"Svadhi," she says, "was Jharid being mean to you?" Svadhi nods petulantly. "Then I think you should stay inside this recess, so she doesn't bother you." Svadhi isn't sure whether this is intended as a privilege or a punishment, but whatever, she'll take it.
The class from the room across the hall are already waiting, and they file together along the corridor that runs the perimeter of the school level. Miss Hara is there, and it's her turn to hold recess duty. The two classes share the elevator ride to the surface, as they usually do.
Miss Orizhend reflects that, after all, they're not a bad lot. It's hard to say whether things have changed much since she was in school. She'd be tempted to say they have, but she can't put her finger on anything, exactly. They say the older girls, especially, are very well-behaved these days. Some of them have even formed some sort of social club - like a knitting group, she supposes, at any rate it's harmless enough, and those are the girls that seem to do best in their studies. That's what people are saying, anyway.
The elevator door slides open and the two teachers and their girls make their way down the walkway with their helmets on, except for Miss Orizhend and Svadhi. Miss Orizhend nods to Miss Hara, and realizes she's feeling a little relieved, because she's wanted to have some time to talk with Svadhi alone.
And that's when they find the dead girl's body in the airlock.