The sleeping room for the Small Ones was, by comparison with the great Commons Room only the masters inhabited, a tiny place. It had only the smallest of windows, so placed as to allow daylight without any sight of the outside; the windows were plastic-sheeted slits high up on the metal walls, no more. The room was, at best, dim, during the day, but that hardly mattered: during the day the room was empty. Only at night, when the soft artificial lights went on, shedding the glow from their wall-shielded tubes, was the room fit for normal vision. There were no decorations, of course, and no chairs: the Alberts had no use for chairs, and decorations were a refinement no master had yet bothered to think of. The Alberts were hardly taught to appreciate such things in any case: that was not what they had come to learn: it was not useful.
The floor of the room was covered with soft leaves striped a glossy brown over the pervasive gray-green of the planet’s foliage. These served as a soft mat for sleeping, and were also the staple food of the Alberts. These were not disturbed to find their food strewn in such irregular heaps and drifts across the metal floor: in their birth sacs, they had lived by ingestion from the floor of the forest, and, later, they had been so fed in the Birth Huts to which the Elders had taken them, and where they had been cleaned and served and taught, among other matters, English.
What they had been taught was, at any rate, English of a sort, bearing within it the seeds of a more complex tongue, and having its roots far back in the pre-space centuries, when missionaries had first begun to visit strange lands. Men had called it pidgin and Beche-le-mer and a hundred different names in a hundred different variations. Here, the masters called it English. The Alberts called it words, and nothing more.
Now, after sunset, they filed in, thirty or so jewel-green cyclopean alligators at the end of their first day of training, waddling clumsily past the doorway and settled with a grateful, crouching squat on the leaves that served as bed and food. None were bothered by the act of sitting on the leaves: for one thing, they had no concept of dirt. In the second place, they were rather remarkably clean. They had neither sex organs, in any human sense of the word, or specific organs of evacuation: their entire elimination was gaseous. Air ducts in the room would draw off the waste products, and the Alberts never noticed them: they had, in fact, no conception of evacuation as a process, since to them the entire procedure was invisible and impalpable.
The last of them filed in, and the masters—two of them, carrying long metal tubes—shut the door. The Alberts were alone. The door’s clang was followed by other sounds as the lock was thrown. The new noises, and the strangeness of bare metal walls and artificial light, still novel after only a single day’s training, gave rise to something very like a panic, and a confused babble of voices arose from the crowd.
“What is this?”
“What place is this?”
“It is a training place.”
“My name Hortat. My name Hortat.”
“What is training?”
“There is food here.”
“What place is this?”
“Where are elders?”
“Are masters here?”
“Is this a place for sleeping?”
“Training is to do what a master says. Training—”
“There are no elders. My name Hortat.”
“Where is this?”
“Where is this place?”
Like the stirring of a child in sleep, the panic lasted only a little while, and gave way to an apathetic peace. Here and there an Albert munched on a leaf, holding it up before his wide mouth in the pose of a giant squirrel. Others sat quietly looking at the walls or the door or the window, or at nothing. One, whose name was Cadnan, stirred briefly and dropped the leaf he was eating and turned to the Albert next to him.
“Marvor,” he said. “Are you troubled?”
Marvor seemed slighter than Cadnan, and his single eye larger, but both looked very much alike to humans, as members of other races, and particularly such races as the human in question judges inferior, are prone to do. “I do not know what happens,” he said in a flat tone. “I do not know what is this place, or what we do.”
“This is the place of masters,” Cadnan said. “We train here, and we work here, and live here. It is the rule of the masters.”
“Yet I do not know,” Marvor said. “This training is a hard thing, and the work is also hard when it comes.”
Cadnan closed his eye for a second, to relax, but he found he wanted to talk. His first day in the world of the masters had been too confusing for him to order it into any sensible structure. Conversation, of whatever kind, was a release, and might provide more facts. Cadnan was hungry for facts.