When "Nursery" opens, Lilith has been in a large room for three days. Time has passed: she has just spent a year learning how to live and survive in a tropical forest aboard the ship. The room contains twelve bathrooms. The floors are brown and the walls are green—the result of her asking Nikanj for a little bit of color. She has been allowed to keep her books and writing materials with her in this room. She also has in her possession eighty dossiers that contain information on eighty sleeping humans who are currently in the room. Lilith's job is to Awaken at least forty of these humans; she and the other humans will not be allowed to leave the room until she has completed this task. As she reads through the dossiers, she looks for people who will not be a threat to her when she Awakens them, as well as for potential allies. She remembers a few days ago when she asked Nikanj to look at stars and it took her to an observation deck from which she could also see Earth. The sight of Earth, "gleaming like a full moon in the black sky," makes her emotional (116). Lilith is overwhelmed by the task at hand. She does not know how she is supposed to wake up other humans and give them the truth about their situation. She is worried about convincing them of their reality and of the fact that resistance is futile—the Oankali control the ship using their body chemistry and there is no chance of escape. She also worries that the humans will see her as one of their captors rather than an ally. She wonders how she will be able to control this group of humans and what she will mold them into.
The first dossier that Lilith looks over is Victor Dominic's. He was a lawyer on Earth who blamed his several wives for his own inability to have children. Lilith admires his strength and intelligence but also fears him. She believes that she would be able to overpower him if needed but is worried that he might attack her when she is not paying attention. She resolves to Awaken him after she has already Awoken a group of others in order to minimize the potential threat. She follows this line of reasoning for several others, including Leah Bede, an extremely stubborn but potentially unstable woman. One person, Joseph Li-Chin Shing, interests Lilith in particular. The Oankali describe him as intelligent, steady, and dependable. Lilith believes that he will understand the situation they are in and not fight back against the Oankali until they are back on Earth. There are several others that Lilith is sure will be Awakened eventually: Celene Ivers (intelligent but weak), Gabriel Rinaldi (a talented actor), Beatrice Dwyer (bright and likable as long as she is clothed), Hillary Ballard (artist who had hurt herself while in isolation), Conrad Loehr (policeman who had taken care of vulnerable people while Earth fell apart), and Derick Wolski (photographer). In the end, Lilith chooses Tate Marah to Awaken first. She learns from her dossier that Tate is "bright, somewhat flexible, and not dangerous" (125). She also believes it would be safest to Awaken a woman first, since it would reduce "sexual tension" (126).
As Lilith reads the dossiers, we learn that she has been given new abilities by the Oankali: along with being able to open walls, she can now create new walls at will. They have also given her information, increased her physical strength, improved her memory, and given her the ability to control the plants that house the sleeping humans. We also learn that Nikanj's mates, Ahajas and Dichaan, have been worried about her safety. They taught her how to move around walls so that she can enclose herself safely in a cubicle. They seem to be just as worried as Lilith that things will go wrong with the Awakened humans. Lilith resolves herself to Awaken people who seem least likely to do her harm. She makes modifications to the room she is in, building separate rooms meant for different purposes. Lilith sets to work Awakening Tate. This takes her longer than it would take the Oankali and requires intense concentration. Eventually, the plant housing Tate is released from the wall and Lilith releases her sleeping body. Lilith is trying to dress Tate when she Awakens, but Tate immediately yells at Lilith to get away from her. Tate comes to her senses slowly, realizing that her previous memories of solitary confinement aboard the ship were not a dream. She watches silently as Lilith sends the plant that was holding Tate away and closes the wall. Lilith tells Tate that she is also a prisoner, but Tate replies that she's "'more like a trustee'" (128). Lilith then tells Tate that she chose to Awaken her first because she seemed the least likely to try and kill her and most likely to help Lilith with the rest of the Awakenings. Lilith tells Tate that they are aboard an alien ship and that she has been asleep for over 250 years.
Tate tells Lilith that she is hungry and Lilith leads Tate to her room, where there is food waiting for her. Tate does not ask Lilith who their captors are. Eventually, Lilith tells her about the Oankali. Tate listens to Lilith but does not fully believe her. Lilith agrees that it is hard to believe and assures Tate that she will prepare her as much as possible for meeting them. Over the next few days, Tate sleeps, eats, and asks Lilith questions. They tell each other about their lives before the war. When Lilith tells Tate that she was studying anthropology, Tate asks her why she wanted to "snoop" around in other cultures (132). Lilith responds that it seemed to her like American culture was quickly headed toward destruction and she wanted to see other ways of life. She never ended up getting the chance to do so because of the war. Tate watches as Lilith prepares their space for more Awakened humans. She has a hard time believing that their situation is real and often repeats that she doesn't understand. Lilith tells Tate that she plans on Awakening two more people that day: Leah and Celene. Tate encourages Lilith to Awake a man and suggests Curt. However, Lilith is wary about Awakening Curt because he could easily overpower both of them at once. Lilith gets started on Awakening Leah and Celene when Tate asks her whether they are being watched. Lilith responds that yes, they are probably being watched. Tate asks Lilith whether the Oankali will intervene should anything go wrong and Lilith tells her not to count on it. They are unlikely to intervene unless one of them is about to be killed.
Lilith starts with Awakening Celine while Tate watches. Lilith is just about to get a hold of Celene's plant when Tate sneaks up on her, forcing her to start over. Once she has removed Celene's plant from the wall, she beckons Tate over. Tate is disgusted at the smell the plant emits and asks Lilith questions about the plant. Like Lilith when she first interacted with one of these plants in "Family," Tate puts her hand into the plant and is afraid when it won't let her go. Lilith releases Tate's hand and then has her help release Celine. She tells Tate to dress Celine before she wakes up. She then gets to work on Awakening Leah, who is already released from the plant by the time Celene wakes up. Lilith waits until the two women are fully awake before she pushes the plants back into the wall. She expects to sit down and talk with them about their current situation, but is caught off guard when Leah tackles her and begins to strangle her. Lilith pretends that Leah is causing more harm than she actually is, gasping for air as if she were really being strangled. She is careful not to demonstrate her superior strength to the other humans at first. She tells Leah to stop, saying that she is a prisoner just like the rest of them. Lilith reminds Leah of the war and tells her that instead of fighting Lilith she should be saving her strength for the rebuilding they will have to do. She then leads Leah and Celene to food and waits to tell them everything until after they have eaten and are feeling calm. When Lilith tells them that they are aboard an alien ship and that their captors are extraterrestrials, they refuse to believe it. Lilith reminds them of her special abilities as proof of their situation. She tells the women that they can kill themselves if they want or they can wait and try to rebuild Earth, which seems like a much worthier cause. Celine asks Lilith when she will Awaken men, and Lilith responds that she will Awaken two men next but she first needs to prepare for their arrival. Finally, she warns Celine and Leah that they are being watched by the Oankali. The Oankali will not intervene unless they try to murder each other, and the murderer will be forced to live out the rest of their life on the ship. Leah says that it is "convenient" that Lilith is protected in this way (140). Lilith responds that they all need protection from each other—humanity is now an endangered species and needs help in order to survive.
The next day, Lilith Awakens Curt and Joseph. Upon Awaking, Curt asks who is in charge; Lilith responds that she is but that she is a prisoner just as much as the rest of them. Celene immediately allies herself with Curt and places herself under her protection. Curt demands to know "which side" Lilith is working on, and Lilith responds that there is no one left on Earth to draw sides (142). She then explains that their captors are extraterrestrials called Oankali. Joseph asks her for proof and she says that she does not have any proof that he would not be able to perceive as a trick. He asks her to show him anyway, and she demonstrates her ability to grow new rooms at will. She informs them that the ship is made out of living matter. Leah asks Joseph whether he believes Lilith and he responds that he believes that Lilith believes but that he hasn't made up his own mind yet. Lilith tells Curt and Joseph about the Oankali's plan and that it is necessary for the humans to work together so that they can return to Earth. Lilith decides to tell them about the gene trade so that they have as much time as possible to come to terms with it. They consider the thought of a human-alien hybrid ridiculous. Lilith tells them that she has never seen a human-Oankali hybrid before but that she believes that they are capable of making one because of the changes they have made in her. Joseph tells the group that he is still not convinced that their captors are alien but that their best bet is to learn as much as they can about their situation.
After two days, Lilith Awakens Gabriel Rinaldi and Beatrice Dwyer. Tate tells Lilith that she should speed up the process and Awaken larger groups each time so that they can get down to Earth faster. Lilith disagrees and prefers the smaller groups so that newcomers have more time to acclimate. In the end, Lilith continues Awakening people according to her own schedule despite the fact that Tate disapproves. The men and women start to pair off, starting with Curt and Celine, Gabriel and Tate, and Lilith and Joseph. Lilith continues to Awaken two people every two or three days. The more people there are, the more potential there is for discord, and there are a few vicious fights. One day, a woman names Jean Pelerin starts demanding meat. Lilith explains that the Oankali do not eat meat and therefore do not provide it on the ship. Jean attacks Lilith, and Lilith knocks her out with just two quick punches. Alarmed at her own strength, she checks on Jean and then moves to a separate room where she begins doing exercises. Lilith realizes that the attacks are far from over and she is worried about the ways she might be forced to hurt the other humans.
Joseph finds Lilith in her room and tells her that the others were shocked at her strength. Jean has been telling everyone that Lilith is a man while another man, Van Weerden, said that he doesn't think Lilith is human at all. Joseph calms Lilith and she thinks about the fact that she has paired up with him, despite Tate's disapproval because of Joseph's appearance. Joseph urges Lilith to talk to the Oankali but Lilith tells him it's impossible. Then, he tells her that she should Awaken a large group of people at once—this will distract the people who are growing frustrated at Lilith. He is worried that Lilith will be in danger soon. Lilith tells Joseph that once forty humans are Awakened the Oankali will take them to a portion of the ship that was built to replicate Earth. There, they will learn how to work together in order to survive. Joseph is worried about Lilith's safety once the Oankali enter the picture, fearing that the humans will see her as allied with them. Lilith assures Joseph that she will try to talk to the Oankali about her own safety. She also determines to start Awakening people more quickly. Lilith and Joseph confess their feelings for each other. Lilith notes that even though they would have never attracted each other on Earth, there is a strong pull between them aboard the ship.
Suddenly, Nikanj enters Lilith and Joseph's room, moving silently so that Joseph doesn't notice it. Lilith captures Joseph's attention and tells him that he is not going to be hurt. Joseph reacts to the sight of Nikanj with absolute terror. Nikanj tells Lilith that it came so that Joseph could get over his shock and be able to help Lilith in the future. Joseph composes himself surprisingly quickly, even though he does admit to Lilith that he did not truly believe her until this moment. Nikanj urges Lilith to become the humans' leader. It tells her that if she leads them, fewer humans will be hurt in the long run. Nikanj tells Lilith that it wants her to live and is worried about the growing hostility towards her among the others. Joseph asks Nikanj questions about Oankali abilities, including their ability to genetically engineer different species and make clones. Nikanj tells Joseph that they clone humans in order to better understand them and that the Oankali "'revere life'" (153). Joseph tells Nikanj that they should just use the clones as partners. Nikanj responds that they need the humans from Earth because they are "'biologically interesting, attractive to us, and. . . fascinating'" (154). Nikanj then tells Joseph that no human who kills or does harm will be allowed to return to Earth; they will be forced to live the rest of their lives aboard the ship. Joseph asks if the same holds true if it is a killing in self-defense, thinking of Lilith. Nikanj says that Lilith is exempt from this rule because she "'knows'" the Oankali.
Lilith asks Nikanj to make Joseph exempt as well. Nikanj refuses, but Lilith argues that Joseph is a target because of her. Nikanj tells her that it cannot make that decision—it must be a consensus among the Oankali. Lilith then urges Nikanj to make Joseph stronger and give him the ability to heal faster so that he can protect himself. Joseph tells Lilith that he can take care of himself but Lilith replies that no one individual would be able to fight off a mob of angry humans. She shows Joseph her knuckles, which are no longer bruised after punching Jean. Joseph is slightly horrified when he learns that the Oankali changed Lilith's genes. She gives him the option to leave the room to be with the others. Joseph asks whether Lilith had a choice in these changes and Lilith responds that she did not fight them. Nikanj offers to give Joseph the ability to heal more quickly but says that it will not increase Joseph's strength. Joseph does not think that he could bring himself to touch Nikanj in order to accept the procedure. Nikanj asks Lilith if it can demonstrate how it would touch Joseph on Lilith's body. Lilith refuses, but Nikanj steps forward anyway and wraps a tentacle around her throat. Lilith tells Joseph that this is all the contact that would be needed between them for the procedure. Joseph steps forward hesitantly and touches Nikanj. Nikanj makes Joseph unconscious and puts him on the bed. Nikanj tells Lilith that two of the men outside have been plotting against Joseph, using racist and homophobic slurs against him because they are angry he has allied himself with Lilith.
Lilith is appalled that Joseph was in danger. As Nikanj performs the procedure on Joseph, it urges Lilith to "'serve [the others] by leading them'" (160). Nikanj alters Joseph, improving his strength and healing abilities. While it is still on the bed with Joseph, it encourages Lilith to come join them. Lilith feels unable to resist Nikanj's invitation, not that she wants to. She knows that Nikanj intends to create an intimate moment between herself and Joseph, unlike anything two humans would be able to do alone. She climbs into bed next to Nikanj and Joseph and feels Nikanj's tentacles enter her central nervous system. Nikanj brings Lilith and Joseph together through itself. Even though they are not touching each other, "their delight in one another ignite[s] and burn[s]" (163). They stay together in ecstasy for a while. When she comes back down, her throat is burning and she realizes she must have been screaming. Nikanj heals her throat and says that the experience was intense for it as well. Joseph, on the other side of Nikanj, is deeply asleep, exhausted from the events of the day. Nikanj gets up to leave, encouraging Lilith to bathe and then give the others food. It tells her to seal Joseph in the room and to be the first person to speak to him when he awakes. Before Nikanj can leave, Lilith asks it if it likes Joseph. It replies that Joseph is the human who is most like Lilith and it knew from the beginning they would end up together. It then reveals to Lilith that it chose Joseph specifically for her.
In "Nursery," the theme of knowledge and power gains new dimensions. In "Womb," the Oankali had total power over Lilith partly because of their vast knowledge about her person and the human race in general. As Lilith's time aboard the Oankali ship has progressed, she, too, gains knowledge. Now we see Lilith in a new situation: she is coming face-to-face with other humans who have not yet learned what she knows about the Oankali. Lilith has access to knowledge that the others do not. First, she is given "eighty dossiers" filled with information about these other humans, including "short biographies made up of transcribed conversations, brief histories, Oankali observations and conclusions, and pictures" (116). Lilith's knowledge of these people and of their situation among the Oankali will give her more power than the others in "Nursery." This, in turn, will cause tension between Lilith and the others, as she tries to help them as much as she can but they see her as part of the Oankali and therefore one of their oppressors.
When the humans awake, Lilith tells everyone what is happening to them. Most of them do not believe her. Lilith tries to stress that whether or not they believe her, it is in their best interest to follow her directions. Lilith makes this argument to Celene, who is skeptical. She tells Celene, "'[w]e are on a ship. Act as though you believe that even if you don't. There is no place to run on a ship. Even if you could get out of this room, there would be nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, nowhere to be free. On the other hand, if we endure our time here, we'll get our world back. We'll be put down on Earth as the first of the returning human colonists'" (139). Despite Lilith's passionate assertions, the humans have a hard time understanding the truth about their situation. None of them have seen an Oankali; the sparseness of the room they are in does not contain anything that is identifiably alien. Even Joseph, who mates with Lilith, has a hard time believing what she says. He tells the others, "'I believe that Lilith believes. . . I haven't decided yet what I believe'" (143). Nevertheless, he argues to the others that they should behave as Lilith tells them to, just in case. Throughout all of this, Lilith comes to terms with her new position in her new world. She is seen as an object of suspicion, and her knowledge of the Oankali separates her from the other humans. In many ways, she has been given the same role that Jdhaya had in "Womb." She needs to acclimate the others to their situation, and she does so slowly, keeping in mind that she is delivering them life-shattering news. Lilith is cognizant of the differences between herself and the others. She tells them about the gene trade as soon as possible in an effort to smooth these differences as much as possible: "Then she told them about the gene trade because she decided they must know. If she waited too long to tell them, they might feel betrayed by her silence" (143).
Throughout "Nursery," we begin to see Lilith in a new light. She has been genetically altered by the Oankali. Even before she Awakens the others, she is aware that her new Oankali-given abilities will mark her as different. Lilith muses while considering Awakening Leah, "[s]he sounded as though she could be an intensely loyal friend—unless she got the idea that Lilith was one of her captors. Anyone Lilith Awakened might get that idea—almost certainly would get it the moment Lilith opened a wall or caused new walls to grow, thus proving she had abilities they did not. The Oankali had given her information, increased physical strength, enhanced memory, and an ability to control the walls and the suspended animation plants. These were her tools. And every one of them would make her seem less human" (120). Lilith's worry that she will "seem less human" in the eyes of the others turns out to be true. The others react with suspicion when they see her abilities. Tate, for example, pulls away from Lilith after she sees what Lilith can do: "She had watched the walls growing—watched first with disbelief, then anger, refusing to believe she was not being tricked somehow. Then she began to keep her distance from Lilith, to watch Lilith suspiciously, to be jumpy and silent" (133). Lilith's abilities are a double-edged sword. They allow her to feed herself and others, as well as Awaken other humans. They also keep her safe from violence. However, they push her apart from the others, which causes more suspicion and violence in general. In the end, Lilith has to learn how to delicately navigate this situation. When Leah chokes her, she puts on a display for the others while protecting herself: "Lilith reached up and took Leah's hands from her throat. It was not difficult. Lilith was even able to go on taking care not to cause injury. She also took care not to let Leah see how easy it was for Lilith to defeat her" (137). Lilith's attempts to bring the humans together and make them trust her are not fully successful. As the humans choose allegiances among themselves, many turn their backs on Lilith and see her as an appendage of the Oankali power that is oppressing them. They don't know how to respond to Lilith. When they see evidence of her strength and abilities, they accuse her of being a "man" (147). Others "don't think [she is] human at all" (147).
One question you might ask throughout the first part of "Nursery": which side is Lilith on? The humans seem to be split as to whether she is with them or with the Oankali. When Lilith warns them that the Oankali will intervene if they start being violent, Leah responds that it is convenient that Lilith is "protected" from the rest of them (140). As time passes, it becomes clear that Lilith's worldview is different from that of the others. Lilith wants the humans to come together and learn to cooperate. She sees the Oankali as a necessary evil that stops humanity from destroying itself: "'We're an endangered species—almost extinct. If we're going to survive, we need protection'" (140). While the humans believe they must pick a side between the Oankali and humanity, Lilith sees this kind of logic as futile. She later tells Curt, "'[d]own on Earth. . . there are no people left to draw lines on maps and say which sides of those lines are the right sides. There is no government left. No human government, anyway'" (142). In the end, it becomes clear that Lilith's years among the Oankali have changed how she views things. While the freshly Awakened humans see themselves as being "captured" by the aliens, Lilith wonders if perhaps they have been "rescued" instead (142). Lilith becomes frustrated when she realizes that she is "doomed" to struggle "against her own kind" (150). The humans who fight back against her authority become her "enemies" (151). Meanwhile, she retains her emotional ties to the Oankali family that she lived with, including Nikanj.
Throughout all of this, Lilith's very essence has been changed by the Oankali. In a sense, the text argues that she has become less human as a result of the Oankali genetic modification that she has undergone. For example, Lilith is able to remove sleeping humans for the ship without worrying that the ship will try to swallow her: "[t]here was no possibility this time of the plant trying to swallow her. She would be no more palatable to it now than Nikanj would" (127). Later, she reflects on the way that Nikanj has learned about her via her genetic code: "[i]t had studied her as she might have studied a book—and it had done a certain amount of rewriting" (135). As we read these pages, the reader is prompted to question: how much of this "rewriting" is purely physical? Is there a chance that in the process of changing Lilith's biology, it also changed what she believes and the way that she thinks? Is she, in fact, becoming less human and more like the Oankali? Lilith herself does not seem to fully understand the implications of these changes. After getting into a physical altercation with Jean, she is caught off guard at her own actions: "Lilith went to her room, sat thinking for a few moments about the strength Nikanj had given her. She had pulled her punches, not intending to knock Jean unconscious. She was no longer concerned about Jean now, but it bothered her that she no longer knew her own strength. She could kill someone by accident. She could maim someone" (146). In this passage, Lilith's fears are both about her physical strength as well as her seeming ability to cause violence against another human being. She feels alienated from herself, signaling that she is not the same person that the Oankali picked up on Earth.
The overarching theme of agency also appears in the first half of "Nursery." The newly-Awakened humans must learn how to come to terms with their new existence. This comes hand-in-hand with realizing that their agency has become severely limited. Lilith tries to stress this fact to them. She warns them early in the section: "'[n]o human could do anything aboard the ship except make trouble and be put back into suspended animation—or be killed'" (117-8). Lilith herself has seemingly come to terms that she does not have a say in what happens to her. She declares, "'[i]f I had a vote, I'd still be asleep'" (131). Lilith, along with the rest of the newly-Awakened humans, have very limited agency within their new life. This becomes particularly apparent when it comes to their sexual relationships with the ooloi. In the first part of "Nursery," we learn that Lilith has begun having sexual encounters with Nikanj. It justifies these relations with Lilith by arguing that if she is being forced to do something, she might as well enjoy it. "'If you have to do something, it might as well feel good,'" Nikanj tells Lilith. Lilith remarks that "[i]t had become very interested in her physical pleasures and pains once its sensory arms were fully grown" (135).
Nikanj's attention to Lilith's pleasure does not discount the fact that she is often put in the position of doing something which she does not want to do. In this way, the theme of agency is closely connected to our other overarching theme: that of consent. At the end of this section, Nikanj reveals itself to Joseph and has sex with both Lilith and Joseph. Nikanj does not ask Joseph for his consent. In fact, Lilith tries to send Nikanj away, but instead it touches her without her permission: "When she saw that it was about to leave, she almost relaxed. Then in a single swift sweep of motion, it stepped to her and looped a sensory arm around her neck forming an oddly comfortable noose" (158). The oxymoronic description of an "oddly comfortable noose" reflects Lilith's ambivalence about this interaction. A "noose" is a dangerous and potentially deadly object, yet Lilith finds it "oddly comfortable." Lilith has no choice in this interaction, and her life is literally in Nikanj's hands. Later, when Nikanj invites her to join itself and Joseph in bed, her response reveals her lack of power in this situation: "She realized she had stood up without meaning to and took a step toward the bed. . . She did not pretend outwardly or to herself that she would resist Nikanj's invitation—or that she wanted to resist it" (161). Nevertheless, she delays joining them, "proving to herself that she was still in control of her behavior" (161). In this situation, Joseph has not given verbal consent to join this interaction. While Lilith has technically consented, the control that Nikanj holds over her pleasure and her body complicates this consent. Nikanj has so much more power than Lilith or Joseph that even if they did not want to have sex with it, they would not have room to refuse.
The theme of human violence also appears in the first part of "Nursery," where, for the first time in the novel, humans are interacting together as a group. Lilith was warned by Nikanj's mates that the humans might start attacking her and they instruct her to "seal herself in" for protection (125). Once Lilith begins Awakening the others, there is violence almost immediately. Lilith is caught off guard when Leah attacks her from behind: "she was suddenly staggered by Leah's weight as the woman leaped onto her back and began strangling her" (137). A few pages later, Lilith is also attacked by Jean: "Jean lunged at Lilith, punching, kicking, obviously intending to overwhelm at once" (146). In this scene, Lilith retaliates with violence—"[t]wo short, quick jabs"—which quickly disarms Jean, leaving the woman unconscious (146). The violence is not solely directed towards Lilith. The humans also fight among themselves: "There were several short, vicious fist-fights" (145). Lilith remarks, "[a]n increasing number of bored, caged humans could not help finding destructive things to do" (148). Throughout all of this, the humans in the nursery seem to be confirming the Oankali conclusion that humans are inherently violent creatures. They are upset about their circumstances, taking their anger out against Lilith as a placeholder for the Oankali, and taking it out against themselves.