“My dad says if you can’t take Jairra, Jairra won’t take you either.” Elbert said it with the fortitude of one who knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was right. And of course he did. His dad had told him.
He knew it like Simeon knew he would be next.
“Fuck you,” Rayner spat. “That doesn’t bring Lexina back. She’s on that ship now, and she’s going to Miller Station, and I’ll never see her again.” Like as an afterthought, he kicked at the always somewhat toxic dirt beneath their feet. “And fuck Jairra, too.”
Rayner was one of those better-adapted humans on the planet, the ones who had never had to worry about whether they would make it here, and he liked to show it off. Still, at this moment Simeon felt some degree of sympathy for him. He didn’t know what it was like to have a sister or to lose one, but he tried to guess. And for a family like Rayner’s… They had never had anyone taken away to a space station as far as he knew, and there had been two children. Two. Many people never had any. They must have felt at the top of everything. But one should never feel too secure. Simeon tried to rein in something twitching around his lips that the others would probably not like to see.
“Yeah alright,” Elbert conceded between gritted teeth. “Lexina was okay.”
It was a miracle he admitted that much. Lexina had been okay indeed. The only one out of their group that Simeon had gotten along with. Perhaps he should have gone along with her. But his parents were keeping him here. They said he had to try to make it here, and they didn’t want to give him away. And if he died from the cold and the poison everywhere, would that be better? But here he was, with these guys. If it was his turn to leave, they wouldn’t grumble and kick at the dirt. Either they’d be glad, or they wouldn’t notice. Hard to tell which.
Rayner turned to him. “Why’d she go and you’re staying anyway?”
Right on cue.
“Really,” he continued. “It’s not fair. She was much healthier than you. You’re always sick.”
There went that sympathy. Simeon stayed silent. There was nothing good to say.
“Eh, he’ll be next.” That was Elbert’s way of being considerate.
“I guess,” Rayner said. “Why aren’t they sending you away though? They only have one kid; they should make sure you don’t die.”
He couldn’t help stressing it. Not even now.
Perhaps especially now.
Simeon picked at his glove and looked up at him. “Now yours only have one kid, too. You’ve got to be more careful now.”
“Fuck you!” Rayner kicked some of that toxic soil at him.
“Come on, let’s go,” Elbert said and tugged at Rayner’s sleeve.
“Yeah,” Rayner said. “No use hanging out with someone who’ll be gone with the next ship.”
And they left.
Simeon turned away and looked at the matte orange hills of his home planet. Why did he have to have been born here? And why like this? Couldn’t they have done something differently to make his life easier? Couldn’t he be something else? He was sick of himself. As so often.
Heavy steps and the noise of a carapace woke him from his daydreaming. A Meldeen was approaching him. That was still a kid, right? They were only kids hanging out behind the old factory, after all. But this one was tall. Almost as tall as a human adult. Broad build, shining black shell covering most of his body. Simeon swallowed. If the Meldeen wanted to pick a fight, he was done for. But he was also frozen to his spot. So he just waited until the other stood right in front of him.
“They left you alone?” the Meldeen asked.
Was he being friendly, or was he scoping out if Simeon was alone and an easy victim? “Yeah, they left.” He smiled a little without knowing why. “I think they don’t like me.”
“Why don’t they like you?”
That still sounded threatening. What if he gave a wrong answer? But at least he talked to him. “Because the planet makes me sick.”
“Why do they care?”
“Because they’re stupid.” That came out faster than any reflection could.
The Meldeen broke into a toothy and pincery grin.
Was that good? Then he should continue talking. “And there was one of those ships here till last night. The ones that they take the sick children away with, to the space stations. And they took the sister of one of them. But I’m still here, and he thinks that’s unfair.”
The Meldeen clacked the right pair of pincers at the back of his row of shining black teeth. “Why don’t your people just build stuff so you can live here like on the space stations? It’s stupid to try like this when you can’t take it.”
Simeon smiled. “Like you did on Karmee? I wish. That sounds so great. You know… The one guy just said that his dad said that if you can’t take Jairra, it won’t take you either. But I think that’s stupid.”
The Meldeen laughed. “Really stupid. Too much pride in pointless stuff here. I don’t know why my people don’t do anything either. Guess it’s easier for us, we don’t get poisoned. But I wish I was on Karmee or one of the stations, too.”
“Yeah. I’m supposed to tough it out, but…” Simeon pressed his lips together. “I don’t think I ever will. I’m just waiting for it to be over.”
The Meldeen clicked his front pincers. He looked annoyed. Simeon flinched. The Meldeen shook his head. “Don’t be like that. How’s that: If you stay here till you’re grown-up, and I’m grown-up, we get away from here and get to Karmee. Life’s much better there.”
That sounded like a dream. Even if Simeon had never considered the species’ home planet as a possible home, he loved the idea of a world even more naturally hostile than Jairra but covered in buildings and technology that made it comfortable. “I wish every planet could be like that,” he mused. “Why aren’t they anyway? Humans aren’t stupid, and you’re here, too. You’ve done it before.” He pointed at the toxic ground. “This is ridiculous.”
“But it took millennia. And they say before they could get started, there was constant war, for more millennia. And it covered the whole ground in flames.”
“Perhaps we could use some flames here to burn away all this waste. Maybe we should get started on that war.”
The Meldeen laughed. “‘Spoken like a true general.’ That’s what my dad always says. Hey. I’m Philen. Or… I know. I’ll teach you. That’s my adapted name, for humans. Really it’s Phi’len.” He said it with a click of his front pincers in the middle. “Try that.”
It was a new world, right here in the cold, toxic waste of Jairra. Simeon loved it. “But I have no pincers.”
“Use your teeth.”
Simeon frowned. He felt a nervous pang. But he’d try. “Phi…” He clacked his front teeth together. “Len.” Okay, this was how. Again. “Phi,” click, “len. Phi’len.”
Phi’len gave him a wide grin. “Our teeth grow in first. Till the pincers arrive, we either whistle it through the gap and it’s dumb, and you sound like a baby. Or we use the side teeth instead.”
“So I speak like a little kid now.”
“Yeah but not like a baby. And you’re a foreigner, it’s okay. Wanna learn more?”
Simeon nodded. “Everything.”
Phi’len laughed. “Okay! What’s your name? Give me your first name, though. I know that about your people. First names for friends. And I only teach friends.”
Well, he was certainly more worthy of it than those humans. “Simeon.”
“Simeon. Good. I know! You want a carapace? I have a plastic carapace piece at home! I got it when my arm was hurt and I broke the shell. Now I don’t need it anymore. You want it?”
Simeon’s eyes widened. “Really?” Could he accept that? He felt bad. Could he just…
“Really! It’s too small for me now, but it’ll fit you. You’ll be part Meldeen.”
Apparently he could just. He nodded.
It was dark when he returned home. He was supposed to be back earlier, and normally he obliged, but today was an exception. Tearing himself away would just have been an impossible demand. So he got his parents’ berating over with. They had already contacted Elbert’s and Rayner’s parents and heard he had not been with them, and so they had been worried sick by their own account. But if they were, why did they let him play in the toxic outdoors? Why wasn’t he at Miller Station now? Or on the way? How fast were these ships?
“What is that?” his mother interrupted her own speech and pointed at his left arm.
Finally something he could respond to! “That’s a plastic carapace. It’s a replacement. My friend gave it to me.”
“Phi’len. He’s Meldeen.”
His father’s expression darkened further than its already darkened state. “You speak their language? What was that sound just now?”
“It’s like a clicking sound. You do it with your pincers. Or teeth. When they’re small…”
“I won’t have that barbaric language here. That’s where you’ve been? The Meldeen? Don’t you have normal friends?”
“Come now,” his mother said in a hushed voice. But of course Simeon could hear her loud and clear. “You know those kids abandoned him. We were both angry at them.” She turned to Simeon. “You know you can just come home if you’ve got nobody to play with.”
Simeon frowned. “No I can’t. You say I have to be tough and be out there and play with them. But they don’t want to cause I’m always sick. And they’re mad Lexina’s gone and I’m still here. The Meldeen don’t care. His mother was nice, too. I can go there again.”
He saw his father composing himself with much effort. “This is what it’s come to now.” He mustered Simeon, then turned back to his mother. “Is he really that sick?”
“Oh you know he is. I keep telling you. But you never want to listen.” She shook her head. “I know; I don’t want to think of it either. He’d be gone.” She looked at Simeon. “We don’t want to lose you, that’s all.”
Should he say something? Perhaps. “If I die, you lose me, too. That’s what Rayner said. You should watch out.”
His father hit his fist against the wall.
“Nah. Kid. Listen. That family is a bunch of stuck-up…”
“He’s right though,” his mother said.
“I don’t want to hear it.” His father clenched his teeth. “But now he’s hanging out at Meldeen houses and speaking that clicking language of theirs, and he’s wearing that… thing on his arm. Maybe it can only get worse from here.”
Simeon watched the exchange, keeping his expression as neutral as he could.
“You know,” his mother said after a pause. Her voice was hesitant now. That always meant something important. “I wouldn’t have put him on the last ship. You know what they say about Miller Station. It’s always broken, and they have food shortages. But Hayes is sending one soon.”
“Hayes is full of old people. They don’t want anything to do with the rest of us, and all their businesses are centuries old. Their technology’s dated, too.”
“But they care for their people. I’ve heard they have enough to eat, they have good medicine, and they have rules in place for how people should behave themselves. Something like this wouldn’t happen on Hayes.”
‘This’ was most of today, Simeon surmised. He couldn’t decide if the station sounded like a bad idea or a good one. Old technology sounded bad especially after today’s talks. He wanted to suggest Karmee instead, but after his father’s reaction earlier, that was out of the question. No. Be quiet and best not there at all; that would get him farthest.
“Isn’t there any other?” his father asked. “Didn’t the Smiths send their son to Tellier? At least they’ve got an economy.”
“Tellier is full of Meldeen,” his mother said.
His father wrinkled his nose. Then he mustered her more closely. “You’ve looked all these up.”
She sighed and nodded. “Yes. I knew it would come to this. And we can’t have our only child die.”
His father hit the wall again. “Of course I don’t want him to die! What do you think I am? I was hoping…” He dropped his hand to his side, lifeless. Then turned to Simeon.
“Do you really want to go?”
He really wanted to go. And of course this would happen just when he’d made one friend that was a real friend. One should never feel too secure.