“I’m leaving here,” said Meiki as she she scraped the nozzle of the crafter. “No more of this crap for me.”
Phel didn’t raise an eyebrow. He’d heard it all before. Meiki usually announced her plans to run away during unpleasant chores. Last month she nearly broke down during turbine maintenance on the wind farm. Before that she threatened to storm out while bug hunting through the mountains of code that regulate the HVAC system. Whenever faced with a boring job Meiki could be counted on to declare she was through with life in the dorms of Gates.
Phel examined the crafter nozzle. Resin crusted its insides because the kids had been overusing it. He and Meiki performed most of the maintenance duties at Dorm 7C and he began to suspect the others thought all of their automated services continued to work because of elves in the middle of the night. He knew the other students worked hard, too, he almost sympathized with Meiki. He changed his mind when she continued complaining.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” She looked at Phel, his chestnut colored eyes unblinking. “I mean it this time. I’m leaving. Maybe tomorrow. I’ll head for Newbright. Or maybe the Blackpatch. I can’t decide whether I want to make it in the big city or run free in the wilderness. Either way, I won’t be here anymore.”
He dropped the nozzle along with several others into a bucket filled with cleaning solution. The crust softened and became foamy almost instantly.
He looked at Meiki and said, “You’ve never been anywhere besides Gates. You ain’t going to Newbright and there is no way you’d last a night in the Blackpatch. There’s ghosts there. They’ll eat your face.”
“There’s no such thing as ghosts. Charlie told me that. He told me that there is nothing in the world scarier than people. Only seeds believe in the ghosts.”
“Charlie don’t know everything.”
“Yes he does. Charlie knows everything that there is to know in the whole world and then some. He just doesn’t tell us all of it.”
Phel considered this while he scrubbed remaining bits of resin out of the nozzles. They ran the most efficient dorm building in Gates and he took pride in that. He and Meiki had been assigned these duties at the age of ten. While Phel took to it as if it were a divine calling Meiki sighed and dragged her feet with every task.
Phel knew Meiki was right. Charlie almost certainly knew nearly everything. As an android he’d been programmed with an immense store of knowledge. Anything Charlie didn’t know would probably be accessible through the town’s library.
“Well,” Phel said,“ if Charlie knows everything then you should act more like him. He’s two hundred years old or more and doesn’t ever leave Gates. He almost never goes as far as Sagan or Atwood, let alone Newbright. So why should you?”
“Charlie doesn’t need to leave. He isn’t a person like us. He doesn’t get the wanderlust.”
“Pfft ‘wanderlust’? You just don’t feel like doing your work.”
“Besides,” said Meiki, “there’s other androids like Charlie and they don’t just sit in one town for all eternity. Look at Tyson.”
A synthetic steward similar to Charlie, Tyson and Meiki had met once when he came to visit from his own settlement in Sagan.
Phel pushed the bucket to the wall and pulled a hose out of a round panel. He stuck the end of it into the bubbly solution. Meiki flipped a switch above the panel and machines within the wall began to hum as the liquid slurped into a system that would extract the resin and convert it to powder form for reuse in the crafters. Phel followed the manual precisely and Dorm 7C had virtually no waste in their crafting facility.
Cleaning the crafters was their last chore for the day and both couldn’t wait to enjoy some free time.
“So why don’t you go to Sagan if you’re itching to leave?” said Phel.
“Sagan isn’t any better than Gates, Phel. It’s nothing but goats and corn as far as the eye can see.”
“You’ve never been there.”
“And I never will,” said Meiki, “because I got my heart set on going someplace big. Newbright it is.” Neither of them knew anyone who had been to the city, but they knew of it. According to Charlie it was as dangerous as the Blackpatch in its way.
Within seconds the crafter parts were clean and dry. The pair stuffed the bucket into a closet and headed down the long corridor to the exit.
Outside, the sky lurked above them the same drab color as the walls of the dormitory. They lived on a distant world, light years away from Earth, called Naya. As a small planet with a murky atmosphere, Naya never boasted gorgeous sunsets.
A hundred meters in front of them loomed the orchards. In the dreary twilight the trees resembled an army of giants standing in formation.
Beside the building stood a scarcely used playground. Most of the students were too old to be caught dead on the equipment which in the dusk looked like a collection of rusted over fossils.
Every child of ten and older resided for at least half the year at school. The train ride to the residential area where their parents lived took nearly an hour. The stewards said that living away from family for an extended period fostered a sense of self reliance that should serve them well as settlers of an unclaimed world.
Meiki and Phel lived in Gates, a mid-sized colony with Sagan to the north and Atwood to the south. Newbright was the oldest settlement on planet Naya. People often referred to it simply as “The City” as it was the only true city in the world. Those from Gates almost never mentioned Newbright at all. They were generally content to work and play and live their simple lives without a thought of the world beyond the colony.
Meiki had not been back home to the residential area in two years. Her mother hadn’t shown up to collect her one time and that was that. This suited her fine and no one ever caught Meiki crying. She would have told the others that she didn’t need a home if any of them ever asked. As far as she was concerned it didn’t matter if she were in a dull, suffocating, prison-like school or at home with her mother. Each felt equally terrible.
Meiki slipped her hands into the pocket of her khaki overalls to ward off the chilly night air.
“I really am leaving. I can’t stand it here another day.”
Night fell swiftly on Naya. Gray-green clouds shrouded the moonless world. It wouldn’t be long until they melted to inky black. Stars were a rare sight. Even the daytime sun remained hard to spot under the planet’s murky haze. On some nights the clouds would glimmer and grumble. Sometimes even the roar of thunder and flash of lightning appeared, but the weather remained generally stable, gray and boring like the rest of Meiki’s life.
The students didn’t have much time for fun after chores. Phel couldn’t wait to head up to the roof where kids would gather to play instruments and sing in the cool air. Meiki didn’t mix well with the others. Phel seemed the only one who tolerated her sullen disposition. Of course, he hadn’t befriended her so much as been stuck with her. They were assigned custodial duties in dorm 7C on their first day. Phel performed so well that they made him head of maintenance over the dorms and farm machinery. He used his influence to get Meiki some of the better jobs, not that she appreciated it. Now in the third year of their acquaintance he’d gotten used to her complaining, but still he tried to drag her out of her comfort zone.
“I’m gonna grab my banjo and play some tunes with Ker and Leggy up on the roof. Wanna join us?” Phel knew what her answer would be.
Meiki tilted her head back, “I think I’ll just go to my room and read.” Ker was an empty-eyed girl that Phel stared at every opportunity without making a move and her brother Leggy, short for Yleg, brought those stupid bongos with him everywhere.
“C’mon Meiki.” said Phel, “I know you don’t get along with most anyone else, but it would be nice to see you try for a change.”
“Try what?” asked Meiki. “Try to relate to a bunch of seeds that don’t care about anything but impressing one another? I’m not a part of that, Phel. I don’t fit in.”
Phel looked down at his shoes for a minute and said, “Look Meiki. I like you. I don’t have lot of friends either. But I got you and it would be nice if you came out once in a while. Maybe the other kids just need to get to know you like I do. Maybe you just need to get to know them.”
She looked at Phel with her head askew, arched an eyebrow, and said, “You just don’t want to be alone when you embarrass yourself in front of Ker, right?”
“Well, that too.” said Phel.
“Fine. I’ll come up to this stupid roof party. I can barely read when you guys are up there blasting music anyway.” Phel smiled a face full of teeth and ran up the stairwell to fetch his instrument from his room.
The soft glow from a web of a thousand decorative lights saturated the roof. It made the atmosphere a thousand times warmer than the rest of the dorm. A gathering of several dozen students must surely have been against regulations, mused Meiki. She felt surprised to learn that by-the-book Phel offered no complaint regarding that.
A makeshift stage of old crates stood at the far end of the roof. Ker hovered beside it, blond and thin and vapid. Meiki could not imagine why Phel had such an obsession with that girl. She didn’t seem mean or nasty, just pointless. Meiki could not recall a single word Ker had spoken in the years they had been to school together. A band of older students commanded the stage with instruments they had made using the crafters Meiki and Phel maintained. They played loud and coarse music. Only a handful of kids seemed to be paying attention to the band. The others gathered in small clusters ignoring anyone outside their individual cliques.
Ker’s brother, Leggy stood beside her. Sure enough he held a pair of bongos. Phel practically leapt toward them in excitement. Playing it cool was not his strong suit.
“Leg! We up next?” said Phel.
“Yeah, buddy.” Leggy said through the sandy hair that hung over most of his face.
“Are you excited to see us on the stage?” Phel asked Ker, but she didn’t seem to notice him. She focused most of her attention toward the lead musician on stage.
Meiki stood away from the whole exchange. She wasn’t friends with Ker or Leggy. She hardly had any friends. She couldn’t bear to put herself out there the way Phel did. He didn’t seem the slightest bit aware as the love of his life ignored him. Meiki’s stomach churned with sympathetic embarrassment.
She wandered into the crowd of her classmates, stumbling between clusters of kids who seemed to find this all so easy. Conversation and laughter swirled around her. She walked among them but not a part of it all. Even making eye contact with the others was a feat for her.
Three students from her grade were sitting near the ledge. Two boys and a girl. They were talking about technology and design class. Meiki inched closer to the group even though she barely recognized any of them. She figured she should at least try to interact no matter how difficult it would be.
“Charlie is such a tough teacher.” said the girl “I’m going to fail this class if I don’t come up with at least a B on my design project.”
Meiki burst into the group. “Which project is it?” she asked.
“Uhm...” said the girl, a little peeved at the intrusion, “the one where you have to like, make a duplicate of a scientific invention from the past and explain the properties.”
“Oh. Yeah.” said Meiki, “I had that assignment last quarter. I got a B+. Like you said, Charlie is tough.”
“Wait...B+?” said the girl, now intrigued. “What exactly did you make?”
“Oh...” Meiki paused. She had good reason not to bring too much attention to her project, but it was too late now, “I made...well...they used to call it an invisibility cloak.”
“You mean like a blanket you can hide under?”
“No,” Meiki tried not to look frustrated at the other girl’s stupidity. “I used metamaterials to alter how an object interacts with the electromagnetic spectrum.”
“I made a cloak that bends light around a subject. It makes the subject effectively invisible.”
“And that’s a real thing?” asked the girl.
“Yeah,” Meiki replied, “ I put it on in front my class and disappeared. It’s old technology actually. They invented it before the antimatter ships that launched from Earth to start colonies like we have here on Naya. They had all kinds of technology back then.”
“And you say you got a B+ on this?” asked the girl.
“Yeah, I can help you with your project if you want.” said Meiki. Everything seemed to click. She was on the verge of making a friend. Maybe it was all easier than she had thought.
“Can’t you just give me your project? It’s due tomorrow. I won’t have time to make something.”
“Why did you wait so long to do your project?” asked Meiki.
“Because I have friends and a social life.” said the girl, partially in defense and partially just to be mean.
Meiki’s eyebrows scrunched down. “I have friends!”
“You have a friend.” said one of the boys. “That kid who fixes all of the machines. He’s your only friend.”
Meiki took more offense at the implication that Phel did all the maintenance by himself than she did at the accusation that she had no friends. At least the latter was true.
“Why don’t you tell us more about the spaceships that came here from Earth a million years ago!” said the other boy, sarcastically.
“It was only five hundred years ago. Don’t you losers pay attention in class at all?”
“Who cares?” said the girl. “Here and now is important, not ancient history. I need to pass this class or I might have to repeat seventh grade.”
“Well, I offered to help, but you’re being a jerk about it.” said Meiki.
“I’ll just make a stupid pinhole camera. That’s at least a C, right? Maybe I can get extra credit.”
“Whatever.” said Meiki as she stormed off.
She ended up near the stage just as Phel and Leggy were getting on. The older kids had packed up their gear and Ker followed the bandleader as he headed toward the stairwell with his friends. The older boy didn’t seem to notice the willowy girl fluttering behind him.
Phel noticed. He leaned down toward Meiki and whispered, “What is going on with her and that guy?”
“I don’t know.” said Meiki sharply. “What am I, your dating coach?”
Leggy started a loud jazzy beat on his little drums.
“Well, can you find out for me?” asked Phel through his teeth.
“What, like follow her?”
“I can’t do it...I gotta play music now.”
“Why?” asked Meiki, “No one is listening.” She gestured to the empty patch in front of the stage. The few kids who had been there dispersed when the older band finished.
“That’s not the point.” he said, “I can’t let Leggy down...please just find out what is up with them and I’ll play it cool up here on the stage.”
“The things I do for you.” Meiki groaned as she headed for the stairwell.
Phel started playing his banjo. He played well, but his tune did not pair well with Leggy’s frantic bongos.
Meiki opened the door to the stairwell and walked down into the darkness. On the second landing she saw Ker’s tiny frame hunched over, crying.
Not knowing what else to do, Meiki sat beside her and put her arm on Ker’s back. “Hey...um...girl...it’s ok.” said Meiki awkwardly.
Ker looked up at Meiki with a face full of tears. “I’m so stupid!”
“No you’re not.” said Meiki even though she believed the opposite.
“Yes.” said Ker, “Yes I am. Do you ever feel like you don’t even matter? Like no matter what you do everyone will just ignore you?”
This confused Meiki. She always saw Ker as the embodiment of cool disregard. She didn’t seem to notice or care about anything. Was it all an act?
“He didn’t even notice me.” Ker continued. “I have tried to get his attention all night. Not just tonight either. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do.”
“Well,” said Meiki “maybe...maybe there’s someone else out there. Maybe he’s just not the guy for you.”
“Easy for you to say. You have a boyfriend.”
“WHAT?” Meiki’s mouth hung open long after uttering the word.
“My brother’s friend, Phil. You two are a thing, right?”
“Phel. His name is Phel. And NO. We are definitely not a thing. We are just friends.”
“Whatever.” said Ker. “I’ll never find anyone.” She sobbed and wallowed in her own pity for a few more minutes.
“Well, I can guarantee you that Phel is not my boyfriend. He likes...he likes someone else.”
“Well, great. A lot of good that does me.”
“Maybe you should go back upstairs and listen to the band.”
“My brother is playing.” said Ker. “He stinks.”
“I know. But it would mean a lot to Phel I think.”
“Why would...ohhhh.” said Ker, finally getting it.
“Look,” said Meiki, “I don’t care. You like Phel, he likes you? Go for it. You don’t like him? Whatever. It’s none of my business. I told Phel I’d talk to you. My part in all of this is done.”
Meiki stood and began trudging down the stairs. Ker got up as well.
“Wait,” said Ker, “umm...I don’t know your name.”
“It’s Meiki. My name is Meiki.”
“Uh, thanks Meiki. I’m going to go back up to the roof. Do you want to come with me?”
“No thanks.” Meiki said, “I’ve had enough party for tonight.”
The two girls parted ways.