(From the archives of the Dracon IV human colony.)
Kids! They're enough to drive you crazy. On the Old World, Earth, where I grew up, children obeyed their parents. Here on Dracon, kids don't care.
Let me give you an example. Yesterday, Diana, my five-year-old, snuck a furry drakitten into our living-dome. If I told her once, I told her ten to the third times to leave native animals outside. In the warm dome, it transformed, as they always do, into a fire-breathing dragonette. Then it flattened itself underneath my easy-chair and nearly burned my foot off.
Another example. Just a week ago, Harold, my ten-year old, came crying, "My teacher hit me."
I know his teacher, Eeoop Fi. She's an octopus--excuse me, I should say an Arcturan--I don't want you should think I'm prejudiced--and she often smacks disobedient Arcturan students, but never human children. Not once has she spouted that Arcturan saw, "Break the bones and build the child." Nor does she insist that mishga, a vitamin they distill from the metabolic efflux of grazing octopods, will strengthen human children.
Was Harold lying? Arcturan fractures heal in six hours, not six weeks. Did Eeoop forget herself and let her middle tentacles fly? Harold's pudgy body had no bruises, but that didn't prove anything. Without answers, all I could do was pour myself a brandywine and aggravate.
The older kids are the worst. Little genetic progeny, little problems: big genetic progeny, big problems, as they say in the Old World. A half a year ago, my oldest boy, Danny, just starting high school, announced he planned to try out for skrimshin.
I hit the top of the dome. Danny is a huge, muscular boy, taller than I am, but still a human child. "Are you outta your mind? Skrimshin's no game for humans."
"Sure it is, Dad," he said. "Our home team, Fiiaaps, has a human player, Mario Rodriguez."
"He's gotten banged up pretty bad, too. Skrimshin's too dangerous for people, uh, for humans. A flying skrim won't hurt one of them but it can kill you."
"The armor will protect me, Dad."
"And what will armor do when 400 pounds of blubber falls on you?"
"They aren't allowed to pile up on humans. You know that. The game isn't that dangerous."
"Why not play baseball or football?"
"Nobody plays baseball or football. Oh, I know humans play baseball and football, but humans don't count."
My pulse pounded behind my eyes. "Who says they--we don't count. Aren't we and the Arcturans partners, exploiting, I mean exploring Dracon IV together? Why are only their doings important?"
So how does he answer me? "Oh, Dad, you don't understand."
The next morning, while the two suns shined gloriously in the chartreuse sky and spotted winglizards chirped their lustful calls in the black carnivore-trees, I visited the coach, an affable athlete named Paaoo.
"Skrimshin is a beautiful game, Mr. Robbins," he hissed while we watched the team work out. "Nothing shines like a skrim, glistening in the Draconian suns as it flies from being to being on its way to the shin. It's even more beautiful here on Dracon Four than on our home planet," and he emitted some clicks and whistles that I will never be able to understand, let alone repeat, "what you call Arcturus Three."
I took a deep breath. "It is beautiful, Ca Paaoo, but it's dangerous for humans. A skrim can shatter human bones like dry spaghetti, and we don't heal like you do."
He laughed and slithered his cold tentacles up and down my arm. I'm not afraid of snakes, but those appendages made me shudder.
"Back home we have a saying, 'Break the bones and build the child.' You worry too much. Give him a little mishga and he'll be fine."
"But coach, why do you want a human child on the team? Danny isn't nearly as strong as Arcturan youngsters."
"Danny is quick and tireless. Humans don't give out as easily as Arcturans. Mario Rodriguez is one of the best players on Fiiaaps."
I sighed, thanked him for his time, and left. Progress I was not making. Danny still burned to run onto a huge grassy circle with a bunch of half-ton lard-balls.
What should I have done? Had I forbidden him to play, it would have stimulated rebellion and made skrimshin even more of an overriding goal. I figured he couldn't hurt himself too badly on a scrub team. Next year, after collecting his share of bruises, he would be more reasonable. So I let him join.
To tell the truth, ever since Sarah, their mother, died on this God forsaken world, it's been difficult for me to refuse the kids anything.
The following week I watched a skrimshin game on tri-D. As the coach said, it's a beautiful sport. Members of the Fiiaaps, their motile tentacles writhing on the purple grass, slithered onto the round field. An opposing Arcturan whirled the glittering skrim above its top while its teammates formed a line leading to the shin. Suddenly a Fiiaap flipped its hurling tentacle, intercepted the skrim and passed it to a teammate. He--or maybe she or it--then whirled it in a new circle while the Fiiaaps formed an unbreakable line to their shin. Soon the glistening jewel was arcing from one player to another a quarter of the way down the field. It was a good play, drawing a loud mixture of cheering Arcturan clicks and human shouts from the fans in the stadium and even a little whoop from me.
A coach called a time out, and Mario Rodriguez jogged onto the field. The whistle blew. An Arcturan passed Mario the skrim, and he ran like a football player, dodging Arcturan bodies and tentacles almost a full third of the way down the field. Suddenly a tentacle tip hit his lower leg with a thwack and knocked him down. Technically it was another good play, but he carried the skrim in a jerky manner nothing like the graceful curves traced by the Arcturans.
Danny sat down next to me and pushed back a lock of unruly blond hair. "That's what I want to do when I grow up."
The announcer's excited voice broke in. "Mario has a broken leg. He's out of the game..."
"You want that also?" I asked.
Danny was unimpressed. "It'll heal. Besides, he was careless."
"The man is the greatest human skrimmer on Dracon. Do you think you can do better?'
The eyes rolled up. "Oh, Dad, you don't understand."
One of the Fiiaaps hurled the skrim into the bull's-eye of the multi-tiered shin, triggering light and discordant alien music. The crowd went wild. I didn't cheer. Muttering angrily, I turned off the tri-D and walked away. Danny turned it back on.
The next week, Danny began training. At breakfast, I found him drinking a glass of mishga.
"How can you stand that stuff?" I asked him. "It smells like poop."
He shrugged. "It's not that bad. Your vitamins smell worse."
My boss in the microbio lab, another human, was so excited at a human kid playing skrimshin, he gave me the afternoon off to watch Danny's first practice. The kids were doing calisthenics. Then the coach made them do a scrimmage. Danny performed well, dodging tentacles and often catching the skrim, though several times he got hit, and a few times he tripped. That evening, when he undressed for bed, I saw he was black and blue.
I wanted to wring my hands. "Are you sure you want to go through with this?"
"Don't worry, Dad. I'm just out of shape. Lots of kids get banged up on the first day."
Don't worry? What does he know about a parent's worries? Only another parent, like my brother Carl, would understand. As it happened, that night Carl called. His wife and daughter had gone to a so-called women's night--as if Arcturan females were women--at the Species Friendship Center, and he didn't want to eat alone. My brother is the type of guy who, when he invites himself for dinner, brings the dinner--octopod burgers and sea-tuber fries.
After dinner, Dracon alpha was setting. The valley was still warm, so I shooed the kids outside to play, poured a brew for Carl and me, and sat down to talk.
"I gotta tell you, I'm worried about Danny." I explained about Skrimshin.
"The school wouldn't allow it if was dangerous," he said.
"Are you kidding? Sports injuries happen all the time. He already got a ton of bruises."
"He looks okay to me. Is he taking mishga? It's supposed to heal injuries."
"How can Arcturan drugs help humans? They're aliens."
He shrugged. "There's some theory about sentience requiring compatible chemistry."
"Theory is right. Where is the proof?"
"Part of the theory must be true. We and the Arcturans can eat the same food."
"If you can stomach it, but have you ever heard of mishga curing a human?"
"Wasn't there a human skrimmer, Mario something, who broke a leg? I heard he got back on his feet after a few days of mishga."
"Old Schwartz was injured bad enough to die last year. Mishga didn't help him."
Carl frowned. "His hovercraft crashed. That's not like a skrimshin injury."
"They didn't give my Sarah mishga." My voice was rising.
"Sarah wasn't injured. She had lung-spore disease. Mishga doesn't help infections."
"God damned octopuses, they didn't give it to Sarah."
"It wouldn't have done her any good."
"If it wouldn't have helped Sarah, then why would it help Danny?" By now I was shouting.
"Oh, Alan." Carl gave me a look like I was deaf or retarded or both. He leaned over and put his hand on my shoulder. "Tell me…" He paused. "Who will you vote for in next month's elections?"
Like I care about the elections. I never wanted to come to Dracon, but the contracts we got were great and Sara insisted the environment--no smog or crime--would be good for the kids. She was right about the kids, but it sure wasn't good for her.
As the weeks went by, Danny's bruises lessened. My other two kids looked at him with awe. Fat Harold started exercising and slimmed down, and even timid little Diana grew more outgoing.
My anxiety continued.
After much eager anticipation on Danny's part, the first game arrived. I and all three parents of each Arcturan player came to watch, but none of Danny's human classmates. I saw one pair of human parents staring at their child and dearly wanted to talk to them, but they stood on the other side of the field and etiquette forbade my crossing over before the game finished.
The Arcturan kids slid around the field like squeaky rubber balls and often crashed into each other with loud thumps. To my relief, none of them bumped into Danny or the human child on the other team. Danny, sprinting and feinting, looked out of place, but when he carried the skrim, I cheered. His team won one to nothing, which left him ecstatic. "Boy, Dad, did you see how I intercepted that pass? And how did you like my dodging?" I swallowed and refrained from mentioning that he was limping on his left leg.
Each week, he attended practice and another game. Danny always arrived on time and often practiced at home. Once I caught him trying to whirl a skrim around his head like Arcturans do. Embarrassed, I closed the door quietly so he wouldn't think I was spying on him.
Danny's team made it to the playoffs, to my dismay because he'd be playing that much longer. I started to talk about how skrimshin "has been a good experience, something everyone should do for a season."
"Oh, I'm not going to stop with one season," he said, downing a glass of mishga and then dashing out to play with an Arcturan friend. Its tentacles curled around -- of all places -- his neck, while his fingers held its top sensor tentacle.
That was another thing; lately he never played with human friends, just Arcturans. He studied their literature, listened to their music, if you can call that noise music, and would have run around naked like they did if I hadn't put my foot down.
Didn't he appreciate his Terran heritage? Was he trying to be an Arcturan himself?
Another worry; at his age, he should have been noticing girls. One dark haired cutie certainly noticed him, but did he look at her? Not a glance. The big sports hero was too busy with his Arcturan friends. Would my boy end up wanting to date Arcturans or even marry one? I imagined an octopus daughter-in-law slithering down the aisle on her motile tentacles and shivered. What kind of grandchildren would I have? Squid?
The last contest of the season, the championship game, arrived. The whole class came to encourage the team, even the human classmates, including the petite brunette. When the players entered the field--Arcturans gliding and human children running, the spectators broke into insane cheering. I saw three human children on the other team and felt reassured that none of them looked injured. Our team, the Skrimmers--a name Danny picked--my boy is a politician--won the pull for the first skrim.
Danny started the game on the bench, but I knew he wouldn't stay there. The players pushed each other and hurled the skrim back and forth, for about ten minutes. Then the coach sent Danny in. At first, I would gnaw my lip till it bled when he entered the field, but now, for the last game, I put aside my worries till next season. An opposing Arcturan whirled the skrim around its top and passed it down a somewhat ragged line of players. Danny, with enthusiasm but no brains, jumped between two Arcturans and intercepted the skrim. The crowd loved it, but I wanted to wring his neck for making such a dangerous move. Clutching the skrim, he ran madly down the field to the shin while his classmates screamed in ecstasy. He hurled the skrim into the shin just as two other players swung their tentacles and hit him from opposite directions. He fell, and my heart fell with him because he didn't get up. In fact, he didn't even move.
A crowd gathered, and I was the first one there. A leg and arm jutted out at crazy angles, obviously broken. A siren wailed, and he and I were in an ambulance speeding to the hospital, him moaning Dad it hurts I can't breathe Dad are you there, and me saying it's all right Danny I'm right here you'll be fine, all the while forcing my voice to be calm so he won't hear my terror and be more afraid himself.
At last, we reached the hospital, where nurses wheeled him into the operating room. The colony had no human surgeon. That an Arcturan would operate on my boy made me sick, but the physician on call assured me she had studied human medicine intensively, and that her tentacles were more agile than human fingers. Watching her tendrils tie themselves into and out of complex knots, I had to agree.
Forty-five minutes I paced the floor. I must have had kidneys in my head instead of brains to have agreed to this sport in the first place. When the doctor came out, I ran to her. "Doc. Is he okay?"
"You were really worried, weren't you?" she laughed, insinuating her tentacles around my arm and waist. "It's all right. Young ones like that can take a lot of punishment. Remember, break the bones and build the child. We put in a few stitches and gave him some mishga, and he's much better."
An Arcturan nurse took me to the recovery room where he lay, his whole body wrapped in hard white casts. Only his fingers, toes, and face were visible. I asked how he felt, but he was too sedated to answer with more than a moan. That evening, I tossed and turned all night. Early next morning I called the hospital; the nurse, a human, said he was doing 'as well as can be expected' but wouldn't give details. I took Harold and Diana, both of whom seemed strangely unworried, to Carl's dome. Then, with my hovercraft's whine dangerously loud, I rushed to the hospital, all the while gnawing my fingernails.
On the transport belt to Danny's ward, the pretty brunette girl from Danny's class hurried up to me. "Will Danny be all right, Mr. Robbins?" she asked, her voice tremulous.
"Sure thing," I answered, looking up. "The nurse says he's fine."
"They shouldn't let him play. Skrimshin is too dangerous for human kids."
She's a smart kid. Cute, too.
We found him in the hospital bed, deathly still. I froze, expecting the worst, but the girl walked right over to the bed and shook his arm to wake him. He opened his eyes and looked around, and I could breathe. Even with the hard casts and mumbled speech he appeared better than I had feared. The intravenous line had a brownish tinge -- mishga obviously.
He blinked a few times, then quietly asked the girl when the nurse would bring breakfast. He asked her, not me. She asked how he felt, and he wrapped his fingers around her hand. Each of them gazed at the other with loving eyes and sickeningly sweet grins. My muscles unwound. He had survived this trauma, and it now appeared his mating instincts were okay.
I walked to the bed, took his other hand and smiled. He glanced at me and then looked away. "Dad, can I try out for the intermediate team next year?"
I suppressed a laugh. "I'm sorry, Danny. It wouldn't be a good idea. Look at all these casts. You got banged up pretty bad."
At that point, the doctor came in along with Danny's coach, both of them clicking and whistling away in Arcturan. As they approached, they switched to English, as was their custom near humans.
"Of course, I'm sure," said the doctor. 'I've treated injuries like this for 20 orbits. The boy is fine. He had a couple of minor fractures and was never in danger of death or disability."
"I'm not questioning your competence," said the coach. "I just want to be certain. The boy's father, you know, is very worried."
The doctor approached the foot of the bed, but instead of examining Danny, she waved her middle tentacle over him. "The boy's father is a worrywart," she hissed and, to my horror, gave a flick here and there and here and there all over the casts, shattering them like egg-shells into fifty fragments. "Young human, let's see you walk."
I wanted to kill her, but what happen next astonished me. Danny shook off the pieces of the cast, grabbed my arm, climbed out of bed and stood on the floor.
"Be careful," I said.
"It's okay, Dad." He let go of my arm and, still tethered to the IV line, took a few cautious steps.
I was speechless. People who know me say that isn't possible, but in fact I couldn't think of a word to say. I stared while my son walked around the room as if he had suffered nothing more than a jarring tumble. When he came within reach, I put my arms out and embraced him.
"Dad, you're embarrassing me." He struggled to free himself, but my relief was so great, I couldn't let him go.
What happened to those fractures? Could the Arcturans be right, that mishga did in fact mend broken bones overnight? Was that crazy bullshit good medicine after all? For years, I had blamed the Arcturans for Sarah's death. Had I, in my resentment, blinded myself to reality?
Had I truly been that stupid?
"Danny, you can return to school in two days, and can play scrimmages in another two weeks, if your father will let you," the doctor said, slithered over to me and wound her tentacles around my shoulder and waist. "Nothing personal, Mr. Robbins, but you humans worry too much."
I sighed. At least the damn appendages weren't slimy.
"Danny," the coach said, "an agent was at that playoff game. He said if you continue playing skrimshin that way, he can guarantee you a scholarship to college."
What could I say? Danny was so excited he broke out of my arms and jumped two feet into the air - IV line and all.
Kids. They can drive you crazy."
Revised Dec 2017