People have begged me, for years, to write about the Ship. Historians want to know about the Ship. New Arrivals need an introduction to the Ship. Everyone wants to read something entertaining. Of course, I’ve refused, but only because there are things I can’t really write about. Some of it is only interesting to me, but I’ve come across a few things the Ship doesn’t really need to know about. There are locked districts that are locked from the inside, and that’s how the occupants want it.
But then I read Horkus’ The New Arrival’s Guide to the Ship, and I changed my mind. The book was so full of factual errors, incorrect conclusions, and outright lies that it made me angry enough to toss it out the window of my apartment (no one was hurt, and I got a fine for littering). That was when some interested parties asked me, again, to write about the Ship, and I said yes. But in order to explain the Ship, I have to write about how I found the stuff I’m writing about. And if I’m going to do that, I might as well start at the beginning.
Every New Arrival has the same memory. Minding their own business, bright light, wakes up in a strange room, a stranger of their own species walks in and explains things. It happens to humans, it happens to badians, it even happens to afuana, even though afuana have a partial hive-mind. My memories were no different, except that where most New Arrivals wake up in fear, I was just curious.
My dad always said I was too curious to be afraid. He was right.
I was awake for five long, lonely minutes before someone walked into the room. Some districts have a system for helping New Arrivals integrate into the Ship, and the Human District is no different. My counsellor tried to explain everything, but he only spent an hour with me and he didn’t do a very good job. He didn’t explain a single law or rule, though, and seemed to think I’d just stay in the Human District for the rest of my life. He was wrong.
It took me about six days to see everything of interest in the Human District, meet a few people, and then get bored. I’d been given some money to survive on (don’t ask me how the Ship’s economy works. You’d have to start with a biology textbook, and then expand outward.), but I was looking for a job in the town square. As it happens, some people had come from outside the district to do some business and were eating lunch as I walked by. I knew I was supposed to be on a Ship in space, but it never sunk in that I wasn’t on earth anymore. Maybe it’s because the Human District looks, sounds, and even smells like earth, but I wasn’t prepared to be confronted with anything that was ‘alien’ to that. The first time I saw another species, it didn’t end well.
I was on my way to a restaurant, to see if they needed a new dishwasher, when three patrons walked out. They were large, not fat but plump, and completely bald. They wore soft robes over their softer pink skin and had cherubic smiles on their faces that seemed to be permanent. They exuded a contentment that made them glow, but I still can’t prove that they actually produced any light. Oh, yeah, and the floated a few inches off the ground.
Meet the Dravir.
I almost bumped into them but stopped at the last minute. I looked up into the eyes of the first one. “Oh, excuse me.” He said.
“Sorry.” I said. Then I fainted.
It happens more than people think, but it’s still embarrassing. There’s a difference between “knowing” that the Ship is filled with beings outside one’s common understanding and bumping into them while looking for a job. My mind wasn’t ready to accept the idea of actual life other than what I was used to seeing on earth. And, let me tell you, I was lucky that the first non-human species I saw was a Dravir. If it’d been an Obiey or, God forbid, an Arak, I’d have died on the spot.
I came to a few minutes later with a crowd of people around me, all of them Human. I jumped to my feet and tried to find the ‘aliens’ I’d seen before, but they were all gone. “Where’d they go?” I asked no one in particular.
A middle-aged man cleared his throat as the crowd began to disperse. “Where did who go?”
“The pink people.” I said. “You know, the floating ones? They were just here!”
The man looked at me like I had two heads. “The Dravir? They left. So what?”
“So where did they go? I want to talk to them!”
The man threw up his hands and pointed away from town. “You fainted, they panicked about being near a ‘dead thing’, then they left. You want to talk to them? The district gate is that way. Have fun, freak.”
I didn’t appreciate the insult, but the information was useful. In hindsight telling me where the district gate was might have been the most dangerous words ever uttered on the Ship. I charged, running away from town. The districts vary in size according to the needs of the species, but the Human District is pretty large, mostly for farming. The gate was half a mile away, but when I got there it was closed and unkempt. There was a path through the large metal and plastic doors, but the area around it was neglected.
I ignored the mess and went to the gate. There was a large button to one side, with a screen above it. I hit the button, and the screen read ‘Do you wish to exit the Human District?’. I’d never answered more affirmatively before in my life. I pressed the button again and the large gate swung inward, opening to the greater world.
Or into a subway station. Tram platforms all look the same, like any other train platform I’ve ever seen on earth, and if you’ve ever ridden on any tram in the Ship, you’ve seen them. I took the steps up to the walkway, and that was the new world I’d been looking for.
The walkways of the Ship are the roads of the Ship, used for heavy transportation that the trams can’t handle, or for foot traffic. Don’t ignore the walkways just because the trams are faster. You would be surprised what you’ll find.
I was blown away. The walkways were huge and went on forever. It was as wide as a two-lane highway, with the tram lines in the middle, as tall as a warehouse, and as long as the imagination. I looked back and forth, took a second to glance at the gate to the Human District, and turned right. I walked, and kept walking, and didn’t look back.
I didn’t keep track of time as I walked, but I never got bored. There were rest stops, benches, a couple tram platforms, even a food dispenser along the way, so I never ran out of things to see and explore, but I didn’t pay attention to how long I’d walked. When I was hungry, I found a place to get something to eat, paying with what I’d been given when I finished New Arrival orientation. When I needed to sit down, I sat down. I just kept going.
The only reason I stopped outside the district gate was because it was something I had only seen once before, and that was at the Human District. There was the same tram platform, the same gate, the same arch overhead. This one had a red label on the outside, but I didn’t read it, I just went to the information screen and activated it. The screen said it was the Finvas District, so I shrugged and went to the door.
If you’re already laughing, then you understand why I was so surprised. The door opened, and I was pushed back by a wave of heat. I shielded my eyes and covered my face, but the heat didn’t dissipate. I glanced past my hand, into the inferno, and my jaw dropped. There was fire everywhere. Every space I could see, on the ground, the walls, even on the ceiling, was aflame. And not the regular reddish-orange flame of most fire. No, these were of all colors, mixing together, dancing around the space, and drifting to one location to another.
And this was no small room! The district stretched beyond the entry hall, off into a space I couldn’t guess the size of. It stretched off into the distance and expanded beyond the end of the entry hall, I guess, housing the actual district. I didn’t see any sign of a living creature anywhere, but neither was there furniture. Only heat, light, and fire. It was beautiful and terrifying, and I couldn’t help but stare.
One flame in particular caught my attention. It was small and blue, burning a few feet into the hall. It twisted and twirled, almost like a dance, never moving too far from a small square of ground. As I watched, my amazement overwhelming my fear, it stopped moving for a moment before moving toward me. It stopped at my feet, then expanded to surround me completely. Colors swirled in front of my eyes, blue and red and purple and orange, and the flames touched my skin, but I wasn’t burned. It was warm, but it was the comforting heat of a soft blanket, and it didn’t hurt at all. A breath passed, and the flame withdrew to float in front of my face. It turned yellow, then back to blue before drifting away, and I had the feeling that it was happy. I also came to understand something.
The Finvas were living flame. They were flame, and they were alive.
The realization made me laugh so hard I cried, but I didn’t notice the tears until I’d been pulled out through the gate by two large, solid hands. The gate slammed shut behind me and the heat dissipated quickly. I blinked in the darkened district arch, and I was turned around by the same hands that had pulled me out through the gate.
My vision cleared, and I was faced by two individuals in matching uniforms. One was Human, old than me but clearly a man of authority. The other was Badian. Seven feet tall, made of pure muscle, with horns atop his head, he resembled a bipedal bison from earth. They both stared at me, amused and a little impressed.
“Breaking into a locked district is stupid,” The Badian said. “but I’m impressed.”
The good news is that I didn’t pass out. The bad news is that I was arrested.
My cell was nicer than my room in the Human District. I wasn’t allowed to leave (it’s jail after all) but I had a nice bed, a couch, even a screen if I wanted to watch something. There was a dining area, and they brought me food at what I assumed was midday, and even a handheld with books on it. The carpet was nice, and there were a few pieces of art hanging on the wall, but I made the mistake of looking behind the picture and found the gashes scratched into the wall. The place was nice, but I had the feeling I was an easy case.
I had spent the night, and most of the morning, in the cell. I slept, ate, read a little bit, ate lunch, and generally waited for something to happen. I knew nothing about the Ship’s justice system, so waiting was all I could do. It was probably an hour past lunch, I was lying on the couch reading again, when the door slid open and someone stepped into the room.
I waved. “Hi, just reading over here.”
“That’s ok, Mr. Winslow.” The person said, and a heavenly choir sang with every syllable.
I climbed to my feet, turned toward the door, and saw an angel. The room was brighter for her presence, her smile put to shame every sunrise I’d ever seen, and when she laughed at my stunned expression, my heart soared. The most beautiful woman in all of existence took a seat at the table, put her handheld down, and crossed her legs. “How are you feeling, Mr. Winslow?”
“Jack.” I said. “You can call me Jack.” She could have called me whatever she wanted, and I would have answered with a smile. “I’m ok.”
She nodded. “That’s good. Do you know why you’re here?”
I sat on the couch. “I don’t even know where ‘here’ is.” I said, shrugging. “I opened a door, everything on the other side was on fire, two guys brought be down here, and then you showed up. That’s all I know.” At least the whole thing ended well.
“I was afraid of that.” She said. Her voice was music. “Well, my name is Maria. I’m here to help you while you are in the Hold.”
“The Hold?” I asked. “What’s the Hold?”
Maria smiled, and the world was more beautiful. “This is the Hold. It’s where we bring antisocial individuals. Criminals, violent offenders, even those with mental disorders.”
“So it’s a prison?”
“No,” She said. “There are some cells for long-term holding, but we try to reform and rehabilitate everyone.” She paused and examined her handheld. “For example, you went into a locked district. Why did you do that?”
What? I stared at her for a second. “What’s a ‘locked district’? I just went for a walk and opened a door.”
“Didn’t your orientation discuss the Ship?”
I shrugged again. “Yeah, it did. He said the Ship is in space, there are hundreds of difference species, each one has their own district.” I told her everything they told me. It didn’t take long, and she didn’t look happy about it. My heart broke.
“They didn’t tell you about locked districts.” Maria said. “It sounds like they expected you to stay in the Human District.”
“I got the impression most humans do.”
Maria shrugged. “It’s about fifty-fifty. A lot stay where it’s comfortable, the rest leave. My parents say humans are like that on earth, too.”
“Your parents said that?” I asked. “Have you never been to earth?”
“No, I was born here.” Maria said, smiling at me. “I’m a Native.” I stared at her for a minute, amazed that people could be born on the Ship, despite thousands of years of history of humans being born everywhere else. She laughed at me and I loved her for it. “Yes, people are born on the Ship. Believe it or not, every species can reproduce.”
I blinked. It took me a minute to get my brain working again. “I don’t know why I thought different. I guess I just never thought about it.”
Maria nodded. “Apparently you didn’t think some species would lock their districts, either.”
“Yes, they do.” Maria said. “Like the Finvas, for example. They locked their district to avoid being feared by others.”
I was shocked. “But they were beautiful! Yeah, the heat was bad, but the color and light! It was amazing! Who could be afraid of that?”
“The Afuana, for one. They’re composed entirely of water, so interacting with a Finvas could be dangerous for either one.” She said. “But there are many reasons to lock a district. Some species do it voluntarily, some are locked by the Council. It all depends on the species, I suppose.”
“Let me get this straight.” I said. “If I go into one of these ‘locked’ districts, I could go to jail. But there’s no way to know which districts are locked.” I stared at Maria. “Is that about right?”
Maria tapped on her handheld, then held it up for me to see. “Did you see this symbol outside of the district?” She asked. On the screen was a red label, one I’d seen before. On one side was a pictograph of a lock. On the other side was some writing.
I nodded. “’By order of the Council, at the request of the Finvas, this district is locked. Entrance is punishable under the law.’” I read it out loud, then shouted. “Wait! I could read that! It wasn’t in English!”
“You’re not speaking English, either.” Maria said. She stared at me, pitying me for a moment, and her sympathy made me want to cry. “You didn’t get any orientation, did you?”
“Some guy came in, talked for twenty minutes, then left.”
“Twenty minutes?” Maria reeled from the words, pulling back and blinking. “No, no, no.” She said, shaking her head. “Orientation is supposed to last a tenday!” She balled her fists and gritted her teeth. It was a beautiful anger. “That is unacceptable! What were they thinking? Don’t they understand the damage that could be done to a New Arrival that hasn’t had any orientation? What if you were to see a member of another species?”
I chuckled. “Well, the first time I saw a couple Dravir, I fainted.”
Maria fell silent. She stared at me in disbelief, horror, and (I might be self-inserting here) admiration. My heart soared. She rubbed her eyes, let out a sigh, and took up her handheld again. “Mr. Winslow, you should not have been brought to the Hold. Frankly, you should still be in orientation, but the Human district failed to do their very simple job.”
“Does that mean I’m free to go?” I asked.
“Maybe, but I have a better idea.” Maria said. She looked at me and smiled. “You went into a locked district, Jack, because you were curious. It’s against the rules, but since you didn’t know the rules, you couldn’t know not to go in. You need to learn the Ship. Not the way they explain it in orientation. You need to learn the Ship your own way.”
I shrugged, looked around the room, and sat up. “Well, I can’t afford to move out of the Human District. I could barely afford lunch yesterday. Unless you’re hiring, or you have a place for me to crash while I find a job.”
“There’s also the Underplace,” Maria said. “but never mind that.” She tapped on her handheld a few more times, then smiled at me. “You’re going to stay here for a little while. You’ll go through a proper orientation, just to make sure you know enough about the Ship to get by. Then you’ll go stay with a friend of mine in the Commons until you can afford your own place. How does that sound?”
I was taken aback for a moment. Someone on the Ship was helping me, and after I’d been thrown in jail! The Ship is a weird place, and that wasn’t the first time I’d thought that. “Is this how jail always works on the Ship?”
“When we can.” Maria said. She stood, still holding her handheld, and grinned. “It was good talking with you, Jack, but, unfortunately, I have another appointment. I’ll be back later, and we’ll get your orientation started. How does that sound?”
I smiled. “That sound perfect.”
“Good. I will see you later, then.” She said. Then she left, and the room was darker for her leaving.
Orientation was both boring and exciting at the same time. I hate classrooms, just sitting there and listening to information. I don’t do well with sitting still, and I get antsy when I get bored. But since we were talking about the Ship, I hung on the instructor’s every word.
No, the instructor wasn’t Maria, but that’s ok. Instead, I spent a week with a Niq who was far more informative than anyone in the Human District had been. You’ve seen Niq around, I’m sure of it. They’re quadrupeds, reptilian, with long necks. He was named Ratha, and he was very informative, and knew quite a lot, but he got frustrated with all my questions. Nice guy, but not the curious sort.
I, however, am, and as informative as the class was, I walked away happy when it was over. I learned the basics, far more than I’d learned in the Human District. I should cut them some slack, because it’s very difficult to explain the Ship, especially to someone who’s just been abducted from their home and wakes up in a strange place. But they had a tenday (guess how long that is) to go over it, spent only twenty minutes, and I got arrested for their laziness, so they get nothing.
Here’s how it works. There’s a group called the Finders who bring everyone to the Ship, perform medical procedures on them to help them adapt, and then put them into their species’ district. One problem with this is that the Finder’s don’t communicate with those of us they bring to the Ship in any way, so we don’t know why they do it or who they are. They’re not in any of the sectors, the Hold, or even the Underplace, and no one can contact them. They could be a group of super-intelligent zookeepers, ‘they’ could be a computer program that keeps running because a key on a keyboard is stuck. No one really knows.
You may be wondering about the medical procedures, mostly because you don’t look or feel any different. Remember when I commented that the label Maria showed me wasn’t in English? It wasn’t. English was the language I grew up using back on earth, but that’s not the language they use on the Ship. On the Ship we use Ship-tongue, which is just the word I made up to describe the language we use on the Ship. If there’s a space in your brain for languages, the Finders took out the part that was there originally and put in the new one. That’s why everyone on the Ship, no matter their species, understands the same language.
Since all of these species are all put together into the same space, they need some kind of organization. Each species has their own district, a space set aside just for them, to live among their own species in whatever way they all want. The districts are then organized into twenty sectors of various size. Some have dozens of districts, some have a few. One of the sectors has only one district, for the Goardens, but that’s because they’re so large they need the space. Each sector puts together their own governments, and those governments elect a representative to the Ship’s Council, which governs the entire Ship (or, at least, the parts where everyone lives).
No one is forced to live in their district, though, and that’s a good thing. In the center of the sectors is an area known as the Commons. It’s where the Council has their offices, and Ship Security is based there, but it’s mostly the best place for the different species to mix. If the districts are the small towns of the Ship, the Commons is the city. I think I was on the Ship a tenday before I moved to the Commons, and I spent six days of that in the Hold.
Once my orientation was done, Maria came back. She was smiling as she stepped through the door, and I couldn’t help but smile back. “Hello, Jack. How are you today?”
“I’m ok.” I said. “You’re in a good mood. What are we smiling about?”
She giggled, and I fell in love all over again. “Did they mention how the Hold works in your orientation?”
I shrugged. “Ratha went over it. Someone breaks the law, they’re brought here, then the Council decide whether they should be released or not.” There’s more too it, but Maria distracted me.
“Well, the Council heard your case, and decided to release you.” She said, and her smile grew. “You’re being released.”
“That’s good to hear.” I said, then examined her more closely. Because I was suspicious of her expression, that’s why! “You’re not smiling like that just because I’m being sent back to the Human District. What’s really going on?”
Maria fought to control herself, and almost started jumping for joy. “I have a surprise. Come with me.” She then turned and left.
Of course I jumped up to follow her, what do you think I did? She led me through halls and passages to the entrance to the Hold. We stopped at a desk where I was asked to sign my release papers, given my personal effects (my wallet from earth and a notebook), then moved to the tram station. Maria sent a message on her handheld then put it away and grinned at me again. She had something up her sleeve, but she kept her secret, even as we boarded the tram.
We sat together, just beside each other as we rode through the halls of the Ship. I watched as various species occupied the tram car around us. I tried to contain my curiosity, but failed, and Maria found amusement in my amazement. The tram wasn’t full, but there were enough people from enough different species, that I couldn’t describe them all here. And when I wasn’t staring at them I was staring out the windows as we rode past different districts, looking into them from the tram. I made several notes, both mental and on paper, to visit as many of them as I could, and I got the impression from Maria’s satisfied silence that she was getting exactly what she wanted.
We passed one last district then rode through the halls for a few minutes. When more nothing happened than I was comfortable with, I turned to Maria. “Ok, where are we going? You’re not giving me a tour of the Ship before locking me back in the Hold, are you?”
Maria smiled. “No, its not that.” She said, then patted my knee. “We’re going there.”
She pointed out the window of the tram, and my jaw hit the floor. The tram left the hall and entered into a large open area. Clouds floated in the sky above the tallest buildings I’d ever seen. Thousands of people, from hundreds of species, moved along the streets, going about their business. Vehicles, both automated and rider powered, traveled in all directions, and a few individuals flew over the tram. Everyone else on the tram seemed bored, but I didn’t try to hide my excitement. I’d lived in a small city on earth, but what I saw before me was a new world by comparison.
The tram stopped and Maria stood. I looked at her. “Where are we?”
“This is the Commons.” She said. “Come on, there’s someone I want you to meet.”
Maria led the way off the tram, and I followed, trying to focus on her without being distracted by the mind-blowing things I saw, heard, or experienced with every second that passed. As we walked she pointed restaurants she enjoyed, shops where she bought clothes, and even her favorite grocery store. I noted their locations (I still eat at one of the restaurants), but shortly noticed something. I was walking with Maria, along a street populated by so many different species that I didn’t bother cataloging them, and not one person batted an eye. We were just two more people on the street, and no one cared.
I love the Ship.
After a mile or so we reached Maria’s destination. It was a small café on the bottom floor of a three-story building. We had crossed enough distance that the noise of the city was a quiet buzz, and people sat around tables, leaned against a bar, and generally socialized on the café’s covered terrace. A breeze blew up the street, making cloth banners dance, and for a second, I forgot that I was inside a ship in the void of space.
Maria walked through the patio and over to the counter. There, a tall, thickly-built Cophorian took orders and greeted customers. When a customer had finished giving his order, the Cophorian looked up, saw Maria, and ‘smiled’ (Cophorian’s don’t have lips, so they express happiness in different ways, but that’s not important right now). “Maria!” The Cophorian said, spreading its arms wide.
“Hello, Jenny.” Maria said.
I was taken aback by the name, but the Cophorian did something even stranger and I was too stunned to be confused. As I watched, the Cephorian dissolved into what I can only describe as a nebulaic cloud and reformed into the body of a middle-aged Human woman. I’m not ashamed to admit that I almost fainted again, but I managed to keep my feet by sheer force of will.
Maria held out a hand toward me. “I’d like to introduce you to Jack Winslow. Jack, this is Jenny.” She looked at me and giggled. “Jenny is a Changer.”
Jenny held out her hand, and I shook it. “Pleased to meet you, Jack. I hear you got arrested for going into a locked district”
“Yeah, no one told me about that.”
“I get the feeling there’s a lot people haven’t told you.” Jenny said. “Like anything about Changers.” Jenny released my hand and turned to Maria. “Have you told him why he’s here, or is this another one of your surprises?”
Maria’s smile lit up the room. “It’s a surprise. Why don’t you tell him?”
“Ok.” Jenny said, then smiled at me. All things considered, I decided to trust that it meant she was actually smiling. “I need some help here at my café, and Maria told me you needed to get out of the Human District. What would you say to working for me?”
I shrugged. “What do you want me to do?”
“Wash dishes, unload deliveries, stuff like that.” Jenny said. “Can you cook?” I said that I could. “Good! Then you can cook, too.”
“That’s great,” I said, and meant it. “But how am I going to get here from the Human District every day? That’s a big commute.”
Jenny laughed. “No, you can live here.” She pointed to the second floor of the building. “There’s a one-room apartment up there. It’s yours while you figure out your place on the Ship. What do you think about that? A job and an apartment in the Commons?”
It was a good offer, and the look of hope in Maria’s eyes was too much to turn down. I don’t want to give the impression that I hate the Human District. It’s a little slice of earth on the Ship. The problem is that I grew up on earth so it’s not very interesting. I still go by every now and then, I vote in District elections, and I have friends there that I visit as often as I can. But the Ship! I woke up in a new world, and from that moment I needed to know everything about it that I could.
I smiled at Jenny. “I’ll take it. When do I start?”
Jenny smiled back. “Tomorrow. Go explore the Commons.” She said, looking me over. “And get some new clothes. You’re dressed like a New Arrival.”
“I know a few places he might like.” Maria said.
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow.” Jenny shook our hands again, turned, and walked back to the counter, still ‘dressed’ as a human (When Changers take on an appearance, they call it ‘dressing’ as that appearance, kind of the way most species talk about clothes). Maria smiled at me and I couldn’t help but smile right back at her.
We turned to leave, but as I did, I bumped into a plump pink form. “I’m sorry.” I said.
“Excuse me.” The Dravir said. He looked at me, squinted, then his eyes grew wide. “It is you! You live! I saw you die, but you live!” The Dravir threw up his hands, then fell to his knees, no longer floating, and began shouting about miracles and deities and what-not.
It took me a second to remember him. “Wait, I saw you in the Human District!”
The Dravir paused for a split second, then began ‘worshipping’ even louder, adding sections about my ‘perfect memory’ along with ‘risen from the dead’ and my ‘radiance’. I turned to Maria, who gave me a quizzical look.
I shrugged. “We ran into each other in the Human District.” I said. She thought for a second, then started laughing hysterically.
There I stood, being worshipped by a Dravir and laughed at by the most amazing woman I’d ever met, surrounded by the Ship and its uncountable mysteries and peoples, coming to a new understanding of how much my life had changed. I love the Ship.