I never minded working in a restaurant, especially if I’m in the back of the house. I can cook, wash dishes, empty trash, all that stuff. Contrary to all evidence, I never wanted to be famous, and I actually like doing work behind the scenes. It doesn’t matter where the restaurant is, it needs people in the front of the house, and people behind the scenes, and Jenny’s cafe in the Ship’s Commons was no different.
The problem was that, no matter where you work in a restaurant, eventually you end up in the front of the house. Serving food, waiting tables, taking orders, even just bussing tables. If you work at a restaurant, eventually you do it all. Having a staff that’s specialized in one or two areas but trained to do everything isn’t a bad idea, but I’m not good at customer relations, so I always tried to stay in the back.
Jenny didn’t care.
I was bussing tables one day, about a tenday into the job (a tenday is ten days), when a fight broke out in the street. Some people ran, some people called security, but I just watched. It was amazing.
Both fighters were the same species. Mammalian quadrupeds with humanoid torsos, kind of like centaurs (earth legend, look it up). They had curved horns, but didn’t use them in the fight. They used their fists, hooves, and even clubs, but never their horns, and their short, thick fur didn’t offer much protection.
After a few minutes, Security showed up and took the two fighters into custody. It took five officers to subdue each fighter, with a few senior officers to oversee the entire operation. By the time it was all cleared, fifteen Security officers were involved with a fight between two people.
That was my introduction to the neifel.
As the prisoner transport was pulling away, I recognized one of the security officers. He was one of the two that had arrested me outside the Finvas District, the big one that looked like a bipedal bison (earth species, look it up), so I made my way over to him and reintroduced myself.
He laughed. “Yeah, I remember you.” He offered me a fist. I gave him a fist bump. “I’m Kapada’Zahn. Did you see the fight?”
I nodded. “Yeah, what was that about?”
“Just neifel being neifel. I don’t know how they’re still around if they fight every time they see each other.” The badian shook his head. “The Council is about to lock their district, too.”
“Really?” I asked. “The Council can lock districts? I thought that was something the district did.”
“Nope. The Council’s locked a bunch of districts.” Kapada’Zahn said, then gave me a strange look. “You should go check it out before the close it.”
I’ve known Kapada’Zahn for a long time now, and he understood me right from the beginning. That said, suggesting I go visit the district of a warrior species before it was locked forever was a really bad idea.
“Jack, that’s a really bad idea.” Jenny said. “You saw them.”
I nodded while pulling the trash bag out of the can. “I did. And I don’t know why they were fighting. Neither did security. Do you?” I asked. She just shook her head. “Don’t you think someone should find out?”
Jenny crossed her arms and stared at me. “Yes, someone should find out, but not a new arrival who’s been on the ship a few tendays. Let security handle it, or, better yet, let the Council lock the district and forget about them.”
“Wait, what?” I turned to face her. “Is that how locking a district works? The Council just decided they don’t like a species, locks the door, and forgets they exist?”
“It works pretty well for the finvas, in case you didn’t notice.” Jenny said. “The finvas could kill everyone on the ship, so they’re district is locked. Do you think the neifel couldn’t do the same thing?”
I tied the trash bag and put it down. “I think it would be stupid to lock them up for fighting when we don’t know why they’re fighting in the first place.” When I get excited, I talk with my hands. “Has the Council even talked to them?”
Jenny shrugged. “Probably not.”
“Then someone should.”
It is the height of either naïveté or hubris that I thought I could figure out why the neifel fought so much just by visiting their district. Looking back, though, I think all my talk about ‘don’t lock them up’ was probably just a cover for my curiosity. I didn’t really care that they fought so much. I hadn’t seen them hurt anyone who wasn’t a neifel, so I didn’t see how it affected anyone else. I was, however, curious about their culture and why they seemed to fight whenever they met, so I made up an excuse and went to their district.
Whenever I had a day off from Jenny’s I would hop on the tram, press a random district as my destination, and ride until I got there. This time, though, I did some research. I found the Neifel District (it’s in Sector Six) and put that in. The system asked if I was sure. It hadn’t done that before.
When the tram stopped outside the Neifel District, I stepped out of the car and into an abandoned war zone. The floor was dented and stained, the walls had been hacked and slashed, and broken shields, armor, and weapons littered the platform. Some stains looked like they were seasons old, but others were fresher than I was comfortable with.
I took a deep breath before crossing the platform, making my way to the district gate in the unnerving silence. At the gate, I pressed the button to open the door, and swallowed as light spilled through it. With the door open, I felt a moment’s trepidation before stepping through and into the Neifel District.
The street before me was paved with stone, and stretched off through muddy pastures to a village a few hundred yards away. As I approached, I saw more, and my fear gave way to confusion. Most of the buildings in the village were one story, built mostly of wood, with thatched roofs and stick fences. Vegetable gardens had been planted in front of every house, and small livestock animals stood in pens nearby. There were a few neifel outside, but as I got closer to the village, one of them spotted me and ran off.
It would have saved me a lot of trouble if I’d run, too.
I had only entered the village when four neifel approached, running up to me as though I was a threat. I smiled at them and said hi, but the spears they lowered to point at my chest killed my mood. Being surrounded left me few paths but the one they indicated, and I was moved, under guard, through the village and into an empty warehouse on the far edge of town.
The guards chained me to a wall then left, locking me in the dark warehouse. I sat there, waiting, and lost track of time. While I sat there, the adrenaline of being abducted drained, and I felt the cold wind of the district blowing through the gaps in the walls. The stone of the floor quickly froze my feet, but my options were to stand or sit with my arms suspended over my head. After a while I sat, my hands held above my shoulders.
I’d like to blame the shock of my arrival that dulled my senses, but I’d been in the warehouse for at least a few hours when I heard something on the other side. The gaps in the roof let in little light, but I could see movement. As I watched, a single clawed appendage extended out from a green carapace. The form climbed, slowly and deliberately, to its feet and turned toward me.
I stared back at the segmented eyes and tried to look non-threatening and unappetizing. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Jack.”
The figure approached me, a chain visible around it’s two arms. It resembled a giant praying mantis (another earth creature, look it up) with large eyes, claws on the end of its arms, and mandibles around its mouth. It approached to the end of its chain then looked at me. It’s mandibles widened, revealing teeth, and I had the impression that it was smiling at me.
“Hello, Jack.” It said. “My name is Bendi. How are you?”
I waved. “Hi, Bendi. What are you doing here?” I asked. “And, pardon me, but I’m a New Arrival. What are you?”
Bendi laughed, and a lot of my trepidation melted. “I am an insectifus.” He said. Some species names’ are a little too on the nose. “I am the Councillor for the Sector. The Council sent me to see what could be done to help the neifel become a little more peaceful.”
My blood went cold. “Wait, they’re taking people prisoners? They’re not just fighting, they’re-“
The door of the warehouse burst in and several neifel entered the room. Most of them carried spears and wore armor, but one, the largest, was dressed in expensive-looking clothes and carried only a sword on his hip. Front hip? At his waist.
“Who are you?” The one without armor asked me.
I tried to wave. “I’m Jack Winslow.” I said. ”Why am I here? Chained to this wall, I mean, not-“
“Do you know who that one is?” He asked, pointing to Bendi.
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s a Councillor. His name’s Bendi. You should let him go, too.”
The neifel laughed. The leader shook his head, then stopped laughing and looked at me. “You are brave to make demands. Here is what I will do. I will let you go. If you come back with the head of a kurama, I will let you all go free. If you are not back in three hours, I will kill ‘Bendi’ then send my warriors after you and kill you, too.”
I looked over at Bendi, who shook his head. “No, do not do that. Get security, bring them-“
A neifel lowered a spear and pointed it at Bendi’s face. “Silence.” The leader said. “If you go to Security, we will kill the Councillor, then we will kill the Security officers. Go, bring back the head of a kurama. And when you kill it, tell it Orvis Thunderhoof sends his regards.”
I was unchained, dragged out of the district, and thrown through the gate. I landed hard, and took a second to catch my breath before climbing back onto my feet. I had three hours to find a kurama, kill it, and bring its head back, or the neifel were going to kill a member of the Council and start a war.
If only I knew what a kurama was.
With air in my lungs and a resolve to stop anyone from being killed, I got up and ran to the tram kiosk. The map came up, and I searched for ‘kurama’. The map showed that there was a Kurama District in Sector Fifteen. An advisory notice came up, but I ignored it, got a ticket, and waited for the tram.
Fifteen minutes later I was on my way, and, luckily, I was on the right tram. We passed through Sector Fourteen, and every district in it, and arrived at the Kurama District half an hour later. I stepped onto the platform, which was bigger than usual, and ran for the gate. As I approached I saw a sign above the gate, read it, and stopped in my tracks.
The district was locked.
I let out a groan of frustration and made my way to the gate console. There, I dialed the code for district security and hoped for the best. The screen chimed a few times, but just before I was going to give up, it lit up, and a saurian face appeared.
“Hello,” The kurama said. “Can I help you?”
I tried to remain calm as I waved at the screen. “Uh, yeah, hi,” I said, then shook my head to clear it. “I’m Jack Winslow. I need some help. The neifel are holding a Councillor hostage, and they’ll kill him if I don’t bring them the head of a kurama.” I paused. “You don’t have an extra one lying around, do you?”
The kurama laughed. “I don’t.” He said. “But why don’t you come in, anyway.”
The screen went blank, but behind me, the gate opened. I walked through, into the Kurama District, excitement and terror fighting inside my head.
Inside the district, I stepped into a wide dirt path through an ancient forest. I made my way down the path, staring in wonder at trees with trunks the size of my bedroom and branches a hundred feet long. Eventually I came to a tree so wide and tall that I thought it might be artificial, and was proven partially correct when an opening appeared and a kurama stepped out.
“Hello,” He said as he approached me, and I didn’t move. He was ten feet tall at the shoulders, quadrupedal, with a long tail and a serpentine neck. He held his saurian head high, just above the wings that were curled on his back. His skin was covered in thick scales, changing from white on his belly to gold on his back and head.
My jaw dropped as he stopped in front of me and I came to the conclusion that kurama are dragons! (Yes, another earth legend. Look, most of my reference points are based on earth, you’ll just have to do a little research!)
“Hello Jack Winslow. I am Jyo. How can I help you?”
I swallowed, and a plan began to form in my mind. I looked at Jyo, then at his feet, which had talons as long as my forearm. “Well, I have an idea.”
It took another hour to get back to the Neifel District, mostly because the trams were running the wrong direction. Once outside the gate, I called in. A neifel guard answered, then went to fetch Orvis Thunderhoof. When he appeared, I indicated the kurama head beside me and moved the screen so he could see it. “This good enough for you?” I asked.
Orvis smiled. “Very good. I did not expect a human to succeed. Bring it to the arena.” He ended the call.
I entered the district and made my way toward the village. In the center, surrounded by a wide stone street, was an arena, its stone walls overshadowing the city around it. I approached, dragging my gift, and found an open gate into a long, dark hall. At the end of the hall was a metal portcullis, and as I approached, the kurama’s head still behind me, the gates closed and the portcullis opened.
The stands were full, and as I stepped into the arena, neifel began to cheer. Bendi lay in the middle, on a pile of sand, shaking and badly beaten. I ran to him. “You ok, Bendi?”
The insectifus (really, that’s what they’re called) looked at me with one good eye. “Thank you, Jack Winslow. You came back.”
“The human has returned!” Orvis said from the his place on the stands. “And he has brought the head of a kurama!”
The cheers were deafening, but I stood and shouted as loud as I could. “Ok!” I said. The crowd quieted. “I brought the head! Let me and Bendi go!”
Once again, Orvis’ laughter infected the neifel around him. “No,” Orvis said. “We will not.” He raised a hand and snapped his fingers. The portcullis under him was raised and a dozen neifel, all armed and armored, marched out. “You will stay until the Council submits to me.”
Surrounded, standing on the sand in an arena, with an injured Councillor at my feet, I looked around at the neifel assembled there and couldn’t help but laugh. As I did, the crowd fell silent, staring at me as though I had two heads. “That’s pretty clever. Sending me to get a kurama’s head in exchange for Bendi’s freedom, and my own, of course. If I failed, at the very least I’d have been arrested. And if I succeeded, all you had to do was not keep your word.”
Orvis smiled. “Yes, and the Council will fall to the same mind.”
“Probably not.” I said. “I mean, sure, it’s a good plan, but when I brought the head, you didn’t even check if I’d separated it from his body.” A roar from the tunnel behind me sent the neifel guards running to the far side of the arena. “I didn’t, by the way.”
Jyo stepped into the arena and raised his head to the level of the stands. “You know, that was fun.” He said. “You were right, Jack, this was a good idea. I am so glad you convinced me to come.”
My smile hurt. “OK, so, we’re going to leave, we’re taking Bendi with us, and then we’re going to wait outside until the Council locks this district. Alright?”
Orvis glared at me, but shouted at the neifel. “Guards! Kill them!”
My smile ran for cover.
I, however, was caught in the middle of the open arena, an injured insectifus at my feet and a startled kurama behind me. The neifel guards charged forward, most of them toward Jyo, but a few attacked me. A spear flashed out, and I moved out of it’s way, but the edge caught the side of my arm, cutting me. I shouted as I fell backwards, over Bendi, and landed on my back.
On his side of the arena, Jyo was getting annoyed. Spears bounced off his scales, but he tried to back away without hurting anyone. Bendi, still injured, slid along the sand, away from the advancing neifel. One of them stopped and reared up, raising his hooves and spear to crush Bendi with both.
I rolled down the pile of sand to land on my knees on the far side, but when I climbed back to my feet, I was stunned. In my absence, Bendi had caught the spear, wrenched it from the neifel’s hands, and was in the process of swinging the shaft back into that neifel’s face. The impact was audible above the cheering of the crowd, and the guard slumped to the ground, unconscious. Bendi, still holding the spear, climbed to his feet and readied himself for another attack.
Jyo had likewise had enough, He swung his tail into a trio of guards and launched them into the wall. They fell to the ground in a heap as Jyo grabbed another guard with his talons and hurled him toward Orvis’ platform.
Meanwhile, I clutched my bleeding arm and watched the fight.
Bendi engaged three guards, but that left two that focused on me and charged. I tried to run, but one of them caught me with his spear, stabbing deep into my side. I screamed as the spear’s point pierced flesh and blood began to flow. Still screaming, I fell to my knees, grabbing the spear for balance.
One guard raised his spear to finish me while the other fought to get his back, but Jyo snatched them both off the ground and tossed them out of the arena. “They taste terrible.” He said before looking at me. “Jack! Are you alright?”
Bendi turned and moved toward me, leaving four unconscious neifel behind. “Jack! You need medical attention!”
Orvis bellowed from his platform then jumped into the arena. “Leave him be! He is mine!” He said. The neifel leader, king, whatever, drew the sword at his waist and sprinted toward me.
I was hurt, bleeding, and above all, angry. I just wanted to see the district before it was locked, and I got stuck in their stupid arena fighting for my life! Before Bendi or Jyo could move, I pulled the spear from my side (it hurt worse coming out), jumped to my feet, and, adrenaline flooding my veins, charged Orvis. As we neared, I stepped aside and swung the spear into his front knees. The bones broke, as did the spear, and he fell to the ground with a scream of a different kind. I hobbled over to where he lay, and saw the pain and rage mingled on his face. With my own scream I swung the remains of my spear down, hitting him in the face and knocking him unconscious.
Then I passed out.
The ships largest, most expansive, and most well equipped medical facility is in the Commons. They can treat any species there, making leaps in research and development that would amaze medical professionals that only treat one species. A first aid treatment for one species can be a life saving procedure for another.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know that, so when I woke up in a pool of thick blue water, naked, I was understandably concerned. A nurse rushed in, calmed me down, and placed a blanket over me. A padded bed was raised below me, and I was allowed to lay supported in the pool instead of simply floating. I thanked him as he left, then laid my head back against the pillow and tried to relax.
I wasn’t given much time. I had just caught my breath when Bendi walked in. He was bruised, his left eye was bandaged closed, and his right arm was in a sling, but his smile was in place. “Hello, Jack. How do you feel?”
“Buoyant.” I said. “How are you? Looks like you got more beat up than I thought.”
Bendi bowed. “I am ok, thanks to you. I must ask, how did you gain entry to the Kurama District? They are usually too reclusive to allow visitors.”
I shrugged as best I could in the medical pool. “I figured I’d ring the doorbell, tell whoever answered what was going on, and hope for the best. I’m just lucky an extroverted kurama answered.”
Bendi laughed, but his amusement was cut short as the door to my room opened then closed. I didn’t see anyone enter, but Bendi looked at the floor, then turned to move a chair closer to the bed. “Thank you.” Someone said, then climbed onto the chair.
The figure was about a foot tall, hairless, with short arms, a prehensile tail, and a feline-shaped head stood on the chair and looked at Bendi. His large ears twitched as I stared, but he paid me no mind. “I’m glad to hear you’re recovering.” The figure said. “I was afraid you were lost when you entered the Neifel District.”
“I am, thank you.” Bendi said before turning to me. “Jack Winslow, this is Gast, the Senior Councillor. Gast, this is Jack Winslow. He rescued me.”
I waved. “Hi.”
Gast turned to face me and gave me an examination that was closer than I was comfortable with. “Hello, Mr. Winslow. While I thank you for helping Councillor Bendi, I can’t say I approve of you entering a locked district. First the finvas, then the kurama. I would have thought your time in the Hold would have taught you better.”
My first reaction was to get angry, but looking back, that one statement taught me everything I needed to know about Gast. He’s a chenthi, and Gast is an extreme, though accurate, representation. Their culture is based upon social formalities. Chenthi who break laws, or even just social mores, are punished, sure, but even after they are shunned by the rest of society. Sometimes the shunning ends, sometimes it doesn’t. Basically, they’re house cats with voting rights (Yes, look up house cats).
I took a deep breath and gave Gast a smile. “You’d be surprised how inviting people can be when you ask nicely.” I looked at Bendi. “How’s Jyo?”
“Jyo is doing well.” Bendi said. “He was unharmed, and was enjoying himself until you were stabbed.”
“I’m glad he’s ok.”
Gast closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “You should know, Bendi, that the Neifel District has been locked.”
With that said, Gast excused himself, and gave me a bitter look before he climbed down from the chair and walking out of the room. Bendi watched him go, then turned to me. “Well,” Bendi said. “all things considered, I think that went rather well.”
I chuckled. “If that was ‘going well’ with Gast, I’d hate to seen when things go poorly.”
Bendi laughed again, and was interrupted by the door opening, again. This time I saw who it was as Jenny, ‘dressed’ in her badian outfit, entered the room and stopped across the bed from Bendi.
“What happened?” She asked. ”Did you go to the Neifel District? I heard they just locked it. Were you hurt?”
“Yeah, but I’m recovering.” I looked down at my side, pulling back the blanket. There was a scar, small and pale, but it was healing quickly and I suspected it would disappear entirely by the time I was discharged (I was right).
“Oh, good.” Jenny said. She placed a hand over her heart, feeling for a pulse that Changers didn’t have. “Will you be back at work tomorrow?”
I need a new job.