The best way to learn how to do something is to do it. If you want to learn how to cook, go cook. If you want to learn how to write, go write. If you want to learn about the ship, take some time and wander the ship. Research is great, and school is a good chance to learn facts without the bruises and screaming that comes from figuring it out on your own, but if you want to truly understand something, I think it’s best to get your hands dirty with it.
For the first few cycles on the ship, I came to understand working in a restaurant very well. On my days off I would wander, but that left me three days in ten. The rest were spent at work, earning just enough money to rent the one-room apartment above the Jenny’s cafe. The biggest problem I had with the arrangement was that, while I only went anywhere on my days off, other people were free to do whatever they wanted while I was working.
News gets around the ship slowly, but in the Commons, it moves much faster. After the thing with the Neifel District, Jenny’s cafe was busier than ever. More people were coming by for lunch and dinner, and that meant I spent more time than ever in the front of the house. This had a detrimental effect on my efforts to learn to cook better, but Jenny didn’t care. She was making money.
It took me a tenday to figure out why. I was bussing tables, making small talk with people as I passed, when I noticed a human, sitting at a corner table, watching me. It wasn’t a big deal, he didn’t have a handheld and Jenny’s place never had any screens on, but it still bothered me. Then it hit me: I recognized the guy.
The table beside him was empty, so I made my way over there in search of dirty dishes. At the table, I pulled out a rag and wiped it down, giving the guy as inviting a smile as I could fake. “Hi.” I said.
He nodded, raising his cup. “Morning.”
“Enjoying the Commons?” I asked. “I mean, it’s a lot cooler than the Finvas District.”
The plainclothes security officer put down his cup, stood, and walked out of the cafe. I watched him go, then made my way to the back of the restaurant and found Jenny.
“OK, how long has security been watching me?” I asked.
Jenny, ‘dressed’ as a human, put down her pad and looked at me. “At least a tenday. I can’t believe you hadn’t noticed until now.”
I gaped at her for a second. “What? Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. “And why are they even watching me? What did I do?”
“Gee, let’s count.” Jenny said, and began counting on her fingers. “You’ve been on the ship, what, a cycle, maybe two, and you’ve adapted faster than any other New Arrival. You entered a locked district. You went to the Hold and your case worker advocated for you to be freed. You spend your days off visiting districts. You saved a Councillor from the neifel. And, on top of all of that, you’re just a cook at a cafe in the Commons.” (Yes, that was more than five things, but Jenny’s a changer, so she just added fingers when she passed five) “Why would security ever want to keep an eye on you?”
I grimaced. “OK, when you say it like that, it’s a little weird. Am I not allowed to visit other districts? I didn’t know the Finvas District was locked, and the Neifel District was only locked after I left.” I pointed toward the front of the cafe and the Commons beyond.
Jenny sighed. “You’re allowed to visit other districts, Jack, it’s just that no one else does. Most people stay in their district, and if they leave, they either come to the Commons or visit one or two other districts, tops. How many have you visited?”
“Five?” I asked with a shrug. “Maybe ten?”
Jenny gave me a look, the one someone gives when they think the other person has proven their point. “Jack, the districts are the only places on the ship where people can be surrounded by their own, native culture, and you treat it like it’s just another small town to visit.”
“What?” I asked. “I’m curious.”
Jenny gave me another look, but this one was more exasperated. “You’re so far out of the ordinary that you don’t even have the frame of reference to understand how far out of the ordinary you are.” She said. “What are we going to do with you, Jack?”
I didn’t have an answer for her, but doubted she had an answer for who ‘we’ were, so I didn’t press it. There was a security agent on me for the next few days at work, but after ‘making’ an officer (that’s what they call it when you tell someone who’s following you that you know they’re following you, right?), they were a lot less subtle about it.
My next day off was interesting. I considered going to a random district and seeing if security could keep up, but I didn’t try it. If they needed to, they could just track me through the trams. Instead, I followed a friend’s advice and went to visit him. The best part was that, since his district was locked from the inside, I could enter, but security couldn’t. I was invited. They weren’t.
I entered the Kurama District with a smile, and took in the deep greens, browns, and myriad other colors of their forest. I wandered through the ancient woods as I made my way down the dirt road, and it wasn’t long before I turned a corner and found a dragon.
He was fifty feet long, fifteen feet high at the shoulders, and was covered in white and golden-yellow scales. He spread his wings when he saw me and smiled, revealing rows of daggers in his mouth. “Jack! You made it!”
“Hi, Jyo!” I said, and walked over to him. He lowered his head, and I lowered mine, before he raised his neck and I gave the giant reptilian the best hug I could.
“How are you?” Jyo asked as I stepped back. “You seem to have recovered from your stabbing pretty well.”
“I’m OK.” I said. “The doctors in the Commons are great. I don’t even have a scar. Of course, now I’m being followed by security, so I guess I have a new problem.”
Jyo laughed, and I never thought I’d enjoy the sound of a dragon laughing, but I did. “You never have a dull moment, do you, Jack? Come on, let me show you my home, and we can talk there.”
I agreed, and followed Jyo to his house. When we arrived, I had trouble finding it until he walked toward a copse of trees and disappeared inside. I followed, but when I stepped through the outer layer, I was stunned.
Kurama don’t build houses, not the way most species think. Instead, they grow them from trees. From the outside it looked like just a thicker part of the forest, but inside, the house was as cozy and comfortable as any house in any other district. The walls were composed of the trunks of trees, but they had grown so close together that their only gaps were where windows had clearly been planned. Their branches extended to form a roof several dozen yards overhead, and as Jyo entered, they slowly parted to let more light into the house. There was a bed, made of cultivated bushes, rows of large books and scrolls in a well curated library, and even a platform where members of smaller species could address Jyo from a higher position. None of it was carved, though. Instead, everything looked as though the trees had simply grown that way, naturally.
I climbed the stairs to the platform as Jyo moved to the center of the hall. There, he placed one hand (Paw? Claw?) on a boulder, turned it, and the stone began to glow. After a few moments the house was filled with a pleasant warmth, and Jyo made his way over to his bed. He lounged there and looked up at me. “The ship’s security is following you?”
I nodded and leaned against the railing. “Yep. I only found out because I recognized one of them. He was the one who arrested me outside the Finvas District.”
“What are you going to do about it?” Jyo asked. “After you’re done hiding in my district, that is.”
“I don’t know.” I said. “I was planning on hiding, though. Security can’t come into a locked district without an invitation.” I paused. “Why is your district locked, anyway? You let me in.”
Jyo laughed. “I let you in because you knocked. And you asked for a head. It was such an absurd request that my interest was peaked. Besides, it’s been a very long time since the kurama had any visitors.”
“Yeah, but why is the district locked?”
“Because we kurama are frightening to smaller species.” Jyo said. “I know I’m large for my species, and old, but even the smallest adult is twice as long as you are tall. When you add our talons, wings, and teeth, other species would usually prefer if we weren’t around.”
I nodded. “And you locked your district so as not to scare anyone. I guess that makes sense, but where are the other kurama? I haven’t seen any but you.”
I hadn’t seen a quadruped shrug until then, but Jyo did and I learned something new. “They’re probably at work. I’m old, so I don’t have to. Retirement has its benefits. My kids bring me food when they visit, and sometimes I teach the young ones. If you stay long enough, maybe someone will come by.”
“How old are you, Jyo?” I asked.
Jyo laughed. “I don’t know about humans, but to kurama, that question is very forward.” He said. “One time, I did the math and figured that I’m six hundred seasons old. But then I visited the Commons hospital and they told me I was six hundred twenty-seven. It can be hard for new arrivals to convert our ages to ship standard.”
“Wow, I haven’t even thought of that.” I said. “Guess I’ll ask next time I’m at Commons medical.”
“I’m sure that’ll be any day now.” Jyo said.
I had to admit, he probably wasn’t wrong.
I spent the night in the Kurama District, and called in sick the next morning. Jyo’s youngest daughter came by with food, a basket with enough fruit to feed an army, or one adult kurama. She was nice, and didn’t seem bothered that a human was visiting. Her name is Kolyi. She has purple scales, and in the daylight they shine like diamonds.
After breakfast, Jyo walked me to the gate. He had a class to teach, and, honestly, if I kept hiding in the Kurama District, eventually security would send someone in to find me. I said goodbye and left, not sure what else to do.
I boarded the tram but didn’t enter a destination until I’d passed through three sectors. It took me a while to find the place, especially as I braced against the moving tram, but if I wanted to know the real reason security was following me, I only knew one person to ask.
Well, two, but I didn’t know how to get ahold of her.
The tram stopped outside the Insectifus District and I stepped off into a world that was familiar and strange at the same time. A bazaar had been set up on the platform, with tents, stalls, and displays of all manner of insectifus goods available for purchase. I’d seen markets like this on earth, at least recordings of them, but experiencing it for the first time wasn’t what felt odd to me. What felt odd was seeing insectifus, large mantids of all colors, shapes, and sizes performing tasks that I’d only seen performed by humans.
Once again I was struck by how different species can be while also being remarkably similar. I love the Insectifus District. Everyone should visit.
I made my way through the market to the gate and approached the screen. There was a line, but when it was my turn, I searched the map and found Bendi’s office before hurrying through the gate. Inside, the Insectifus District is no different than the market outside, but the buildings are more permanent. While the district is bright and humid, inside, their wood and mud brick structures are cool and dark.
Every building was painted, and as I made my way through the narrow streets, my mind was overwhelmed by the walls and people of every color and pattern in the rainbow. After a few minutes I realized that the places where I saw gray weren’t actually gray. Instead my mind was filling in where a color had been used that was only visible on the infrared spectrum, something humans can’t see by the insectifus love.
The air smelled of spices and flowers, cooking food and swaying plants, and it combined with the voices and music of the insectifus in the streets to celebrate life in a way that no other species does. My trip through the Insectifus District taught me more about their culture and values than any conversation could, and my worries melted. For the first time in days I relaxed, and didn’t feel eyes on my back.
After a few minutes of walking, I reached Bendi’s ‘office’, which turned out to be a temple, and a busy one. I stood back and watched for a few minutes before I approached a greeter. He explained that he was a young monk, and that the colored robe he wore (it was gray to me) indicated his rank. I explained that I needed to talk to Bendi, if that was possible.
The monk bowed, then marched off to make inquiries. I waited by the front gate, trying to stay out of everyone’s way as a mass of worshipers filed through the entrance and into the temple. A bell chimed to indicate the beginning of their worship ritual, and instinct told me I wouldn’t see the monk for a little while.
I joined the crowd as they entered the temple, but stayed near the back. At the far end of the sanctuary was a shrine with a large insectifus in a familiar pose, with one pincer held up toward the heavens and a serene look on his face. In front of the shrine stood a row of monks, all bowing and worshiping. After a few minutes another monk stepped onto the stage. He wore ornamental robes of fine silk in every color (including the ones I couldn’t see), and when he stepped toward the shrine, every insectifus in the room dropped to their knees. I took a closer look at the senior monk and realized that it was Bendi.
The insectifus’ worship service lasted an hour, and while I maintained a respectful silence, I stayed on my feet. When worship was over the crowd left the hall and a monk approached. “Teacher Bendi will see you now.”
I followed the monk through the temple, and the departing crowds, to a small room at the back. The monk left me at the door, bowed once again, then walked away. I knocked on the door and was told to enter.
Inside, Bendi knelt on the floor, his four legs folded under his abdomen. The ornate robe hung on the wall behind him, but that was the only decoration in the room. “Hello, Jack Winslow.” Bendi said. “Please, have a seat.”
I sat on the floor and crossed my legs. “Hi, Bendi. Looks like you’re back to work.”
Bendi smiled and nodded his head. “I am, though a priest’s work is never truly done.”
“Do the insectifus only have one religion?” I asked. “There are way too many back on earth.”
“It is the same on our world.” Bendi said. “But few have survived their arrival on the ship. Insectifus supremacy does not last when there are several hundred species who all believe they are just as supreme.”
I nodded. “I suppose that makes sense.”
“What can I help you with, Jack?” Bendi asked.
“Did you know I’m being followed by security?”
“I did.” Bendi said.
“Do you know why?” I asked.
Bendi nodded again. “Yes, I do. It is because you are an anomaly. You visit the districts of other species as though seeking something. You have visited the finvas, the kurama, the neifel, and now, the insectifus, including a handful of others, yet you live in the Commons and haven’t returned to the Human District. This has made the Council nervous.”
I stared at him for a second. “Really? It makes the Council nervous that I go for walks on my days off? I’m not ‘seeking’ anything, I’m just curious.”
“Then you are a seeker, of sorts.” Bendi said. “You simply seek answers, even if you do not know the questions.”
“I suppose so.” I said with a shrug. “So how do I make the Council not nervous? Or, at least, make security stop following me?”
Bendi gave me another smile. “It will take some time for the Council to stop being nervous about you, but I think we can convince security to end their surveillance. When I have finished my meditations, I will call you.”
“Thanks.” I said. Then I thought for a minute. “Wait, how are you going to call me?”
Yet again Jenny had to explain. The ship is the most technologically-advanced place I’d ever seen, with screens, pads, and handhelds everywhere. What I didn’t know was that those devices weren’t provided for free by the ship, or the finders (What? I told you my orientation was bad). Instead, people made them and sold them on a fairly free market. I won’t get into the economics, because that’s boring, but suffice to say, I finally had something to spend money on.
Jenny told me the best, most advanced devices were made by the eelonam, but I went with something more cost efficient. It wasn’t the latest-and-greatest handheld, but it worked. At first I was glad I didn’t get the eelonam device because I’m cheap, but I found more reasons later.
The next day, Bendi called me. He’d set up a meeting with the head of security, and said the Councillor from the Hold would be there as well. Since I had no other option I agreed, then asked Jenny for the day off. Since she had no other option, she agreed, then said she’d go with me. My excitement was as palpable as my sarcasm.
As you’d expect, security’s offices are in the Commons, near the Council building. There were security officers everywhere, and as Jenny and I approached, I spotted Kapada’Zahn. I waved at him, and he waved back, and for a moment my day wasn’t terrible.
Inside security headquarters, my anxiety came back. The agent at the front desk checked us in, and another agent escorted us to the meeting room. We were early so I took a seat. Jenny, in her niq ‘outfit’ sat beside me, adjusting the seat to her comfort. A few minutes later Bendi walked in. He was talking to someone I didn’t recognize. The new person was reptilian, but where repook are kind of scaly humanoids (I’ve been assured that it’s ok to call them that), this one was intimidating. He had a saurian head, clawed hands and feet, and a long reptilian tail. Eventually I learned that he was a ‘malian’, but that came later.
Bendi and the ‘malian’ took seats on the far side of they table. They nodded to us, but continued their conversation while attendants took seats behind them. Among the attendants was a star, a light so pure and beautiful that the other side of the room was brighter for her presence. I waved at Maria, and she smiled in return.
A second later the door opened again, and a niq entered. Niq are also reptilians, with six legs, no arms, a long neck, and an even longer, whip-like tail. This niq wore a security uniform, more decorated, and with a more complicated rank insignia, than any other agent I’d seen. He gave Jenny a quick bow, which she returned, before he moved to the head of the table and took a seat.
“Thank you all for coming.” The niq said. “Let’s get to the matter at hand. I am Director Ancors. You’re Jack Winslow?” He looked at me, but he wasn’t really asking.
I nodded. “Uh, yeah. Did I do something wrong? I know I wasn’t supposed to go into the Finvas District, but the kurama invited me in, and the Neifel District wasn’t locked until after I left.”
Ancors nodded. “This is true.” He said. “And, to be honest, I’m not concerned about that. I am concerned that you don’t fully understand the dangers the ship contains. So far you’ve visited districts that, with the exception of one, are perfectly safe, but there are places on the ship where you would be hurt, or worse, for no other reasons than opening the gate.”
Jenny scoffed. “So you put a protective detail on him?” She asked. ”And you couldn’t tell him?” I tried to ask what a ‘protective detail’ was, but Jenny motioned for me to be quiet.
“I am under orders from Chief Councillor Gast to keep Jack Winslow under observation. The Chief Councillor feels that Jack might be a danger to himself and others.” Ancors said. “Jack’s activities have raised some concerns, and the Chief Councillor wants some reassurance that he isn’t a threat to the Ship.”
The ‘malian’ cleared his throat. “I don’t think the Council has voted on this.” He turned to Bendi. “Have they?”
“No, they have not.” Bendi said.
The ‘malian’ wasn’t done. “We made a psychological profile of Jack when he was in the Hold, and he’s not a danger to the ship. He’s just curious.” He turned. “Maria?”
Angels sang as she spoke. “During his time in the hold, I observed Jack. He shows some antisocial tendencies, but only because he’s self-reliant. He’s curious. He would rather go find the answer himself than ask questions.” She gave me an apologetic smile, and I loved her for it.
The ‘malian’ faced Ancors. “See? Jack Winslow isn’t a danger to the ship, either directly or indirectly.”
Jenny smiled. “You don’t think Jack’s dangerous, do you, Ancors?”
Ancor nodded. “Jack Winslow isn’t a danger to the ship. His wanderings are out of the ordinary, but he deescalated the situation with the neifel. If he hadn’t gotten Councillor Bendi out, I would have been forced to send in a team of officers, and there’s no telling how that would have ended.”
”Then why keep an eye on him?” Jenny asked. “Come on, Ancors, you’ve fought with Gast plenty of times.”
Everyone in the room gave Jenny a curious look except Ancors. “Yes, I have.” Ancors said. “But in this case, I think Jack needs some watching. You watch out for him at your cafe, but once he leaves there, he’s on his own in a ship he doesn’t understand.”
“What new arrival does?” Jenny asked. “Most of them hide in their districts and get on with their lives. Jack’s exploring. What are you going to do, throw him in the Hold for the rest of his life?”
I looked at Ancors. “Please don’t do that.” I gave Maria an apologetic smile. She smiled back at me, and I loved her for it.
“What do you suggest I do?” Ancors asked.
“He was helpful with the neifel thing, right? Put him to work. See if he can help anywhere else.” Jenny said, then put the end of her tail on my arm. “Without getting stabbed of course.”
Ancors considered the idea for a moment. At last he nodded. “OK.” He said. “Jack, I am hereby making you an auxiliary member of the ship’s security force. On your days off from the cafe, you’ll work with a security officer who will introduce you to some of the more dangerous parts of the ship. You’ll help solve any problems that need solving, and, hopefully, learn to be a bit more cautious.” He turned to Jenny. “Will that work for you?”
“I think it might.” Jenny said.
“What about you, Jack?” Ancors asked.
I shrugged. “Yeah, I can do that.”
The next day I was back at work at the cafe. I was cooking when Jenny approached, ‘dressed’ as a human, and held up her handheld (I know, but that’s what they’re called on the ship!). “I have your schedule for your next day off.” She said. “Officer Kapada’Zahn will take you with him.”
“I know him.” I said. “He told me where the Neifel District was.” I paused. “And arrested me outside the Finvas District.”
Jenny rolled her eyes. “Glad you two are familiar. Maybe he can handle you. The finders know I can’t.”
I scoffed. “I don’t need to be handled.”
“Maybe not,” Jenny said. “But you do need to be more careful. Maybe working with security will teach you.”
As they say on earth, spoiler: it didn’t.