It’s a weird thing, working two jobs, especially when one of those jobs doesn’t require me to do anything. My official title with security was (and still is) ‘cultural consultant’, and I helped out whenever they needed, but still don’t have a uniform. Jenny did sew a fake badge into my apron at the cafe, though, so I guess that’s something.
I was spending more time in the front of the cafe, taking orders and handling money, and I suspected it was because I was starting to get a reputation. A pair of young Repook girls came to the cafe, ordered a single cup of coffee, the posed ‘with’ me for a picture. When I asked Jenny if she was putting me on the register to capitalize off that reputation, she said “Absolutely!”
I really couldn’t blame her.
One day I was ‘working the register’ (taking orders and exchanging monies) when a creature walked in that I’d never seen before. It was a quadruped, but its legs were bony, rail-thin, and ended in pointed feet. Above its abdomen, a humanoid torso extended, with two humanoid arms and a long head. The creature’s exposed skin was leathery and tight across its emaciated form. Its clothes were modern and well made, but I could tell that, under them, the creature’s chest and abdomen were just as skeletal as the rest of its body. It wore tinted lenses over its eyes, and I was thankful for them. I didn’t want to know what horrors they spared me.
The creature approached the counter and gave me what I later learned was a smile. It ordered its meal, and when no one around me acted horrified, I tried to contain my revulsion. I asked for a name and it identified itself as ‘Crysaten’. I took its name and money, then gave it back its change. When its meal was ready, I gave it its order and forced myself to wave as it walked away.
When the creature was gone, I left their register and found Jenny. She was in the backroom counting a register drawer, ‘dressed’ as a kleltan, and when I called her, she gave me a knowing look.
“Did you see that-” I stopped myself. “person who just ordered at the counter? What was that?”
Jenny shook her heads (kleltan have two). “That was an obiey, Jack.” She said. She then stared at me and began to chuckle. “Oh, wow, you’ve never seen an obiey before, have you?”
“No, I haven’t.” I said.
“OK, I failed you. As your guide in your journey to learn everything you can about the ship, I have neglected my duties.” She tapped a screen on the wall and changed a few things on a form I couldn’t see well enough to read. “You have tomorrow off, but you’re going to the Obiey District. Got it?”
That was strange, but I went with it. “OK. Can you do that?”
“It’s my cafe, I can do what I want.” She said. “If I find you’ve gone anywhere other than the Obiey District, you’ll be fired and kicked out of the upstairs apartment, got it?”
I nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
Jenny nodded both heads. “Good. Now get back to work. We have customers to serve.”
I don’t think I’ve been more anxious about a tram ride since I was I came to the ship (they call it ‘being found’ on the ship), not even when I was being taken to the Hold. Usually I enjoy exploring, but this time I had visions of the obiey at the cafe, and I couldn’t stay calm. On earth, the obiey would be something out of a nightmare, but on the ship, no one bats an eye.
The tram stopped at the Obiey District, and I stepped onto an empty platform. There were stalls and kiosks set up around the gate, but all of them were empty. There was no sign telling me the district was locked, and for the first time, I was disappointed.
I don’t know how long I stood on the platform, but at least two trams went past before I moved. I approached the gate and, after a deep breath, pressed the button. The gate opened to reveal a darkened hallway that stretched beyond visibility. That didn’t help. With another deep breath, I stepped through the gate, into the darkness, and fought against my fight-or-flight reaction when the gate closed behind me.
As the gate closed, lights came on in the hallways, just under bright enough for me. I walked down the hall, following its curves and turns, and ignored doors as I passed them. I could hear it before I reached the end, but the hall opened into a large, cavernous chamber, lit from above my millions of tiny points of light. I looked up and marveled at the most beautiful simulacrum off night sky I’d ever seen.
As I stood there, looking up at the ‘sky’, the sound of something approaching caught the edges of my attention. They got closer as I looked up, and it wasn’t until I was surrounded that I looked away from the stars.
I was surrounded by them, the only escape through the hallway behind me. They approached from the shadows, through the tall grass that reached their shoulders when they stood. They looked at me through small, dark eyes, and I couldn’t tell if they were smiling or snarling. My rational mind fought against the fear that tried to overwhelm me, and, remembering Crysaten, I raised a hand and waved. “Hi, I’m Jack Winslow.”
One of them stepped forward and extended a skeletal hand. I looked down and noticed that it only had three fingers. “Hi.” The obiey said. “I’m Crysaten. We met in the Commons.”
The other obiey approached more closely as I shook Crysaten’s hand. “I remember. Is it OK that I came?” I pointed to the ‘sky’ overhead. “Is it night? I’m used to districts following the ship’s regular calendar.”
Around me, the obiey laughed, and even though it was laughter in the dark, I was reassured by it. “Yeah, we don’t do that.” Another obiey said.
“We haven’t adapted to the ship as easily as other species.” Crysaten said. “It’s complicated, but things on our planet caused us to adapt to being more active at night, so we don’t keep the ship’s schedule.”
“Oh, is that why you were wearing those tinted glasses at the cafe?” I asked. “You have a sensitivity to light?” My voice hardly shook.
Crysaten nodded. “Exactly.” He said. “So, do you want a tour? You are famous for exploring, after all.”
I was so disarmed by their friendliness that my fear was forgotten, and I smiled. “Sure, why not?”
The obiey who met me at the hall (there had been five of them) had been working in a field when I’d arrived, so the first step on the tour was their farm. They grew tubers, root plants that resemble the vegetables I knew from earth (potatoes, carrots, parsnips, stuff like that), and even some legumes, too. Obiey groundshell nut butter is my favorite ingredient on the ship, and whenever I visit, Crysaten gives me a jar of the freshest stuff you could dream of.
Obiey houses appear small at first, but once you’re inside, you can see why. You enter into a small sitting room, but in the back corner is a staircase that goes down to lower levels. The obiey dig their homes into the ground, but they’re not caves, they’re just underground houses. They’re comfortable, warm, and inviting, and above all, they’re practical.
Crysaten showed me his farm (he and his brother owned it, but his brother also owned a store in town, so Crysaten ran the farm), and his home, then he took me to the farthest part of the district. As we walked, approaching wide fields with open pits dug in them, Crysaten’s mood sank. The obiey with us grew more somber as we approached, and I got the feeling that whatever we were approaching wasn’t something they were proud of.
“If you really want to know about us, Jack, I think you need to see this.” Crysaten said. “It’s not a secret, we’re open about it, but it’s not something we like to brag about.”
“What is it?” I asked, and my fear began to lift its head again.
We stepped off the road and into the fields. Crysaten hung his head. “Back on virgan (the obiey’s home planet), there’s a plant that we need. It produces a certain protein that’s essential to our biology. Unfortunately, there aren’t any on the ship, and, so far, no one can synthesize it.”
I looked around at my escort. “Then how do you survive?” I asked. “Without that protein, how do you live?”
We reached the edge of a pit and Crysaten pointed down into it. It wasn’t just a pit dug out of the dirt, but a pool, sided with concrete and surrounded by a railing. Inside, piled in the nutrient-rich liquid, were eggs, thousands of them. I looked at them, then at Crysaten, and he nodded.
I won’t describe what Crysaten explained to me. Suffice to say, it was a tragedy in every sense of the word. The obiey are widely accepted to be the friendliest species on the ship. I’ve seen people laughed out of restaurants in the Commons for suggesting any other species was friendlier than the obiey (but never by obiey). They’ve earned that reputation, and they still deserve it today, but their friendliness covers a darkness that no one can do anything about.
The next day I went into work early and when Jenny saw the look on my face, she almost fired me on the spot. “You didn’t go to the Obiey District, did you?”
I looked up and almost snapped at her, but contained myself. “I did. Who are the best chemists on the ship? Is it one species or a lab in the Commons?”
“What?” Jenny asked, ‘dressed’ as a Badian. “Why?”
“Because the Finders made a mistake.” I said. “The obiey need a protein to survive, one their bodies don’t make. They would find it in a fruit native to their homeworld, but there aren’t any on the ship. So I need to find a way to get them the protein.”
Jenny looked confused. “If they can’t survive without this protein, where are they getting it from?” She asked. I told her. She covered her mouth. “Oh, no.”
“Yeah,” I said. “they need help. I’m going to help them.”
I don’t want to make it sound like I was trying to be a hero or anything. Honestly, I just wanted to help my friend Crysaten. If it was driven by some sense of guilt at having been repulsed by his physical appearance at first, then I’m fine with that, but I just saw someone who needed a hand and I wanted to give it.
The problem started right after I realized that I had no idea where to start. Security might know, but they’re more of an emergency response thing, not scientists. Since I couldn’t think of any reason a prison or a mental health facility would be able to synthesize a strange protein, the Hold was out. That left Commons medical, and I didn’t know anyone there.
Not knowing anyone didn’t stop me, though, because what I did know was that medical was my only option. When my shift at the cafe was done, I rushed over to medical, made my way to the reception desk, and was greeted by a ‘Malian’ concierge. “Hi, welcome to medical.” She said. “How can I help?”
There was no way out but through, so I gritted my teeth and went for it. “Hello, I need to talk to someone who might know how to create a protein that only occurs naturally in the eggs of the obiey.”
The ‘Malian’ receptionist looked at me for a second, too surprised to speak, the chuckled. “This may seem strange, but are you Jack Winslow?”
“Uh, yeah.” I said. It was my turn to be shocked.
The receptionist held up a finger. “Give me one second, please.” She lifted a comm pad (it’s like a handheld, but wired into a building) and pressed a few buttons before holding it to her ear. “Dr. Gurthis, Jack Winslow is here. Yes, that Jack Winslow. He’s asking about the obiey protein.” She listened for a moment, then ended the call and smiled at me. “Dr. Gurthis will see you in a moment. Please, have a seat.”
You’d think I’d be used to weird conversations by now, but I’m not. And I wasn’t aware that there was a ‘that’ Jack Winslow, but I guess there was and I guess I’m him.
I waited in the medical lobby for a few minutes, observing the traffic, but soon enough I saw a ‘malian’ in a white lab coat approaching me. I stood and held out my hand.
Before I could speak, the ‘Malian’ doctor shook my hand and smiled. “You’re Jack Winslow? It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Dr. Gurthis. I hear you’re asking about the obiey protein.”
“I am.” I said.
Dr. Gurthis nodded. “Good. Let’s go talk in my office.”
‘Malians’ are large, saurian humanoids, as frightening to some as the obiey were to me, but for the most part, they’re caring and nice. Dr. Gurthis led me to the lift and we rode to his floor. There, he turned a corner and led me down halls, past another receptionist area, and back to his private office.
The walls were decorated with the accolades and certificates that qualified him for his job, and by their volume, I could tell he was very qualified. The doctor took a seat behind his desk, and I sat across from him. When we were settled, he smiled at me again, as though I was the missing piece of a long-abandoned puzzle. “So, why are you so concerned about the obiey protein?”
I gave him a sideways glance. “Have you met the obiey? Have you seen the egg pools?”
Gurthis sighed. “I’ve read about them, spoken to a few obiey about their problem. But I’ve never seen these ‘egg pools’, no.”
“Did you know the eggs have to be fertilized to produce the protein?” I asked.
This time, Gurthis nodded. “I did, yes. Some say synthesizing the protein would cause the obiey to reproduce beyond their District’s ability to support them.”
That was a concern, yes. And I’d asked Crysaten about that, too. “Dr. Gurthis, I’ve visited the Obiey District. I was told that they breed that many fertilized eggs because they have to. Back on their home planet, obiey parents usually only have one or two children. This over-reproduction is an adaptation for the ship.”
“Doc, if you needed paper airplanes to survive, you’d probably make a lot of paper airplanes.” I said. “This is worse, and the obiey need help.”
Dr. Gurthis thought for a minute, looking at me with those unnerving reptilian eyes all ‘malians’ have. For a second, my genetic ancestors’ fear of being eaten by a dinosaur (earth creature, look them up) rose in the back of my head, but I told it to shut up and go back to its coloring. To fight that sudden urge to panic, I looked Dr. Gurthis back in the eyes and waited.
After a little while, Gurthis reached for his handheld and began typing. “OK, Jack, that’s good enough for me.” He said. He pressed one last button and, in my pocket, my handheld beeped. “I’ve sent you the name and address of a lab here in the Commons. Tell them I sent you, and why. They should be able to help.”
I pulled out my handheld and looked at the address. It was on the other side of the Commons. Through the picture windows behind Gurthis I could see the Commons darkening as the time neared evening. “I may have to go tomorrow.” I said with a sigh. “Most businesses in the Commons close at sundown.”
Gurthis grinned. “The obiey have waited hundreds of cycles for someone to solve this problem, Jack, they can probably wait another night.”
It took me another tenday to get to the lab, but that was because they were closed during my next day off. Instead, I visited the ‘Malian’ District, and learned a lot. Their district is a swamp (I don’t know why I expected anything else), with tall trees and deep pools. They maintain the ecosystem with a precision that even the best human rancher couldn’t match. It’s that dedication to preserving their ecosystem that inspired them to help other species. If you can keep a swamp clean and thriving, you can probably help the rest of us, too.
Also, ‘malian’ isn’t actually their species name. Their species name is long and complicated. ‘Mal’ is just the fourth syllable, but since most species can’t pronounce the first three easily, everyone just calls them ‘malian’. The ‘malians’ don’t have a problem with it.
The lab was open on my next day off, though, and I was waiting at the front door when they opened. Jenny had come with me, ‘dressed’ as a human (I still don’t know why changers like the human form so much), and she was almost as dedicated to solving the ‘obiey problem’ (her words) as I was. A placard at the front door indicated the time they opened, and ten minutes after that, a receptionist unlocked the door and let us in.
Once inside, we explained what we were looking for. The receptionist, a xyxyl, called back to a head researcher, and we took a seat to wait. A news channel was playing on a screen in the waiting area, but after hearing a report I knew to be inaccurate, I scoffed and ignored it. Over the seasons, that happened more and more often.
After a minute, an insectifus in a lab coat came back and met us. Dr. Unta, the insectifus, escorted us back to his office and gave a miniature tour as we walked. Once there, we sat down and got to business. “I was told that you have interesting in synthesizing a rare protein. Is that correct?”
I nodded. “Yes. The obiey need a protein to survive. They had a source on their planet, but here, the only naturally occurring sources are within their own fertilized eggs. I’d like to find a way to change that.”
“That is tragic,” Unta said. “but I am not sure what we can do about that. Synthesizing proteins is not a simple process, and the more complex it is, the harder that will be.”
Jenny gave Unta a pleading grin. “We’re not saying it’s easy, we just want to see if it’s possible.”
Unta thought for a moment. “Well, proteins are just long chains of amino acids, and we can replicate them. The trouble would be in isolating the specific protein, learning its sequence, and finding the right way to replicate it.” He frowned (it’s pretty easy to tell insectifus facial expressions once you learn them), then spread his hands. “If the obiey are willing to give us a few samples, we might be able to get started, but this will be a long process.”
“How long?” I asked.
My gut twisted when he answered. “Honestly, it will take a few seasons.”
Crysaten stared at me. “A few seasons?” He asked.
“I know, it’s a long time.” I said and leaned on the shovel. I’d gone back to the Obiey District to tell them the news, but as soon as I got there, Crysaten had put me to work. “And they’ll need some samples of the protein, which means losing a few eggs.” I left the rest unsaid.
Around us, other obiey worked, digging through the soil to unearth (an expression) the groundshell nuts. I’d been doing the same while talking with Crysaten, but when I stopped, so did they. Our conversation was more popular than I’d suspected.
“They said it could take a few seasons?” Crysaten asked. “Did they explain what they were going to do?”
I shrugged. “Yeah, a little. They have to find the protein, figure out what it’s made of, then find a way to replicate it. The doctor even asked if they could hire a few obiey to help in the lab, give them a more experienced point of view.”
To my surprise, Crysaten started laughing. I didn’t know what crying looked like when an obiey did it, but I soon found out. Around me, some workers hugged each other, some cheered, and a few cried. Crysaten hugged me and patted me on the back, and I shook myself out of my surprise to return the gesture.
“Uh, what’s going on?” I asked.
Crysaten stepped back and smiled at me, wiping away a tear. “This is great news, Jack.”
“I mentioned the part where it’ll take at least a few seasons to finish, right?”
“Yeah, you did,” Crysaten said. “but, still, it’s hope. What we have to do to survive on the ship, it’s a weight, but after a while, you get used to it. I’d forgotten how good it feels to have that weight lifted.”
I looked around and saw that I was surrounded by grateful faces. “Glad I could help.” I said.
Crysaten shook my hand. “Thank you, Jack.”
The lab started work a tenday later, much to everyone’s satisfaction. The lab hired two obiey lab assistants, but it turned out they were both chemists, and within six cycles they were running their one research teams. This opened the obiey up to other new possibilities as medical and agricultural research firms reached out to them.
I went back to work like I always did, but it was Crysaten who surprised me. He came into the cafe and tracked me down. With the biggest smile I’ve ever seen, he held out his handheld and tapped it against mine. When I looked, my handheld displayed a note from the Obiey District leaders thanking me for my help. They said they couldn’t thank me enough, but hoped that a financial reward might show some small measure of their gratitude.
I tried to object, but Crysaten refused to listen. He’s always been stubborn.
At the end of the day, Jenny found me. “So, what are you going to do with the money?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I only wanted to help, and they gave me a lot of money.” I paused. “Is it a lot of money?”
Jenny laughed. “Yes, it’s a lot of money. Not enough to buy a house, but enough to invest somewhere.”
The hair on the back of my neck stood up. “Let me guess, you have the perfect opportunity for me.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I do.” Jenny said. “I want to open another cafe in a building in the center of the Commons. I could do it if I extended myself here, but I’d be more successful if I had a backer.”
I rolled my eyes. “Is that why you sent me to the Obiey District?” I asked. “So I could help you open a new location?”
“No,” Jenny said. “I sent you because you needed to go. But you’ve benefited from it, in more ways than one, and I think it’d be better to invest the money than just spend it. Look, you’ll own a percentage of the cafe, so you’ll get a percentage of the profits. What do you say?”
Jenny held out her hand to me, but I hesitated. “We just helped the obiey get some hope, and you’re working on your business. Seems like bad timing.”
“What?” Jenny asked. ”You helped solve that problem, and you were rewarded. A few tendays ago you helped security track down some thieves, and now they pay you. If you’re going to get rich off this exploration stuff, I don’t see why we can’t put the money to work. Besides, if you were any good with money, you wouldn’t still live in my spare storage room.”
She had a point, but I was still afraid of messing it up. “I don’t know.”
“Oh, come on,” Jenny said. “how can you walk right into any District, but you’re afraid to invest?”
I shook my head. “ No, I’m just more curious. I can’t let this obiey protein thing do. Why would the Finders bring a species aboard, but not the fruit they need to survive?”
Jenny rolled her eyes. “Only the Finders know, Jack.” She held out her hand. “Now, what do you say? Let’s put that money to work.”
“I guess you have a point.” I said, then shook my head, then her hand. “OK, let’s do it.”
“Alright. You won’t regret this.” Jenny smiled as best she could, but something told me that both of us would.