The Commons is a pretty nice place, with shops, businesses, restaurants, museums, and anything else you might want. After I moved into my apartment, I took a tenday to explore the neighborhood. I learned how to get around, introduced myself to my neighbors, and learned quickly that my reputation, good and bad, had preceded me.
Most days I woke up, made breakfast, and boarded a tram for a randomly selected district. Almost all of my visits went without incident, though my trip to the Xycyl District was interesting. I stumbled into a district populated by non-corporeal beings whose only manifestation in our world was a tiny point of bright light. That was hard to explain.
The Kleltan District was fun. Biologically, the kleltan are very similar to humans, and their district is very similar to the Human District. My visit there was fun. I arrived during a parade, and instead of kicking me out, they made me part of it. That was a blast.
Everyone should visit the Emarf District, and they said it was ok to say that. Giant felines, except they have six eyes, scales instead of fur, four feet tall at the shoulders, and they’re very smart. Their schools are some of the most advanced on the ship.
After all that, you’d think I’d seen anything the ships had to throw at me, but you’d be wrong. You’d be so very wrong. I had eaten breakfast, and had stopped by Jenny’s cafe in the lobby of my building, and stepped out the front door when I was proven wrong, too.
I stood on the sidewalk for half a second before a chenthi ran into my right leg. He bounced off and tumbled to the ground. I looked down at him, and the fear in his eyes was palpable. I held out my hand. “Are you-“
“There he is!” A voice said from a few dozen yards away. “Get him!”
The chenthi jumped to his feet and ran off, leaving me behind. A second later a dozen crath ran past me, snarling and howling as they charged.
I try not to judge other species or districts, and I’ve seen a lot of different cultures that, while I may find things they could improve, I don’t think should be collapsed. It’s not so much cultural relativism as cultural evaluation. Sure, the neifel should probably be locked up, and the truple aren’t looking out for the good of the ship, but they’re just doing what they do. All of that goes out the window with the crath.
Please note that I frequently say that I’m not very smart, and that morning, I proved it. I’d just eaten breakfast and taken my first step outside. Before I could decide what I wanted to do that day, I was confronted with what appeared to be a gang of bullies chasing someone, and I did what anyone else without a brain would do: I ran after them.
The crath had cornered the chenthi in an alley behind my building. One of them had stepped aside, and even from behind, I could see that the others followed his lead. “You should have done what you were told.” The leader said. “We told you what would happen if you didn’t.”
“Leave him alone.” I said from behind. “What’s your problem?”
The crath turned and looked at me, annoyance and curiosity clear on their faces. The leader stepped through the crowd and approached me. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Jack Winslow. Leave him alone.”
The leader stared at me, then started to laugh. A second later the crath behind him joined in. They were so busy laughing that they paid no attention to the chenthi. I nodded toward a fence, and he climbed it, then disappeared into another alley.
“Ok, ‘Jack Winslow’, who do you think you are?” The lead crath asked. He pointed to where the chenthi had been but didn’t look. “This little guy agreed to do a job for us, and he didn’t do it. He needs to learn to keep his promises.”
I looked at the end of the alley. “What ‘little guy’?”
They all turned. When they saw that the chenthi was gone, their amusement turned to anger. Their screeches echoed off the alley walls and I was deafened for a moment.
“That was stupid.” The crath leader said. “You helped him get away? What did you think was going to happen? There’s ten of us and one of you!” (There were twelve of them, but I didn’t correct him.) He paused for a second, then snarled at me. “You want to be a hero? Fine.”
The leader leaped at me, and his gang followed. Then everything went dark for a while.
I’d like to say it was Kapada’Zahn’s voice that woke me up, but it was actually the pain.
Someone was wrapping something tight around my arm, and my leg wouldn’t move. I tried to open my eyes, but only one responded. My chest was cold, but before I could do anything about it, someone stuck a needle through my ribs and I cried out.
“Jack!” Zahn said, probably again. “Can you hear me? Come on, Jack, answer me!”
I nodded and it made my everything hurt. “Yeah,” I said. “I can hear you.”
Zahn sighed with relief and patted me on the shoulder. It hurt. “Sorry!” He pulled back his hand. “We’re going to get you to medical. You’re pretty beat up.”
A board was slid under me and I was lifted into the air before being loaded into the back of an ambulance. Since vehicles on the ship hover I wasn’t jostled b the road, but the straps over my chest and arms still caused some pain. With a moment to do nothing but wait, I took inventory of my injuries, and I estimated a few broken bones, an eye swollen shut, and either a collapsed lung or some internal hemorrhaging that kept me from breathing right. The oxygen mask over my face helped, and I drifted off to sleep within seconds.
The medical people patched me up, but it was a busy day, and they didn’t have a recovery bed available. My wounds were bound, my bones set, and the fluid drained from my chest. The breaks in the bones were injected with a material that held them in place while they healed, and within an hour I was able to see, breath, and walk again. I was also supplied with a cane and a bunch of painkillers.
Once I was done at medical, I was escorted to security. The interview room was made comfortable, and I was given a cushioned chair to recline in. Once I was settled, Zahn took a seat across the table.
“What happened, Jack?” Zahn asked. “I know you’re not stupid enough to go into an alley with a bunch of crath unless there’s a good reason.”
I shrugged, then groaned. “There were twelve of them. They were chasing a chenthi, and he was scared.”
Zahn stared at me and shook his head. He sighed as he made a note. “You saw a dozen crath chasing a little chenthi and thought ‘I’d better help’? That wasn’t smart, Jack.”
See? I’m not smart! “What was I supposed to do? And how was I supposed to know those other guys were so bad?” I asked. “They were practically feral.”
“Yeah, the crath are. Haven’t you run into them before?”
I shrugged, and that time it didn’t hurt as bad. “I’ve seen one or two on the tram. I figured they looked harmless enough I’d visit their district later.”
“Jack, you probably hear this a lot,” Zahn said. “But do not go to that district. The only reason it hasn’t been locked is that they don’t grow any food of their own and they refuse to start.”
I rolled my eyes, and even that hurt. “They can’t all be that bad. A bunch, sure, but every single one?”
“Are you serious?” Zahn asked. “You just got beat up by a dozen guys, and you’re trying to defend them? Stay away from the crath, Jack. We’ll find the chenthi, you go home and rest.”
‘Home’ was boring and ‘rest’ wasn’t restful. I tried to relax, but my mind kept wandering to the image of the chenthi, scared for his life. My leg was broken, and despite the medicine, it was still painful to walk on. That said, if I hadn’t given that chenthi time to run, there’s no telling what those crath would have done to him.
My biggest problem is that I can’t leave things alone. It’s why I’ve explored so much over the seasons, and it’s why I know the ship better than almost anyone else. But that took seasons, and early on, there was a lot I didn’t know.
The first thing I didn’t know was where to find a crath gang. Organized crime isn’t a big problem on the ship, but street gangs can be, even in the Commons. It’s mostly adolescents who don’t have anything else to do. They either can’t or don’t get jobs, and, usually, come from poverty-plagued districts. There are more programs and organizations set up to help them than I can name, but the problem remains.
My impromptu ‘meeting’ with the crath was how I discovered these organizations. Sitting on my couch, I started searching for gang prevention groups, but most of those referred me to security. One, though, sent me to a youth outreach organization, and that organization directed me to a team, based near the Hold, that dealt specifically with adolescents who were getting roped into criminal activities.
Why my search didn’t lead to that group first, I don’t know, but they’ve improved their listings since then.
I called them, my leg elevated and my bandages visible. When they answered, I was faced with a ‘Malian’, his green scales and saurian jaws juxtaposed by his inviting smile. “Hello, this is K’Jar. What can I do for you?”
“Hi K’Jar, my name’s Jack Winslow. I’m looking for a gang of crath that might be chasing a chenthi.”
K’Jar stared at me for a moment, then started to laugh. “That’s very specific.” He said. “I don’t suppose you could give me more information, could you?”
I shrugged and was surprised that it hurt (I guess I forgot…). “Well, there were twelve crath, one chenthi, and one of me.” I indicated my bandages. “The chenthi got away. I didn’t.”
“They did a number on you.” K’Jar said. “Twelve is an unlucky number in the Crath District. They say it brings about defeat and failure. Crath gangs have nearly killed each other when they realize there are twelve of them. And this gang had twelve members?”
I nodded, and that hurt, too. “Yep. No in-fighting, either.”
K’Jar thought for a second. I waited and tried to breathe regularly. My left side hurt every time, but only enough to remind me I needed to take more painkillers.
After a few seconds, K’Jar looked back at me. “I don’t know the gang you’re talking about, but there’s a popular spot where crath juveniles spend their time. A lot of gangs form there, too.”
“Sounds like a good place to start.” I said. “Can you send me the location? I’ll head over there.”
K’Jar laughed again. “You’re not going alone. They’d kill you. Meet me at my office and I’ll go with you. At the very least they’ll listen to me.”
“No one lets me have any fun,” I said with a laugh. It hurt to laugh.
K’Jar’s office was in a low-rent office structure on the outskirts of the Commons, near a tram platform, and it wasn’t located there just because of the low cost.
K’Jar isn’t much taller than me, but he’s stronger and has more mass. He’s a ‘malian’, I’m a human, we don’t look much alike. He met me outside his office and shook my hand with the same smile I’d seen on the faces of every social worker and school counselor I’d ever met. He looked tired and worn, but there was something in him that wouldn’t let him stop
. He and I have been good friends since then. K’Jar is one of the greatest people I’ve ever known (and he’s going to be so embarrassed when he reads this).
The ‘popular spot where juvenile crath spend time’ turned out to be an empty warehouse on the outskirts of the Commons. I thought K’Jar’s office was near the edge of town, but I was wrong. The Commons is actually inside a huge chamber, and the warehouse was near the outer wall.
Still limping on the cane, I let K’Jar lead the way. He went opened the door, and as he did, a wave of heat and noise blasted through and nearly knocked me to the ground. To his credit, K’Jar didn’t laugh as he helped me through the door, but I felt like I’d been hit by a truck and he was leading me into traffic.
Inside wasn’t better. There was noise in all directions, and the building was hot. Music blared from speakers set up everywhere, and every crath seemed dedicated to screaming over it. Everywhere I looked I saw kids fighting, playing, and doing other things, all of it dangerous for one reason or another. The warehouse was full of rabid adolescent rebellion against rules they wouldn’t understand until they’d suffered the consequences of breaking them.
As K’Jar led me through the crowded warehouse, the crath we passed fell silent. They trailed behind us as we made our way to a stage, and as we climbed the steps onto it, I could feel hundreds of hungry predatory eyes on me.
“Hello,” K’Jar said. “We’re looking for a group, probably come around here sometimes, travel in a pack of twelve. Anyone know them?”
The crowd began to laugh and howl, a sound that mingled with the cacophony to make unsettling music. One of the crath, this one a little taller and a little older, stepped through the crowd to stand just below us. He looked up at us and smiled. Or, at least, he showed us his teeth.
“Yeah, we know them.” He said. “That’s Kneebite’s gang. He thinks he can transfer the omen to other people if he travels with twelve. We don’t let him come here anymore.”
Of course, they didn’t! Why would anyone have made it easy on me?
“Do you know where they are?” K’Jar asked.
The older crath scoffed. “Why would we tell you?”
I shook my head. “Look, we don’t care where they are. They were chasing a chenthi and beat me up to get to him. Do you know what they were up to? Why would they need a chenthi to do something?”
“Let me guess, he beat you up, and you want payback, right?” The crath asked.
“No,” I shook my head again, and it hurt, again. “I want to keep the chenthi they were chasing from getting hurt. Security can deal with Kneebite.”
The crath chuckled. “Yeah, that’s what we thought.” He nodded toward me, and another crath, this one on the stage behind us, leaped forward. She landed in a crouch and was about to pounce when my pain and patience were drowned in a flood of adrenaline. As she jumped, I turned and swung my cane. The cane struck her in the side of the head and knocked her off course. She flew past me and landed in the crowd.
The older crath looked at her, and the tangled kids around her, then up at me. “You think you’re strong, huh?”
“Ask the neifel how strong I am.” I said.
I hadn’t noticed until then, but the music had stopped during the conversation. I only noticed because the warehouse fell silent. Every crath eye was on me, as were two ‘malian’ eyes. I found out later that, because the Kurama District is locked and insectifus are usually seen as peaceful, no one believed Jyo and Bendi had helped me. Everyone thought I’d fought the neifel alone and defeated them single-handedly because that was, apparently, more believable. I didn’t know that at the time, though. I don’t even know why I mentioned the neifel. It just came out.
The older crath cleared this throat. “Ok, we’ll help you. I know what Kneebite’s crew are doing.”
We left the crath warehouse wiser, with a clear course of action, and perfectly fine with the knowledge that security was on its way.
K’Jar decided to go with me, partly because he wanted to make sure this Kneebite and his gang weren’t doing anything too serious, but also because I still needed a cane to walk. I don’t know how I managed to hit that crath kid (I’m still trying to figure out how I pulled a spear out of my liver and beat up a neifel), but I was shaky afterward, and I was glad for the help. The kids in the warehouse had been tame compared to what I’d dealt with in the alley.
The older crath (whose name was Clawedfist) had been involved in Kneebite’s plan early on but pulled out when he realized how dangerous it was. Crath social structure said that Kneebite couldn’t go after Clawedfist after he left the gang, but Clawedfist couldn’t turn Kneebite in unless someone stronger demanded it. I guess they thought I was stronger.
The plan was complicated. Kneebite’s gang would kidnap the family of a chenthi that worked at a bank in the Commons. That would force the banker to transfer money from rich people into Kneebite’s accounts or his family would be hurt. It was brazen, and, honestly, stupid, but crath aren’t the type to let stupid stop them.
Kneebite had done a few things right, though. First, he’d kidnapped the wife and children of the chief accountant at the largest bank in the Commons. Second, he’d put members of his pack in the banker’s security detail. Third, and best, he’d told the banker (the chenthi, named Porl) to send his family to the Chenthi District to visit family. Everyone in the Commons thought they were in their district. Everyone was wrong.
K’Jar and I approached an apartment building on the outskirts of the Commons and tried to look like we belonged there. “Are you sure about this?” K’Jar asked.
“I don’t think we have a choice.” I said. “Security will just scare them, and I don’t want to think about what they’ll do to those kids if they get scared.”
“And you don’t think I’ll scare them?” He asked.
I chuckled. “No. They’ll think I want some payback, so I got you to be my strong man.”
We approached the front door, and K’Jar held it open for me. “That makes sense.” He said. “But I’m still not sure what we’re going to do in there.”
We climbed the stairs (which was annoying with a cane and a broken leg) and reached the fourth floor. We stepped onto the landing, looked down the hall, and I groaned. This wasn’t the high-end part of the Commons, and the building showed it. Every door in the hall was dented, cracked, open, or missing except one at the end of the hall. That door was new, with multiple locks, a clear line of sight along the hallway. Kneebite’s crew were amateurs fighting above their weight class.
We approached the door and I knocked, then stepped back. A few seconds passed, and as we heard footsteps approaching the door, I rolled my eyes, then looked at K’Jar and smiled. He shook his head with a sigh, but before he could speak, the door opened.
A young crath, barely old enough to be out of mom’s sight, opened the door. He recognized me, then saw K’Jar, and panicked. He slammed the door, but I shoved my cane into the gap and held it open.
“I suppose you expect me to push it open?” K’Jar asked. I nodded, and he sighed again then shoved the door back and walked through.
Inside, the apartment was destroyed. Walls were torn and slashed down to the studs, the windows were covered with thick, dirty blankets, and the floor was bare. Filthy couches and chairs were scattered about the room, and tables were stacked with take-out food containers.
I heard a growl behind me and whirled, my cane raised as the crath at the door jumped me. I hit him across the face and knocked him aside (I don’t know how I did that twice), and he fell to the ground. “Stay down.” I said, then followed K’Jar.
In the next room, my new ‘malian’ friend had two crath against the wall, held in place by his strong, taloned hands, and he’d begun a long lecture on their life choices. I let him talk and found another new door with extra locks. I opened them, one at a time, and opened the door slowly.
Three chenthi looked back at me, afraid and desperate. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Jack Winslow. Let’s get you out of here.”
That was when security took over, but, much to my satisfaction, they didn’t kick me out of the investigation. Instead, K’Jar and I were brought into it, and they worked with us to find Porl and Kneebite. We told them everything we knew, and the security officer, a j’bori detective who was more understanding than I expected, sent some officers to Porl’s bank. Porl’s family were taken to security headquarters to find out what they knew, and K’Jar and I were sent to Porl’s home to see what we could find.
Ok, it’s time to admit that I’m in the wrong career field. Apparently, the way to make money is to handle other people’s money. Porl owned a three-story house in one of the richest neighborhoods in the Commons. Seven bedrooms, two kitchens, servant’s quarters, and a lawn any kid would dream of. As we walked through the front door, two security officers behind us, I saw two things: Porl’s family was very interested in money, and there had been crath in the house recently.
The thing, though, is that crath are very small, usually only a foot and a half tall. I’ve mentioned Bendi before, and he’s an average-size chenthi. Porl’s house was nice and expansive, but it was small for an average-size human like me, and K’Jar barely fit through the door.
“Wow,” K’Jar said. “I don’t want to think what I could do with this kind of money.”
I shrugged. “You might help people, or you might get sucked into the ‘maintaining appearances’ game.” I pointed to a couch, torn and piled high with dirty blankets, in a sitting room beyond the foyer. “Looks like Porl had some house guests.”
K’Jar approached the couch and smelled it. He pulled his head back quickly and hit the low ceiling. “Yeah, that’s a crath blanket!” He said, rubbing the back of his head. “Kneebite probably slept here, the rest of his crew on those other piles.”
I looked around the room and saw half a dozen other piles placed about the floor. “So Kneebite gets the bed because he’s the boss and everyone else sleeps on the floor.”
“Exactly.” K’Jar said.
I looked around the room, then walked back into the foyer. I could hear the security officers inspecting a kitchen, but the house was so large anyone could be upstairs. I looked up the staircase to the landing at the top and the hall beyond. “Porl’s pretty high up at that bank. He probably has a home office.”
“Yeah, probably,” K’Jar said, then tossed a blanket aside. He froze as the same thing that occurred to me occurred to him. “He could probably do whatever he needed from there.”
“It’s probably pretty secure, too. The bank would insist.”
K’Jar joined me in the foyer and looked up the stairs. “So, you go left, I go right?” He asked.
“It’s as good a plan as any.” I said. “You think the security guys will hear us?”
With a wave of his hand, K’Jar let me go up the stairs first. “I hope so.” He said.
We reached the landing quickly, though my leg slowed us down, and looked down the hallway. With a deep breath, I nodded to K’Jar, who nodded back, and I began the trek down the hall on the left. Behind me, K’Jar went the opposite way.
The hall had doors on either side, with another at the end. As I passed I opened the doors that were unlocked and made a mental note to get the security officers to check the ones that were locked. I found two guest bedrooms, one bathroom, and a library that I made a mental note to ask (beg) Porl about if I got the chance.
Every door I checked made the voice in my gut, which drew my attention to the door at the end, louder. I began to dread that door, without knowing why, and sweat beaded on my brow. I clenched the cane in my left hand, and my heart began to race. Behind me, I could see K’Jar in the distance, checking doors, but there was no way he would have heard me unless I screamed.
At last, I reached the door. There was nothing left to do but open the door, but I hesitated. I wiped the sweat off my brow, then wiped my wet hand on my pant leg, then I ran out of excuses. I opened the door.
I was met by a cacophony of noise, light, and heat. The crath were shouting at Porl while the lone chenthi shouted back. All the lights were on, but the center of the desk where Porl sat was brightest, illuminating the screen he was working on. There were eight crath around the desk, all of whom towered over Porl who sat at his desk and worked furiously.
“Uh, K’Jar?” I asked over my shoulder, as loudly as I could. “I found them!”
The room fell silent as every eye turned toward me. Kneebite snarled and thrust a clawed finger at Porl’s screen. “Keep working!” He said and climbed over the desk. “I’m going to finish this guy off!”
I took a step back and raised my cane, ready to hit Kneebite like I’d hit so many crath already, and he pounced forward. Things moved slowly, but, unfortunately, so did I, so I saw everything clearly but couldn’t move fast enough to change anything.
I swung my cane. It moved slowly, and I readied myself for the impact, but the hit came too soon. With one hand, Kneebite caught my cane and pulled it from my hand, and with the other, he caught my throat and his fingers tightened around my esophagus. I fell backward, he fell on me, and my head hit the floor. Everything went black.
I don’t remember much after that.
“Jack!” The angel said from the darkness. “Jack!” There was a small point of light, and I moved toward that and the voice. “Jack, wake up!”
I opened my eye, and despite the pain in my, well, everything, I smiled. “Hi, Maria.” I said.
Maria stared at me and wiped tears from her cheek. “Jack! You’re awake!” She wrapped her arms around me and I was confused. I never knew heaven could hurt that much.
“Excuse me, Ms. Torres, the patient needs to rest.” Another voice said.
“You’re right,” Maria said and released me. “I’m sorry.”
I tried to raise a hand but found it wrapped in bandages. “Where am I?” I asked.
“You’re in the Hold.” The voice said. I looked to my left (that hurt) and saw Kl’Iora, the director of the Hold. “Don’t worry, you’re not being held. You just got swept up in securities net at the chenthi’s house.”
Maria wiped away more teats and chuckled. “I think Commons medical is sick of you, too.”
I laughed, but it ended in a groan as I tried to clutch my ribs. “Please, Mr. Winslow, try to relax.” Kl’Iora said. “You’ve re-broken your ribs, along with a few new ones. Your hand is broken, as is your other leg, and you’ve fractured your skull and several vertebrae.” He sighed. “Honestly, you’ve suffered quite a list of injuries. It’s a small miracle that you survived.”
I nodded and regretted it. “What about Porl? Is he ok?”
“Yes, he is,” Kl’Iora said. “he’s in a room a few halls over. He was being forced to help Kneebite, yes, but he was also embezzling money from the bank. Security were investigating the embezzlement, but they didn’t have a suspect until they had Porl in custody.”
“And don’t worry about Kneebite’s gang,” Maria said. “they’re all in custody. We might be able to release the rest of them, but it doesn’t look good for Kneebite.”
I could feel Maria put her hand, gently, onto mine, and the pain in everything else faded a little. “So why am I in the Hold, then?” I asked. “How long was I out?”
Maria chuckled again. “You were out for a few days.” She said. ”You were so hurt, we didn’t want to move you.”
“Medical has sent a doctor and some nurses to care for you, but I felt it best to keep you here.” Kl’Iora said. “K’Jar has been in a few times, too. He felt bad that he wasn’t hurt as badly as you were.”
“He got hurt?” I asked.
Kl’Iora nodded. “Security said that by the time they got up the stairs, K’Jar was already fighting the crath. He was standing over you. He’d knocked three of them unconscious before security could get ahold of the situation.” He paused. “I think that young ‘malian’ saved your life.”
Breathing hurt, but I took a few deep breaths, thankful that I still could. “K’Jar’s a good guy. You should consider hiring him.”
Kl’Iora laughed. “I’ve offered him a job a dozen times, but maybe he’ll listen to you. He’s too focused on helping the Underplace.”
I nodded. “Yeah.” I said. “So, what now? When can I go home?”
“Maybe tomorrow,” Maria said. “medical want to look you over. If they’re ok with it, you’ll be moved to your apartment. Jenny’s setting everything up for you. We’ve made a list of people to spend time with you.”
“Really? Like who?”
Maria and Kl’Iora shared a smile. “There have been volunteers from quite a few districts, and Officer Kapada’Zahn made sure he was on the list.”
“Me and Jenny, too,” Maria said. “She’ll bring you breakfast, and I’ll come by when I’m done at work.”
It hurt to smile, but not as bad as I’d expected. “I’m looking forward to it,” I said, and squeezed her hand. “I could use a vacation.”