First Day on the New Job

Believe it or not, I’m not very good at foodservice. Working at Jenny’s Place was fine, as far as first jobs go, but it wasn’t exactly my ‘passion’. It took me two weeks to learn how to use the machine where we took customer orders, and three days of that were spent reminding myself that, yes, I can read the strange text on the screen, but only because unknown forces implanted that knowledge into my brain without my consent.

Time on the ship is measured differently than on earth, but it’s an easy adjustment. Each day has twenty-five hours, which is nice, and instead of weeks, we have tendays (Guess how many days are in a tenday). Five tendays are a cycle, and ten cycles are a season. Seasons are numbered, mostly for record-keeping, kind of like years on earth.

It took me half a cycle, working for Jenny to become financially stable, that large sum from the obiey notwithstanding, but that’s only because I spent every day off wandering the ship.

The Commons is great. You can sample the cultures of every species on the ship, but I’m too curious to be satisfied by a sample. So, instead of doing the safe thing and asking questions, I decided to go explore. On my days off, I would usually board the tram, find a screen, and tap a random district in an unplanned sector and ride until the tram told me to get off. When you move to a new town on earth, they tell you to “go get lost so you can learn the town”, and I didn’t see any reason why that advice wouldn’t help on the ship.

One day I followed that pattern and found myself outside of a district in Sector Twelve. The platform outside the district had some traffic, and a few food stands. Wheeled carts, pulled by strange animals, were brought to loading platforms where their contents were placed onto containers. Those containers were then marked with different destinations and loaded onto the tram. The exchange was interesting but not as interesting as the people doing the work.

The district’s inhabitants were short, humanoids, about four feet tall on average, with dark fur and flat faces. Their eyes were small but their ears were large, and they navigated the platform more by echolocation than by sight.

As I watched, in amazement, a local approached me and smiled. “Hello, can I help you?”

I shook my head and smiled back. “Yeah, hi, I’m Jack Winslow. Sorry, I don’t mean to stare.”

The local held out a hand, and I shook it. “That’s ok, most people do when they first see us. Are you here on business, or just visiting?”

“Well,” I said. “I guess both. I’m a new arrival, and I figured the best way to figure out the ship is to go explore it.”

The local laughed. “Then let me show you around. I’m Cartee, welcome to the Estud District.” She waved a hand toward the district gate. “If you’re exploring, then you need to see this. Follow me.”

I did just that and was glad for the guide. We made our way through the wagon traffic and into the district, and as we did Cartee greeted a few familiar faces along the way. I checked the gate to make sure there weren’t any signs, but since I was being invited in, I assumed the Estud District wasn’t locked.

It took my eyes a few minutes to adjust to the darkness inside the district, but I could still navigate. “Wow,” I said. “It’s dark in here.”

Cartee laughed. “Yes, and it’s loud out there. Not every species likes their district the same way. Is this the first district you’ve visited?”

I shrugged. “Well, no, but the first one was on fire.”

“Oh, that was you!” Cartee said. “I read about that in the news.” She looked me over as we walked down a dirt road toward a small town. “I’m glad they let you out. I guess the Hold isn’t all bad.”

“Maria is pretty great. I don’t know about everyone else.” Cartee just gave me a smile that told me she understood more than I did.

The estud town was picturesque and simple in a reassuring way. Every building was at least two stories tall, made of wood and stucco, with tile roofs of all colors, and large windows, but only on the first floor. There were restaurants and shops, just as you’d expect, and it occurred to me that, though species can be very different from each other, physically, sometimes the things we build can be very familiar.

The road through the town led to a central square, with a large building on one corner. A group of estud stood on the stairs of the building, all dressed alike. A podium had been set up in front of them, and as I watched, an estud stepped up to the podium and chirped for attention. The assembly fell silent and faced the podium, and the crowd did the same. It was at that moment that I realized what Cartee had brought me to: it was a concert.

The conductor let out a few more chirps to set the rhythm, and soon the performance began. I didn’t know the music, but the crowd reacted as though it was a cultural favorite. The choir sang, and the chirp I’d come to associate with the estud echolocation was mixed in, but a few of the singers simply hummed, accompanying the singers with a natural horn section.

It was the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.

The concert, held in the improvised hall of the town square, continued for an hour, and there were others in the audience no less touched than me. Instead of applauding between songs, the audience offered a high-pitched chirp that was barely audible to my limited ears. Cartee explained that they were communicating their appreciation. I held my clapping and, instead, let the tears in my eyes communicate in for me.

When the concert was done, the conductor turned and bowed, giving the audience his chirps. The choir bowed, then walked off the stage and left the conductor to absorb the crowd’s adulation. One of the singers, a little taller than most, approached Cartee and hugged her. When they separated, she turned to me and smiled at the taller Estud, “Alteer, my husband, this is Jack Winslow.”

Alteer held out a hand, and I shook it. “Nice to meet you.” I said.

Alteer nodded. “And you. We don’t get many human visitors here. I’ve heard the Human District is almost locked.”

“Yeah, that’s why I left.” I said. “So the estud are singers? What was that being loaded onto the trams?”

“Did you already make the shipment?” Alteer asked. Cartee nodded. “Oh, we were shipping crops. There are a lot of farmers in the Estud District. We grow fruit and grains, mostly.” He put an arm around Cartee. “We’re farmers, I only sing in my spare time.”

It was my turn to laugh. “The Estud District is a small farming town. Of course, it is.” I smiled at them. “Some things are just universal, I guess.”

“I know it’s not much, compared to the Commons,” Cartee said. “but it’s home.”

“Cartee, it’s beautiful. Thank you for showing me your home.” My smile didn’t disappear for the rest of the day.

I spent the day in the Estud District, meeting people and exploring. Cartee and Alteer showed me their farm and introduced me to their kids. It was one of the older farms in the district, started by Alteer’s great-grandfather more than a hundred seasons ago, and everyone worked it. When I arrived, the three kids were cutting weeds in the fields, Cartee’s mother was cooking in the kitchen, and Alteer’s grandfather was tending to farm animals I didn’t recognize.

They let me stay for dinner and I sat beside Cartee’s daughter, a little girl of about seven cycles, who was very excited to sit beside her ‘new best friend’.

The next day, my body was back at work, but my brain wasn’t. I was back in the Estud District, working on Alteer and Cartee’s farm. I was also on the tram, pressing another mystery district and discovering something else, seeing some new.

It was about midday when Jenny broke my lack of concentration. “How was dinner?”

Jenny was dressed as a banian, and I looked up at her. “It was good. They made a stew with fruit and some protein I’d never seen before. Cartee’s oldest boy said it was an insect. I thought it was weird, but when you’re in the Estud District, you eat estud food.”

“Yes, you do,” Jenny said with a laugh. “When are you going back?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Alteer said the harvest is in about a cycle, so I might go help. You know, on my days off.”

It’s a strange feeling when a changer examines you. Since their physical form requires so much attention to detail, they look a lot closer than most species do. Jenny gave me a close look, then smiled. “When’s your next day off?” She asked. “It’s in a couple of days, right?”

“Yep.” I said.

Her mischievous smile grew. “Ok. Good to know.”

I didn’t go back to the Estud District on my next day off. In fact, I didn’t go anywhere. It was another tenday before I went anywhere, and I didn’t know where I was going until I made another unplanned stop outside an unknown district.

The platform was empty when I stepped off the tram, but I could see the gate, and was pleased to note the absence of warning signs. The district was open, but the lack of activity on the platform made me nervous. I made my way to the gate and tapped the button to open the door, all while fighting my trepidation.

I was unprepared for what met me when the door opened. It started as a breeze, but as the gap between doors widened, I was hit in the face by a wave of heat and light. I stepped through the gate, raised a hand to shield my eyes, and entered the District. The air was hot and dry inside and the lights were painfully bright, but curiosity drove me down the road, away from the gate which closed behind me.

Despite the arid environment, yellow grass grew just off the road, and on all sides, prairies stretched off into the distance. To my left, a long way off was a herd of animals I didn’t recognize. A team of humanoid figures moved around them, on foot or mounted on different unfamiliar animals, guiding and protecting the herd.

My attention was so focused on the distant herdsmen that I didn’t hear the creature behind me until it pounced. I was pushed to the ground from behind and held down by sharp, clawed feet. A mouth tore at the back of my shirt as the claws tore my back. I screamed for help as I tried to push myself up, but the creature was too heavy.

Panic began to creep around the edges of my mind, but dove in when the shirt was torn off my back. I could feel my attacker lift its head, readying to bite down on mine, its clawed feet pressing into my back that much harder.

With a crack, the creature fell onto me, its head lying next to mine, unmoving. A hole was clear in the shell between its segmented eyes, and bits of my shirt were still caught in its mandibles. I screamed again as I pushed myself away, and moved free of the dead predator.

I was sitting on the road, pushing myself away from the dead animal, when two forms appeared beside me. And by ‘appeared’, I mean one minute I was alone, the next two people were standing beside me.

It was impossible to discern their gender, but one was shorter than the other. Both were covered with scales, the taller one green, the shorter a pale red. Both were dressed in simple work clothes, but the shorter of the two held a sling in one hand and a rock in the other.

“Are you ok?” The taller figure asked. “Are you hurt?”

I stared at one, then the other, then back at the first. “I don’t know.”

Two more of the scaled humanoids came over, and the four of them loaded me onto an animal and carried me away from the gate. The taller figure climbed up behind me and began to bandage my back. The local covered the many shallow scratches with a green ointment before adhesive pads were applied. By the time we reached the town, my back was taken care of and the pain gave way to curiosity.

“Where am I?” I asked. “I mean, thanks for helping me with whatever that thing was, but where am I? I don’t even know what district this is.”

The humanoid behind me laughed. “This is the Repook District. I am Hasssa. Who might you be?”

(Yes, Hasssa spells her name with three ‘s’.)

“I’m Jack Winslow. Nice to meet you.” I offered her my hand. She laughed, then placed her forehead against the back of my head. “What was that thing that attacked me?”

“That was a thundis.” Hasssa said. “They’re the natural predator of the chissa. We keep them around to maintain the health of herds. I’m sorry you were attacked.”

I shrugged and the pain in my back returned. “It’s not your fault.” I paused. “It wasn’t, was it?”

Hasssa laughed, the through-their-teeth hissing that all Repooks make. “No, it wasn’t. Let’s get you to a doctor.”

We dismounted the animals and they were led to a stable while I was led to a small, one-story building. It was a brick-and-clay construction that resembled the adobe from earth, and while it was hot outside, inside the building was nice and cool. Hasssa followed me and caught the remains of my shirt as it fell off.

As soon as we stepped inside, another Repook, this one shorter, approached, and though I’d just met the Repooks, I could tell he was older. “Is this the human Josaso called about?” He asked.

Hasssa nodded, almost bowed. “Yes, elder.”

The ‘elder’ waved a hand toward a chair. “Have a seat.” He said, and I did, without thinking. “They said your name was ‘Jack’? And you were attacked by a thundis?”

I nodded. “That’s right. Both of them, I guess.” I paused for a second. “Elder. Should I say that? I don’t want to be disrespectful.”

The elder laughed. “I appreciate it, but you can call me Chofis. ‘Elder’ is what the young ones call us when we’re not familiar.” He turned to Hasssa. “You can have a seat, girl.”

Hasssa took a seat near the door and melted into it. Chofis examined my back with gentle but experienced hands. He looked under Hasssa’s bandaged and examined the wounds, then redressed them, wrapping a bandage around my chest and abdomen. By the time he was done, my torso looked like a mummy and I still didn’t have a shirt.

Chofis stepped back and smiled at me. “All done, boy. You can stand.”

I stood and was surprised by the lack of pain in my back. “Wow, thanks. I feel good as new.”

“Oh, that will wear off.” Chofis said with a laugh. “The pain will return tomorrow, but you will need to keep it clean, so wash. Someone in the Human District can help after.”

“I live in the Commons.”

“Even better.” Chofis said. “Girl, take the human to get new clothes. And maybe something to protect himself with.”

Hasssa stood and bowed again. “Yes, elder.” She smiled at me. “Come on, Jack.” Hasssa turned and left the building, and after thanking Chofis again, I followed. Outside, she led the way through town, down dusty roads and between adobe buildings of every color, until we reached a shopping center. “Let’s take you shopping.”

“After you.” I said.

Repook shopping is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Half auction, half gangland exchange, everyone leaves a Repook purchase outwardly grumbling about being ripped off but inwardly proud of having negotiated a good deal. Hasssa showed me the ropes by buying me a shirt, and I continued my education by buying a satchel and a pair of sunglasses. My graduation ceremony was the purchase of a small device that was guaranteed to keep thundis away.

The bag broke years ago, but I still have the thundis-repeller. That shirt was the most comfortable shirt I’ve ever worn.

As we left the shopping center, Hasssa laughed at me. “You know the repellent vendor would have taken ten cal less.”

I shrugged, loving my new shirt. “Yeah, but I would have paid twenty more.”

Hasssa laughed. “You’ve learned. You can shop like a repook now. Well done.”

“So this is the Repook District?” I asked. “A small town surrounded by, what, ranches?”

“Yes, pretty much.” Hasssa said. “There are some factories on the other side of town, and schools and stuff.” She shrugged. “I don’t know, it’s home.” She paused. “Are other districts so different?”

I smiled. “That’s the beauty of it, Hasssa, they’re very different, but they’re all the same.”

“You idiot,” Jenny said. “that girl has a crush on you.”

I’d been back at work for an hour before Jenny found me, and she wouldn’t leave me to work. I told her why I was moving so slowly (Chofis had been right, the next morning was excruciating), and she’d demanded the entire story. Once I’d told her about Hasssa taking me shopping, she rolled her eyes.

“Hasssa is fifteen, sixteen seasons, tops,” I said. “and a different species. I’m pretty sure there’s a ‘biological imperative’ at work.”

Jenny laughed. “Not as often as you’d think.” She gave me an annoying look then walked away.

I didn’t get back to the estud or the repook districts for a couple of cycles, but when I did, it wasn’t a social visit.

After I visited the Repook District I took a tenday to rest and let my back heal, but once I could put on a shirt without wincing, I was back on the tram. I selected a district in Sector Fifteen and pressed the button without reading the name, but the ride was so long, by the time the tram stopped, my car was empty. I stepped onto the platform and the tram sped off, leaving me alone, surrounded by empty, discarded packing containers and abandoned loading equipment.

I made my way through the debris and approached the district gate. A sign over the door discouraged entry and provided a contact within the district to schedule an appointment, but it didn’t say the district was locked, so I walked right in.

I’ve never claimed to be smart.

If the Estud District was dark, this one was darker. It wasn’t large, and the gate opened into a hallway, wide enough for five humans to walk side-by-side, but barely tall enough for them to stand. I entered, and the gate closed behind me, leaving me in pitch darkness.

I heard them coming before I saw them. In the distance, two little lights blinked into existence, but soon after two more joined. Then two more. Then dozens. But the time I realized that the lights were eyes, they were approaching. I stood my ground, not out of some previously unknown bravery, but because I wanted to know who the eyes belonged to.

As they approached, lights turned on in the walls and ceiling of the hall, and soon I could see the locals. They were about two feet tall, thin, with pale skin, no hair, and four arms. Despite their size, they were still intimidating, and as they reached me, they moved to surround me, and I had nowhere to go.

One of them stepped into the circle the others made and looked up at me. “Who are you?” He asked. “What do you want?”

“Uh,” I said. “I’m Jack Winslow. I was just looking around.”

“Did you see the sign outside? You’re supposed to make an appointment if you want to buy something.”

I glanced at the gate behind me, then turned back. “Is that what that meant?” I asked. “Sorry, I didn’t know I had to buy something. I don’t even know where I am.” I held out my hands and indicated the hall around us. “What district is this?”

“What?” The one in front asked, and the crowd around us laughed. “You don’t know the eelonam? We’re the greatest manufacturers of technology since whoever built the ship, and you don’t know who we are?”

“Nope,” I said with a shrug. “never heard of you.” Around me, the eelonam laughed again. “Honestly, I just pick a random district, go inside, and find out who lived there. If it’s not locked.” I paused. “When I say it out loud, it sounds like such a bad idea.”

The lead eelonam chuckled. “Really?”

“Yeah,” I said. “most of the districts I’ve visited are small towns surrounded by farms or ranches. I didn’t know they could look like,” I glanced around myself. “A factory, I guess.”

The lead eelonam looked at me for a minute, with those glowing eyes that still make me uneasy, then shrugged. “Alright, then we’ll give you the tour. But it’s going to cost you.” I tried to ask what it would cost, but he waved a three-fingered hand. “Don’t worry, we’ll work that out later.”

Since I didn’t figure they would charge me an arm and a leg, because they had plenty (the eelonam love that joke), I took the tour. The lead eelonam, who introduced himself as PowerFist074, showed me around the District. I saw where they engineer, prototype, and manufacture the technologies they sell, their living areas, and even their recreational areas (which, mostly, consisted of video games and movies). I saw the entire Eelonam District and learned about their culture in the process.

Yes, I’m bragging, but that’s because not even the Counsel has been inside the Eelonam District.

In the end, PowerFist074 (all eelonam have names like that), took me back to the district gate. “Ok, you’ve had your tour, probably learned more about us than anyone else in the ship. Did you get what you wanted?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I guess,” I said. “But I get the feeling I won’t be invited back again.”

“You feel right,” PowerFist074 said. “now, here’s the price. You’ve seen the entire district, you know how it’s laid out, and what we do pretty much everywhere. Did you see any farms?”

It hit me as he said it. “No, I didn’t. What, that’s the price? You want me to be your farmer?”

PowerFist07e laughed. “Are you nuts? You can’t grow enough food for us by yourself. But I bet some other districts can. You’re going to set up the meeting.”

“So you give me a tour, and in return, I get some districts to drop off lunch tomorrow?” I asked.

“No,” PowerFist074 said. “We need a steady supply of food. For the foreseeable future.”

I thought for a second. “You sell a lot of technology, and a lot of that technology gathers a lot of information about the people who use it. Seems to me you could find someone yourself.” I said. PowerFist074 glowered at me but didn’t speak. “Unless you wanted to keep it a secret that you collect information on everyone who uses your stuff.”

“Ok, what do you want to keep quiet about it?” PowerFist076 asked. “Name your price.”

It was my turn to laugh, and I did. “I’m not going to keep quiet about it. I’m going to tell people. They can decide what to do with the information. But I will see if I can get a district to sell you food. That was your price for the tour.” PowerFist074 tried to talk, but I cut him off. “I’ll be in touch. Thanks for the tour.”

Then I left.

I don’t use eelonam devices.

Once again, after visiting another new district, I was back at work the next day, trying to figure out what I’d learned. The problem was the deal I’d made with the eelonam. Even if I felt like I’d been pressed into it, I still said I’d get them a steady supply of food, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a way to change my mind and still look at myself in the mirror.

I was cooking lunch orders when Jenny found me. I figured she would be too busy to talk to (or bother) me, but I was wrong. “So, you owe the eelonam. Welcome to the club.”

“Yes, I owe the eelonam,” I said. “but they did give me a tour of their district. That was fun.”

“They gave you a tour?” Jenny asked. She looked impressed. I nodded. “And what did they charge you for that? Detailed reports on everything you ever learn about other districts?”

“No, they want food,” I said. “they want someone to sell them food, and I have to find them.”

Jenny gave a bitter laugh. “Well, good luck with that. Almost every district owes the eelonam. No one will take a deal if they already owe the eelonam. You’ll have to find someone they don’t have any info on.”

I nodded, flipped a patty, then two things occurred to me. I looked at Jenny and asked about the second. “Wait, how do you know the eelonam collect information? They don’t want anyone to know about that.”

“That doesn’t mean no one knows it,” Jenny said. “just most people.” Then she did that thing she always does that infuriates me.

She walked away.

I like to think of it as a credit to my character that it occurred to me second to ask how Jenny knew that the eelonam collect information, but it probably just means I’m not that smart. Fortunately for everyone, the first thing that occurred to me was that the only districts the eelonam wouldn’t have collected information on would be districts that didn’t use a lot of technology.

The Human District was out (for a lot of reasons), but that left more districts than I knew. Unlike the eelonam, I didn’t have enough information to solve the problem. I didn’t have the money or the clout to convince restaurants in the Commons to help, and unless I wanted to lock the Eelonam District (an idea that’s occurred to me) I couldn’t get the Hold to take care of them.

While I didn’t have the information the eelonam had, I did have something they didn’t: the willingness to do something about the problem. Technology starts where a species’ physical ability to solve a problem ends. It’s a mechanical adaptation instead of a biological one. The eelonam couldn’t make a machine that would make them food without first putting food into it. If they did, they wouldn’t have needed to blackmail me into finding it for them.

It took me two days, but on my next day off, I solved the problem. My first stop was the Estud District. Alteer and Cartee met me with hugs. “You’re early, Jack,” Alteer said. “the harvest isn’t for a few tendays. To what do we owe the pleasure?”

I smiled. “Have you ever heard of the eelonam?”

“We have,” Cartee said with a scowl. “they don’t have the best reputation.”

“Well, they need help,” I said, and my smile grew. “they need to buy food for their entire district.”

Alteer and Cartee smiled.

A few hours later I was in the Repook District, on my way to the ranch where Hasssa worked. The ranch boss said she was in a field, so I switched on my thundis-repellent and headed off. It took an hour, but I found her with a herd of chissa.

Hasssa straightened her shirt and stood up as I approached. (I learned later that Repooks did that when an elder, or someone they were attracted to, approached.) “Hi, Jack.” She said with a little too much enthusiasm. “You’re back!”

I didn’t straighten my shirt, but I had worn the one I’d bought during my last visit. “Hi, Hasssa, I need some help. Do you know about the eelonam?”

“I’ve heard a few elders mention them.” She said. “I don’t think the elders like them very much.”

“No one does, but they need some help.” I smiled at her. “They need to buy food, enough to feed their entire district. Do you think your elders would want a new customer?”

Hasssa thought for a minute, then smiled at me. “I think they would. Let’s go talk to my boss.”

That afternoon I stood outside the Eelonam District with Alteer and Cartee, Hasssa and her boss, and crates of grain, fruit, and meat, all ready to be cooked. I approached the gate and called PowerFist074 (Ok, from now on, I’m calling him PF).

“What?” PF asked over the line. I just smiled. “Oh, it’s you. I’ll be right there.”

I gave the assembled suppliers a thumbs up (that means things are good back on earth) and waited. It was only a few minutes before the gate opened and PF, along with a dozen or so eelonam, stepped through.

The eelonam moved toward the crates, but when they saw the estud and the repook, they stopped. PF turned to me. “What’s this?”

“Well,” I said as I moved around the eelonam to rejoin my friends. “This is Alteer and Cartee from the Estud District. They grow grain and fruits. Othis is from the Repook District. He owns a ranch where they raise chissa. Hasssa works for him.” The eelonam looked confused. “They raise the chissa and sell them for meat, milk, and leather.”

PF rolled his glowing eyes. “Yes, we know that. Why did you bring them? We need food, not this stuff! What are we supposed to do with grains, fruit, and meat?”

“You’re supposed to cook them?”

“And you were supposed to supply us with food!” PF said, thrusting out a tiny finger at me (it was cute). “You think this satisfies our deal? This doesn’t end anything!”

I looked at the ranchers and farmers that had followed me and urged patience before turning back to the eelonam. “Well, I think it does. Anyone district that’s able to cook meals for you is probably unwilling, and anyone willing is unable. And you didn’t ask for meals, you asked for, and I quote, ‘a steady supply of food’. Here it is.”

PF glared at me but didn’t argue. “Alright, fine. Bring the food inside.”

The eelonam surged forward, but I held up a hand. “Hold on, we haven’t negotiated a price.”

This time, PF exploded. “What do you mean, price? We’re not paying for food! We’re the eelonam! We make the technology you use every day! You should be thanking us for letting you give us food!”

It was Alteer who laughed first, but I joined him. “They don’t use a lot of technology in the Estud District, and none of it is eelonam tech. Same thing with the repook. They do most things by hand, and what they do need electronics for is so simple you don’t make it anymore.”

An eelonam leaned in and whispered to PF, whose eyes shot wide. “Wait, what?” He asked, and the other eelonam whispered again. When they were done, PF turned to me, and the look he gave me was pure hatred. “You think ripping us off holds up your end of the bargain?”

I shrugged. “No, but I think finding you food does. You’re just mad because you have to deal with people fairly. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. Who knows? You might even like it.”

“And who’s going to cook it?” PF asked.

“You are,” I said. “I already said that.”

PF indicated the eelonam around him and, by extension, all eelonam on the ship. “None of us know how to cook!”

I smiled. “Then I’ll teach you. I can show a few of you some basic recipes, then you can try stuff from there. Trust me, if you like putting together electronics, you’ll love cooking.”

“Yeah?” PF asked. “And how much will that cost us?”

“A lot less than buying meals from people who don’t like you.” I said and held out my hand. “So, can we make a deal?”

PF thought for a second, looking at me, the crates of food, and the eelonam behind him. At last, he approached and held out his hand. I knelt to shake it. “Yeah, we can make a deal.”

Alteer and Cartee opened trade relations between the estud and the eelonam, and within a cycle, other farms were selling to the Eelonam District as well. The same happened in the Repook District, and Othis’ ranch was just the first to sell chissa meat to the eelonam. As a result, Hasssa got a promotion, making her the youngest head of sales for a ranch in the Repook District.

I took a few tendays off from Jenny’s place to teach the Eelonam how to cook. It was hard at first, but after a few days, and a chocolate cake, they opened up to the idea. PF refused to learn, but the three volunteers I started with increased in number, and by the end of the cycle I had twenty students.

Yes, the eelonam still collect information on anyone who uses their devices, but they’re more open about it, and they deal with people more fairly now. They even opened a theme restaurant in the Commons. The ‘theme’ (or joke) is that, if you use an eelonam device and go into the restaurant, they use the data to figure out where to seat you and what to serve. It’s accurate. I tried, but they won’t let me in.

As for me, I made more teaching the eelonam how to cook than I did in two cycles working at Jenny’s. Then, as a sign of appreciation, Alteer paid me a ‘seeker’s fee’ for finding a new customer for his crops (they don’t call anything a ‘finder’ except the Finders themselves). Othis and a few of the other repook ranchers did the same. They even sent Hasssa to deliver the message to me personally.

She’s a nice girl, but not my type. I told her that. She’s married now, has kids, and owns a ranch. Whenever I see her, I call her ‘elder’. She hates it when I do that.

Once I was done in the Eelonam District, I went back to work, but Jenny met me in the kitchen. She was dressed as a niq. That was how she ‘dressed’ when she had to do something she didn’t like.

“Jack, we need to talk.” She said, but the tone of her voice made me not want to talk. “Look, I know you put in for vacation while you were helping the eelonam, but I need you here. Do you still work here, or are you taking odd jobs around the sectors?”

I hadn’t thought about it, but she forced me to. “I don’t know. I like working here, but I just made more helping the eelonam than I do in two cycles working here. And then there’s the money from the estud and repook districts.” I gave her a sheepish grin. “Honestly, I don’t need to work for another season.”

“Really?” Jenny asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “so, I guess I quit. Sorry.”

Jenny smiled (as much as a niq is capable of smiling), then indicated that she needed me to look away. I did, and when I turned back, she was ‘dressed’ in her human ‘outfit’ again. “So what are you going to do with the money? Just live off of it until it runs out?”

“No,” I said. “first I’m going to move out. I thought you’d want your storage room back. Then I might find somewhere to invest some of the rest. The repook gave me a huge seekers fee. I think they made a really good deal.”

Once again, Jenny smiled, this time with her human face. “If you’re looking to invest, I have a perfect opportunity for you. Business has been really good lately, and I want to expand. There’s a building near the Commons center that I’d love to open a cafe in. If you invest, we can have it open in a cycle or two.”

I stared at her. “Didn’t I already say I’d invest in your new restaurant?” I asked.

 “You were looking for a place.”

“Yeah, but the center of the Commons would be a better location.” She said. “What do you say?”

I rolled my eyes and accepted. The cafe’s still open in the lobby of an apartment building in the Commons center. That’s the thing about Jenny, you can never tell if she’s planning it, or just rolling with things as they happen.

Because people have asked, that’s how I make my money. I help districts find new business opportunities, or solve problems, or learn about their neighbors, or I just help new arrivals figure out the ship they’ve suddenly been thrown into. I also have some investments here and there (you don’t need to know any more of them), but those just cover my living expenses.

That’s the thing about the ship, though. Because we all have to deal with each other, in a civilization composed of hundreds of alien species, there are no split rules. We just figure it out as we go and make the best of things. Some people stay in their districts and live perfectly normal lives. Others leave their districts, to one degree or another, and interact with the rest of the ship.

Me, I’ve explored and learned things I never thought possible. Yeah, it’s dangerous, but it’s worked out for me so far.

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