From the tuktuk, Draughton got a better, if only marginally safer, look at the city. The spaceport was on the outskirts, but the musty clay streets and the scrap tin siding seemed to be the standard. Carts and vendors littered the street with colorful fruit and hanging game. Draughton vaguely recognized some of the animals, but this far outside the core worlds, they looked changed by the unbridled environment of Daegon. Wrinkled brown men sat smoking on lawn chairs out front of print shops and post offices and glared at the ginger bearded whiteness of Draughton. He couldn’t blame them.
They passed by the downtown area where large mances and palaces peaked out from behind behind a barricade wall. At the portcullis to enter, a guard asked to see our passports. Alfs seemed to represent a healthy part of the populace, so Benny was largely ignored. The guard however seemed very interested in seeing Draughton’s passport. He eyed over the fake documents without really reading them. Most of the guard’s time was spent eyeing up this pale human who wondered his way to the edge of imperial space. Draughton fought the urge to push the guard’s buttons in return, but decided to err on professionalism. Eventually, they passed through without issue.
Inside the wall the city truly changed. You could smell the imperial influence in the air. Fashion, architecture, he even heard Commen being spoken in the streets. Draughton watched the children running through the streets. They were cleaner than the ones outside the wall and more nourished. Out of remorse or guilt, the words slipped from his mouth. “Kid nicked my watch on the way off the shuttle,” Draughton said.
Benny was quietly opening up a small zippered package. He opened up a vial of crystals and tipped them into a syringe. He chuckled, “This one thought that one was a professional.”
The alf’s words cut, but Draughton couldn’t help but agree with him. His only explanation was that the kid was some sort of thieving prodigy. The lag from the space flight had been uncomfortable, but was it enough to wear his defenses in such a way? It bothered Draughton how bothered he was, but his wrist was bare and his father’s watch was missing. A piece of him had been taken.
A moment passed while Benny lightly took a lighter to the exterior of the syringe and melted the crystals. He shook the vile and pulled up his sleeve to reveal a dotted arm. Draughton knew what the alf was doing. He was mixing gleen, a highly addictive barbiturate that came from Cathay. It was wrecking families and cities all over the empire, but out here in the wilds, it carried more weight than the imperial credit. He also had a sneaking suspicion that the little rainbow crystals were at the center of why he was out here.
Benny sent the needle home and a calm rushed over his body. He sank back into his chair with a sigh. The alf demonstrated his experience as he began to reassemble his kit and replace it back his into his pack. “Speaking of professional,” Draughton said.
The alf smirked, much more subdued, but still present. “Get much less professional if this one don’t have this one shit.”
Draughton leaned forward and encroached on the tranquilized alf. “Why am I here?”
Benny chuckled again, but Draughton detected something else in the brew. “Why anyone here brudda?”
“Don’t fuck with me,” said Draughton without moving a muscle.
“No,” said Benny. “This one does not fuck with you. These ones go, do some shit, get paid by people with too much money and want more. Dirtier the work, the more the pay. What this one here’s about that one, not to different, eh?”
Draughton held his gaze a moment, but then relented. “You’re not wrong,” he said. They shared a moment of quiet with sputtering of the tuktuk and the occasional cries of street goers.
“These ones go to court tomorrow,” said Benny finally.
“We’re getting arrested?”
Now Benny laughed in earnest. “No, no. That one funny. These ones go to royal court. These ones present to king and friends. These ones tell king these ones will kill dragon.”
Draughton stared blankly at the strung out alf. “I think we’re having some sort of language barrier issue here or some sort of cultural moment. When you say dragon, I’m assuming you’re making some sort of metaphor for overcoming our own personal conflicts and struggles and emerging better people for it.”
“This one does not understand,” said Benny. “These ones go kill dragon.”
“Right,” said Draughton. He declined to continue questioning and resumed the rest of the ride in silence.
The tuktuk arrived at the hotel shortly after. The quaint brick building covered in light vines with thick petaled pink flowers looked older compared to the new construction and paint that existed throughout this imperial quarter of the city. The spires of the palace could be seen looming over the place, as it dominated the horizon throughout this part of the city.
A grumpy dark haired dwelen in suspenders came out cursing in the Daegonese, Benny answered him in turn. After a brief, yet heated debate, the dwelen whistled with two fingers and a younger dwelen emerged from the hotel quickly. The first barked orders at the second and quickly disappeared inside. The younger one gestured for the travelers to follow. Benny obliged and so did Draughton.
“What was that about?” Draughton asked.
“Old friend,” Benny said.
Draughton gave a dubious, “Huh.”
Benny continued. “Boy takes these ones to room.”
This much was true at least. The room was simple, but comfortable. Two beds, a desk, a curtained window looking down on the street, an overworked and sputtering air condition unit, flesh colored stucco walls. The furniture was made of the dark flimsy local wood, but real wood was rarely seen in the core worlds. Even the linens were made from proper cotton. Even if it was less comfortable that the fake polyesters Draughton had been raised on, the entire experience was somewhat of a treat.
Going through the nightstand, Draughton happened upon an Americanist Bible. Being honest with himself, Draughton found it an odd sight to be honest. The NHE saw themselves as paragons of progress. The virtues of science and logic were valued over all. Among the things he had seen that day, this somewhat exemplified the differences in culture out here. Draughton was always fond of the stories that Lola used to read him. They were a source of comfort and in more times than one, he found himself mumbling the prayers. As he grew though, and found out what Americanists did and stood for, he shied away, and never brought it up in polite company.
“Is different out here,” Benny said over his shoulder. Draught quickly closed the drawer, but when he turned around, the alf wasn’t paying attention to him. Again, he was in his kit making another round of his medicine. “That one must be careful.”
“I plan on it,” Draughton said.
“No more losing watches to children,” Benny said with a furrow-browned glare.
A pulse bubbled up in Draughton to argue, but he pacified it.
“Sleep,” Benny said. “Big day tomorrow.”
“Right,” Draughton said.
Benny did another round of gleen, packed up his kit and immediately went to sleep. Draughton feigned sleep for a moment before going back into the drawer and pulling out the bible. He flipped through some of the familiar sections. On one page was the Daegonese and on the other was Commen. He saw the similarities in the language, but the comparison was stark, despite using the same alphabet.
He went to some of the familiar stories and found one in particular. The story of Johna in the belly of the whale. He was there for weeks before, praying to The Good to free him. Eventually the whale released him and Jonah began his mission as a preacher.
Draughton shut the book and hid it back in the drawer. Benny slept perfectly still. Reclining on the bed, Draughton watched the blades of the ceiling fan wobbling in the dingy room. As the night went on, the sounds of the street never stopped. Each rotation of the fan brought him back to different periods of his life that led him here. And eventually, the hypnotic swaying lulled him into a blank, formless sleep.