Against the Tide
Oh Spider,The Doctor's
Against the Tide
Against the Tide
Oh Spider, The Doctor's
Sweet Spider Boy
Against the Tide
by Kristin Cragg
Against the Tide
by Kristin Cragg
Mo'qin exited the shuttle and looked around at her home for the next year. As a Qualix, she was a head taller than the Zublarks, who rushed around her, anxious to be home. Their bright skin, in various shades of blue, was always slightly damp and stood in stark contrast to her dry, pale, pink skin. She stopped and sniffed the air. It was heavier and more humid than her home planet of Qualixes and smelled faintly of fish.
Someone bumped into her. She turned around and saw a Zublark man glaring at her. His uni-brow frowned. One set of his hands rested on his hips while the other, lower set was holding his luggage. “Some of us have places to be.”
Mo'qin grimaced. Not a great way to make a first impression on this planet. “I'm sorry, Sir,” she said, using her universal translator. “I'll move out of your way.” She slid over to the side, out of the flow of traffic. “Have a good day!” she called, waving at him with her seven-fingered hand.
He turned and glared. “Ugh, Qualix. So unnecessarily friendly.” He shuffled off until he was lost in the crowd.
Mo'qin shrugged and made her way to the entry platform below. The other passengers were lining up at the visa checkpoint, but Mo'qin wandered over to the edge of the platform, which stood overlooking a wide green sea below. She opened her mouth and inhaled deeply, then coughed. The air was so salty.
Mo'qin looked down to find a tiny creature, about half the size of a Zublark. Red eyes looked up at her through a sea-foam colored face. This must be an Asher. She'd read about the Zublarks’ servant class, but she'd never met one. “The line is this way.” The Asher gestured to the now-empty customs line.
Mo'qin's eyes popped open. “Oh! My apologies. Thanks for your help.”
The Asher made a disgusted face and turned, heading back towards the employee area.
Mo'qin shook her head. On her home planet, the hierarchy was based on wealth and property, but on Zublark, your status was determined by your race. She wasn't sure where Qualix fit in–there were only a handful of them on the entire planet, and she was unlikely to run into another one to ask.
After passing through customs, Mo'qin found herself in a small open-sided waiting room. Things were much more airy on Zublark. Qualixes was so hot and dry, they relied on thick-walled buildings and frigid air dispensers to keep the temperature manageable. In fact, Mo'qin could count the number of times she'd been outside on one hand. The time she'd spent outside here had lasted longer than all the other times put together.
“Mx. Mo'qin, I presume?”
She looked down to find a well-dressed Zublark man. She would've once considered him short, but after an entire journey with a spaceship full of Zublarks, she realized this man was rather tall. She smiled widely, displaying her faded yellow teeth. “Yes! How kind of you to meet me.” She bowed. “Please call me Mo'qin.”
The man sneered. “I am Thox. I am your connection to the city of Zurob. I will be bringing you to your new dwelling and helping you acquire anything you might need.”
“Well, it's nice to meet you, Mx. Thox.”
Thox looked like he'd sucked on a sour candy. “Thox is fine. My Asher will take your luggage.”
Before she knew it, an Asher had scooped up her bags. Thox turned and began walking towards the sea with the Asher close behind. Mo'qin frowned and followed the two.
They boarded a boat docked nearby. Mo'qin held her breath as she stepped inside. The boat rocked with her weight, and she lost her balance. She fell on the floor and laughed. Thox rolled his eyes and signaled the Asher to start the boat.
Soon, they'd arrived at a small island with a handful of tiny cottages. The Asher docked the boat and unloaded Mo'qin's belongings. Thox and Mo'qin disembarked, and Thox led the trio to a small building nearby. It was brilliant white with a round purple roof and large open windows.
Thox stood at the door, then announced, “This will be your dwelling for the next year. I've taken the liberty of having my Asher provide some food for you. It took great pains to get you something suitable. We've heard you don't eat fish, so we've imported some vegetables for now. We hope you will become accustomed to our food, otherwise you'll need to wait for the monthly shuttle to bring you more provisions. I'll be here promptly at the ninth hour tomorrow to give you a tour of the city.”
Mo'qin looked around. “It's mid-afternoon. What am I supposed to do until then?”
Thox sighed. “Take a walk. Unpack. Get settled.” He paused, then added, “If you do take a walk, keep to yourself. People around here don't like to interact with each other unless absolutely necessary. If you need anything, press this button here. It'll summon the island Asher, who can help you with whatever you need. It's a shared Asher, so you might need to wait until it has finished its current task. A slight delay is common.” With that, Thox turned and headed back to his boat, his Asher on his heels. Mo'qin watched them walk away, then slowly closed the door.
* * *
The next morning, Thox arrived promptly.
“Let's get started then,” he said dryly, turning back towards the dock.
Mo'qin pursed her lips. No greeting. She plastered on a smile and said, “It's nice to see you, Thox. I trust you slept well?”
He stopped walking, then turned to glare at her. “It is none of your business how I slept.” He turned back and continued to the dock.
“Glad we're getting to know each other,” Mo'qin muttered under her breath.
The two spent the morning being chauffeured around by Thox's Asher. Mo'qin discovered that the city of Zurob was a loose collection of islands governed by one man, whom she met as part of her morning rounds. There was a reporter and a photographer–all very formal, but not very personal. The governor had stood on a stool behind his desk so that he appeared to match Mo'qin's height. He'd greeted her politely when on camera, but quickly became cool once the reporters had left.
Thox led Mo'qin out of the governor's office and back to the waiting boat. As they headed back to her home, Mo'qin asked, “Is the governor always like that?”
Thox frowned. “Usually he's not so warm. You are useful to him. We need a Qualix for public relations.”
Mo'qin tilted her head. “Because of the trade difficulties?”
Thox sighed. “Yes. It seems other species are not as to-the-point and prefer niceties, which only waste time. You are here to teach the younger generation how to properly relate to the worlds outside our own.”
“And how am I to do that?”
“As you know, you've been assigned to teach at our region's secondary school. You'll have a hundred or so students. They are just about to enter adulthood, so the governor is hoping that you'll be able to affect them while they are still impressionable, but also old enough to internalize your lessons.”
“So I'm here to teach manners?”
“If that is what you call awkward forward conversation, then yes. You'll teach manners.”
“Is that all?”
“Of course not. You'll be expected to make appearances at all major functions, and we expect good reports to be sent to your supervisor on Qualixes. You are also free to share your culture, should the need arise, but do not be deceived, Mx. Mo'qin, you are a tool for this region, nothing else.”
He snuffed, then looked out onto the water.
When they returned to her home, Thox did not leave the boat. She looked down at him from the dock as he said, “I have scheduled boating lessons for you this afternoon with your island's Asher. You'll meet him at the dock at the fifteenth hour.”
“Is that really necessary?” Mo'qin asked.
“It is if you'd ever like to leave this island. There are no shops here, so you'll need to reach the big island sooner or later. The island Asher can put you in touch with a ferry service, but taking the ferry on the regular will be cost-prohibitive given your weekly allowance. It's in your best interest to learn how to work a boat.” With that, Thox signaled to his Asher, who turned the boat back into the water.
Mo'qin watched until they disappeared over the horizon, then returned to her cottage to eat lunch alone.
* * *
Slowly, Mo'qin got used to the atmosphere, the heavier gravity, the humidity, and all the things that were so different about this new planet. She still had a difficult time with the antisocial behavior of the Zublarks, though she seemed to be making headway with the older lady next door. After some research, she'd discovered that Zublarks like wild Wikle flowers, so Mo'qin spent an afternoon gathering a bouquet, then presented them to Mx. Mabop, her neighbor. To Mo'qin's delight, Mabop had stopped glaring at her. It was progress.
* * *
Soon, the first day of work came. Thox, whom she hadn't seen in several days, greeted her at her door early in the morning. “Today I will be accompanying you to the school,” he said, “but starting tomorrow, you will be responsible for finding your own way there. You've been practicing.” It was a statement, not a question.
Mo'qin nodded with a smile. “It's still a challenge, but I think I can manage.”
In response, Thox simply turned his back and escorted her down to the docks.
A short time later, they found themselves outside the school on the island Xoxixx. Like the region itself, it was not a single location, but rather a collection of many smaller parts. The main office of the school was large–a more impressive version of Mo'qin's tiny home. There were white walls, large openings for windows, and a green roof. Mo'qin had since learned that the color of the roof determined the function of the building. She remembered green from growth–wherever education facilities were located. Thox directed Mo'qin into the large building, where she located her desk among the sea of desks in front of her.
Thox gestured for her to take her seat. He pointed at the clock on the wall. “The students arrive in about an hour. They will have a half hour homeroom class, then they will begin their teacher rotations. You are responsible for teaching six classes–two per grade level. The schedule rotates, so you will generally teach three classes a day for an extended time period, alternating days.”
Mo'qin nodded. She wanted to ask what she was expected to teach besides manners, but when she'd asked in the past, the only response she'd received was a growl. Despite her desire to make a good impression and to plan ahead, it looked like she was going to need to improvise. It was going to be an interesting year.
Thox continued, “I will be here to guide you through your first day. Beginning tomorrow, you will be on your own. Of course, there are two Ashers that belong to the office, so if you need something, check with them before disturbing another instructor.”
Thox disappeared, and Mo'qin leaned back in her seat. She had visited the school a few times prior to get the feel for the layout of the buildings and to meet her co-workers, but today was the first day the kids would be in attendance.
Mo'qin pulled out the book she'd picked up on the history of Zublark and tried to read, but it was difficult to concentrate. Her eyes kept darting to the clock, where she counted down the minutes.
Soon, the kids began filing in. She couldn't see them from her desk, but she could hear them. Kids were kids no matter what planet you were on. True, these kids were more subdued than the ones she remembered, but there were still shuffling feet, swung bags, and conversation. There was, she noted, a lack of laughter, which usually punctuated first days back at school on Qualixes. Mo'qin closed her eyes and listened to the students, imagining what it was going to be like to stand in front of them.
It wasn't long before Thox came to fetch her. She followed him down the hallway to her first class. There were conversations going on in the class, but they were muted whispers, unlike the chaos of the Qualix teenagers. She took a deep breath as she passed under the rounded archway marking the entry to the classroom. The moment Thox's foot passed the threshold, the class went deathly silent. Mo'qin followed Thox to the front of the room, where she stood uncomfortably as he introduced her.
“This is Mx. Mo'qin. She is from the planet Qualixes. I know you have heard many rumors about her and her planet, and–while most of them are true–not all are.”
Mo'qin tilted her head. What rumors?
“Mx. Mo'qin will be teaching this class for the next year. She is your connection to the galaxy outside Zublark. I expect you to take full advantage of this resource.” Thox stared down the students, then took a seat to observe.
The eyes of every student followed Thox to the back of the room, then snapped forward to look at Mo'qin. She wrung her hands. They were clammy–something she had never experienced before moving to Zublark.
Mo'qin let out a slow breath. “Good morning, class,” she said. She paused, waiting for a response, but there was nothing but silence. Mo'qin wondered if she had been speaking too quietly and raised her voice, “I said, 'Good morning, class.'” She waited expectantly.
There was uncomfortable shifting in the seats. Some students frowned. Others broke their gaze and began to look out the closest window. One student coughed.
Mo'qin could feel her heart pounding in her chest. She knew that this was going to be difficult, but they didn't even know the basics. She decided to scrap her introduction.
“My name is Mx. Mo'qin. You may call me Mo'qin if you prefer.” A few students relaxed, and she second-guessed herself. Maybe they should be using formalities. Oh well, too late now. She continued, “As Thox mentioned, I am from Qualixes. There are many, many differences between our planets, but let's start with an easy one. On Qualixes, when someone greets you, you reply. Let's give it a try. Good morning, class.”
About half of the kids in the class grunted in response.
With her smile frozen in place, Mo'qin tilted her head and clarified. “Oh, dear, I'm afraid I didn't explain well. When someone says, 'Good morning,' the proper response is 'Good morning.' Let's try again. Good morning, class.”
“Good morning,” a few brave students mumbled.
Mo'qin smiled widely. “Excellent! Now, all together. Good morning, class.”
“Good morning,” came the stilted reply.
“Well done, everyone. Let's work on greetings today.” Mo'qin proceeded to work through basic greetings: “Hello,” “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” “Good evening,” and “Good night.” She briefly considered trying “How are you?” but that seemed too advanced for the class, so she decided to hold back on that lesson. The rest of her classes progressed the same way. By the end of the day, Mo'qin had a better idea of what to expect.
When the final bell rung, the students picked up their belongings and made their way out. Thox stood, clearly waiting for the students to leave. The class was nearly empty when one student shuffled up to Mo'qin. Caught by surprise, Mo'qin put on a nervous smile, her thoughts fluctuating between excitement and anxiety. The girl, who was shorter than most of the other students, was a brilliant blue. She darted a glance back to Thox, who was still in the corner, and then looked back at her teacher. “Hello. I'm Roj. Thank you, Mx. Mo'qin,” she whispered, then rushed out. Thox narrowed his eyes, but Mo'qin hardly noticed.
She felt like she was floating. All that difficulty, and one student wiped it all away. Thox guided Mo'qin back to the teacher room, but she was oblivious to everything around her. Someone had been kind to her–the very first Zublark who had shown any ability or inclination towards friendliness.
That afternoon, Mo'qin headed home, excited for the next day.
* * *
Mo'qin leaped out of bed the moment the sun rose. She'd been laying in bed staring at the ceiling, too excited to go back to sleep. She rushed through her morning routine and drove her boat to Xoxixx. After tying her boat to the dock, Mo'qin made her way to the school and found her desk, then waited for classes to begin.
The first few classes passed as well as Mo'qin could've hoped. Without Thox there, she felt much more comfortable. There were still too many eyes watching and minds judging, but at least they weren't her superiors. Mo'qin had planned on focusing on teaching the next step of greeting: asking how someone was doing. She didn't realize that she was going to need to spend 80% of the class time reviewing and practicing what they'd discussed the prior day. It was no wonder Thox hadn't expected much more out of her than the basics. It was going to be a long year. However, that realization didn't deter Mo'qin's excitement. She mentally ticked off the classes in her head, looking forward to the final class with Roj.
Finally the last class of the day began. Mo'qin addressed the class, “Good afternoon, class,” and waited for the response. All the other classes had simply stared at her, and she had to coach them through the concept all over again. This time, Mo'qin was hopeful. She looked at the friendly student immediately after greeting the class. The student, Roj, immediately responded with a cheerful, “Good morning, Mo'qin.” The other students turned to look at her, and she slunk down in her chair as her face turned a shade of purple.
Mo'qin coughed gently to get the students' attention. “Once more, please. Good morning, class,” she prompted. The class watched her greet them, then turned to look back at Roj, who had pursed her lips closed.
Mo'qin struggled to regain control of the class. It was one thing to try to get a disinterested class to engage; it was quite another to get a hostile class to let up on the object of their mockery. Mo'qin's heart raced as she tried to think of a way to rescue Roj and regain control.
“I've never eaten fish before.”
The class turned away from Roj and stared at their teacher.
She hesitated. “I, uh, had never seen an ocean before two weeks ago.”
The kids leaned forward.
“And that was the first day I'd ever been on a boat as well.”
At this point, she had their rapt attention. She thought quickly and widened her eyes. “Oh, and I also ... oh dear, I shouldn't be telling you about myself until we've finished the lesson. Another time, then.” She smiled. “Now, where were we?”
“Good morning, class,” a student in the front said absentmindedly.
Mo'qin tried not to smile. “That's right.” She cleared her throat. “Good morning, class.”
“Good morning, Mo'qin,” replied every student.
* * *
After unlocking the secret to connecting with the students, Mo'qin made much faster progress with her lessons on manners. The students were more than happy to respond to her niceties as long as she rewarded them with tales of her home planet. A week into class, Mo'qin decided to have the students pair up to practice greetings. They were hesitant, but with a bit of bribery, they were willing to give it a try–so long as Mo'qin answered some of their questions, as promised.
The longer Mo'qin taught, the more comfortable the students became around her. To her delight, they often asked questions between classes. Her final class was still her favorite–partially because it was the class Roj was in, and partially because there was nowhere to be immediately following class, so she could chat with the students as long as she liked.
Now that the students had warmed up to her, knowledge about Mo'qin and her planet became a commodity. Students would stay late to chat in order to find out more information, which would increase their popularity. Mo'qin knew they were using her, but she didn't mind. As long as they were learning, she was happy to be a pawn in their game.
* * *
One afternoon, Mo'qin found Roj hiding behind the other kids who had stayed late. Roj often left the moment the bell rang, much to Mo'qin's disappointment. After answering a question from one of the boys about what kind of weapons her people used, Mo'qin called Roj over.
“Hi, Roj, do you have a question?”
The other teenagers looked over at Roj, then sneered. Turning back to Mo'qin, they smiled, then said, “See you tomorrow, Mo'qin,” and promptly left the room, leaving Mo'qin alone with Roj.
“Hi, Roj. It's good to see you. What can I help you with?”
Roj rubbed her shoulder uncomfortably. “I was, um, watching a film from your planet, and I had a question about something.” Even with the translator, Mo'qin had a hard time hearing Roj's low voice.
Mo'qin grinned. “Wonderful! What movie?”
“Oh, I love that movie! What were you wondering about?”
“The scene with the life joining.”
“You mean the wedding?”
Roj nodded. “Yes. It looked like the couple actually loved each other ...?” Her voice trailed off into a question.
Mo'qin smiled gently. “Yes, people often do on my planet. There are some who marry for money or family, but often, mates are chosen based on romantic attraction.”
Roj frowned. “I cannot imagine that sort of freedom. Here, every union is based on whatever is mutually advantageous, never what--”
She was interrupted by a deep voice at the door. “Roj,” the voice repeated. Mo'qin looked up to see Thox standing at the doorway with his arms crossed.
Roj hung her head. “Coming, father,” she replied.
Thox glared at Mo'qin, then turned and walked down the hall with Roj.
* * *
The cold season rolled around, and Mo'qin assigned her students a two-minute speech on what their plans were for the upcoming break. Most students spoke about the upcoming Holiday of Connection, where families would gather and tell each other what benefit they brought to each other’s lives. At the end of class, one student would always ask Mo'qin what her plans were, and she always cheerfully responded that she had none and had planned to catch up on some reading.
After the final class of the day, Mo'qin sat at her desk in the teachers' room organizing her papers in preparation for the break. She heard a loud cough and turned to see Thox standing next to her desk, eyes narrowed.
He looked down over the bridge of his nose. “I have been informed you have no plans for the Holiday of Connection. You will join my family.”
Mo'qin frowned. “Are you asking me or telling me?”
“Yes. I have been informed by my superiors that it would not look good to leave a foreign guest alone on the holidays. So I have been asked to host you. You may decline, but it will make me look bad.”
“I'd hate for that to happen,” Mo'qin replied. “Where, what time, and what can I bring?”
Thox handed her a piece of paper. “The details are here. We will see you tomorrow evening at the twentieth hour.” As was his habit, Thox turned abruptly and left without saying goodbye.
* * *
The next night Mo'qin dressed in her best clothes and navigated her way to Thox's home on Xoxixx. She docked her boat and found his dwelling. Standing outside the front door, she took a deep breath, then knocked.
The door opened immediately, and Mo'qin found herself looking into Roj's eyes. Mo'qin broke into a grin. “Roj, I'm so glad to see you!”
Before Roj could respond, Thox and his companion Laor appeared behind their daughter. Laor wore the same expression Thox often did: one of aloofness with a pinch of distrust.
“Enter, Mo'qin,” Thox commanded.
“Your outerwear should be placed here,” Laor added, gesturing to a nearby hook.
By the time Mo'qin had hung her coat, the two had disappeared. The corners of Roj's mouth upturned. “They went this way.” Then she whispered, “Welcome to my home.”
“Thank you,” Mo'qin whispered back.
Roj showed Mo'qin to her seat. Dinner passed quickly as the Asher brought out dish after dish of food. Mo'qin tried many new things, some of which she loved, and some of which she would love to never try again. At the end of the meal, each member of the family was given a few moments to speak. Thox went first. “Laor, you are useful to me in taking care of the home while I work.” He turned to Roj. “And you, Roj, are useful in assisting your mother. I anticipate you will be useful in the future once you are able to contribute more fully to the family.” Thox sat back down.
“Father, you forgot Mo'qin,” Roj said.
Thox growled, but stood again. “Mo'qin. You are useful in teaching our young to better communicate with the outside world. Your work will be useful in increasing trade and productivity between Zublark and other planets.” Thox sat down and crossed his arms.
In turn, Laor and then Roj repeated their assessments of the others at the table. Finally, Mo'qin stood. “Thox, you are useful in protecting your family and your school. You are useful to your community and your planet. You have been extremely useful to me in becoming acclimated. Laor, you are useful in caring for Thox and Roj. Roj, you are useful in questioning the status quo. You are useful in being exactly who you are.”
Mo'qin sat down, noticing that Thox had narrowed his eyes as he looked at her.
The speeches finished, Laor called on their Asher to bring out dessert. The Asher approached, carrying a large plate. His foot caught something on the floor, and the Asher fell, sending the dessert flying across the room, landing in a gooey puddle several feet away.
Thox stood in a rage and kicked the Asher, who was attempting to get up. “Clumsy, useless fool!” he said, kicking the Asher once more for good measure.
Deeply uncomfortable, Mo'qin stood. “It's getting late. I should be heading home. Thank you for your hospitality. I ate so much I wouldn't have had room for dessert anyway.” With that, Mo'qin fled the house. She ran until she was a few houses away, then slowed her pace to consider what had transpired. By the time she'd reached her boat, she had come to terms with the situation. She didn't like it, but there was nothing she could do about it.
Mo'qin drove her boat home, lost in thought. As she docked her boat near her home, there was a cough from the front of the boat. Mo'qin stepped back inside and lifted the tarp she used to cover the boat at night. Crouched under was Roj, who smiled nervously.
“Roj! What in the world are you doing here?” Mo'qin asked.
“Please don't be mad,” Roj replied. “I can't take it anymore. My father is so cruel to the Ashers. They do nothing but serve him, and he treats them as less than garbage.”
Mo'qin sat back down in the boat, facing Roj. “I understand how upsetting that can be. But what are you planning to do about it?”
Roj raised her eyebrows. “I was hoping I could stay with you?”
Mo'qin smiled sadly. “I'd love that, Roj, I would. But you have a family. I can't take you from them.”
“But I don't want to be with them. I don't want to be anywhere on this stupid planet. I want to go somewhere where creatures care about each other. Where feelings matter. Where there is romance. Where people don't take out their pent-up frustrations by kicking another creature. I hate this planet.”
Mo'qin took Roj's hands gently between hers. “No one loves everything about their planet, Roj. There are things about Qualixes that I'd like to change. But I can't do that if I remove myself from Qualixes altogether.”
“But isn't that what you did?” Roj asked.
“Touché.” Mo'qin laughed. “What I mean is that you are young. You don't yet have the freedom to leave. You have family and responsibilities here.”
“But –” Roj began, but Mo'qin wasn't finished.
“There are amazing things about your planet. Your people are brilliant and efficient. You have beautiful holidays. Your family cares about you, and not just because you are useful to them.”
“But the way they act ...” Roj trailed off.
“If you want to see things change, Roj, you need to start changing them yourself. Things won't get better just because you wish they would, and they certainly won't get better if you run away. The only thing to do is to stay and fight–to change the small things you can, and then watch that have a ripple effect. You might never see what your actions will result in, but keep fighting for what you believe. Stand up and say something even when it's hard. But above all else, be kind. You can't change everything at once, but you can continue to make steps in the right direction.” Mo'qin waited for Roj to respond, but she merely nodded her head.
“I'm going to take you home now, Roj. Your parents will be worried about you.”
“I doubt it,” Roj mumbled.
The two rode back to Xoxixx in silence. Mo'qin docked the boat and walked Roj back to her home. She knocked on the door, which was immediately opened by Thox. Before he could say anything, Mo'qin said, “Roj wanted to get some fresh air and chat for a bit. She's ready to be home with you now. I know she didn't mean any harm.”
Thox uncrossed his arms and Laor rushed past him. Laor grabbed her daughter's arms and pulled her inside. Thox watched his companion and daughter disappear into the house, then turned to look at Mo'qin. “Thank you,” he said simply, then closed the door.
Mo'qin smiled to herself. One step at a time.