Human Resources

This story is in progress and will be updated regularly.

© 2024 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

This work was made possible by the generous support of my Patrons:

Disclaimer: This story features sexual content and is intended for adults only.

Steven plunged his chainsaw into the ice, fragments of frozen dust floating up towards his visor as he carved out a deep furrow. Even with teeth tipped with artificial diamonds, the saw struggled at points – the ice at these temperatures was so cold that it behaved more like rock in many ways. He could feel the vibrations traveling up his arms, but with little atmosphere to speak of, all he could hear was his own labored breathing inside his helmet.

With a few more cuts, he freed a block of dirty ice about a meter square, sinking a long pick into its glistening surface and pulling it free of the quarry wall. It must have weighed about nine hundred kilos, but he could shift it with one arm in the low gravity, sending it slowly drifting to the ground. He took a moment to catch his breath, scratching his nose on the piece of velcro that was taped to the inside of his visor as he turned to take in the view.

He was standing high on the tiered platforms of the ice quarry, some three hundred meters from the bottom, the walls carved out of the moon’s surface like layers from a giant cake. A few dozen miners were scattered around the stepped walls of the strip mine, using their tools to cut out chunks, larger industrial machinery operating closer to the bottom of the pit far below.

Above his head, Jupiter loomed large, its colorful bands of swirling cloud dominating the black sky. It never ceased to make him feel tiny, the light that it reflected blotting out the stars. Ganymede was one of the few Jovian moons that had enough of a magnetosphere to shield its surface from the intense radiation that the gas giant spat out, and their pressure suits didn’t need quite as much shielding as a result. It was nice to get outside for a while – one of the perks of an otherwise less-than-desirable job.

His suit was covered in holsters and harnesses, most of his smaller tools stowed on his belt, the bulky air tank on his back keeping him supplied with oxygen. In fifteen percent Earth standard, it wasn’t a lot of extra weight to carry around. With a glance at the simple readout that was embedded on his wrist, he verified that his suit pressure and CO2 levels were still good. Pieces of sharp ice slicing through the outer lining weren’t uncommon, and his suit had collected its share of tape and hasty patches. With a press of a button on the side of his helmet, a straw extended towards his mouth, and he took a drink. Most of his water reserves were gone this late in the day, and he was mostly drinking recycled sweat.

He turned to the block of ice and tapped at his display with a gloved finger, entering its coordinates. A moment later, a drone appeared above his head, giving off little bursts of propellant from its thrusters as it descended. Steven took a few steps back, watching the skeletal frame of the autonomous vehicle settle over the block, securing it with mechanical claws that bit into its surface. The machine seemed to scrutinize him with its ball-shaped array of cameras for a moment, and then it was off, creating a little swirl of dust as it carted its payload into the sky.

Ganymede’s geysers spewed out jets of briny water from its subsurface ocean that settled across the moon’s surface, temperatures of minus two hundred degrees centigrade turning it into rock-hard ice. It wasn’t just a convenient source of H20, but also of organic compounds and salts. The magnesium sulfates were used in agriculture – essential for correcting nutrient deficiencies in the soil, without which the greenhouses couldn’t keep the moon fed.

As he revved his saw again, preparing to start on the next block, a distorted voice crackled over his helmet radio.

“Shift’s over, briners. Get your asses back to the borehole and clock out.”

Steven let out a sigh of relief that misted his visor, then turned off his saw and checked his tools. Once everything was accounted for, he began to bound up the meter-high tiers of the quarry, climbing them like steps made for a giant. At the top, he emerged onto relatively flat terrain, the endless fields of rock and ice stretching to the horizon in every direction. Without much of an atmosphere, he could see for hundreds of kilometers as clear as crystal. The surface was pocked with craters small and large, some with rims that rose so high as to be comparable to mountains in their own right, others barely more than a pothole. Much of the moon’s surface was grooved and striated, creating ridges and valleys – an artifact of Ganymede’s turbulent tectonic past.

There were a handful of structures near the quarry, mostly warehouses for storing heavy equipment. Far in the distance, he could see the glint of one of the moon’s glass domes, the structures forming clusters like giant soap bubbles. It was hard to get a gauge of their scale from so far away, but he knew from experience that they could enclose small cities. They had been the height of technology when they had first been built generations prior – the equal of their Martian counterparts, but as the population had grown, the limited space had become a pressing issue. They were overpopulated now, filled with sprawling shanty towns. Beneath their foundations, yet more people lived in old tunnels that had been bored out of the moon’s icy mantle.

The most prominent feature save for the gas giant was a nearby geyser, a glittering plume of briny water spewing high into orbit like an icy smoke stack, where it would eventually crystallize and rain back down to the moon as frost.

Off to his right was the tram platform – a raised structure connected to a single electromagnetic rail that trailed off into the distance. There was a small train sitting atop it, little more than a few connected cars with outward-facing seats where the workers could ride to and from the quarry. They didn’t need to be enclosed or pressurized in an environment like this one.

More workers were emerging, bounding their way over to the platform in the low gravity. Each suit was a little different, customized by its owner, bearing the scars of wear and tear. They began to pile into the seats, stowing their larger tools and equipment in bins between the rows.

Steven lurched as he felt someone pat him on the shoulder, turning to see a pair of smiling eyes peering back at him through a frost-caked visor. The man gestured to his helmet, prompting Steven to tap into the local radio channel.

“Steven,” the man said. It was Feng – one of his drinking buddies. “What are you doing standing out here? You’re gonna miss the tram back to the bore.”

“Just taking it all in,” Steven replied as he spared the gas giant another glance.

“It’ll be here tomorrow.”

“Yeah, but I might not be.”

“Steve,” Feng sighed, the two bounding their way across the ice towards the platform. “Is this about that UN thing again? You realize it’s a lottery, right? As in – most people who play are destined to lose?”

“That doesn’t mean I don’t have a chance.”

“No, but I wouldn’t plan my schedule around it,” Feng chuckled as he began to climb up into the rear car. He stowed his drill, then turned to sit on one of the padded chairs, gripping the tubular guard rail with a bulky glove. “Thousands of people apply for those things every month, and maybe ten get picked.”

“The odds of a suit breach aren’t much worse, but you’d never leave the airlock without a reel of tape,” Steven chided as he secured his saw in one of the bins. “They sent out the summons at fifth orbit, so there might be one waiting for me in my inbox.”

“There are worse places to be than Ganymede, you know,” Feng continued as the car lurched into motion. They began to speed away from the platform, the uneven terrain whipping past beneath them, the train of cars levitating just above the rail.

“Name one,” Steven grumbled.

“Hades?” Feng suggested with a shrug.

“At least Hades has a breathable atmosphere.”

“Titan?”

“You can walk around on the surface without a pressure suit there.”

“What position did you even apply for, anyway?” Feng asked as he turned his helmeted head to watch a crater zip past. “I can’t imagine that ice miners are highly sought after.”

“Office work.”

“Office work?” Feng scoffed. “Sorry, but I have a hard time picturing you sitting behind a desk.”

“That was actually my first job before I got this gig,” Steven explained as he shifted his weight, trying to get comfortable with his air tank digging into his back. “I used to push paper for the sewage plant at Marius Regio.”

“You worked at a sewage plant?”

“Take it easy, asshole,” Steven muttered as he reached over to nudge his snickering friend. “I wasn’t shoveling shit – I was doing data entry, bookkeeping.”

“Sounds like a cushier job than cutting ice. How did you end up out here?”

“You ever been to Marius?” Steven asked. “Calling it a hellhole would be an insult to hellholes. Once I’d saved up enough paychecks, I was out of there, and I didn’t care where I was going. I heard there were jobs down here, so I took the first maglev and signed up.”

“You’re lucky you could find an apartment the way things are these days. There are as many people squatting in illegal tunnels as there are living in the domes.”

It wasn’t long before another structure appeared in the distance, the train soon coasting to a stop at the far platform. Everyone climbed out of their seats, hauling their equipment and slinging packs over their shoulders. A short walk from the platform was the borehole – a squat building that served as little more than an airlock and an enclosure for the cargo elevator that would take the crew back down into Ganymede’s subsurface tunnels.

Some three dozen workers made their way through the double doors, forming a crowd inside the spacious airlock as it began to pressurize. The sound of hissing air and clattering gear gradually grew louder until a green light above the inner doors illuminated to signal that they could remove their helmets. Steven popped his seal and shook out his dark hair, taking in a deep breath of comparatively fresh air and wiping away some of the sweat that had accumulated on his brow. Even now, he could taste the salt in the atmosphere, the ice dust that coated their suits and tools already beginning to melt into slurry.

“Listen up!” someone shouted, the chorus of conversations dying down. Steven quickly recognized the gravelly voice of their shift manager. “If you’re pulling overtime, be sure to refill your tanks and change your filters! Carbon monoxide poisoning is no joke – we had a guy take off his helmet on the surface a few weeks back. Poor bastard couldn’t even remember that he was outside the dome. The rest of you – I want tools in lockers and cards punched. Anything gets misplaced, it comes out of your paycheck.”

They began to file through onto the elevators, Steven feeling the platform lurch as it started to descend, striations of ice sweeping past beyond the windows as they sank deep into the moon’s mantle. At the bottom, they entered an equipment storage area where they stowed their tools and began to change out of their suits. It was little more than a metal box, more comparable to the inside of a spaceship than even the prefabs favored on many colonies, trailing pipes and cables that carried air and power forming a dense network on the ceiling above. The hum of air filters was inescapable, the little strips of fabric that were tied to their grills fluttering in the stale breeze, reassuring the occupants that the ancient systems hadn’t quietly failed. A few ceiling fans spun lazily, helping to circulate the air, the dim glow of dirty bulbs bathing the room in artificial light that seemed somehow insufficient. Everything was old – the faux leather on the seats scuffed and torn, the hinges on the lockers squeaky, the floor panels creaking with each step.

Even if government corruption was removed from the equation, there still wasn’t enough money to go around. The systems that had once been designed to handle set numbers of inhabitants had been stretched far beyond their intended capacities, kept functional through maintenance and retrofitting for generations. Some of the tech was hundreds of years old, and if it wasn’t broken, you didn’t fix it.

While Ganymede was the only moon in the Jovian system where one could walk on the surface without heavy radiation gear, the same techniques used to bore habitable tunnels on Callisto and Europa had still been employed. Initially, they had been used for infrastructure and transportation, but it hadn’t been long before they had been used to expand the moon’s living space. Great tunnels were bored from the ice using drills – commonly those intended to excavate train tunnels – and structures were erected in the resulting cavities.

They had to be airtight in order to be pressurized, and they were surrounded with insulating foam both to protect the habs from the freezing temperatures, and to protect the tunnels from their warmth. While the ice was as hard and as sturdy as bedrock, it would still begin to melt if exposed to heat. Just as Feng had mentioned, illegal tunneling was epidemic as overpopulation and lack of sufficient housing pushed people to try to dig their own tunnels. Networks of unauthorized settlements and smuggling routes spread out from each dome like roots from a tree, putting further strain on the power grid and life support systems, while a failure to meet even Ganymede’s lax safety standards made them dangerous at best.

Even now, Steven didn’t believe that the moon was a lost cause. Still, fixing the situation required either expanding the domes or a mass exodus of people, neither of which was viable without funds that the Jovian moons simply lacked. The UN’s answer to overpopulation was grants and lotteries – paying people to leave and ensuring that they had enough credits to set up on a colony world somewhere, but there weren’t enough grants and job placements to go around. People could only keep their heads down and hope that one day they might receive that life-changing email.

He put on his scuffed jacket and zipped it up, checking that the monitor on his sleeve was switched on. It was a small device about the size of a wristwatch that would alert him to dangerous CO2 and radiation levels, as well as sudden pressure drops. If a system failed or there was a breach, it would trigger an alarm that would hopefully give him time to evacuate to a neighboring hab. They were as commonplace on Ganymede as phones.

“You coming to the bar?” Feng asked, walking beside him as they filtered through another pressure door.

“Not today,” Steven replied, jostling for space with one of his neighbors as they stepped out onto another train platform. There was an airlock on each end of the one-hundred-meter long, enclosed hab, the magnetic rail running along its length.

“Oh, gotta save your money for your transfer to Franklin?” Feng joked. “I kid, I kid,” he added as Steven gave him a scowl. “I’m not trying to tear down your dreams – I just think you need to be…realistic.”

“Because you assume I’m going to fail.”

“Statistically, yes,” Feng replied with a shrug. “I just don’t want you all mopey on tomorrow’s shift, man.”

The pressure door to their left opened up to allow a maglev train through, the levitating vehicle gliding to a stop in front of the platform. Unlike the one they had ridden on the surface, this train had enclosed cars that were pressurized, as its track ran through the open tunnels between settlements and work sites. They began to pile in, sitting down on the peeling seats, a few stragglers having to stand as they ran out of chairs. With smooth acceleration, the train coasted through the next set of doors and gained speed, Steven watching the ice walls flash past beyond the windows.

“Do you even know anyone who won the lottery?” Feng asked, crossing his arms in his seat.

“Sure I do,” Steven replied. “You know that guy Jiang we went to school with?”

“The guy who used to cry during pressure drills?” Feng replied with a smirk.

“Yeah. Well, he got a transfer to Jarilo. Dude is probably sitting on the porch of his log cabin overlooking his own private lake right now.”

“Isn’t that the colony that’s full of critters?” Feng asked skeptically.

“Friendly ones, yeah.”

“Couldn’t be me,” his friend replied as he glanced out of the window. “Now, Franklin – that would be my pick. Rolling hills, grass as far as the eye can see, my own ranch.”

“I don’t think you get to pick if it’s a random lottery,” Steven replied as the train raced around a bend in the tunnel. “You take it or leave it. Like they say in the warrens – someone gives you a clean filter, you don’t ask where they got it.”

“What if you end up getting sent somewhere like Kruger?”

“Like I said – anything is better than here,” Steven grumbled.

The train soon slid to a stop at another terminal, and the workers piled out, fighting against the throngs of people who were taking their place like they were trying to swim upstream. Steven felt the tug of the AG fields weigh him down as soon as he stepped onto the platform. Fortunately, most public places and institutions had artificial gravity near Earth norm, which helped avoid the skeletal and immune issues that could arise from living in microgravity for extended periods of time.

At the far side of the crowded platform were pressure doors that led out into the tunnels beneath the Memphis dome – one of the moon’s major cities. Just like the borehole, the hollowed-out ice tunnels were filled with pressurized habs, each one linked together by walkways surrounded by flexible tubing as though they were insects marching down a corrugated hose.

They emerged into a more spacious chamber that served as a kind of nexus between several tunnels, the scent of street food making Steven’s stomach start to growl. Nobody really ate on the job, as returning to an airlock just to take off your helmet was an ordeal that could cost you half a shift. Instead, you had a big breakfast and a big dinner, and you sucked it up.

Following his nose, he pushed through the crowd, making his way over to the cart. The vendor was grilling hotdogs that had a very slim chance of actually being real meat, but anything tasted good slathered in grease and mustard. He bought a couple for himself, scanning his phone to transfer the credits, then noticed that Feng was milling about nearby like a puppy waiting for table scraps.

“Spot me a dog?” he asked.

“What, so you won’t have to pay me back if I get transferred?”

He tossed the second dog to Feng, who took a grateful bite, the two proceeding deeper into the city. They passed through a wide residential tunnel, the floor made up of metal grates with visible water pipes and electrical cables running through the gap beneath them, a series of light strips hanging from the ceiling to create a poor approximation of natural light. If you couldn’t afford to spend a little time walking in the greenhouses every day, vitamin D supplements were your only option.

To the left and right, rows of small, apartment-sized habs lined the street. Being directly beneath the dome, they were a little more upscale than some of the cobbled-together shanties, but each one was still barely large enough to accommodate a small family. Some had AG plates installed, but not all.

Steven lived a couple of levels higher, so their next stop was an elevator that took them up towards the surface, though they were still hundreds of meters below the ice. There was no bedrock on any of the Jovian moons save for Io – no mantle that they could reach. The thick ice sheet was floating on a subsurface ocean, which was also the source of the briny geysers that carpeted the surface in salts. The shelf was more than eight hundred kilometers thick in places, so the ice remained the most accessible source of water. Rumors abounded about giant monsters lurking in the depths, but save for some simple organic markers in the geysers proving that life in the ocean was possible, nobody had ever tunneled down far enough to check.

They arrived at another cavernous tunnel that stretched far into the distance, so long that Steven could cover the other end with his thumb if he held it up to his eye. The habs here were stacked three tall, connected by gantries and walkways, many of the catwalks bridging the two sides of the tunnel. As well as residential habs, there were stores and utilities here servicing the occupants, the glow of neon signs advertising food and other goods adding splashes of color to the otherwise pale lights that ran along the curved ceiling. He had once heard an off-world visitor describe the sight as resembling a shanty town built inside an aircraft hangar, and while Steven had never set foot inside such a hangar, the comparison was easy enough to understand.

“I’ll see you later,” Feng said, giving him another pat on the shoulder. “I’m off to drink my paycheck. Good luck with the lottery, you lunatic.”

He headed off in the direction of one of the signs, its English and Mandarin lettering accompanied by an animated hologram of a cartoon woman downing shots. Feng dodged around a small cart that was pulling a trailer filled with storage crates, briefly turning to flip off the driver.

Chuckling to himself, Steven continued down the street, climbing a set of rickety steps and scanning his phone across a reader beside his door. It slid open to let him through, sliding shut behind him to block out the clamor and noise of the street outside. After a brief delay, the hab’s sensors picked him up, the air filters kicking in with an electrical whir.

His home was vaguely rectangular – longer than it was wide. Steven was almost able to touch both walls when he extended his arms. There was a kitchen area, a small shower cubicle that doubled as a bathroom, and a bed at the far end. This hab had probably been manufactured a couple of generations before he was born, and although it had some wear and tear, there were some features that made remarkably good use of the limited space. With a button press, a flat-packed table and four chairs could rise up from the floor of the living room, and the bed could be stowed against the wall to reveal a storage area. It wasn’t bad for Ganymede, and although the rent was a little steep, it was better than living rough in the warrens.

He shed his jacket on his way to the couch, picking up the tablet computer that was resting on the coffee table, its screen illuminating at his touch. His finger poised there, hovering above the device for a moment. He was almost afraid to check his messages. As long as there was uncertainty, there was hope. Feng was right – the odds of him winning a spot were basically zero, but what else did he have to look forward to? Endless shifts in the quarry so that he could keep eating processed food and living in a hab smaller than a shipping container?

His heart skipped a beat as he saw a message from the agency, but he reminded himself that it was probably just another rejection letter. Holding his breath, he opened it, his eyes scanning the text. The more he read, the more they widened, until he was standing with the tablet clutched in his hands.

“I…I won?” he muttered to himself, elation bubbling up inside him like a geyser. “I won!” he yelled, pumping his fist in the air.

 

***

 

“Thought you said you weren’t drinking tonight?” Feng asked as Steven sat down on the stool beside him. The cramped bar was a converted hab, now packed with patrons, cigarette smoke swirling around the ceiling fans.

“Read it and weep,” Steven declared, tossing his tablet to the counter.

Feng raised an eyebrow, then picked it up, taking a drink from his bottle as he began to read.

“You’re fucking with me,” he finally said, turning to give Steven a disbelieving look.

“I fucking won, dude,” Steven replied with a wide grin. “I got the spot. All-expenses paid transfer, with enough of an advance to get myself set up off-world until the paychecks start coming in.”

“I don’t fucking believe this,” Feng said, the reality starting to sink in. “The odds are one in ten thousand.”

“I can leave right away,” Steven continued, gesturing for the bartender to slide a shot glass over to him. “They’ll cover the cost of the ticket.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Feng asked. “You’re really doing this? It’s really happening? Where are they sending you?”

“One for my friend here, too,” Steven said before resuming their conversation. “I’m going to Valbara.”

“Valbara?” Feng repeated, wracking his brain for a moment. “That’s an alien planet, not a human colony, right? I didn’t realize they were doing that.”

“Apparently, companies there are hiring foreign workers, and a position in the field I applied for opened up. I’m gonna be pushing paper for little lizard dudes.”

“What’s it like there?” Feng asked as he picked up his glass.

“Take a look for yourself,” Steven said, leaning over to tap at the tablet. “Point nine Gs, tropical climate, warm seas – the place is a garden of Eden. No more wearing CO2 monitors and pressure suits for me. It’s like Earth, but with more space and a nicer climate. You can breathe the air, feel grass between your toes and the sun on your face, drink water right from a stream.”

“Double jackpot, then,” Feng said as he knocked back a shot. “Damn, Steve,” he muttered as he paused to examine the glass. “You got the good stuff?”

“The credits are already in my account,” he replied, joining his friend in a drink. “It’d take me six months of splitting ice to earn what they just wired me. It’s supposed to be paying for the trip, but I can spare a few creds to celebrate.”

“Good for you, but who am I supposed to drink with now?” Feng asked as he refilled his glass.

“I’m leaving you my place,” Steven added, giving him a pat on the back that made him cough.

“W-what?” Feng sputtered. “Are you serious?”

“Your hab sucks ass, and my landlord doesn’t care who pays the lease. I’m gone on the next shuttle out of Memphis, so it’s all yours, along with any shit I left behind. I’m traveling light.”

“Maybe I should start playing the lottery,” Feng replied, taking another shot. “Your luck might rub off on me.”

 

***

Turbulence battered the little shuttle as it glided down through Valbara’s atmosphere, the other occupants in the cramped bay gripping the handholds on their seats and checking their safety harnesses nervously. Steven was strapped into one of the chairs, the lack of portholes making him feel like he was being shaken around inside a tin can.

Valbara was more than sixty light-years from Ganymede, and after spending five months on a commercial transport ship and enduring several superlight jumps, Steven was ready to stretch his legs. He had seen the planet from orbit before boarding the dropship, its continents stained in shades of green and curious violet, its glittering oceans wreathed in swirling cloud formations. Although he had been born and raised in the Sol system, he had never seen Earth, and Valbara was the first time that he had glimpsed a habitable world. The idea of liquid oceans and a breathable atmosphere, when potable water back home had to be melted from ice and air filtered through machines, was almost too much to process. It was like spending your life starving, then discovering a planet made of cake.

As the shuttle leveled out, he guessed that they were close to landing, and it was soon confirmed as the craft transitioned to vertical flight mode. It lowered itself to the ground on its thrusters, its landing gear making it bounce as they absorbed the shock, then the ramp at the rear began to open. Steven felt his stomach churn momentarily as a lifetime of habit warned him to reach for his helmet, but instead of hard vacuum, warm air and bright light flooded through the gap.

The occupants rose from their seats, retrieving carry cases and bags that were stowed beneath their chairs or inside cargo netting above their heads, Steven following suit. By the time the ramp hit the tarmac, the sun was so bright that he could barely see, squinting against a kind of natural light that he had never been exposed to. Like standing too close to a UV lamp, he could feel its heat on his skin.

As he stumbled out of the ship, raising a hand to shield his eyes, he felt the breeze ruffle his hair like the current from an air vent. Someone tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned to see a man in a suit offering a pair of sunglasses to him. He put them on, and like turning down the brightness on a monitor, the world shifted into clearer focus.

“Thanks,” Steven said, the stranger giving him a nod. The man was a little taller than he was, his dark skin making his shaved head shine beneath the sun, his suit suggesting that he might be some kind of businessman.

“You’re from one of the Jovian moons, right?” the man asked with an accent that was hard to pin down. “Or perhaps Titan?”

“Ganymede,” Steven confirmed. “How did you know?”

“Because the first time I stepped off a shuttle on a habitable planet, I felt like someone was waving a welding torch in front of my face, too. My name is Joseph – I’m from Enceladus, born and raised. I recognize a fellow tunnel rat when I see one.”

“Steven Zheng,” he replied, extending a hand. “You’ve been here before?”

“This is my third time,” Joseph replied as they shook. “My company has been negotiating contracts to buy aquaponic equipment from the Valbarans. They have a knack for designing self-sustaining farms with a very small footprint – perfect for moons like ours.”

“Seems a long way to come for some fish tanks,” Steven said as they began to walk away from the idling shuttle.

“The Valbarans can be surprisingly personable once you get to know them,” Joseph replied, guiding Steven down a ramp that led off the raised landing pad. “It helps to have someone here to grease the wheels, so to speak. There will need to be some modifications to the systems for the specific species we want to produce, but we could be eating salmon steaks with basil and chives in the tunnels before very long.”

“I’d love to try salmon.”

“Then you’ll do well here. The Valbs have discovered sushi, and they’re mad for it.”

He stopped to look back as Steven paused, taking in the sights for the first time.

Instead of an expanse of inky darkness, the sky above his head was a deeper azure than he could ever have imagined, clouds of water vapor the size of mountains drifting lazily through the stratosphere. If it hadn’t been for his familiarity with Jupiter, their scale alone might have made him lose his balance. As he turned his eyes to the horizon, he saw trees – not herbal gardens hanging from racks or crops bathed in UV lamps, but actual wild plants. Some were huge, their leafy fronds resembling those of palm trees, their hues ranging from familiar greens to the strange violets and purples that he had remarked from space. Life was endemic here, a carpet of grass waving in the breeze, shrubs and bushes lining the path ahead. There were beds of flowers, the myriad colors of their petals forming tiny nebulae, the reflective wings of insects catching the sunlight as they flitted between them.

Surrounding him were the buildings of the spaceport, their white facades and curving, oddly organic shapes like nothing he had ever seen before. Far from the utilitarian architecture of Ganymede – if industrial warehouses and refineries could be referred to as such – every structure seemed to be making some kind of statement, as though its designers had tried to distinguish it from the rest without straying too far from a common theme. There was a tall control tower with windows that looked out over the runway and landing pads, hangars for storing aircraft, and ahead of them was a terminal large enough to fill half a dome.

“Take it one step at a time,” Joseph warned, beckoning to him. “Your brain has to recalibrate to everything being a lot bigger than you’re used to. Look at the ground if you get dizzy.”

“I should be alright,” Steven replied, taking a few unsteady steps as he got his bearings. “I did surface work cutting ice.”

They followed the other passengers from the dropship down a path lined with bushes and trees, soon arriving at an entrance to the terminal. It was so strange to approach a building from outside and see the doors just…open, as there was no pressure differential to account for and no airlock. It was cooler inside, likely air-conditioned, the edifice of glass and carbcrete letting the sunlight filter through. A series of support pillars held up the impossibly high roof, the white material lit from beneath by spotlights that were hidden inside planters, creeping vines that sprouted colorful flowers climbing them like tree trunks. The floor was polished to a reflective sheen, broken up by more planters filled with green ferns and motorized walkways that ran down the length of the building. The ceiling was made of twisting, interlocking shapes that flowed together like water, the gaps between them filled with glass to give the occupants a view of the sky. Most of the walls were giant panes of glass, and those that weren’t were occupied by booths and kiosks that flashed colorful messages in looping alien text. It seemed relatively quiet – Steven couldn’t see any aliens yet.

Steven took off the sunglasses and offered to return them, but Joseph shook his head.

“Keep the shades. You need them more than I do.”

They made their way to one of the walkways, stepping onto it and letting it carry them along like ore down a conveyor belt. It wasn’t even that far to walk.

“What brings you here, anyway?” Joseph asked.

“I won the lottery,” Steven replied.

“No joke?” Joseph chuckled. “I didn’t think anyone actually won those.”

At the end of the moving walkway, they passed through another door into what appeared to be a customs area. The passengers formed an orderly line in front of a metal archway that was guarded by half a dozen aliens clad in form-fitting jumpsuits, the trailing wires beneath the dark lining of their clothes giving them the resemblance of veins, their faces concealed beneath opaque clam-shell helmets. They had no weapons drawn, but each of them had a holster on their hip for some kind of handgun.

Steven had read up on Valbarans during his journey, but it was his first time seeing one in person. They were short creatures, standing at barely shoulder height to the average human, with comparatively short torsos and long, digitigrade legs that ended in two-toed feet like birds. These didn’t look like they weighed more than fifty or sixty pounds. They had prominent hips and stocky thighs, their long tails held aloft to help them balance. Based on the pictures that he had seen, he knew that they were covered in green scales beneath those suits – with some who lived in the planet’s colder regions having a covering of fluffy proto-feathers. Their snouts were elongated and lizard-like, filled with sharp little insectivore teeth.

Their most unusual and prominent feature was their feathers. Contained in flexible, muscular sheaths that attached to their heads and forearms was vibrant plumage used for emotional displays and social signaling. He was disappointed that he couldn’t see any through the suits, but he noted that the aliens had colored panels on their sleeves and on the twin appendages that hung from their helmets like hoses. Perhaps those translated their feather signals into color patterns.

The aliens were waving the visitors through one by one, the arch scanning them, perhaps searching for contraband or collecting biometric data. Joseph went through ahead of him, and then it was Steven’s turn, the nearest alien gesturing for him to stop. It was a quick process, and once the scan had been completed, he was silently waved through.

Next was a processing area with several staffed booths, the visitors heading over to them, Steven following suit. There was no baggage claim like there would be on a human colony – he was simply carrying everything that he had brought with him in a rucksack.

When it was his turn, he stepped up to a desk that was at about chest height to him, seeing a Valbaran without a helmet peering up at him. Just like the pictures, it had a mosaic of fine, shiny scales covering its long snout. Its eyes were a vibrant violet, the black sclera framing them, the two feather sheaths draping down the back of its skull like a pair of long braids. It looked like a little dinosaur to him.

He noted that this one was wearing jewelry, a gemstone hanging from a fine chain over its forehead, its eyes ringed with some kind of paint or makeup like mascara. Suddenly, its twin sheaths flexed, sticking out straight to either side of its head. They erupted into a mesmerizing display of plumage, the emerald hues shining with iridescence, each impressive feather tipped with an eyespot that reminded Steven of a peacock. When the alien saw that he was alarmed, the hues shifted from green to purple, and it stowed them again.

“Apologies,” it began in a high-pitched, male voice. The accent was impeccable, indistinguishable from that of a native speaker. “I did not mean to alarm you. Welcome to Kalahar. I assume that this is your first time visiting Valbara?”

“That’s right,” Steven replied, trying not to stare. Knowing that aliens existed and speaking to one were two very different things. Every time the Valbaran moved his head, his fine scales reflected the light, picking out their texture.

“May I ask what the purpose of your visit is?” the alien asked as he began to swipe at a display that was out of view from Steven’s perspective.

“I’m relocating as part of a UN job placement program,” he explained.

“Oh, congratulations!” the alien replied. His sheaths flashed a display of yellow plumage, but Steven was ready for it this time. It might be a gesture of surprise or perhaps a compliment. “It says here that you traveled from…Ganymede on a ship called the Jovian Star – is that correct?”

“That’s right,” Steven replied, noting that the alien stumbled over the unfamiliar words. He seemed to be pronouncing them phonetically. Strange for someone who seemed to have such a perfect grasp of the language.

“I see that your request for a permanent work visa was filed and accepted half a rotation ago, and all of your United Nations documentation seems to be in order. We have your biometrics on file now, and you’re registered in our database. Do you have any foreign biotics to declare that might have been missed by our scans, such as unprocessed meat, seeds, or live insects?”

“Nope,” he replied. “I can empty out my pack if you like. I’m traveling pretty light.”

“That won’t be necessary,” the Valbaran replied, his eyes scanning a readout. “Everything seems to be in order. Do you have a data storage device such as a tablet or phone with you?”

“I have my phone,” Steven replied as he fished it out of his pocket.

“May I have your consent to download a data package to it?”

“Of course. Do whatever you need to do.”

The Valbaran took the device with a three-fingered hand, Steven seeing the sheath that was wrapped around the alien’s forearm, then moved it out of view. A few moments later, it was returned to the counter, and Steven picked it back up.

“Your phone has been linked to your biometric ID and will now be able to access the city’s intranet,” the Valbaran explained. “I have also uploaded a copy of the legal documentation that we provide to new arrivals. It gives a brief overview of our laws and customs, along with advice about how to access emergency and public services, and an outline of your rights and responsibilities as a foreign resident. Please take some time to go over them and ensure that you understand them properly, as you will be asked to sign a consent form before you leave the terminal. You will find some human seating over there,” the alien added, gesturing behind him. “Please do not hesitate to ask if you have questions. I am here to help.”

“Thanks so much,” Steven replied, giving the alien a grateful nod before heading over to the seats. There were a few other visitors sitting there already, scrolling through the documents on their various devices. He sat down and opened up the files, his phone displaying a holographic image.

“All good?” Joseph asked, flopping into a seat beside him. “I see they gave you the primer.”

“What the hell?” Steven muttered, his brow furrowing as he began to scroll. “How is this a primer? There’s twelve hundred pages here! It would take me all day to read this!”

“That was how I reacted when I first arrived,” Joseph chuckled. “One thing you need to know about the Valbs is that they love their bureaucracy. They won’t do anything if it wasn’t decided by committee, and they like to have everything in writing. They think, read, and speak faster than we do, and they have close to perfect recall. A Valbaran could probably read that in a half hour and recite any given subsection back to you.”

“I can’t even remember my own civil ID number,” Steven grumbled.

“Do yourself a favor and just sign whatever they give you,” Joseph advised with a shrug. “It’s not like you’d rather go back to Ganymede, right?”

“Guess I don’t have much of a choice in the matter.”

“Here,” Joseph added, producing a phone and swiping it in Steven’s direction. “I just sent you the address of an expat forum. They’ll be able to give you a much more concise rundown and answer any questions you might have.”

“Thanks,” Steven replied. “I don’t know what I’d do if you’d decided to take a different shuttle.”

“This is not my first rodeo,” he said with a smile. “One more piece of advice – write things down. The locals will expect you to remember things that no human could ever remember. They might casually mention the date of a meeting in the middle of an unrelated conversation and be offended when you forget to show up. It’s not their fault – you’ll make plenty of false assumptions about them, too.”

“Are they friendly, at least?” Steven asked with a worried look.

“They love aliens, and they’re very accommodating. Some of them might treat you as a celebrity or a curiosity, so be prepared to get more attention than you’re probably used to. Their first contact wasn’t all that long ago.”

“GPS seems to be working, and the UN gave me the address of the place I’m supposed to be staying at,” Steven continued as he scanned the phone. “I suppose that’s all I need.”

“Keep in mind that the GPS will estimate travel time on foot a little weird here. Valbarans tend not to walk long-distance – they ride scooters. Also, if you can’t find the restroom, it’s probably outside.” Joseph rose to his feet, extending a hand again, Steven shaking it. “I need to get going – got a connecting shuttle to catch, but I left you my number in case you have any more questions. I’ll be in Kalahar for a few weeks.”

“You’ll have to let me buy you a drink sometime,” Steven replied.

“I might take you up on that. Kalahar has some great lounges.”

They said their goodbyes, Steven thanking Joseph again before returning to the Valbaran at the booth. Signing the documents took the form of a biometric imprint akin to a fingerprint, and he could only hope that he hadn’t just consented to having all of his organs harvested for scientific research.

“Please enjoy your stay,” the alien said with another flush of emerald feathers. It made Steven wonder how they changed color – different layers, perhaps? “Your timing is impeccable. A vessel will be leaving for the mainland shortly.”

“Mainland?” Steven asked. “I didn’t realize that we were on an island. My shuttle didn’t have any windows.”

“Simply follow the path from the exit down to the main dock,” the Valbaran explained. “It’s impossible to miss.”

“Thanks again,” Steven said, heading for the exit.

He stepped outside through an automatic door to more bright, unfiltered sunlight, making him glad of his shades once again. Now that he was out of the spaceport compound, he could see that he was indeed on an island. Beyond the swaying palm trees in the distance, the grass gave way to white beaches, and further still was an expanse of sapphire-blue water. It seemed to blend with the sky on the horizon, the sunlight reflecting off its calm surface, gentle waves creating white foam as they lapped at the shore. There were more islands rising up from the ocean to form an archipelago, some little more than sandy atolls with a few clinging trees, others large enough to have their own pale buildings rising above the treetops.

“Holy shit,” he chuckled to himself, taking in the view for a moment. The transport ship must have jumped inside the system’s star, because what could this be if not heaven? It was like a parody of a tropical paradise dreamed up for an immersive VR sim, the water too clear and blue to be believed, the sweet air free of the metallic aftertaste of filters or the stench of coolant. “Feng, you wouldn’t believe this. Double jackpot…”

Further ahead, he could see the docks that the Valbaran had mentioned – a small cluster of white buildings with a pier that extended into the shallows. Docked beside the pier was some kind of craft. Steven had never seen watercraft or aircraft in person before, as Ganymede had neither an atmosphere nor oceans, but he had seen pictures and toys of boats and planes. It looked like an airboat, its stubby wings ending in large pontoons like a catamaran, the main hull terminating in a rounded nose with a set of raised cockpit windows like a passenger liner to give it a kind of humped appearance. Instead of an enclosed fuselage like a plane, it had a flat section more akin to a ferry where it appeared that the passengers could walk about freely. It sure as hell didn’t look like it could fly, so maybe it was some kind of strange boat? These were aliens, after all, and their designs didn’t need to make sense to human eyes.

He started down the track, watching the fronds of the nearby trees sway in the wind, the movement of flitting insects catching his eye. The fact that he could see a destination that was so far away and simply walk there without having to pass through half a dozen airlocks had not yet lost its novelty.

It only took a few minutes to reach the docks, but as he neared the buildings, the allure of the ocean became too much to resist. He stepped off the path and crossed the grass, feeling sand crunch beneath his boots as he reached the shore. The surf lapped at the beach like it was breathing, Steven waiting until it was at its highest before crouching down to sink his fingers into the wet sand, letting the cool water wash over his hand when it returned. He laughed at the sensation, then brought a finger to his lips, tasting the salt on his tongue. If he melted one of the blocks of ice that he mined in the quarry, it might taste something like this.

Not knowing when the ship was scheduled to leave, he hurried back, glancing at the strange buildings on his way to the pier. Like the ones in the spaceport, they were made from white carbcrete that had a vaguely stony texture, tall windows lining their facades. Carbcrete was a substance common even on Ganymede – a kind of self-healing concrete with self-aligning carbon nanotubes that enhanced its durability. The Valbarans seemed to favor it.

Not sure if there was some kind of boarding process or payment required, he made his way up to the strange boat, seeing a few other people milling about nearby. There were a couple of humans – presumably from the spaceport – and five Valbarans. The aliens were wearing casual clothes in the form of colorful, loose-fitting tunics and what looked like clinging bike shorts, going without shoes. They were chatting to each other in their rapid-fire language of chirps, and he was amused to see that their necks bobbed like pigeons when they walked.

They began to make their way up a gantry, pausing to scan their phones on a reader that looked like a parking meter. Steven did the same, fishing his phone out of his pocket and waving it in front of the sensor. Perhaps it was like auto-pay? His screen flashed green, whatever the male Valbaran had installed on his phone apparently working, and nobody stopped him as he followed the group up onto the ship. Did it cost money? His bank account information was stored on his phone – it had to be when FTL communication between planets was subject to some pretty prohibitive limitations – but someone would probably have warned him if the Valbarans didn’t accept UN credits.

As he stepped onto the flat deck of the boat, the other passengers began to fan out, leaning on railings as they looked over the side or sitting down on rows of benches. There didn’t seem to be any straps or harnesses, so it didn’t look like the craft went very fast. As he sat down on one of the outward-facing seats, Steven was reminded of his last ride on the cars that took the workers to the quarry and back.

Feeling a little lost and wishing that Joseph had been taking the same boat, he looked around, observing the other passengers. It was fascinating to see the Valbarans interact, the aliens using the vibrant feathers on their arms and heads to punctuate statements and convey emotions, fanning them out in explosions of color before folding them back down into their fleshy sheaths again. It was something akin to body language or facial expressions, and he wondered whether a human could learn to interpret it. The other humans were mostly keeping to themselves, watching the ocean or staring intently at their devices.

There was the thrum of an unseen engine, and then the craft was off, the boarding gantry lifting away as the boat began to cruise through the water. Steven rose from his seat and walked over to the guard rail, which was a little shorter than he was comfortable with, and he leaned over the side to watch the pontoons cut through the calm surface. He could feel it bobbing as it crested the waves, and then it began to accelerate, creating a spray. The wind blew his hair as he gripped the metal railing, the engine noise growing louder, doubt creeping in as the ride grew bumpier.

Just as he was considering taking a seat again, the turbulence abruptly stopped, the pontoons lifting a scant few feet off the surface of the water. They were flying now, skimming the ocean, just high enough to avoid the waves. It wasn’t a boat or a plane – it was something between the two.

Behind the large stabilizing tail fins at the rear, he watched the island start to shrink away, the spaceport control tower rising up above the tops of the palm trees like a glittering spear. Movement caught his eye, and he saw that something was tailing them. A flock of birds was riding in the slipstream created by the large craft, flapping their wings to get closer, then gliding along beside it. Steven moved around to get a better look, the alien creatures soaring along so close that he could see the patterns in their vibrant plumage. They were a mixture of black and white, something akin to gulls or other seabirds. They weren’t birds at all, he realized. They had no beaks, their feathers thinning to expose scaly snouts lined with tiny teeth, their tails long and lizard-like. They had a large pair of wings where one would expect them to be, but their hindlimbs served as secondary wings, helping to steer them through the air.

He had never seen a wild animal before. There were rats on Ganymede, and people kept cats both as companions and protection from vermin, but more exotic pets were rare. He had seen a couple of parrots, a monkey, and even a dog once. Never an animal just doing its own thing like this.

After watching them for a few minutes, he began to wander around the deck, admiring the view. They passed by a few islands and atolls, giving him glimpses of more beaches and unidentifiable clusters of structures. They could be resorts, hotels, maybe even industrial complexes – he had no basis for comparison yet. A couple of closer islands were joined by impressive suspension bridges that were just as ornate and unusual as the buildings, like each one had been the pet project of some starry-eyed architecture student.

Just when he was starting to wonder how long the trip would take, the craft rounded another island, and he saw the coastline of the mainland come into view ahead of them. There was a gleaming city at the edge of the ocean, skyscrapers of glittering glass jutting into the air at its center like crystal needles, towering high above anything in their vicinity. Their innumerable windows caught the sunlight, their strange, organic shapes ensuring that no two were exactly alike. The largest had to be a kilometer tall. Surrounding them in a ring were a dozen tapering towers that seemed to be equipped with cannons of some kind. They were aimed at the sky – anti-air guns, perhaps. The buildings had to be three or four hundred meters high in their own right, making the guns impressively large. As picturesque as the planet was, he had to remind himself that they had suffered a Betelgeusian invasion not too long ago.

Below them was a giant wall – two hundred meters high at least – made from the same white carbcrete that was so ubiquitous on the islands. It formed a ring around the city, obscuring whatever lay within its bounds from view, like a giant fortification surrounding the keep of a castle. The wall sloped gently as it neared its apex, making its footprint wider than its top, its base vanishing into the trees below. It must have been thirty or forty kilometers between either side. Atop it were spires spaced out at regular intervals, like tapering watchtowers, ringed with bands of windows that looked out over the surrounding palm forests and sandy beaches.

There was a large break in the wall on the near side, like someone had removed a chunk a couple of kilometers wide. The wall transitioned into a pair of rounded, tapering towers that framed the gap, their shape reminding him somewhat of an aircraft tail fin or maybe a shark fin in the way that they sloped back in the direction of the city. It must look somewhat like a horseshoe from the air. Nestled between them was a bustling port, several watergoing craft of varying sizes and configurations sailing in and out of the berths. Some were far larger than his transport, suggesting that they were commercial cargo ships or ocean liners. There were also beaches, smaller buildings spilling down their shores, likely hotels and beachfront properties. Through the gap, he could see a little of the city within the wall, concentric rings of parkland giving way to strange clusters of bubble-shaped buildings. Without more context, it was impossible to guess their purpose.

He wasn’t sure whether Kalahar was just this walled city, or whether it was a region that encompassed the entire archipelago, but it was an incredible sight to behold. Several Ganymede domes could have fit within those walls with room to spare, and for all its defenses, there was nothing oppressive or militant about it. It was as though the same eager architecture students who had designed the bridges and skyscrapers had been tasked with creating a fortress that could double as a resort.

They were headed for the port, the floating craft slowly turning in the direction of the city. One of the massive ships began to balloon in size as they neared, their little catamaran passing it on the left, Steven jogging over to the other side of the deck to get a closer look. It was the size of a building in its own right. Just like their watercraft, it was gliding only a couple of meters above the ocean’s surface, rising beyond the reach of the waves on stubby wings and a wide lifting body. It had a raised bridge that was incorporated into its streamlined hull, tapering into a deck that was stacked high with racks of rounded pods that might be cargo containers, its twin tail fins connected by a row of air-breathing engines. Its fuselage was painted white, stains and wear darkening it a little where it came into contact with the water, the looping Valbaran text on its nose illegible to Steven.

It was heading in the opposite direction, backwash from its engines and cool droplets of seawater spraying the passengers as it cruised past, their flock of trailing birds veering off to avoid it. Steven turned his attention back to the port, watching the pair of towers rise up ahead, their scale growing more prominent the closer they came. Each one of them would have been an impressive structure in its own right, but when merged with the wall, they seemed even larger.

They coasted past more strange watercraft of all shapes and sizes as they headed for one of the many berths that jutted out into the ocean. This section of shoreline was built up and industrialized in contrast to the sandy beaches. Steven spotted a large crane unloading cargo pods from another hauler, stacking them in tall rows beside what must be warehouses.

The craft lowered itself back to the water as it slowed, behaving more like a traditional boat now, coasting into an open spot beside two similar ships. A gantry extended to greet it, and the passengers began to stack up, waiting to disembark. As he walked down the gantry, Steven took in the sights, but also the smells. He was used to stale, recycled air, perhaps the scents of industrial solvents and street food. Here, he could smell the sea salt on the air.

He followed the group along the pier until they dispersed, leaving him standing alone at the city’s edge, the docks at his back. He watched one of the reptile birds as it perched on a nearby wall for a few moments, the creature preening its feathers, then pulled up his phone. It took him a minute to figure out how to see a map of the city, but it did indeed look like a horseshoe from the air. At least he had a good idea of where he was. It was arranged in concentric circles with the skyscrapers at its center, subsequent rings alternating between parkland, industrial, and residential zones. It seemed to all be planned out, leaving no room for expansion, though it was much better managed than the domes he was accustomed to. He entered in the address that the UN had given him, and the map split itself into pizza slices, showing a section of a residential band. Rather than GPS coordinates, the Valbarans used the degrees of a circle coupled with a distance from the city center.

Now he knew where he was going, but how to get there?

There didn’t seem to be any roads, so hailing a taxi was out of the question. All he could see were winding footpaths and what must be maglev lines. In many ways, that was more familiar, as getting anywhere on Ganymede required either walking or riding a train through the tunnels. It wasn’t that far of a hike, and he didn’t have anywhere to be until tomorrow when he had to show up for work, but he’d cross that bridge when he came to it. It would be nice to take in the city.

He pointed himself in the right direction, then started to walk.

***

Steven had been in the greenhouses before, which were the closest equivalent to gardens that one might find on Ganymede. They were hollowed-out cavities in the ice filled with large habs, their ceilings covered in hanging racks of UV lights that simulated the sun, their floors lined with rows of planters filled with soil. They were usually hydroponic systems, using treated waste from the colony and precious salts recovered from the briny geysers to make that soil fertile. Hardy crops were grown there, not flowers or trees.

Now, he found himself in a botanical garden. There were entire bands hundreds of meters deep running all the way around the city dedicated solely to parkland. They were filled with forests of trees of every variety, from the palms that he had seen on the island chains to more temperate species, their leaves ranging from green to purple and even tints of blue. They were joined by flowering shrubs and bushes, blue-green grasses, and flowing streams of crystal-clear water that drained into a network of scenic ponds – themselves crowded with water weeds. The massive wall was to his left, and the city proper was to his right, but the landscaping and carefully cultivated patches of woodland all but obscured them from sight to make him feel like he was lost in some wild valley somewhere.

The dirt path wound its way through the hilly terrain, guiding him through thickets of swaying trees, past flower gardens, and beside babbling brooks. The scents were as incredible as the sights. He could smell the different flowers, the pollen, the ocean on the breeze. It was almost overwhelming.

As he stopped by a snaking stream to examine a small fish covered in bony plating, he heard the whir of an electric motor. He stepped aside as half a dozen Valbarans made their way around a bend in the path head, each one riding a scooter with two parallel wheels. They were moving at perhaps jogging speed, forming a line on their way past to give him more room, turning their heads to peer at him. It was such an odd sight that he couldn’t help but smile in amusement, turning to watch them vanish behind a thicket of trees. Joseph had mentioned that the Valbarans didn’t like to walk and that they favored scooters – this must have been what he was talking about.

Steven pulled up his phone again, seeing that he was only a few degrees away from his destination. He needed to walk a little further and then transition to an adjacent residential band. The bands were an interesting way to lay out a city. There were no districts or suburbs, no zoning save for the concentric rings, and everything was equidistant no matter where you lived. Whether one lived here or forty kilometers away on the other side of the city, their commute to the industrial band would take about the same amount of time. It made him wonder whether there had been some method to the domes before the madness of overpopulation had overtaken them.

It wasn’t long before he had transitioned to the next band, and there wasn’t much of a noticeable difference. It was still dominated by grass, trees, and landscaped hills. As he rounded a bend, however, he came across a structure. It was one of the bubble-shaped buildings that he had seen from the boat. It looked like three igloos that had been clustered together, formed from rounded carbcrete domes, little windows looking out over their surroundings. The property line wasn’t fenced off, but there were trees and terrain features blocking much of it from view, and it had been practically invisible before he was standing right in front of it. As he continued on, he passed by more houses, everything designed in such a way that each property was out of sight of its neighbors.

Checking his phone again to confirm that he was at the right address, he stopped in front of one of the houses. He had been expecting an apartment or maybe a prefab – not a country cottage. Still feeling like he was somewhere he didn’t belong, he made his way up the path that led to the entrance – a little archway covering the front door. It didn’t open when he pushed it, but there seemed to be a control panel, so he waved his phone in front of it. It seemed to work for everything else, so why not this?

The door swung open, and he ducked through the tunnel-like entrance, making him feel like he was stepping into a Hobbit hole from those old fantasy stories. As he emerged into the main dome, he saw that the ceiling was a little higher than it had looked from the outside, the dwelling recessed into the ground. The doorways were still Valbaran-sized, but he wasn’t going to hit his head on the ceiling. He stood up and took a look around.

In the larger of the three domes was a living room, a low couch along with several tables and shelves adhering to the curved wall. Every piece of furniture seemed designed to fit, and they weren’t all printed – some of them were carved from wood. There were other seats, each one sporting a convenient tail slot for the Valbarans, and a couple of low coffee tables. The floor beneath his boots was covered over with some kind of furry shag carpet, and the interior walls were painted with a warm beige tone, the little round windows letting in plenty of natural light. He noted lots of decorative potted plants, ferns and small shrubs adding a touch of greenery and nature to the space. Or should he say purple-ery?

There were two connecting domes, each one a little less spacious than the main room. One of them was a kitchen filled with alien appliances and a dining table that must have seated several of the little creatures, and the other was a bedroom in which the entire floor was covered with a giant mattress. At least he didn’t have to worry about the beds being too small for him…

He walked over to the kitchen, ducking through the low doorway and starting to poke around in the cupboards. There was food – at least, that was his guess. It took the form of little boxes filled with what looked like cereal bars wrapped in foil, along with some other stuff he couldn’t identify. He located a fridge that was built into the counter, but found that it was empty. Unsure of what any of the appliances did, he elected to leave them alone.

There was a conspicuous lack of a bathroom, but he remembered what Joseph had said back at the spaceport.

If you can’t find the restroom, it’s probably outside.

Steven set his pack down on the couch, then headed back out of the front door, starting to explore the garden. Like the other properties he had passed, the landscaping and the presence of trees created a kind of privacy screen, ensuring that nobody could see inside from the road. He had a pond that was fed by a little waterfall that came down a nearby hill, and there was another small dome nestled behind some tasteful shrubs. As he ducked and leaned inside, he saw that it was indeed the restroom. It seemed that the Valbarans preferred outhouses for whatever reason.

On his way back to the house, he paused to dip his hand into the pool, waving it around and marveling at how much potable water was just sitting there in his backyard. It was so hard to obtain on Ganymede that it was akin to seeing a pool of molten gold. There was no shower, so was he expected to bathe in the pond? It certainly seemed clean enough, but he didn’t want to imagine coming out here in the dead of winter. Maybe he was missing something.

It had been a long day, and he had walked more than he ever had on Ganymede, so he elected to make use of the bedroom. He returned to the house and set an alarm on his phone, then flopped down onto the room-sized mattress, not even taking the time to undress. It was soft and bouncy, and it wasn’t long before he fell asleep.

***

After being awoken by his alarm and eating a quick breakfast of the strange protein bars from the cupboard, Steven got dressed and headed out of the dome-shaped house. One of the few things that he had purchased with the grant money from the UN before leaving Ganymede was a new fitted suit, as the one he had worn back when he worked for the sewage plant was long gone.

It was as prim and proper as he could manage, the sleeves of the slate-gray jacket ending just above his cuffs to expose a sliver of the white dress shirt that he wore beneath it, the pants creased and the shoes shined. According to the tailor, the fashion on Earth right now was to include some subtle embossing and reflective patterning that only revealed themselves under direct light, but that could have just been a way of squeezing more money out of him. Either way, he felt a lot fancier than he had in his pressure suit.

Regardless of whatever arrangement the UN had with the Valbaran government, he could presumably still be fired if he did a bad job, so he wanted to make the best first impression possible for his new employers. He had the address, but it was in the city center, so he would have to take a maglev line this time.

It was a short walk through the rolling hills of the residential district to reach the nearest platform. Just like all of the houses, it was hidden from view by some clever use of trees and landscaping, practically invisible until one was standing right beside it. The magnetic rail was raised off the ground, taking a winding path through the city, the various different lines seeming to form a rough whirlpool shape on the map. They started near the wall and swept inward, terminating in the city center with several stops in each band along the way. Calling it efficient was an understatement – it seemed as though a Valbaran could be practically anywhere in the city within a half hour.

As he approached the platform, he passed by a little charging station for the two-wheeled scooters that he had seen the aliens riding the day before. It had a little glass awning to protect them from the rain, and it seemed as though they were available to anyone who wanted to use them. He was learning to recognize the phone scanners now.

The maglev platform was lifted off the ground on silts to match the height of the track, accessible via a set of stairs that were a little too small for Steven, made even more precarious by their lack of guard rails. When he reached the top, he noted that there were no chairs, either. Like the scooter dock, there was just a glass awning to protect the people below from the elements. Everything was made from white metal and carbcrete, designed using remarkably simple shapes without much decorative flair.

A dozen Valbarans turned their heads to glance at him as he reached the top, Steven pausing there for a moment, not sure how to react. Like the ones he had seen on the watercraft, they were wearing various colorful tunics and shirts, along with tight knee-length shorts in more muted tones. Despite the lack of seating, they seemed perfectly content to just stand there while they waited for the train to arrive.

He raised a hand in a sheepish greeting, then shuffled over to the back of the platform where the curving awning joined to the floor. As he observed the aliens chatting and tittering in their native language, he found that he was starting to distinguish the males from the females. The females were a little larger than the males and always more numerous, while the males had more impressive feathers with peacock eye spots. They favored clothing that revealed more of their shoulders and chests, and they tended to wear jewelry and face paint akin to makeup. There was a certain pageantry to it that made him think of tropical birds.

One group of Valbarans was sneaking glances at him, then they decided to approach him, five of them splitting off from the crowd. He straightened a little as they neared, wondering if they spoke any English. He sure as hell didn’t speak any Valbaran – nor did it seem like something he could learn.

“Hello,” one of them began, flashing him a green feather display that must be a greeting. “We don’t see many Earth’nay in Kalahar. Are you new to Val’ba’ra?”

While she used some unfamiliar terms, her English was perfect – devoid of any strange alien accent that might betray her as a non-native speaker. It wasn’t just the guy at the spaceport, then.

“Hi,” he replied as he watched them peer up at him, tilting their heads curiously with a jerky motion. “Yeah, that’s right. I’m fresh off the boat – arrived yesterday.”

“They must be housing you close by,” another of their company added in a high-pitched voice.

“They set me up in a house a short walk down that way,” he continued, gesturing back the way he had come. “I’m still adjusting to the new surroundings, but it’s a nice place. It’s a hell of a lot nicer than anything I had on Ganymede.”

Ganymede?” one of them asked, rolling the unfamiliar word around in her mouth. The other four repeated the word, mimicking Steven’s accent like parrots. Was that how they learned languages – through mimicry?

“What is Ganymede?” another asked.

“It’s a moon of Jupiter,” he explained. “A colony in the Sol system. I’m human, but I’m not actually from Earth. Never been there, in fact. This is my first time living outside of a pressurized environment. I had never seen trees, oceans, or skies before yesterday.”

“An Earth’nay, but not from Earth,” one of their number mused with a flush of yellow plumage. “The Earth’nay must have spread far from their homeworld indeed.”

“What does that mean?” Steven asked. “Earth’nay? In context, I’m assuming it means Earthling?”

“The nay suffix refers to where a person is from,” one of the aliens explained. “I would be a Val’ba’ra’nay.”

“Makes sense,” he said with a nod. “I guess I would be a…Ganymede’nay? Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.”

The aliens tittered in amusement, responding with green plumage.

“Where are you headed?” one of them asked.

“It’s my first day at work,” he replied, not sure which alien to focus on. “I’m supposed to take the train to the city – I have an appointment at one of the offices there.”

“Have you ever ridden the maglev line before?”

“We had something similar back home, but I’ve never ridden one here.”

“You can ride with us,” another of their number added, pausing to chatter to her friends for a moment. “We’re riding the same line.”

“Oh, sure,” Steven replied. “Thanks, I’d appreciate that.”

“You must feel very lost being in such a strange place,” one of the aliens continued. “Perhaps we can be your guides?”

The sound of the maglev approaching distracted them, an electric hum accompanying the rushing wind as it coasted to a stop at the platform. It was a small train with only three cars, the lead and trailing cars tapering into aerodynamic wedges. The doors slid open, and the aliens boarded, Steven following behind them. It didn’t seem that he needed to scan his phone this time. The inside of the train was a little more familiar, with rows of low seats designed for the Valbarans, each one sporting a little tail hole that made them look like director’s chairs.

His new friends sat down in two of the rows, each one three seats deep, so he took a seat just behind them. The chairs were so small that his butt barely fit, and he had to lift his knees to stop them from pressing into the row ahead of him. There was a subtle feeling of acceleration as the train left the platform, and it was soon coasting along at high speed. He looked out of the windows, watching the rolling blue-green hills and patches of forest flash past below, this new vantage point giving him an even better appreciation for how carefully everything was laid out. The Valbarans sure did love their planning.

Now that he was above the trees, he could see the city again, the glittering spires jutting high into the sky. There were the intimidating defense towers, along with a ring of structures that were larger than the little domed houses, but far shorter than the skyscrapers. They were longer than they were tall, curving subtly with the shape of their band.

“What are those?” he asked, pointing to them.

“That’s the industrial band,” one of the Valbarans replied as she turned in her seat to look back at him. “Each of those structures houses factories and farms.”

“Aquaponics?” he asked, remembering what Joseph had told him. If the aliens used farming techniques comparable to those favored on the Saturnian and Jovian moons, the farms would have small footprints relative to their yields, making them well-suited to being housed indoors.

“Correct,” she replied. “We cultivate various edible plants, fish, and insects for protein.”

“Insects?” he asked, sticking out his tongue. He should have guessed from their sharp little teeth. “How do you eat insects?”

“You don’t like them?” one of her friends replied with an amused feather display. “They are usually processed into bar form.”

“Like…about this big?” Steven asked, feeling his stomach start to turn as he held out two fingers to demonstrate. “Kind of off-yellow, wrapped in shiny foil?”

“I believe you may have eaten some insect protein bars,” the Valbaran replied, her friends chirping with alien laughter. “You didn’t mind the taste, I take it?”

“I think he is only concerned about where they came from,” another added.

“You didn’t farm insects for food on Ganymede?” one of her friends pressed. “They are very efficient relative to the space and resources that they require.”

“No, a lot of the meat that we ate was synthetic,” he explained. “It’s grown from animal donor cells in vats.”

“You find that preferable to fresh insects?” the Valbaran replied with a flash of yellow feathers that might indicate surprise or disbelief. “Doesn’t sound very palatable to me.”

“I suppose you get used to it when you grow up eating it,” he explained with a shrug. “Do you not eat red meat at all here?”

“Oh, we do,” one of the aliens replied. “We hunt seasonally – when the Gue’tra herds are at their largest, and they need to be culled.”

“I see, so it’s a sustainability thing?”

“Their populations must be carefully managed to ensure that their herds don’t grow too large and cause damage to the ecosystem. There are usually more than the Teth’rak population can hunt on their own.”

If he stopped the aliens to ask them what every unfamiliar term meant, they’d be here all day, so he elected to move on to another subject.

“So,” he began as the train sped past a shimmering lake. “If I wanted to buy other kinds of food that weren’t made from bugs, I would go to…”

“A store,” one of the Valbarans chirped, finishing his sentence. “Boy, you really are fresh, aren’t you?”

It was a strange comment for a non-native speaker to make, and she even said it in a different accent, as though she had heard another human say it and was reciting it from memory. Curious.

“Here,” one of them said as she hopped out of her chair, walking over to him with her bobbing gait. He shuffled over to give her some room, and she sat down beside him, her scaly head barely rising to his shoulder. “Open up your map for me.”

Steven produced his phone, and after watching him navigate to the right app, she seemed to figure out how it functioned. It couldn’t be very different from whatever device she used if his phone was compatible with all of their scanners. When he handed it off to her, she used her three-fingered hand to center the view on one of the inner rings near the city center. She lifted her black claws to avoid scratching the screen in the same way he had seen women with fake nails type on their phones.

“These color-coded icons are stores and restaurants,” she explained, leaning over to show him. “Though, your device does a rather poor job of reproducing the color spectrum. This one is amethyst, but it’s supposed to be fuchsia.”

“I’ll figure it out,” he replied as she returned it to him. “Thanks for the help. So, concerning the purchasing of said food…”

“Just scan your device over the reader, and your account will be charged,” she replied with another flutter of amused green. “Did you not get any kind of briefing before you arrived?”

“They gave me a twelve-hundred-page document when I went through customs, but I’m not much of a reader.”

She turned to her friends for a moment, chattering in her native language, their rapid-fire communication culminating in a few flashes of green feathers.

“Let me give you our contact info,” she added, reaching over to snatch his phone and typing in a few values. “We can stay in touch.”

“It might be helpful to have a flock you know living nearby,” another of them said.

“Yeah, thanks,” he mumbled as his phone was returned. Was this what Joseph had meant when he’d warned Steven that he would get more attention than he was used to? He figured that if an alien showed up in Memphis, people would want to talk to them, too.

“Tell us what Ganymede is like,” one of the Valbarans began. “Is it airless? Do you live in space stations?”

“We live in tunnels beneath the surface,” he explained, the five little aliens listening attentively. “It’s a moon with functionally no atmosphere that orbits a large gas giant in our home system. There’s a layer of ice almost a thousand kilometers thick that floats on a subsurface ocean, and at such low temperatures, that ice is practically as hard as bedrock. We excavate tunnels, then fill them with pressurized habs and insulating foam.”

“That sounds like our gas giant,” one of the aliens said. “There are bases on its moon where we mine helium, though nobody lives there long-term.”

“You live underground?” one of them marveled, her feathers flashing yellow. That must be surprise again. The color-coding might not be all that hard to learn with a little practice.

“There are domes on the surface,” he continued. “They’re pressurized, and you can get a view of the sky such as it is, but they’ve become very overcrowded and most people live in the warrens beneath them now. There are a lot of illegal tunnels and settlements.”

“Overcrowded?” one of the aliens asked, tilting her head like a curious dog. “Why would the inhabitants produce more offspring than the dome could support? That does not make any sense.”

“Is there no regulatory body to control such things?” another suggested.

“Such a dome would have very finite space and resources,” the alien sitting beside him added. “There would need to be careful municipal planning.”

“There probably was at some point,” Steven said with a shrug. “The domes are hundreds of years old, and people have lived there for generations. Humans reproduce quickly and exponentially.”

“They are still making a choice to reproduce,” she replied.

“I guess it’s just a cultural difference,” Steven admitted. “Does that imply Valbarans need a permit to have babies or something?”

“Our cities have finite space and agricultural output,” one of them replied. “There is trade between cities, so economic deficiencies can be rectified, but the population is managed to prevent it from exceeding certain thresholds.”

“There is an application process to qualify for a baby,” another added. Steven wasn’t really having a conversation with just one of them – they all seemed to chime in whenever it suited them. “Though, rejections are rare, and it’s not uncommon to move to a different city that has a population deficit to improve your chances.”

“Some flocks are moving to Ker’gue’la these days,” one of her friends said, turning to her. “The Ker’gue’la’nay are encouraged to have as many children as possible. It’s part of the recolonization effort.”

“Aren’t there still live Bugs on that colony?” her friend replied with a flash of purple plumage.

“I heard that the Coalition is keeping them alive for training purposes,” another added with a flush of crimson. “Target practice.”

“Still, not the safest place to raise a child.”

Steven peered out of the windows as the train passed between two of the factories in the industrial band – or maybe they were farms. They looked somewhat like tower blocks to him, a little shorter than the wall and quite thin when seen from the side, but they were long enough to curve with the shape of the city. Like all the other structures, they were made from pale carbcrete, their facades covered in rows of windows that gave a better idea of their immense scale. Next were more gardens and forests, then they began to approach the city center.

The skyscrapers rose up ahead of the train, each one a work of art in its own right, made of glittering glass, silver metal, and white carbcrete. It was like every architect had been trying to outdo their neighbors. Some had curving shapes with organic undertones, flowing and spiraling into the sky like glass corkscrews, not a single straight line or flat surface breaking up their silhouettes. Others had open cavities running all the way through them, making them look like giant strands of DNA, the holes filled with helical wind turbines that turned lazily. One common feature was the balconies that jutted from their facades, many of them overflowing with plant life, yet more clearly acting as landing pads for aircraft. There was life everywhere, even in the cramped streets below, every road lined with a canopy of trees and every building carpeted in flowering vines.

“What do you think?” one of the Valbarans asked with an amused titter, noting the amazed look on his face. “Do they have skyscrapers like this on Ganymede?”

“Not even close,” he replied, craning his neck to get a view of the towering spires. He’d heard that the skyscrapers on Earth were larger, sometimes several kilometers tall, but that didn’t take away from the impressive sight.

The train began to slow, coasting to a smooth stop at a platform identical to the one they had left. The doors slid open, and everyone disembarked, making room for a new group of passengers who quickly took their place. Steven glanced up past the glass awning that curved above his head, seeing the impossibly high structures boxing him in on all sides. He was used to looking up and seeing Jupiter, which was about the largest object it was possible to witness without destroying your retinas, but something about their proximity made his head spin. These weren’t abstract concepts that he could never touch – they were real and grounded, all of their weight bearing down on the same ground that he was standing on.

He stumbled, feeling a pair of scaly hands reach out to grab him.

“Are you alright?” the Valbaran asked, her feathers flushing purple. Could that be worry or concern?

“Just a little overwhelmed, I guess,” he replied with a shaky chuckle.

“Come over here and lock your legs for a moment,” another of the aliens said, taking his other arm as they guided him to the back of the platform. He wasn’t sure what they meant by that, and they seemed confused when he sat down, hovering nearby as they watched with violet plumage.

“Thanks,” he said after a couple of minutes, one of them helping him to his feet. They were surprisingly strong for their size. “I’ll be alright in a bit. The same thing happened the first time I stepped off the shuttle. I never got your names, by the way,” he added. “Mine is Steven Zheng.”

Yeni’tla’tolli,” one of them replied, the rest ringing off in sequence.

Tlaso’kam’queh.”

Kema’tat’onca.”

Nawa’sin’ismi.”

Tikol’taz’ati.”

He gave them a blank stare for a moment, then one of them began to laugh.

“He is Earth’nay – he won’t remember,” the one who called herself Nawa snickered. “They are a forgetful species.”

“I have an idea,” Kema said as her feathers flashed green. “Take pictures of us on your phone, and I will caption them. You can look at them if you need to remember. Yeni – you write Earth’nay script, right?”

“There are only twenty-six characters in their alphabet,” the Valbaran in question replied, as though it should be obvious.

Steven did as they asked, the aliens posing for him, then he passed the device off to Yeni so that she could caption the picture.

“There you go,” she chimed as she handed the phone back to him.

“We should get to work,” Kema said, rallying her friends with a flash of feathers from her arm. “See you later, Steven.”

“See you around,” he replied, giving them a wave. They headed down the steps, the gaggle of aliens chatting and snickering in their native language, one of them glancing back at him. Steven swiped past the captioned photo, then pulled up his map, entering in the location that the UN had given for his office building. It wasn’t too far of a walk – these train platforms were very convenient. He’d have to remember to visit one of the convenience stores after work if he wanted to avoid eating beetle bars again.

He held out his arms for balance as he walked down the precarious steps, finding himself at street level. There was a row of cultivated palm trees that ran down the length of the road, providing a little shade from the sun, and there were two lanes. Instead of cars, the Valbarans were riding scooters in small groups, moving like flocks of birds or shoals of fish. Pedestrians seemed to stick to the sidewalks, so he did the same, standing head and shoulders above the throngs of smaller aliens. He was very out of place and very visible, resulting in a lot of lingering stares and turned heads, making him feel like he was some kind of celebrity. He wasn’t sure whether it was boosting his confidence or just making him feel exposed.

For being such a large city, it was far less populated than Ganymede. Back in Memphis, you were rubbing shoulders wherever you went, be it in the warrens or the dome. There was a constant ocean of people packed together like sardines. In Kalahar, there was enough space that he could simply navigate around the little groups of aliens. Even now, he kept having to remind himself that there were no pressure doors, silencing the nagging voice in his head that insisted something was awry. It almost felt like the world had been turned inside out.

After a couple of minutes of walking, he found himself in front of the office building, double-checking his phone again to be certain that he was in the right place. There were no instructions – no information about which floor he might be headed to. He craned his neck to look up at the skyscraper, seeing it rise up like a sheer cliff face, a few balconies jutting out here and there. It could be right at the top for all he knew.

All he could really do was head inside and announce himself, so he passed through the automatic doors and stepped into a vast lobby. For a people so concerned with efficiency, it seemed like an enormous waste of space, large enough that a small village of habs could have comfortably sat inside it. In its center was a massive artificial waterfall made of rugged stone, ferns and alien plants clinging to its crevices, a stream of water cascading down its face into a pool at the bottom that was filled with floating weeds. It rose maybe five or six stories before stopping just short of the arched ceiling.

On the right was a row of doors that probably led to elevators, and on the left was a long counter staffed by half a dozen male Valbarans who were sitting behind holographic displays. Assuming that they were secretaries or greeters, he walked over to them, his echoing footsteps joining the sound of the rushing water splashing down the rocks. The aliens watched him curiously as he approached, Steven towering over them.

“Hi,” he began, singling one of them out and hoping that he spoke English. “I’m supposed to be starting a new job in this building today, but I’m not sure where to go.”

“Do you have an appointment?” the alien chirped. There was a little gemstone hanging from a gilded chain around his forehead that dangled as he spoke, his eyes framed with paint that matched the jewel’s dark red color.

“Yeah,” Steven replied, pulling up his phone and reading off the information that the UN had given him.

“The values that you were given refer to a floor and an office,” the secretary explained after taking a brief look at the device. “Office complexes are split into sections that usually occupy several floors of the building.”

“Oh, so this isn’t a floor number?” Steven asked as he examined the value. “I figured the building probably didn’t have that many.”

“The first digit is the office, and the second is the floor.”

“Right!” Steven replied, feeling a little embarrassed that he hadn’t been able to figure that out for himself. “No, that makes sense. So, how do I…”

“Simply enter the corresponding values from the control panel in one of the elevators,” the alien replied. “There are accessibility features for aliens and the visually impaired. I will inform your employers that you’re on your way.”

“Great, thanks for the help!” Steven said before making his way back across the lobby.

The elevators were familiar enough, a touch panel opening the doors and letting him inside. He turned to examine the controls, finding a bunch of colorful squiggles that meant nothing to him. Valbaran text was complex and looping, the color apparently holding some meaning. Maybe it was tonal or served as punctuation. There were a couple of tiles that were separated from the rest, and one of them had a seemingly random Latin character, so he pressed that one and the menu changed to English. He entered in the values, wondering what he would have done if he only spoke Mandarin. English was the language of trade and business in UN space – a Lingua Franca – and it was uncommon to find humans who didn’t speak at least enough to get by. With so many cultures and nationalities scattered across the cosmos, it was inevitable that one language would rise to the top. The same seemed to be true for the wider Coalition.

The elevator began to rise, the smooth acceleration leading him to believe that it might be magnetic like the trains. The metal box around him suddenly began to flicker, Steven reaching out to steady himself against the nearest wall as the elevator melted away, replaced with a view from the exterior of the building. It was like he was flying up the side of the skyscraper in a tiny glass bubble, his stomach lurching as he looked down to see the street diminishing hundreds of meters below him, the innumerable windows and protruding balconies of the adjacent building flashing past behind him.

It slid to a stop, and the doors opened to disgorge its terrified passenger, Steven reaching for the wall of the corridor as he stumbled out. He turned to watch the inside of the elevator become solid again shortly before the doors sealed shut. It must be a camera feed being projected on the interior surfaces – maybe monitors or holograms. Either the Valbarans had no fear of heights, or they were adrenaline junkies. That had been like clinging to the outer hull of a cargo lander on its way back up to orbit.

He collected himself and straightened his silver tie, taking in his new surroundings. He was standing in a hallway that looked relatively normal, all colored in the same off-whites he was becoming accustomed to, light strips that emitted a soft glow approximating sunlight lining the ceiling. Presuming that he was on the right floor, he began to walk, noting some Valbaran text that was drawn on the wall. He passed some planters filled with ferns, then stopped as one of the doors ahead of him slid open, a Valbaran poking their head out into the corridor.

It was a male, identifiable by his impressive feathers, the eye spots on his unwieldy headdress shimmering as they erupted into a display of yellow.

“Earth’nay!” he called, extending the feathers on his arm and gesturing to get Steven’s attention. “This way, please!”

Steven hurried over, following the alien into something that looked like a smaller version of the downstairs lobby. There was a single seat behind the curving counter, and instead of the six-story waterfall, there was a tasteful rock wall behind it. A gentle trickle of water cascaded down its face, making the leaves of a few clinging ferns wobble.

Steven looked down at the stranger, making a mental note of the alien’s appearance. Like every other male, his forehead was adorned with a kind of thin tiara, a few colorful gemstones hanging from fine chains above his brow. His violet eyes were made all the more striking by the dark blue paint or makeup that encircled them, making Steven think of ancient Egyptian eyeliner or something of the sort. His scales were so shiny that they almost looked wet under the office lights, as though they had been waxed or buffed, their tone a rich green that tapered into a beige on his underside. A low-cut tunic in turquoise exposed his shoulders and some of his chest, its open collar lined with little golden threads, and he wore a pair of black shorts that looked uncomfortably tight on him.

“You must be the new transfer,” the alien chirped, looking Steven up and down in turn. It was impossible to tell if he approved of the human attire. “Steven Zheng – am I saying that correctly?”

“You are,” Steven replied, extending a hand reflexively. The alien merely stared at it until he withdrew it again. “Uh, pleased to meet you.”

“My name is Yemi’xal’otli,” the alien began, giving Steven a flush of red plumage along with a curt bow that came off as formal. “I am the company’s secretary and accountant, responsible for customer relations. You will be working closely with my team and I.”

“Glad to be here,” Steven replied cheerfully. “It really is a life-changing opportunity for me.”

“Based on the criteria of the application, you must have experience in the fields of data entry and accounting?” the alien asked as he gestured for Steven to follow with a wave of his arm-feathers. He began to walk in the direction of a door at the back of the lobby with his pigeon-like gait, his long tail held out for balance. “What is your work experience?”

“Most recently, I was cutting ice for a brine quarry on Ganymede,” he replied. “But, I worked as a bookkeeper for a sewage treatment plant for several years before that. I mostly handled their finances, employee paychecks – that kind of thing.”

“Were you briefed on what our company does?” the male asked as he guided Steven through the automatic door.

“I’m afraid that I…wasn’t…”

Steven trailed off, his eyes wide as he stepped into the office complex for the first time. No wonder the secretary downstairs had told him that the building was split into sections – the room was so large that it spanned three or four stories with almost as much vertical space as horizontal. It must have taken up most of the square footage on its level, the tall windows that spanned from the floor to the high ceiling letting natural light flood in – so clear that he could easily see the surrounding skyscrapers and the blue sky beyond them.

The floor space was taken up mostly by curving office tables and desks, no two exactly alike, as though each one had been designed to avoid any uniformity. Holographic emitters were built into their surfaces, projecting translucent displays that hovered at eye level, changing size and shape based on the needs of their user. The seating was no less unusual, some taking the form of padded stools and the director’s chairs that he had encountered before, while others looked more like comfortable armchairs. Some desks lacked seating altogether.

Coming from Ganymede, Steven had never encountered a space that had been designed with the express purpose of being comfortable and livable before. Everything back home was done out of necessity, engineered to be efficient and to minimize waste, while wellbeing was a distant second. Not so in Kalahar.

Much like the landscaping in the residential band, the office had been cleverly designed to break up sightlines using the organic curves of its dividing walls, sectioning off the office into cubicles and break areas without socially isolating the workers. The walls were never higher than about five feet, which was enough for the little aliens, leaving the space above them open. There were recesses in the floor lined with cushions where the employees could relax, along with cafeteria tables and vending machines serving drinks and snacks.

Strangest of all was the network of catwalks above his head. The office extended all the way to the ceiling, raised platforms like balconies jutting from the walls between the tall windows, a few of them suspended between the narrow bridges to form little suspended islands. They reminded him of the maintenance gantries inside a drydock, or maybe the apartment of a dedicated cat lover filled with trees and scratching posts. The Valbarans clearly had no fear of heights – there wasn’t a guardrail in sight. There were even doors on the upper levels that appeared to lead to other offices. It was like some kind of mad Escher painting.

There was plant life everywhere. Flowering vines climbed the dividers and spilled over the edges of the platforms, forests of ferns and small trees in planters adding splashes of green and violet to break up the pervasive white. There was even another water feature at the far end of the room – a waterfall not quite as impressive as the one in the lobby feeding into a large pool.

The place was full of Valbarans. Some were working behind their desks, others were chatting and relaxing, yet more were perched on the walkways and platforms above. They never seemed to be alone, always keeping to groups of five or six. It wasn’t that large of a workforce considering the space, leaving it far less crowded than what Steven was used to. He could see maybe three dozen of the aliens at a glance.

“Mister Zheng?” his guide prompted.

“Sorry, no,” Steven replied as he tore his eyes away from the strange sight. “I don’t know what your company does.”

“We specialize in writing software,” Yemi explained, heading deeper into the maze of cubicles. “We take out contracts with companies representing numerous industries, from power management algorithms in shipboard fusion reactors, to flow regulators for aquaponic farms.”

They slowed as a group of females passed between the curving walls ahead of them, pausing to glance at the two, tittering to one another in their native tongue before continuing on their way.

“You’ll be interning as a clerk for one of our programming teams,” Yemi said, picking up where he had left off. “It is a paid position – I was told that is not always the case in your culture – and your primary function will be to help your team with whatever they happen to need. Data entry, clerical work, administrative duties – even simple tasks like passing messages or fetching drinks.”

“I see,” Steven replied, glancing at a recess filled with soft pillows and chattering Valbarans as they walked past. “So, general assistant work.”

“Some of our teams need a helping hand, and we’ve learned that Earth’nay can be quite flexible. It’s an easier proposition to hire one alien than it is to either hire a whole new flock or split an existing one. It looks good for the company, too,” Yemi added. “Diversifying our workforce gives us a more cosmopolitan appearance that appeals to forward-thinking customers. We’ve been aiming for some Coalition contracts.”

So, Steven was here to make the company look good as much as to actually do any meaningful work. He felt like he should be offended by the implication, but getting coffee for aliens was a hell of a step up from cutting ice in hard vacuum, not to mention the lavish office. If being talked down to was his ticket to paradise, then they could lay it on as thick as they liked.

“There will be plenty of opportunities for advancement once you have proven yourself,” the strutting alien continued. “Take it from me – males can go quite far in this company. I started working in a similar position, but now I sit at the front desk and handle customer relations.”

It was an odd distinction to make. What did a person’s gender matter in this line of work? Perhaps it was some cultural thing that Steven hadn’t figured out yet. There certainly seemed to be far more females than males, unless the men were all being hidden away out of sight somewhere.

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity,” Steven said. “If it’s anything like the work I was doing back home, I’m sure I’ll pick it up quickly.”

“You are our first Earth’nay employee, so we expect it will take you some time to adjust,” Yemi said as he took a right turn around a divider covered in a fuzzy carpet of vines. “Please don’t hesitate to ask if you require any special accommodations or if you have problems. There is no shame in requesting help and advice. I’ve been officially appointed as your liaison for the duration of your internship, so we’ll be working together closely. Honestly, it will be nice to have another male around the office,” he added with a flush of green and purple feathers.

They stopped at a cubicle that was loosely boxed in by dividing walls, forming a kind of semi-isolated pocket in the giant complex. It was an interesting way of creating dedicated workspaces without isolating people from their coworkers. There were five desks arranged to form a rough circle, each one occupied by a Valbaran. They looked up from their holographic displays as the two newcomers arrived, Steven feeling five pairs of violet eyes fix on him.

“Ladies,” Yemi began, giving them another tilt of his head and a flash of red feathers. It had to be some kind of salute or greeting. “I present to you, Steven Zheng. He is to be interning with your flock. Mister Zheng, may I introduce you to your team. This is Ipal’xho’atlac, Ezi’tal’palli, Tilli’xauh’lea, Paza’tal’mantli, and Mima’zot’itzli.”

The Valbarans rose from their seats in turn and gave him a flush of red, the alien names blending into a stream of nonsense to Steven’s ears. Perhaps he should ask them for a photo, like with the girls on the train, but it might be inappropriate in a professional setting.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said, raising a hesitant hand in greeting. “I’m looking forward to working together. Which one of you will be my supervisor, if you don’t mind my asking?”

They shared confused glances, Steven looking to Yemi for help.

“The flock is your supervisor,” the male explained, as though the question didn’t make sense.

“Understood,” Steven replied. They must treat their flocks as individual units, then. Having five bosses who all shared equal responsibility was going to take some getting used to.

“You know where to find me if you need anything,” Yemi said, giving them another curt flash of feathers before doing an about-face and bobbing back the way he had come.

Steven found himself standing alone with his new coworkers, the five aliens scrutinizing him as though they were trying to decide whether or not to eat him.

“So,” he began, clapping his hands together. “Your secretary introduced me as Steven Zheng, but you can call me Steven. That’s an informal thing – kind of how human…I mean, how Earth’nay names work. I’m not familiar with Valbara’nay etiquette, so how would you like me to refer to you? I might just refer to you collectively as boss until I learn all of your names, if that’s alright.”

“Were you not just told our names?” one of them asked, tilting her head.

“Do not be rude, Tilli,” her neighbor muttered as she gave her a nudge. “He is Earth’nay. They forget things easily.”

“Yeah, we’d usually have name tags or something,” he admitted. “It’s like a little badge people wear on their chest so you can see their name,” he explained, the aliens sharing blank looks as he gestured to his jacket.

“It will probably be easier for you to refer to us informally, too,” one of them said. “My name is Ipal.”

She was an inch taller than her counterparts, though still far shorter than Steven, her clothing consisting of black shorts and a simple brown tunic. He noted that none of the female employees seemed to be as extravagantly dressed and groomed as Yemi had been. It could be a personal choice on his part as the front-facing representative of the company, or maybe there were different dress codes based on gender. It made Steven feel a little overdressed in comparison, like he could have gotten away with a t-shirt and some slacks.

“I’m Ezi,” the one beside her announced, planting her hands on her wide hips confidently. Unlike her counterparts, her scales were a tan color instead of the greens that he was used to. “They told us we were getting an Earth’nay, but I didn’t expect him to be so tall.”

“He can see over the cubicle walls,” the next one down the line added, peering up at him curiously. She had an olive green complexion, and she was wearing a white tunic patterned with looping Valbaran script. “Oh, my name is Tilli.”

“Paza,” the next one said tersely, seeming less amused by the interruption than her coworkers. Her scales had a tint of blue to them, like a turquoise or a seafoam, and she had some kind of black band around her left wrist. As he watched, she raised it and gave it a tap with her finger, the little device projecting a holographic readout above her hand. “As much as I appreciate the introduction, the Earth’nay is here to help us be more productive. We have yet to meet today’s quota.”

“I am called Mima,” the last one said in a much warmer tone, giving him a flush of green plumage. “I apologize for Paza – she likes to keep herself busy. I am sure that we have much to learn from one another.”

She was the most unusual member of the group. Rather than green or tan scales, she was covered in a layer of downy fluff from the tip of her snout to the end of her tail. They were not defined feathers like those of her sheaths – it looked more like fur, reminding him of the baby chickens he had seen in cages back on Ganymede. It was brown in color, and the same was true of her scales where they were visible around her mouth and her eyes. He had read about Valbarans who hailed from colder regions of the planet during his flight, but it was still a strange sight. The proto-feathers didn’t seem to bother her in any way, as she was wearing clothes in the same style as her friends.

“Well, I’m ready to get started whenever you are,” he said. “Just let me know what you need me to do.”

The five aliens huddled together like football players for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision, turning their intense eyes on him again. Was it his imagination, or did they never seem to blink?

“We understand that Earth’nay take time to learn,” Ipal said. “For today, you can just watch.”

“Perhaps do some basic tasks,” Ezi added.

“Oh, sure,” he replied with a nod. “Thanks for being accommodating.”

He was going to have to pay close attention. If the Valbarans really did have close to perfect recall, they would only need to be told something or shown a demonstration a single time to memorize it. Remembering their names was going to be the least of his worries, but it seemed that they were well aware of his human limitations. That might be one of the reasons that he hadn’t really been given any responsibilities yet. It almost made him feel like he had a disability, but maybe there were ways that he could surprise them.

Paza was quick to return to her workstation, identifiable by the device on her wrist, a brief flush of red passing through her feathers as she began to swipe at the holographic displays. Steven couldn’t make much sense of it – it was all Valbaran squiggles and strange diagrams. Unlike her flock, there was no seat in front of her desk. She seemed to lock her legs in place instead, letting all of her weight rest on the joints, reminding him of the strange comment made by one of the women from the train.

Ipal and Mima joined her, resuming their work but sparing him the occasional curious glance through their translucent displays. Ezi and Tilli seemed to be the most intrigued, hovering nearby like they wanted to continue the conversation.

“Interesting clothes,” Ezi said, her tan scales picking her out. “Is this Earth’nay formal wear?”

“Yeah,” he replied, reaching up to straighten his tie reflexively. “It’s called a suit. It’s generally what we wear in a professional setting when we want to be presentable. To be honest, I feel a tad overdressed. Everyone else seems to be wearing casual clothes.”

“Nah, it’s appropriate for a male,” Ezi replied as she looked him up and down pointedly. “Does it only come in black?”

“They come in pretty much any color you want,” Steven replied, her stare starting to make him feel a little self-conscious. “But, black and gray are generally seen as more neutral colors.”

“Do the patterns have some meaning?” Tilli asked.

“Not really – they’re just decorative.”

“If he’s going to attend meetings and take calls, he’s going to need a little extra flair,” Ezi began as she examined him. She made a little lap around him with her pigeon-like gait, as though she was evaluating an art piece in a gallery. “A little paint around the eyes and a bauble on the forehead, at least.”

“Those tiara things?” Steven asked, turning his head to follow her. “I don’t know about that.”

“You should lose that strip of fabric around your neck and open up your collar a little,” she added, returning to her initial position beside her friend. “You wouldn’t look half bad for an alien.”

“Thanks?” he replied, unsure of whether to take her comment as a compliment.

“Do you know any Marines?” Tilli asked, reaching out to tug at his sleeve to get his attention.

“Uh…no,” he replied, pulling his arm away. “I’ve never been in the Navy. I was an ice miner back on Ganymede.”

“An ice miner?” Ezi asked, her curiosity piqued.

“I’m not actually from Earth,” he began, wondering if he would be giving the same explanation to every new Valbaran he met. “Ganymede is an airless moon that orbits a gas giant in the same solar system as Earth. My most recent job was cutting out blocks of ice from a quarry.”

“Hard labor in vacuum?” Ezi muttered, seeming impressed. “Not a traditional occupation for Valbaran males, I must say. Better to have you here than hidden away inside a space suit.”

“Ezi,” Paza warned, her tone matching the annoyed red of her headdress. “We have work to do. You can quiz the alien when you’re on break.”

“I think it’s fascinating,” Mima said, running a hand down one of the sheaths that hung from her head to straighten its fluffy covering of feathers. It was an oddly human gesture that contrasted with her bizarre anatomy, like a woman fiddling with her braids. “I’ve never spoken with an Earth’nay before. We didn’t get many visitors in Kalahar when the Ker’gue’la fleet was in orbit. Most of them went to Yilgarn and Anabar.”

“You guys all speak very good English,” Steven said. “It’s actually been bothering me somewhat. I know Earth’nay who don’t speak the language as well as you do, and you use colloquialisms and phrases that someone who isn’t a native speaker probably shouldn’t know. I spoke a blend of English and Mandarin growing up myself, and I have more of an accent than you do.”

“English is a simple language to learn,” Ipal replied. “It’s spoken slowly, and it’s not terribly complex, though it has some interesting nuances. The hardest part is probably learning when the inconsistencies apply and when they don’t.”

“How long did it take you to master it?” Steven asked.

“A few weeks,” Mima replied.

“That’s all?” he marveled.

“We learn through memorization,” Ipal explained as she looked up from her display. “Learning phrases and recognizing the context in which they’re used. It’s become somewhat fashionable to learn it – practical applications aside – and it’s an elective in most schools now. It will be spoken by most of the upcoming generation of Val’ba’ra’nay.”

“We actually speak a blend of Val’ba’ra’nay languages ourselves,” Ezi added. “Mima is from Araval – they have a distinct regional dialect. It’s not uncommon for flocks to have members who speak several languages and simply blend them together.”

“Like a kind of creole,” Steven mused. “Araval is a place where people have feathers?”

“It’s a city further north,” Mima replied. “The feathers help us regulate our body temperature in the cold climate.”

“What is Mandarin?” Tilli asked.

“It’s another Earth dialect,” Steven replied. “Many of my ancestors were from a region called China, and they colonized the system of moons pretty heavily.”

“Can we hear some?” she pressed, ever curious.

Steven said a few Mandarin phrases, which they repeated back to him like parrots, even copying his distinctive Marius Regio accent to a tee. It was uncanny, and it lent some credence to the idea that they could learn to speak a language fluently in only a few weeks. It certainly made his job easier. If he had been tasked with learning conversational Valbaran as part of his application, he would still be cutting ice in the dark.

He stood there for a while as he watched them work, the aliens fixated on their floating displays and graphics. He found himself hoping that whatever software they expected him to use for data entry had been translated into English like the elevator controls and the software on his phone, or he’d be drifting with a dead drive. Learning a brand-new operating system was going to take some effort either way. After a few minutes, his legs began to ache, and he cleared his throat to get their attention.

“Could I maybe get a chair?” he asked.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Mima cooed with a flush of blue feathers. “Earth’nay cannot lock their legs, can they? Let me fetch you one.”

She vanished around one of the dividing walls, then reappeared carrying one of the padded stools. After placing it near her desk, she waited expectantly, watching as Steven perched on it awkwardly. It was a little small, to say the least.

“We’ll have to print you something more suitable,” Ipal commented as she glanced over at him. “I can put in a requisition with Yemi.”

“We should probably explain what we’re doing,” Paza added, not deigning to look up from her work. “He’s never going to learn anything by just watching us.”

“What does he need to learn?” Ezi asked with a chuckle that was reflected in her yellow plumage. “The boy doesn’t need to know how to debug compiled code to fetch us drinks and look pretty.”

“He’s going to be doing all of the data entry work that you’re too lazy to do,” Paza shot back.

“I did bookkeeping for a few years,” Steven interjected, feeling as though he had to remind them that he was still there. “I handled company accounts, kept track of paychecks and insurance claims – stuff like that. I’m sure I can handle any data entry work that you need doing, provided that I have time to learn the software and the file structure.”

“Just take it easy for now and get accustomed to the new environment,” Mima added. She had a calming voice, like she was comforting a lost child. “It must be quite the change of scenery for you.”

“I’m still getting used to the idea of free air and water,” he replied, prompting another flush of worried purple from her.

“You poor thing. I didn’t realize that Earth’nay colony worlds had such…diverse living conditions.”

“That’s a very diplomatic way to put it.”

He examined his surroundings as the team worked, watching other Valbarans walk along the precarious walkways and platforms above his head, some of them occasionally glancing down at him. Hopefully, nobody would task him with venturing up there. His experience in the elevator had been enough of a reminder of his fragile mortality for one day.

“Alright, we can take a short break,” Paza finally declared.

The flock left their workstations, Steven following behind them as they made their way out of the cubicle. It was both strange and amusing to watch them walk around. They were so much shorter than he was, and they moved together as a group, bobbing their heads with each step that they took. With the layout of their winding office memorized, they quickly navigated to one of the recessed bowls filled with cushions, sliding inside when they found it unoccupied. They lounged, lying more on their sides than with their legs extended or crossed in the way that a human might, perhaps finding the positions more comfortable with their bird-like anatomy and tails.

“Would you fetch us some drinks?” Ezi asked, stopping Steven before he stepped into the recess. “Might as well learn to use the vending machines.”

“Alright,” he replied. “Though, I’m afraid I don’t know any local brands or drink names. This is only my second day dirtside.”

“Don’t worry – they’re all numbered,” she replied. She tilted her head when he pulled out his phone, a couple of the aliens sharing amused glances as he prepared to take down their orders.

“What?” he asked, puzzled by their reaction.

“The concept of having to write things down is just…novel to us,” Mima replied as she shared her flock’s yellow plumage.

“Well, not everyone present has a photographic memory, so you’re going to have to tolerate some note-taking until I’ve had time to learn how you all take your drinks.”

“It’s not a problem – merely a curiosity,” Ipal added.

“I think it’s kind of cute,” Ezi giggled.

Steven took down the list of numbers, then set off to find the nearest vending machine. If he got lost, he’d never hear the end of it, so he made a mental note of every turn that he took. Not too far away was a trio of machines, their design familiar enough that it was kind of amusing. Was there a single optimal way to design vending machines that all species eventually arrived at? He couldn’t read the text that adorned them, but behind their glass were packaged snacks and drinks, each item contained in a colorful wrapper.

The drinks were easy enough to pick out thanks to the graphics on their vending machine and the cylindrical containers, so Steven began to punch in the codes on a touch panel. Unlike the elevator, these were not translated to human numbers, but math was universal and the seventh character down was still the number seven. He worried that he might be expected to pay, but he was never asked to scan his phone. It seemed that all of the snacks were comped by the company.

Struggling to cradle five soda-sized drinks in his arms, he retraced his steps, returning to the recessed bowl of pillows.

“Looks like your first assignment was a success,” Ipal joked, reaching up as he crouched to hand her a drink. She extended the feather sheath on her forearm to close the distance, coiling it around the cylindrical container like a tentacle.

“Those are prehensile?” he marveled, the flock sharing amused flashes of yellow in response.

“Damn it,” Ipal giggled, almost dropping her drink as the sheath in question erupted into yellow plumage. “You’re gonna make me spill it.”

“There’s something involuntary about your feathers, then?” Steven asked as he passed the rest of the girls their drinks. There was plenty of room for him in the bowl, so he stepped down onto the padded cushions, the aliens watching curiously as he crossed his legs. He was a little large for it, but he found that he could rest his arms on its edge like it was a hot tub.

“There are voluntary and involuntary signals,” Paza explained as she cracked open her drink. There was a twist top that broke the seal, then she inserted an included straw. “Emotions like amusement or fear tend to be harder to suppress.”

“Like laughter or flinching,” Steven said with a nod of understanding. “Our body language has voluntary and involuntary components too.” He wiggled his eyebrows to demonstrate, making the aliens giggle again.

“What are you drinking there?” Steven asked with a gesture to Ezi, who was closest. She took a sip from her straw – he noted for the first time that she had scaly lips – then offered it to him.

“Want a taste?” she asked with a flutter of pink plumage, shaking the cup.

“As long as it’s safe to drink,” he replied, taking it from her little hand and examining it suspiciously. “They didn’t give me one of those molecular scanners.”

“You are unlikely to need one,” Paza said. “Our two species have similar dietary requirements.”

“Yeah, well, I accidentally ate bugs today,” he muttered. “So there’s that.”

“What?” Ezi scoffed, giving him another flutter of amused yellow. “What do you mean you ate bugs?”

“Those damned protein bar things,” he explained, glancing between the snickering aliens in search of sympathy. “It was all they put in my pantry.”

“Earth’nay don’t eat insect protein?” Tilli asked.

“Not voluntarily,” he grumbled, bringing the straw to his lips. He gave it a tentative suck, tasting cool liquid with a sweet, almost honey-like aftertaste. “Hey, not bad. Tastes kind of fruity.”

“It’s made from the puac fruit,” Ezi explained as he returned the drink to her. “You don’t have to pay at the office, you know. You can get one whenever you like, or try different flavors.”

“Maybe I will,” he replied. “Code seven-one-five, right?”

“So you can remember things,” Ezi chimed as she brought the straw to her mouth.

“Wait, protein bars were all you were given to eat?” Mima asked with a flush of concerned purple.

“I didn’t expect free food forever,” he replied with a shrug. “It’s alright – I met some people on the train on my way here who showed me how to find grocery stores on the city map.”

“You’re asking strangers on public transportation how to purchase food?” Mima asked, glancing to her friends with that same vibrant purple plumage. “We could accompany you after work if you need help. It would be no trouble, right?”

Her flockmates seemed to be in agreement, responding with flashes of green that might be something akin to a nod.

“I appreciate the thought, but I’m no stranger to surviving on my own,” Steven replied. “I’ll figure it out for myself.”

“Very independent,” Ipal added, giving him a lingering glance as she sipped from her cup.

“When I moved to Memphis, I only had the clothes on my back and my final paycheck in my account. I didn’t have any friends there who I could ask for help, I didn’t have a place to stay, and I didn’t have a job lined up. On Ganymede, you have to pay for your air and water – there are no fountains or lakes. Here, I have an account full of grant money, a house, and a job. Trust me, I’m sure Kalahar at its worst is more hospitable than Memphis at its best.”

“You really uprooted yourself and moved to a new place with no plan?” Paza marveled. “I can’t tell if that’s incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. We don’t even leave the house without an itinerary.”

“Things usually work out,” he replied with a shrug.

“Tell us more about Ganymede,” Tilli demanded, taking a drink from her cup. “What was it like there?”

“It’s hard to know where to start,” he began, getting comfortable on the cushions. “I’m not sure if someone who has lived their whole life on a planet like this can begin to understand what it’s like to live somewhere that is fundamentally hostile to life. Whatever comforts or amenities we had, we clawed them out of the ice, and even breathable air wasn’t a given. If you can believe it, we actually had it easier than any of the other Jovian moons. Ours was the only one that had a functional magnetosphere, so the kind of surface work I used to do would get my DNA scrambled on Europa or Callisto.”

“Why try to live somewhere so hostile to begin with?” Ipal asked.

“No choice,” he replied. “A lot of the Sol system was colonized before we discovered superlight travel, so people took whatever they could get. Airless moons, asteroids, even empty space. I was just born there.”

“What was Memphis like?” Tilli pressed, cupping her drink with both hands as she watched him intently.

***

Steven regaled them with stories of Ganymede and his journey to Valbara for a little while. It was mostly stuff that he had already told the women on the train that morning, but he was still happy to share, and the flock was attentive. Tilli especially seemed fascinated by his stories, always asking him to elaborate on small details that interested her.

It wasn’t more than fifteen or twenty minutes before Paza was pestering them to resume work again, and they climbed out of the padded bowl, heading back to their office.

“Mind putting these in the recycler?” Ezi asked, the flock handing Steven their empty cups one by one as they passed him.

“Uh, sure,” he replied. “Once you tell me what and where the recycler is.”

“It’s over by the vending machines,” Mima replied. “It just looks like a hole in the wall. They reduce waste items down to their base components and prepare them for recycling.”

He did as they asked, slowly building a mental map of the office complex with each excursion, finding his way back to the machines again. Beside them was a round hole in the wall that looked like it must lead to a garbage chute, so he popped the empty cups inside and left hoping that he didn’t have to push any buttons. As strange as the layout of the office seemed, its lack of uniformity made it a little easier to get his bearings. Each divider was curved a little differently, the abundant plants and vines were all distinct, and he was tall enough to get a view over most things that would block a Valbaran’s line of sight. It was like cheating in a videogame.

The aliens were already back at their desks by the time he returned, hard at work doing whatever it was they did. They hadn’t really deigned to involve him that much yet. He sat down on his little stool, lifting his head to watch the procession of aliens on the catwalks above him. His jibe about them having no fear of heights might be closer to the truth than he had realized. They were quite content to walk along precarious bridges that were barely wide enough for two of them to pass one another, and they seemed to favor the window seats when they were relaxing, chatting to each other as they admired the stomach-churning view.

“You want to go up there and take a look around?” Ezi asked, leaning over the back of her chair.

“I’ll pass,” he replied. “What?” he added, learning to recognize the flutter of yellow in her feathers as amusement. “What do you weigh, like fifty pounds? If I fall from up there, I’m gonna explode like an overcooked ration packet when I hit the floor.”

“Why would you fall?”

“I guess I have a higher center of gravity than you do.”

“You are very tall,” she conceded. “You don’t need to be scared though. We’ll keep you safe.”

“I’m not scared – it’s just common sense.”

Okay,” she chimed with a smile, turning back to her readout. Somehow, he didn’t get the impression that she believed him.

Everyone except Paza kept looking up from their tasks to glance over at him, sneaking curious looks whenever they found an opportunity. It was clear that none of them had interacted with humans very much, and it was almost cruel to put one in front of them and then expect them to carry on with their work like nothing was amiss.

“Here’s a task for you,” Paza said, Steven sitting up straighter. “As part of your responsibilities, you will be expected to help us save time and improve efficiency by taking dictations, sending and receiving messages, and sorting them by priority. I just received a message from a client. Take down my reply.”

“I can do that…I think,” Steven replied as he hopped off his seat and joined her at her desk. “Am I going to get my own workstation at some point?”

“You’ll need your own terminal eventually, yes,” she said as she pulled up a new window for him and moved it closer with a swipe of her hand.

“I should mention that I can’t read Valbaran,” he added. “I don’t know the ins and outs of your file systems or OS yet, either.”

“You will learn,” she said. “We planned for your inclusion, and the company servers will now translate text into your native language. I am sure there will be some bugs and quirks, but I’m told that humans are very good at adapting to the unexpected.”

She gestured to an icon, and he tapped it, Steven smiling in the glow of the hologram as the readout changed from colorful squiggles to Latin characters.

“Well, how about that? This makes things a hell of a lot easier. You guys sure do talk a lot,” he added, noting that a few lines of squiggles had become large paragraphs of English text. Like Joseph had said – their language must have a very high degree of information density.

“Our messages are pooled in this inbox,” Paza continued, gesturing for him to open another icon. “Your task will be to sort them by priority and forward them to members of the team when appropriate.”

“Okay, this doesn’t look too different from what I’m used to,” he mused as he examined the window. Each new one that opened could be moved around independently in three dimensions, presumably limited only by the range of the projector.

The Valbarans were a very visual people, just like humans, and their software seemed intuitive enough. There weren’t all that many ways one could format a message inbox. The English text implementation wasn’t seamless, and it overran many of the borders in the graphical interface, but it was usable enough. He could already see options for setting flags, sorting by date, and reply and forward options. Everything was coded by color, and many icons that would be intuitive for Valbarans were unfamiliar to him, but he could get used to that.

“Alright,” he muttered, wiggling his fingers. “Hands are the pointing device – that works. How do I pull up the virtual keyboard?”

“Down here,” Paza replied, opening another menu with a gesture. For a species with such good memories, there must be a lot of very specific gestures and shortcuts that they used to speed the process along. He’d have to learn them. She opened up a QWERTY keyboard that hovered in front of him, likely copied from the same ones used on many human devices, and he noted that it included a few Valbaran symbols that must have no human equivalent.

“Are there going to be any issues with me converting text from Valbaran to English and back again?” he asked. “Automatic translation doesn’t always capture every nuance.”

“Your work will be reviewed while you learn,” Paza replied. “It will still save us time, and I believe Yemi’xal’otli was talking about personally tutoring you.”

“Oh, really? That would certainly be helpful.”

“Sort the messages by time code and open the most recent one,” she said, Steven doing as she requested. “Tap the text field to begin, and write down what I say.”

He took her dictation as she spoke, still working at her display the whole while. Whether Paza was especially good at multitasking or it was a trait shared by all Valbarans, he couldn’t say. Steven was an experienced typist, and he didn’t have trouble keeping up, his fingers dancing across the virtual keyboard as she gave an update on the progress of some software add-on module. He found himself wondering if he could obtain a physical keyboard on Valbara, or if such a thing would even be able to interface with their computer systems. It wasn’t something that he had thought to bring with him.

When he was finished, Paza reached out to slide the window back over to her side of the desk, the text changing back into its original Valbaran. She made a few corrections, her own virtual keyboard taking the form of tiles arranged in a fan shape around her three-fingered hand. The characters blended together on-screen to form more complex strings in a way that actually reminded him of how Mandarin keyboards worked, where combinations of key presses would generate different characters, rather than each key corresponding to a single letter.

“Acceptable,” she said, closing the window with a downward swipe of her hand. “A few grammatical errors due to the machine translation, but it’s nothing that won’t improve with practice. We intend to start serving Earth’nay clients soon, and your insights will be doubly valuable.”

“You mind if I have a poke around in your file system?” Steven asked. “I won’t modify anything – set it to read-only or whatever your equivalent is. I just want to start getting a feel for how it’s structured.”

“Very well,” she replied, sending another window sliding through the air in his direction. “These are the company files that our team is responsible for. These mostly pertain to current projects.”

“Very meticulous,” he muttered as he scanned through them. They were certainly fastidious about keeping a record of all their versions and iterations, almost to the point that the list of nested files became cumbersome to navigate. He dragged his little chair a bit closer, sitting behind and to the left of Paza so as not to distract her. It seemed that the projector could reach him just fine.

“Hey,” Ezi said, glancing up at him through the ring of translucent displays. “What do you like to do for fun?”

“Me?” Steven asked, focusing his eyes on her through the wavering holograms.

“Who else?” she replied with a flutter of yellow.

“I suppose I enjoy the usual pastimes for someone living on Ganymede. I spent a lot of time at the local bar with my friends from work, I played VR games in my hab, I watched movies on the intranet. We didn’t have all that much free time, and when you’re cutting ice on the surface, all you really want to do when you get home is peel off the suit and get in the shower. Why do you ask?”

“If we’re going to be working together closely from now on, we should get to know each other better, don’t you think?” Ezi chimed. “It’s Val’ba’ra’nay custom.”

“That makes sense,” he replied. “You are kind of my bosses, after all. All five of you, however that works. Gotta say, the tone has been more…familiar than I was expecting.”

“Must be strange, being alone all the time,” she added as she twirled one of head sheaths between her fingers idly. “Earth’nay don’t have flocks, so what do you have?”

“I’m still not totally sure what a flock is,” he admitted, turning his attention back to the files. “I read about them on my way here, and they’re kind of self-explanatory, but I can’t imagine how living your life as one unit works. Who owns your house? Is it split five ways? What happens if one of you wants to do something and the other four don’t? Humans usually pair up…after a fashion.”

“Is it really so foreign to you?” Ezi asked. “Maybe you should try it – you might find that you prefer having some extra company.”

“I’ve seen other males who were alone,” Steven replied. “Yemi is staffing the front desk all on his lonesome. I don’t know his relationship status, of course. He could be going home to a wife and kids for all I know – I didn’t ask.”

“Yemi remains stubbornly unattached,” Ipal added, joining their conversation. “A guy his age should have found a nice flock to settle down with and start siring children by now.”

“He’s not bad looking,” Ezi chuckled, shooting her friend a sly look across the workstation. “I like boys who take good care of their scales.”

“It’s unusual for males to live alone, then?” Steven pressed as he glanced between the two women. “Even if they’re not in a relationship?”

“Traditionally, it was customary for them to marry off rather early,” Ipal explained. “Bachelors are more of a modern phenomenon. It’s much easier for a male to support themselves in a technological society, so they sometimes choose to delay marriage and pursue a career instead.”

“Mostly just part-time lounge dancers trying to find themselves,” Ezi scoffed with a flutter of yellow feathers.

“An unkind generalization,” Ipal corrected, giving her a quick flush of red that seemed to say – be quiet. “Based on what I know about Earth’nay, they have a much more even distribution of genders in their society. Birth rates are almost one for one.”

Drowning in males,” Ezi sighed.

“And that’s not the case on Valbara?” Steven asked. “I haven’t been here long, but I’ve already noticed a discrepancy between the numbers of males and females.”

“For us, it’s roughly a ratio of seven to one,” Mima replied.

“Seven females are born for every male?” he marveled. “That’s insane.”

“Females flock,” Ipal confirmed. “Usually between five and seven or thereabouts. We meet in our early lives – often during schooling or our first jobs. Males live with their families until they get engaged, or they go it alone as a bachelor for a while.”

“And, they get engaged to one flock?” Steven asked as he raised an incredulous eyebrow. It was hard to keep a conversation going with all of them at once, and he was unsure of who he should be looking at, his eyes wandering between all three of them. “Let’s say Yemi married into your flock – you would all be his wives?”

“You find that surprising?” Ipal said with a tilt of her head that was no less incredulous. “How else would it work, save for only one in six women reproducing?”

“I suppose your biology and your society evolved to accommodate it,” he said with a grimace. “Potentially seven wives – that’s a terrifying prospect.”

“Why do you find it so intimidating?” Ezi giggled, her feathers suggesting that she was very amused by the situation. She leaned closer across her desk, poking her grinning snout through the hologram. “Are Val’ba’ra’nay women scary?”

“If every relationship involves going up against a Memphis tunnel gang, yeah,” he chuckled. “I’ll stick to having one woman tossing my ass out of her hab, thanks.”

“I think it’s romantic,” Mima added, drawing a skeptical look from Ezi and Ipal. “Imagine a male devoting their life to a single person.”

“What are we talking about?” Tilli asked, looking up from her work.

“I asked Steven what he does for fun, and he still hasn’t given me a proper answer,” Ezi explained as she leaned back in her seat lazily.

“You shouldn’t be talking about anything,” Paza grumbled. “Our clerk is supposed to be learning, not being quizzed about his personal life.”

“Come on, Paza,” Ezi sighed as she rolled her head back with a flutter of blue. “We got most of the real work done before he even arrived.”

They were distracted as Yemi appeared around the nearest dividing wall, Ezi sitting up a little straighter in her chair.

“Ladies,” he began with a feather greeting. “I wanted to check in and see how our newest team member is settling in.”

“He has demonstrated some basic proficiency,” Paza replied, closing down one of her windows as she raised her snout from her work. “Overall, a promising start.”

“I think I’m doing alright,” Steven added. “I’ve learned how to operate the vending machines, and I’ve been exploring your file system. I even answered an email,” he said, puffing out his chest in a way that made Ezi snicker behind her hand.

“Now that you’ve been introduced to your colleagues, I was wondering if I might pull you away for a little while?” Yemi asked. “The company has developed a training program for Earth’nay employees, and as the most experienced staff member in your field, I’ve been tasked with tutoring you. These private lessons shouldn’t interrupt your work unduly.”

“You got it,” Steven replied, rising from his tiny chair. “I suppose I’ll see you later,” he continued, giving the flock a nod somewhat reminiscent of the way he had seen Yemi lower his head in a bow. “I’m looking forward to working together.”

“See you later,” Ezi chimed as he left the cubicle, the five aliens waving him off with their feathers.

He followed Yemi through the office complex, catching a few looks from other flocks on his way, then they were soon back inside the lobby area. It was a relief to be relatively alone again, Steven taking in a deep breath.

“How are you finding things?” Yemi asked, making his way over to the front desk. He hopped up onto his seat, his display flickering to life. “Have you been getting along with the flock?”

“They’re certainly very…friendly,” Steven replied, taking a moment to find the right word. “I will say, the environment is a little less professional than I was expecting, but that’s also a good thing. It’s relaxed, people seem to have the flexibility to work at their own pace, and the flock seems very interested in getting to know me. I suppose that meeting an alien is just as much a novelty for them as it is for me.”

“Some flocks can be a little permissive with males in the work environment,” Yemi said as he tapped at his holographic readout. “You can come to me if you have any issues you’d like to bring up.”

“Oh, it’s nothing like that,” Steven said with a shrug. “To be honest, it’s kind of a relief to not be stepping on eggshells and worrying about first impressions. You make it sound like that’s happened before, though?”

“Not in our organization specifically, but there’s always some friction when males and females work together,” the Valbaran replied. “You’re new here – both on the job and the planet – and I’m not sure how things work where you come from.”

“No problems to report,” Steven affirmed. “Just friendly banter, if that. I just came from an ice mining crew, and trust me, the banter there was orders of magnitude worse.”

“You can take a seat beside me,” Yemi said, gesturing to a chair next to his own. “My station is at the front desk, but we rarely receive visitors to the office without appointments, so there won’t be any disruptions.”

“I hope I’m not taking up too much of your time,” Steven replied as he sat down. The chair was a little small, but as the flock had said, the company would probably print him some new ones before long. “It sounds like you must have a pretty large workload.”

“Not at all,” Yemi replied. “My schedule has been altered to account for your lessons. Think of this as a remedial course that will bring you up to speed on our data systems and company practices. I must warn you that I have no personal experience training Earth’nay, so please don’t feel that you can’t make suggestions or voice your concerns if you feel I’m not performing optimally.”

“I’m sure you’ll do great,” Steven said, resisting the urge to give him a pat on the back that would probably knock the little alien out of his seat.

***

The rest of the workday was taken up by Yemi’s lessons. While it was clear that Steven’s comparatively poor memory required the alien to adapt some of his teaching methods, he was patient and attentive, giving Steven a much more in-depth breakdown of the file system that Paza had introduced him to earlier. With one-on-one tutoring, it shouldn’t take all that long to bring him up to speed, even with the alien quirks and nuances. Until then, if all they needed him to do was fetch drinks and take dictation, that was fine by him.

The end of the day was marked by all of the office workers filtering out through the lobby, a procession of three dozen women bobbing past the front desk, the chorus of their high-pitched chattering filling the room. Each one of them gave the two males a friendly greeting or acknowledgment on their way by, a few of them saying goodbye to Steven in English, a sea of green and pink feathers framing their scaly faces. His five coworkers trailed behind, hovering around the desk, Ezi leaning her elbows on its surface as her violet eyes darted between her two colleagues.

“Are you stealing our new friend away from us, Yemi?” she cooed. “We had only just introduced ourselves.”

“It’s just remedial classes,” Steven explained. “I’m learning a lot – I should be much more useful around the office by the time he’s done with me.”

“Well, I look forward to that,” she chuckled.

“You’re sure you’ll be alright getting home?” Mima asked, giving him a flutter of concerned purple. “Our offer to take you shopping is still open.”

“I appreciate it, but I’ll be fine,” Steven replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I’ll have to learn to take care of myself one way or another, right?”

“What’s this about shopping?” Yemi asked.

“I wanted to go into town and pick up some food before I head home. All they left me to eat at my place was a few boxes of protein bars that…aren’t to my taste, to put it politely.”

“Then, we’ll see you tomorrow,” Ipal said with a feather signal to her flockmates. “Come on, let’s head out.”

“Hang on,” Ezi said, turning at the door. “We’re heading to the lounge tonight. Did you want to come with us, Yemi? We’re buying…”

The other four women turned, fixing him with their eyes expectantly. He merely blinked at them, turning his gaze away and giving them a little flutter of pink that he seemed to try to suppress, almost as though he was forcing his feathers back into their sheaths.

“N-no, thank you,” he replied. “I still have some work that I need to wrap up before I leave the office.”

“Alright,” Ezi replied, clearly a little disappointed. “See you boys tomorrow!”

The automatic door closed behind them, Yemi seeming to deflate as the tension left his body.

“Everything alright?” Steven asked.

“Just a little of the friction I mentioned earlier,” the Valbaran replied. “Being the only male working for a large company like this one can be trying at times.”

Steven remembered what the women had said about the gender imbalance on Valbara, along with how they had spoken of Yemi in his absence. Not bad looking. Stubbornly unattached. A guy his age should settle down.

It seemed that there weren’t all that many men to go around, and competition between flocks must be intense. As an eligible bachelor and someone who was good-looking – according to Ezi – he must have to shoot down a lot of advances, especially if he had decided to focus on his career instead of starting a family.

“Well, there are two males working here now,” Steven said in an attempt to reassure him. “We’ve doubled our numbers.”

“That’s true,” Yemi replied, giving Steven a brief flush of green feathers before he once again suppressed them. If Steven had to guess, green seemed to signal positive emotions, like happiness or relief. Maybe it was something akin to an involuntary smile. A moment later, Yemi returned to his usual business-like self, closing down the open windows on his display. “You made very good progress today, Mister Zheng. I look forward to picking up where we left off tomorrow.”

“Likewise,” Steven said, offering the alien his hand reflexively. “Sorry – how do Valbara’nay say goodbye? It appears to be a kind of feather signal, but I don’t have any feathers, so…”

“A subtle bow is often seen as a gesture of acknowledgment,” Yemi replied, demonstrating by tilting his head and flushing his feathers crimson in a kind of salute. “The red coloration is a show of respect – a formal display. Though, if we are to become a forward-thinking company with clients from many species, we should also take steps to adapt.”

He took Steven’s hand, the scales oddly smooth and cool against his skin, the alien’s appendage small enough that Steven could engulf it entirely. It seemed that Yemi wasn’t sure what to do next, so Steven shook briefly to demonstrate.

“This is considered a greeting and a show of respect between Earth’nay in a professional setting,” Steven explained. “Something like your red feathers.”

It was hard to tell what the alien thought of the experience, or indeed how physical contact was treated in their society, but the gesture was appreciated. Leaving the alien to finish up his work, Steven left through the main door, finding himself in the corridor again. Staring down the elevator doors like they were the maw of some hungry beast, he inched closer, feeling a rush of adrenaline as he remembered his ordeal that morning.

“Fucking elevator,” he muttered to himself, hitting the controls as though he expected them to explode. “Come on, Steven. If you can work in hard vacuum and ride a shuttle through reentry, you can take a goddamned elevator ride.”

He braced himself as he stepped inside, hitting the touch panel and selecting the lobby, his stomach seeming to remain behind as the car began to fall. Just like last time, the walls melted away, revealing the incredible view of the skyscrapers outside. It wasn’t quite as harrowing now that he was expecting it, but his amygdala still insisted that he was plummeting hundreds of meters to his death, the street rushing up to meet him as the glass windows flashed past. The elevator slowed, and there was a sensation of growing subtly heavier, then the doors opened to disgorge him into the main lobby. Steven stumbled out shakily, giving the confused receptionists a tilt of his head as Yemi had shown him.

There was another stab of panic as the doors ahead of him slid open at his approach, a lifetime of habit insisting that an airlock was malfunctioning, but he suppressed the impulse. Once he was outside, he lifted his face to the sun, feeling its heat on his skin as the ocean breeze rustled his hair. Outside again…

A flock of Valbarans passed him on scooters, turning their heads to watch him as they went. He must look like a crazy person to someone who had always taken sunlight and breathable air for granted, or maybe it was just because he was an alien.

“Right,” he muttered to himself, fishing his phone out of his pocket. “Time to go grocery shopping.”

After the flock on the train had explained the colored icons,the map was fairly intuitive, so he set off to the nearest store. He should probably call or message them to thank them once he got home. It was still strange to think of that little cluster of domes surrounded by grass and trees as home, but that was his reality now.

He walked along the street in the shadow of the skyscrapers, the fronds of the nearby trees waving in the wind, the setting sun starting to stain the sky pink and orange. Everything seemed so huge, the weight and mass of the surrounding buildings tangible, each one larger than a jump freighter standing on its engine cones. Jupiter had made him feel small, but it was always beyond the glass – always out of reach. He could never walk up to Jupiter and run his hand through its smoky atmosphere, but he could lay his palm against the walls of these buildings and feel the texture of the glass and carbcrete beneath his bare skin. Even the breadth of the road was wider than most tunnels on Ganymede, and he could see it stretching into the distance with no airlocks to break it up.

It was a paradoxical environment for such diminutive creatures, none of the Valbarans who passed by him even reaching his shoulder, making him feel like a giant walking among them. He got lots of looks, but none of them unkind or afraid. They really did seem to have a positive view of humans. Just the space that he had to move around in and the lack of other people in close proximity was still a wonderful novelty.

As he left the more financial and corporate zones, the buildings began to get somewhat smaller – though calling them small still felt inappropriate. Glowing neon signs started to appear on their facades, strikingly similar to those one might expect to see in Ganymede’s warrens, albeit without all the trailing cables and busted tubes. The colors were incredible, many of them intricately animated with flowing changes of hue and holographic elements, bright and clear even in the waning sunlight. They must be even more impressive in the dark. Based on what he knew about Valbaran feathers, they likely communicated much more than simple text and images, the colors and patterns conveying tone and emotion.

Ezi had said that her flock was heading to a lounge tonight. What was that? Some kind of club or maybe a bar? There didn’t seem to be much of a nightlife yet, but maybe it was still too early in the evening.

He arrived at one of the icons on the map, glancing up to see a sign that matched its color. There was more squiggly Valbaran text, along with animated portrayals of packaged food that danced in holographic form a few inches above it. Beneath it was an automatic door that opened at his approach, Steven finding himself standing in the alien equivalent of a grocery store.

Ahead of him were long aisles, not packed with shelves and freezers, but rather vending machines similar to those he had seen in the office complex. Colorful packaged foods were contained behind the glass, the shiny veneer reflecting the light strips on the ceiling above. There didn’t seem to be any cashiers or employees, Steven dipping his head deeper into the store to take a look around. Maybe he was just supposed to pay with his phone?

He made his way deeper, feeling a little overwhelmed by all the nondescript choices. It was amazing to him that there were no employees. A place like this couldn’t exist on Ganymede without every third visitor smashing the glass and running off with an armful of snacks, and a lot of places had private security guards, as the police usually had more pressing issues than petty theft. Maybe they had cameras instead.

“Right, I gotta take care of this language situation,” he muttered as he pulled up his phone. He navigated to the address that Joseph had given him, finding the expat forum. There were dozens of categories full of hundreds of threads discussing life on Valbara and sharing advice, and after scanning through it briefly, he found a repository of apps. Real-time translation of on-screen text or camera feeds was very common between human languages, and it was the first tool a new arrival might want to find. He found one right where he expected it to be and downloaded it to his phone, the device popping up a warning about unregistered software. He bypassed it, and a moment later, the app was running through his camera.

He raised the phone and pointed it at the nearest vending machine, seeing the squiggly characters overlaid with blocks of English text. Just like with the software his new employers had developed, the English words spilled far beyond the borders of their Valbaran equivalents, the dense alien language packing alarming amounts of information into only a few lines.

“Crispy algae culture squares, salty flavor spiced with ho’za plant extract, omega fatty acids iron zinc magnesium methylated folates added vitamin infusion. That’s a mouthful,” he grumbled. “At least they know what they’re getting.”

Knowing the descriptions of the food didn’t really help him all that much. Perhaps he should have taken the flock up on their offer to take him shopping so they could recommend some dishes. He began to wander around the store, becoming more confused with each new translation. The app’s developer had warned that it was still in beta, as the Valbaran language was quite complex – no shit – but it was more that Steven had no basis for comparison. Knowing something was called dried and salted gue’tra meat didn’t tell him if it was any good or how he could use it to cook a meal. He didn’t even know what appliances he had at home.

As he meandered around, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, turning to see a tiny lizard racing through the aisle. It wasn’t a lizard – it was a pocket-sized Valbaran, barely even a foot tall. It skidded to a halt on the polished floor, flashing bright yellow feathers when it saw him, clearly surprised. Not sure what to do or say, Steven stood still as it gradually crept closer, its tiny head bobbing with each step. It reached out to examine his shoe, tilting its snout curiously, pausing to glance up at him intermittently as though it expected him to intervene. When it found a shoelace, it began to unfasten it, making little chirping noises as it pulled it loose.

Another regular-sized Valbaran soon rounded the aisle ahead, the eye spots on his flashing red feathers letting Steven know it was a male. The stranger hurried over to the little alien, chattering in his native language as he swept the infant off its feet, Steven watching the baby wriggle and struggle as its father clutched it against his chest.

“My apologies,” he panted as he looked up at Steven. He sounded out of breath – he had probably been chasing the little demon around for a few minutes.

“No need,” he replied with a smile, kneeling down to tie his lace. “I know how kids can be.”

“You are Earth’nay?” the man asked, still trying to keep his weasel-like charge from escaping again. “I have never met an Earth’nay before. It is a new experience. Apologies, my English phrases are limited. I have learned as a hobby in my house.”

“It’s good!” Steven said, standing up straight again and brushing himself off. “I wish I could speak Valbaran half as well as you speak English.”

A Valbaran who was still in the process of learning was a strange prospect. Every phrase that he spoke would be perfect in terms of pronunciation and grammar, and he wouldn’t struggle to find the right words, but his repertoire might be limited. It was akin to only having access to fragments of a phrase book.

“Actually, I wonder if you could help me?” Steven began. “You seem to be the only other person in the store.”

“I can help,” the man replied, struggling to get the baby into a carrier on his chest and strapping the chirping creature in securely. “Do you have a problem?”

“I’m shopping for the first time, and I don’t know what to buy. Do you have any recommendations?”

“Sorry, I don’t understand,” the male replied. “You cannot find an item?”

“No, I don’t know what to buy,” Steven replied sheepishly. “Perhaps you could tell me what you like to eat?”

“You visited the store not knowing what you wanted to buy?” the male asked, cocking his head incredulously. Steven supposed that Valbarans didn’t need to bring grocery lists with them, or maybe it was the lack of planning that had the man confused.

“I’ve only been here for a couple of days,” Steven explained, holding up two fingers.

“I am shopping for my flock,” the man replied, gesturing for Steven to follow with a flash of feathers from his arm sheath. “Come with me. I will show you.”

Steven followed the stranger down the aisle, the baby watching him like a hawk from over its father’s shoulder, and he rounded the corner to see some kind of little wheeled cart piled with food packets waiting there. The guy must have left it to chase his kid. It was smaller and lower than a shopping cart that Steven would have expected to see in a human supermarket, its wheels sporting thicker tires, and the jutting handle reminded him of a toy wagon.

“What kind of food do you eat?” the stranger asked as he began to pull the cart. There was an electric whir, as though its wheels were motorized. “Do Earth’nay eat the same as Val’ba’ra’nay?”

“Yes,” Steven replied with a nod, remembering what Paza had said about Valbaran food being safe for humans. “Show me what you like to eat.”

The male led him back to the front of the store, showing him how to scan his phone to receive his own cart that folded out from a dispenser, then they began to fill it up. Rather than paying at a checkout, every item was bought individually with a swipe of a phone. Steven wondered what would happen if someone changed their mind or bought the wrong item. Was there a way to return them for a refund? Maybe the Valbarans just didn’t make those kinds of mistakes and entered the store knowing exactly what they wanted.

The stranger guided Steven through the aisles, pointing out items and giving the best explanations that he could, supplemented by the translation app. There were cuts of alien meat in self-contained freezer bags, and instant meals that reminded Steven of the noodle soups and microwave dinners he used to get on Ganymede after a long shift. The locals seemed to enjoy a lot of insect protein products, along with dishes made from algae and water weeds that they probably cultivated in their aquaponic farms. They had packaged fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, and lots of bizarre snacks. There were some everyday items Steven took for granted that were conspicuously absent, like bread, dairy products, and potatoes. It was a larger selection than he had ever seen back home, even if he couldn’t identify half of it.

His new friend was picking up a few items ready for his flock returning later in the evening. A lot of it was guesswork, since the Valbaran’s vocabulary was limited, but it seemed that he was taking care of his child while his wives were at work. The baby was a little bundle of energy, trying to grab every package that its father picked out. Since the items had already been bought, he pacified the tiny creature with some kind of candied bar on a stick, the baby nibbling at it with its tiny teeth. Once Steven had all he needed, they headed back out onto the street, pulling their carts behind them.

“Thank you so much,” Steven said, giving the man a bow as Yemi had shown him.

The male responded in kind, giving him a red feather display, then headed for a scooter that was parked nearby. To Steven’s surprise, he attached the shopping cart to the back of the footrest, towing it away as he pulled out into the road.

“What, am I supposed to keep it?” Steven asked of nobody in particular as he watched the man zip away. “Is this my cart now?”

With a shrug, he began to tow it down the street, wondering if they’d let him take it on the train. Maybe next time, he’d just bring his backpack and fill that up instead.

***

Steven tugged his cart into the car, taking a seat as the train began to slide away from the station. The other passengers gave him some odd looks, but there wasn’t even a conductor, so nobody could tell him to stop.

He pulled out his phone and scrolled to his photos. He should probably take more – maybe he could send them to Feng if he could ever get a data package through the satellite buffer. He found the photo of the flock that he’d met that morning, glancing at their names for a moment.

“Yeni, Tlaso, Kema, Nawa, Tikol,” he muttered under his breath. He put through a call to the number they had given him. It was something akin to a phone number – probably some kind of local intranet address. After a few moments, they picked up, Steven seeing a green headdress filling the camera feed. Whoever was holding the phone on the other end chirped to her friends in her native language, then set the device on a nearby surface as all five of them crowded around it.

“Hey, it’s the Earth’nay from the train!” Yeni began.

“How’s it going?” Kema asked as she leaned into frame.

“Evening ladies,” Steven began as he leaned back in his seat. “Yeni, Tlaso, Kema, Nawa, Tikol. I just wanted to give you a call and thank you again for your help this morning.”

“See? I told you he’d remember,” Tikol snickered.

“Just heading home from the store,” he continued, angling his phone so that they could see the cart.

“Are you on a train?” Nawa giggled, yellow feathers spreading through the flock.

“He brought his shopping cart on the train!” Kema laughed, the aliens clearly finding the situation very amusing.

“Yeah, I’ll have to get a bag next time,” he replied. “I met a guy shopping with his kid who showed me how to use the vending machines.”

“You’re just stumbling your way through life, aren’t you?” Tlaso said with a flutter of pink.

“It seems to be working for him,” Nawa chuckled.

“I’m gonna have salted mi’chitli meat for dinner,” Steven said, pointing the phone at the little cart again. “I don’t know what that is, exactly, but I’m gonna find out. Kinda looks like fish.”

“You should come out to eat with us soon!” Nawa said as she leaned closer to the camera.

“Yeah, we know lots of really great restaurants,” Kema added. “You still need someone to show you around, right?”

“I might take you guys up on that sometime,” Steven replied. “I’m just settling in right now – my first day at work went pretty well. I met the team, learned some stuff.”

“What job are you doing?” Yeni asked. “You never told us.”

“I’m working in a big tower in the city,” he explained, struggling to think of a suitable job title. “I suppose I’m like a clerk or a secretary or something? Fetching drinks, taking calls – stuff like that.”

“It suits you,” Yeni said with another flash of pink.

“I think my stop is coming up, so I’ll talk to you guys later,” he said as he gave them a wave. They chimed their goodbyes, and he closed the connection, turning his eyes to the trees that were flashing past beyond the window.

He was slowly starting to learn what the different feather signals meant. Yellow seemed to be surprise or amusement, green was happiness, and purple was worry or concern. What was pink? Yemi had used it when Ezi had invited him to the lounge. Was it embarrassment? The equivalent of a blush? Perhaps he could ask about it on the expat forum.

The train pulled to a stop at his station, and he left with his cart in tow, lifting it off the ground to carry it down the precarious flight of steps. It was a short walk back to his house, Steven pausing to check his map occasionally. It was such a novel concept to be able to enjoy a walk through a park. Instead of the hum of air recyclers and the hissing of pressurized airlocks, there was the trickle of running water and the rustling of leaves in the wind.

Even now, it was difficult to think of Ganymede as the unnatural environment that it was. People weren’t supposed to live in tunnels and domes – they had evolved on planets, not airless moons. It was incredible how far sound carried here, how he could smell the salt on the breeze without the ocean being in sight, and how far he could see now that his eyes were starting to focus further. It made him wonder what Ganymede would smell like if he could take off his helmet on the surface without his fluids boiling. He’d heard tales of workers who had survived suit breaches. Shortly before losing consciousness due to the pressure drop, and as their saliva began to bubble on their tongues, they had smelled the distinct odor of hot metal.

He saw some pockets of trees that he recognized, and his little cluster of domes soon came into view around a carefully positioned hill. With a scan of his phone, he was back inside, and he began to unload his cart in the little foyer so as not to dirty the shag carpet. It only took a couple of trips, and all of the food was laid out on the cramped kitchen counter. He began to store food packets in the cupboards and put the perishables in the fridge, pulling out his phone and running a search on the forum.

“Search for keywords – return shopping cart,” he said as he pushed some frozen meat into the back of the freezer. Everything was Valbaran-sized, making it just a little too short to be comfortable, and a lot of the appliances seemed to be recessed into the walls to save space.

When he pulled up his phone, there was a list of results linking to different discussions. It seemed that he wasn’t the only one confused about the carts. There was a conversation recommending bringing freezer bags to the store, and someone saying that humans could fit on the scooters if they didn’t mind an uncomfortable ride. According to them, cars and trucks were only really used outside the city walls on rough terrain. His question about returning the cart was soon answered, and he chuckled to himself, making his way back over to the cramped foyer. He lifted the cart, then set it on the path outside the door, pressing a little touch panel on its side.

“Happy trails!” he said, waving the little cart off as it began to trundle down the footpath. They were autonomous and could return to their store of origin on their own. Very convenient.

Steven returned to the kitchen and began to examine his haul of food, along with whatever appliances he had available. He hadn’t been able to ask the dad he’d met about recipes due to the language barrier, but there must be some on the forum.

“Joseph, what would I do without you,” he muttered as he began to scroll through the different threads. Cooking was indeed a popular subject of conversation, and there were plenty of guides for using the alien appliances and preparing dishes. As he began to rummage through the fridge for some of the ingredients, he wondered how many human expats were already living on Valbara. Was it a few thousand? A few tens of thousands? The forum seemed pretty lively, and they couldn’t all be on there. Many didn’t seem to be permanent residents – they were Marines on shore leave, probably taking a break from the ongoing maneuvers on Kerguela. Based on what he was reading, the UNN was still shipping people in for live-fire training exercises on the recently liberated colony.

He fished out the mi’chitli meat that he had bought, the transparent wrapper packed with crumbling ice. Fresh fish weren’t unheard of in the more upscale restaurants of the domes, but he had never seen a whole one that still had bony armor plates attached to it as well as scales. It had thick, muscular fins where he would have expected to see legs, like some kind of little evolutionary throwback. Apparently, it went down a treat fried in vegetable oil and served with crunchy water weeds, so he was going to try his hand at that.

Everything seemed to have its own little cubby or compartment, and he found a frying pan in a drawer, setting it down atop a convection plate that was built into the countertop. It had touch controls that weren’t too different from what he was used to, and after pouring in a glug of golden oil, it was starting to sizzle. Now, what to do about the fish?

It was more of a dissection than food preparation, but after removing the scales with a knife and prying off the armor plates – they were connected to the spine, which was probably why they were still attached – he was looking at a couple of nice fish fillets.

“Gonna get this shit all over me,” he mumbled, shedding his nice jacket and taking off his dress shirt. “Don’t they have any towels or aprons around here?”

After a little rummaging, he was indeed able to find a little Valbaran-sized apron that was more like a bib to him. It couldn’t reach around his waist, so he just hung it from his neck while he cooked, the oil spitting and sizzling as he flipped the cuts of fish with a polymer spatula. After such a bizarre experience at the grocery store, cooking was delightfully familiar. There were only so many ways one could heat up food.

The seaweed was good fresh from the packet, so after sprinkling some salt crystals on the fish, he plated everything up on a ceramic dish shaped like a square and headed into the living room. The chairs around the dining table were a little small, so he flopped down onto the low couch, setting his meal on the coffee table. Using a two-pronged fork and a child-sized knife, he cut off a piece of meat and popped it into his mouth.

“Man,” he mumbled as he chewed, shaking his head in disbelief. “So this is farm-fresh. Goddamn. I could get used to this.”

He paused to take a bite of the seaweed, finding that it had an umami flavor with a citrus aftertaste – maybe some kind of spice or seasoning. The fish was juicy and still tasted of the ocean, beating the shit out of any vat-grown or processed meat he’d ever eaten.

When he was done, he lay back on the couch, letting the food settle for a few minutes as he examined his strange surroundings. Even though his hunger was sated, he had half a mind to go back and try another dish, but he paused to pull out his phone instead. He found the number that Joseph had left for him and sent him a message thanking him for his help and letting him know that things were going well.

That done, he was about ready for bed, but he recalled that there was no shower in the house. After a brief check of the forum to make sure it wasn’t hidden away in some concealed compartment, he confirmed that the pond in the garden was supposed to be used for bathing.

Steven retrieved a towel from his bag and headed outside, the golden glow from the foyer spilling across the blue-green grass. The sun was just setting, twilight dominating the sky as unfamiliar stars twinkled through the drifting clouds. It was strange not being able to see them cold and crisp against the blackness of vacuum, and Jupiter’s absence was disorienting in a way. Ahead of him was the pond, its calm surface reflecting the light that bled out of the house. Steven felt a little exposed, but he reminded himself that the landscaping prevented any passers-by from seeing into the garden.

He wandered over and took a closer look. It was just a waist-deep pool, but far from being filled with fish and weeds like many of the lakes and streams he had passed, it was crystal clear. It was fed by a little waterfall that trickled down a nearby hill in a rocky stream, creating little bubbles and splashes. There was nowhere for it to drain, so perhaps the water was being cycled out through filters to keep it fresh and clean.

With a shrug, he shed his clothes and folded his towel at the water’s edge, dipping a toe in gingerly. It was pleasantly cool, especially when contrasted with the warm, humid air of Valbara. He lowered himself in, sinking up to his chest, letting it immerse him. He could feel something akin to mud or silt between his toes. There were no baths or public pools on Ganymede – water was far too valuable, so a quick shower was all one could hope for. The idea that he could just sit here in a pool of free water made him feel like he was swimming in liquid gold.

There was a little wicker basket at the water’s edge, nestled beside some colorful alien flowers. It contained soaps and some kind of thin-toothed comb that didn’t look suitable for a human. He reached over and started to examine the contents of the bottles, opening the caps and sniffing them. They had strange odors, but none were unpleasant, so he upended one of them into his hand and began to wash. There were soon suds floating on the surface, and unless he was expected to fish them out with a little net, it was safe to conclude that the pool was self-cleaning.

He locked his fingers behind his head and just lay there for a while, listening to the trickle of running water and gazing up at the sky. If he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could hear the rustling of foliage and even the sounds of the ocean spilling in from the other side of the giant wall.

Maybe he should be feeling some kind of imposter syndrome. After all, he had done nothing to earn any of this – it had been a random lottery. There must have been thousands of other applicants from a dozen colonies who had the same skillset and work experience that he did, all jockeying for a handful of positions. What made him special or more deserving than the next guy? Nothing. Yet, here he was. As he had told Feng – when someone gives you a clean filter, you don’t ask where they got it.

***

Steven stumbled out of the elevator, swallowing as he straightened his tie. Eventually, he would get used to those damned things. He strode down the corridor and into the lobby, raising a hand to greet Yemi, who was sitting behind the reception desk.

“Morning, Yemi.”

“Mister Zheng,” Yemi replied with the customary flush of respectful red. “Welcome back.”

“What’s on the itinerary for today?” Steven asked, leaning on the counter.

“The company thought it best to give you some more time with your team today before resuming your lessons,” the male replied. “I’ll send for you later in the day.”

“Sounds good, looking forward to it,” Steven said with a thumbs-up that only seemed to puzzle the alien. He headed into the office, the massive complex opening up before him as he stepped through the door, the maze of dividers and raised platforms like some corporate jungle gym to his eyes. It was early in the day, but there were already flocks going about their business, walking between the cubicles in little groups and filling the air with their bird-like chatter. He had an idea of where his flock should be, cheating a little by looking over the dividers as he navigated, passing the flowering vines and overflowing planters.

He located his team, picking out their distinctive features at a distance. Even though he couldn’t recognize facial features so readily yet, his colleagues had enough variation in their coloration that it made them easy to tell apart. There was Ezi with her tan scales, Paza with her almost blue tint, and Mima with her covering of chestnut feathers. Ipal and Tilli were with them, already at their desks, the five aliens chatting and flashing their feathers as they shared morning drinks.

“Good morning!” Steven said, announcing himself by peering over the barrier. They responded with flashes of amused yellow and green, along with a little red in greeting.

“Welcome!” Tilli chimed.

“There he is,” Ipal replied, waving him into the cubicle. “We were just talking about you.”

“How did your shopping trip go?” Mima asked, always giving him those purple flushes of concerned feathers. “Were you able to find what you needed?”

“Yeah, I had fried fish with seaweed,” he replied as he leaned against one of the white walls. “It was great. Way better than those bug bars. My visit to the store was a bit of an experience. I met a guy who showed me how to use the vending machines, and then I ended up taking the cart back home with me on the train. Turns out that’s not how you’re supposed to use them. Also, they drive themselves back to the store when you’re done. I thought that was cool.”

“What?” Ezi sputtered, almost choking on her drink as her feathers flashed yellow. “You just wandered around the store until someone showed you how to buy food?”

“He took the shopping cart on the train!” Ipal chuckled, sharing an amused glance with Paza. “How do Earth’nay even function? It’s incredible to me.”

“I suppose you’d memorize every item you needed before even leaving the house?” Steven asked as he crossed his arms.

“Yes, and we’d certainly know how to purchase food before entering a store,” Ipal snickered. “I still can’t believe you took a cart onto the train – did anyone say anything?”

“Nah, but I got some funny looks,” he said with a shrug. “What’s the big deal, anyway?”

“It’s not a big deal,” Ezi replied, wiping her scaly lips on the back of her hand. “It’s just very funny.”

“And incredibly cute,” Ipal added with a conspicuous flush of pink that was shared by Mima and Ezi. “Do you really just stumble into new situations like that? A Val’ba’ra’nay doesn’t even start their day without a precise itinerary.”

“How precise?” Steven pressed, his brow furrowing.

“This morning, we checked the train schedule and reserved our scooters in advance,” Paza replied. “We agreed on what we were going to have for lunch during our break, and we planned out which projects we were going to be working on today, along with which tasks would be allocated to whom. We also discussed a choice of restaurants and narrowed down our choices for our evening meal.”

“And I suppose all of that took about five minutes in your language,” he mused. “What if you change your minds during the day? Say you were in the mood for seafood this morning, but by closing time, you’re hungry for noodles?”

“Any disruptions to the schedule would entail a new round of discussion until consensus was reached,” Paza replied, as though it was the most logical thing in the world.

“And, what if Ezi wants seafood and Tilli wants noodles?”

“Then we reach consensus,” Ipal said.

“So, it’s like everything is democratized?” Steven continued. “Rule of majority?”

“We weigh the wants and needs of each flockmate a little more carefully than that, but essentially,” Mima said. “We come to decisions together as a flock.”

“But not you?” Ipal asked, leaning her jaw in her scaly hand as she scrutinized him with a newfound interest.

“I’ve been winging it,” he replied with another dismissive shrug. “I try to approach new situations with an open mind and just figure things out for myself as I go. Back on Ganymede, we had to improvise a lot. Ever use an acetylene torch to heat up a hot pot?”

“This is actually a fitting demonstration of the value that Earth’nay might bring to the company,” Paza said, glancing up from her floating display. “They’re said to be very adept at improvisational thinking and coming to quick solutions to problems – albeit solutions that may be much less sound than those that result from careful consensus.”

“Is that why I’m really here?” Steven asked, raising a suspicious eyebrow at her. “I was starting to think that shipping a guy halfway across the sphere so he could fetch coffee and write emails wasn’t the most efficient way to go about hiring.”

“Along with serving as a suitable liaison for UN clients,” Paza admitted. “You simply understand the nuances of Earth’nay interaction and customs in ways that we do not.”

“Don’t downplay the enjoyment that we get from having a cute assistant to fetch us drinks,” Ezi snickered with a flutter of pink.

“You’d really describe me as cute?” Steven asked. “I don’t have any scales or feathers, and I probably look like someone hit me in the face with a shovel,” he added with a gesture to his nose. “I’m a few inches short of a snout here.”

“Ezi is only teasing,” Ipal said, giving her flockmate a flash of red to tell her to keep quiet.

“Well, you guys should give me some recipes,” Steven said, changing the subject. “I’d love to try more dishes.”

“There are some Earth’nay establishments that have opened up in the city if you’d like a taste of home,” Ipal suggested.

“A taste of home would be a lot less appealing than you probably realize,” he chuckled. “Nah, it’s Valbara’nay cuisine all the way for me from now on. That fried fish was absolutely transcendent.”

“I have some recipes I can give you,” Mima said. “We would be happy to teach you to cook, you know. Improvisation in the kitchen will not yield favorable results, I fear.”

“Perhaps once I’ve settled in,” Steven replied. “I’m still getting used to the place – finding all the hidden compartments and figuring out how the appliances work.”

“He cooks, too,” Ezi snickered as she gave Ipal a flash of pink.

“So, what’s on the docket for today?” Steven asked as he sauntered over to examine the nearest readout. “Do you have anything for me to work on? I learned a lot from my private lesson with Yemi yesterday.”

“Yeah, I noticed that you two were getting friendly,” Ezi said as she turned her attention back to him. “It’s hard for anyone to get through Yemi’s scales. He’s a bit of an enigma around the office.”

Steven wondered whether he should share anything that Yemi had told him about the difficulties of office life for males, but thought better of it. Yemi had been here for far longer than Steven had, and if he’d wanted to share his feelings, he would have done so by now.

“He’s just taking the tutoring seriously,” Steven replied. “I should be up to speed in no time.”

“We do actually have a task for you this morning,” Paza said, raising a hand to swipe through some of her hovering displays. “One of your responsibilities will be passing messages between the different departments. We’d like you to take a message up to resource allocation for us.”

“Resource allocation?” he asked. “Wait,” he added, pausing to think for a moment. “I’ve seen your internal messaging system. If you can send emails, why do I need to go talk to them?”

“Your job is social as much as it is technical,” Ipal explained, giving him one of her shrewd looks. “If Paza sends them an email asking for more server cycles in her usual dry manner, it’s just another message in their inbox. If we send our secretary in person, maybe it’ll get their attention – bump the request up their list of priorities.”

“The same is true for attending meetings on our behalf and taking calls from clients,” Ezi added. “Be polite, presentable, friendly – grease the wheels a little, as the Earth’nay say.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” he replied skeptically.

“It’s just office politics,” Ipal replied with a flutter of feathers that seemed dismissive, like a shrug. “Bored flocks are always going to appreciate a short break from the tedium. You weren’t tasked with talking to clients and passing messages in your last position?”

“At the sewage plant?” he asked. “Not really. If you wasted time chatting at work, you’d get written up. We had a half-hour lunch break, then it was back to the books.”

“Sounds like Earth’nay jobs would suit you just fine, Paza,” Ezi joked. Her flockmate responded with an annoyed flash of red before returning to her task.

“If you’re not comfortable with it…” Ipal began.

“No, it’s fine,” he insisted as he waved her concerns away. “When in Rome, right?”

“Rome?” Tilli asked, glancing between her flockmates.

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” he explained. “It just means that it’s a good idea to adopt local customs when you’re in a strange place. When on Valbara, do as the Valbara’nay do.”

“Alright, Earth’nay,” Ezi said as she leaned back in her chair with a smirk. “Go get us some extra server cycles.”

“Where’s resource allocation?” he asked. Paza pointed into the air, Steven following her clawed finger to see a door on a raised platform that jutted from the wall some two stories above him. “So, when you told me to take a message up to resource allocation, you were being literal…”

“Can you climb?” Ipal asked.

“My species evolved from primates,” he declared, cracking his knuckles as he turned to appraise the maze of walkways. “I wouldn’t be a very great ape if I couldn’t.”

He weaved his way between the cubicles, crossing the vast room as he headed for the back wall. He passed more aliens, giving those who stopped to look at him a curt bow as Yemi had shown him, a few of them responding with flutters of pink and green plumage. Some were clustering in the recessed bowls of cushions before starting their workday, sharing drinks and chatting, while others were already firmly glued to their tablets as they walked precariously across the narrow catwalks above.

I need this job, I need this job,” he muttered under his breath as he craned his neck to find his destination. The little creatures couldn’t fly – at least not that he knew of – but their architecture almost seemed designed for microgravity. He watched one of the Valbarans leap effortlessly between a walkway and a raised platform with the same ease that he might navigate the quarry back on Ganymede, the aliens so small and light that the heights hardly seemed to bother them. Maybe they had an arboreal background.

Where they could leap, he had to climb, and he eyed the nearest walkway. It was maybe a meter wide and raised two off the ground – not too high for him to reach. He rubbed his hands together, then reached out to grip its edge, gritting his teeth as he pulled himself up.

“Damn it,” he grunted, hauling himself onto the flat surface. “Being a clerk shouldn’t require this much upper body strength…”

He extended his arms for balance like he was walking on a tightrope, drawing a few amused flutters of yellow from nearby Valbarans as he planned out his route. He felt like he was playing one of those VR platforming games.

“Gonna have some serious words with Yemi about accessibility,” he grumbled, toeing the edge of the catwalk as he prepared for a jump. “Couldn’t give me a fucking step ladder?”

He hopped from the walkway to an adjacent platform, the flock who were sitting around a small table enjoying some breakfast with a window view looking up in alarm.

“Ladies,” he said with a tilt of his head before leaping to the next platform along. They weren’t all that far apart, and a large jump for a Valbaran was a much shorter distance for him, but he was still a good three meters off the floor now. He’d sank down much higher drops to different tiers of the quarry back home, but that was in barely fifteen percent standard gravity, where he wouldn’t bust a leg if he fell.

He walked along another precarious walkway, then spied another platform, hauling himself up onto the next level. He felt like a Marine tasked with completing an obstacle course.

When he finally reached the appropriate platform, he paused to catch his breath, glancing down at the office cubicles some nine or ten meters below. From this bird’s eye – or rather, Valbaran’s eye view – he could get a better look at how it was all laid out. It almost looked like a curving, disconnected maze of cubicles, the recreation areas forming little islands of comfort with seating and vending machines. Most of the elevated platforms served similar recreational purposes, but there were some larger ones where a handful of the aliens were working at desks.

The platform he was standing on was more of a lip that would allow access to a door in the wall, a few flowering creepers spilling over its edges from a pair of planters that were placed to either side of it. It opened at his approach, and he stepped into a private office more akin to Yemi’s lobby than the shared space outside.

Like the living room in his house, it had a carpeted floor, the room illuminated by a window that ran the full length of the back wall with an incredible view of the city. Never mind a corner office – this was like an executive suite. The workstations weren’t any different from those used by his teammates, scattered around in a more organic manner, a flock of six glancing up from their monitors as he entered.

“Hello,” he said with a short bow. “My name is Steven – I’m the new clerk.”

“Oh, you must be Ipal’s new boy!” one of them replied with a customary greeting. Steven’s first instinct was to think of her as the most senior of her team, but he had to constantly remind himself that things didn’t work that way here. “What can we help you with?”

“You seem tired,” another added with a concerned flutter of purple. “Are you well?”

“Just had to do a little climbing,” he panted, gesturing over his shoulder with a thumb. “Might be an idea to invest in some ladders or ropes. A rock climbing wall, maybe. Anyway, the flock sent me up here to ask about server cycles.”

“Server cycles?” one of the women repeated, giving her colleagues a weary glance. “Paza’tol’mantli has sent several internal messages to our inbox with that header. I’m afraid we haven’t had time to get to them just yet.”

“I get you – it’s still early in the workday,” Steven replied as he turned to the window. “You mind if I…”

“By all means,” the Valbaran replied, giving her permission with a flush of green.

“Whoa,” he muttered, walking up to the window and gazing through the glass. It was like the view of the elevator but far less harrowing, giving him a better appreciation of how high up he actually was. He could see the adjacent buildings with their glittering glass and verdant balconies, the street so far away that it looked like traces on a circuit board. “I don’t think I’ve ever been up this high without being in a spaceship.”

“Our position does afford us a rather inspiring view,” one of the aliens replied.

“What is that you do, exactly?” Steven asked as he turned away from the sight. “I should probably get to know as many people at the company as I can.”

“Our task is managing company resources, be they financial or otherwise,” another of the women replied.

He noted that unlike many of the women on the office floor below, these Valbarans wore slightly different clothing. Their tunics came in more neutral colors like black and gray, and rather than being a single piece of fabric, they were clasped together at the front somewhat like a vest. Their shorts were a little longer, but they were no less form-fitting. For the first time since arriving, Steven didn’t feel all that overdressed.

“When did you arrive?” another of the women asked, leaning on her desk casually. “We don’t see many Earth’nay in Kalahar.”

“I’ve only been here a couple of days,” he replied as he drew a little closer to the nearest workstation. “Second day on the job, too.”

“I’m glad management is finally hiring more staff,” the first woman said with a sideways glance at her neighbor. “There’s scarcely an eye spot in sight around here.”

“Let me know if you ladies need anything,” Steven added. “I think I’m the designated drink-fetcher, though climbing up those platforms with snacks might be a bit of a struggle.” That elicited some yellow feather displays, the aliens chuckling at the mental image, no doubt. He wanted to broach the subject of servers again – that was why he had been sent – but maybe playing dumb would earn him some brownie points. “What’s this about server cycles? I didn’t really deal with servers at my last job.”

“How rude of us,” one of the aliens began. “Of course, you’re an Earth’nay – we don’t expect you to know how things work here. All of these workstations are merely terminals,” she continued with a gesture to her desk. “They’re connected wirelessly to a bank of servers that store data and process information for the company.”

“Kind of like using a remote connection on a tablet,” he suggested.

“Very good!” she replied, her flock giving him a few flutters of green and yellow approval. They almost seemed surprised.

“We have ourselves a clever clerk,” one of them chimed, giving him a flush of pink.

“Server cycles refer to how much time the processors dedicate to a certain task,” the first woman continued. “More cycles mean faster processing and more accurate simulation. Your flock must be running some higher-fidelity sims on the network. Forgive me,” she added with a flash of pink and purple. “I didn’t mean your flock. That sounded presumptuous. I meant your assigned teammates.”

“No need to apologize,” he replied with a wave of his hand. “I’ve committed plenty of faux pas of my own since I got here. Took my shopping cart for a ride on the train yesterday.”

That earned him another round of amused feathers and alien tittering, along with a few more telling flashes of pink. Based on the context, he was starting to suspect it was an indication that they found him cute or endearing.

“You’ll learn in time,” she replied.

“I have good teachers,” he added with a smile, earning another wave of pink. “So, can I tell Ipal and Paza that they’re gonna get their cycles? I’m trying to prove myself and make a good impression – you know how it is. I wouldn’t want to disappoint them.”

The aliens shared a few hurried words for a few moments, then gave him their answer.

“Of course. We’ll make sure that Paza gets the server cycles that she needs.”

“Great! I owe you guys one,” he said with a sigh of relief. “Hey, just give me a call if you ladies need anything. Drinks, snacks, embarrassing stories about supermarkets – I’m just downstairs.”

“Lovely meeting you!”

“Bye, Steven!”

“See you later!”

The flock chimed their goodbyes as he left their office and descended back to floor level, climbing down the walkways and platforms. By the time he returned to Ipal and her flock, he had a wide grin on his face.

“Did you get the cycles?” Ipal asked with a skeptical tilt of her head. “That didn’t take you very long.”

“Paza is going to get all the cycles she needs,” he replied smugly.

“Damn, all it takes is a pretty face to get resource allocation to unlock their legs,” Ezi scoffed. “We should have asked Yemi to do this days ago.”

“Nice work,” Ipal said, giving him an appreciative flutter of green.

“What do you guys need all that extra server power for, anyway?” he asked as he sauntered over to Paza’s desk. “They said you might be running sims?”

“Remember we told you that the company was gunning for some Earth’nay clients?” Ezi said, shifting her weight in her chair as she leaned closer. “We’re competing for Navy contracts to produce tracking systems for LPDs.”

“I assume you’re about to tell me what an LPD is?”

“Laser point defense,” she replied with a flush of red that matched her toothy grin. “The Earth’nay have been buying up a lot of systems lately, and we want to break into that market.”

“I didn’t know that your company made weapons,” Steven added.

“Not hardware – just the software,” Mima interjected. “And these are only defensive systems.”

“Paza is a genius when it comes to adaptive targeting algorithms,” Ipal continued. “If we can design a program that outperforms those of our competitors, it might be installed in ships across both the UNN and Consensus fleets.”

“The credits would be rolling in,” Ezi chuckled. “Along with a nice performance bonus for us.”

“What do you guys even spend money on?” Steven asked skeptically. “Granted, I haven’t been here long, but this place seems like a paradise. What do you buy when all of your needs are taken care of?”

“Maybe we’ll show you sometime,” Ipal said, giving him another little flutter of pink.

“So, what they’ve been saying around the vending machines is true…”

Steven turned to see an unfamiliar Valbaran enter their cubicle. She was clad in the usual colorful tunic and tight-fitting shorts, her hands planted on her inhumanly wide hips as she flashed a display of orange. Yellow and red – displeasure, maybe? A form of negative surprise? Her scales were a deep, shiny green, and her violet eyes were fixed firmly on him.

“Morning, Lotl’tal’patli,” Ipal replied as she swiveled in her seat to give the newcomer a curt greeting. “What brings you to our little corner of the office?”

“How come your team gets a clerk, and mine doesn’t?” Lotl grumbled as she approached their cluster of desks. The rest of her flock followed behind her, a total of four aliens crowding the cubicle as they examined Steven like he was a new piece of office equipment.

“I suppose management just deems us more important,” Ezi replied, leaning back in her seat smugly.

“Or that you need the most help,” another of the strangers tittered, drawing a few yellow flashes from her flockmates.

“Everyone was gossiping about a new boy on the floor this morning, and an Earth’nay, no less,” Lotl continued as she peered up at Steven. “We were on-site with a client yesterday – we didn’t get to see him.”

“I give you permission to gaze upon our new Earth’nay,” Ezi snickered, waving a feather sheath at him.

“Uh, hi,” Steven began with a nod. “My name’s Steven. Pleased to meet you.”

“He’s very tall,” another of the strangers chimed.

“I hope this means there’s going to be a new wave of hiring,” Lotl continued, planting her little hands on her hips again. “Your team isn’t the only one that deserves an assistant.”

“We’re pretty close to landing that UN contract,” Ipal added. “I think we’re going to need the extra help managing all those new Earth’nay clients.”

“That remains to be seen,” Lotl grumbled with a flutter of annoyed red. “I suppose we’ll leave you to it, then. Nice meeting you, Steven.”

With a wave of her feathers, she directed her flock to leave, the little aliens filing out like a procession of scaly pigeons.

“Who was that?” Steven asked once they were out of earshot.

“That’s Lotl and her flock,” Ezi grumbled. “We’ve competed for some of the same contracts in the past, and they still hold it against us.”

“A little professional rivalry,” Ipal added.

“Am I really that newsworthy?” Steven continued. “Sounds like word is spreading around the office pretty quickly. They almost made it sound like I was assigned to your team as some kind of perk or reward.”

“Don’t pay them any mind, Steven,” Mima said with a reassuring flush of green. “It’s just office politics.”

“Here – let’s get you something to occupy yourself with,” Ipal said as she gestured to the seat beside her. “Show me what Yemi has been teaching you.”

***

Steven occupied himself with work for a few hours, Yemi’s tutoring helping him navigate the file system. Soon, he might be able to help manage the various projects that the flock was juggling. It wasn’t that he was better at planning than they were, or that he had a better memory, but he could immediately see how just having someone to help coordinate them and handle the more mundane tasks would increase their productivity. Every minute they weren’t dealing with inane emails or taking calls from clients was another minute they were making progress on their work.

The time flew by until Ipal rose from her seat, stretching her limbs and her sheaths.

“Time for lunch,” she declared, glancing over at Paza. “That means you too, Paza. Your algorithms will be here when you get back.”

“Very well,” Paza muttered as she finished up and closed down the window with a swipe.

“I’d be happy to fetch you guys some food from the vending machines,” Steven said as he produced his phone, preparing to take their orders like a waiter. “What’ll it be?”

“No vending machines today,” Ipal replied, pausing to chatter with her friends in their native language for a few moments.

“Agreed,” Mima said with a flash of green. “Steven has expressed an interest in Val’ba’ra’nay cuisine, and he deserves a little indulgence after his performance with resource allocation.”

“We have time to visit a nearby restaurant,” Ezi added, giving him a smile that was framed by another display of emerald. “What do you say?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he replied hesitantly as he reached up to rub his neck. “Is it a fancy place? I don’t want to blow through my funds too quickly.”

“We’re buying,” Ipal replied with an insistent flutter of red from her sheaths. “It’s supposed to be a reward.”

“Yeah, alright,” he conceded. “As long as we have time.”

They headed out through the office, passing by Yemi’s desk on their way past the lobby.

“We’re going out for lunch,” Steven said as the male looked up from his monitor. “I’ll see you this afternoon for another lesson?”

“Very well, I will see you then,” Yemi replied.

“Don’t you want to come with us, Yemi?” Ezi asked as she paused to lean on his desk. He turned his eyes to his work quickly, avoiding her gaze with a ripple of pink. “There’s room for one more, and we’re buying.”

“No, thank you,’ he mumbled. “I have work to do.”

“Over your lunch break?” Mima asked with her usual concern. “You must not work yourself so hard, Yemi. You need time to relax.”

“Yeah, you don’t need to prove yourself,” Ezi continued. “There aren’t many males with your responsibilities.”

“Sounds like he doesn’t want to come,” Steven said, Yemi giving him a grateful flush of green. “We’ll see you later, Yemi.”

The girls filed out behind Steven and made their way down the corridor towards the elevator, chatting as they went. They never seemed to stop talking.

“He needs to get out more,” Ezi complained as she bobbed along beside Steven. “He’s as bad as Paza – staying cooped up in that office all day. It’s like he doesn’t even want to socialize with the rest of the staff.”

“Yemi does have a lot of work on his plate, especially for a male,” Mima added with a more sympathetic tone. “The poor boy practically takes on the duties of an entire flock all by himself.”

“How much free time can he possibly have?” Ipal muttered. “It must take him an hour to wax his scales and paint his eyes before he even shows up for work, and he’s always here before we are. When he gets home, there are no wives to help him with cooking and chores.”

“First to arrive and last to leave,” Ezi sighed. “Little thing is gonna work himself to death. Fuck, why does he have to play so hard to get all the time? What he needs is some good herb and an eager flock to take his mind off his damned job for a few hours.”

“Yemi doesn’t seem all that interested to me,” Steven added, the aliens turning their heads to peer up at him. “Maybe he just wants to be left alone?”

“I think he’s just shy,” Mima replied. “A lot of males are.”

“They usually want a flock to approach them and declare their interest,” Ezi explained as they stopped by the elevator doors, flicking out a sheath to hit the call button like it was a tentacle. “Every guy plays a little hard to get so as not to appear too keen.”

“I just wish he’d take things a little easier before all of those beautiful feathers start falling out from the stress of it all,” Mima sighed.

“He won’t be that young and pretty forever,” Ipal added, the twin doors sliding open. “If he keeps rejecting every flock that makes a pass at him, he’s going to end up in a situation where he doesn’t have the luxury of taking his pick anymore.”

“What’s wrong?” Tilli asked, noting that Steven was hesitant to board the elevator. She was the quietest of the bunch, and she seemed the most perceptive.

“N-nothing,” he muttered, eyeing the car warily. “I just…don’t like these things very much.”

“He’s scared!” Ezi giggled with a flush of yellow.

“Come here,” Mima cooed. She reached out to wrap her sheath around his forearm, the strange appendage coiling like a snake, drawing his hand into hers. Like Yemi, her scales were smooth and cool to the touch, her downy proto-feathers ending near her wrist. She guided him into the car, surprisingly strong for her size, the flock surrounding him in a protective bubble. “Now, what about it frightens you?”

“I told you, I’m not scared,” he grumbled as his cheeks began to warm with embarrassment. “I just find the way that it becomes transparent kind of…unnerving. I grew up in tunnels – I’m not used to heights yet.”

“You’re safe with us,” Mima insisted, keeping a tight hold on his hand.

He wanted to tell her that he didn’t need her to literally hold his hand, and that he wasn’t afraid – he was just getting used to the ride, but he couldn’t think of a way to phrase it that didn’t sound needlessly rude.

The car began to descend, and he put on his most stoic face as the walls became see-through, the effort only seeming to amuse Ezi more.

It was a short ride to the bottom, and they stepped out into the lobby, Mima finally releasing Steven’s hand. They headed out of the main doors and into the street, the aliens watching curiously as Steven produced the sunglasses that Joseph had given him, flipping them open dramatically.

“What?” he asked. “The sunlight hurts my eyes.”

“Come on, you big baby,” Ezi giggled as the flock headed over to a row of two dozen scooters. Like the ones Steven had seen near the train stations, they were covered over with a glass awning to protect them from the elements. The girls scanned their devices, and the scooters unlocked, the flock mounting up like some kind of eco-friendly biker gang.

“What about Steven?” Tilli asked, the flock looking back at him.

“I could ride one, I think,” he mused as he examined the strange vehicles. The footrest was just slightly too small, and he’d have to crouch a little to reach the handlebars. It would be a little like riding a scooter meant for a child. “You know, I’ve never seen these things go all that fast. If you can limit the speed a little, I should be able to just walk along with you.”

“Are you sure?” Ipal asked, sharing a skeptical glance with her friends. “The restaurant we’re going to is almost a kilometer away.”

“No problem,” he replied. “I walked much further than that on my first day here.”

“Really?” Ipal asked with a flutter of yellow. “If you say so.”

“Try to keep up, Earth’nay!” Ezi said as the group pulled out into the road.

He had never seen the scooters go much faster than a jog, and with the flock reducing their speed, he was able to match pace at a brisk walk. The vehicles seemed to be gyroscopically stabilized because they remained upright even at lower speeds. Joseph had told him that the aliens didn’t like to walk long distances, but the flock doubting Steven’s ability to cover a kilometer on foot was something else.

It must have been an odd sight, a few other riders and pedestrians giving them odd looks as they passed. Steven was amused to spot a couple of little automated shopping carts on their way home, which seemed to be the only road traffic save for the scooters. After a couple of hundred meters, Ipal turned to glance at him as she rode along beside him, her voice joined by the electrical hum of the motor.

“Well, look at you go. You’re keeping up with a scooter, and you’re not even tired. I’d heard that Earth’nay had a lot of stamina, but this is impressive.”

“A Valbara’nay wouldn’t be able to walk this distance?” he asked.

“Not while keeping up with a vehicle,” she replied. “Without a scooter, a two-kilometer round trip would have us very worn out.”

“I suppose from your perspective, it’s like I’m keeping pace with a car on a ten-kilometer drive,” he chuckled. “This is good cardio, honestly. I was stuck on that damned ship for months without any room to stretch my legs.”

“I can see how stretching those would require a lot of room,” Ezi said with a flutter of yellow. “I kind of want to see how fast you can go, but I don’t want to wear you out before your meal.”

“I could go a little faster,” he replied, accelerating to a slow jog. “It’s hot and humid, though, and I’m not exactly dressed appropriately. This suit would have me soaking in sweat by the time we arrived.”

“Sweat?” Tilli repeated, seeming confused. “What is sweat, and why would you be soaking in it?”

“You guys aren’t mammals,” he replied, starting to breathe more heavily. “It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t sweat. Sweat is how we regulate our body temperature. Our skin is covered in pores that secrete a substance mostly made of water and salt. It evaporates to help cool us down.”

“A form of biological evaporation cooling,” Paza mused, seeming genuinely intrigued for the first time since he had met her. “We’ve designed software that regulates evaporative coolers in municipal buildings.”

“I have one built-in,” he replied, tapping a fist to his chest. “I’m gonna need it, too. Kalahar is a little hotter and wetter than I’m comfortable with. I suppose that’s what I get for growing up in an environment with an artificial climate. We didn’t exactly have seasons or weather back home.”

“This climate keeps our scales moist and helps us regulate our core temperatures,” Paza explained. “We are endotherms, though we still require favorable environmental conditions. I imagine that your species could tolerate a wider range of extremes than we can.”

“That’s like Mima and her feathers,” he mused. “An adaptation to cold climates. Do you have trouble living here, Mima? Do you get too hot?”

“Not particularly,” she replied. “My feathers can fluff up or compress depending on my environment. It allows me to alter the insulating air layer that they trap against my scales.”

“When she gets cold, she goes all puffy,” Ezi snickered.

“I just dress a little more sparsely than my flock,” Mima continued. “I do generally prefer cooler temperatures, but it isn’t something that causes problems.”

“The only problem is keeping her clean,” Ipal added. “You should see how much shampoo we go through in a rotation.”

It didn’t take more than ten minutes for them to arrive at the restaurant, the girls stowing their scooters in a matching rack outside the establishment as Steven took a moment to catch his breath. He had taken off his jacket by that point and had slung it over his shoulder, as the heat and humidity had him breaking a sweat.

He looked up at the neon sign above the entrance – its glow dulled by his glasses and the midday sun – but he couldn’t make anything of the squiggles. What he could pick up were the scents of cooking food wafting out of the doors.

The flock led him inside, and he found himself standing in the lobby of a restaurant. He was so used to sterile white environments with a few planters to break up the monotony that the sight of wood grain genuinely surprised him. The ceiling above his head was crisscrossed with exposed beams, while the floor was covered over with varnished planks, giving it a very rustic and homely feel.

“It’s not real wood,” Tilli whispered to him, noticing his wide eyes. “It’s just polymer made to look like wood.”

The Valbarans probably had some ecological objection to cutting down trees, but to Steven, wood was a precious material that was commonly used as a show of opulence. Having a mahogany desk or an oak chair on Ganymede meant that it had been imported from Earth at immense cost and for no practical purpose other than as a display of wealth.

There was a male staffing the front desk who greeted them with a flash of vibrant plumage. Like Yemi, he was dressed a little more formally than the girls, his face adorned with blue paint that framed his eyes and a jeweled pendant that came down over his forehead. He spared Steven a glance, then began to speak with Ipal in their native tongue, directing the party inside with a wave of his arm feathers.

Rather than tables and chairs, the restaurant’s walls were lined with enclosed booths that afforded their occupants a little more privacy, somewhat akin to the fast food places that Steven had visited in Memphis. Along with the warm brown and beige of the faux wood décor, the padding on the seats was all dark green leather – likely another facsimile based on what he knew about Valbarans. The place was lit by hanging lamps that gave off a warm, yellow glow, and the windows that looked out onto the street were tinted to further that cozy feel.

The flock slid into their booth, Steven following behind them. It clearly hadn’t been designed with humans in mind, but while the seats were quite low, they were fairly deep to account for the Valbarans’ tails. Rather than try to squeeze his legs beneath the table, he elected to cross them instead.

“Is that comfortable for you?” Ipal chuckled.

“Yeah, it’s fine,” he replied as he glanced around the room. Just like in the office, he was tall enough to see over the tops of the dividers that separated the booths, giving him a good view of his surroundings. The restaurant looked like it could accommodate maybe thirty flocks, and a good deal of the booths were occupied, a low murmur of conversation joined by the clinking of glasses and cutlery emanating from the other guests.

“This place is great,” Ezi said, leaning across the table in front of him. “We come here all the time.”

“What’s it styled after?” Steven asked. “I haven’t seen this kind of interior design anywhere else.”

“It’s supposed to look a little dated,” Mima explained. “There was a time when our dwellings were made from wood and stone rather than carbcrete and glass.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Steven replied. “Were they still dome-shaped?”

“No,” she replied with a smile and a flash of green. “Those are a more recent invention. They’re very efficient when it comes to cooling and energy consumption. Very durable, too. During the era of our history when our species began working copper and iron, and we began founding larger settlements, city walls were mostly made from wood and carved stone blocks. Most houses were of timber construction. This restaurant represents a later style, but it still calls back to a simpler era. I find it quite charming.”

“Sounds similar to human history,” Steven replied. “Even on Ganymede, there are some themed restaurants in the domes that are decorated to resemble old taverns and pubs. Sorry, I meant Earth’nay history. Why the walls, by the way? I don’t think I’ve asked yet.”

“In modern times, the walls serve several important functions,” Paza replied. “Weather and migration pattern monitoring, spill gates for water processing, climate control.”

“And they keep out the megafauna,” Ezi added.

“Megafauna?” Steven repeated.

“Very large, very aggressive creatures that might like to make a meal of us,” Ezi said, giving him an amused flutter of yellow when she saw his shocked expression. “What’s the matter? Never seen a Teth’rak?”

“You know I haven’t.”

They were interrupted as their waiter arrived – another male with ornate eye paint and a dangling chain around his forehead introducing himself with a red flash, the subtle iridescence of his vibrant feathers catching the light. He spoke in English, presumably for Steven’s benefit.

“Welcome, guests. How might I serve you today?”

“A meal for six, please,” Ipal replied.

The male waved a hand in the direction of their table, a holographic display in the form of a cylinder appearing to hover above its polished surface, rotating slowly in the air.

“We have several menus to choose from today. Please signal when you’ve reached consensus, and I will return to take your order.”

The male bobbed away again, leaving Steven to watch the floating text. The more time he spent in Kalahar, the more he noticed the prevalence of males in service positions. Secretaries, greeters, waiters – they seemed skewed towards public-facing jobs that required a lot of social interaction. Maybe they were especially suited to those roles, or maybe it was just where the females wanted them. Steven wasn’t exempt, and the flock hadn’t exactly been coy about the company’s reasons for hiring him, which were as much about appearances as expertise.

“What’s on the menu?” Steven asked. “I can’t read Valbaran yet. I doubt I’ll ever be able to.”

“We’ll order for you,” Mima insisted, the flock sharing a brief exchange in their rapid-fire language of chirps and trills. When they had come to a decision, Ipal closed down the hologram, which seemed to signal to the waiter that they were ready to order. He returned quickly and memorized their requests, having no need to note anything down.

“You were talking about megafauna?” Steven asked once the waiter had left.

“Show him,” Ezi said eagerly as she looked to Ipal, who was closer. Ipal produced her phone, and with a few taps, she was showing him a video recording on its screen.

Steven watched a herd of bird-like aliens with long legs and necks grazing on a blue-green savanna, their bodies covered in brown feathers with white tips. They seemed to be flightless, their wings atrophied to give them the appearance of an ostrich with a long, reptilian tail.

“What are those?” Steven asked, leaning closer to get a better look at the small display.

“A herd of gue’tra,” Ipal explained. “They’re herbivores that live in flocks. We hunt them seasonally for meat.”

“Shit, I think I bought some gue’tra meat when I went shopping,” he mused. “I had no idea they looked like that.”

As the video continued to play, there was movement from a nearby cluster of alien trees, as though something large was shaking their branches. A few of the gue’tra lifted their long, flexible necks from the grass to glance around, their large eyes staring dumbly.

Moments later, what looked like a fireball exploded from the thicket, snapping the trunks of the trees like twigs and kicking up great clods of earth. The fiery orange shaped barreled towards the herd of gue’tra, and like a shoal of fish being disturbed by a shark, they formed a seething mass as they bolted. They were incredibly light on their feet, moving as one organism, juking and dodging to escape their pursuer.

Only now did the creature begin to resolve in Steven’s mind. It was bipedal, standing on massive, powerful legs ending in clawed feet that tore at the ground like the blades of a plow. If it had any forelimbs, they were so atrophied as to be invisible. The most obvious comparison that he could make was that of a tyrannosaurus – an image burned into every young boy’s mind, no matter their colony of origin. Rather than scales, it was covered in a fiery orange coat of feathers from head to tail, a prominent, white stripe framed by angry red running from its nose to its flank. Along its spine were peacock-like feathers in the same red and white hues that seemed to be attached to muscle groups, shifting and standing on end almost like the fur of an angry cat as it moved.

It swung a proportionally massive skull, using it like a hammer to sweep through the fleeing herd, sending a handful of the smaller creatures scattering across the grass as though they had been hit by a truck. Scaly lips peeled back to expose long, pointed teeth evolved to butcher meat, its beady eyes fixing on one of the broken gue’tra. The ruff of feathers around its neck flared out to frame its head, revealing deeper hues of blood red beneath the orange, the beast bearing down on one of its victims like an explosion with fangs.

“Is that thing real?” Steven gasped. “You’re not messing with me?”

“That is a Teth’rak,” Ipal replied. “It’s the apex land predator on this planet.”

“How big is that fucking thing?”

“About fifteen of your meters,” Ezi replied. “Ten tons, I believe.”

“Okay, now I understand the walls,” Steven said as he marveled at a still frame of the thing. “Are there any of these things nearby?”

“They tend not to range very close to Kalahar,” Ipal said, stowing her phone. “We have Kal’quetz, though.”

Kal’quetz?” Steven repeated. “What are those?”

“Don’t tell him!” Ezi interjected with a flash of yellow, interrupting Ipal. “We should show him! They do tours out of the marina!”

“You want to take him on a Kal’quetz tour?” Ipal chuckled.

“Are any of you going to tell me what that means?” Steven demanded, glancing between the flockmates expectantly.

“It will be more fun to just show you,” Ezi said, the orange tone of her feathers somehow mischievous. “Trust us. And don’t look it up – you’ll ruin the surprise.”

“If you say so,” he muttered.

The waiter soon returned with their meal, pushing a wheeled cart loaded up with trays. He began to place them on the table, each plate made from wood that matched the décor – or something designed to resemble it. They were loaded with strange dishes, Steven barely having time to examine one before an even stranger dish replaced it, the food piling up in the middle of their table. He shouldn’t be surprised that the flock hadn’t ordered a meal for each of its members – it seemed that everyone would be dining communally. The waiter placed an empty bowl in front of each guest, along with a wooden cup, then left with a respectful bow.

The flock began to dig in, reaching across the table to fill their plates and passing items back and forth, remarkably coordinated in their dining.

“Here,” Mima began, reaching for a pair of tongs. “If you enjoyed the fish you ate last night, you should love this. It’s a larger species from deeper waters.”

She placed a large steak of pink meat that looked like tuna in his bowl, then piled it up with some roasted root vegetables, their crispy skins dusted with green flakes that might be seasoning. There was more crunchy seaweed cut into neat squares, along with red meat served in marbled, bite-sized cubes that had been glazed with some kind of creamy sauce.

“What’s all this?” Steven asked, preemptively picking up his knife and two-pronged fork before Mima took it upon herself to start hand-feeding him.

“Give it a try!” she insisted, setting down her tongs. “I promise there is no insect protein in there.”

“Perhaps trace amounts,” Paza added, Mima giving her a flash of red to tell her to keep quiet.

He cut off a generous piece of fish and popped it into his mouth. Having never eaten fresh fish back on Ganymede, he didn’t really have anything to compare it to, but the meat carried that signature ocean flavor of sea salt. It had been cooked much more thoroughly than what he had eaten the night prior, practically melting in his mouth. What he had assumed to be something akin to a potato was actually more like a turnip – one of the few vegetables that grew well back home. The skin was crunchy and flaky, while the flesh was fluffy and soft, wisps of steam rising from them when he cracked them apart with his knife. Those little green flecks added a splash of umami flavor.

“These are good,” he mumbled through a mouthful of the strange vegetables. “What are they?”

“These are tubers that grow in our aquaponic farms,” Mima explained, seeming to enjoy watching him eat. Tilli leaned in too, her eyes locked to his lips as he chewed. “They’re fed with water enriched by the fish tanks, and those nutrients accumulate in their roots, which we harvest for food.”

“It’s a potato,” he said with a shrug. “Space potato.”

“If you say so,” she chuckled, popping one of the vegetables into her mouth. He found himself just as fixated by her chewing as she was by his. Valbarans had very different teeth from humans. They were pointy and needle-like, probably designed to pierce the shells of insects. Valbarans were clearly omnivorous like humans, but maybe that was a more recent evolutionary development. While Mima had scaly lips, she had no cheek pouches to speak of, so the process of chewing involved biting off chunks small enough to swallow in one gulp. When she ate a larger piece, or perhaps she wanted to savor its taste and texture, she would juggle it around in her jaws as she used her back teeth to saw it apart. Her tongue was long and thin with a tapered point, matching the shape of her snout.

“You have strange teeth,” Tilli said, trying to lean past Mima.

“Take a look,” he said, swallowing before opening his mouth so that she could see inside. “Those flat teeth at the front act like scissors, the ones that look like fangs are for tearing meat, then the ones at the back grind up tougher foods. I use my tongue to push the food between my cheeks while I chew.”

“Your tongue is so flat and wide,” she mused, tilting her head curiously. “Humans really do have short snouts. The teeth almost form a half-circle shape.”

“It’s interesting that we started out from such different places, but we ended up converging,” he continued as he sliced off another piece of fish. “Different sets of tools for accomplishing the same tasks.”

“Our diets do seem similar,” Ipal said.

“Humans ate a lot more tough plant fiber and roughage in our ancient history,” Steven continued. “We actually have vestigial molars called wisdom teeth that sometimes have to be surgically removed due to impaction. Our jaws have reduced in size so much that there’s not enough room for them anymore, and they’ll eventually be selected out.”

“What’s wise about them?” Tilli asked.

“That is a good question,” he replied, gesturing to her with his fork.

Next, he sampled one of the cubes of meat, the glaze of pale sauce dripping from it.

“This is gue’tra flank,” Mima explained as he turned it over on his fork. “The sauce is an egg yolk base seasoned with some local herbs.”

It tasted a little like beef, while the sauce was creamy and rich, the two flavors complemented by the herbs. He paused to bite into a few of the seaweed squares, enjoying their crunchy texture as much as the taste. It wasn’t that hard to imagine a Valbaran buying a packet of these things from a vending machine and snacking on them at their desk like potato chips.

The rest of the flock seemed to be enjoying the meal just as much as he was, sharing morsels of food between them, flashes of color from their feathers accompanying the laughter and conversation. Having spent so many evenings eating packaged food alone in his hab, it was a nice change of pace – kind of like how he imagined a family dinner was supposed to go. Drinking with his friends from the quarry was probably the closest thing he could think of, but getting blasted on cheap hooch wasn’t really the same.

“So, what’s this about you getting tossed out of habs by women?”

“What?” he sputtered, pausing to finish chewing.

“When we were talking about flocks and marriage yesterday, you said that you would stick to having one woman tossing your ass out of her hab,” Ezi pressed as she leaned across the table. “I want to know what got you tossed out of said woman’s hab.”

“Nothing gets past you guys, does it?” he muttered as he glanced around the table at their expectant faces. “Gonna have to watch what I say with that perfect recall.”

“Well?” Ipal pressed, leaning back into her seat with a seaweed square in hand like she was anticipating a story.

“When I lived in Marius Regio, I dated a girl who was…kind of crazy,” he began. “We’d get into fights – usually about money – and she’d throw dinnerware at me or kick me out of her hab to walk home in my skivvies when I pissed her off. I was bouncing between temp jobs at that point in my life, so I guess I can’t blame her all that much. I was young, dumb, and kind of a bum if I’m being honest.”

“She didn’t support you financially?” Ipal asked, tilting her head with a quizzical flush of lemon yellow.

“Why should she?” Steven chuckled. “I wasn’t married to her – I was just her deadbeat boyfriend.”

“Earth’nay culture must be very different from ours,” Mima added, pausing to take a bite of a meat cube. “Traditionally, a flock would be expected to care for their partner. Financial concerns would be very unlikely to factor into it.”

“There are certainly Earth’nay women who would do that,” Steven replied as he fished another piece of meat from his bowl. “I wouldn’t say it’s common, and it’s certainly not a cultural expectation. I’d even say it’s unhealthy if the guy is imposing and taking advantage of her.”

“Our goal would generally be to get a boy to move in with us as quickly as possible,” Mima explained with a flutter of pink. “We would bring him into our flock and care for him the same way we care for each other.”

“I suppose that adding a sixth or seventh member to a flock is much less disruptive than adding a second,” Paza added. “Consider that Earth’nay are usually solitary, and any marriage is between two individuals.”

“A generalization, but not wholly incorrect,” Steven replied with a nod. “What happens with someone like Yemi, then? If he joins a flock, does he have to quit his job and move in with them?”

“Well, people can date without much commitment,” Ezi replied with a dismissive flutter of feathers. “If someone like Yemi wanted a serious relationship, and he wanted to move in with a flock and fill up some incubators, yeah. He would probably have to choose between a career and a family. Maintaining a home and caring for children is a job in itself. It would be his flock’s responsibility to support him, of course.”

“I can see why some of them would want to go it alone for a while,” Steven said, spearing another piece of meat with his fork.

“Why did you stay with someone who you refer to as crazy for so long?” Ezi asked, yanking him back to the original subject. She took a sip from her drink, watching him over its wooden rim. “She must have been doing something right.”

“Well, she was…” He stopped himself, considering his next words carefully. “I’ll just say that we were very compatible in some ways, but not others.”

“She probably fucked like a Teth’rak,” Ezi snickered, making Tilli sputter as a wave of pink and yellow spread around the table.

“Ezi!” Ipal scolded with a flash of red.

“I’m just saying what we’re all thinking,” she added, taking another nonchalant sip from her drink. “We’re all friends here.”

“I take it that means there’s nobody waiting for you back on Ganymede?” Mima asked.

“I hadn’t been living in Memphis for that long by the time I left,” Steven replied. He decided to sample one of the drinks, finding that it tasted like fruit juice. “Other than my best friend, Feng, I had nothing tying me down.”

“Do you miss him?” Mima asked, giving him a flush of sympathetic blue.

“Yeah,” he sighed, glancing into his cup. “We’d go out drinking after cutting ice – waste all our pay slips. You know how it is.”

“If you like drinking, we could take you out to a lounge,” Ezi suggested with a glance to her companions. “If you’re going to be living in Kalahar, you’re going to have to check out the nightlife at some point, so it might as well be with us. We know all the best places.”

“I dunno about that,” he replied, taking another drink from his cup. It was already gone – the damned things were tiny. “Maybe when I’m settled in a bit more. I don’t want to be turning up at my new job late with a hangover.”

“Oh no, I think we have another Yemi on our hands,” Ezi snickered.

“Based on your body weight alone, I don’t think you’d survive a round of shots in a Memphis dive bar,” he replied, prompting more cackling and yellow flutters from her. “You can use that shit to strip paint.”

“Don’t waste too much time chatting,” Paza added, checking the display that was projected from her wrist device. “We only have another ten minutes to eat if we want to make it back to the office on time.”

“Let me show you what a mammalian metabolism can do,” Steven declared, reaching out to stab another fish steak with his fork.

***

They finished up their meal, and then it was another short jog back to the office building. His jacket still slung over his shoulder, Steven greeted the males at the entrance, then followed the flock over to the dreaded elevator.

“If you get scared, you can hold Mima’s hand again,” Ezi whispered as the doors closed to seal them inside.

“I wasn’t scared,” he replied.

“Yes you were.”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“You were scared,” she insisted. “I saw how scared you were.”

The elevator began to rise, Steven watching the city flash past beyond the transparent walls, and they were soon entering Yemi’s lobby again.

“Hi, Yemi,” Mima chimed with a flutter of green. “Have you eaten? Would you like us to bring you anything?”

“No, but thank you,” he replied as he glanced up from his display. “I had something from the vending machines. I wonder if I might steal Steven away for a while? It’s time for his remedial class.”

“Of course,” Mima replied. “We’ll see you later, Steven.”

“You boys have fun,” Ezi said, giving them a flutter of pink on her way into the office.

“Thanks for the meal!” Steven called after them as the door slid shut.

“How did it go?” Yemi asked as Steven walked around to the other side of the desk.

“Pretty good,” he replied. “The flock is…lively. There are some cultural hurdles still to overcome, but they’re clearly trying hard to make me feel welcome. It’s nice to have some friends when you’re in a strange place. Oh, hey,” he added as he noticed a human-sized chair with a backrest sitting beside Yemi’s stool. “You got me a chair?”

“I requisitioned it yesterday, and a printer slot only freed up over lunch,” he explained as he gestured for Steven to sit. “I hope it’s adequate.”

“This is great, thanks!” he replied as he lowered himself into it. It was made of polymer, and it had a simple design somewhat reminiscent of a dining chair, but it was an upgrade over what he had been using. “I should get a couple of these for my house – maybe then I could actually eat at the kitchen table.”

“Are you ready to resume where we left off yesterday evening?” Yemi asked as he began to open windows and slide them over to Steven’s side of the desk with practiced speed.

“Sure am,” Steven replied.

***

They worked for a few hours, going over the intricacies of the file system until there was a bit of a lull, Steven taking the opportunity to speak up.

“Hey, do you mind if I ask you something personal? I know you’re very work-oriented, and I don’t want to pry if you’d rather not talk about it.”

“Of course,” Yemi replied, pausing to glance up at him. “What would you ask of me?”

“I’ve been talking with the flock a lot, and they make it sound like you don’t get out much. Is that just you turning them down, or do you not have a large friend group at the company? I can’t help but notice that you and I are the only males on the floor.”

“I don’t have much time for socializing with my workload,” Yemi replied simply.

“You must have some free time, though,” Steven insisted. “You can’t work for every waking hour.”

“Do not misinterpret that as a complaint,” Yemi added hurriedly. “I enjoy my job a great deal, and I’ve worked my way up to a position of privilege and responsibility within the company. It’s not something that many males can claim.”

“Oh, sure,” Steven conceded with a nod. “We’re in the same boat – I totally get it. I just feel like maybe Mima isn’t completely off-base when she worries about you not eating. Yeah, she has a tendency to mother everyone, but you don’t have to work through your lunch break to prove that you’re capable.”

“Unfortunately, working as hard as the females does not guarantee one the same respect,” Yemi muttered. “You are new here, but you will find out sooner or later that if you wish to be taken seriously, competence is not enough. You must constantly exceed expectations.”

“That sounds like a lot of pressure to put on someone,” Steven said. “I know that the females are always trying to get you to go out to restaurants and lounges with them, but have you ever been out for a drink with a friend from work? Maybe you and I could hang out sometime. Call it a guys’ night out.”

“With you?” Yemi asked, tilting his head as he allowed himself a curious flutter of yellow plumage.

“Yeah,” Steven replied. “No females haranguing us, just a couple of work friends sharing a meal. It’s very common where I come from. Actually, I met this guy called Joseph on my way into Kalahar. He’s pretty cool – he’s an Earth’nay like me – and I owe him a drink for helping me out. He probably knows some good places where we could meet up.”

Yemi considered for a moment, Steven waiting patiently until the alien gave him a flush of affirmative green.

“Alright,” Yemi replied. “I will have to make an opening in my schedule, but I should be able to find the time.”

“Great,” Steven said. “I think it’ll do you good to relax and take your mind off things for a while.”

“Your friend Joseph is like you?” Yemi asked.

“Kind of,” Steven replied. “He’s a businessman who travels between the Saturnian system and Valbara. He’s in Kalahar trying to buy some aquaponic farms for his home colony. I think he told me this was his third visit. He helped me out and gave me some advice when I got off the shuttle.”

“He sounds friendly,” Yemi said.

“I think you’d like him,” Steven replied. “Alright – let’s keep going. Show me how to make calls to the server.”

***

The end of the day was marked by another procession of Valbarans leaving the office, Steven waving back at them as they flashed their feathers in greeting, showering the two males with attention on their way out. Steven understood how it might become overwhelming for Yemi after so long, but he had to admit that being treated like a celebrity was kind of fun – at least for a while.

Ipal and her flock were the last out, pausing to surround the desk like a pack of wolves as they tended to do, Ezi leaning on its polished surface.

“Are you ready to go, Steven?” she asked.

“Go?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “Where are we going, exactly?”

“He’s already forgotten,” Ezi chuckled, giving Ipal a smirk. “Remember over dinner, we talked about taking you on that Kal’quetz tour?”

“I didn’t realize you meant this afternoon,” he replied.

“Do you have other plans?” Mima asked.

“Not right now,” he said with a shrug. “I suppose I can go. You guys have to start involving me in your planning process, though.” He shut down his display and rose from his new chair, giving Yemi a nod. “I’ll talk to Joseph and see when he’s available. We’ll talk about it soon.”

“Alright,” Yemi replied with a flush of green. “I’ll see you all tomorrow.”

Steven left with the flock, who were now giving him suspicious looks as they walked down the carpeted corridor.

“What did you and Yemi talk about?” Ezi asked, matching his pace with her bobbing gait. “Who’s Joseph?”

“He’s a friend who helped me out when I arrived in Kalahar,” Steven replied. “Yemi and I were talking about going out for a few drinks with him.”

“What!?” Ezi gasped, her feathers erupting into shocked yellow. “You managed to get Yemi to go out!?”

“Just as work friends, yeah,” he replied as the little alien practically hopped up and down excitedly. “Sounds like he doesn’t get out all that much.”

“We’ve been trying to get Yemi to go out with us for about three rotations,” Ipal scoffed. “That boy won’t budge from his desk for anyone, and we’re pretty sure he doesn’t do anything but work and sleep. How did you manage to convince him?”

“I didn’t really have to convince him of anything,” Steven replied with a shrug. “I just asked him if he’d like to join us. You could try being his friend before you try to get into his shorts, you know.”

“We are his friends,” Ezi protested. “We’re always inviting him out.”

“Okay, but you have a very obvious ulterior motive for doing that,” Steven chuckled. “If you toned it down a bit, maybe he’d respond better. He doesn’t seem to have many friends at work, and he might appreciate you genuinely wanting to spend time with him. He worked me into his schedule, so he’s not totally swamped.”

“Perhaps Steven is our way to get to Yemi,” Ezi said with a conspiratorial flash of red.

“I’m not gonna do that for you,” he replied with a smirk.

“Aw, come on!” she whined as she tugged at his sleeve. “This is the first time Yemi has agreed to do anything with anyone since we joined the company! You clearly know how to talk to him. What’s the secret?”

“I’m not gonna be your wingman,” he chuckled, pulling his arm away.

“At least tell us what he likes to drink,” Ipal insisted.

“His favorite food?” Mima asked.

“What music does he listen to?” Tilli added as she hurried along beside him.

“Ladies, ladies,” Steven chided as they reached the elevator. “This evening is supposed to be about me. I expect the full Calcutta tour.”

“Kal’quetz,” Paza corrected.

“Yeah, that,” he replied as he stepped into the car.

“No wonder you have to write everything down,” Ezi giggled.

They descended to the ground floor and headed outside, catching a train instead of riding scooters this time, as their destination was a little further away. Steven took a window seat, watching the city diminish to be replaced with rolling parkland and patches of forest, the wall looming ever larger ahead of them. Only when they neared the break in the wall did he realize that they were heading back to the port through which he had entered the city, the glittering expanse of ocean stretching to the horizon, dotted with little islands.

The train slid to a stop, and they piled out onto the platform, the ocean breeze blowing Steven’s hair as he took in the view. There were the piers extending out into the water, along with the myriad of strange watercraft, small skiffs and massive cargo ships skimming just above the ocean’s surface.

“This way,” Ipal declared, waving them on with her feathers. “We’re close enough that we don’t need scooters.”

They followed one of the winding paths that led through the band of parks and trees until they transitioned to the more artificial area of the docks, the grass and flowers giving way to paved carbcrete. The sea birds that Steven had seen on his way from the spaceport crowded the sky, perching on mooring posts and following the ships in flocks, riding in their wake.

“You must have never seen the ocean before arriving here,” Tilli mused as she watched him take in the view. “What do you make of it?”

“It’s beautiful,” he replied, pausing to watch one of the mammoth ships leave the docks. It accelerated, gradually building speed until it lifted a few meters off the water, heading off towards the archipelago. “An ice miner is never going to be able to do it justice, but the way that it reflects the sunlight is incredible. It looks like…a big mass of sapphires, always shifting and shining. Everything on Ganymede is so still and static, sometimes literally frozen, but nothing here ever stays in one place for long. The water moves, the clouds drift, the leaves blow in the wind.”

“An ice miner could do worse,” Ipal said with a smile and a flush of green.

“What really gets me is how far I can see,” Steven added. “There’s no glass in the way – no visor or dome. Then there are the things I can smell and hear. When you’re wearing a pressure suit out on the surface, the only thing you can smell is the inside of your helmet, and you can’t hear anything that isn’t piped through your headphones. Inside the warrens, sound doesn’t carry very far with all the pressure doors. The fact that I can still hear the city and smell the gardens all the way out here is crazy to me. It’s like all of my senses have been expanded.”

“Well, you’re about to get a closer look at the ocean,” Mima said.

The flock led him to a small, white building at the end of one of the piers. A couple of boats were moored nearby, their streamlined, catamaran-like hulls bobbing gently on the water. They were smaller than the transport that he had ridden in on, only large enough for a handful of passengers. Both the boats and the building had some kind of Valbaran signage on them that he couldn’t read, and there were a couple of other flocks milling around outside, seemingly waiting for something. They glanced up to peer at him as he approached, the sight of an alien ever the novelty in Kalahar. One of them was a family with a male in tow, and Steven noted that he had no eye paint or jewelry. Could that be the mark of a happily married Valbaran?

Paza dipped inside the building, returning a short while later with yet another flock in tow, these women all wearing matching wet suits with the logo of the company emblazoned on their chests. It was hard not to examine their figures in the form-fitting clothing, the otherwise modest swimwear practically skin-tight, leaving very little to the imagination.

There had been hints through the loose tunics that the females favored, but they really did have breasts, the small mounds easily visible through the spandex-like material. Beneath them was a flat belly with a narrow waist that flared out into their signature hips, giving them an exaggerated hourglass figure. Their thighs were almost as thick around as their torsos, packed with the muscle that allowed them to leap around with the ease that they did. Their butts were tight and firm, the way that their thick tails extended out from the bases of their spines somewhat obscuring their pert cheeks.

He realized that he was staring and quickly averted his gaze. Somehow, he was seeing the aliens in a new light – as though two wires had become crossed or two wayward neurons had made a connection that hadn’t existed before.

“Come on, Steven!” Tilli chirped as she tugged at his sleeve to get his attention.

The flocks were loading onto one of the boats under the supervision of the staff, Steven following his friends up the precarious gangplank. They seemed to have arrived bang on time for the tour to start, but the Valbarans were nothing if not obsessively punctual. There was an awning on the boat to protect the passengers from the elements, and as he looked down, he saw that it had a viewing area with a glass bottom.

“Are we going to be seeing some fish?” he asked.

“You could say that,” Ipal replied.

There were some Valbaran-sized stools arranged around the viewing area that would allow the passengers to swivel easily, but Steven elected to grip a handhold near the side of the boat, peering down at the ocean as they got underway. One of the wet suit girls took the helm near the prow, easing the boat away from the pier, slowly picking up speed as they headed out into open water. Once they were going fast enough, the hull lifted away from the surface, the ride becoming far smoother.

“It feels like rotations since we’ve been out to the marina,” Ipal sighed, joining Steven as he enjoyed the cool spray from the canards. “We live right beside the ocean, but we rarely get to appreciate it. You’re giving us a good excuse to have a lot of fun, you know.”

“I am known for my boundless benevolence,” he replied.

“I’m sure,” she chuckled, her pink feathers blowing in the wind as she leaned over to follow his gaze.

“By the way, shouldn’t I be wearing a life jacket or something?” he asked. “We didn’t exactly have municipal pools on Ganymede.”

“What is life jacket?” Ipal replied with a tilt of her head.

“It stops me from sinking if I fall overboard.”

“Why would you fall overboard, and why would you sink?” she asked, as confused as he had ever seen her.

“I wouldn’t fall overboard on purpose,” he protested. “Don’t most people sink in water?”

“Not us,” she replied. “Many of our bones have cavities filled with air sacks that make up part of our respiratory system.”

“So, you always float?” Steven asked skeptically.

“Unless we’re weighted for free diving, yes,” she said. “Am I to assume that you have no such air sacks? No wonder you’re so heavy.”

“Heavy!” he replied in mock outrage. “I’m not overweight – I just have dense bones.”

“Better not fall overboard, then, big guy.”

“I need to have some words with your English tutor,” he muttered, turning his eyes back to the waves.

The boat coasted for a while, passing between a couple of islands dotted with palm trees before eventually slowing. It lowered itself back to the water, Steven feeling the gentle waves start to buffet it again, the glass bottom giving the passengers a clear view into the water below. He joined the crowd of aliens around the viewing area, his height letting him see over their heads easily.

The water was deep enough that the ocean floor was obscured by a blue haze, the sight filling him with a strange, instinctual sense of unease. Shoals of silver fish flitted back and forth, forming great, swirling masses that flowed together as though they were driven by some shared intelligence. It was mesmerizing, Steven finding himself transfixed by the sight. They swam in great streams before clumping up into larger masses, seeming to chase something that he couldn’t see, their scales shimmering in the sunlight. The tour guides began to speak, Ipal translating for his benefit.

“These fish are surfacing in search of microscopic zooplankton,” she explained. “They swim in shoals for protection – making themselves look larger to prospective predators. That won’t fool a Kal’quetz, though.”

“You’re really building this thing up,” he muttered.

“They hunt in this area, so it shouldn’t be long before one of them shows up on radar.”

They waited for a few minutes more, Steven watching the fish dart back and forth beneath the boat, then one of the guides called out.

“Large signature on the scope,” Ipal said. “She’s coming in.”

Steven turned his eyes to the horizon, searching between the islands without being sure what he was looking for. Something caught his eye, and he saw a flock of white sea birds soaring above the water – the same kind that often followed ships around. They were sticking close to the waves, circling as though something beneath was drawing them in.

A shape breached a few hundred meters from their boat, a great mass displacing the water as it slid into view, its blue-gray skin gleaming in the sun. It was hard to make out much more than a hump, but it was large, whatever it belonged to coasting through the ocean with deceptive ease. A pair of sealed nostrils opened up, shooting a spout of water high into the air that sent the swarming sea birds scattering, and then it sank back beneath the waves with barely a ripple.

Steven had seen videos of whales – an Earth animal of unmatched size – but the scale was hard to imagine without seeing one in person. Just the way that this thing made the ocean surface bulge outward with its passing gave him some sense of its immense scale.

It was heading towards their boat, or rather, towards the shoals of fish that were swimming about beneath it. At a glance, he could tell that it was larger than their little craft.

“Uh, that thing looks pretty big,” he mumbled as he stepped away from the edge of the boat. “Is it safe for us to be here?”

“They do these tours all the time,” Ipal replied. “It’s quite safe – the Kal’quetz don’t attack boats.”

The conversations of the other passengers became lively and excited as a great shadow darkened the viewing port, many of them leaning in to get a closer look. The creature was directly below their boat now, Steven catching a glimpse of an impossibly long body undulating lazily, winding from side to side as it pushed itself through the water. Its movements more resembled a crocodile or a snake than a fish. It was moving far faster than its slow pace should suggest, Steven seeing a shark-like profile with two long pectoral fins that jutted out from its streamlined profile, a thick tail following behind it. There seemed to be stripes or mottled patterns running down its back, but it was hard to tell if that was just the dappled light that made it through the water casting shadows.

It was gone as quickly as it had appeared, Steven and some of the other guests moving to the side of the boat as they tried to track it. For something so big, it was incredibly stealthy.

“How large do these things get?” Steven asked as he scanned the waves.

“Maybe twenty-five meters,” Ipal replied. “Seventy tons or thereabouts.”

“Holy shit.”

The passengers let out a chorus of excited chirps joined by yellow feathers as the creature breached again, and this time, Steven had a better idea of its size and shape. The nostrils must be high on its head like an Earth whale, and the hump that followed behind them as it slid back beneath the churning waves must be part of its back.

It was gunning for a shoal of fish now, Steven tracking it as it wheeled back around towards their boat. He moved back to the glass bottom to watch it, seeing the mass of silvery fish clumping up together to form a rippling, pulsating mass in some kind of threat display. It was like they were trying to make themselves look like a single large animal in an attempt to ward off the coming attack.

Steven got a look at the Kal’quetz’s maw as it rose up towards the surface, a long, streamlined snout reminiscent of some ancient marine reptile opening to expose rows of curving teeth. It had countershading – dark and mottled on top, fading into a lighter coloration on its underbelly. Its dark eyes seemed too small for its massive head, and those sealed nostrils were situated high above its brow, about where the blowhole would have been on a dolphin. Its body was scaleless and sleek, honed by millions of years of evolution to plow through the ocean like a torpedo, a muscular tail longer than a train car powering it along.

It accelerated into the shifting mass of fish, cutting a swathe through them with its jaws, the rest of the shoal splitting into two groups and darting away in a bid to confuse it. The Kal’quetz snapped its mouth shut, sending pieces of torn fish and clouds of chum floating into the water, swallowing its catch as it turned for another run. The delighted cries of the passengers filled the air as it swept beneath the boat again, displacing enough water to make the little craft rise on the wave. Its streamlined body cut through the ocean, seventy tons of blubber and muscle changing direction on a dime to chase its quarry, those oar-like flippers steering it like rudders. It snapped at the shoal, catching another large mouthful, taking a literal bite out of them that quickly filled in again as the fish closed ranks.

Steven knew why the seabirds were following it now, watching them swoop down into the water to snatch up pieces of floating meat and scraps, a couple of them fighting over a morsel as they spiraled up into the sky.

Excited laughter filled the air as the creature exploded from the ocean, its momentum propelling it up above the waves with a tremendous spray of water, putting clear half of its length in full view of its captive audience. Its rubbery hide was etched with pale scars that told of a lifetime of conflict – whether with larger prey or others of its kind, Steven couldn’t guess. It almost seemed to wave at them with its long flipper as it rolled over, crashing back to the waves with another torrent of water that sprayed the onlookers even from a distance.

“This is so much fun!” Tilli trilled with an excited flash of feathers. “I feel like it’s been rotations since we came down to see the Kal’quetz feed. Why don’t we do this more often?”

***

After watching the giant marine creature terrorize fish for a while, it returned to the depths, and their boat headed back to the docks in turn. They disembarked from the little craft, Steven and the flock making their way back up the footpath towards the nearest train station.

“That was incredible!” Steven exclaimed, walking backwards as he turned to address his companions. “I can’t believe how big that goddamned thing was. Seeing the Teth’rak on video was one thing, but that creature was so close that I could probably have reached over the side of the boat and touched its back! What was it called again?”

“Kal’quetz,” Paza replied. “Val’ba’ra is home to many species of megafauna. You have seen the Teth’rak, the Kal’quetz, then there is the Do’patli, and still more.”

“On Earth, they have whales and elephants,” he continued. “I’ll have to find you a picture of an elephant on the intranet – I’ll bet you’ve never seen anything like it, even here. It’s a giant mammal that has tusks, a trunk, and huge ears.”

“I should like to see it,” Tilli added eagerly.

“Do you have any plans for the rest of the evening?” Ipal asked.

“Yeah, what are you doing tonight?” Ezi added.

“I was going to go home and get some food before I turn in,” he replied. “The sun is already setting. It’s kind of weird having a giant visual indicator of when it’s bedtime, I have to say.”

“We’re going to be taking the same train, so why don’t we stop over at your place?” Ezi suggested. “I’d love to take a look at how Earth’nay live.”

“I didn’t really bring much with me, so everything in the house is just stock,” he replied. “Besides, I didn’t buy enough food to feed six people – I was only shopping for myself.”

“We could order out,” Ipal suggested with a feather flutter akin to a shrug. “We know how much you like to expand your culinary horizons.”

“I mean…I guess so,” he conceded. He wasn’t entirely sure if he wanted the flock set loose in his house, or whether it was appropriate for coworkers to be inviting themselves over, but he was a guest on this planet. When in Rome…

“Great!” Mima trilled with a flush of green. “I promise that we won’t impose. Right, Ezi?” she added with a pointed glance at her flockmate.

“Fine, fine,” Ezi grumbled as her sheaths hung limply from her head. “You act like I was planning to turn the place into a lounge or something.”

They rode the train back to Steven’s usual stop, then made their way up the path to his house, Ezi snickering at him as he ducked through the low doorway. Once they were inside, they fanned out to investigate as though they expected to find something unusual.

“Make yourselves at home,” he grumbled as he watched them scatter.

“Hey, you didn’t actually buy random nonsense from the store!” Ezi declared as she rummaged through his fridge. “I guess the househusband you met gave you some good recommendations.”

“I’ll have to leave you with some recipes,” Mima said as she leaned over her flockmate’s shoulder to get a look. “This is already giving me some good ideas.”

“Even for someone as large as you, this bedroom seems very empty,” Ipal added as she dipped her head through the arched doorway. “I always found that strange about bachelors. I can’t imagine being able to sleep alone.”

“Don’t they sell smaller houses?” Steven asked as he made his way over to her. “Apartments in the city, maybe?”

“They do, though this is called a residential band for a reason,” she replied with a sarcastic flutter of yellow. “Most of the housing allocations are here, and they’re all built around the same basic layout.”

“Seems a little messed up to me,” Steven continued as he appraised the room-spanning bed. “Sure, having a lot of space as a bachelor is nice, but he’s reminded that he’s not part of a flock every time he goes to bed.”

“Is that how you feel?” she asked, sparing him a curious glance.

“Hell no,” he chuckled, kicking off his shoes and walking across the mattress. He flopped down, spreading his arms wide to demonstrate. “Do you have any idea how small my bed was back on Ganymede?”

Tilli wandered into view and picked up one of his shoes, tugging at the laces as she examined the strange object.

“Hey, don’t lose those,” Steven chided as he sat up. “I don’t imagine it’s easy to get new ones out here.”

“Why do you have to wear these?” she asked.

“What, you guys don’t have shoes?” he replied.

“We wear shoes as part of pressurized suits or protective gear,” Ipal explained. “There isn’t a reason to wear them in everyday life.”

“I suppose scales are a little tougher than skin,” he mused as he watched Tilli tap her claws against the rubbery texture beneath the sole. “Haven’t seen any broken bottles around, either.”

He heard rustling packaging, climbing back to his feet to check on what Ezi and Mima were doing in the kitchen. Ezi was already gnawing on one of the insect protein bars, taking a seat on his couch.

“What?” she asked innocently as she brandished the half-eaten treat. “You told us you don’t like them, and you shouldn’t waste food.”

“Speaking of which, we need to order,” Paza said as she pulled out her phone. “What are your coordinates, Steven? Never mind,” she added, preempting him before he could reply. “I’ll use the planetary positioning system. What are we getting?”

The flock began to chatter in their native language, Paza entering the information into her phone with practiced speed, Steven standing around as we waited for them to finish.

“You guys got pizza?” he joked, but it landed flat without any of them knowing what pizza was.

Mima and Ipal joined Ezi on the couch, while Paza sat on one of the chairs. The only place that Steven was really comfortable was the couch, so he had them shuffle over to make some room for him, his body almost comically large and lanky compared to theirs. He only realized that Tilli had snuck off somewhere when she emerged from his bedroom with his rucksack in her hands.

“What are you doing with that?” he demanded as she set it down on the coffee table, starting to rummage through its contents.

“I want to see what Earth’nay things you have,” she replied, reaching her little arm into the bag. “Is this all you brought with you?”

“I traveled light, and I haven’t really finished unpacking everything yet,” he explained as his cheeks started to warm.

The rest of the flock leaned in to get a look as Tilli started to place items on the glass. There was his comb, a few data storage devices for media, a spare toothbrush and toothpaste, a bundle of new socks, an electric razor, aftershave, a packet of soap, and a cardboard tube.

“This looks like a feather groomer, but larger,” Ipal said as she picked up his comb and ran a claw along its teeth.

“That’s for my hair,” he explained.

“And this?” Ezi asked, brandishing his toothbrush.

“For cleaning my teeth.”

“I could have guessed that,” Mima chuckled.

Tilli broke open the packet of new socks and pulled one of them over her hand like a glove, while Ezi began to play with his toothpaste, trying to figure out how to open the screw cap. She squeezed out a glob of the white paste, then gave it an experimental sniff, her feathers erupting in surprised yellow.

“That’s mint,” Steven said, reaching past Mima to snatch it from her hands. “It’s supposed to make my breath smell fresh. Don’t mess with that – I didn’t bring very much.”

“You can get dental hygiene supplies here, you know,” Ezi chuckled as she returned the toothbrush to the pile. “It’s not like we don’t clean our teeth.”

“Yeah, but your toothpaste might be cricket-flavor for all I know,” he grumbled.

“What’s this?” Tilli asked, picking up one of the data drives.

“Careful with those,” he warned as she turned it over in her hands. “It’s a storage device.”

“What’s on them?” Ezi asked.

“I didn’t know how much human media would be available on your planet’s net, so I brought a collection of movies, music, and books that will hopefully last me a good decade or two. At least until you guys start subtitling yours. Actually, that would probably be a bad idea,” he added as he remembered how much overflowing text his translation app produced. “Might as well read a novel at that point.”

“Earth’nay media!?” Tilli asked, her feathers flaring in excitement. “I’ve never seen any Earth’nay movies! Can we watch some?”

“Yeah, show us some Earth’nay music!” Ipal added. “What do they listen to on Ganymede?”

“I would, but all I have is a phone screen,” he replied with a shrug. “I’m afraid that it won’t be a very immersive viewing experience.”

“He doesn’t know,” Ezi snickered, giving Mima a nudge. She hopped out of her seat, reaching for the table and pressing her finger against the glass, a control panel appearing beneath her hand. With a few more presses, a hidden projector at the apex of the domed ceiling flickered to life, creating a large holographic display that floated in the air above them.

“Why the hell is everything in this house hidden?” Steven complained, throwing up his arms as the aliens laughed at him.

“Hand me your phone,” Paza said, rising from her chair to join Tilli at the table. He passed her the device, and before he even had time to instruct her, she had found the data cable for the storage drive and had connected the two. “You already have software compatible with our wireless protocols, so it should be a simple matter of connecting the device to the home network,” she said as her fingers danced across its screen.

“Okay, now gimme that back,” he muttered as he extended his hand. “There’s some private stuff on there.”

She passed it back to him, and he set it down on the glass table, but he was distracted as Tilli lifted a cardboard tube and began to open the plastic cap.

“Hey, hey!” he warned, prompting her to pause. “Be very careful with that – it’s fragile.”

“What is it?” she asked, handing it to him across the table.

“It’s a calendar that I brought with me from Ganymede,” he replied. “It’s very old – my grandparents gave it to me. I was going to put it up somewhere once I found a suitable place to hang it, but all of the walls here are curved.”

“May we see it?” Mima asked, the aliens waiting expectantly.

“Alright,” he sighed, unfastening the cap. He upended it and gave it a gentle shake until there was enough scroll to grip, gingerly sliding the roll out of its protective container. He flattened it out on the table, the flock crowding around to get a look.

It was a hanging scroll made from a strip of silk that was stretched between two wooden bars, the top one sporting a red ribbon that would let it be hung from a hook. The top half of the scroll was decorated with an ornate reproduction of a Chinese painting in a traditional style, depicting a dragon and a tiger locked in battle astride misty mountain peaks. Below it was a circular calendar separated into segments and adorned with Mandarin characters and numbers, its borders decorated with red and gold brocade. On each segment was a smaller depiction of one of the twelve animals associated with the Zodiac.

“This is called a Taichu lunar calendar,” he explained as the aliens flashed impressed feather patterns. “This method of keeping track of dates and holidays was developed by the Han dynasty around 2700 years ago, and it’s still in use by their descendants today. This one isn’t that old, of course – it’s just a modern reproduction. Still, it was passed down to my grandma from her mother, so this particular scroll is probably over a hundred years old.”

“What language is that?” Ipal marveled as she leaned on the edge of the table. “Is this also Mandarin?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “There’s no single Chinese alphabet, and it’s a little complicated, but this is Mandarin.”

“Are these animals?” Tilli asked, gesturing to the painting while being careful not to actually touch the silk.

“That one is a tiger,” Steven explained. “It’s a real animal – an apex predator. I’m sure we can find you a video of one.”

“It looks a little like a Borealan,” Ipal mused.

“This one is a dragon – loong in Chinese,” he continued as he gestured to the snaking creature that was wound around one of the mountain tops. “It’s a mythological creature usually portrayed as a giant serpent. It’s a traditional symbol of power and imperial authority, good luck, wisdom, strength – quite a lot of things.”

“And these?” Tilli asked, turning her eyes to the animals on the calendar.

“These are all real animals, save for the dragon,” he explained. “There’s a twelve-year cycle, and each year is assigned to a specific animal, each of which has personality attributes and superstitions associated with it. For example, someone born in the year of the monkey might be expected to be more intelligent and curious, while someone born in the year of the rat might be seen as resourceful and versatile.”

“What year is it currently?” Mima asked.

“Let me think,” he said, doing some math in his head for a few moments. “I think 2627 should be the year of the Hare.”

“If I was born in 2606, what does that make me?” Ezi added with an eager flutter of green.

“That would be…the year of the Horse,” he replied. “They would say that you’re energetic, charismatic, impatient, maybe a little adventurous.”

“That sounds about right,” Ezi said as she beamed at her flockmates. “Hear that? He says I’m charismatic.”

“Of course, the personality traits are so generalized that they could really apply to anyone,” Steven continued as he began to roll up his scroll again.

“You should find somewhere to hang it,” Mima insisted as he slotted it back into its protective tube. “It reminds you of home and of your family.”

“I’ll find somewhere to put it,” he replied. “Now, if you’d like to watch a movie, you’ll all have to stop rifling through my personal belongings.”

“Alright,” Ipal conceded, gesturing to Tilli. “Go put that back where you found it.”

She filled his pack and zipped it back up, bobbing her way over to the bedroom as Steven began to sort through the files on his storage device.

“What kinds of movies do you guys like to watch?” he asked. “I have no reference point for what your media is like.”

“War movies!” Ezi replied.

“I like romances,” Mima added.

“Something with a mystery to solve,” Ipal said. “I think Tilli just wants to see Earth’nay things.”

“What about you, Paza?” Steven asked as he glanced over at her.

“I really should be planning out tomorrow’s itinerary,” she grumbled, fiddling with the little bracelet on her wrist. “I suppose something with an engaging plot.”

“So much for consensus,” Steven muttered. “I’ll decide for you. Let’s see…how about this one? It’s a popular TV show about a detective investigating the Jovian Triads. It’s heavily dramatized, but you can see a little of Ganymede and how people live there.”

“I want to see that!” Tilli insisted as she hurried back out of the bedroom to join them on the couch.

“I suppose I just hit play?” Steven asked.

“I have set your phone to stream data to the home network,” Paza replied. “Whatever appears on its display will appear on the hologram.”

“Okay, here we go,” he said as he tapped the screen. The lighting in the room darkened automatically to make the holographic display more vivid, hidden speakers filling the room with the thrum of the title screen.

“Is it working right?” Ipal asked, looking to Paza. “It sounds like some audio channels are missing.”

“It is simply reading the raw data from the file,” she replied with a flutter of feathers equivalent to a shrug. “Perhaps Earth’nay have slightly different ranges of hearing.”

“Quiet, it’s starting!” Tilli hissed.

***

“End of the road, Zhou,” the grizzled detective said as he reached beneath his leather duster. He pulled out a massive revolver, its long barrel ending in a heavy compensator, the crimson laser that it projected finding its mark on the gangster’s chest. “Give yourself up – there’s nowhere left to run.”

Zhou backed up against the outer airlock door, his brow furrowing as he realized that he was trapped.

“You think you can just turn the whole damned dome upside-down all on your own, Ninnie?” he snapped as he glared across the room. “You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. A whole UNN carrier group couldn’t uproot us from Ganymede!”

“I know that you ordered the killing of Heather Wang,” the detective continued, his aim unwavering. “Tell me why, and maybe I take you down to the station rather than ventilating you. What was she mixed up in?”

“You really have no idea, do you?” Zhou replied with a cruel laugh. “This goes deeper than you realize.”

“A confession comes out, or lead goes in,” the detective snarled as he brought up a second hand to brace his weapon. “You got two choices, creep. Talk to me, or you talk to my forty-four.”

“You want a confession?” Zhou cackled, slowly reaching up with a gloved hand to slide his fur coat off one shoulder. “Here’s your confession – I didn’t order Heather’s killing. I did it with my own two hands!”

The coat fell about his feet, leaving the gangster bare-chested, a winding tattoo of a Chinese dragon adorning his muscular torso. Only now did the detective see that his arms ended at the shoulders. They were replaced with black carbon fiber and chrome steel, more tattoos etched into their plating, the skeletal prosthetics flexing with the whir of electric motors.

“Black market augs?” the detective muttered, narrowing his eyes. “Where did you get those? Is that what had Heather spooked?”

“Heather would have told the whole colony if we hadn’t shut her up,” the gangster replied, lowering his posture as though he intended to charge. “Forty-four magnum is a pretty powerful round, but do you think you can get through level three sub-dermal armor before I cross this room and tear your fucking head off?”

“What’s that – twenty feet?” the detective asked with a shrug. “Odds are, you’d reach me before I emptied the cylinder. I have a better idea. How about we take this outside?”

He shifted his aim slightly to the right, his revolver ringing as it fired, the powerful recoil rocking it in his hands.

“You missed, Ninnie!” Zhou chuckled. “I thought you were the best shot in Naval Intelligence?”

There was the sound of cracking glass, the gangster turning his head to see a spiderweb spreading across the window of the airlock door behind him. He let out a panicked yell, but too late – the window blowing open. The panel soon followed, and he was sucked out onto the surface of the moon, his mouth open in a voiceless cry as his eyes frosted over. The inner door sealed, emergency lights flashing, the detective slowly climbing back to his feet and stowing his smoking revolver.

“This is very violent,” Mima grumbled.

“I like it,” Ezi snickered, mimicking the actor’s voice. “How about we take this outside?

“Remember – it’s not a documentary,” Steven explained. “It’s supposed to be a little cheesy and dramatic.”

“Oh, the delivery has arrived,” Paza said as she rose from her seat. Steven reached over to pause the show, the rest of the flock hopping off the couch to follow her. When he leaned forward to get a look out of the entrance, Steven was amused to see a shopping cart waiting on the footpath outside, its bed loaded with food packets. Apparently, they did autonomous delivery, too. That kind of thing wouldn’t fly on Ganymede – someone would ransack the thing before it was even twenty paces from the restaurant, then probably vandalize it for good measure.

The flock brought the food inside, Steven watching the cart turn around and head on its way before they closed the door. Even as they set the packages down on the kitchen table, the smell that wafted over from them had his mouth watering. The Valbarans didn’t seem like the kind of people to enjoy greasy fast food and empty calories, so what had they ordered?

With their usual cooperation and haste, they began to set the places, Ezi fetching some cutlery and plates from his kitchen. It probably wasn’t hard to find if all of these houses followed the same basic blueprint. Before long, they were ready to eat, waiting politely for Steven to join them. The seats weren’t terribly comfortable, but he perched on one, the allure of food too enticing to pass up.

Just like in the restaurant, it seemed that they were eating communally, the flock selecting items from the pool of packages and containers at the center of the table. There was grilled meat and fish, little tofu-like nuggets coated in some kind of breading or batter, fruit bowls whose colorful contents were unidentifiable, sauces and condiments, drinks – he was spoiled for choice.

Sensing his indecision, Mima once again took it upon herself to feed him, starting to pile his plate high with different samples.

“Try this,” she said, setting a piece of grilled fish in front of him. She tore open a sauce packet and began to drizzle it over the meat, the thick, spinach-colored paste contrasting with the pale flesh. “You liked the water weed squares, right? This is based on those – it’s salty and tangy.”

“Have some of these,” Ezi added, reaching across the table to hand him a cardboard container filled with the little nuggets. They looked a little like chicken or popcorn shrimp, and they had a crispy coating, wisps of steam rising from them.

“What’s this?” he asked skeptically, spearing one on his fork.

“Insect protein nuggets,” she replied. “I know, I know,” she added as he grimaced. “Just give them a try – you’ll like them.”

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” Ipal added with a flutter of amused yellow.

“They’re good with this dipping sauce,” Mima said, setting a little plastic cup down beside his plate that was filled with a pink condiment flecked with spices.

The whole flock watched as he slowly dipped his nugget into the cup, coating it liberally with the pink paste, then he took a tentative bite. As much as it irked him, he had to admit that it tasted pretty good, his expression softening as he chewed.

“Alright, alright,” he muttered as a wave of amused yellow passed around the table. “I’ll admit, it’s not terrible. Though, cooking something in batter and slathering it in spicy sauce would make basically anything palatable.”

He grabbed a few seaweed squares as the flock dug in, chatting and flashing their feathers, sharing the dishes between them. As annoyed as he might have been by them rifling through his stuff, and as presumptuous as they had been to invite themselves over, he had to concede that this was nice. They were intensely social creatures, and it was a welcome change of pace to have his empty house so full and lively. Maybe they weren’t imposing after all – maybe they just sensed that he needed a bit of a nudge to start opening up to them.

“So, Steven,” Ezi began as she leaned her elbows on the table. “Have you and Yemi decided where you’re going out?”

“I hadn’t talked to him about it yet,” he replied, finishing off another nugget. “It’ll probably depend on what Joseph wants to do.”

“It’s like all the males are forming their own little flock in secret,” she chuckled with a flash of pink. “Tell us – what do boys like? If you won’t give us inside information about our favorite secretary, maybe you can tell us what you look for in a relationship, and we can infer. After all, you two must have a lot in common. You’re the only person who has ever gotten more than a few words out of him.”

“You want relationship advice from me?” he scoffed, talking over a mouthful of fish. “I haven’t even been here a week yet.”

“Maybe Steven only likes crazy women,” Ipal whispered, but not so quietly that he couldn’t overhear.

“There’s no shortage of those on Valbara,” he replied, eliciting another wave of amused yellow. “Listen, if you really want to get closer to Yemi, then you need to understand him. You guys have worked together for years, but what do you really know about him besides his appearance and his relationship status?”

“I suppose that he’s high-strung, he takes good care of his appearance, he’s very competent for a male,” Ipal replied as she glanced to her flockmates as though they might have something to add.

“He’s quiet, shy,” Mima suggested. “Polite, professional, courteous.”

“Okay, we don’t know that much about his personal life,” Paza conceded as she waved her fork. “But that’s only because he won’t give us an opportunity to learn.”

“I’m gonna give you a tip that I hope you won’t make me regret,” Steven continued, his tone a little more stern. “Yemi wants to be respected. He’s a professional male, he’s under a lot of pressure to always surprise people with his work ethic, and he somehow manages to do his job and keep a house and maintain his appearance all at the same time. He worked his ass off to get where he is, and he’s not going to put that at risk for a fling – perhaps not for anything. If you want him to become your stay-at-home boy toy, it’s just not gonna happen.”

“So, you’re saying that we’d have to offer him something more serious that doesn’t interfere with his job?” Ipal asked with a tilt of her head.

“It’s not about what you can offer him or what specific pickup lines you should use,” Steven continued, pausing to take a bite of a crunchy piece of seaweed. “First, you have to learn to respect him and what he does. Then, you can become his friend and learn more about his personality and what he likes. Only then, maybe, you might have a chance at something more.”

“It’s a lot easier to talk to you,” Tilli added, giving him a glance across the table as she nibbled on one of her nuggets.

“Yeah, why is it so much easier with you?” Ezi added as she narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “You were chatting with us from the moment you arrived like you were just one of the girls.”

“I come from a different planet with a very different culture,” he replied as he cut off another piece of fish. “Self-sufficiency is expected where I grew up. Here, it seems to be the exception to the rule for men. I also have enough self-respect to tell you to go suck vacuum if you piss me off. Outside of work hours, of course,” he added. “You are technically my bosses, after all.”

“They warned us that Earth’nay were slow learners, but you’re pretty quick on the uptake,” Ezi snickered with a flush of pink. “Males don’t usually fire back at me the way you do. I like it. It’s…different.”

“He’s a spicy little nugget,” Mima added, making Ezi snort through her nose.

“You call me a spicy little nugget on the clock, and I’m going to HR,” he complained as he dipped one of the protein nuggets in the condiment and took a pointed bite. “You guys will be reading your own damned emails.”

“Here,” Ipal laughed, handing him one of the drinks. “Give this a try.”

“Tastes kind of like strawberry,” he mused as he took a sip.

***

When they were done eating, most of the flock returned to continue watching the show at Steven’s insistence while he and Mima cleared the table. It was a good opportunity to get one of the more mellow flockmates alone for a few moments. Having them all chattering and playing off each other made it hard to gauge what any single one of them really thought.

“I figured we’d be washing up, but this is all automated,” he muttered as he slotted the used dishes into an appliance that had been hidden inside the counter. It looked like a sideways toaster to him.

“Here,” Mima said, brushing his arm with her soft feathers as she leaned past him to press the control panel. “It will flash an icon when it’s finished. I’ll just put these dirty containers in the recycling chute.”

She began to drop them into a device that resembled a trash can one by one, Steven watching in morbid fascination as a set of spinning blades turned them to powder before they were whisked away by the suction.

“So,” she began, keeping her eyes on her work. “What did you want to ask me about?”

“Huh?” Steven replied, blinking back at her.

“You clearly wanted to get me alone,” she replied with a reassuring flutter of mint-colored feathers. “There’s something you want to ask me that you don’t want the others to overhear.”

“Well, I figure you’ll tell them anyway,” she explained with a shrug as she dropped another container into the whirling blades. “I doubt there are any secrets between flockmates. I just needed…a few moments of calm.”

“They can be very energetic,” she chuckled, her feathers suggesting that it was said with warmth and affection. “Val’ba’ra’nay speak much faster than humans, so we have a lot to say. Here,” she added, opening the fridge. “Let me teach you how to make a dessert. It will give us time to talk.”

“Oh, sure,” he replied as she began to pass him some of the items that the househusband had recommended. She laid them out on the counter, then searched for the little apron, finding it exactly where she expected it to be.

“Why is this so loose?” she giggled, giving him a flush of yellow. “Have you been wearing this?”

“Maybe,” he replied.

“This flour is made from a type of sweet nut,” she explained as she upended the powdery contents of the packet into a bowl. “We can combine it with dried fruits to create snack bars.”

“I see – kind of like granola,” he mused.

“Add a little water,” she advised, watching as he filled a cup from the faucet. “Now, pour it into the bowl and mix it with your fingers. Don’t worry – it will be sterilized by the baking process. Very good – like that.”

“I wanted to ask you about this whole Yemi thing,” he began, kneading the powder into a thicker dough. “More specifically, about males in general.”

“You seem surprised when we talk about that subject, as though you expected something very different,” she said as she began to fill another bowl with little fruit slices. “I get the sense that your culture treats males differently.”

“Actually, it’s weirdly familiar,” he continued. “There were times in Earth’nay history when we treated women as second-class citizens or as inferiors for various reasons. Sometimes it was based on their physical traits, sometimes it was bogus psychology, sometimes it was religious or cultural in origin. Equal rights have been guaranteed under the UN charter for a long time now, but it was a process to get there. The way you talk about males reminds me of that.”

“Males are generally viewed as being physically smaller and thus weaker than females,” she explained as she sprinkled the candied fruit slices with some kind of spice.

“I’ve observed that to be the case,” Steven replied. “You have a lot more sexual dimorphism than humans. There’s the stature, and the feathers. I’ll admit that they do seem more geared towards pageantry than hard labor. Still, human females are on average shorter and lighter than males, and we make it work.”

“Really?” Mima said, tilting her head curiously. “So, it’s inverted where you come from?”

“In a way,” he replied, watching her toss some of the fruit slices into his bowl.

“Knead these together,” she explained. “Here,” she added, chuckling at his ineptitude as she reached into the bowl alongside him. She used her little hands to guide his, directing his movements, some of the powder sticking to the fluff on her wrists. Her scales were cool and impossibly smooth, the fine mosaic barely perceptible against his skin, her pace slow and gentle. “There we are,” she cooed with a flush of green. “See? Earth’nay aren’t such slow learners. You just need some…hands-on attention. I’m sure there are all kinds of things that we could teach you…”

“Yeah,” he mumbled, her proximity making his heart quicken. She had practically put herself between him and the counter to reach with her shorter arms, and he was leaning over her, those fluttering feathers tickling his nose when they flared. She was so small – her shoulders half the width of his own, her head barely reaching his chest. His mind wandered to the Valbarans who he had seen wearing swimsuits on the boat tour, but he quickly refocused his attention on their conversation.

“Our males are precious,” she added, turning one of his hands over and tracing the lines of his palm with her clawed thumb. It was deliberate, but she was quick enough that it might have been dismissed as an accident. “Historically, they have been a protected class. Coddled, if you will. The gender imbalance made females disposable and males valuable, so many aspects of our culture still reflect that notion. They were discouraged from working dangerous jobs or putting themselves in harm’s way. Males are seen as being more emotionally volatile and less logical, but some might say it is we who made them that way by shielding them from danger and responsibility. Your hands are so strange,” she mused, placing her palm against his to measure its size. The powder had become thick and soupy now, making their contact sticky and gooey. “Your skin is so smooth. Do you treat it, or is that just the lack of scales?”

“I don’t really use hand cream or anything,” he mumbled, an unexpected tingle shooting up his spine as she trailed her dull claws down his wrist. How was the heel of his hand so sensitive?

“Too many fingers,” she snickered, moving on as though nothing had happened. He had to shuffle back a little, the thick base of her tail brushing against his thigh. “Things have improved a lot – you have seen it yourself. A hundred rotations ago, or even fifty, Yemi might not have been able to live alone and do the work that he does now. The social structures would not have been in place to facilitate it, and it would have been culturally discouraged.”

“It still seems to be discouraged to me,” Steven replied.

“Opinions vary,” she said with another dismissive flutter that brushed his chin. “Even within our flock, there is rarely consensus. I see Yemi as being shy and hesitant,” she said as she guided Steven’s hands through the dough. “I want to guide him, teach him – keep him safe. The way that he flutters when he’s embarrassed just melts my heart. Ezi only sees that he’s beautiful and achingly available. He’s a conquest in the making, and all bachelors are just ditzy lounge dancers in her eyes. They don’t know what they want until she shows it to them.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty damn sexist,” Steven chuckled. “I can see why Yemi wouldn’t respond positively to that, the way he values his career.”

“Dating is a little more complicated for us,” she continued. “Feeling a connection with one or two members of a flock is not enough – there has to be consensus.”

“Attraction is good, but it’s not all that matters,” Steven replied with a nod. “Hell, navigating relationships with just two people can be a nightmare – I can’t imagine six or seven.”

“Though, I must admit that a guilty pleasure of mine is romance stories about courtship where one flockmate and their male are at odds,” she added with a flush of pink. “They hate one another, they argue and fight, but after enough time passes…”

“Disrespectful makeup sex?” Steven suggested.

“I was going to say that they eventually find common ground, but that too,” she giggled. “Ezi was right – you really do talk like a female sometimes. I suppose that makes more sense after what I’ve learned.”

“I’m curious,” he began. “Do you see me as having more feminine or masculine traits? I’m bigger than your males, and I’m more independent.”

Definitely male,” she replied, tilting her head back to peer up at him. “A big male, granted. How are you responding to all of this?” she asked. “I can’t imagine how strange it must be to have to adapt to a wholly new culture with such different gender roles.”

“It’s hard to make a judgment when I haven’t really been here all that long,” he replied. “Everyone is being really nice to me, though. I think it’s partly because I’m male and partly because I’m an alien, so they see me as less capable and more in need of help, but the attention is kind of fun. Males are usually expected to approach females in Earth’nay society, so having a group of women come over to me on the train and engage with me is novel and kind of flattering, I guess. I can see how it would become exhausting for someone like Yemi who grew up in this environment, though.”

“Well, you’re young and attractive,” Mima said as she lifted her hands from the mixing bowl and moved over to the faucet. She began to wash them beneath the flow of water, pouring some kind of soap on her proto-feathers to clean off the residue. “Most would tell you that now is an appropriate time to have a little fun.”

“Is that your professional opinion?” he asked.

“I think that you should take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself,” she replied, giving him a sideways glance as she dried off her hands on a towel. “What use is there in leaving a ripe fruit to wither on the branch?”

“Eat while the eating is good, as they say back home,” Steven added as he took her place in front of the sink.

“What are you two doing in here?” Ezi asked suspiciously, poking her head through the doorway.

“I’m teaching Steven how to make snack bars,” Mima replied, shooing her away with a wave of her feathers.

“Okay, well the detective guy just blew someone’s head clean off with that giant gun, and you’re missing it.”

“I can use my imagination, I’m sure,” Mima replied as she filled a pan with the dough and slotted it into a cooking appliance beneath the countertop.

***

“That was awesome!” Ezi exclaimed as she finished off the last of her snack bar. The empty pan was sitting on the coffee table beneath the holographic display, little more than a few crumbs left. “Put the next one on! It’s a series, right?”

“We don’t have time,” Paza chided, bringing up the hologram on her wrist. “We’ve already been here for longer than we planned, and we’ll be eating into our sleep schedule if we don’t catch the next train back home.”

“I suppose she’s right,” Ipal sighed, rising from the couch and stretching her sheaths. “It’s getting late – we should head back. Thanks for a fun evening, Steven,” she said with a glance over her shoulder at him.

“We should do this again,” Ezi added, hopping to her feet.

“Thank you for the show,” Tilli said with a grateful flutter of green.

“My home is your home,” Steven replied with an exaggerated bow. “As long as you call ahead, and you don’t touch my stuff.”

“Noted,” Ipal chuckled. “Come on, girls,” she chimed with a wave of her arm feathers. “You know how Paza gets when we’re late. We’ll see you tomorrow, Steven.”

Mima shared a knowing smile with him before the flock left, Steven collapsing back onto the couch as they closed the door behind them, a sense of relief washing over him. His colleagues were growing on him the more time he spent with them, but they were a handful and a half, especially when they were together. At least he knew he’d be sleeping soundly after all the activity.

He leaned over to pick up his phone and shut off the home cinema, enjoying the peace and quiet as he began to scroll through his alerts. It was probably a good time to send Joseph a message and ask about when he wanted to meet up. Valbarans liked planning, and Yemi would probably appreciate a couple of days’ advance noticed so he could work it into his busy schedule.

Steven’s interaction with Mima in the kitchen was soon gnawing at the corners of his mind, like an intrusive thought that he couldn’t quite shake. He would have to be completely oblivious to not realize that the flock’s interest in him was about more than just professional courtesy and platonic curiosity. If it hadn’t been obvious enough before, Mima had practically shouted in his ears that she – and the flock, by extension – saw him as an eligible bachelor. Whether they viewed him the same way they viewed Yemi was hard to say. Yemi was a Valbaran, so their interest in him might be more about marriage and siring children. What was Steven to them? A conquest, as Mima had put it?

It was hard to believe that an alien could find a human attractive. To say that the two species were different was an understatement. Valbarans weren’t even mammals – they had scales and feathers, along with tails and claws, and those were just the superficial differences. Steven had more in common genetically with a frog or a mushroom than he did with Mima or Ipal. Still, they had familiar traits that caught his eye, so maybe the reverse was also true. Maybe there were certain traits or features inherent in humans that drew the Valbaran gaze in the same way.

Once again, he flashed back to the boat tour, seeing those swimsuit-clad women in his mind’s eye. Their figures had been lean and sinewy, with small, firm breasts and pinched waists that accentuated their inhumanly wide hips. There was so much muscle packed into their sculpted cheeks and their thick thighs, easily visible through the clinging, elastic fabric. It seemed to be a physique that was shared by all of the females he’d encountered, likely a result of their extremely healthy diets and perhaps innate to their physiology in some way.

The flock were probably hiding similar figures beneath their loose tunics, those form-fitting bike shorts hardly any less revealing than the swimwear. Then, there had been the women in resource allocation with their sharp, tailored vests.

Feeling his pulse start to quicken, he pulled up his phone again, navigating back to the expat forum. Instead of cooking tips this time, he searched for people discussing romance and relationships, finding a whole subsection of the site dedicated to that subject. His cheeks warmed as he scrolled through the posts, each new header making his heart miss a beat.

My coworkers are inviting me out for dinner, what should I say?

How do I know if a relationship is getting serious?

Are males expected to play hard to get? Scared of seeming too easy.

Okay to be gay on Valbara?

What does it mean if someone invites you to a lounge?

Understanding feather signals.

What do Valbarans like about humans?

Is size an issue?

It seemed that Steven wasn’t treading new ground – this path was a well-traveled one. There was a veritable wealth of information here about every nuance of Valbaran dating and courtship. The discussion about feather signals caught his eye, the puzzle pieces starting to fall into place as he read through it.

Pink was the color of romance, akin to a blushing cheek. Just like a blush, the involuntary nature of some feather displays made it difficult to suppress, which was what he had seen Yemi do when the flock had been laying it on thick. The little flutters and flashes had been accenting Steven’s interactions with his coworkers without him ever realizing. Every time Mima or Ezi had given him a little flicker of magenta, they had been signaling their interest and their attraction to him, and to each other.

There were combinations of colors, too. Pink and purple might mean apprehension or hesitation in a romantic context, while pink and green could mean satisfaction or contentment. Yellow could signal surprise or excitement, and when joined with rose, it was self-explanatory. As well as opening his eyes to the flock’s body language, it also told him that Yemi had never shown any signs of displeasure. Even when the flock had been aggressively hitting on him, there had been no purple in his plumage to indicate worry or unease, no blue to signify unhappiness, or red to show indignation. Perhaps Mima wasn’t completely off-base, and Yemi really was quite shy and receptive, but sacrificing his job was out of the question.

As much as he wanted to continue reading, he got the impression that he would be up all night if he didn’t put the phone down. Paza wasn’t wrong – it had gotten very late, and he didn’t want to show up to work without bringing his best. His mind still swimming with the implications of what he had learned, he set down the phone and started getting ready for his bath.

***

“Morning, Yemi,” Steven said as he stepped into the lobby. The little male lifted his head from the flickering displays, giving his colleague a feather greeting.

“Welcome, Mister Zheng.”

“Oh, I wanted to tell you before our lesson,” Steven continued as he paused by the front desk. “I heard back from Joseph, and he says that he’s cool to meet us tomorrow after work, as long as that fits with your schedule. Is that alright?”

“I will be able to make time for two or three hours of travel and leisure,” Yemi replied with an affirmative flush of green. “I will add it to my schedule if you can give me the specific time and coordinates.”

“Of course,” Steven said, pulling out his phone and relaying the details. “I’ll let Joseph know that we’re coming.”

“A restaurant?” Yemi asked as he entered in the coordinates.

“Yeah, it’s a place Joseph likes to frequent. Don’t fill up at lunch!” he added, giving Yemi a wave before heading into the office.

He was greeted with the usual sight, bright sunlight spilling in through the massive windows to illuminate the white pastels and leafy greens of the multi-story complex, the walkways and platforms that balanced precariously above his head already swarming with Valbarans. He made his way through the cubicles, the sound of conversations and the gentle trickle of running water filling the air. It was hard to say whether he would ever get used to this, or whether any of it would ever feel routine, but it was hard to imagine it losing its novelty.

“Morning, big guy,” Ezi chimed as she saw the top of his head float past their divider.

“Morning, ladies,” he replied as he stepped into view around the corner.

“You’re looking sharp,” Ipal mused, leaning back in her seat as she examined him. He was wearing his fitted suit again, standing to attention as he waited for instructions. “You got pretty relaxed and casual last night, but now you’re back to being a prim and proper clerk.”

“I take my job seriously, Ma’am,” he replied with a smirk, eliciting a flutter of pink from her that he now understood all too well. “Making a good impression is as important as doing a good job.”

“It’s always important to differentiate work from play,” Mima added, giving him a smile that hearkened back to their conversation in the kitchen the night before.

“Hey, maybe we should get some formal clothes,” Ezi suggested as she turned to her flockmates. “They wear it up in resource allocation.”

“That’s because they’re executives, and we work on the office floor,” Ipal scoffed.

“But if we want clients to take us seriously, maybe we should dress the part,” Ezi insisted. “There’s no rule that says we can’t. After all, if you were an Earth’nay in a conference call, wouldn’t you expect to see people dressed more like him?”

“Dress for the job you want, not the one you have,” Steven added with a shrug.

“Our style of clothing will not improve or decrease our productivity,” Paza muttered, not deigning to look up from her work.

“That’s not the point, Paza,” Ezi chided. “I’m saying that if we’re going to be aiming for Earth’nay clients, we have an Earth’nay on hand to show us how to make a good impression. We should use him!”

“I think she wants to take you shopping,” Ipal sighed, giving Steven a weary glance.

“If Lotl’tal’patli and her flock are gunning for the same contracts, this could really give us an edge!” Ezi continued with a flutter of excitement. “Think about it. If the clients see Steven and see that we’re dressed more like he is, they’ll think we’re taking it way more seriously than Lotl. One of the reasons we got him was to better understand and communicate with Earth’nay clients.”

“What am I, a dog?” he grumbled.

“What’s a dog?” Tilli asked.

“Never mind,” he said. “What’s on the itinerary for today?”

“We have a quota to meet before lunch,” Ipal replied. “With those extra server cycles you managed to get us, we’ve been able to glean a lot of very valuable data from simulations. Paza has written up a series of changes that need to be made to the source code to improve its efficiency.”

“What about me?” Steven added.

“You’re going to be pitching our version of the software to the client,” Ipal said with a toothy grin.

“Shouldn’t you guys be doing that?” he asked, glancing between them apprehensively. “I mean, I don’t know anything about the software or how it offers advantages over its competitors. I don’t even really understand what it does.”

“We’ll teach you,” Ezi said. “Yes, taking into account your Earth’nay memory difficulties, naturally.”

“We want you to write a presentation, essentially,” Paza added. “The software is almost ready for practical trials, and if we can convince the client that our version is superior to those of competing companies, we may be able to move the project along.”

“You’ll highlight the features and advantages of the software, and you’ll present it to the buyers,” Ipal continued. “We think that having an Earth’nay make our case will be advantageous.”

“You know more about our prospective customers than anybody else in Kalahar,” Ipal replied. “Ezi is right – we should leverage that advantage.”

“I was an ice miner – I’ve never been in the Navy,” he protested as he crossed his arms. “I don’t know the first thing about point defense weapons.”

“Trust us – it will work,” Mima said with a reassuring flutter of green. “We’ll be right there with you to answer any more technical questions, but we want you to be our spokesperson. Come, I will help you get started.”

***

“Okay, so this is where I think we should put the simulation results,” Steven said as he pointed to a section of the script. “I can make it punchy – really emphasize the success rate on those interceptions.”

“How is it coming along?” Paza asked, turning away from her work for a moment to examine Steven’s display. Mima and Ipal were seated beside him, helping him with the more technical details of the project.

“He comes up with ideas very quickly, I’ll give him that,” Ipal chuckled. “We keep having to stop him so we can reach consensus.”

“I’m learning about the software as I go,” Steven replied, leaning back in his seat. Yemi had delivered another human-sized chair, so work was a little more comfortable today. “I’m far from an expert, but based on the results I’m seeing, these LPDs are much better at intercepting certain kinds of threats than the CIWS guns the UNN currently uses. We really need to focus on the raw numbers and emphasize their strengths. I may not know anything about lasers, but I know plenty about statistical analysis. If the company I used to work for could increase the efficiency of their waste processing plants by even ten percent, they’d jump at the chance.”

“It sounds like he’s learning, albeit slowly,” Paza mused as she scanned the text.

“As quickly as we can expect from someone with imperfect recall,” Ipal replied.

She said it with kindness, but it was another reminder of how differently Valbaran brains worked. They seemed to be under the impression that they could simply memorize his script and recite it verbatim, like rehearsing for a stage play, but rote memorization might not cut it with humans. Any UNN rep would want to quiz the aliens and try to dissect their presentation to find inaccuracies or exaggerations, and there was no way to account for every question that might be asked.

“I’m thirsty,” Ezi groaned, throwing her head back. “Steven, could you get us some drinks from the machine?”

“Sure,” he replied, standing up and stretching his arms. “I could use an excuse to stretch my legs.”

“Do you remember what we like?” Tilli asked.

“Got your numbers right here,” he replied, patting the pocket that housed his phone.

He made his way across the office, heading for the vending machines in the recreation area, pausing to greet a few flocks that he passed along the way. When he arrived and began to punch in the codes, pausing to reference the list, he was distracted by a Valbaran sidling up into his peripheral vision.

“Steven, good morning.”

He turned to the stranger, seeing the woman who had visited their office the day prior.

“Oh, you’re…” He snapped his fingers for a moment, the alien seeming taken aback by the gesture. “Lotl, right? Sorry, I hope that doesn’t come across as being too informal. I have a hard time remembering full Valbara’nay names sometimes.”

“It’s quite alright,” she replied, leaning against the vending machine as she peered up at him. “I’m aware of Earth’nay shortcomings, and their advantages,” she added as she looked him up and down pointedly.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, leaning down to pick up another drink.

“I see that Ipal and her flockmates have you fetching beverages for them.”

“That’s part of my job as a clerk,” he replied, punching in another code. “Technically, I’m still kind of an intern, so it’s not unexpected.”

“You interest me,” she said simply. “I wanted to speak to you when we first met, but I thought it better to wait for an opportunity to talk to you alone.”

“Why is that?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow at her.

“When I heard that you were able to convince resource allocation to grant your team more cycles, and rather quickly, I began to suspect that your unique talents were being…misused.”

“All I really did was chat with them for a few minutes,” he replied as he bundled the last drink cup into his arms.

“Males are rare in this line of work, and Earth’nay are rarer,” she continued as she gave him a little flutter of pink and red. It was a signal of attraction or interest, to be sure, but the crimson suggested a more dominant streak that gave him pause. “Anyone can see that you have looks, but charm is something that could take you far in this company. Further than Ipal’s flock may be willing to take you.”

“What exactly are you suggesting?” Steven asked as he turned to face her. It was hard to be intimidated by someone who was a foot shorter than he was, but she had the confidence of someone twice her size.

“That’s all it is,” she added, sauntering around to put him between her and the machine. “A friendly suggestion.” Only now did he realize that a couple of her flockmates had snuck up on him like silent little raptors, boxing him in the same way he had seen Ipal’s flock box in Yemi. It gave headhunting a whole new meaning. “We don’t believe that Ipal’s team sees the same value in you that we do. If you were to ask your good friend Yemi for a transfer to another team, for example, ours, we could really leverage your talents.”

“What do you know about Yemi?”

“Word around the office is that you two have grown quite close,” one of her flockmates replied from his left. “Quite a feat. Yemi usually keeps to himself.”

“I’m starting to understand why,” Steven grumbled.

“This is a nice suit,” the one to his right added, reaching out to run her clawed fingers along one of the indented patterns on his jacket. “Earth’nay tailors are very skilled – it fits you well.”

“There are…other ways that we could make it a more attractive prospect,” Lotl continued as she backed him up against the glass. “According to office gossip, you’re a bachelor who goes home alone most evenings. This planet has a lot more to offer than you realize. It would be a shame to come all this way without ever enjoying the company of a flock.”

“And you’re offering to show me the sights, no doubt,” he replied as he struggled to balance the drinks.

“Come on,” she said with a dry chuckle and a flutter of green. “You can help my team land contracts with Earth’nay clients, and we can help to advance your career, along with some other perks. It’s such a waste to have someone as talented as you are passing messages and fetching drinks.”

“We might even be rewarded with our own private executive office if we land one of those big alien contracts,” another of her flockmates said with a flash of pink. “Think about it. Alone all day in a secluded office with a very grateful and appreciative flock…”

“Away from all the distractions of the office floor,” Lotl added with another wave of pink. “Think of all the things that we could accomplish together in such a focused environment.”

“It’s certainly a very tempting offer,” Steven replied, pretending to consider for a moment. “As much as I’m sure that I would enjoy exchanging favors for personal advancement, I’m kind of invested in the project I’m already working on,” he added as he began to push past her. He forced Lotl to step out of his way, and she shared a few angry red and yellow flashes with her flock, turning her snout to follow him as he hurried away. “I’ll give it some careful thought and get back to you, though I’ll probably just forget about this whole conversation!” he called back over his shoulder. “You know how forgetful we Earth’nay can be!”

Still feeling their eyes burning into his back, he wove his way between the dividers, getting out of their line of sight. When he arrived back at his cubicle, the flock looked up from their work curiously.

“Where have you been?” Ezi asked. “Did you forget where the vending machine was? You did, didn’t you?”

“I had a little run-in with Lotl and her friends,” he explained as he began to set down the drinks at their desks.

“What kind of a run-in?” Ipal asked, narrowing her eyes with a flash of purple and red.

“Oh, just some casual workplace sexual harassment,” he replied as he handed her one of the cups. “They cornered me at the vending machines and very strongly implied that if I asked Yemi to transfer me to their team, they’d make it worth my while.”

“That’s brazen, even for Lotl,” Ezi laughed with a flutter of yellow. “She must be desperate if she’s resorting to poaching our clerk.”

“It sounds like her own project isn’t going so well,” Ipal added with a satisfied smirk.

“You poor thing,” Mima cooed, giving him a flare of dismayed purple. “Are you alright? Can we get you anything?”

“I’m fine,” he replied, flopping down into his customized seat and cracking open his own beverage.

“You could go to Yemi and report them,” Ipal suggested. “I’d love to see Lotl’s flock get knocked down a peg.”

“It does constitute a violation of company policy, and they would likely be disciplined,” Paza added.

“Nah, I think I have a better idea,” Steven replied as he took a sip of his tiny drink. “They said something about being rewarded with an executive office for landing a lucrative contract. What’s that about?”

“Make the company enough money, and promotions are usually in order,” Ipal explained. “They come with private offices and a higher priority when choosing projects to take on, not to mention a modest pay rise. It incentivizes hard work and dedication.”

“What if we got that promotion instead of Lotl?” Steven suggested.

“It’s not up to us to decide who gets promoted,” Ipal explained. “That said, landing a UN contract to supply half of their fleet with LPD software would certainly put us in the running.”

“Don’t tell me you’re only motivated to do a good job now because it will annoy Lotl,” Paza sighed as she glanced up from her display.

“It certainly sweetens the deal,” Ezi snickered, taking a sip from her cup.

Paza gave them a flutter of exasperated red that might be something akin to an eye roll, returning to her work.

“We had better make this presentation good, then,” Ipal said as she directed Steven to keep writing his script.

***

Galvanized by the prospect of humbling Lotl, the flock worked hard on their project, splitting their attention between the code and Steven’s presentation. When they broke for lunch, Steven got a message on his phone, fishing it out of his pocket as he chewed on some gue’tra meat in a seaweed wrap.

He was expecting an update from Joseph, but it was actually from the flock that he had met on the train. They had sent him a video message, and he opened it up, seeing the five women crowding around the camera as Yeni held the device in her outstretched hand.

“Hi, Steven!” she cooed with a flutter of green that was reflected in her flockmates. “We were planning on eating out tonight, and we wanted to know if you’d like to come along. We’re not sure when you get off work, so…send us a message!”

“Who’s this?” Ezi demanded.

Steven turned in his seat to see that Ezi, Tilli, and Mima were peering over his shoulders.

“Some friends I met on the train,” he replied, amused by their concerned purple. “What’s it to you?”

“We were going to ask you if you wanted to watch more of that show tonight,” Ezi said, seeming agitated by having her plans disrupted.

“Then you should have asked me first,” he chuckled. “They helped me out when I first arrived in Kalahar – I figure I owe them a meal, at least.”

“What about tomorrow?” Tilli asked.

“Dinner with Yemi and Joseph,” he replied.

“What about after that?” Ezi pressed, giving him another flutter of purple. “We need you to help us buy suits before the presentation!”

“Why do you need me for that?”

“Because you know what clothes will impress the Earth’nay,” she insisted.

“Alright, alright,” he replied in an attempt to reassure her. “Another day – I promise.”

They still seemed agitated, the trio moving over to titter and chatter with Ipal in their native language, Paza occasionally tearing her eyes away from her displays to join in. On one hand, Steven hoped that he hadn’t upset them by disrupting their plans, but it wasn’t like he had to clear his schedule with the flock beforehand. Maybe they were worried that this new flock might steal him away.

Before they could formulate some new plan to cement their position, Yemi poked his head around the divider.

“Are you ready to begin your lesson, Steven?”

“Sure,” he replied, rising from his seat as the flock fretted. “I’ll see you later, ladies.”

He followed the bobbing reptile through the office to the lobby, joining him behind his desk.

“Hey, Yemi,” Steven began as the Valbaran pulled up their usual windows. “What’s this I’m hearing about an executive office and a promotion?”

“We recently had a senior flock move to another building in the city,” Yemi replied, waving his hands through the holographic displays. “A promotion often comes with an executive office when one is available.”

“Like the one resource allocation has?”

“Correct,” Yemi replied. “There are other perks, such as priority selection for new contracts.”

“What are the chances of my team getting that promotion if we land the big LPD contract?”

“Well, I don’t have the authority to promote teams,” Yemi explained as he slid one of the displays over to Steven. “I can make recommendations, but ultimately, promotions are decided by the board of directors.”

“Oh, I didn’t intend for it to come across like I was asking for a favor,” Steven added hastily. “I just don’t want them to be disappointed if they don’t get the promotion.”

“I believe that Lotl’tal’patli’s flock is also up for promotion,” Yemi added. “Both teams have had excellent performance reviews, and I would consider it very likely that one of them will be chosen.”

“Awesome,” Steven muttered. “So, are you looking forward to meeting Joseph tomorrow?”

“I must admit that when I took this job, I was not expecting to be dining with aliens,” he replied with a rare yellow flutter of amusement. “I have enjoyed your company, and while it would be presumptuous to assume that all Earth’nay are the same, I suspect that I will enjoy his company as well.”

“He’s a cool guy,” Steven confirmed with a nod. “It’ll be nice to be able to socialize away from the females for a bit, too,” he added in a whisper.

“Indeed,” Yemi said with a flash of green that he quickly suppressed.

They began to work through the next lesson, Steven learning more about their internal messaging system, but he took the opportunity to speak up again when there was a lull.

“I never asked you before, but are you native to Kalahar?” Steven asked.

“No, I wasn’t born here,” Yemi replied as he kept his gaze focused on his task. “I moved to Kalahar for work.”

“Then we have that in common,” Steven mused, appraising the little alien in a fresh light. “Am I right to assume that you left people behind? It didn’t really hit me until I was on the ship heading for Valbara, but interstellar travel isn’t quick or cheap, and I might never see my friends and family again. I’d moved away from my home dome by that point, and I didn’t have that many friends in Memphis, but there’s a sense of finality to it.”

“I feel foolish comparing our situations,” Yemi replied. “I can simply take a flier to my home city any time my schedule allows for it, but yes – I did leave my parent flock and my childhood friends behind. It was the only way for me to advance my career. When a position opened up, I had to take it.”

“It’s tough making friends in new places,” Steven added. “Especially when you don’t have all that much time to put yourself out there.”

“Indeed.”

“Do you mind if I ask you a more personal question?” Steven continued. “I don’t want to pry if you’d rather focus on work.”

“Not at all,” Yemi replied. “To be honest, it’s nice to be able to talk about something other than work for a change.”

“Or being relentlessly hit on,” Steven added, Yemi giving him another flash of yellow. “I’ve been getting some of that myself lately.”

“I hope they’re not being too aggressive.”

“I can handle it,” he replied. “I’m still learning about Valbara’nay culture, so forgive me if I make any incorrect assumptions, but the way people talk about you makes you sound like a rare breed. Not many males become working bachelors. Is that true? If I’m going to be living that way, I’d like to hear from someone more experienced.”

“There are some cultural barriers, but it’s becoming easier with time,” Yemi began. “A few decades ago, one would have trouble even accessing basic services without a flock, as society simply wasn’t designed with bachelors in mind. There were no single seats in restaurants or theaters, buying a home or filing taxes as an individual was difficult, and bachelors were always reminded that they were the exception to the norm. Even today, I often find that when I go out, people will search for my flock before speaking to me directly as though they expect me to be accompanied.”

“Yeah, that sounds rough,” Steven sighed. “Things are improving, though?”

“Slowly,” Yemi continued. “As bachelors become more common, society adjusts to accommodate them. It’s no longer all that unusual for single males to delay marriage for several rotations to travel or work instead. I’ve even heard of males leaving the planet to seek adventure in the stars like some kind of Ker’gue’la’nay warrior,” he chuckled. “The males on that colony work and fight alongside the females, so their attitudes are quite different.”

“I suppose they had no choice, being occupied by Bugs for thirty years,” Steven mused.

“It proves that males can be just as capable as females, I think,” Yemi added. “We just need to be given the same opportunities.”

“Most males still choose a traditional role, though?” Steven pressed. “They get married and have kids pretty early in life?”

“I won’t pretend that I don’t see the appeal out of some misplaced sense of pride,” Yemi conceded with another flicker of pink. “The allure of having a flock of females care for you, see to all of your needs, and shower you with affection is a powerful one. There’s something…appealing about giving in and allowing yourself to become theirs – in a caring way,” he added hurriedly. “Maybe there’s some instinctual component to it, but it’s hard to shake sometimes.”

“I mean, humans usually only have one partner at a time,” Steven added. “Having five or even seven wives seems both exhausting and decadent at the same time.”

“Youth is valuable, of course,” Yemi continued. “Flocks like young, pretty boys with smooth scales and bright feathers. Some males see pursuing a career and putting off marriage as wasting their prime rotations. Some become lounge dancers and just…have their fill of women, I suppose. It must be hard to feel as though you’ve missed out on life’s experiences if you go home tipsy on drink and herb with a different flock every night.”

“And you didn’t want to do that?”

“Goodness,” Yemi chuckled with a flush of flustered pink and yellow. “I can’t imagine myself getting up on a stage like that and lifting my tail for strangers. Certainly not now that I’m a little older and wiser.”

“I didn’t mean to offend,” Steven stammered. He noted that Yemi’s feathers being so prominent and so much larger than those of the flock made them harder to conceal. Maybe that was one of the reasons the myth of males being more emotional had propagated – it was physiologically harder for them to mask their feelings.

“Not to worry – you don’t understand the connotations,” Yemi said with another laugh. “No, I’ve always been very studious, though living alone can get expensive. The income of flocks is larger than that of bachelors,” he continued. “Which makes sense, as there are as many as seven people to care for on a single salary. It makes it very easy for flocks to care for their male, and a little harder for males to get by on their own.”

“Is that by design?” Steven asked, his brow furrowing. “Some kind of government conspiracy to pressure you into marriage?”

“No, I think it’s just a consequence of economics. Six mouths eat more than one. It does make joining a flock more appealing, though. There are also tax rebates for being married, and for having children.”

“How does that work?” Steven asked. “I was meaning to ask how the hell you pay people salaries when a flock can be any number of people.”

“Generally between five and seven, excluding cases where there’s been a death in the flock,” Yemi replied. “Flocks are treated as a unit and are paid a net salary regardless of their size, though larger flocks also receive tax rebates, so it evens out.”

“I see, so smaller flocks have more disposable income relative to their size, but they pay more in taxes.”

“Correct. If it were otherwise, employers might discriminate based on flock size.”

“What about males?” Steven asked. “I guess I’m considered a male, so is my salary lower than that of a flock?”

“Yes, you’re on the male payroll just as I am,” Yemi explained. “I suppose the same would be true for Earth’nay females, as they live alone. What a strange situation that would be…”

“Different pay for different genders didn’t work out so well in our history,” Steven said with a dry chuckle. “Though, I suppose that when one gender is represented by a group and one isn’t, true equality is going to be impossible.”

“Males do have much lighter tax obligations, so there’s that,” Yemi added with a flutter that Steven interpreted as a shrug. “I think the Council of Ensis has made things as fair as it’s possible to make them.”

“I suppose you’re doing a similar job to the one that I used to do when I worked in Marius Regio,” Steven said. “Handling tax information, employee pay slips, things like that.”

“It’s part of what I do, yes,” Yemi replied. “It gives me a very in-depth understanding of employee salaries and tax obligations.”

“Well, this is the most interesting conversation about taxes I’ve ever had,” Steven added, Yemi giving him a flutter of lime green. “By the way – I have no idea how to file taxes here.”

“Not to worry,” Yemi giggled, allowing himself a flush of amused yellow. “Most of it is handled automatically by your employer.”

“That’s a relief.”

***

At the end of the day, the females began to file out through the lobby again, showering Yemi and Steven with flashes of pink and green as they said their goodbyes. Lotl’s flock was the exception, the Valbaran giving Steven the stink eye on her way out. Ipal and her flock were the last, as usual, boxing the two males in behind the front desk.

“Remember – we still need to watch more of your show,” Tilli began, suppressing a flutter of apprehensive purple.

“And you have to take us shopping for suits,” Ezi added. “Don’t forget!”

“Guys, don’t worry,” Steven replied as he leaned back in his seat and locked his fingers behind his head. “I’m just gonna be busy for a couple of days – that’s all. Yeni’s flock isn’t going to kidnap me.”

“So that’s her name,” Ipal muttered with a flicker of red. “Yeni.”

“Yeni, Tlaso, Kema, Nawa, and…Tikol,” he continued as he counted their names off on his fingers. “See? I’m not that forgetful.”

“He remembers all their names,” Ezi muttered, shooting Ipal an exasperated look.

“Her flock is really nice,” he continued, inadvertently adding to their growing jealousy. “We had a chat on the train when I first arrived – they showed me how to find grocery stores, and I’ve been exchanging messages with them on and off. We’re just going out for a meal, and it’ll be my treat, assuming they let me pay. I don’t really know what the etiquette is here.”

“Well…you have our number too,” Tilli added, reaching up to fiddle with one of her sheaths. “If you wanted to exchange messages…”

“I see you guys at work every day,” he chuckled. “Go on – off you go,” he added as he shooed them away. “I’ll be here tomorrow.”

The flock exchanged a few hushed words in their rapid-fire language, then said their goodbyes and skulked away, Tilli pausing at the door to look back at him like a lost puppy.

“I admire your willingness to challenge them like that,” Yemi sighed once they were out of earshot, his feathers flashing a relieved green. “I can’t imagine them ever listening to me the way they listen to you.”

“I’m learning that you have to be firm with them,” Steven replied. “If you phrase a command like a suggestion, then they’re going to interpret it that way. You can’t give them any wiggle room. In some ways, they remind me of the guys who used to hit on chicks in the bars back in Memphis. I get the impression that they think persistence is the key, and unless they get a strong negative reaction, there’s still a chance to convince you.”

“You weren’t being especially negative,” Yemi mused, tilting his head. “You phrased it in a friendly way.”

“It’s not about being rude or confrontational,” Steven continued. “It’s just about being clear and making sure they understand. If they know that they can keep asking until they get a yes, then they have no incentive to stop. You can’t be cute or shy or coy – you have to speak up and tell them what’s what.”

“Easier said than done, I’m afraid,” Yemi replied with a flutter of purple. “I have worked hard to cultivate the reputation of someone who is level-headed and reliable. A professional male doesn’t speak out of turn.”

“You’re scared of playing into the emotional stereotype,” Steven suggested. “You give them a bad reaction, and it becomes about your gender. Listen, wanting to be polite and having discipline is good, but you can’t let other people use that as a shield. Even kind people have to get a little mad sometimes if they’re going to be respected.”

“Things must be very different where you come from,” Yemi replied.

“Listen – I have a train to catch,” Steven said as he rose from his seat. “This conversation isn’t over, though,” he continued as he headed for the door. “We’re gonna continue it tomorrow, alright?”

“Alright,” Yemi replied, giving him a flutter of green that made his ornate eye spots shimmer beneath the office lights.

***

Steven could smell the ocean before the train had even pulled into the station, and he stepped out to feel the breeze rustle his hair, the sky above his head filled with flocks of circling sea birds. He was right next to the marina, the twin spires that capped off the horseshoe-shaped wall rising high above him, their rows of windows glittering in the evening sun. According to their back and forth, this was where Yeni’s flock was supposed to be meeting him.

He strolled along a dirt path that led to the foot of the wall, just enjoying the scents and sounds, passing into its shadow. At the entrance to the nearest of the two fin-shaped buildings, he spotted a flock milling about, the women flashing their feathers in greeting at his approach.

“Steven!” Yeni chirped, her flockmates crowding around him. They were dressed in the customary attire – loose, breathable tunics and tight bike shorts.

“Sorry, I think I’m a few minutes late,” he replied as he checked his phone.

“No problem,” Nawa said.

“It’s nice to see you again,” Tikol added with a flutter of green.

“Thanks for inviting me out,” Steven continued, unsure of which alien to address. “I feel like I’m going to have visited every restaurant in the city before the week is out.”

“We think you’ll like this one,” Nawa said, the flock leading him inside the lobby of the building. “It’s a little something to remind you of home.”

They boarded an elevator that carried them high towards the tapering top floors of the tower, Steven watching the changing scenery through the holographic displays. He was starting to get used to the sensation now, at least enough to not be sent reeling by the stomach-churning heights anymore. They were soon above the wall itself, Steven seeing the watchtowers that were stationed along its length at intervals fading into the distance as they followed its gentle curve, the docks below shrinking away until the massive oceangoing ships seemed little larger than toys.

“Quite a view, isn’t it?” Tlaso said when she noticed his expression.

Near the top, the car slid to a stop, the displays fading back to matte walls as Steven and his accompanying flock stepped out. He found himself in a carpeted hallway, and after a short walk, they made their way through an automatic door and into a larger space. It was another themed restaurant, but instead of faux wood paneling, this one was filled with large fish tanks and ocean-themed murals. Towards the back wall was a massive window lined with booths that looked out over the marina, the blue sky meeting the azure ocean far on the horizon.

They were greeted by a bobbing male, his ornate clothing matching the blue and green hues of the décor, his vibrant feathers erupting into a greeting as he tilted his head in a bow. The motion made the little sapphire that dangled from a silver chain on his forehead swing back and forth.

“Welcome,” he began, speaking English for Steven’s benefit. “An Earth’nay visitor! I hope that our dishes will impress.”

“I’m sure they will!” Steven replied, unsure of what he should be expecting. Was he about to sample some Valbaran interpretation of a cheeseburger or a taco?

The male guided them over to one of the booths, the flock taking a seat around the low table, Steven crossing his legs as he sat on the cushions. Just like with Ipal’s flock, the sight seemed to amuse the women, the women sharing flashes of yellow. He took a few moments to admire his surroundings, watching alien fish swim around in a large aquarium that spanned from floor to ceiling, their colorful scales catching the light. To his right was the window, the docks now some three hundred meters below him, the ocean waves dotted with little white boats and verdant islands. They must be on one of the highest floors.

The male pressed a hand against the surface of the table, a holographic menu appearing to hover above its polished surface, and then he left with a bow.

“Have you guessed what we’re having yet?” Kema asked, waiting for his reply eagerly.

“Some kind of seafood?” he asked.

“It’s sushi!” she exclaimed, practically bouncing in her seat.

“Sushi!” Steven replied, raising his eyebrows. “Great, I love sushi!”

He didn’t have the heart to tell them that he had never eaten sushi before, and that fresh fish was a rarity on Ganymede. They seemed so excited about it.

“I told you he’d love it,” Yeni said, giving Tikol a nudge. “It feels like ages since we caught up, Steven. The last we heard from you, you were bringing shopping carts onto trains.”

That comment got some flushes of yellow and green from her giggling flockmates.

“How have you been finding things on Val’ba’ra?” Tlaso pressed as she leaned closer across the table.

“Things have been going great,” he replied, leaning back into the padded cushions. “There’s all the fresh air I can breathe, all the water I can drink, and I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to food. I’ve been learning to cook Valbara’nay dishes – I made salted fish, gue’tra steak, and one of my coworkers taught me how to make snack bars. I do need to find an apron that actually fits me, though.”

That got another round of chuckling from the aliens, a few of them sharing pink flutters.

“How’s work?” Nawa asked. “I remember you being a little unsure about it.”

“Everyone there has been really nice to me, for the most part,” he continued. “There’s some cultural friction, as is to be expected when you try to adapt to a totally alien society, but I’ve been having a great time. I’m working as a clerk for a team of programmers.”

“A secretary boy?” Yeni mused, looking him up and down. “That explains the nice suit.”

“I came straight from work,” he said apologetically, reaching up to loosen his tie a little. “I didn’t have time to change into something more casual.”

“Nah, you look good,” she added as she steepled her fingers and rested her jaw on her hands. “I hope they’re not working you too hard.”

“Not at all,” he replied with a wave of his hand. “All I’ve really been doing is answering emails and fetching drinks. It’s a hell of a lot easier than breaking ice in hard vacuum for ten hours a day.”

“I can imagine,” she tittered.

“Oh, please feel free to order for me,” he added with a gesture to the rotating hologram. “I still can’t read any Valbara’nay, I’m embarrassed to say.”

“It’s a complicated language,” Kema chimed, seeming to find the admission more endearing than embarrassing. “I’d ask if you had any favorite dishes, but I think they’re only using native fish.”

“I can’t imagine them shipping salmon from Earth,” he said with a nod.