Human Resources – Bisexual Edition

This story is in progress and will be updated regularly.

© 2024 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

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

CHAPTER 1: MEMPHIS BLUES

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 H2O 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 as he wiped 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 passages. 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 of 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 I went to school with?”

“The guy you said 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 a 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 hotdog 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, shutting 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 as he flopped down, 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 the 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.”

 

CHAPTER 2: VISA-VIS

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 the 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 when 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 balance them. 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 expression.

“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 into 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. His shuttle must have crashed on its way down, 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 lowest 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, dozens of 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 with 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 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 and started to walk.

***

Steven had visited 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 properties. 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 halfling home 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 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, along with a couple of low coffee tables and a dining table that must have seated several of the little creatures. 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 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.

CHAPTER 3: WORK PLACEMENT

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 train 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 elements, 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, and 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 in the direction 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 gave 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 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 yellow. “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 that Steven 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 glass 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. 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 reflective 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.”

Qimi’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. Qimi – 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 Qimi 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, inputting 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 that made 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 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 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 have been granted many responsibilities.”

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 and 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 into 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 pu’ac 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.

CHAPTER 4: SEVEN TO ONE

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 video game.

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 forwarding 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.

CHAPTER 5: LEARN BY DOING

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 reached 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 amount of 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 them 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 watched 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,” Steven 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 would choose.”

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.

“Qimi, 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!” Qimi began.

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

“Evening ladies,” Steven began as he leaned back in his seat. “Qimi, 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 found 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 out 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!” 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?” Qimi 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,” Qimi 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 inside, 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 looked like a curving, disconnected labyrinth 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’tal’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 friends, 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 continued. “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 gossip.”

“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.”

CHAPTER 6: WHEN IN ROME

Steven focused on 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 unusual 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 filled 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 chicken, 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?” Ezi asked.

“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 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 dining 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 invite you 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.”

CHAPTER 7: BOAT TOUR

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 can’t be 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 and 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 from 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 were all wearing matching wetsuits 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 weather, 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 wetsuit 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 a 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, moving to the guard rail and 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 mass.

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 flanks, 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, but 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 her usual speed as Steven stood around and 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 the 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 mountaintops. “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, and 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 feathery 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 shut, 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 dining 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, and 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 said 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,” he 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 notice 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.

CHAPTER 8: OFFICE POLITICS

“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 with meeting 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 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 them 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.

“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 the other competing companies. 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 grin that exposed her sharp teeth.

“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,” Mima said. “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 replied 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 from a nearby desk, 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 fish another drink out of the machine.

“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 still,” 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 Qimi 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 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, fencing in the two males 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. Qimi’s flock isn’t going to kidnap me.”

“So that’s her name,” Ipal muttered with a flicker of red. “Qimi.”

“Qimi, 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 of 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.

CHAPTER 9: SUSHI DISH

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 Qimi’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!” Qimi 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 no 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 them, 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 it, 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,” Qimi 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?” Qimi 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 rested her jaw on her hands. “I hope they’re not working you too hard.”

“Not at all,” he replied with a dismissive wave. “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.

It wasn’t long before the waiter returned with their order, setting down a large platter on their table that looked almost too large for the little guy to carry. It was piled high with smaller square dishes filled with various cuts of raw fish, but the centerpiece was a crude replica of one of the boats that Steven had seen in the docks, complete with a little clear stand that lifted it off the table as though it was skimming along the surface of the ocean. Its decks were loaded up with an arrangement of sushi, the slices of fish draped over cubes of sweet rice, others wrapped in seaweed and bundled with vegetables.

The flock seemed delighted by his reaction, their feathers flaring as he played his wide eyes across the display.

“Please let us know if our interpretation of Earth’nay cuisine is accurate,” the male said, addressing Steven. “Our flock of chefs has done their best to approximate the flavors and styles with fresh, local ingredients.”

“It looks wonderful,” Steven replied, the male giving him an appreciative flutter of green before disappearing again.

“What shall we try first?” Nawa mused as she examined the spread of food.

“I think Steven should have the first pick,” Kema added, the flock turning their heads to watch him expectantly.

“Alright,” he said, examining his cutlery. He was amused to see that the waiter had given him a pair of wooden chopsticks, and he cracked them apart, the flock observing curiously as he manipulated them in his fingers.

“Is that Earth’nay cutlery?” Tikol asked.

“Chopsticks,” he explained, showing them how he pinched the two sticks together. “Earth’nay have several different kinds of cutlery, but this one happens to be familiar to me. My ancestors hailed from a region where these were common, and they still see a lot of use on Ganymede today. Though sushi is more of a Japanese dish, and my ancestors were Chinese. Doesn’t really matter.”

He reached out and plucked one of the little seaweed wraps from the bridge of the ship, hearing it crunch between the chopsticks as he brought it closer for examination. There was a piece of pink meat and a blob of what looked like rice encased inside. He brought it to his mouth, giving it a tentative chew, the flock watching as his eyes lit up. The rice – or whatever the Valbaran equivalent was – was sweet and sticky, while the fish had a fresh ocean flavor, pleasantly cool against his tongue. The seaweed had that familiar umami taste, the crunch providing some pleasant texture.

“Damn!” he mumbled before he’d even had a chance to swallow. “That really is good!”

Exchanging flashes of pleased green, the flock began to dig in too, selecting their own morsels of fish from the boat. Joseph had been right – they really had taken a liking to sushi, and Kalahar was the perfect place for it due to its proximity to the ocean.

***

They chatted as they ate, sharing pieces of sushi along with stories about their experiences in Kalahar. It turned out that the flock had traveled from another city to work for a firm that designed spacecraft engines for the growing Valbaran fleet. They were very amused to learn about how he perceived the city and his interpretation of Valbaran culture, quizzing him about all of the seemingly mundane things that he had seen.

“No way,” Tikol giggled. “You were that afraid of the elevator?”

“I don’t know if afraid is really the right word,” he muttered, popping another piece of fish into his mouth and chewing for a moment. “I was…startled, in a very masculine sense.”

She gave him a flash of yellow as the flock laughed.

“You have such a unique outlook,” Qimi added, reaching for the model boat with her chopsticks. The Valbarans had been given alien cutlery, but after calling over the waiter, they had been brought five more sets of chopsticks. Ever the fast learners, it hadn’t taken more than a few minutes of instruction for the flock to master them, and they were now eating sushi like pros. “You think about all these little things that we take for granted every day, like using a biometric ID to pay for things, buying groceries, or bathing in pools.”

“It never even occurred to me that Earth’nay would have trouble navigating vertical environments,” Tlaso added. “These are all valuable insights. One day, we might have some Earth’nay coworkers ourselves, and it will be our job to make sure they have a comfortable workplace.”

“What do you do about injuries?” Steven mused. “Say a Valbara’nay sprains her ankle or breaks a leg – how are they expected to navigate an environment like my office? They can’t jump or climb.”

“They wouldn’t be,” Kema replied. “They would remain in the infirmary or rest at home until they had recovered enough to work again.”

“We clearly come from very different backgrounds,” Steven chuckled, selecting another piece of pink fish and crunchy seaweed from the deck of the boat. “I messed up my shoulder working in the quarry one time – pulled a muscle pretty badly. The company doctor gave me a painkiller and sent me straight back out. You don’t work on Ganymede, you don’t eat.”

“That sounds terrible!” Nawa said with a flutter of dismayed blue.

“Eh, it healed up eventually,” he replied with a shrug. “I suppose the same is true for disability? What do you do about that?”

“We use genetic screening to predict and mitigate any potential congenital defects that might arise,” Kema explained, pausing to juggle a piece of sushi in her long jaws. “Though rare, injury and illness can still result in permanent disability. In those cases, the person almost always has a flock to help care for them, and they usually receive a stipend to help cover their expenses.”

“Earth’nay technology has been doing wonders in that regard,” Qimi added, waving her chopsticks. “Our doctors and scientists have been working together to adapt prosthetic limbs and organs to Val’ba’ra’nay physiology. A person can lose a leg or an eye now, or have a major organ fail due to illness, and it can simply be replaced.”

“They say that the Jarilo’nay can even clone organs and cure radiation sickness,” Tikol added. “The Coalition has brought a whole new era of medicine.”

“We’ll probably live to be two hundred rotations old,” Nawa chuckled.

“I hadn’t heard that about the Jarilans,” Steven said, dipping a piece of fish and sweet rice into a salty dipping sauce. “You can get cloned organs in wealthier places like Earth, Mars, or Franklin, but it’ll cost more than most people earn in their lifetime. Even where there’s good public healthcare, it’s still more cost-effective to print a prosthetic.”

“Not on Ganymede, I’m assuming?” Qimi asked.

“We clone plenty of meat to make shitty hotdogs, but not organs,” he replied. “Industrial accidents aren’t all that uncommon, and I have seen people with prosthetics, but they’re usually very utilitarian models that restore just enough functionality to get someone back on the line.”

“It’s no wonder you were so eager to leave,” Kema sighed with a flush of purple. “The way you describe it, it sounds terrible.”

“Nah, I’m just telling you all the bad stories,” Steven said as he leaned back into the cushions and gazed out at the ocean beyond the window. “I went out on the ice thousands of times, and never once did Jupiter fail to take my breath away. I’d gaze up at it whenever I took a break from work, just watching all those swirling clouds of gas and planet-sized storms race around its equator. There’s crime and poverty, sure, but hardship also brings people together. You learn to watch out for each other, and when times are tough, there’s usually someone close by who’s willing to share what little they have. A can of spam here, a fresh air filter there, a reel of patch tape. I haven’t told you all the stories about a whole shift drinking together and sharing a hotpot, or my buddy Feng trying to prove that he could throw a baseball into orbit. Nobody ever saw where it came down, but he insisted that meant it was in space. I think he was bullshitting.”

“Do you miss it?” Tlaso asked with a flutter of blue.

“Not yet,” he replied with a shrug. “In time, I think I’ll forget a lot of the bad, and the good will be half-remembered and all wrapped up in nostalgia. Then I’ll miss it.”

“I never considered that forgetting could be a salve,” Kema mused, scratching her jaw pensively. “If something bad happens to you, it fades like a scar. It leaves a memory, but it becomes less distinct as time passes.”

“Time heals all wounds,” Steven replied. “I suppose that with perfect recall, bad experiences stay fresh.”

“Contrary to what you might assume, our memories aren’t totally perfect,” Qimi explained. “They probably seem that way to you, though. We are able to forget, but it’s more a case of old information being replaced with new as the synaptic pathways fall into disuse. New pathways are cemented very quickly, and non-declarative memory is especially potent.”

“What’s that?” Steven asked with a frown.

“It means muscle memory and subconscious reflexes,” she continued, tapping her chopsticks together deftly. “I’m told that stacking, whereby a Val’ba’ra’nay executes a series of learned actions almost reflexively with little conscious input, is lacking entirely in Earth’nay.”

“So…you can kind of program your reflexes to perform specific actions?” Steven marveled.

“That’s not a bad analogy,” Nawa said. “It’s useful in any number of manual tasks but also very prominent in martial arts, music, and dancing.”

“That explains how you learn things so quickly,” he mused, gesturing to Nawa’s cutlery. “We used to make a game out of trying to teach foreigners to use chopsticks – it’s always very difficult for people who didn’t grow up with them – but you guys mastered them in fifteen minutes. You’re using them just as well as a native. It explains how Paza gets so engrossed in her work, too. I’m a pretty experienced typist, but her fingers are a blur.”

“We also get very agitated when our plans are thrown out,” Qimi added. “Earth’nay are said to have an incredible ability to improvise and adapt, and you’re living proof of that.”

“I’ve noticed,” Steven chuckled. “I was warned never to be late for appointments. When the flock I work with learned I was coming here instead of what they had probably been planning for me, they got pretty flustered.”

“Yeah, your coworkers sound…interesting,” Kema mused.

“Maybe you guys can give me some advice,” Steven continued, leaning in conspiratorially. “I haven’t found it that hard to adapt to life here, but the whole gender dynamic is something I’m struggling with.”

“Of course,” Qimi replied. “What’s on your mind?”

***

Steven went over his experiences with his coworkers and the strange relationship between the sexes on Valbara, recounting stories of how Ipal’s flock had treated him and Yemi, his encounters with other males, and the incident with Lotl. His friends remained mostly quiet and attentive throughout, only chiming in to ask a few pointed questions here and there as they ate.

“Your experience is pretty par for the course, I’m afraid,” Qimi finally said when Steven had finished his tale. “Gender relations on Val’ba’ra are improving, but they have a long way to go before they resemble anything you would find familiar.”

“I don’t mean to criticize your culture or traditions,” Steven added. “In fact, it’s been kind of enjoyable in a lot of ways, but it’s something that I’m not equipped to navigate. I don’t know how to deal with the interpersonal problems that arise because of it.”

“Let me guess,” Kema began, tapping her chopsticks together as she considered for a moment. “Most of the flocks that work at your office are comprised of young, unattached females, and the number of males working there can be counted on a single hand?”

“Pretty much,” Steven replied with a nod.

“This flock that you work with – they’re not as bad as you might perceive,” Tikol added. “They’re young and brash, and if they’ve ever managed to wrangle a male into their bedroom, it won’t have been for a long-term relationship. A fling with a lounge dancer only teaches them that they need to be the loudest and most persistent flock in the room to get noticed.”

“Relationships are about compromise,” Nawa added, eliciting a few flashes of agreement from her flockmates. “If you’re juggling five or more partners, all of whom have their own tastes and differences, making things work long-term requires accepting that you won’t always get your way. It takes concessions and patience.”

“In short, they have very little practical experience with males,” Qimi said. “They’re also in an environment where everyone is competing for a tiny pool of boys, which just focuses that negative behavior like a laser lens.”

“You don’t think they’re necessarily bad, then?” Steven asked. “They’re just young and inexperienced?”

“I doubt very much that they understand how you and your friend Yemi are interpreting their behavior,” Kema replied.

“What makes you guys so different?” Steven pressed, glancing between the women. “Your flock seems a lot less…pushy.”

“We’re a little older and wiser,” Qimi replied with a flutter of green. “There was a time when we’d try to convince pretty lounge dancers to come home with us, too, but we’ve learned that a different approach is necessary if you want a relationship to last longer than your hangover.”

“I see,” Steven chuckled. “How old, if you don’t mind my asking? I’m sorry if it’s a faux pas, but I genuinely can’t tell. You don’t look any different from my coworkers at a glance.”

“Trying to flatter us?” Nawa giggled. “We’re in our early forties. Val’ba’ra’nay tend to live on average around one hundred and twenty rotations.”

“Just approaching middle age, then,” Steven mused. “Assuming that your stages of life are remotely comparable to ours.”

“I believe that the ignorance of youth is probably universal,” Tikol added.

“Your coworkers sound like they’re in their early twenties,” Qimi continued as she plucked another piece of sushi from the display. “They’ve likely had a few encounters, and now they think they’re irresistible, but they haven’t yet learned boundaries and proper etiquette. You can’t approach a boy in the workplace the same way you would in a lounge.”

“Yemi seems to think that any strong display of emotion would be counterproductive,” Steven sighed. “But I don’t know how he’s going to get through to them if he’s always avoiding confrontation. If he declines politely, they don’t listen. If he puts his foot down, it could harm his reputation and make him look emotional.”

“In our culture, males are often raised to be meek and polite,” Tlaso explained. “Being uncooperative is seen as being crass or ungentlemanly. Traditionally, a good boy is soft-spoken, well-mannered, and always defers to the consensus of a flock.”

“Five heads are better than one,” Tikol added.

“Of course, that’s a very outdated concept,” Qimi continued with a dismissive flutter of feathers. “Modern males have a lot more agency and independence than they used to. A lot of flocks view tying down a househusband as a necessary milestone in their adult life, and it can be hard for them to accept that males sometimes value their careers as much as their relationships. Arranged marriages and dowries are just as outdated a concept, but I suppose that some people find the idea too appealing to abandon.”

“There are some males who find allure in the old ways, too,” Kema said. “It’s hardly a phenomenon unique to one gender.”

“I can’t say I blame them,” Steven admitted. “The idea of being adopted by a harem of attractive women and having all of your needs taken care of would spark the interest of a lot of guys.”

“Going native so soon, Steven?” Qimi snickered with a telltale flutter of pink plumage.

“I have a little more self-respect than that,” he continued, wagging his chopsticks at her. “The question is – what do I do about it? Me and my Earth’nay friend are taking Yemi out tomorrow evening, so maybe we can coach him a little – teach him to stand up for himself.”

The flock paused for a few moments, engaging in a rapid-fire conversation of chirps and titters that was joined by flashes of colorful feather signals, Steven waiting patiently for them to finish.

“You know, we think you might be just what that flock needs,” Kema said as she appraised him from across the table.

“Me?” he asked, pointing to himself. “What led you to that consensus?”

“Think about it,” Qimi continued. “You’re a male, and someone who your coworkers clearly desire, but you come from a completely alien culture where being willful and direct isn’t viewed negatively. You haven’t been trained to be meek like Yemi, so you can challenge them in ways that he never would. You can give them a crash course in dating etiquette and respect just by being yourself.”

“Make them work for it,” Nawa added with a grin.

“I feel like we’ve skipped a step,” Steven added, glancing between the flockmates in confusion. “Am I setting up Yemi with the flock, or are we talking about me?”

“You wouldn’t have put up with them if you didn’t like them at least a little bit,” Tlaso giggled with a flash of yellow. “Yemi has rejected their advances enough times to make it clear that he doesn’t want the kind of relationship they’re offering.”

“They’re young and eager,” Qimi added, leaning back to lounge on the couch. “You’re new to Val’ba’ra, and presently unattached. Might as well take full advantage of the situation, and if they learn a little about proper courtship along the way, all the better.”

“What use is there in leaving a ripe fruit to wither on the branch?” he muttered under his breath, remembering what Mima had said to him.

“What was that?” Nawa asked with a tilt of her head.

“Nothing,” he stammered. “One problem – I’ve never been on a date with a Valbara’nay flock before. How will I know what’s appropriate and what isn’t?”

“Well,” Qimi mused, pausing to tap a claw against her scaly chin as she considered. “We would advise approaching a male in a way that’s cordial and respectful. Become their friend, learn about their likes and dislikes, then allow them to make the next move. Maybe go on a date with them to a restaurant, see if they like sushi…”

“Ah,” he muttered sheepishly, reaching up to fiddle with his tie again. “I guess that’s kind of what we’re doing here, huh?”

“We’re not like your coworkers,” Kema giggled, seeming more amused by his reaction than anything. “There were never any expectations other than spending some quality time with our new Earth’nay friend and catching up on his adventures.”

“These things need to develop organically,” Nawa added.

“Not that we would have been opposed to taking you home and finding out whether this Earth’nay stamina we keep hearing about is all it’s cracked up to be,” Qimi added with a pointed display of pink.

“Maybe another time,” Tikol cooed, snatching another piece of sushi with her chopsticks. “Your friends clearly have their hearts set on you.”

“You know, this was supposed to be my treat,” Steven added as he tried to ignore the warmth that was spreading through his cheeks. “I hope you’ll let me cover the bill as thanks for all your help.”

“We may be a modern, forward-thinking flock,” Tlaso said as she crossed her little arms defiantly. “But some traditions are still sacred.”

***

They finished up their meal, and Steven thanked the flock profusely for their help, promising to keep them apprised of his exploits before heading back to the train station. As he watched the landscape flash past beyond the windows, he replayed their conversations in his mind – at least as much as his imperfect recall would allow.

It was a relief to learn that Ipal and her flockmates’ behavior wasn’t indicative of some deep dysfunction in Valbaran society. Sure, sexism seemed to be an issue that their culture was still grappling with, but their behavior wasn’t due to any malice or intentional disrespect. They were just young, full of bluster and hormones, and they had no clue how to approach the opposite sex. If they were persistent and they laid it on thick, it was because that was what had gotten them results in the past. Qimi’s flock was proof that Valbarans could also be considerate, mellow, and quite charming when they wanted to be.

He had almost wanted to take them up on their offer – the prospect of spending a night with Qimi’s flock making his stomach fill with butterflies. He chuckled to himself, drawing a look from a flock that was riding in the seats on the opposite side of the car. Nobody had ever hit on him like this before. He’d never been so aggressively pursued by women, and they radiated such confidence, their flattery making his cheeks flush and his heart flutter. Maybe this damned place was starting to get to him. He was a briner with callouses on his hands where they’d been rubbed raw by his pressure gloves, not some doe-eyed teenage girl. They’d have him wearing one of those damned tiaras at this rate.

The girls were right, though. He was in the perfect position to take some heat off Yemi, teach Ipal and her flockmates a little humility, and have a bit of fun along the way. They were on the money about him liking his coworkers, too.

He remembered his encounter with Mima in the kitchen – the sensation of her scaly fingers trailing across the heel of his hand and down his wrist, still sticky with dough. She had made her intentions so clear that even an Earth’nay couldn’t play dumb. Ezi had been on his case since day one, the way that Ipal looked at him said a thousand words, and Paza and Tilli had their own reasons for being interested in him. He remembered the sight of those tight swimsuits awakening something in him, and those pages on the expat forum…each line opening up new possibilities.

All it would take would be inviting them over for another watch party, then simply giving in and letting them have their way with him. The prospect was intoxicating – such a reversal from what he was used to – but it would mean letting them win. They wouldn’t learn a damned thing that way. No, he had to make them work for it, as Nawa had said. He had to play hard to get, as much as refusing to take five willing women to bed seemed antithetical to his very being. They had already shown some genuine interest in him and his background, so that was a good place to start.

He gazed out of the window, watching the trees flash past as the train raced along the elevated rail. The sun was low on the horizon now, just dipping below the wall, the orange light that spilled over its lip only catching the upper halves of the skyscrapers at the city center. It made them look like gleaming pillars of flame rising from a pool of shadow.

Steven wasn’t sure whether it rivaled the majesty of Jupiter, but it was certainly something to see.

CHAPTER 10: MOVING UP

“Yemi!” Steven said, giving the little alien finger guns as he passed by the front desk. “Looking forward to that meetup tonight!”

“Good morning,” Yemi replied, seeming perplexed by the gesture. “Indeed – my schedule is clear. Your team was asking after you this morning. I believe they’re eager to see you.”

“I’m sure,” Steven chuckled as he passed through the automatic door and into the office. The flock had probably been pulling their feathers out all night, wondering if he’d gone home with Qimi and her friends.

When he arrived at their cubicle, they greeted him with a blend of relieved green and excited yellow, their emotions as readable to him now as flash cards. They immediately began to fuss and fret, rising from their seats to crowd around him.

“Steven!” Ezi chirped, clearly the most agitated of the group. He got the impression that she was burning with the desire to ask him very direct questions about his date but had probably been warned by Ipal to keep her mouth shut. “Good morning.”

“Morning,” he replied, glancing down at their scaly faces. “You guys seem energetic today.”

“How did your meal with Qimi go?” Ezi blurted, Ipal shooting daggers as she gave her a curt flash of red. The two had a brief exchange of low hisses in their native tongue, likely arguing about it for a moment.

“Oh, we had a great time,” he replied. “They took me out to a sushi restaurant over by the marina – it’s an Earth’nay delicacy – and we caught up on things.”

There were some flashes of worried purple, but as much as he wanted to reassure them that nothing had happened between him and Qimi’s flock, maybe a little uncertainty would work in his favor. If he let them believe that they had some stiff competition, that might improve their behavior.

“Oh, I’m…glad to hear it,” Mima said with a flutter of blue that told a very different story.

“What does sushi taste like?” Tilli asked, ever the most curious member of the flock.

“It’s slices of raw fish usually served with a kind of sweet grain and wrapped in salty seaweed. I’m probably oversimplifying it – there are a lot of varieties and flavors. Apparently, Valbara’nay seem to enjoy it too.”

“That sounds good,” Tilli muttered, lost in thought.

“Speaking of food, I need to get some breakfast,” Steven added as he patted his stomach. “I didn’t have time to eat before I left for work.”

“What?” Ipal asked, tilting her head inquisitively with a surprised flutter of yellow. “How could you not have had time to eat? Did something disrupt your schedule?”

“Nah, I just stayed in bed a little too long,” he explained. “I guess I was pretty busy yesterday evening.”

“Hang on,” Paza added. “So, you don’t always wake up early enough to give yourself time to make breakfast before you leave for work? Don’t you plan your day around that? Surely you wake up at a specific time?”

“Usually,” he replied with a shrug, his response only seeming to confuse her more.

“If you fail to wake up at the specified time, all of your subsequent plans for that day would be compromised,” Paza insisted as though seeking some method in his madness. “You don’t have time to eat, you miss the train, you could be late for work.”

“I’m not gonna die if I skip breakfast,” he scoffed. “Why does it bother you so much? Have you never slept through an alarm or got the train schedule wrong?”

“Yes, but those are events that require us to reach a new consensus and develop a new plan for the day,” Paza continued. “I don’t understand how you can wake up late and simply decide to skip breakfast so frivolously.”

“Earth’nay just don’t need to plan the same way you do,” he replied. “We adapt, we improvise – it’s kind of our thing. I grew up in an environment where almost nothing was certain. Planning to take the train is all well and good, but if it breaks down or doesn’t run on time, you’re drifting with a dead drive. Quality food wasn’t always available, nor was clean water, and even the air filters could malfunction. There was a lot of unpredictability to deal with.”

“Of all the things you have told us of Ganymede, I think this is the most disturbing,” Paza muttered with a shiver of purple feathers.

“In Valbara’nay hell, none of the trains run on time,” Steven added in a mock spooky voice. “Everyone is always late for their appointments!”

“Stop teasing Paza, and let’s get you fed,” Mima insisted as she tugged at his sleeve to get his attention. “We need you alert today to work on your script.”

She gave her flockmates a few flashes of plumage, the meaning of which was hard to discern, then led him away from the cubicle. Just like she had in his kitchen, she was trying to get him alone – separating him from her flock so that they could speak without interruption.

“You should really make sure to eat regularly,” she began as they approached the vending machines. She reached out to select one of the seaweed wraps from the control panel, then stooped to retrieve it, thrusting it into his hands. “I know that mammals have very high calorie requirements.”

“Have you been reading up on Earth’nay?” he asked, peeling open the packaging and taking a bite to satisfy her.

“If you’re going to be working with us, then it’s important for us to understand your needs,” she replied.

“Well, I do like seaweed,” he added as he took another bite. “You remembered that.”

“We tend not to forget. I also wanted to ask if you’d like to come with us tomorrow evening to shop for clothes – maybe see some sights or get some food?”

“Oh, do I have a choice in the matter this time?” he asked with a smile. “The last couple of times, you guys have pretty much decided for me.”

“We’re a flock,” she replied with the feather equivalent of a shrug. “We form a consensus, then we enact our plan. We’re not accustomed to having a dissenting third party who disrupts the schedule.”

“I have my own stuff going on outside of work,” he continued, walking alongside her as she bobbed back in the direction of the cubicle. “If you want to involve me in your plans, then you can’t just spring them on me and expect me to bend over backwards to make it happen. I like you guys, but you’re not the center of my universe.”

“No, I know that,” she insisted with a flutter of purple. “We just…didn’t realize that you had made so many friends so quickly. Yemi, Joseph, Qimi’s flock…”

“I do appreciate you asking,” he said, sensing that his point had been made. “Yes, I’ll spend the evening with you guys. The more you involve me in your decisions, the more I’m going to want to participate.”

“Okay, that’s good,” she said with a relieved flash of mint green.

“You guys can come over and watch some more of that show sometime, too,” he added. “Maybe we can make some more snack bars together?”

“I would enjoy that very much,” she replied with a hint of pink in her feathers.

***

“Steven,” Paza said as she bobbed over to his desk. “I’m trying to access the message database, but something is wrong. There are new subfolders that weren’t there before.”

“Oh, that was me,” Steven replied as he leaned back in his chair to speak to her.

“You did that?” she asked with a flutter of annoyed red. “For what purpose?”

“Well, you guys put me in charge of the message system,” he replied with a shrug. He leaned in again, his fingers dancing across the virtual keyboard as he pulled up a window to demonstrate. “Here,” he continued, pointing to the display. “I learned that each email that gets sent through the system is assigned a flag. These flags give them their priority in the inbox, specific tags, metadata for sender and recipient, and other things of that nature.”

“Yes, that’s how we find the specific messages that we’re searching for,” Paza replied with another flush of red. “If a message is marked as priority and it originated from a client or an executive, we need to be able to see it.”

“Thing is, the flagging system is really inefficient,” he explained. “Every time you search for a specific flag, the terminal has to send a query to the server – multiple queries if multiple flags are selected – and wait for a reply at the end of that particular cycle. Only then does the server send the requested data. It introduces a ton of latency and lag. I’ve changed the system to make calls to the server at regular intervals, download all of the messages, then sort them into these sub-directories based on their flag. This way, all of the messages are already available on the terminal. If you want to browse by tag or metadata, you only need to look in the right directory.”

She looked like she wanted to argue, but as she leaned over his console and navigated the new system, he could see her desire to remain angry slowly subsiding. Finally, she stepped back, clearing her throat as she straightened her feather sheaths like someone loosening their collar or fiddling with their tie.

“I suppose that this is a more efficient method. You did this on your own, without seeking consensus from the flock or any of the company’s programmers?”

“Well, Yemi has taught me enough about your systems to make these kinds of edits to the code, but he wasn’t directly involved. I can’t take too much credit, because it’s largely inspired by the way we used to handle internal messaging back at my previous job. I can revert the changes if you want me to.”

“No, no,” she mumbled as she gave him a flutter of green. “I am just…surprised by your initiative. Most flocks would take some time to discuss and then implement such a change. Perhaps…I underestimated your capacity to learn. Still, keep me apprised of such decisions in the future.”

“Understood,” he replied.

She began to return to her desk, then paused to look back at him.

“Good work, Steven.”

***

“Steven, I’d like you to take a message to an office on the third floor,” Mima said. “We need to cross-reference some of their code, and I’d rather you delivered the message personally.”

“Want me to put some sass on them?” he asked, balancing his chair on two legs.

“Something like that,” Ezi chuckled.

“Where’s this office?” he asked, pushing his chair back. “I’m gonna have to climb again, aren’t I?”

“I’ll show you,” Ipal said, hopping out of her seat. “I could use an excuse to stretch my legs.”

He followed her out of their cubicle, watching as she leaped effortlessly into the air, landing to perch on a raised walkway that was higher than Steven. She turned to peer down at him, cocking her head as though waiting for him to do the same.

“Alright, gimme a minute,” he sighed as he rubbed his hands together. “Gonna have to invest in some of that chalk the rock climbers use.”

He reached up and gripped the lip of the walkway, Ipal shuffling aside to give him a little more room, watching curiously as he lifted himself off the ground. He managed to get an arm over it and hauled himself up, using his knee to climb onto the narrow surface.

“That’s some upper body strength,” Ipal muttered, her plumage suggesting that she was impressed. “How much do you weigh?”

“About a hundred and eighty pounds,” he huffed.

“That’s as much as three female Valbara’nay,” she mused. “You can’t jump, though?”

“Not like you can,” he replied, brushing himself off as he rose to his feet. “You guys have springs for legs.”

“Fast-twitch muscle fibers,” she explained. “We can store a lot of energy in our leg muscles.”

“Yeah, it looks like it,” he replied with a glance at the dimples of muscle that showed through her tight shorts. “Half of your body mass is in your thighs.”

“We can also kick pretty hard, so watch what you say about the size of our thighs,” she warned with a flutter of yellow that suggested she was joking.

“I’m gonna have to set up a pull-up bar at home – I didn’t realize that working in an office would be so athletic. Where to next?”

Ipal leapt up onto a platform another level above them, scaling the jungle gym of an office with the same ease that he might navigate the quarry in microgravity. He followed behind her with far less grace, the muscles in his chest and shoulders starting to burn with the effort as he climbed up. He found himself on the floor beside a recessed bowl similar to those that he had seen in the office below, its pillows occupied by a familiar flock. It was Lotl and her friends, each of them lounging with a drink in hand, apparently on break. They paused their conversation, their scaly snouts turning in his direction.

“Well, look who it is,” Lotl chuckled as she leaned over the edge of the bowl to peer at him. “You seem to be having some trouble there, Earth’nay. Have you forgotten where your cubicle is?”

“He’s fine,” Ipal replied with a flutter of red. “He’s delivering an important message, actually.”

“Being a messenger boy is certainly very important,” Lotl said with a flash of orange that came off as distinctly unkind. “You should have taken our offer, Earth’nay. Maybe we’d have you doing something more meaningful than passing notes.”

“He was assigned to my flock,” Ipal replied, planting her hands on her wide hips defiantly. “You had no right trying to steal him away.”

“I merely offered him a choice,” she replied with a feathery shrug. “It isn’t our fault that he made the wrong one,” she added, sharing a snicker with her flockmates.

“Steven is actually writing a presentation for the pitch meeting with our Earth’nay clients,” Ipal added, gesturing to him with a feather sheath. “He’s going to be the one who lands us the contract.”

“Is that so?” Lotl asked, cocking her head at him and taking a sip of her drink. “Entrusting your professional future to a male, eh, Ipal? Maybe I shouldn’t be worried about that promotion after all. The private office is as good as ours if your consensus has become that poor. At this rate, you’ll be waxing scales or gutting fish down by the docks before the rotation is through.”

“I’m pretty confident in my abilities,” Steven replied. The desire to fire back was strong, but he had to remember that he was in a professional setting, and these people were technically his superiors.

“You should stick to fetching drinks and looking pretty,” another of Lotl’s flockmates added.

“Ipal’s flock is working hard, while yours always seems to be hanging around the vending machines,” Steven replied. “Maybe you should be a little worried about that promotion.”

“My offer still stands,” Lotl said, giving him a ripple of pink and red. “If Ipal and her genius programmers fumble the contract, come see us in our new office.” She paused to look him up and down, wrapping her scaly lips around her straw and taking a drink. “I’m sure that we’ll be able to find a more…suitable position worthy of your talents.”

“Come on,” Ipal hissed, waving for him to follow her with a feather signal.

They left the giggling flock behind, moving to a higher platform, Steven feeling their eyes on his back as he struggled to climb up behind Ipal.

“Don’t pay any attention to them,” she muttered once they were out of earshot, giving the flock an angry glance from her perch. “They don’t know what they’re talking about – never mind that they shouldn’t be saying things like that at work. I suppose they feel emboldened because you didn’t go to Yemi the first time.”

“People who talk a lot of shit tend to be the ones who can’t back it up,” he said. “Thanks for standing up for me, by the way.”

“I feel responsible for you,” she replied with a flutter of green. “You’re not part of my flock, but sometimes it feels as though you are. Not in that way,” she added quickly. “You know what I mean. Yemi trusted us to take care of you.”

“Where I’m from, we call those friends,” he replied with a grin. “To be honest, I didn’t know that you had such a high opinion of me.”

“Well, you’ve been doing good work on the presentation,” she replied, averting her eyes with a suppressed wave of pink that might be something akin to a blush. “Paza also told me about how you reprogrammed the messaging system, and Yemi has been very impressed with your progress learning about our software. I didn’t know much about Earth’nay when you arrived, and I assumed that someone with your…differences in memory would take a lot longer to adjust. It’s also that…”

“I’m a male?” he prompted.

“You’re not like other males, though,” she continued hurriedly. “You have this strength of will about you, like you’re never afraid to say what you think, but not in a way that comes off as being emotional. You’re not meek or shy like a lot of guys are.”

“Do you find that appealing?” he asked. “That’s not the way Valbara’nay culture expects men to behave, right? I’m supposed to keep quiet, fall into line, respect the consensus of the flock.”

“It’s…rebellious,” she added with another involuntary ripple of pink plumage. “To be honest, it’s kind of hard to know how to approach you sometimes. You’re an alien, so it’s to be expected, but it’s just challenging to predict how you’ll react.”

“You guys don’t seem to like surprises,” he mused. “There’s an easy solution, though. The more time you spend with me, the better you and your flock will get to know me. Maybe then you can figure out what makes my alien brain tick.”

“Well, if you’re inviting us to keep trying,” she said, tapering off with another display of pink.

They climbed up to the next level, Ipal guiding Steven along one of the narrow walkways, chuckling at him as he held out his arms for balance like he was walking a tightrope. A drop from this height was no joke, but at least there were plenty of other platforms to break his fall on the way down…

Finally, they arrived at the appropriate door – accessible via a small lip projecting from the wall that could scarcely be called a balcony. It was overflowing with vines that had spilled from a pair of planters.

“In you go,” Ipal said, locking her legs as she waited beside the door with a smile.

“You watch – I’m the master of delivering messages,” he muttered as he straightened his jacket. “You’ve never seen anyone deliver a message like this before.”

“Are you going to do it or not?” she snickered, gesturing to the door with a flutter of yellow.

“You can’t rush genius,” he chided, slicking back his hair before stepping through.

It was another executive office like the one from resource allocation, and it was staffed by another flock of females, their violet eyes lifting from their displays as he stepped inside.

“Ladies,” he said with a customary bow. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

“Not at all,” one of them replied, a flush of green passing through the flock.

“You’re the new Earth’nay employee,” another added, sharing an excited flutter with her friends. “I don’t believe that we’ve been formally introduced yet.”

“Steven Zheng,” he replied. “Pleased to meet you.”

“What can we do for you?” another of the women asked.

“I’m just here on a simple errand today,” he continued, taking their reception as an invitation to walk a little deeper into the room. He stopped beside the nearest desk, casually taking a seat on its edge, much to the delight of its occupant. “My team needs to cross-reference some of your code, and I thought I’d come up here and ask in person rather than just sending a formal message. I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to get to know some of my colleagues more intimately.”

“You’re certainly welcome to visit us any time you like,” one of them said with a flash of pink.

“What exactly was it that you needed to cross-reference?” the nearest woman asked.

“One moment,” he replied, pulling his phone from his pocket. “I have it written down here. I can be so forgetful sometimes.”

“Of course,” she replied with a flash of sympathetic green and purple. “Please, take all the time you need.”

“Ah, here it is,” he said as he passed her the phone. “My team asked me to request permission to view these files.”

The woman looked it over for a moment, then handed the device back to him.

“These files pertain to code that was developed for optical tracking systems,” she said. “Usually, we would seek the consensus of the executives before agreeing to share project data like this.”

“This was developed for another client, so we’d need to make sure that no intellectual property rights were being violated,” another added.

“Shucks,” Steven sighed, clenching a fist in disappointment. “My team isn’t going to be happy to hear that. I was really hoping to avoid going back to them empty-handed.”

“Well, let’s not be too hasty,” the nearest woman said as she turned to her flockmates. “We can put in a formal request for permission to share the code.”

“We should be able to get your team clearance to view it,” one of them said with a flutter of agreement. They shared a brief exchange in their native language, seeming to reach consensus. “Yes, you can inform your team that we’ll put through a clearance request for them.”

“Oh, thank you so much,” he replied as he rose from the desk. “They’ll be really glad to hear that. Hey – I owe you guys a favor, so if you want me to bring you any snacks or maybe meet you at one of the rec areas for a chat, just let me know. I’m only a message away.”

“We’ll take you up on that offer, I’m sure,” one of the flockmates replied.

“Goodbye, Steven!” another added as he headed back to the door. “It was nice meeting you!”

“The pleasure was all mine,” he replied, provoking a few flutters of pink as he gave them a bow before leaving.

“You look pleased with yourself,” Ipal muttered as the panel slid shut behind him. “Did you get us the code?”

“Yeah, ‘course I did,” he replied with a smirk. “I told you – you’re watching a master at work. They’re gonna ask the higher-ups to give you clearance.”

“I think we might be creating a monster,” she chuckled. “Alright, it’s time to figure out how to get you down from here.”

“Well, I know of one very quick way,” he grumbled as he peered over the edge of the balcony.

“Let’s go with the way that doesn’t result in Yemi having us fired.”

***

“You almost ready to head out?” Steven asked.

Yemi was sitting on his little stool at the desk beside him, the alien extending his feather sheaths to display their iridescent eye spots. The day – and their lesson – was just coming to an end.

“Are my feathers tarnished?” he asked, reaching up to fret with them. “How are my scales? I would usually wax them before going out.”

“They look fine,” Steven chuckled. “Yemi, this is a guys’ night out – it’s just you, me, and Joseph. Nobody is expecting you to dress up all fancy, and if we come across any women, you don’t have to worry about them.”

“Alright,” he sighed, letting his ornate plumage fold back into its fleshy sheaths. “I’ve never been out to eat just with other males before.”

“Really?” Steven asked, cocking a skeptical eyebrow. “Not even before you started working here?”

“I would usually go out with my parents or with friends who had flocks of their own,” he explained. “Very seldom have I seen groups of males out in public.”

“Well, all you have to worry about is relaxing and having a good time tonight.”

They were interrupted as the daily procession of office workers filed out through the lobby, Steven waving goodbye in response to their cheerful feather signals, Yemi giving them respectful salutes of red tinged with the occasional pink. Ipal’s flock trailed behind, waiting until everyone else had left before crowding the front desk as was becoming customary.

“So, you two are off to some restaurant together?” Ezi demanded as she glanced between the two.

“Where are you going?” Tilli asked with a curious tilt of her head.

“I don’t think they need us knowing where they are at all times of the day,” Ipal chided, giving them a flutter of red to warn them to keep quiet.

“We’re just going out to meet Joseph,” Steven explained, giving Ipal an appreciative glance. “I actually don’t know where he’s decided to take us. The address is clear on the other side of the city.”

“Do you two need anything?” Mima asked, giving them a flutter of concerned purple. “Will you be able to find your way on your own?”

“Steven will be fine, and Yemi is there to guide him,” Paza added. “You forget his Earth’nay propensity for winging it.”

“Thank you for the vote of confidence,” Steven chuckled.

“Come on,” Ipal said, waving her flock to the door. “Have fun, boys. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Steven could feel the tension leave Yemi’s body as the door closed behind the flock.

“You ready?” Steven asked.

“Yes,” Yemi replied with an affirmative flutter of green. “Let’s head out.”

They rode the elevator down to the ground floor and stepped out into the evening sunlight, Steven once again putting on his sunglasses.

“What are those for?” Yemi asked, peering up at him.

“My eyes are still adjusting to natural sunlight,” Steven replied. “Also, they make me look cool.”

“I see,” Yemi said with a rare flicker of amused yellow.

The little alien unlocked a scooter from the nearby rack with his phone, and was just as surprised as Ipal’s flock had been to see Steven walk along beside it, matching its pace. It was a short distance to the nearest station, and they were soon racing across the city, looping around the skyscrapers at its center.

Yemi took a seat directly beside Steven, glancing around the car nervously as a few other flocks gave the pair lingering glances. Seeing an attractive male all dolled up traveling alone was noteworthy, let alone one traveling in the company of a giant alien.

“When was the last time you took a break like this?” Steven asked, glancing down at his companion.

“Not since arriving in Kalahar, so at least three rotations,” Yemi replied. “I must admit – I’m glad that you encouraged me to do this. Perhaps you were right, and I need time to decompress sometimes.”

“Everyone needs some personal time,” Steven said as he shifted his weight in the cramped seat. “You can’t just operate at maximum burn forever – you’ll run out of fuel. I don’t care how psychologically different Valbara’nay are from Earth’nay – you still need breaks and vacations.”

“I worry that it may be seen as a lapse in work ethic,” Yemi conceded with a flutter of purple.

“The females all get to do it,” Steven insisted. “Ipal and Ezi don’t have to worry about how their coworkers will interpret them going out to eat at a restaurant or going on a boat tour. You shouldn’t have to either.”

“I don’t disagree with you,” Yemi replied. “I just don’t believe that your idealism reflects the reality of the situation.”

“Reality is often what we make of it. You’ve never heard the parable of the elephant and the rope, I take it?”

“Elephant?” Yemi asked.

“Let’s change it to be a bit more contemporary,” Steven mused. “The Teth’rak and the rope. A baby Teth’rak is tied to a rope that’s too strong for it to break. It grows up, but although it becomes strong enough to snap that rope like a piece of string, experience tells it that the rope is unbreakable. It’s a kind of learned helplessness – people get it into their heads that they can’t do something, so they never try, and it becomes de facto true. The rope might as well be unbreakable.”

“You’re saying that I am the Teth’rak?” Yemi asked.

“I’m saying that you’ll never know what you can do or how strong you really are if you never put yourself to the test. I remember when I got that gig at the quarry back on Ganymede. I was just a clerk who didn’t know the first thing about working in hard vac, but it was the only job I could get, so I had no choice but to learn. I discovered that I was capable of much more than I realized.”

“Taking time off isn’t really comparable to learning to work in life-threatening conditions,” the little alien chuckled, the blues in his plumage hinting at self-deprecation.

“Challenging the status quo is hard,” Steven continued. “Going against the flow, rebelling against society’s expectations – it takes courage. I see the pressure that you’re put under just by choosing this lifestyle, which is something completely normal where I come from. You choose to do it anyway because it’s what you want.”

“I understand, but I still think you’re giving me too much credit.”

“I don’t think that you give yourself enough,” Steven replied.

CHAPTER 11: BACHELOR PARTY

They stepped off the train platform, Steven taking a moment to appraise his new surroundings as he adjusted his sunglasses. He was on the far side of the city now, seeing the same skyscrapers from the back. The streets were still lined with the same palm-like trees, and the facades of the buildings looked identical, the scribbles on the alien signs blending together to his eyes.

“You know, I don’t know why I expected this part of the city to look any different.”

“All Val’ba’ra’nay cities are based on a similar layout,” Yemi explained. “They’re optimized for efficiency. Kalahar is actually fairly unusual, especially in the construction of its wall and the dock area.”

“I never thought I’d feel any nostalgia for the disorganized sprawl of the tunnels.”

“Not everything is centrally planned,” Yemi explained as they began to make their way along the sidewalk, the occasional squadron of scooters passing by them. Steven felt the urge to check his phone and ensure that the address was correct, but Yemi would have memorized the whole route, so there was no need for uncertainty. “Often, when a building is no longer being used for its intended purpose, less reputable establishments will move in.”

“There’s the entropy that I was looking for,” Steven chuckled, passing beneath the shade of the waving fronds. “A perfect society would be unnatural. What kinds of less reputable establishments are we talking about?”

“Usually lounges and bars,” Yemi replied.

“So you have seedy bars popping up in old derelict buildings that were once part of the grand plan?” Steven mused, sticking his hands in the pockets of his jacket. “It’s like a little piece of home. Where are we going, anyhow?”

“Are you being serious?” Yemi giggled, his feathers flashing yellow. “The coordinates that your friend gave are just down this street. Did you forget?”

“Yep,” Steven announced. “I’d usually be relying on my GPS, but I have you instead.”

They rounded a corner and headed down another identical street, passing a few curious flocks who turned their heads to watch as the two males walked by. Steven was used to getting looks from strangers, but being accompanied by Yemi made the pair even more noteworthy.

It had gotten pretty late in the evening, and the sky was starting to shift into those beautiful pink and orange hues, the neon signs that adorned the buildings growing ever more prominent in the fading light. There seemed to be more pedestrian traffic in this part of the city, flocks and even groups of flocks chatting as they bobbed along, some loitering just outside the buildings. Music bled out through the open doors, the sounds of conversations and the electric whir of passing scooters creating a soothing background hum.

There was no anonymity in a crowd for Steven – not when he stood head and shoulders above everybody else. Both he and Yemi turned heads, the women perhaps wondering which establishment they might be headed to, and whether their paths would cross.

There was one other person rising above the sea of green scales and colorful feathers, Steven spotting Joseph some distance ahead of them, the shine of his shaved head unmistakable. He was a tall man, even by human standards, and he dwarfed the little aliens that surrounded him. Steven had only ever seen him wearing a suit, so his garish Hawaiian shirt in shades of blue with yellow flower patterns gave him pause. Joseph raised a long arm in greeting, and Steven led Yemi over to him, weaving between the flocks.

“Steven!” Joseph exclaimed, reaching out to give him a vigorous handshake. “Nice to see you, my friend. How are you?”

“Good!” Steven replied, the man’s smile infectious. “It’s great to see you again. I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to speak to another human. This is Yemi,” he continued, gesturing to his companion. “He’s the coworker I was telling you about.”

“Pleased to meet you, Yemi,” Joseph continued as he gave the Valbaran a customary bow.

“Yemi’xal’otli,” the Valbaran replied, returning the greeting with a salute of red feathers. “Thank you for inviting me. I hope I’m not imposing.”

“Not at all,” Joseph laughed. “The more the merrier. I’ve been attending nothing but business meetings for days, and I’m ready for a little R&R. Come, come,” he added as he waved them forward.

They headed inside the nearest building, passing through a pair of automatic doors and into some kind of bar or club. The ground floor was pretty recognizable, scattered with the restaurant-style booths that Steven had become accustomed to, with circular couches that ringed low tables. At the far end of the expansive space was a bar that ran the length of the wall, its polished surface reflecting the soft neon lights that illuminated the room. It was staffed by a couple of males, easily identifiable by their eye paint and their ornate jewelry, their shining scales glowing in the light of their holographic displays. Behind them were shelves stocked with colorful drinks of all shapes and sizes, shielded behind glass somewhat like the vending machines that Steven had seen in the grocery store.

As he lifted his head, he saw that the space above him was crisscrossed with walkways and platforms just like the office, the complex rising three or four stories towards the ceiling. Some of the platforms and balconies were large enough to hold one or more booths, letting their occupants dine and drink high above the ground, the scale of it all making it feel like some kind of old-world cathedral. Hopefully, Valbarans didn’t lose their balance when they got tipsy…

In the midst of it all, suspended in the air on long chains, was a gargantuan skeleton. It took him a moment to recognize it, but it was a Kal’quetz just the one he had seen on the boat tour, its winding body extending almost from one end of the room to the other. Neon tubes had been wound between its pale bones like veins, pulsing with color, providing a lot of the illumination for the space like a grisly chandelier. It looked a little too pristine to be real, so it might be a replica.

There were flocks crowding the bar, occupying the booths and walking across the gangways above, the high-pitched sound of their conversations joining the thrum of alien music. It wasn’t the pulse of club music – more of an atmospheric melody, understated enough to dissolve into the background.

“You look impressed,” Joseph chuckled, giving Steven a pat on the shoulder. “Beats anything in the Jovians, I’m guessing?”

“Sure does,” he muttered, craning his neck to admire the giant skeleton. “How about you, Yemi? Ever been to a place like this before?”

“Not in a long time,” he replied.

“Let’s get a table,” Joseph said, raising a hand and waving to the males who were staffing the bar. He was so tall that they could see him clear across the room no matter how packed it was.

“I take it that getting service here isn’t hard,” Steven joked. The males communicated with flashes of feathers, not needing to raise their voices above the noise, and Steven tracked one of the aliens as he wound his way through the crowd towards them.

“Booth for three?” the male asked with a crimson greeting. “Would you like a ground floor seat for Earth’nay?”

“Do you have anything higher, maybe with a good view of the skeleton?” Joseph replied.

“We do,” the little alien replied, gesturing for them to follow him.

Yemi was able to hop up between the different levels with the same ease that his coworkers did, but as Steven prepared to climb, Joseph gave him a nudge. The establishment had ladders that were recessed into the walls for human guests, making climbing up much less of an ordeal.

“Hey, Yemi – we should get some of these installed in the office!” Steven said as he followed behind Joseph.

They arrived at the second story, the waiter leading them to a booth that was suspended precariously on a platform about level with the sea monster’s giant skull. There were neon bulbs in its empty eye sockets, illuminated cables winding between serrated teeth as long as Steven’s fingers. It made him consider how close he had been to a live one. From this distance, he could see that some of the light it emitted came from holographic alien fish that were swimming in place alongside it, wavering and slightly translucent.

The trio slid into the booth, Steven noting that Joseph had arrived at the same conclusion he had, crossing his legs on the cushions.

“We’ll take a few drinks to start,” Joseph said, listing off some beverages that Steven didn’t recognize. The waiter bowed out, then began to hop back down to ground level.

“Steven, my friend,” Joseph began as he clapped his hands together. “I see that you’re doing well! How have you been finding Valbara?”

***

The two humans chatted for a little while about Steven’s experiences so far, sharing stories about some of their more unusual encounters with Valbarans while Yemi listened patiently. The waiter returned with their drinks – strange, colorful spirits with illegible labels that Steven had never tasted before served in thin glass flutes. They didn’t seem to be very alcoholic, so perhaps the aliens couldn’t metabolize it as efficiently as humans could. They were quite fruity, suggesting that they might be something akin to wine or other fermented drinks. He knew that the Valbarans enjoyed some kinds of fruit.

“The place is basically a paradise compared to what I’m used to,” Steven said as he took another drink from his glass. “I don’t need to explain that to you, though. I don’t imagine that conditions on Enceladus are any better.”

“Tunnel living is the same all over,” Joseph replied as he relaxed back into the padded backrest. “Things are getting better, though. Our Valbara’nay partners are helping with that. Those vertical farms and aquaponics setups are doing wonders for getting fresh, quality foods into the bellies of our people.”

“I feel bad that you have to keep going back,” Steven continued. “I got to leave it all behind forever, and all I did to earn that privilege was have my number pulled out of a hat. You’re working your butt off flying across the Galaxy, securing contracts, helping feed people, but you eventually have to go back to the tunnels.”

“I think the contrast helps me appreciate my time here more,” he replied, pausing to take a drink. “After all, how can we truly know happiness without first knowing hardship? Besides, I don’t hate Enceladus. No matter what I do or where I go, it will always be my home – where my family lives. I try to think of it in terms of – each time I return, things get a little better there.”

“I guess I must seem selfish in comparison,” Steven replied. “All I cared about was getting out of there like I had a fire under my ass.”

“Not at all,” Joseph replied. “When the universe offers us opportunities, we would be foolish to ignore them. People in situations like ours must take whatever they can get.”

“Having never left Val’ba’ra, it is hard for me to visualize such places,” Yemi chimed in. He had mostly been listening quietly to their stories, sipping at his drink. “When the Earth’nay arrived in their ships, they seemed so far beyond us technologically. They were sending great fleets of advanced spacecraft across interstellar distances on hunts – for no other purpose than to seek out insects wherever they might be found and eradicate them. They saved the world by happenstance. Then, there were the parades after Ker’gue’la was retaken. For us, that was a great historical injustice righted. It would not be an exaggeration to say that your people have become idolized by many. I didn’t consider that Earth’nay colony worlds would vary so greatly in their wealth and living conditions. I always imagined them to look like ours.”

“We built up all of that technology and experience by fighting each other for a very long time,” Steven explained. “There are places that are just as nice as Valbara, and places that are even worse than Ganymede or Enceladus. There are a lot of us, and we’re spread over vast distances. Your civilization took a different path and specialized in different things. It benefited you in some ways and disadvantaged you in others.”

That is why the Coalition is so important,” Joseph added, waving his glass. “We pool the strengths and the expertise of every species to create something greater than the sum of its parts.”

“I can drink to that,” Steven chuckled, raising his glass. “To the Coalition!”

The three men drank, Yemi lagging behind a little as he figured out the concept of a toast.

“So, it seems like you’ve been having lady troubles,” Joseph added as he refilled their flutes from one of the little bottles. “I’ve been in your shoes – the flocks here can get pretty aggressive.”

“It has its ups and downs,” Steven replied. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t like the attention. I’ve had random women approach me on public transport and initiate a conversation. The only way that would happen on Ganymede is if there was a pressure warning and someone wanted my emergency mask.”

“Very good,” Joseph chuckled, his deep, resonating laughter filling their booth.

“It’s kind of nice to feel attractive,” Steven conceded with a shrug. “It’s certainly a self-esteem boost. God, listen to me – I’m starting to sound like my ex.”

“This planet has a way of turning things around on you,” Joseph replied with a grin. “Here, it is the men who wear jewelry and makeup, strutting around like birds of paradise to impress their mates. Not to imply that you strut,” he added, turning to Yemi. “It sounds like Steven has already explained to you the differences between how our cultures approach gender roles.”

“Yes, though I still find it hard to understand,” Yemi said with a glance to his coworker. “It seems that your society had inverted gender roles at one point, but they became less and less important over time?”

“That’s about the long and short of it,” Steven replied with a nod. “All the attention is a fun novelty to me, but I know how exhausting it can be for you. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to invite you along, actually.”

“Why is that?” Yemi asked, his massive headdress flaring yellow as he tilted his head.

“I’ve been learning about gender relations, and I’ve been talking to some people,” he replied. “Joseph here is an expert by now, and I think we might be able to do something about the problems you’ve been having at work if we all put our heads together – reach consensus, as it were.”

“This is the continuation of the conversation about women that we began previously,” Yemi realized.

“Yeah,” Steven replied. “You seemed surprised by the way that I approached talking to the flock, so I figured me and Joseph could give you some advice from an Earth’nay perspective.”

“You do seem to have some skill in dealing with the flocks at the office,” Yemi conceded as he nursed his drink.

“I went to dinner with some friends who were a little older and more experienced than our coworkers yesterday,” Steven began. “I was starting to think that the way our colleagues behaved was just the norm in your society, but my friends think that they’re just young and brash. They’ve only ever gotten results by being aggressive and persistent, and they’ve never really faced any pushback that would make them reconsider their approach.”

“That would make sense,” Joseph confirmed, pausing to consider for a moment as he swirled the amber liquid around in his cup. It was so comically small in his huge hand that it more resembled a test tube. “In my experience, the younger a flock is, the more forward they tend to be. They’re no different from young human men, really. They only have one thing on their minds, and they’re still learning how to approach the opposite sex. Valbara’nay men tend to be less fierce than our girls, so someone getting doused in liquor or being told to go suck engine coolant is much less common.”

“Is that what I should be doing?” Yemi asked, giving them an apprehensive flutter of purple as he glanced between the two humans.

“No,” Joseph laughed, shaking his head. “I’ve been working on Valbara long enough to understand what kind of behavior is expected of males. I might be twice your size, but I’ve still learned to present myself in a way that Valbara’nay respond to. Etiquette and manners are very important in my line of work, just as they are in yours.”

“That’s what I figured,” Steven added. “You know a lot more about the culture here than I do.”

“I think that you both need some advice,” Joseph added, gesturing to Steven with his vial before taking a sip. “Based on what you’ve told me, I fear that you are getting too comfortable leading people on, Steven. It will turn around and bite you eventually.”

“I’m just responding to what they seem to want,” he replied with a shrug.

“It may help you get your way in the short term, but it will not earn you respect,” Joseph warned. “If you want your coworkers to start taking you more seriously, you have to show them that you are worthy of it. If the only face that you present to them is one of a boy who uses his charms and looks to get what he wants, why should they see you as anything but a source of amusement – no different from a dancer at a lounge?”

“I thought this was his intervention,” Steven grumbled with a gesture to Yemi.

“Yemi is actually your peer in that regard,” Joseph continued, eliciting a flutter of surprised yellow from the little alien.

“Me?” Yemi asked, touching a clawed hand to his chest.

“It sounds as though you have worked very hard to project an image of someone who is reliable and respected,” Joseph continued. “That is not an easy thing to cultivate in an environment like yours. You don’t use your gender as a way of getting what you want or influencing other people – you focus on performing at your best, and being male is merely incidental.”

“He does as much work as a whole flock, that’s for sure,” Steven confirmed. “That’s part of our problem, though. Yemi has worked really hard to build up that image of someone who is level-headed and respectable, but being so polite and reserved all the time means that his coworkers can walk all over him. If he gets mad or rejects them more overtly, he runs the risk of playing into negative stereotypes.”

“That is a problem,” Joseph mused, scratching his stubbly chin. “Anger, then, is not the solution.”

“You can set clear boundaries in a way that comes off as reasonable,” Steven suggested.

“I’ve seen you do it,” Yemi said, taking a longer draw from his cup as though to steady his nerves. “When you speak to the flock, they seem to listen.”

“It’s a little easier for me because I’m brand new,” Steven explained. “They don’t have any expectations of how I’m going to react, and I’m an alien, so they’re more willing to excuse some odd behavioral quirks.”

“In your case, we must challenge their preconceptions,” Joseph added. “Their respect for your professional life needs to extend to your personal one, too.”

“I never thought of it like that,” Yemi said, his eyes brightening as he gave them a flutter of green. “What should I say, though?”

“It’s not really about what you say, exactly,” Steven began. “It’s more about how you say it. First, we have to work on you,” he added, pointing to Yemi with his drink still in hand. “You worked your scaly little tail off to get where you are today. You put in the hours, you rose through the ranks, and you don’t deserve to be bothered while you’re trying to do your job. First, you have to believe that. Do you?”

“Well,” Yemi mumbled, averting his gaze as he considered for a few moments. “It’s not that I hate all female attention. I do…like girls, I just…want those interactions to happen in more appropriate venues – ideally when it’s my choice to engage.”

“Then, you need to draw a line in the sand and make it clear that work isn’t the place to hit on you,” Steven continued. “You don’t have to yell at them, but you need a little indignation – a little fire in your belly. You have to believe that what they’re doing isn’t excusable. Only then can you confront them on it with confidence.”

“Steven shows wisdom,” Joseph added, giving him a little toast. “You must understand that sometimes, indignation is a defense mechanism. We feel anger when we are mistreated, and it motivates us to speak up and protect ourselves. It is not always a negative emotion.”

“Hell, I was a hormone-riddled kid cruising the clubs in Marius Regio once,” Steven replied with a shrug. “I’m just trying to think of it in terms of what I might have responded to back then. If someone calmly explained to me that what I was doing wasn’t okay, I’d honestly feel really fucking bad, and it would probably correct my behavior pretty quickly.”

“We must also consider that Yemi will not be so young and desirable forever,” Joseph added. “We do not want to preclude any possibility of romance, merely establish where and when it is to take place.”

“You do work too hard,” Steven conceded, glancing at the little alien. “That’s one of the reasons we invited you out – so you could blow off a little steam and have some fun for once.”

“The problem is that if I get into a serious relationship with any of the flocks at work, they’ll expect me to give up my position and become a househusband,” he sighed with a flutter of sad blue. “If I have flings, people might gossip, and that could harm my reputation.”

“You feel stuck,” Steven said with a nod. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

“It sounds to me like you need to find someone who respects your lifestyle choices,” Joseph added. “Someone who will accept that in order to date you, they must do it on your terms.”

“Not all flocks are the same,” Steven said. “I’ve now met some who are really mellow and considerate. I mean, they still hit on me, but they took the time to get to know me and my needs before they made any kind of move. If a flock truly wants to be with you, I think they’ll accept having a working husband. If they don’t, they weren’t good enough for you anyway.”

“Steven is right,” Joseph added. “You are worthy of demanding the kind of relationship that best suits you.”

“Perhaps…perhaps you are right,” Yemi said as he straightened a little in his seat. “I am an established, professional bachelor now. Maybe it is time that I started asking for some concessions.”

“That’s the spirit!” Steven chuckled, slapping his hand on the table. “There’s no reason that you can’t have a relationship and a career at the same time. The rest of the Galaxy does it just fine. You just have to make the girls understand what they have to do if they want a piece of you – and they do. Trust me on that. You’re the talk of the office.”

“Thankfully, you have helped to draw away some of their attention,” Yemi laughed with a flicker of yellow.

“You’re cool with me setting my sights on Ipal’s flock?” Steven asked. “I got the impression that you were kind of into them when they were chatting with you. I don’t want to step on your toes.”

“I never really got to know them all that well,” he replied sheepishly. “I think you have spent more time alone with them since you arrived than I have in the last three rotations. By all means – you don’t need my permission. I think they could learn a lot from you, actually.”

“They do sound like one of the more aggressive flocks at your office,” Joseph said. “Perhaps they need an Earth’nay to rein them in. Now,” he continued, pressing a panel on their table to summon a holographic menu. “This place makes excellent food. What are we all having?”

***

“No, because I keep hearing about lounges,” Steven said over a mouthful of grilled meat. He paused to take a drink, downing half a glass of Valbaran wine like it was a shot of liquor. The stuff wasn’t strong, but if you drank enough of it, you could make up the difference. “What even is a lounge? Is this a lounge?”

“Goodness, no!” Yemi giggled as he shared a knowing smile with Joseph. The little alien was starting to loosen up a little now that he’d had a few drinks and some good company.

“Fill me in,” Steven insisted. “Don’t just snicker to each other like a couple of schoolgirls.”

“Lounges are what you might get if you combined a hookah bar with a strip club,” Joseph explained over his plate of seafood. “They’re very common in the cities, and they range from upscale to seedy depending on the location. The Valbara’nay have an aversion to disorder and the unexpected, but as regimented as they might appear, they also play very hard.”

“Lounges are where people go to meet partners and to partake in herb and drink,” Yemi explained with an embarrassed flutter of pink. It was adorable in a way – like a kid teaching his friends some new curse word that he’d learned, looking over his shoulder in case a teacher should overhear them. “A lot of boys who choose to live alone get jobs there, either as waiters serving drinks to the patrons or as dancers on the stage.”

“What’s herb?” Steven asked.

“A native plant that contains THC,” Joseph chuckled, miming taking a toke of an imaginary joint.

“Hookahs and hookups,” Steven mused. “Sounds like a party. The girls told me that Valbara’nay can kind of program their bodies to perform sequences of actions, like muscle memory. Do the dancers do that?”

“They do,” Yemi replied. “There are many schools of dance, some more traditional that require a great deal of training and skill, some more…sensual. It is highly valued as an artistic pursuit and is often practiced by males. Scholars believe that the tradition developed from courtship dances, and indeed, many modern styles that are popular in a lounge setting mimic those courtship rites as a means of enticing the viewer.”

“So, your exotic dancing is literally a mating display,” Steven mused. “Like Joseph said – birds of paradise flashing their feathers.”

“It’s the reason why males have such impressive plumage,” Joseph added. “When he decides that he wants to court a flock, he does a dance and shows off his feathers. They must have been signifiers of reproductive health or status in Valbara’nay prehistory. I can’t envision them growing so large without being heavily selected for by the females.”

“Also probably one of the reasons that males took a more passive role in society,” Steven agreed with a nod. “In a hunter-gatherer tribe, those giant feathers are going to be a hindrance, so they’d naturally need the females to provide for them.”

“I’m no expert on paleontology, but that sounds likely,” Yemi said as he ate another morsel of tofu-like protein.

“Well,” Joseph finally said, settling back into his seat and patting his belly. “If I eat any more, I will have to start unbuttoning this beautiful shirt.”

“Where the hell did you get that thing, anyway?” Steven asked.

“A novelty store on Titan,” he replied with a wide grin.

“Why Titan?” Steven pressed. “Is there some significance to those yellow flowers?”

“They’re not flowers,” Joseph said, leaning a little closer to give Steven a better look.

“Little Saturns!” Steven exclaimed, slapping the table as he began to laugh. “That is so dumb – I want one.”

“You must buy a set of vacation shirts, otherwise you may forget that you are on vacation,” he added as he gestured to Steven’s dress shirt and slacks.

“I really should buy some new clothes,” Steven conceded. “How do you even do that on Valbara? Where does a human go if he wants to buy socks?”

“There are some specialty stores that you can find on the forum,” Joseph replied. “Any specialist item you might need is generally available, albeit for a price. Economies of scale don’t really exist for alien goods – yet.”

“Thanks for taking us out,” Steven said, sensing that the night was winding down. Their plates were all but empty, as were their bottles, and it was starting to get late. “I had a great time, and I think it did Yemi a world of good. We’d better head off pretty soon – I promised the little guy we wouldn’t mess up his schedule for tomorrow.”

“Yes, thank you for including me,” Yemi added with a red salute. He seemed pleasantly tipsy, his demeanor more relaxed than Steven had ever seen it. “This has been a…very enjoyable evening.”

“No reason we can’t do it again sometime,” Steven added.

“I come and go, but I’ll be in Kalahar for a few weeks,” Joseph replied as he downed the last of his drink. “It was nice meeting you, Yemi. Best of luck with your flock troubles.”

“I will strive to implement the advice that you have given me,” Yemi replied, giving the two humans a grateful pulse of green.

***

They left the bar, Steven and Yemi saying their goodbyes to Joseph, who was heading home in a different direction. Night had fallen, and most of the illumination was spilling from the windows of the nearby buildings, the skyscrapers forming great pillars of light. The neon signs created little pools of color on the sidewalk, painting the asphalt and the tree trunks in rainbow shades, their glow bathing the thongs of pedestrians. It only seemed to be getting more crowded as the hour grew later.

“I don’t know if you should be riding a scooter,” Steven said as Yemi bobbed over to the rack. “You’re a bit tipsy.”

“It is quite a walk back to the station,” the alien replied with a flutter of worried purple. “I may not make it back in time to catch the train.”

“Don’t panic,” Steven chuckled. “You weigh like fifty pounds, dude. I can carry you.”

“Carry me?” Yemi asked, doubling over as he began to laugh. “That does not seem very dignified. What if someone should see us?”

“We got like, a hundred people seeing us right now,” Steven snickered as he spread his arms. “C’mon – I don’t bite. My teeth aren’t even that sharp.”

Still chuckling drunkenly, Yemi approached, hopping up onto Steven’s back like some kind of scaly spider monkey. He secured himself by wrapping his tail around Steven’s waist – the appendage surprisingly strong and muscular – then held onto the human’s shoulders with his hands. It was like Steven was carrying a living backpack.

“Off we go,” Steven declared, drawing wide-eyed looks and yellow flashes of surprise from the people they passed on their way.

“This is so foolish,” Yemi giggled in Steven’s ear.

“You got a good view from up there, big guy?”

“I assume that you are saying that sarcastically.”

“See? You’re picking up on Earth’nay social cues.”

“Tonight was a welcome distraction,” Yemi said, his tone a little more subdued now. “I think you’re right – I should make more time to relax. I feel as though all I’ve done since I arrived in Kalahar is work, commute, eat, and sleep.”

“It got you where you are today,” Steven replied. “Now that you’re there, I think you can take a little you-time. You have to be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor – otherwise, what are you working for? Just for the sake of working?”

“I have been living the life of a bachelor for most of my adulthood,” Yemi continued, glancing down at a flock of surprised females as Steven strode past them. “I thought that I was challenging social conventions, but after our discussions tonight, I don’t think that I really internalized any of it. Yes, I was living unconventionally, but my thoughts and behaviors were still steeped in tradition. I was still behaving in the ways that I was expected to behave.”

“You’re a people-pleaser,” Steven replied. “You kind of had to be to survive here.”

“You and Joseph gave me some good advice. I will strive to implement as much of it as I can.”

“You deserve a little more respect,” Steven said, a flock parting to let him pass. They flashed their feathers, watching the strange sight in quiet amusement. “All you needed was some encouragement.”

CHAPTER 12: SUITABLE ATTIRE

The next day, Steven greeted Yemi in the lobby and was thankful to see that he wasn’t hungover. He seemed more cheerful than usual, reinforcing the notion that a little time off had done him a world of good. The flock greeted Steven with their usual excitement, flashing their feathers and chiming their good mornings.

“How did you and Yemi get on last night?” Ezi asked, leaning over her desk as she gave him a flutter of inquisitive yellow.

“What’s he like when he’s not at work?” Tilli added. “We’ve only ever spoken to him at the office.”

“And I think that’s the way he wanted it, for the most part,” Steven replied as he made his way over to his usual seat. “We had a good time, shared some stories with Joseph, ate some good food and had a little to drink.”

“Yemi drinks?” Ezi giggled.

“Speaking of which, are you still coming with us to shop for suits?” Ipal asked. “I feel as though we’ve barely seen you the last couple of days.”

“I spend literally all day with you guys,” he scoffed.

“At work,” Tilli added.

“Yes, I’m still going shopping with you,” he replied with a smirk. “I know better than to disrupt your almighty schedule.”

“Did you remember to eat breakfast this morning?” Mima asked with a flutter of concern.

“Actually, no,” he admitted. “I was up pretty late last night shopping for socks.”

“Socks?” Till asked, tilting her head.

“They’re like gloves that you wear on your feet,” he explained.

“We know what socks are – what we’re asking is why you were shopping for them at night,” Ezi giggled.

“Well, clothing for Earth’nay is somewhat of a specialist commodity here, so I wanted to make sure that I could get things like clothes and shoes for when mine wear out.”

“I expected as much,” Mima said, producing a little plastic container. She handed it to Steven, who examined it suspiciously.

“What’s this?” he wondered, cracking the lid open. A familiar scent wafted out, and inside, he saw a handful of snack bars. They were the same kind that Mima had taught him to make during the flock’s evening at his house, but they had been decorated with little Mandarin characters.

“We made you something to eat!” Mima replied with a delighted flicker of green. “You seemed to enjoy my snack bars, so we decided to bake you some more.”

“We could have just gotten you something from the vending machines, but she insisted,” Ezi chuckled.

“These are Chinese characters,” he mused, lifting one of the bars from the box to examine it more closely. It looked as though it had been drawn on with some kind of icing.

“We didn’t know what any of them meant, but we remembered the shapes,” Tilli explained.

“Thanks, guys,” he said as he glanced up at the flock. Mima seemed especially pleased with his reaction, all aflutter with green hues. “That’s actually really thoughtful,” he added, taking a bite.

“Well, you have been helping us out a lot,” Mima explained. “We should do more to show our appreciation. Even Paza appreciates it, don’t you?” she added as she reached over to prompt her flockmate with a nudge.

“Uh, yes,” Paza replied as she glanced up from her work. “You’ve been very helpful in securing resources and improving efficiency so far.”

“High praise, coming from you,” Steven replied.

“We’ll go out shopping at lunch,” Ipal said, sidling up to his left.

“And we were wondering if we could come over to your place after work and watch more of that show?” Ezi added as she appeared to his right. “With your permission, of course.”

“Sure,” he replied. “And, good job involving me in the process this time.”

***

“Damn it,” Ezi grumbled, squinting at her display with a flash of red.

“What’s wrong?” Steven asked, leaning over to peer at her monitor.

“Technical issues,” she groaned, flopping back in her seat. “Paza is busy – you want to come take a look?”

“Sure,” he replied, sliding off his chair and walking over to join her. She was short enough while sitting that he could lean over her easily, her head scarcely reaching his chest, resting his hands on the desk to either side of hers. “What’s the issue, exactly?”

“I’m having trouble accessing the new messaging system,” she explained, turning her head to peer up at him just as Mima had while they were cooking together. “Boy, you really are tall, aren’t you?”

“I’m not tall – you’re just short,” he muttered as he reached out to manipulate the floating controls. “Ah, these are Valbaran key layouts,” he sighed. “Show me what’s wrong.”

“First, you have to stoop to my level,” she replied as she hopped off her seat and dragged it out of his way. He pulled his own chair over to her desk, slouching a little to see her low display. “Scoot over a little so I can do the typing,” she trilled, sliding between him and the desk before he could protest. He lifted his arms out of her way, not sure where to put them, the little alien backing up into his lap. She draped her long tail over his thigh, those tight bike shorts practically creaking as she leaned forward a little, her butt hovering a scant inch away from him.

Ipal gave her a red flush but seemed unwilling to intervene in her scheme, Ezi wiggling a little as she began to type.

“What exactly is the issue?” Steven asked, trying not to admire the way that the thick base of her tail transitioned into the indent of her spine before vanishing beneath her colorful tunic.

“See, I can’t find my messages,” she explained as she navigated the system. “They used to be here, but now, I can’t search for flags.”

“That’s because we moved over to a new system that I set up,” he replied. “I’m pretty sure this was explained to you already.”

“Well, I don’t usually handle messages myself,” she explained. She stood up straighter, turning her head to glance up at him, batting her violet eyes as a ripple of rose-pink feathers tickled his nose. “Perhaps you forgot to tell me?”

“I don’t think I’m that forgetful,” he grumbled.

“You can teach me,” she continued, Steven suddenly all too aware of the way that the smooth underside of her tail was slithering against his leg. “I’m a fast learner.”

Hesitantly, he leaned a little closer to reach for the holographic keyboard, Ezi ensuring that she was firmly in his way. She didn’t move with him, instead letting her back press up against his broad chest, her shoulders scarcely half the width of his. He had no choice but to let another flutter of feathers stroke his cheeks, the fine vanes as soft as silk. There was a pleasant scent about them that made him suspect they’d been perfumed. This close, he could see that they were densely layered, different colors hidden behind one another in stacks.

“You take the pointer, and I’ll take the keyboard,” she purred. “We work well together, don’t you think?”

Her seduction had the subtlety of a brick to the face, but he would be lying if having her tight little frame practically bent over the desk wasn’t doing things to him.

“Sorry, want me to bring it closer?” she chimed as she reached beneath the hologram. She drew it up and towards her, pressing nearer to him in the process, resting her free hand on his thigh like it was the armrest of a chair.

“I can see it just fine,” he muttered. “Here you go – your messages are here. See this extremely obvious group of subfolders?”

“Very efficient,” she marveled, making him lurch as she moved in his lap. “You’re so clever, Steven. No wonder Paza is so impressed with you.”

“Was that all you needed help with?”

She waved her hand through the holographic display, prompting it to fizzle out and disappear, then turned to face him. She had to crane her neck to look him in the eyes, her snout barely reaching his chin.

“I thought we could talk about our shopping trip – if you’re not too busy,” she replied. She hopped up onto the desk effortlessly, letting her legs hang over its edge, her long tail trailing across its surface. Leaning back a little, she reached for the hem of her tunic, lifting it every so slightly to expose a tantalizing sliver of her scaly midriff. He was somewhat surprised to see that she had a navel. “Do you think this is my color? What kind of suit do you imagine me wearing?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, trying not to look too flustered.

“Some styles are loose, like this,” she said as she held out the fabric for him. “Then, there are the ones that the flock in resource allocation wear. They’re a little more form-fitting.” She reached behind her tunic, pulling it tight enough that it revealed the hourglass outline of her figure, Steven fighting to keep his gaze off the subtle mounds of her chest. “Personally, I like something tight and prim. The formal look is sexy.”

“Ezi, don’t you have work that you should be doing?” Paza chided from an adjacent desk.

“This is work,” she protested. “How we present ourselves before the Earth’nay clients will color their first impressions of us. We have to look our best, and Steven knows what Earth’nay like.” She turned her eyes to him again, her headdress framing her smirking face in pink. “So, Steven. What do Earth’nay like?”

“I don’t think he’ll know until he sees you wearing it,” Mima said, leaning her head in her hand as she observed the interaction from her desk nearby.

“Let’s stop bothering Steven and let him do his work,” Ipal finally said, giving her flockmate another pulse of disapproving red.

“Am I bothering you, Steven?” Ezi asked as she batted her eyes at him. “Part of your job as our clerk is making sure all of our needs are met, right?”

“I don’t think Yemi would be very happy with us if he found out that we were wasting time socializing,” Steven replied. He stood up, reaching out to grip Ezi under her arms and lifting her light frame off the desk. He deposited her on the floor beside his seat, her plumage awash with flustered pinks and yellows, those violet eyes gazing up at him.

“Well, when can we socialize?” she asked with a pout.

“On break, and after work,” he replied.

Promise?” she asked with another flutter of pink.

“Cross my heart.”

Seeming satisfied that she had gained some ground, she waited for him to move his chair back to his desk, then sat down smugly. Every now and then, she’d shoot him a look across the cubicle as she twirled one of her head-sheaths idly, clearly anticipating their lunch break now that he’d all but given her permission to flirt.

Steven loosened his collar, trying to focus on his task while Ezi gave him bedroom eyes through the floating displays. Teaching the flock boundaries wasn’t only going to be difficult for them, but for him, too. He wasn’t exactly accustomed to fighting off such aggressive advances, and every male instinct in his hormone-addled body was screaming at him to give them exactly what they wanted – and as much of it as they could handle. If he did that, he’d only be reinforcing their behavior, though. That wouldn’t be good for Yemi or for the workplace in general.

Playing hard to get was going to take some practice.

***

The flock hopped down the steps of the train station, Steven following behind, making his way down the precarious stairs. They were in another part of the city, bright sunlight bleaching the surrounding buildings, their pale bone colors shining even through his sunglasses.

“We haven’t been shopping for new clothes in ages!” Ezi trilled as she bobbed along the sidewalk happily.

“Because we didn’t need any,” Ipal replied. “We don’t have to preen and wax our scales like boys.”

“Some pride in your appearance can go a long way,” Mima added as she walked beside Steven. “Look at our favorite clerk here. Even when we take him out, he’s still dressed in formal clothes, and he always takes the time to look prim and proper for us. It’s a quality that I appreciate.”

He found himself sandwiched in the center of their little group, almost as though they were patrolling to protect him from any prospective females that might come snooping, the specter of Qimi’s flock still looming over them.

“You’re only saying that because keeping your feathers clean takes us half an hour every evening,” Tilli giggled.

“It’s a team effort,” Mima replied.

They made a beeline for one of the buildings, stepping through the street-facing doors. The Valbarans never seemed to want to travel very far on foot, and the shopping districts were always very close to the rail lines. Unlike the grocery store filled with aisles of vending machines, this was far more familiar, resembling a department store. It was filled with aisles of clothing hanging on racks, larger-than-life holographic portrayals of Valbarans hovering above them, modeling the outfits as they turned on the spot and changed poses.

Steven wandered into the store, his head on a swivel. There were casual outfits, business clothes, and even swimsuits of the kind he had seen the women wearing on the boat tour. He peered up at one of them, the hologram doing a remarkable job of making the fabric appear wet and reflective.

“Want us to get one of those instead?” Ipal chuckled as she passed by him, leaving him standing there blushing.

They found their way to the business section, the five flockmates fanning out and starting to rummage through the options. One notable difference was that the racks were motorized, responding to hand gestures from the women, cycling along their rails to display new outfits. Steven was tall enough to see over them, watching a few other flocks peruse the stock. After a lot of rapid discussion in their native tongue, they decided on a few selections, bobbing their way over to the back of the store with bundles of fabric in their arms.

The flock arrived at a row of booths that seemed too large to be changing rooms, but Steven soon realized that they were sized for the whole group rather than individuals.

“Males wait outside,” Ipal explained with a smile, the five women closing the sliding door on him.

“I came sixty light-years, and I’m still waiting around while women try on clothes,” he muttered to himself as he stowed his hands in his pockets.

A couple of minutes later, Ezi reemerged, sliding the door shut behind her again to prevent him from getting a peek inside.

“What do you think?” she asked, raising her arms and turning on the spot. “Do you like it?”

Gone was the colorful tunic and the tight shorts, replaced with a formal vest of the kind that he’d seen the more senior employees of the office wearing. It had more muted colors, favoring shades of gray, the way that it fastened at her midriff with a silver clasp pulling it tight around her waist. Instead of the shorts, she wore a skirt that stopped just shy of her knees, helping to further accentuate her lithe figure.

“Well?” she continued, turning and cocking her hips as she peered over her shoulder. There was a slot for her tail to poke through, the waistband passing above it. “Earth’nay women wear skirts, right? Isn’t this the fashion where you come from? I could have it tailored to make it a little more snug around my waist…”

“It looks…really good,” he muttered, not sure what else to say.

“It’s a tad restrictive,” she added, doing a little wiggle on the spot.

“What’s with the muted colors?” he asked.

“They’re supposed to signify a lack of emotion,” she explained, reaching down to adjust the skirt – it was riding up her scaly thighs. “It says I’m all business. So, do you like it?”

“Are you asking if I like it or if I think it’ll wow the clients?” Steven asked.

She responded with a feathery shrug and a coy smile.

“I think it’s a good option,” he said.

“We still have more to show you,” she replied, hopping back over to the changing room and sliding inside. Steven heard a chorus of Valbaran chattering for a moment before the door slid shut. A few seconds later, Mima emerged.

“This is more of a masculine style,” she explained, stopping to pose for him. “We imagined that the Earth’nay might appreciate that.”

She wasn’t dressed exactly like Yemi had been, but Steven could see the inspirations. Her tunic was a little tighter-fitting, and it was more open around the neck and shoulders, ironically making it look more like a blouse that a human woman might wear. He could see the way that her soft down spilled out around the collar, making her look even fluffier than usual. The shorts were a little longer, reaching the knees, but they still had that painted-on quality. As she turned, he saw that the spandex-like material also extended a short way down her tail, giving it the appearance of a third thigh.

“Do you think the clients would like this?” she asked, giving him a flutter of pink that suggested she was more interested in his opinion.

“It looks great,” he replied.

“Don’t just tell everyone that they look great,” she chuckled, turning on the spot again. “Tell us what you like about the outfits. Am I showing too much shoulder? What about the shorts – should I go tailless? Would an Earth’nay even have an opinion on such things?”

“I guess the, uh…open chest is a little more feminine by our standards,” he replied.

“Of course – it would be reversed for Earth’nay,” she mused. “Is there any cultural stigma associated with dressing like the opposite gender?”

“Not that I’m aware of. A pantsuit is pretty much the same as a three-piece.”

“I’ll send out Paza,” she added, giving him another twirl before disappearing back behind the door. Paza soon emerged, seeming far more sullen than her counterparts. She was wearing something that looked like an overcoat, its hem coming down almost to the second joint on her digitigrade legs, a split like one might find on a tailcoat letting her tail poke through.

“I feel that our performance results should speak for themselves,” she sighed. “Dressing up like this seems unnecessary…”

“Do a turn!” Ipal insisted, poking her head through the door.

With another sigh, Paza extended her arms and turned on the spot, returning to her original position with a flicker of annoyed red.

“I think this is for rain and cold weather,” she explained, looking down to examine her outfit. “We saw Earth’nay wearing similar things when we did an intranet search.”

“I see the resemblance, though I think it’s a little heavy,” Steven replied.

“That’s what I said,” she muttered, stalking back over to the booth.

Next, Ipal and Tilli emerged to model different variations of tunics and vests. Tilli was wearing a slightly more formal variation of their usual tunics and shorts, the clothing a little less colorful and baggy. Ipal seemed to have picked up on his appreciation for the tight, formal vests with their ornate clasps, hers sporting subtle embossed designs that weren’t so different from his own suit.

“He likes these,” she declared confidently, noting where his gaze wandered. “What do you say, Steven? Do you like the skirts or the shorts? Maybe a combination of both? We don’t all have to dress the same way, you know.”

“Yeah, I guess both are suitable,” he replied as he admired the way that the vest hugged her narrow waist. The outfits were sharp, professional, and far more alluring than he’d ever admit to the flock. He had been a little skeptical about their plan, but seeing them start to put it into action made him more confident that it could make a difference. They really did look like pint-sized entrepreneurs.

The flock returned to their usual dress and headed back to the business section, taking a few minutes to talk amongst themselves as they picked out a suit each. They didn’t need to try them on, probably having memorized their measurements exactly. The fashion show had been more for his benefit. As they were leaving the store, they stopped for a moment, engaging in another round of quick trills and chirps.

“We should get something for you, Steven!” Ipal declared.

“For me?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “I doubt they have any Earth’nay clothing here. Besides, it’s not like I really need any new suits.”

“Not a suit,” Ezi said with a telling flutter of pink. “This way!”

They led him between the aisles, emerging into the male section – identifiable by the holograms that were modeling the clothing. On one of the walls was a rack of shining jewelry, and Steven quickly recognized them as the diadems often worn by Valbaran men. They were the most ornate element of Valbaran clothing that he had seen so far, as ostentatious displays of personal wealth seemed rare, at least from what he had experienced in Kalahar. Everyone seemed to dress in very similar styles, and he hadn’t seen any jewelry, watches, or any showy electronics. Nobody seemed to own personal vehicles, either.

These diadems were the exception, sporting fine chains or slim bands of metal in shades of gold and silver, each one decorated with gemstones. He wondered whether they might be something akin to wedding bands, but bachelors like Yemi wore them too.

“I am not wearing one of those,” Steven scoffed.

“Come on!” Tilli whined. “We just want to see what they’d look like on you…”

“I’ll tell you what – if you can find one that fits me, I’ll put it on. Good luck, because my skull is almost the size of your torso.”

They chattered for a moment, then began to fan out, rifling through the diadems.

“Hey, hey!” he protested as he watched Ipal and Mima join two chains together. “That’s cheating!”

“Then you should have been more specific about the rules,” Ezi giggled.

“Come on,” Ipal insisted, waving him over with a fan of her arm feathers.

Grumbling under his breath, he knelt beside them, letting Ipal drape the thin chain around his head like she was crowning him as king. It took her a little fiddling to get it to actually stay there, a dangling gemstone that looked like tiger’s eye or amber bumping against his forehead as he stood up. The flock was clearly enamored, their fluttering plumage tinted shades of rose as they peered up at him, even Paza allowing herself a few moments to admire him.

“The stone color matches your eyes,” Mima cooed. “Do you like it?”

“Yes, I am now the prettiest princess,” he replied sarcastically. “I don’t think jewelry is really my thing.”

“I would disagree,” Ipal said. “It looks good on you.”

“Imagine how he’d look painted,” Tilli added with a flash of amorous pink.

“How about we go get some food before we run out of time and have to head back to the office?” Steven asked as he carefully took off the diadem and placed it back on the rack.

***

Street food didn’t seem to be a thing on Valbara. Instead of the hot dog and burger carts selling synthetic meat that he had been used to seeing outside every maglev station on Ganymede, there were vending machines positioned near places where pedestrians might stop for a snack.

They headed to the nearest green space – of which there were many, even inside the city center – and bought some food from one of the machines. Heading down an incline of blue-green grass, they stopped beside a scenic little lake that was fed by one of the many streams that snaked through the terrain, flowering bushes clustering around its banks. Its surface was covered in floating water weeds akin to lily pads, reminding Steven of his scant visits to the hydroponics gardens in the Ganymede domes.

They stopped in the shade of some palm trees, the wide fronds acting like parasols to shield them from the sun. The flock locked their legs, able to stand in a kind of semi-crouched position without exerting any stress on their muscles, while they were amused to see Steven sit down on the grass. He set their shopping bag down beside him – their small clothes were easy enough for him to carry on his own – and started to unwrap one of his food packets.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this,” he sighed, taking a bite of his fish wrap as he watched the ripples of aquatic creatures surfacing to chase insects. The wind was in his hair, and the sun was beating down on his face, the gentle rustling of the leaves filling the air. He’d have to be careful not to get sunburn – what a novel concept.

“Tell us more stories about Ganymede,” Tilli insisted, shuffling a little closer to him across the grass. She had an identical wrap in hand, shearing off a chunk of meat with her sharp little teeth.

“You sure are curious,” he replied. “Though, I can’t really blame you. Who wouldn’t want to interrogate an alien?”

“I just think you’re interesting,” she added.

“Me specifically?” he asked, cocking his head at her. “Not just the place I came from?”

“Yes, you specifically.”

“Why’s that? Y’know, besides the whole being an alien thing.”

“I suppose because I’ve never met anyone who came from such a different background. Not only are you an alien, but you lived in ice tunnels on an airless moon where people couldn’t even see the stars without wearing a space suit. No fresh air, no fresh water, no grass or trees. It wasn’t until I saw your show that I really started to appreciate how strange it was.”

“Yeah, but that show was somewhat dramatized,” he replied.

“Still, you said it was an accurate portrayal of Ganymede.”

“A lot of it was actually filmed on location, yeah,” he continued as he took another bite. “All of the environmental stuff that you see is real – the tunnels, the people living there, the conditions.”

“You must see everything differently from the way we do,” she mused, following his gaze as he watched the clouds drift across the sky. “No clouds, no oceans, no rain. You appreciate things that we take for granted. Even gravity is a luxury to someone like you.”

“I feel like this is the most words you’ve ever said to me at once,” he chuckled.

“Tilli takes some time to warm up to people,” Ipal explained.

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“Perhaps through talking to you, I can learn to appreciate things in the same way that you do,” Tilli continued as she glanced down at him. “You’ve also done so much. You worked in Marius Regio at the sewer plant, you moved to Memphis to work at the quarry, you won a lottery and traveled across the known Galaxy to come here. You’re adapting to a totally alien environment and culture in a way that only an Earth’nay can. Even your thought processes are unique. You don’t plan or seek consensus – you just react to the things that happen around you. Somehow, you still manage to get by. You have a habit of defying the odds and flaunting common sense.”

“You really paid attention to all that?” he marveled, seeing her in a new light. “I mean, you have perfect recall, so you only had to hear it once. You clearly listened to what I had to say, though.”

“I will listen to more,” she suggested, settling her weight on her locked legs as she took another bite of her meal expectantly.

“Alright,” he said, scratching his chin for a moment. “How about the time we had a dome breach? That was pretty crazy. A cargo freighter that had just taken off from Marius Regio had an engine malfunction and had to dump its cargo, and one of its containers came down on the dome – too low for asteroid defense to catch it.”

***

When they got back to the office, Steven spent another afternoon learning with Yemi. They chatted a little about the evening prior, the little male seeming invigorated by their outing, his demeanor more chipper than usual.

As was the ironclad Valbaran routine, the office workers all filed out at the end of the day, serenading the two males on their way with goodbyes and flutters of pink. This time, Steven noticed that Yemi didn’t bow his head or avert his eyes, nor did he overtly challenge their behavior. He merely responded with confident flashes of green.

Trailing behind them was Ipal’s flock, the women clustering around the front desk as Steven rose from his seat to join them.

“So, how was your night out together?” Ezi asked as she leaned on the desk with a ripple of pink.

“You boys do anything fun?” Ipal added.

Yemi would usually have looked away or shrunk back into his seat, but he met their gaze, unwavering.

“We had a nice evening,” he replied. “It was merely a social gathering. We visited a very interesting restaurant and shared stories of our experiences living in Kalahar and abroad.”

“I bet that was fascinating,” Tilli said. “You got to spend the evening with two Earth’nay. Maybe…you might tell me some of their stories sometime?”

“Perhaps,” he replied with a smile.

“Sounds like a nice place,” Ezi continued, giving him another telling flicker of plumage that colored her words with a seductive pink. “If we’re all doing coworker outings now, maybe we could take you there sometime? I’d love to buy you a drink.”

“Considering that the last place you offered to take me was a lounge, it would certainly be a more appropriate venue for a friendly outing,” he replied. His tone remained characteristically kind, but there was a firmness to it that hadn’t been there before. “Perhaps if my schedule frees up in the future. Until then – good evening, ladies.”

Yemi returned to his work, Ezi faltering as she took a step away from the desk, suddenly unmoored. Steven fought to suppress a grin as she looked to her flockmates in silent confusion, the women sharing a brief flutter of yellow before quickly collecting themselves.

“Of course,” Ipal said, standing up a little straighter. “Good evening, Yemi.”

“We’ll see you tomorrow,” Mima added with a respectful salute of red. “Steven?”

“On my way,” he replied.

The flock bobbed out of the door, Ezi pausing to shoot Yemi another apprehensive glance before disappearing from view. Steven gave the little male a thumbs-up – a gesture that only seemed to confuse him – but the meaning was obvious enough.

He found the flock waiting for him in the hallway outside, the aliens huddled together like football players planning their next move. They looked up as he emerged, seeming no less confused, all awash with yellow. Valbarans loved schedules and predictability, so having Yemi throw them a curveball must have been doubly perplexing.

“Something about Yemi seems…different,” Ipal said as the group made their way towards the elevator.

“How so?” Steven asked, feigning ignorance.

“His eyes usually flutter like beating wings when he talks to us,” Ezi explained. “He stared right back at us today, not even wavering.”

“There weren’t any of those shy little flashes of pink he usually gives us,” Mima added. She sounded sullen, as though some small joy had been denied to her.

“In fact,” Ipal began, turning to narrow her eyes at Steven. “He was acting just like you. Do you have something to do with this?”

“We might have talked a little about workplace culture,” he replied with an innocent shrug.

“Great, the Earth’nay are corrupting our boys,” Ezi grumbled.

“What was that about fluttering eyes?” Steven asked. “Now that you mention it, you guys don’t blink much, do you?”

“When a boy blinks a lot, it’s generally a tell that he’s interested in you,” Mima explained. “It’s a sign of shyness, submission, the way that he averts his gaze and gives you those little ripples of pink that he doesn’t quite have the willpower to suppress…” She sighed, letting her own feathers flush an amorous rose as she stared into space for a moment. “It’s the most adorable thing.”

“What about me?” Steven asked, pointing to himself.

“You do blink a lot,” Ipal mused.

“Earth’nay just blink more than Valbara’nay!” he protested. “You’re saying that I’ve come across as shy and submissive this entire time just because I have a biological need to keep my eyeballs moist?”

“If that’s the excuse you’re going with,” Ipal chuckled, her teasing making his cheeks burn.

“I’m starting to wish they’d sent me to fucking Kruger,” he grumbled as they boarded the elevator.

CHAPTER 13: THE BENEFITS OF FRIENDSHIP

“You’re a dangerous woman,” the detective said, his steely eyes watching the assassin as she crossed the smoke-filled room. She was wearing a red Mandarin gown that clung to her figure, its floral patterns catching the dim light from the ceiling fan above as it slowly turned. “What would your employers say if they knew you were here?”

Ex-employers,” she replied with a smile. She reached behind her head, pulling out the pair of long pins that held up her bun, letting a waterfall of dark hair spill down over her shoulders. “I don’t work for the Triad anymore. You saw to that when you spaced Zhou. You should know that you’ve created a power vacuum that his lieutenants are scrambling to fill. Perhaps I should be thanking you,” she added, sitting on the edge of his desk. She let her gown ride up her thigh, exposing more of her milky skin. “Zhou was a brute, and the dome is better off without him.”

“Just doing my job,” the detective replied gruffly, exhaling a puff from his cigar.

The assassin reached out to pluck it from his lips with a swiftness that took him off guard, bringing it to her mouth and taking a long, slow draw. She blew a neat smoke ring, sending it floating up towards the ceiling, where it was broken apart by the fan.

“You know that these things are prohibited in the habs,” she said, tapping it to send a little shower of ash falling to the floor. “They play merry hell with the air filters.”

“They can bill me.”

She leaned a little closer, ensuring that he got a good view of her cleavage, the curtain of shining hair framing her pale face as she smiled at him.

“You don’t seem like the kind of man who’s afraid to face danger head-on,” she purred, blowing a wisp of smoke into his face. “You strike me as a man who takes it by the reins – commands it.”

With the grace and flexibility of a cat, she crawled across the desk and lowered herself down into his lap, straddling him in his chair. She draped her arms over his shoulders, bringing her red lips to within an inch of his own, the camera zooming in on their faces.

“How about I show you just how dangerous I can be?” she whispered.

“Is this how Earth’nay court!?” Tilli exclaimed, her eyes glued to the holographic display.

“No, it’s just a dumb show,” Steven protested as he reached for the phone that was sitting on the coffee table. He had to brush aside a few empty wrappers and half-eaten snacks, but Ezi was quicker, snatching it before he could reach. “Hey – give that back!”

“Why are you so embarrassed?” Ezi giggled as she hopped up onto the back of the couch, perching there like a parrot. He swiped for it again, but she danced out of his reach.

“I’m not.”

“Yes you are – your face goes all red.”

“I want to see how the Earth’nay court,” Tilli insisted, keeping her gaze locked to the scene as the two characters began to make out. “What are they doing with their mouths?”

“We can just skip this scene!” Steven insisted, Ezi leaping out of his reach again. “You won’t miss any plot!”

“We’re all adults here,” Ipal cooed, glancing between Steven and the screen with a flutter of pink. “Let’s see what the Earth’nay idea of romance looks like.”

“If you base that on this show, you’re going to be sorely disappointed,” he grumbled as he crossed his arms and settled back into the couch. “This isn’t how we court – it’s just trashy programming. It’s intended to titillate.”

“They’re getting heated,” Mima added, watching the two characters start to disrobe. They were showing as much skin as they could get away with while avoiding any actual nudity, the detective tossing his partner onto the table and stripping open her gown. “It’s very aggressive.”

“Earth’nay are very large,” Ipal added. “Perhaps their lovemaking is quite violent?”

“Tilli is right,” Paza added, seeming more confused than her flockmates. “Why are they licking each other’s mouths like that?”

“It’s called kissing,” Steven explained, his cheeks burning as he resigned himself to watching the scene through to its end. “I don’t really know why we do it – it’s a show of romantic affection.”

“Seems rather unsanitary,” Paza grumbled. “No offense.”

“Surely your shows have nudity, too?” he asked.

“Provocative dancing, certainly,” Ipal replied.

“You can watch live feeds of lounge dancers,” Ezi snickered.

“Not the kind of thing that one watches in polite company,” Mima chided. “Traditional dancing is all about a show of skill and control – how many moves the dancer can memorize and execute in rapid succession. It blends a mastery of one’s body and mind, showing poise, grace, and discipline.”

“It’s also how males signal their interest, based on what I’ve been told,” Steven added.

“Also true,” Mima conceded.

“Do you dance, Steven?” Ezi asked as she perched by his shoulder.

“Not in any way you’d recognize,” he scoffed. “The lack of coordination on display in the average Memphis nightclub would probably turn your feathers white.”

That got a laugh out of them, but Ezi pressed the issue, sinking back down into her seat beside him and returning his phone. The scene was all but over now, so it hardly mattered anymore.

“You wouldn’t have to dance to get our attention, you know,” she began. She gave her flockmates a flutter of rapid feather signals, wordlessly communicating something, and Steven felt them press in around him like a pack of wolves on the prowl. “We’re plenty interested in you already.”

She shuffled a little closer on the couch, and when Steven drew back, he found Mima waiting for him to his right. Ipal and Tilli were peering at him from their respective seats, while Paza seemed a little less enthused, watching the encounter play out with her usual aloofness.

“We’ve been friends for a while now, haven’t we?” Mima asked in a soothing tone.

“A few days,” he muttered.

“Long enough to get to know each other rather well,” she continued.

“We know that you’re attracted to us,” Ezi added, her grinning face framed by an explosion of pink that reminded him of the Teth’rak hunting its quarry. Ipal had to push her flockmate’s feathers aside, poking her snout through the headdress to get a word in.

“We’re attracted to you, too, if that hasn’t been made obvious enough.”

“We figured you might make some kind of move, being an Earth’nay,” Mima said as she reached down to run her clawed fingers down his wrist. Just as she had in the kitchen that day, she lay her hand in his, comparing their size. “We spoke of not letting opportunities pass us by – do you remember? Of not letting a ripe fruit ready to be picked wither on the branch.”

“We guessed you might be shy, or maybe it was because of cultural differences,” Ipal added. “To put it so bluntly that even an alien can understand it, we like you, Steven.”

“You’re cute, and you make us laugh,” Mima purred in his ear as she drew closer.

“The whole hard-to-get thing has kind of been driving us a little crazy,” Ezi admitted with a flash of red and pink. She drew a little closer, Steven’s pulse thudding in his ears as her scaly lips rose up towards him, her intense gaze framed by her flushed feathers. “Come on – what do you say? We could try that kissing thing if you wanted…”

She was wound up like a coiled spring. All he had to say was yes, and she would pounce on him. The tension in the air was as thick as soup, his heart thudding in his chest, an all too familiar haze of arousal falling over him that threatened to cloud his judgment.

“Whoa, hold the phone,” he mumbled as Ezi drew closer. “No, not literally,” he added as Tilli reached over to pick up the device, tilting her head in confusion.

Ezi sat back on the cushions, shades of purple overpowering her pink.

“W-what’s wrong?” she stammered, looking to her flockmates as if seeking support. They all seemed as perplexed as she was. “You don’t like us? Is it me?”

“No, I do like you,” he replied apologetically. “All of you.”

“Then…then why won’t you…”

“I don’t think he wants to,” Tilli whispered. “Maybe we shouldn’t…”

“Is it an Earth’nay thing?” Ipal asked. “Are we doing courtship wrong?”

“We didn’t mean to offend you,” Mima added hurriedly.

“Let’s just take a step back for a minute,” he sighed. “Not literally,” he repeated, gesturing for Tilli to stay seated. “Listen – I really like you guys, and you’re right, I am attracted to you.”

“Then, what do we have to do?” Ezi pressed. She seemed agitated now, her feathers a blend of confused yellow and worried purple. “We’ve been on dates together, we’ve flirted, we’ve made our intentions clear. Tell us what we’re supposed to do, and we’ll do it.”

“That’s not how this works,” he explained. “You guys are a lot of fun, but this is moving way too quickly, and not in a direction I think you’re going to like.”

“What do you mean?” Mima asked.

“Right now, I feel like you guys only see me as a conquest,” he replied. “We’ve barely known each other for a week, and I’m the new office boy everyone is talking about. I’m the alien – a novelty. Yeah, we could all go to bed tonight. I’m sure you cleared your schedule expecting that outcome.”

“I suppose we might have,” Ipal admitted, giving him a flash of sorry blue.

“What does that make us tomorrow, though?” he continued. “Do you want to be friends who fuck every now and then? We can be that, but is it really what you want? I get the impression that you guys haven’t been in a real relationship before, and I know that’s not just a Valbara’nay thing after meeting other flocks.”

“We’ve been in relationships!” Ezi protested, seeming embarrassed by the accusation. “We’ve been with boys before.”

“Those were more like flings,” Paza added, aloof as ever.

“They were dancers,” Ipal conceded. “We got lucky at the lounge a couple of times and took them home.”

“Still counts,” Ezi grumbled, her plumage a patchwork of embarrassment.

“This approach might work to get you laid sometimes, but it won’t work if you want an actual long-term relationship,” Steven explained. “I get it – you’re young, you’re still learning how to approach guys, but you need to take things a little slower. People like me and Yemi don’t want to be flings. We want something more serious – we want to feel like you value us as more than just a one-night stand or something to brag about to your coworkers.”

“That’s not how we see you,” Mima insisted.

“Maybe not, but that’s what it feels like. It’s not all bad,” he added, sensing the dismay that was passing through the flock. “I’ve really enjoyed spending time with you guys – the restaurants were lovely, the boat tour was wonderful, and just hanging out eating junk food and watching shows has been great. You made me cookies, you took me on picnics. I’d be all alone in Kalahar if it wasn’t for you guys making an effort to include me. I want that to continue, though. I don’t want to go to bed with you and have things be different when we wake up tomorrow.”

“It wouldn’t have to be that way,” Ezi insisted, giving him another flash of purple. “Not if we don’t want it to be!”

“I’ve heard I’ll still respect you in the morning before,” he chuckled. He neglected to add that it was something he had said to other women. Having the shoe on the other foot was a strange sensation. “This isn’t a rejection,” he added, trying to assuage their obvious concerns. “It’s a not right now. We need to be closer friends before we can be lovers. If you just want a friends-with-benefits thing where you come over and bang a couple of times a week, we can do that, but I think you’re mature enough to want something more serious.”

“Excuse us,” Ipal said after a moment of hesitation. With a feather signal, the flock leapt off the couch, huddling together on the carpet as they began to discuss these new developments. While Steven couldn’t speak their language of chirps and trills, he could recognize many of their feather displays and the emotions that they conveyed. The girls were certainly trying to form a new consensus concerning what to do with him, and he wondered whether they’d just give in to their impulses and choose the booty call option. No red-blooded male could turn down sharing a bed with five women, and some non-committal sex with good friends was far from the worst thing in the world, but it wasn’t what the flock needed. It would mean that he’d failed them.

The yellows, reds, and purples gradually turned to greens as the women began to see eye-to-eye on the issue. One notable dissenter was Ezi, who seemed to be arguing more ardently, her plumage a defiant crimson. It was a democratic process, however, and her feathers soon folded back down in submission when she was overruled. They made all of their decisions together, even ones concerning matters of the heart.

“We want to do it your way,” Ipal finally declared. “We like you enough to stick it out.”

“I was hoping you’d say that,” Steven replied with a smile. “Then, in Earth’nay terms, we’re going steady – we’re dating. It’s a proper relationship now.”

“But we want you to be exclusive,” Mima added. “That means you can’t go running off with Qimi’s flock.”

“Qimi’s flock was never part of the picture,” he chuckled, the flock giving him a flash of relieved feathers. “Last time I went out with them, we actually talked about you and they gave me some advice for making this relationship work. I wasn’t lying when I told you that I liked you.”

“What happens now?” Tilli asked. “Do we have to do anything differently?”

“Now, we go on more dates, and we get to know one another better,” Steven replied. “Just…tone it down at work, will you? If you want to get romantic, we can do that on our own time.”

“You don’t mind the flirting, then?” Ezi asked hesitantly. “You want us to be romantic?”

“Outside of work hours, I’m fair game. In fact,” he added, considering for a moment. “We’re kind of overdue. C’mere – it’s time for me to stop giving you mixed signals.”

“Me?” she asked, looking to her companions for reassurance.

He held out his hand in invitation, and she took it, Steven guiding her up onto the couch beside him. Sensing that something about his demeanor had changed, her feathers flushed with pink hues, as flustered as she was enamored by being singled out.

Slowly, he reached up to cup her cheek, feeling her fine scales beneath his hand – so smooth that they were practically indistinguishable from skin. She was cool to the touch and slightly moist, likely due to the high humidity that the Valbarans liked to maintain. In his mind, scales should always be rough and hard, but that just wasn’t the case. For all her bluster, she was the one blinking now, her scaly lids fluttering like the wings of a butterfly as she struggled to maintain his gaze. Those violet eyes were so vibrant, made even moreso by her dark sclera, her signature tan coloration shining in the dim light of the holographic display behind her. He could even see some of its glow bleeding through the vanes of her feathers.

“What are we doing?” she murmured, so unsure of herself now.

“Traditionally, it’s considered appropriate to do this after a couple of dates,” he replied as he drew her in. He pressed his lips against hers, finding their texture far softer and more plush than he had been anticipating, Ezi’s entire body tensing as they embraced. However much or little experience she might have, this was something wholly new to her. After a moment of uncertainty, she leaned into him, pressing closer in a wordless request for him to continue.

He let the tip of his tongue slide into her mouth, feeling her shiver appreciatively as it glanced her fleshy palate, her narrow jaws not giving him much room to maneuver. Something thin and tapered greeted him, the feeling of her warm, damp flesh gliding against his own making his heart miss a beat. Ezi was already figuring things out, delighting in the unfamiliar sensations, almost seeming to flinch each time their wandering tongues brushed together. It was clumsy, exploratory – everything that a first kiss should be. They weren’t designed to fit together, but they made it work, Steven stroking her face with his thumb as they remained joined for a few moments longer.

When they broke away, her eyes were half-lidded, and her feathers were going haywire. Ripples of color spread through her headdress and down her arms, flickering with nonsensical patterns.

“You good?” he asked, prompting her to open her eyes.

“Mhmm,” she murmured, reigning in her patterns to give him a flush of pink and green. The rest of the flock was just watching, their own plumage full of yellow tinged with pink, Ipal and Mima whispering excitedly as Tilli looked on with wide eyes.

“Like from the show!” Tilli hissed.

“Unsanitary,” Paza muttered with a disapproving flutter.

Steven eased Ezi away, and she sat there beside him for a moment, still holding his hand as residual flickers of color disturbed her contented plumage. Perhaps it meant that she was excited or a little overwhelmed by the sudden encounter.

“How was it?” Ipal pressed, the flock finally seeing fit to crowd around the couch.

“What did it taste like?” Tilli demanded.

“It was…nice,” Ezi replied, sparing Steven a flustered glance before quickly averting her eyes to stare intently at the carpet.

“Oh, this is so romantic,” Mima sighed with a delighted trill. “I’ve never seen you like this before, Ezi. You’re flickering.”

“Yeah,” Ipal giggled. “After all that big talk about how you were gonna-”

“It just took me off guard, is all!” Ezi insisted, quickly cutting her flockmate off. She slid off the couch, still a little unsteady, giving Steven one last flutter of pink before brushing off her tunic and willing her feathers back into their sheaths. “None of you could have guessed he’d do…that.”

“You did kind of ask for it,” Ipal replied.

“Do we all get a turn?” Mima asked hopefully.

“Don’t push your luck,” Steven chided.

They settled back onto the couch together, resuming their show, but the very atmosphere in the room had changed. There was electricity in the air, a kind of low-level excitement and anticipation permeating the flock. Ezi was still dazed and flustered by his impromptu show of affection, her feathers as easy to read as the pages of a book, but the rest of the girls were just as enamored. He found himself sandwiched between Mima and Ipal, the two women daring to get a little closer now that they were officially a couple – or whatever the Valbaran equivalent was – Mima leaning her head on his shoulder.

Steven was still a little dazed by his own audacity. In true Earth’nay fashion, he hadn’t really planned the kiss – it was just something spontaneous that had felt right in the moment. Maybe that was one of the reasons his guests were so surprised.

When the episode was over, and all of the snacks were gone, the flock got up to leave. They were filled with nervous energy, chattering to each other in their native tongue, likely deciding what they should say to him. They paused as he saw them off at the door, Ipal speaking up, Ezi still too embarrassed to look him in the eyes for very long.

“So…we’ll see you tomorrow,” she began with a ripple of pink. “Now that you’re officially our boyfriend, I suppose we should start talking about going on more dates.”

“We’ll involve you,” Mima added. “You’re kind of a member of our flock now – at least in a probationary sense – and we’ll need to reach consensus together.”

“I get a vote?” he asked. “Sweet.”

“We’re glad that everything is out in the open now,” Ipal continued. “We have consensus about where we stand, and we have a plan going forward. It puts us more at ease than you might realize.”

“You do like your schedules,” he conceded. “I meant what I said, by the way. You guys are a lot of fun, I really enjoy hanging out with you, and I want our relationship to develop into something more.”

“It’s nice to have our eyes set on a clear goal,” Ipal said with a smile. “We’ll see you at work, Steven.”

The flock chimed their goodbyes, filing out through his door and closing it behind them. Steven allowed himself to deflate, and he flopped back down onto his couch, replaying the evening’s events in his mind. Things had gone about as well as he could have hoped. It was certainly the first time he’d ever felt good about not getting laid.

The flock seemed earnest in their desire to make things work, and his hopes were high. All that remained now was to see what approach they’d take.

***

“Ipal’s flock seemed especially lively today,” Yemi said as Steven stopped by the front desk to greet him. “Did something happen between you?”

“Well, you remember how I said I was interested in them?” Steven began. “Who am I kidding – you remember everything. I finally made a move last night, and things actually went really well.”

“You spent the night together?” Yemi asked with a flutter of pink and yellow.

“No, no,” Steven replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I laid things out straight for them. I told them that I wanted to go steady and what I expected of them in return. They chose to take things slow.”

“I’m honestly surprised,” Yemi added. “The way they behaved around you – and around me – always led me to believe that they were very…proactive.”

“That’s a very diplomatic way of putting it,” Steven chuckled. “It took a little convincing, but I think they’ve started to see things my way. Speaking of which, how have you been faring? I’ve noticed that you’re being more direct with your coworkers since our chat with Joseph.”

“It seems to be working,” he said with a flutter of green plumage. “I’ve been doing my best to implement the advice that you and Joseph gave me, and the results have been positive. Sometimes, a flock starts being more professional almost immediately, as though they can sense that something is different about me.”

“It’ll probably take some time before it really sticks, but stay persistent,” Steven replied. “Right, I’d better get to work. Catch you later.”

He headed inside, making his way through the office to his cubicle.

The flock’s greeting today was more subdued than usual, yet paradoxically, they had never seemed more excited to see him. They were fighting to appear polite and professional, but their feathers told another story – filled with happy greens and amorous pinks that betrayed their true feelings. It was adorable, in a way. Ezi especially wasn’t acting like her usual self – all of that bubbly, flirtatious energy replaced with an endearing nervousness. She could barely look at him without batting her eyes, signaling her newfound shyness. For all her posturing, his kiss the night before had melted her heart. Could it be the first time that anyone had shown her that kind of affection?

They glanced up from their work, sneaking peeks at him every so often, clearly as interested in him as they were in their tasks. They were making an effort, though, and that was what mattered. Paza was the exception, always too engrossed in her programming to pay him much mind, but she showed a different kind of interest. Every so often, she would rise from her seat to look over his shoulder, supervising his work and sharing her thoughts. While she seemed indifferent to the prospect of bedding him, making him wonder whether she might have dissented from dating him altogether, she was impressed with his progress.

“Very good,” she muttered to herself, her eyes scanning his script. “Very good indeed. The meeting with the clients is in a few days, but it seems as though you’ve almost finished the preparations.”

He wanted to tell her that work went by more quickly when they weren’t playing grab-ass, but thought better of it.

“Yeah, I’m almost done here,” he replied as he leaned back in his seat. “I should have the final draft ready for you to review by tomorrow.”

“You’ll be glad to know that since you joined the team, our efficiency has improved notably,” she continued. “Between redesigning the messaging system, securing more server cycles, and obtaining code from other teams, our progress has been accelerated by a significant degree. We’re actually on track to finalize a working version of the software before the projected deadline.”

“That’s good to hear!” he said with a smile. “And, you think that’s all my doing?”

“You have offloaded some of the more menial tasks from our programmers,” she replied, giving him a sideways glance. “Subsequently, we’re able to focus on more important work. Your…charms have also been useful in securing resources, and I must admit that your initiative has been surprisingly helpful.”

“You didn’t expect that to be the case?” he asked.

“Making hasty decisions without consensus is not our way,” she explained, but the disdain in her voice had all but melted away. “I expected you to be reckless, and while I may find your lack of planning alarming at times, I find myself forced to admit that there is often merit to your flexibility and improvisational skills. I didn’t see the logic in it at first, but I think hiring Earth’nay was a wise decision for the company.”

“Well, I appreciate that,” Steven replied. “You’re gonna make me blush over here.”

“It remains to be seen how you perform during the presentation,” she added.

“I’ll try not to let you down.”

***

They took their lunch in one of the pillow-filled bowls, the flock pouncing on the opportunity to involve him in their plans for the evening. They had probably been thinking about it all day, but had waited until their break to discuss it.

“We came up with three plans,” Ipal declared proudly. “We didn’t want to bother you with the details, so we thought you might like to make the final decision.”

“Doesn’t that introduce an uncomfortable level of uncertainty for you?” he teased as she handed him her phone.

“We made sure that all three proposed outings would take a comparable amount of time,” Paza explained.

“One of them is a restaurant,” Mima explained, pointing excitedly to one of the images on the device. “It’s famous for being the highest establishment in the city, situated on the upper floors of one of the tallest skyscrapers. It’s said to have an incredible view of Kalahar.”

“This one was my suggestion,” Ipal added, sinking into the cushions beside him. “You expressed some interest in dancing, and there’s a theater near here that puts on regular shows.”

“What kinds of shows?” he asked suspiciously. “It’s not a lounge, is it?”

“No, of course not,” she scoffed. “This is classical theater – skilled dancers and musicians putting on performances. It’s a celebration of our cultural heritage.”

“Tilli suggested the third option,” Mima continued as she gestured to her flockmate, who was perched on the rim of the bowl.

“You could come to our house,” Tilli said with a shrug of her feathers. “We went to yours.”

“You know what – why don’t we do all of them?” Steven suggested. “We have the time, right? Let’s do Tilli’s one today,” he added, and she gave him a flutter of pleased green. “I’m interested to see how you guys live when you’re not at work.”

“All of the dwellings in the residential band are built to very similar specifications,” Ipal said. “You might be disappointed if you’re expecting something very different.”

“We’ll see,” he replied, biting into a seaweed square.

***

“We could have gone to the tallest restaurant in the city, you know,” Mima said as the train raced along its curving track above the treetops.

“I want to see how you guys live when you’re not trying to impress me,” Steven replied, watching the rounded domes of the homes reflect the fading sunlight in the distance. Everything looked so similar that it was sometimes a little disorientating. Without his GPS, Steven might have no idea that he was clear on the other side of the city.

They stopped at the next station, making their way down a winding dirt path that eventually led them to a house. It was very similar to Steven’s little patch of land, yet also different in subtle ways. While the garden seemed to be about the same size, it was arranged differently, the trees and landscaping distinct. The pond was in a different location, and it was fed by a babbling brook rather than a small waterfall, the outhouse nestled in some bushes behind the structure. The building was configured with the same three domes, though they were positioned a little differently. It was a little uncanny, like a half-remembered version of his home from a dream.

They entered through a front door that was shielded by a tunnel-like awning, emerging into the domed living room. It was similar to his own, the circular floor covered over with a furry carpet, the walls lined with couches and chairs that hugged its contours. There were a couple of low tables strewn with little potted plants and household items like cups and tablet computers, one of them sporting a decorative wooden carving of what looked like a long-necked dinosaur.

There were shelves – something absent in his home – which were piled with more personal belongings. There were more little sculptures and decorative vases, more plants whose blue-green leaves overflowed from their pots, and metallic objects that might be medals or coins. There were holographic emitters on the walls, too, projecting pictures. Some were still photos of what might be family members, while others played animations on a loop, most serving as artificial windows to scenes of alien nature. It was a little warmer and more humid than it had been outside, too. Maybe they’d cranked up the thermostat and the humidifier.

The kitchen was identical to his own, save for some decorative ferns that adorned the worktop. The gloomy bedroom was mostly out of view, a few scattered pillows and sheets visible through the narrow archway.

“This is our home,” Mima said, gesturing to the room. “It’s…probably about what you expected.”

The flock watched as he began to explore, perusing the nearest shelf and admiring the trinkets.

“What are these?” he asked, pointing to one of the little display racks. It had slots that were filled with rows of small, metallic objects, each one maybe half an inch wide and two inches long. They kind of looked like popsicle sticks. Some were gold and some were silver, while others were lesser metals, all of them decorated with intricate Valbaran lettering. Try as he might, Steven couldn’t imagine what their purpose could be.

“Oh, that’s part of my coin collection,” Paza explained as he walked over to stand beside him.

“These are coins?” he asked, glancing down at her skeptically. “I didn’t peg you as someone who collected coins.”

“They’re actually over a thousand years old,” she continued, reaching up to pluck one of the so-called coins from its display and holding it up so that he could see it. “These date from the early city period, when Val’ba’ra’nay had begun to form larger settlements and were just starting to engage in widespread trade. They’re made from metals that were considered precious at the time – gold, palladium, silver, copper and nickel alloys. They were used as tokens and exchanged for goods equivalent to the value of the metal.”

“On Earth, coins were usually round,” he replied. “I’ve seen some square ones, some with holes in them, but never ones shaped like this before.” She offered it to him, but he hesitated. “Remember that I sweat,” he warned. “I wouldn’t want to corrode it or anything.”

“It’s made of gold, so you can’t tarnish it,” she replied.

She dropped it into his hand, and he weighed it, finding that it was surprisingly heavy.

“Gold is something that you only really see in electronics today,” he muttered as he turned it over with his thumb to inspect the other side. “It’s hard to believe that people once thought something so abundant in asteroids was so rare and valuable. I suppose it’s a lot harder when you have to get it from the ground. Hard to believe that this is a thousand years old – Ganymede hasn’t even been inhabited for half that long.”

“Currency is handled digitally today, so there’s no reason to carry around heavy coins,” Paza continued as he passed it back to her. “Some interesting colloquialisms still remain, though,” she said as she gently returned it to its place on the rack. “You might hear a Val’ba’ra’nay refer to money as tabs or a large expense as a bundle.

“Very cool,” he mused, moving further along the shelf. “Who’s this little guy?”

Sitting not far from the coins was a plush toy about the size of a teddy bear. It was clearly a somewhat cartoonish representation of a Valbaran with a cute little face and stubby limbs, the soft fabric that made up its green skin and its colorful feathers faded with age.

“That’s…mine,” Ipal admitted with an embarrassed flutter. “It’s a toy that my parent flock gave me when I was still in the incubator.”

“A lot of Val’ba’ra’nay have them,” Mima explained. “They’re a traditional toy used to comfort children, but they’re also used as an educational tool. The different colored feathers help the children learn emotions. In the past, fathers would make them from rags for their children, but they’re more often bought from stores now.”

“I heard that the tradition is still practiced on Ker’gue’la,” Tilli added.

“I see,” Steven mused. “When I was very young, I had this little book full of baby faces. Each page had a different expression – laughing, crying, happy, confused. According to my parents, it was one of my favorite books to read. I suppose this is something similar.”

“Baby faces?” Ipal chuckled. “I suppose that your faces are a lot more expressive than ours are. You don’t have feathers, so you express emotion in other ways. Like the fur above your eyes.”

“Eyebrows,” he replied, making her laugh as he wiggled them up and down.

“I think you have as many muscles in your face as we do in our sheaths,” Mima giggled.

He moved to another shelf, this one stacked with more wooden animals like the one that was prominently displayed on the coffee table. The closer he looked, the more intricate they seemed to be, each one carved from wood with impressive detail. There were a lot of animals that he didn’t recognize, but he was familiar enough with Gue’tra and Teth’rak to pick them out in the lineup.

“Ezi carved those,” Ipal said, shooting her flockmate a mischievous grin.

“Don’t tell him that!” Ezi hissed with a flutter of pink and purple.

“Why not?” Steven asked, examining the feathery texture on the Teth’rak’s flank. “You really made these? That’s incredible. From a distance, I might have assumed they were prints.”

“She thinks it’s a hobby for boys,” Ipal explained. “Go on!” she insisted, giving Ezi a gentle push. “Show him!”

Reluctantly, Ezi bobbed over to join him, averting her eyes with a nervous flutter as she pulled one of the models from the shelf.

“They sell blocks of recycled wood at the hobby store,” she began, handing him a little sculpture of a Gue’tra. She fluttered again as their fingers touched, her feathers as rosy as a blushing cheek. “I carve out material until I get the shapes that I want. I don’t design them,” she added hurriedly. “I download the patterns on the intranet, but there’s…satisfaction in trying to reproduce the steps as closely as I can.”

“These are beautiful,” Steven said, holding the little dinosaur up to the light. “I can’t believe you carved these. Can I see the one on the table?”

She led him over to the coffee table, and he crouched to take a look at the large sculpture. It looked like a sauropod with four trunk-like legs and a long, tall neck. Just like the other animals, it was covered in a coat of feathers. Unlike its prehistoric counterpart, a kind of thin sail ran down its neck and along its back, and it had an ornate crest rising from its head.

“Whoa,” Steven marveled. “What’s this one called?”

“It’s a Do’patli,” Ezi explained with a flash of pleased plumage. “They’re giant herbivores that roam the grassy plains further North in herds.”

“I think this one is my favorite.”

“Tilli has something she wants to show you,” Ipal added after giving him a few more moments to admire it.

“I think she should be awake by now,” Tilli added, bobbing over to the gloomy bedroom. Steven watched curiously as she disappeared through the archway, emerging a minute or two later with something cradled in her arms. He assumed that it was another plush toy, but as she neared, he saw that it was breathing.

It was a creature about the size of a chinchilla with a round, fat little body covered in a dense coat of brown fur, a pair of beady eyes shining beneath the living room lights. It had two large, mouse-like ears that were devoid of any hair, its wet nose and fine whiskers twitching as it sniffed the air. As Tilli lifted it to show him, he noted that it had a long, naked tail like a possum or a rat that wound around her arm for purchase. Its four limbs were splayed like those of a reptile, ending in grasping paws tipped with tiny claws.

“Her name is Quiqui,” Tilli declared proudly. “She’s a Coco’yotl – these are the largest mammals on Val’ba’ra.”

“You guys have a pet!?” Steven whispered, keeping his voice low so as not to startle the creature. It seemed remarkably docile, just hanging there as she held it beneath its forelimbs. “Why am I only hearing about this now? Can I touch it?”

“She’s friendly,” Tilli replied, giving permission with a flutter of green.

Steven reached out a hand, letting the creature sniff him for a moment, then he ran his fingers through the fur on its head. Its coat was incredibly soft and thick.

“This is really the biggest mammal that you have here?” he asked as he petted the little animal. “I suppose this is what Earth’nay might still look like if that asteroid hadn’t freed up some ecological niches for us.”

“You evolved from something like this?” Ipal chuckled.

“Oh yeah, this little fella is a dead ringer for our ancestors. Believe it or not, we started out scurrying around beneath the feet of giant reptiles too. A few tens of millions of years later, and we’re the ones running the show.”

“She’s nocturnal, so she’s only active at night,” Tilli explained. “She sleeps below ground in a little burrow that she dug in her enclosure. She probably only just woke up, so she’s still a little sluggish.”

“I love her,” Steven chuckled, giving the creature a scratch behind the ear.

“I should probably put her back – she’s still tired,” Tilli said as she bundled the animal up in her arms again, returning to the bedroom.

“Restaurants are fun, but meeting little animals is up there,” Steven said.

“Oh, we should offer you something to drink!” Mima added with a flutter of yellow. “Ipal, let’s get something from the bunker. It’s a special occasion.”

“Bunker?” Steven asked, cocking an eyebrow at her. “You mean like a cellar?”

Ipal was already walking across the room, hitting a control panel on the far wall, the sound of grinding gears filling the dome. Steven watched, dumbfounded, as a square section of carpet began to rise from the floor, swinging open on a hinge. Ipal descended a set of steps, and he hurried closer to get a better look, seeing what resembled a fallout shelter beneath the house. Its walls were made from reinforced carbcrete, and they were lined with shelves that must have once housed emergency supplies. Now, they were filled with bottles and other nondescript containers of packaged food. He could even see what looked like a freezer at the far end of the room.

“What the hell is this?” he asked, looking to the flock for an explanation. “Does my house have one of these?

“Every Val’ba’ra’nay home built before the last five or so rotations is equipped with a bunker similar to this one,” Mima explained in a somber tone. “Before first contact with the Coalition, we had no idea when the hive fleet that razed Ker’gue’la might come to finish the job, so cities were built to be fortified against aerial attacks.”

That’s why you have those massive anti-air emplacements in the city!” Steven said, the realization dawning on him. “I wondered about those.”

“In the event of an invasion, most of the population would take shelter inside these bunkers to escape the orbital bombardment and potentially a subsequent ground invasion,” Mima continued. “In the end, that’s exactly what ended up happening, but only in a few cities. Yilgarn was hit the hardest – the hive ship actually crashlanded just outside their walls. If it wasn’t for that Coalition fleet happening upon us when it did, we might not be having this conversation.”

“It’s kind of sobering to think about how recently this was necessary,” he muttered, watching Ipal emerge with a bottle in hand.

“It’s alright,” she chimed, dusting off its label. “These days, we use them as rec rooms or cellars. It’s symbolic, in a way. We don’t have to be afraid anymore.”

Mima fetched some glasses from their kitchen and set them down on the coffee table, everyone taking a seat on a nearby couch. She poured a serving for each of them, Steven finding that it was similar to the wine that he had tried during his outing with Yemi and Joseph. It must be pretty high-shelf stuff.

“It’s made from fruit grown in the Tepetl mountain range,” Ipal explained as she watched him take a drink. “It’s fermented and turned into an alcoholic beverage. We do cultivate some crops outside the city walls, but usually in very specific environments where there’s no wandering megafauna.”

“Yeah, if one of those Do’patli things decided they wanted to snack on your orchard, you wouldn’t be able to do much about it without an orbital railgun.”

“And that would be extremely illegal,” she added.

***

They chatted for a while as they drank, Steven enjoying the wine, the amount that he could drink without getting tipsy surprising the aliens. It didn’t have a very high alcohol content compared to the Memphis moonshine that he was used to. They talked a little about work, and now that they were on better terms, Steven felt more comfortable sharing stories about his trip with Qimi’s flock. Eventually, the conversation turned back to the flock’s hobbies, and a very flustered Ezi showed him more of her carvings.

“You already know that I enjoy cooking,” Mima said, leaning back into the cushions as she swirled the pink liquid around in its crystal vial. “It’s kind of my hobby.”

“We would all be in trouble without Mima to feed us,” Ipal chuckled as she sipped from her glass. “Oh, do you like games, Steven?”

“I’m a pretty tough opponent in Carrier Commander if I say so myself,” he replied.

“We’re not familiar with that one,” she snickered. “Here – try this one.”

She leaned down to reach beneath the coffee table, producing an object about the size of a softball. It was shaped like a dodecahedron with twelve flat faces, each one having five edges and a touch panel at its center. Ipal brushed one of the panels with her fingers, and the toy came to life, its screens illuminating to display different Valbaran characters with a musical chime. She handed it to Steven, who examined it curiously as the women looked on with amused feather displays.

“What is it?” he asked.

“A memory game,” Ipal explained.

The toy chimed again, then flashed a series of three letters, each one appearing on a different face. The goal was obvious enough – the player had to remember the sequence. He tapped at the three relevant faces, then there was another chime.

“That was level one,” Mima explained.

Another series of characters flashed – six this time, and he did his best to reproduce the pattern. The next one had nine, and he faltered, one of the faces emitting a harsh noise to indicate that it was the wrong one.

“Level three,” Ipal giggled. “About on par with with someone who is…let’s say two rotations out of their incubator.”

“My memory isn’t that bad,” he grumbled, turning the device over in his hands. “I could have sworn that was the right face.”

“It was the wrong color,” Tilli explained. “You have to match the face, the symbol, and the color at later levels.”

“So, if I press the right face, but it’s the wrong symbol or the wrong color, I lose? That’s insane. What’s the highest level you guys have reached?”

“One hundred and seventy-eight,” Tilli replied.

“No way,” he laughed, tossing her the toy. “Show me.”

She caught it, brushing her fingers against one of the panels and setting it going. He watched in quiet disbelief as she began to dance her hands around the toy, entering the sequences almost as fast as it could display them, spinning it around like a Rubix cube. Over and over, she completed the levels, each one growing progressively more complex. Her eyes were unblinking – her focus absolute. After several minutes of it, she finally made a mistake, the sequence so absurdly convoluted that Steven couldn’t even guess what had gone wrong.

“God damn,” he exclaimed, setting down his glass and applauding her.

“What are you doing?” Ipal giggled.

“Clapping,” he replied. “It’s how Earth’nay show that we’re impressed. Come on – you’re being rude.”

He goaded the rest of the flock into applauding, Tilli tilting her head in bemusement.

“I see how it is,” he continued. “You guys think you got one over on me, huh? I wonder how you guys would do at Chess. There are moves and strategies that can be memorized, so you’d like that, but your opponent can also surprise you with unexpected moves. Shame I suck at Chess. Actually, I have an idea…”

Steven pulled up his phone, connecting it to their home network and casting its display to their holographic projector. The flock leaned in to examine the vertical grid. There was a series of blocks to its right, and a scoreboard was displayed above it.

“Let me introduce you to Tetris,” Steven declared proudly. “This game is over six hundred years old, it’ll run on everything from a calculator to a pressure meter, and it’s still played by bored employees of every stripe to this day.”

“How do you play?” Tilli asked, her feathers rippling with curiosity as she shuffled closer.

“You drop the blocks down into the grid,” he explained, starting up a round to demonstrate. “Each one has a different shape – you can see which ones are up next to the right, and when you fill a row, it gets removed while adding points to your score. As you progress, it gets faster.”

He passed the phone to Tilli, and after watching him, she picked up the game immediately. She completed a few of the early levels with ease, showing that same intense concentration, but began to fall behind as the speed increased. While she could see which blocks were up next, placing them required a level of quick thinking and improvisation that Valbarans just weren’t suited to.

“Damn,” she grumbled, flashing red feathers as the game ended. “How are you supposed to plan ahead if you can only see three moves into the future? It goes too fast to formulate a strategy.”

“That’s kind of the idea,” Steven replied. “It’s about thinking quickly and making split-second decisions about where to place the blocks. I’m not even that good at it – there are people who can reach hundreds of levels.”

“This game leverages your Earth’nay neurology in the same way that the memory game leverages ours,” Ipal mused. “Let me try.”

***

The flock took turns playing the game as Steven watched, the friends drinking and laughing with each failure. Tilli fetched Quiqui again when the little creature was more alert, letting it roam around the fluffy carpet like it was a grassy field. It came to Steven to be pet a few times, rolling over onto its back so that he could scratch its belly, letting out happy little huffing and squeaking sounds. When it got tired, it chose Steven’s lap for a quick nap, perhaps because he had a higher body temperature than his scaly counterparts.

“I think she likes you,” Tilli whispered, watching her pet’s ears twitch as it dreamed.

“Hey, what’s that?” Steven asked as he gestured to another object that was sat on the coffee table beneath the hologram. “Is it another one of your sculptures, Ezi?”

“No, that’s a hookah,” Ezi explained. “It’s used for smoking.”

“Oh!” he replied. “Yeah, Joseph told me about those. You use them to smoke some kind of psychoactive plant, right?”

“Yes, herb has a calming effect,” Ipal replied as she watched Paza stack blocks. Even the usually work-obsessed Valbaran was taking a turn. “It’s usually smoked recreationally as a way to help people relax. I’ve never heard anything about Earth’nay being unable to smoke it.”

“We actually have a plant that produces similar compounds on Earth,” he added. “It’s often grown illicitly on Ganymede because it’s not considered a crop worthy of spending a lot of good fertilizer and water on. Doesn’t stop people from doing it, though.”

“You want to try some?” Ipal asked with a grin.

“Not when we have work tomorrow,” Tilli chided. “Especially when we don’t know how much he can handle.”

“Or how his biology might react to it,” Mima added.

“Fine, fine,” Ipal conceded. “Another time, perhaps.”

“Are you hungry, Steven?” Mima asked. “I had planned to cook something, but we could order out.”

“No, I’d love that,” Steven replied. “Can I help you?”

“Certainly,” Mima replied, beaming as she rose from the couch. “You can help me prepare the meal – there’s still much for you to learn about Val’ba’ra’nay cooking.”

Steven gently eased the sleeping rodent off his lap, then joined Mima in the adjoining kitchen, leaving the rest of the flock to continue their attempts at Tetris. As alone as they could be in a house with no doors now, Mima put on her apron and started to prepare the counter, the cramped space giving them little option but to be in close proximity to one another.

“Last night was certainly illuminating,” she began, dusting a cutting board with a white powder. “I have to admit that you’re harder to read than we expected. I suppose we should have anticipated than an alien would be…difficult to anticipate.”

“Does that bother you?” he asked, leaning on the counter beside her. “I know how much you guys like predictability.”

“I find it quite invigorating,” she replied, flashing him a sideways glance and a ripple of pink. “You managed to take Ezi off guard. I’ve never seen her so enamored with a boy before. She can hardly look you in the eye without fluttering.”

“It’s cute,” he chuckled. “Maybe don’t tell her I said that. She might collapse in on herself in a singularity of embarrassment.”

Mima placed a chunk of silvery fish on the board and started to cut it into neat slices, her blade moving as quickly as that of any practiced chef.

“I feel as though some apology for how forward we were being is in order,” she continued.

“Nah, we said everything that needed to be said last night,” Steven replied with a wave of his hand. “Like you mentioned – I’m an alien. We have very different cultures and sensibilities, and it would be weird if there wasn’t any friction between us. In some ways, I’ve kind of enjoyed being the center of attention,” he admitted with a shrug.

“Is that so?” Mima cooed, pausing her cutting to smile at him.

“Having women approach me and pursue me so aggressively is a reversal of the usual state of affairs.”

“Here,” she said, gesturing for him to come closer. “We’re going to coat these in spices.”

She filled one bowl with a sticky, milky substance, then another with a blend of colorful powders. Just like battering meat before frying it, she showed him how to transition the slices of fish between them, the two setting up a little production line.

“You can still be the center of attention in a committed relationship, you know,” she began as she turned over one of the slices in the powder. “There are five of us and only one of you. It’s kind of a given.”

“Yeah, I’m still struggling to imagine how exactly that’s supposed to work.”

“I’m hoping that we’ll be able to show you sometime soon.”

When they were done spicing the meat and it was laid out on a baking tray, Mima held up her dripping hands, still coated with the milky substance.

“Could you take off my apron?” she asked. “I don’t want to get this stuff on my feathers. Washing it out becomes quite the ordeal.”

“Alright,” he said, moving behind her. Mima glanced over her shoulder at him as he reached down to the small of her back where the apron was tied, unfastening the little bow that she had made. It was hard not to admire the way that her narrow waist flared out into her wide hips, a few tufts of brown feathers peeking out above the elastic waistband of her tight shorts. Below it was her tail, covered in that same fluffy plumage, the muscular appendage brushing against his leg.

He reached for the loop that hung around her slender neck, his fingers brushing against her soft coat as he lifted it over her head, Mima angling her snout up and folding down her head-sheaths to help him along. She had remarkable control over them.

As he leaned forward to toss the apron onto the counter, she remained stubbornly in place, her lithe little body pressing up against his. Her back rested against his chest, the soft cushion of her ass pressing into him, her tail shifting out of the way to ensure that he could feel her springy cheeks through the insubstantial fabric. When Steven looked down, he saw her craning her neck to meet his gaze, her reptilian nose a couple of inches beneath his chin. She was still holding out her wet hands, droplets of batter falling to the kitchen floor.

“So…what do I have to do to get one of those kisses?” she asked.

“I suppose that we are going steady,” he replied, letting one of his hands creep around her waist. “It’s usually a little more spontaneous than this, though. It’s not something that you plan for.”

“Then, pretend that I haven’t asked for it,” she replied as a ripple of pink plumage tickled his nose. “Pretend that I’m standing here with my hands covered in batter, unable to stop you, unsuspecting. Surprise me – make me flutter the way you did Ezi.”

Laying one hand against her flat belly, he brought the other to her throat, sliding it up to cradle her lower jaw. He allowed his fingers to comb through her downy feathers, enjoying their texture, feeling her body stiffen at his touch. She couldn’t help but gently grind her butt against him – it was almost reflexive, her violet eyes filled with expectation as she peered up at him.

Upside-down relative to him, she pursed her scaly lips as he drew closer, Steven lifting her a little so that she was forced to stand on her toes to meet him. They joined, her lips soft and cool, the mosaic texture of her fine scales only just tangible. Allowing himself to pull her closer and feeling her squirm contentedly in his arms, he slipped the tip of his tongue into her mouth.

Just like with Ezi, her jaws were long and narrow, her tongue like a thin ribbon as it reached up to greet him. She had no knowledge of kissing save for what she had witnessed the night before, but if there was any correct way for a human and a Valbaran to kiss, it was a path that they would have to forge themselves. They embraced for a few moments more, her probing organ like wet silk as it mapped the shape of his tongue, her feathers forming a ruff of pink around his neck as they flared up in delight. When they broke off their kiss, Steven gave her a chance to catch her breath, but she was quick to seek out a second.

The impulse to lift up her light frame and toss her onto the counter was strong – to peel off those skin-tight shorts and fill his hands with her springy flesh. They were different species, so protection was an irrelevance, and they could do as he pleased whenever the mood took them. She seemed to feel the growing bulge that was pressing against her cheek, ensuring that she was putting pressure on it as they traded licks, but she never crossed that line. Perhaps she was waiting for him to drag her over it.

Instead, he pulled away, his face as rosy as her plumage as they stared at one another for a few heartbeats.

“Now I understand what all the fuss is about,” she purred, batting her eyes at him.

Steven glanced through the doorway, seeing that the four flockmates were watching them intently from the couch. When they realized that they’d been noticed, they snapped their attention back to their game almost in unison, the sight making him laugh.

“Unless you’d like to keep going, I need to wash my hands and set this meat cooking,” Mima said with a sly shake of her hips. Fighting back his urges was like trying to jam toothpaste back into its tube, but he released her, watching her saunter over to the sink and run her scaly hands beneath the water. She gave him a wonderful view of her butt as she bent over to slide the tray of fish into the oven, her shorts practically creaking as they struggled to contain her, her tail sweeping back and forth idly.

“It’ll take a little while to cook,” she said as she bobbed past him. “In the meantime, I think there’s plenty of wine left.”

***

Dinner was accompanied by a lot of quiet whispering and lingering glances, the flock all too aware that their collective relationship was steadily progressing. Steven still found the concept of sharing his affection between all five of its members strange, and it was something that he still had to adjust to – rewiring his brain just as he’d rewired it to tolerate sunlight or the absence of airlocks.

Fortunately, he found some allure and interest in each of the flock’s members.

Ipal seemed to be the one who kept them all oriented, always taking charge like a big sister for the flock, never afraid to be direct. She had made many a sexist comment during their earlier interactions, but he sensed that her respect for him was slowly growing. Rather than judge his abilities and set her expectations based solely on his gender, she had come to anticipate more of him.

Ezi had started off as a temptress, always on the prowl, perhaps seeing herself as a man-eater who slew dancing boys left and right. Experience had taught her that flaunting her sexuality and being persistent and aggressive would get her what she wanted, but a show of real affection had brought out something sweeter and far more uncertain in her. Steven wanted to nurture that – to see her posturing and her facade of confidence develop into something more sincere.

Tilli was curious almost to a fault, but she was also quiet and sensitive in a way that her flockmates were not. She saw things that they didn’t, and she was often the first to voice her concerns when she thought that something was amiss, acting as the flock’s conscience. There was an understated kindness to her that he couldn’t help but appreciate.

Then there was Paza, so focused on performance and efficiency. He hadn’t developed the same kind of rapport with her that he had the others, and that emotional connection was still lacking as of yet, but her sternness roused something in him. She was as sharp as a knife, prim and commanding, always keeping her flock on task. He got the sense that she was starting to appreciate his professional abilities, but he had no idea whether she saw him as a romantic partner. Maybe she didn’t need to. He recalled what Mima had said about the kinds of romances she enjoyed, and how coldness could eventually turn to passion given time.

Finally, there was Mima. Soft, gentle, caring Mima. She had a tendency to mother him, and he wasn’t sure if it was because he was a bachelor or an alien – maybe both. She could also turn on the charm like she was flipping a switch, more of a seductress than Ezi could ever have aspired to be, imbued with a confidence and maturity that her counterparts lacked. She didn’t appear to be physically older than they were, but she might be wise beyond her years.

Together, they formed a complete unit, and that was becoming more apparent the more time that he spent with them. There would be no favorites – it was all or nothing. While the prospect of sleeping with a harem of willing women might be the fantasy of many a man, Steven was very aware that he was the one more likely to be serving at their whims. Should the relationship become more physical – and that was clearly what everyone wanted – how would it manifest? One at a time? All at once? Perhaps it was too early to be thinking such thoughts, but the taste of Mima’s kiss still lingered on his lips.

CHAPTER 14: HOT POTS AND STAGE SHOWS

Another day at the office went by without incident. The flock were being remarkably diligent about keeping their hands to themselves at work, though they had begun to favor their eyes instead. The atmosphere was more relaxed in general, their advances far less aggressive than they had been before their talk, limited now to flirtatious comments or remarks about prior evenings. Knowing that Steven reciprocated their feelings and not having the looming threat of him being stolen away by rival flocks had put them much more at ease, secure now in their position as his girlfriends.

They even treated Yemi with far more respect when he came to deliver messages. Whether that was because of Yemi’s newfound confidence, Steven’s requests, or because they simply no longer had any need to pursue the male was unclear.

As the workday drew to a close, the flock began to prepare for their next outing. They were headed to the restaurant in the clouds this time, situated high inside one of the city’s towering skyscrapers. They bid their farewells to Yemi, then descended in the elevator. Steven was now so accustomed to the stomach-churning ride that he scarcely thought about it. A quick jaunt to the nearest station and a maglev ride later, and they were in another transparent elevator racing up the side of one of the glittering spires, the rooftops of the smaller structures falling away beneath them.

Higher and higher they went, rising above the clouds, the round shape of the city’s wall becoming ever more apparent. From the ground, its curve was much harder to perceive. At the top, Steven found himself in another upscale restaurant, the far wall following the flowing contours of the building, an uninterrupted pane of glass looking out over the city. Even as the waiter arrived to seat them, he wandered over to the window, his stomach lurching as he gazed down at the streets far below. He felt more like he was standing on the observation deck of a spaceship.

They settled in for another meal, this one consisting of more strange alien dishes, chatting and joking as they ate. When there was a lull, and they got up to stretch their legs, Steven noticed that Paza was standing by the window. Sensing an opportunity to get her alone for a while, he made his way over to join her.

“It’s an incredible view,” he said as he sidled up beside her. “You can see all the way out to the ocean from here.”

“I’m sure you’re about to tell me a story about how you could never see so far on Ganymede,” she replied.

“Quite the opposite, actually,” he began. “You see the way the blue haze kind of swallows everything beyond a certain distance?” he asked as he pointed beyond the wall. “That happens due to the density of the atmosphere. If there’s no atmosphere, you can see uninterrupted forever – at least to the horizon. Those islands in the distance would be as crisp and clear as your own hand.”

“Fascinating,” she muttered with a flicker of red.

“I get the impression that you’re not quite as enamored with my stories as your friends are. You’ve also been a lot colder towards me than they have. We’re technically dating, right? Were you the dissenting vote?”

“If I have given you the impression that I don’t like you, I apologize,” she replied tersely. “I have come to respect your professional insights and the value that you bring to the team. I must admit, however, that I am not as infatuated with you as my flockmates seem to be.”

“Is there anything I can do about that?” he asked. “If it’s just about the way I look…well…I’m an alien. I can’t really grow feathers and scales.”

“You have a certain…exotic appeal,” she muttered as she looked him up and down pointedly. “That isn’t the issue.”

“Then, what is?”

“I question the long-term viability of this relationship. You can’t sire children, and I doubt that you’d be willing to fulfill traditional gender roles in the home. Dating you simply feels like an inefficient use of our time.”

“I get it,” he replied with a shrug. “If you have to invest limited time and resources into securing a husband, you might as well maximize your return. You’re right – I’m probably not going to give you kids or a traditional relationship. Then again, it’s a little early to be thinking about marriage and kids, don’t you think?”

“Not for a Val’ba’ra’nay.”

“I suppose you do like to plan ahead,” he conceded. “I would posit that those things are less important than simply being with someone you love and enjoying their company. A relationship isn’t an investment portfolio where you’re expecting a specific rate of return. We don’t have to be locked in, either. Your flock can still decide that they don’t like me later. That’s kind of the point of dating – it’s a free trial period. Try before you buy, thirty-day money-back guarantee.”

“I’m often the one managing the flock’s time, money, and resources,” Paza replied. “I keep them on task and oriented – I keep them efficient. You represent an inefficiency.”

“Still, you went along with the consensus,” he added as he clasped his hands behind his back and gazed out of the window. “I appreciate that they’re asking a lot of you. You’re not as into me as they are – you don’t see me in the same light, but you’re going along with it for their sake. That’s an admirable trait.”

“The consensus is all that matters,” she grumbled. “I would not expect an Earth’nay to fully grasp the concept.”

“So, enlighten me.”

“Any decision is made wiser through consensus,” she explained. “When we take the time to discuss something between flockmates, and multiple people weigh in with different perspectives, we can be sure that we’re coming to the best possible conclusion using the information available to us.”

“Two heads are better than one,” Steven mused. “Or, in this case, five.”

“In essence, yes. Within a flock, there is give, and there is take. Consensus is reached through majority vote, and if there is a stalemate, the discussion continues until someone makes a concession. We make little concessions every day – what to eat for breakfast, what to do in our free time, even where to live and work. The flock – and by extension, society – functions because each of us is willing to tolerate small inconveniences and put aside our personal feelings for the greater good of the whole. Right now, you are that greater good. You are the consensus, and I cannot stand in the way of my flock’s happiness.”

“Consensus really isn’t all that alien to me, you know,” Steven replied. “What you just described also applies to any healthy relationship between two Earth’nay. We can’t always get what we want, and sometimes, we have to suffer a little so that the people we love can be happy. We do so with the expectation that, at some future date, they’ll do the same for us. They’ll recognize what’s important to us and make a concession of their own.”

“Perhaps you do have some limited understanding,” she conceded, giving him the same sideways glance that she tended to give him when he impressed her at work.

“Relationships also take effort,” Steven continued. “You can’t just expect everything to be peachy and perfect from the get-go. No matter how happy you are together, you’re going to hit hurdles and hard times, and you have to be willing to work through them together. That’s what makes a bond strong.”

“Do you imagine that you can forge such a bond with me?” she chuckled. Her tone was derisive, but there was a hint of pink in her feathers.

“I think that we can build off of a foundation of mutual respect, yes. Unless you’re just totally not into Earth’nay.”

“I didn’t say that,” she replied. “There’s a large gulf between finding someone attractive and viewing them as a suitable life partner. This is far from the first time that the flock has brought home someone who didn’t meet my standards.”

“Lounge dancers?” Steven asked with a smirk. “Did you partake, or did you spend those nights sleeping on the couch?”

“Perhaps you view me as distant and dispassionate,” she mused, keeping her eyes on the view ahead. “I suppose that I’ve never given you a reason to think otherwise. I am simply of the opinion that there is an appropriate time and place for such things.”

“You weren’t just taking my comments about not flirting at the office to heart, then?” Steven inquired. “I’ve never seen you let your proverbial hair down, really. If you play as hard as you work, maybe I should be a little scared…”

“I will say only that I make very efficient use of my time.”

She returned to the table, leaving him to contemplate the vista along with her words. It was about the closest to flirting Paza had ever gotten. She might not see him as a prospective husband, but she would still fuck his brains out if the opportunity arose – that had been made very clear. She was high-strung, and powerful executive types like her tended to know exactly what they wanted. They didn’t waste time beating around the bush. Her approach was the opposite of Mima’s slow-burn seduction – a simple statement of facts, like she was handing him a consent form to sign. Here’s the acquisition form for the new stationary shipment, and by the way, I’m scheduled to rock your world at four.

“Steven!” he heard Ipal call to him. “We’re having dessert! Come sit down!”

He turned away from the window, heading back over to their table.

***

“Thanks, I had a nice evening,” he said as the flock paused to see him off at the train station. “Thanks for finally letting me pay for one of the meals, too. I still have a chunk of that UN stipend left, and I was starting to feel guilty about mooching off you guys.”

“We’re still doing the concert tomorrow, right?” Tilli asked.

“The schedule is ironclad,” he replied, raising a hand as though he was taking an oath.

“Okay, we’ll see you at work tomorrow,” Ipal chimed.

The flock hovered for a moment as though waiting for something, but Steven wasn’t sure what to do. After a date with a human girl, he might offer her a kiss or some show of affection, but what should he do with five girls? Should he go down the line and kiss them one by one?

Instead, he selected Tilli, bending over to reach her. He gently placed his fingers beneath her chin, encouraging her to lift her head, then planted a kiss on her scaly lips. It wasn’t one of the bawdy kisses that he had shared with Ezi or Mima – that didn’t feel appropriate – but she flared pink and yellow all the same.

“See you tomorrow,” he said, waving them off as he climbed the steps. They tittered for a moment, exchanging pleased feather signals, then bobbed off back down the dirt path.

The train soon pulled silently into the station, and he took his usual seat in one of the undersized chairs, catching a few glances from other late-night commuters as he pulled up his phone. He noticed that he had a message from Qimi’s flock, and seeing that they were online, he put through a call. It rang for a few moments, then he saw her familiar face appear, her flockmates flashing greetings as they crowded around their device.

“Hi, Steven!” Qimi chimed.

“Hey, girls,” he said with a smile. “I hope I’m not catching you too late.”

“Not at all,” Tlaso replied from her left.

“We actually wanted to catch up and see how you were doing,” Nawa added. “We haven’t talked much since our meal together.”

“I just got back from a date with my coworkers,” he said, smirking as he watched the flock flash their feathers.

“It sounds like you’ve been making progress,” Qimi said, leaning closer as though she was expecting to hear some juicy gossip. “What’s been happening between you and the flock?”

“Was our advice helpful?” Tikol asked.

“Very,” Steven replied. “I couldn’t have gotten this far without your insights.”

“Well, are you going to tell us the details?” Nawa pressed.

“I invited them over to watch some shows a few nights ago,” he began, the girls leaning in attentively. “Partway through the episode, there was a racy scene, and they seemed to take that as a cue to put the moves on me. They were pretty aggressive about it, too.”

“What did you do?” Qimi asked.

“Well, I could have just done nothing and let the night run its course,” he replied with a shrug. “The temptation was certainly there, let me tell you. Instead, I remembered the advice that you guys gave me, and I decided to confront them directly.”

“I can’t imagine they took that very well,” Kema giggled.

“Not at first,” he continued. “They mostly just seemed confused. I guess that, in their eyes, it was like – here are five beautiful women inviting you to spend the night with them. What are you complaining about? I explained the situation, though, and I told them how their behavior was impacting me and what I expected of them if they wanted an actual relationship.”

“I’m guessing that they listened if we’re having this conversation now,” Tlaso mused.

“They took a little while to come to a consensus, but when given the choice between a one-night stand and a relationship, they chose the latter. I was pleasantly surprised.”

“That means they’re actually interested in a longer-term arrangement,” Qimi confirmed.

“I actually kissed Ezi,” Steven added. “I guess it was an olive branch of a sort. If you remember – who am I kidding, you always remember – Ezi was the really pushy one. It turns out that she’s way less experienced than she wanted me to think, and she pretty much turned into a stuttering, blushing mess the moment I showed her any affection.”

“That’s adorable,” Kema snickered with a flutter of pink. “The moment you started describing her, we knew that she was overcompensating.”

“Yeah, you guys were right on the money.”

“What’s a kiss?” Tikol wondered. She pulled out her phone before he could answer, the flock crowding around and flashing pink feathers as they discovered it for themselves.

“They’ve stopped bothering me at work,” Steven continued. “We’ve been on a few more dates, and they’re actually really cool when they’re not trying too hard. I’m glad I stuck it out.”

“All they needed was a little structure,” Qimi replied with a flutter of green. “They’re lucky that they’ve found someone so patient to help them learn.”

“I think the whole situation is adorable,” Kema said.

“I thought you guys might have some advice for what I should do next,” Steven began. “I’ve broken the ice, but I don’t really know what they expect of me now, or when Valbara’nay consider it appropriate to take things further. I don’t want to be too easy, but I don’t want to make them wait longer than would be reasonable, either. The goal isn’t to punish them.”

The flock took a moment to discuss the question, tittering and chirping to one another.

“If you feel like they’ve shown an appropriate amount of restraint and that they respect you, we don’t see why you can’t take the relationship to the next level,” Qimi replied.

“For Earth’nay, it’s generally considered acceptable to put out on the third date,” he chuckled. “Maybe I’ll make them wait a little longer than that.”

“Keep us updated,” Nawa added. “This is the most exciting thing that’s happened in weeks.”

“You’ll have to let me take you guys out to dinner again sometime soon,” Steven said. “My treat this time – I insist.”

“We’ll take you up on that,” Qimi said with another ripple of green.

“My stop is coming up, so I’ll talk to you guys later,” Steven said as the train began to slow.

“See you later, Steven!” they chimed in chorus.

***

“I think it’s almost done,” Steven said as the flock crowded around his desk, their violet eyes reflecting the glow of his holographic display. “Unless there’s anything else that you guys want to add to the presentation?”

The flockmates were all impressed with his work, but they looked to Paza for the final say, knowing that she was the most knowledgeable among them. After a few moments, she gave it her quiet approval, flashing green feathers.

“Very impressive work,” she replied. “The software demo will be ready on time for the presentation, too.”

“I’ve been thinking,” Steven continued, the flock turning their attention back to him. “You said that the algorithm is basically finished, right?”

“There is some tweaking and refinement left to do, but essentially,” Paza replied.

“Could it be deployed right now?”

“In theory,” she said. “We’ve run very accurate sims, and all of the bugs that we’ve been able to find have been ironed out.”

“That means it could be loaded onto a test bed?”

“Assuming that we had a suitable platform,” Paza replied. “Real-world trials likely won’t begin until the client closes the deal.”

“You must have access to some of the turrets this software was designed to run on, though. You’d need detailed schematics and performance data.”

“The company does,” Ipal replied. “What are you getting at, Steven?”

“If you really wanted to wow the clients, a practical demonstration would do wonders,” he explained. “If we could get our hands on one of these turrets and have it blow some shit up – really show them how well it performs – it would make us stand out against the competition.”

“That…isn’t something Val’ba’ra’nay would generally do,” Paza said as she considered. “The data from the simulations should suffice as a demonstration of the software’s capabilities.”

“If I know Earth’nay, and I do, then something with a little more visual flair would go down well. Could it be done in time?”

“We haven’t exactly tried to rent a weapon system before,” Ipal replied. “It’s short notice, and we would need to obtain the appropriate permits and permissions from the Ensis of Kalahar.”

“Not to mention selling the idea to the executives,” Mima added. “It’s rather unorthodox.”

“Expensive, too,” Ezi added.

“But it may be a possibility,” Mima continued. “We have some days yet before the presentation is scheduled.”

“We can always fall back on the original plan if we can’t swing it,” Steven said. “Do you guys trust me?”

They paused to discuss it, taking a few moments before delivering their reply.

“We trust you,” Ipal said. “We’ll see if we can make it happen.”

***

“What’s this?” Yemi asked as he stepped into their cubicle with a tablet computer in hand. “A request for the temporary use of a Tona’me’yotl laser point defense system just came across my desk. What are you people up to in here?”

“So that’s what TMY-6 stands for,” Steven mused.

“Roughly translated, the name means to become bright,” Mima said.

“I’m sure the Earth’nay will change the name if they actually adopt it,” Ipal added.

“You’re really asking me to forward this request to the board?” Yemi asked, giving them a skeptical flutter of yellow. “What could you possibly want with such a thing?”

“It was actually Steven’s suggestion,” Paza said as she gave him a flutter of acknowledgment. “He believes that a real-world demonstration will wow the Earth’nay clients.”

“I think it’ll help give our presentation some extra pazzazz,” Steven said, locking his hands behind his head as he leaned back in his chair.

Pazzazz?” Yemi muttered, rolling the unfamiliar word around in his mouth. “Well, if you’re certain, I’ll forward the request. I just wanted to make sure that this wasn’t some kind of strange error.”

“Thanks, Yemi,” Steven said. “I think it’ll help if the request goes through you.”

“Yes, you’re very well-respected within the company,” Paza added.

“Thank you, Yemi!” Mima chimed. The rest of the flock followed suit, thanking him and giving him respectful salutes of red.

The little male seemed taken aback by their new attitude, giving them a brief bow before returning the way he had come.

***

“You guys are looking sharp,” Steven said as the flock bobbed down the street towards him. They were wearing the formal suits that they had bought a couple of days prior, with form-fitting vests and a blend of skirts and shorts, their colors far more muted than the flock’s usual dress.

The concert was taking place late in the evening, so the sun was already setting, the artificial glow of the city starting to overpower its fading light. This part of Kalahar was more of a cultural center, so the throngs of bar and clubgoers were absent, but there was still a respectable nightlife. Flocks were walking to and fro, and the roads played host to the occasional squadron of scooters.

“We thought we’d break in the suits,” Ipal replied. “We don’t want to look all stuffy during the presentation.”

“Besides, this is a somewhat formal occasion,” Mima added. “We want to look our best.”

Steven was wearing his suit, too, but he rarely went home to change into casual clothes before going out with the flock. It had kind of become his default look.

They had arranged to meet outside the theater this time – a building in the city center that was distinct from the glass and carbcrete skyscrapers that towered over it. If Valbaran architects had tried to one-up each other with every new skyscraper, the theater was either their magnum opus or the fevered dream of a madman. Steven wasn’t well versed enough in the arts to guess.

It looked somewhat like a blooming flower, the curving, organic petals forming the structure of the building. They were clad in a shining silver metal that caught the colorful city lights surrounding them, warping and reflecting them like a funhouse mirror. The petals were joined by lattices of glass panes – or some comparable material – like gossamer strands of spiderweb. The soft, yellow light from within filtered out, making the whole structure seem to glow. The theater was built on its own little piece of parkland, surrounded by carefully sculpted hills and patches of trees.

They set off down the winding path that led to the front entrance, a few other guests giving them curious looks. Ipal had been right – this was certainly a more upscale venue than they were used to. Everyone was fancily dressed, and the males were especially easy to pick out thanks to their shining jewelry and more ostentatious getups.

Just like tropical birds, the females were all clad in muted gray and beige, while their male companions were wearing much brighter and more elaborate clothing. A lot of the outfits looked similar to what Yemi wore at the office, with tight tunics that exposed the neck and shoulders coupled with long shorts. Some were designed to expose the midriff, but they were all equally colorful and decorative, often sporting a kind of reflective filigree or intricate patterns with an iridescence that matched their feathers.

They filtered through the doors and into a large foyer, the glass ceiling glittering above their heads. Whereas the scant few opera houses and theaters that still existed inside Ganymede’s domes were designed to imitate an ancient baroque style commonly associated with old Europe and classical art forms, the Valbaran style was very different. There wasn’t a straight line anywhere in sight save for the floor. Every wall or supporting pillar was rounded and organic, almost like the building was a single piece of malleable resin that had been extruded from a giant nozzle. It wasn’t even really symmetrical, but somehow, it didn’t come across as haphazard or chaotic. Every flowing shape was a deliberate design choice that had been put there with intent.

The colors, or lack thereof, were also surprising. For all their love of color, the Valbarans had chosen very muted and neutral tones. It was all gray, white, and beige, almost seeming monotone in comparison to all of the colorful visitors.

The crowd was slowly flowing through the building, so the flock followed, making their way down a corridor. Steven was able to see over everyone’s heads, and even for him, the high ceiling added to the grand feel. It reflected and focused the murmur of conversations, creating an echo effect that reminded him of large warehouses or spaceports. While the walls of the corridor were continuous, the wave-like texture of bumps and valleys almost made them look like the trunks of pale trees when light and shadow interacted in the right way, meeting above their heads like the intertwining canopy of a forest. It was subtle, but once noticed, it was hard to ignore.

Steven’s head was on a swivel as the hallway opened up into the theater proper, a massive auditorium filling his field of view. It must be somewhat recessed into the ground, because as high as the domed ceiling was, the room seemed taller than the scale of the building should allow for when seen from outside. He could see the sections of glass roof, the petal-like shape of the building’s structure actually shielding the windows from the light emanating from the surrounding city, preventing any of it from leaking in. Even those elaborate floral designs had a very functional purpose.

He was standing on a high balcony that overlooked the auditorium, rows of hundreds of seats arranged in a semi-circular pattern like a coliseum sweeping down far below him, their upholstery the same muted grays as the surrounding décor. Some of them were separated into little pockets and pits off to the sides of the main seating area, adding to that strange organic feel. It looked like it could probably host a thousand Valbarans or more, and that was before he included the two higher floors that each had their own overhanging balconies lined with more seating. In the usual Valbaran fashion, there were no safety railings, the fifteen-meter fall to the ground floor making his stomach churn.

At the apex of the ceiling above and behind him were the rows of stage lights, currently bathing the cavernous room in a diffuse, yellow glow. The stage itself was the focal point of the auditorium, all of the sweeping contours and organic shapes guiding the eye there, so far away from his perspective that a Valbaran would appear about the size of his thumb if they were standing there. The stage was conspicuously flat when compared to the surrounding structure, large enough that a whole orchestra could have occupied it – and perhaps they sometimes did. Experience told him to search for said orchestra in a pit in front of the stage, but he couldn’t see them. Maybe they didn’t play live music?

“You look impressed,” Mima chuckled, giving him a nudge. “Come on, we need to find our seats.”

“We shelled out for a booth,” Ipal added, taking him by the arm and guiding him through the crowd. “We thought you’d appreciate being able to see the show without people staring at you instead of the dancers.”

“You guys didn’t have to do that,” he said.

They led him along the balcony, Steven watching the seats in the auditorium below steadily fill up with people. They descended a level via a narrow staircase, then entered their booth – one of the little bubbles that extruded from the wall. There was a door at the back that could close to seal them off from the world, and rather than a window overlooking the stage, the forward section of the pod was simply open to the air without any railings or safety measures to protect the occupants.

Fortunately, the padded couch was a little further inside, providing an unimpeded view of the show without the risk of falling to one’s grisly death. There was a low table, too, presumably for any drinks or snacks that the occupants might order. Steven had no idea what the etiquette was or whether liquor or popcorn were usually allowed.

“The show should be starting before long,” Mima said as she settled into the cushions. The rest of the flock soon joined her, and Steven had to admit that the booth had been a good choice. The couch was a hell of a lot more comfortable for him than one of those tiny chairs would be.

Ezi settled in beside him, sandwiching him between her and Mima. Ezi hadn’t spoken very much since their kiss, in stark contrast to her usual behavior, but she was jumping on the opportunity to be close to him tonight.

After a few more minutes, those massive stage lights began to dim, plunging the auditorium into darkness. Steven fished out his phone and made sure that its notifications were turned off, dreading the prospect of a call or message interrupting the performance.

“We haven’t been out to the theater in rotations,” Tilli sighed, shifting her weight on the pillows.

“It’s a little more high-brow than a lounge,” Ipal snickered.

“We can still order drinks, though,” Mima added.

“How long do these things usually last?” Steven inquired as the sound of echoing conversations slowly faded.

“Usually two or three hours,” Mima replied.

“We’d better get comfortable, then.”

A couple of spotlights slowly came to life, illuminating a pair of platforms that had risen up to either side of the stage while the lights were out. They were elevated high off the ground, each one occupied by several flocks of Valbarans who were holding alien instruments. That must be where the orchestra performed – raised above the stage rather than situated below it. It was hard to make out much detail from so far away, but he could see strange string instruments and curving tubes that might be horns of some kind. There were no conductors, and there was no tuning or warm-up – the musicians simply began their carefully memorized routine.

Soft music filled the room, the low thrum reflecting off the walls, the very architecture of the auditorium focusing it towards the audience. It sounded classical, the twang of strings and the brassy sound of horns easy to pick out, accompanied by wind and something more electronic. It was complex and deeply layered – perhaps too layered for his hearing, making him wonder if some of the notes might be clear outside of the human range. It was eerily beautiful, totally unlike anything he’d heard before.

Only when the scene was lit by another deep blue spotlight did Steven come to understand the purpose of the drab color choices. With the décor mostly a muted, matte gray, any light that was cast seemed to bathe the whole stage. There was nothing to distract or conflict with it. Just like sound, the light was reflected and concentrated, the emotions that it conveyed just as important to the performance as the moving melody.

A figure stepped out onto the stage and walked across it, a tighter spotlight illuminating them when they reached their mark at its center. They seemed so tiny, dwarfed by the massive building that surrounded them.

Before Steven could ask whether the girls could even see the performer, a hologram appeared to hover some distance above the stage, a giant depiction of the actor towering over the viewers. It was very high quality, likely using different technology from the good enough holographic projections that were commonly encountered, any transparency or flickering barely perceptible. It was solid, true to life, and recorded in real-time. It moved with the performer, seamless and fluid, but Steven could still see the real person if he glanced down.

It was a male, he realized. They were wearing a body glove that was somewhat reflective to catch the stage lights, the material tight and elastic like a swimsuit or the shorts that the Valbarans liked to wear. As the music grew louder and more prominent, the dancer flared his plumage, his massive headdress and arm feathers fanning out in a brilliant display. They were enormous – downright unwieldy compared to those of the females, each one ending in a peacock-like eye spot. They were slightly iridescent, too, making them shimmer and catch the light just like his sparkly outfit. His eyes were ringed with elaborate paint, and he wore a diadem made from mirrored silver, its gemstones glittering. Even his scales had seemingly been waxed to a sheen.

The tone of the music changed with his feathers, as did the colors of the spotlights, matching his red hue as he posed. It felt as though he was the conductor, with the musicians and technicians following his lead, but the routine had probably been meticulously rehearsed.

He began to dance, his moves at once flowing and sinuous, yet as precise as a machine. The Valbarans were an athletic people, and he displayed an incredible level of control over his body, the way that he rolled his hips and swung his tail the envy of any human performer. The music flowed and changed alongside him, seeming to respond to his every staccato thrust or percussive hip drop, its melody no less fluid than the undulations of his core.

His feathers were an integral part of the routine, their iridescence catching the light to make them shine, their hues seeming all the brighter under the glare. Valbarans had minute control over the many muscles in their sheaths that moved their feathers, able to make them flutter like the wings of a butterfly, or sending mesmerizing ripples along their length as different colored plumage came to the forefront. The way that he used them to accentuate his movements was incredible – an extended arm or a tilt of the head all the more impactful when accompanied by an explosion of color. It was like watching a Carnival dance executed with inhuman precision.

“Tell me what you see,” Steven whispered to his transfixed companions. “What about this most impresses you? I don’t have much context to work with.”

“The dance is separated into a series of moves and notes – a stanza, if you will,” Mima replied. “They’re very long and very complicated, so being able to perform them so accurately and with such ease under pressure is incredibly impressive.”

“It’s like your memory game toy,” Steven suggested.

“There’s the beauty of the dancer,” Ezi added, leaning close to Steven as she watched in quiet captivation. “The giant feathers, the distinct eyespots, and the smooth scales.”

Steven didn’t need to ask if there was a sensual element to the dancer’s movements. He already knew that feather dances were part of courtship, so even if these events were more like an opera than a pole dance, there was still an undeniable allure to the performance.

As the show went on, the dancer began to sing, putting the incredible vocal range of the Valbarans on full display. It was like hearing birdsong or the mimicry of a corvid, sometimes sounding like two distinct voices were speaking in the same instant. It was musical and melodic in its own right, more like an instrument than a voice in some ways, reaching high notes beyond the capabilities of humans. They could hold those notes for uncomfortable lengths of time, too, likely due to the system of air sacks that filled their bodies.

More males walked out onto the stage, synchronizing their movements and their songs, creating a harmonious chorus that filled the auditorium. Steven was moved by the sound, and he couldn’t even tell what they were saying. The towering hologram expanded to encompass the whole stage, displaying larger-than-life representations of every Valbaran, their performances in such perfect sync that it almost seemed fake – as though the dancers had been duplicated in some video editing program.

He had wondered what the purpose of live theater was if every performance was executed to the exact same standard without any improvisation or deviation. At that point, why not just watch a recording at home? Seeing it in action, though, he appreciated just how much coordination and skill an event like this took to pull off. Everyone had to do everything flawlessly, never missing a step or a note.

“What are they singing about?” Steven whispered.

“Our ancestors were animists,” Ipal replied. “They used to believe that when a Val’ba’ra’nay died, their spirit left to inhabit one of the many animals that surround us. It was usually in a protective context, with powerful beasts watching over the living, guiding them and warding away evil. This song is an adaptation of an old shamanistic rite that invokes guardian spirits – albeit more contemporary.”

“Kind of like a rain dance,” he mused. “I’ve never really seen your spiritual side. Everything here is so…clean and technological.”

“This is one of the ways that we keep our heritage alive,” Mima explained. “It’s important to be reminded of where we came from, as it gives us context for where we’re heading.”

“I can certainly see how that might have colored your respect for ecology,” Steven added. “You might think twice about killing an animal if there’s a chance it could be one of your reincarnated relatives. My forebears actually had some similar concepts. They practiced ritualized ancestor worship as part of a belief system called Taoism, where they would make offerings and prayers to deceased family members at shrines. It was a way of showing respect and seeking protection or guidance.”

“I suppose that such a thing is natural for any species that has strong familial bonds,” Ipal suggested as she turned her eyes back to the show. “It’s comforting to imagine that lost loved ones are never truly gone.”

As the performance went on, Steven noticed that Ezi had been creeping closer to him. He decided to wrap an arm around her narrow waist, pulling her tighter. She stiffened in surprise, her feathers tickling his face as they flared pink and yellow, but she soon relaxed and lay her head on his shoulder. He could feel her breathing through her vest – the way that her little torso expanded and contracted, growing steadily calmer as she grew more accustomed to his proximity.

They were in a relationship now, so he wanted to show her that she didn’t need to be coy anymore. If she wanted to be close to him, he didn’t have any objections. Tilli and Ipal watched the pair with a flutter of pink, while Mima shuffled a little closer to his left, fishing for the same treatment. Steven was happy to oblige, draping an arm around both Valbarans as the soothing music filled their booth.

***

The show continued through a series of individual acts and songs that were split up by intermissions, as the Valbarans lacked the stamina to perform for hours at a time. When it was over, the dancers and musicians all gave their salutes like actors bowing at the end of a play. Steven braced for applause but remembered that Valbarans didn’t do that. They seemed to show their appreciation through feather signals instead – waves of green washing through the auditorium.

As the lights turned back on and the platforms where the musicians played began to descend, the audience started to rise from their chairs, Steven and the flock following suit. He quickly finished off the last of the wine that they had ordered during one of the intermissions, then headed out of the booth, glad to be able to stretch his legs.

“So, what did you think?” Tilli asked as the flock crowded around him.

“That was pretty amazing,” he replied. “It makes me realize that I’ve probably only seen a fraction of what this planet has to offer, even though it feels like I’ve been out seeing sea monsters and concerts every other night.”

“That’s more true than you realize,” Ipal added. “Kalahar is only one city, and you’ve only seen a small piece of it.”

“We should head home,” Paza said. “It’s getting late, and we might miss our train if we linger too long.”

A short walk later, and they were outside in the cool night air, Steven taking a moment to enjoy the reprieve from the usual heat and humidity. The night sky might almost remind him of Ganymede if it wasn’t for the clouds that drifted in front of the stars.

“This was a nice date,” he said as they paused on the sidewalk, the glow of the theater bathing the trees behind them. “I didn’t know that you guys had an appreciation for such things.”

“We hoped that you would enjoy something a little more cultural,” Ipal said. “We can’t just take you out to every restaurant in Kalahar.”

He noted that Ezi seemed especially pleased, perhaps because she’d been able to sit next to him all night, practically cuddling throughout most of the performance. So had Mima, but she was already rather confident in her position.

“You guys will have to let me take you out sometime,” he said. “Maybe I can make it a surprise, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your schedule.”

“We’d like that,” Ipal replied. “Well, we’ll see you tomorrow.”

They said their goodbyes, Steven heading back to the train station on his own, as the flock would be taking a different maglev line home. While he didn’t know of any fancy restaurants or theaters that he could take them to – aside from maybe the sushi place – he could probably come up with something to do.

***

“Come on in!” Steven said, the flock entering through his front door. It was the next evening, and during work that day, he had invited them over to his house for dinner.

“What exactly are you planning?” Ipal asked as she glanced around the living room. “You didn’t tell us what we’d be eating.”

“Are we watching more shows?” Tilli asked.

“I know that you guys don’t like surprises,” he began, noting Paza’s disgruntled feathers. “But I think you guys are going to enjoy this.”

“What’s that smell?” Ezi asked, lifting her nose to the air. “Is something cooking?”

Steven stepped aside to show them the dining table, the flock’s feathers flaring yellow in surprise.

“What’s this?” Ipal asked.

Sitting at the center of the table was a large cooking pot filled with a gently simmering broth. It was perched atop one of the electric heating pads from the stove top, which was wired up to a little battery pack.

“It’s quite safe,” he replied, gesturing to his Frankenstein creation proudly. “I disassembled part of the stove and moved the heating element to the kitchen table. It was pretty easy to take apart, so I think it’s probably designed to be modular for easy repair. Then, it was just a matter of wiring it up to my battery bank by splicing the cables.”

“Why would you possibly need to cook food on the table?” Mima pressed as he stepped closer to examine the bubbling liquid.

“Hot pot,” he declared.

Hot pot?” Tilli repeated, tilting her head. “You’ve mentioned that before. You said that you cooked it on Ganymede using an acetylene torch.”

“Your memory is as impressive as ever. Yes, hot pot is a dish that we eat a great deal back on Ganymede. It requires that the broth be kept simmering at a constant temperature, because it’s actually how we’re going to be cooking our meat and vegetables.”

He guided the flock to their seats around the table, each one set with a dish and some cutlery. There were more plates filled with thinly sliced meat and fish, along with pieces of alien root vegetables and cubes of protein. He had done his best to approximate some dipping sauces with the ingredients available, too.

“None of these ingredients are very familiar to me yet, but there are seldom strict recipes for hot pot,” he continued. “Making do with what you have is kind of the spirit of the thing.”

“How do we eat it?” Ipal asked, picking up a fork and prodding a deli slice of Gue’tra meat skeptically. “Is this supposed to be raw?”

“The reason that it’s sliced so thinly is so that the stew cooks it,” he explained, stabbing a piece with his fork to demonstrate. He dipped it into the simmering liquid and waited for a few moments, then removed the dripping slice, the pale meat soaked a darker orange by its contents. Next, he dipped it into one of the sauces and took a bite. He didn’t have any of the herbs or spices that he would have liked, but he’d eaten enough Valbaran food by now that he could find some pretty close native equivalents. The stew had a rich umami flavor, while the sauces were a blend of sweeter options. He hadn’t come across anything with a little spice like pepper or white onion, so maybe the Valbarans didn’t care for capsaicin.

Tilli was the first to try, spearing a slice of fish and lowering it into the pot. She waited approximately as long as Steven had, then dunked it into the same sauce, her flockmates watching as she took a bite.

“It’s good!” she exclaimed with a flutter of yellow.

“The sauces all have slightly different flavors,” Steven said as they all began to dig in. “I didn’t really know what you’d like or which flavors would complement one another, so you’ll just have to experiment.”

He joined them, cooking a circular slice of something that resembled a yam, smiling as he watched the aliens titter and flutter their feathers.

“How did you learn how to take apart the stove?” Paza asked. “Why did it even occur to you to do that instead of just cooking something else?”

“Well, I don’t really have the ingredients to make any Chinese dishes,” he replied with a shrug. “There’s no rice or pork, no soy sauce or garlic. This is something that can use native ingredients, but that’s still a distinctly Chinese method of cooking. Back on Ganymede, we had to improvise a lot and keep old tech working, so everyone is an amateur engineer.”

“Earth’nay can even improvise when it comes to cooking,” Ezi giggled. “He doesn’t have a recipe – he just threw the ingredients into a pot and hoped that they would work together.”

“I put a little more thought into it than that, but yes,” he replied. “This is the winging it of cooking.”

“As surprises go, this is acceptable,” Paza conceded.

Steven watched as they experimented, trying different combinations of dishes and sauces, sharing their discoveries with either flutters of delight or displeasure. The food at the restaurants they had visited had been better – there was no doubt about that – but this was a far more social and engaging experience. The Valbarans tended to share dishes between the flock, so hot pot was immediately familiar, and they took to it like ducks to water.

They chatted as they ate, mostly about work and the concert that they’d seen the night before. There was an ease to the way that they interacted now – a kind of social lubrication, like they were all growing more comfortable in this new relationship. Even Ezi had overcome a little of her newfound shyness, at least enough to hold a conversation with Steven without fluttering. When there was flirting, it came naturally without feeling forced like it had before, and it was all the more effective because of it.

When they were done, he turned off the battery pack, shutting down the makeshift cooker. Tilli leaned over to the table to peer into the still-bubbling broth, giving him a quizzical glance.

“Do we drink this soup?” she asked.

“I dunno,” Steven replied with a shrug. “Sometimes the broth is thrown out, and sometimes it’s served with noodles. I don’t have anything to make noodles with, though, so I guess see if you like the taste.”

She dipped a cup inside, taking a drink, then flashed her feathers with a grimace.

“Salty!” she hissed, pouring the rest back into the pot.

“I take it that’s a no, then,” Steven chuckled.

“This was nice,” Mima said, leaning her head in her hand as she gazed at him from across the table. “You should cook more – you’re pretty good at it, you know.”

“Maybe you can teach me some more recipes.”

“Oh, did you ever check out your bunker?” Ipal asked.

“You know, it totally slipped my mind,” he replied. “I wonder what’s down there?”

“Let’s find out,” she chimed, hopping off her seat. She walked across the living room with her pigeon-like gait and hit a hidden panel on the wall, the same square hatch that he had seen at their home starting to rise from the carpet. It exposed a set of narrow steps that led down into darkness, the flock crowding around, Steven peering over their heads.

“You think the last people who lived here left anything inside?” he wondered.

“Probably not, but you never know,” Tilli said as she began to descend. There must have been a light switch inside, because the basement was soon illuminated, Steven following behind her.

He found himself in a sizable bomb shelter that was identical to the one at the flock’s house, with a curved ceiling made of reinforced carbcrete that was just tall enough for him to stand in. It was a little longer than the living room, but more narrow, large enough that a flock could live in it presumably for a few days. Unlike Ipal’s cellar, the shelves that were bolted to the walls were bare, but there was still some furniture inside. A musty old couch and a few chairs had been pushed up against the far wall, their cushions now caked in dust.

“It’s weird to think that this was under my house the whole time, and I had no idea,” Steven marveled as he glanced up at the light strip that ran along the ceiling. There was a little door at the back, probably leading to an indoor bathroom – the only one inside the house.

“Doesn’t look like they left much behind,” Tilli said as she ran a finger along a dusty shelf. “It must have been cleared out after the last occupants left.”

“What are you planning to do with it?” Ipal asked as she hopped down the steps behind him.

“I dunno,” he said, planting his hands on his hips as he appraised the space. “It’s not every day that you discover a new room in your house. I don’t think I’m gonna need a wine cellar, so maybe I could turn it into a rec room or a home cinema. Some kind of man cave, perhaps.”

Man cave?” Mima giggled, poking her head through the open hatch.

“Yeah,” he replied, waving his hand at the bare carbcrete floor. “You know – a pool table, a dart board, maybe a VR setup for gaming. A little mood lighting would go a long way. I could put a beer cooler in the back there, but I dunno if I can get any Chinese beer on Valbara. Maybe I could set up my own little distillery – is that legal here?”

“I doubt it,” Ipal chuckled. “Not the way Earth’nay seem to drink.”

“Yeah, I think a shot of Memphis moonshine would literally kill you,” he replied.

They climbed back out, and Tilli showed him how to activate the hidden switch. It was a little ominous. Was the switch concealed with the expectation that the Bugs would have gone house to house searching for victims? Was that what had happened on Kerguela thirty years prior?

“It’s getting late,” Paza said. “We should leave soon, but thank you for the meal. It was…enjoyable.”

“I look forward to sampling your cooking more often,” Mima added with a warm flutter of green.

“Oh, hey,” Ezi said as she walked over to the bedroom and poked her nose inside. “You found a place for your calendar.”

“Yeah, I put it above the bed,” Steven confirmed. “It seemed like as good a place as any. I really need to get some shelves like you guys have – the curved walls make it a bitch to try and display anything.”

“We could probably help you with that,” Ipal said. “A flock helping a male decorate is a bit of a reversal of the norm, but that’s true of a lot of things with you.”

“Sure,” he replied. “Don’t let me keep you, by the way. I’m sure Paza is getting antsy.”

“We’ll see you at work, then,” Ipal said as she headed for the stairs. “Hopefully, we’ll hear back from Yemi about what the executives think of your crazy idea.”

She mounted the steps, Tilli following behind her, and Steven once again ruminated on their penchant for wearing skin-tight spandex shorts.

CHAPTER 15: PROVING GROUND

The boat coasted above the waves, the salty taste of sea spray on Steven’s tongue as he looked out over the ocean, its azure surface shimmering in the midday sun. The squawks of sea birds joined the hum of the engine, a flock of them coasting along beside the vessel, riding in its wake. Their destination was already looming on the horizon – one of the many small islands that dotted the archipelago, its blue-green trees swaying in the breeze.

“I still can’t believe that the board of executives agreed to this,” Ipal said as she appeared at his side, her sheaths whipping in the wind like long braids. She was wearing her vest and skirt rather than her loose-fitting tunic.

“It’s a crazy idea, but why hire aliens if you don’t want them to pitch weird projects?” he asked with a shrug.

“It feels like we’ve barely been able to see each other outside of work these last few days,” Ipal added as she gazed out at the water. “There’s been so much work and preparation to do.”

“It was kind of last-minute, but we got it done.”

Ever since Yemi had brought news that the company had greenlit their project three days prior, they had been working overtime to get everything ready, triple-checking code and going back and forth with executives and contacts from the Valbaran Navy to get everything ready in time. It had been a pain in the ass to get the appropriate permits and to secure the tech – the Valbarans were married to their bureaucracy – but it had finally come together.

They were now on their way to the island where the demonstration was to take place. The flock had memorized the script that Steven had written, and he’d been over it so many times that he could practically recite it by heart, but he still felt his pulse quicken as he watched the little land mass grow larger. The company was taking a chance on him, and this was an expensive undertaking, but they stood to gain potentially decades of lucrative contracts if he succeeded. If he didn’t, well…he’d probably be fetching drinks for the foreseeable future.

“If this goes well, let’s celebrate,” Steven suggested. “We have a lot of overtime pay to burn through.”

“I think a day off would be warranted,” she replied with a flutter of agreement.

They coasted into a small port that was nestled in a lagoon, stepping off the boat and walking along a short pier that led to dry land. The flock followed behind Steven as he made his way along the beach to where a small group of white buildings were clustered just beyond the sand, nestled in the swaying palm trees. Just offshore was a floating pontoon, one of the Tona’me’yotl LPD turrets bolted to its deck, bobbing up and down gently in the surf.

It was an unassuming device, the main body made up of a rounded box covered in lenses and cameras that all reflected the sunlight in different hues, the largest of them glinting as the pontoon rose and fell. It had a radar dome on top of it that looked kind of like a big marshmallow to Steven’s eye, and the whole assembly was mounted on a round platform that allowed it to turn in a full circle – the connection points to either side of it letting it swivel up and down. A few densely packed cables trailed out of its chassis, braiding together into a single insulated power conduit that ran through the surf, up the beach, and into one of the buildings. The turret was about the same height as Steven at a little under six feet, but the dome on top extended that to maybe nine.

A few Valbaran Navy personnel in jumpsuits with blue camouflage were milling about, checking the cables and holding tablet computers in their hands, looking up as the newcomers arrived. Yemi was already there, acting as a liaison for the company, bobbing out to meet them with a feather greeting.

“Everything seems to be in order,” he chirped, pausing to check his own tablet computer briefly as he walked across the beach. “I must say that when I transferred to Kalahar, I wasn’t expecting to be put in charge of a laser cannon for a day.”

“It shows that the board trusts you,” Steven replied, giving him an encouraging pat on the shoulder.

“We have sufficient power delivery, and the conference call to the clients will be going through as scheduled,” Yemi continued. “The emitter arrays and microphones are set up and have been tested. All systems are green.”

“I must reiterate that these are the worst conceivable conditions for such a demonstration,” Paza grumbled, flashing an irritated red. “The laser isn’t even designed to be fired in an atmosphere.”

“That’s precisely why this is a good idea,” Steven replied. “If they see it functioning to spec in adverse conditions where there are all kinds of particulates and water droplets in the laser’s path, they’ll understand that they can put it in basically any environment where their ships can operate. Besides, if we’d asked the board to send it into orbit, it would have cost ten times as much. They never would have agreed to that.”

“We should trust Steven’s plan,” Tilli said.

“Are you sure the program is ready?” he added.

“It will work,” Paza replied confidently. “Every line of code has been checked and triple checked.”

“We should trust Paza’s code, too,” Ipal added with a smile.

“Oh, I trust it,” Steven said with a nervous laugh. “I’m staking my job on it, in fact. Right – everyone needs to get into position. We should be starting soon. Remember your lines? Who am I kidding – of course you do.”

***

The crew had cleared the beach, leaving Steven and the flock standing in front of the laser as it floated on its pontoon. Sitting on the sand between them and the nearby buildings was a blocky device about the size and shape of a travel trunk. The lid swung open to reveal a mess of projectors, a hologram flickering to life to float in the air above it. It was made dim by the sunlight, but Steven could see three human men shown from the waist up. The way that they were clustered together suggested that they were watching a smaller display. A little camera dome the size of a softball popped up out of the trunk, its lenses glittering as they zoomed and focused, feeding a live stream back to the viewers.

The three clients were in another system, and it was a demonstration of their Navy ties that they could afford to rent out a quantum satellite for a purpose such as this. It wasn’t a minor feat by any means.

“Gentlemen!” Steven began, clapping his hands together. “Thank you for being here. Welcome to our demonstration of the Tona’me’yotl laser point defense system. You may already be familiar with the model TMY-6, but by installing our upgraded tracking and FoF software, this off-the-shelf Valbaran model can meet and even exceed your performance requirements for next-generation point defense systems. It can be fully integrated with existing UNN software through a simple patch.”

“Yours was the only contractor that asked to show us a live demonstration of the technology,” one of the men began, his distorted voice coming through a speaker. He was an older gentleman with weatherbeaten features and a Navy cap, steepling his fingers as he spoke. “We’re interested in seeing your presentation.”

“The TMY-6 features a ytterbium-fiber laser that can project a pumped beam capable of reaching targets at ranges of fifteen kilometers in a vacuum,” Paza began, stepping forward in her little vest. “The technology is already mature and has seen combat, notably during the battle of Ker’gue’la, where it was deployed on Consensus ships. It was successfully able to intercept both light enemy craft and missiles by blinding their sensors and prematurely detonating payloads.”

“With the addition of our software package, the TMY-6 can be fully integrated with existing UNN operating systems,” Ipal added. “It has improved target tracking and identification, and it can work in tandem with other systems for increased coverage and better target prioritization. Each turret has its own radar and optical package for redundancy, allowing the TMY-6 to communicate with its mesh network and continue operating even after sustaining damage that would disable other competing systems. Even with both its optical and radar systems compromised, it can still fire at targets using information relayed through the network.”

“Our software also includes machine learning functions that allow the TMY-6 to share data and experience fleetwide,” Mima continued. “Target identification profiles can be updated in real-time, allowing the software to adapt to changing battlefield conditions and assess new threats as they develop.”

“It does all of this while being fully compliant with UN regulations concerning lethal autonomous weapons systems, also known as LAWS,” Steven said. “I’d now like to give you a personal demonstration of some of these features.”

He walked over to a crate that was placed on the sand nearby, fishing out a disk-shaped object about the size of a dinner plate. It was hollow, somewhat like a donut or a tire, with a single propeller blade mounted in the middle. Ezi was standing by with a tablet computer, waiting for his signal as he turned back to the camera.

“These are small target drones. As you can see, we’ve painted some of them with a little UN logo, which the turret has been ordered not to target.”

He nodded to Ezi, and she hit her tablet, a swarm of three dozen drones rising from the crate with an audible whir. They hovered in position, waiting for further instructions.

“Note the gyroscopic stabilizers on the turret,” Paza added, gesturing to the floating pontoon as it bobbed up and down on the waves. “Even during high-speed maneuvers, a TMY-6 equipped with our software can remain on target.”

On cue, Ezi swiped at her screen, the cloud of drones zipping out over the water. They went through their programmed flight path, swerving and dodging randomly, some rising into the air as others skimmed low over the ocean. The laser turret kicked in, Steven dropping his sunglasses as it swiveled with alarming speed and fluidity, a bright beam of light emanating from its lens. It emitted pulses that held on their targets only long enough to disable them, melting through the polymers and slagging the metal, sending the smoking wrecks tumbling. In the space of a few seconds, all but a few of the drones had dropped into the sea. Those that returned landed on the sand, the turret still tracking them, scrutinizing them with its optics package.

“As you can see, the system is able to detect very subtle differences between targets and act accordingly without direct supervision.” Steven walked over to the crate again, lifting another drone. This one didn’t have the little painted UN logo, and there was a small basket attached beneath it for carrying cargo. “Friend or foe identification and safety features are top of the line. Why don’t we up the stakes?”

He fished in the pocket of his jacket for a moment, then produced his phone, raising it up so that the viewers could see it.

“Having a new one of these shipped all the way out here would be inconvenient, to say the least.”

The holographic observers looked on as Steven gently placed the phone in the basket, releasing the drone to hover in the air. Ezi swiped at her tablet again, and three drones painted with UN logos rose from the sand to join their unmarked counterpart, starting to orbit around it. They headed out over the water, the turret tracking them like a dog following a tennis ball as the little formation began to dart around. Even while rising and falling in the surf, it remained fixed on the white disk, Steven silently hoping that Paza was as thorough as she thought she was.

“The system won’t engage if there are any friendlies in the line of fire,” he continued, gesturing to the drones. The turret almost seemed desperate in its desire to slag the target, but with friendly drones making sure it never had a clear shot, its laser remained dark. “None of this behavior was programmed for the purpose of demonstration. The system was simply fed FoF information and acted independently within the bounds of its targeting parameters.”

“The following is a data sheet containing performance characteristics and the results of our simulations,” Paza added as she used her tablet to forward the files. “Please let us know if you have any questions.”

***

The clients had a short back-and-forth with Steven and the flock, asking them about various functions and features of the software. They seemed impressed, just as he had hoped, the bombastic demonstration serving as a better pitch than any slideshow could have. The Valbarans were very knowledgeable, but they would occasionally be asked questions they hadn’t planned for, and Steven was able to sweep in to keep the momentum going without them having to pause to reach a new consensus.

By the time the conference call ended, the clients seemed satisfied, their hologram fizzling out to leave Steven and his friends standing alone on the beach. They waited for the camera dome to fold back down into the trunk, then let out happy chirps accompanied by celebratory feather patterns. Even Paza seemed pleased with herself.

“I think we did it!” Ipal exclaimed, hopping on the spot as her green and yellow plumage waved in the breeze.

“That was so cool!” Ezi added. “Did you see the way that laser melted the drones into slag? I never thought we’d actually get to see one in action when we took on this assignment.”

“Do you think the Earth’nay seemed impressed?” Tilli asked, turning to Steven.

“Oh, for sure,” he replied as he allowed himself a sigh of relief. “I guarantee you that none of the competing companies put on a show like that. Thanks for not barbecuing my phone, by the way. You guys did a good job with that software.”

“Was there ever any doubt?” Paza asked with a smirk.

“Very nice work,” Yemi said as he bobbed down the beach towards them, a few Navy personnel emerging from the buildings behind him to tend to their laser. “Everything seems to have gone off without a hitch. The executives were watching the feed, and they’re very pleased with the outcome.”

“We couldn’t have organized any of this without you, Yemi,” Steven replied. “You have to be the most ruthless secretary on the planet to have gotten all of this ready in only a few days.”

“It’s my job to make sure that things run smoothly,” he replied, glancing up from his tablet. “By the way, we’re going to need to collect those downed drones. Environmental regulations won’t allow us to just leave them there.”

“It looks pretty shallow,” Steven said, starting to roll up his pants. “I guess Mister dense-bones over here is gonna have to take care of it.”

“I believe we have a small fishing net on a pole that you can use,” Yemi offered.

“How many drones were there?”

“Thirty-two, not including the ones that landed back on the beach,” Ipal replied.

“I feel like we could have found a more efficient way to do this, but I suppose it was my idea,” he grumbled. “Alright – looks like I’m going fishing.”

***

“I think we did pretty well today,” Steven said, the wind blowing his hair as their boat sailed back to Kalahar. He could already see the city in the distance, the two fin-shaped buildings that straddled the port rising up above the water. The flock was at his side, watching the seabirds glide along above their heads.

“It was certainly audacious,” Ipal replied. “That’s why the company hired you, after all – to think of things that no Val’ba’ra’nay would.”

“He certainly succeeded in that,” Mima chuckled.

“It’s very strange seeing you without shoes,” Tilli muttered, glancing down at his bare feet. He was holding his dress shoes and his socks in hand, his pants still rolled up past his knees.

“I’m not walking home with wet socks,” he replied.

“I must admit that I was skeptical at first,” Paza added. “After seeing the way the Earth’nay clients reacted, however, I believe it was the right course of action.”

“That office is as good as ours,” he said.

“That remains to be seen, but I am confident,” Paza replied with a smile.

“How long do you think it will take before we know whether we got the contract?” Steven asked.

“It could be as little as a day, depending on how eager the clients are,” Ipal said. “If they want to purchase the software immediately, the initial deal can be signed pretty much without delay.”

“Here’s hoping,” Steven said, watching the port come into view ahead of them.

***

Everyone was pretty tired after their escapade by the time they got back to the office, so they didn’t make any plans for that evening. There wasn’t much left to do – the project was ostensibly finished – so they hung out in the rec area, eating snacks and lounging in the pillow-lined bowls.

“Word around the office is that you put on quite a presentation today,” someone said. Steven glanced up to see Lotl and her flock perched on the rim of their pit, glancing down at him with disdainful feather displays. He took another bite of his seaweed square, making her wait for a reply as he chewed for a few moments.

“Yeah, I’d say it was pretty impressive. The clients certainly seemed to think so.”

“And I suppose you think you have that promotion in the bag now?” Lotl added, crossing her arms. “It’s a little early to be celebrating, don’t you think?”

“We are taking a well-deserved evening off,” he explained as he fished another piece of seaweed out of its packet. “There’s not much left for us to do until we receive a new assignment anyway. We’re just waiting around until we hear back from the clients.”

“How’s your project coming along, Lotl?” Ipal added in the most passive-aggressive manner possible. “Have you been able to give your clients any bombastic presentations yet?”

“What was it your flock was working on again?” Mima asked, her tone saccharine. “Something about water pump regulators?”

“The irrigation systems we’re working on have the potential to be just as lucrative as your project,” she replied with a flash of annoyed red. “It’s a huge market. Just because some people might find laser turrets cooler doesn’t mean they’ll be making more tabs. The value to the company is no different.”

“I guess demoing a sprinkler system wouldn’t be quite as punchy,” Ezi chuckled. “Good luck, though.”

“May the best man win,” Steven said, gesturing to her with his snack.

“Why are you all dressed like that?” she added, glancing at each of the flockmates in turn. They were all still wearing their fancy vests, matching Steven’s more formal attire. “Dressing like an executive doesn’t make you one. Maybe you just think you’re better than the rest of us?”

“We wanted to look our best for the presentation,” Mima replied, reaching down to straighten her skirt. “We were being cast to another system, after all. Those satellites cost a bundle to rent out.”

Lotl looked like she wanted to retort, but the words fizzled on her tongue. Instead, she gestured to her flock with a flash of feathers, and they stalked off into the office.

“Jeez, what’s her problem?” Steven muttered. “I swear she gets more pissed off every time our paths cross.”

“She’s afraid,” Paza replied with a confident flutter of red, pausing to take a sip from her drink. “If gossip is already spreading about our demo, she must be feeling insecure about her position. She came to try to assuage those fears.”

“I can’t wait to see the look on her face when we get that promotion,” Steven chuckled.

***

Just as the day was coming to a close, Yemi appeared beside their bowl, a tablet computer clutched in his hand. Steven and the flock glanced up at him as he approached, pausing their conversation.

“I have very good news,” he began, standing a little straighter as he gave them a flash of green. “The Earth’nay clients have already closed the deal. Your software has been sold, along with dedicated support and development packages that will involve multiple teams at the company. It looks like turrets using your code will soon be installed throughout the UNN fleet.”

“We did it!” Steven exclaimed, alarming Yemi as he pumped his fist.

“We got the contract!” Mima trilled, the flock flashing green and yellow colors as they exchanged excited hugs. Steven laughed as he felt Tilli wrap her little arms around his bicep, giving it a gleeful squeeze.

“There’s more,” Yemi continued, forcing his yellow feathers back into their sheaths as he collected himself. “Because several flocks will be required for software support, they’ll be needing someone to supervise them. As such, your flock is being promoted to a managerial position and will be overseeing all subsequent development. Said promotion will be accompanied by a pay increase and a new office space suitable for your new station.”

“Yes!” Steven hissed, turning to Ipal. “I told you we’d get that damned office.”

“What about Steven?” Ezi asked. “Is he coming with us?”

“It seems that the clients were swayed in part by his presentation, so yes,” Yemi replied with an affirmative flash of green. “You’ll be keeping your clerk, and I dare say that the board will be looking to hire more wayward Earth’nay for future projects.”

This time, it was Ezi who clung to his arm, Steven smiling at her as she flashed relieved colors.

“Thanks, Yemi,” Steven began. “We couldn’t have done it without you. I hope the board recognizes that fact. You were the one who went back and forth with the city, the executives, and the navy to make sure that we got what we needed on time. The demonstration might have been our idea, but you made it all happen.”

“I…may have brought up my own contributions during the meeting,” he replied. “Just a small mention of the relevant work.”

“Really?” Ipal snickered. “That’s not like you, Yemi. You’re usually so quiet and cooperative.”

“I think spending time with Steven has rubbed off on him,” Mima added.

“In light of my diligent efforts, I’ve also been granted a pay raise,” he replied with a smug flutter of green and red. “I have no desire to leave my current post, but the extra income is appreciated.”

“Yemi, my man!” Steven laughed. “Look at you, finally standing up for yourself and asking for what you deserve.”

“You do deserve this,” Ezi added, giving the male a grateful flutter. “You work harder than anyone else at the company, and it’s about time management recognized that.”

“It’s something that we’ve learned to recognize, too,” Ipal said.

“Well, thank you,” Yemi said with a halo of pleased feathers. “I’m glad that we were able to work towards our mutual goals together. I’ll make sure that the new office is ready for you soon.”

“We were thinking about taking a day off tomorrow,” Steven added. “Celebration is in order. Think you can swing that?”

“Certainly,” he replied, making a note on his tablet. “There won’t be much for you to do at the office until your new workspace has been set up and your teams have been assigned their roles, anyway.”

“Don’t work yourself too hard, Yemi,” Steven added. “You should take a little time off too, considering how hard you’ve been working these last few days.”

“Yeah, you deserve it as much as we do,” Ezi chimed, the rest of the flock giving him approving flashes of green plumage.

“Perhaps I will consider it,” he conceded as he turned his attention back to his tablet.

“So, how are we celebrating?” Ipal asked as she leaned back into the cushions. “Are you making us another hot pot?”

“We could help you decorate,” Mima suggested.

“There’s that Sushi restaurant you told us about,” Tilli added.

“I had something a little different in mind,” Steven began, the flock exchanging questioning looks. “I want you to take me to a lounge.”

“A lounge!?” Ipal gasped, her feathers a blend of pink and yellow. The rest of the flock shared the same coloration, engaging in a rapid conversation of excited trills and chirps. Yemi looked up from his device, his feathers flushing just as the flock’s did, no doubt taken aback by the sudden declaration.

“You really want to go to a lounge with us?” Mima asked, her feathers just as pink as they had been during their kiss in the kitchen.

“We thought you didn’t think it was appropriate,” Ezi added, waiting for his reply with a hopeful look in her eyes.

“Let’s just say that Yemi isn’t the only person who I’ve come to appreciate more,” he replied, sparing the embarrassed male a smile of acknowledgment. “Do we need to change out of our formal clothes, or can we go straight from work?”

“I…I don’t see why not,” Mima said after consulting with her flockmates.

“We’re going to be the most overdressed flock in the venue,” Ezi added with a nervous giggle.

“How about you, Paza?” Steven asked. “Think it’ll be an efficient use of your time?”

“It seems as though my schedule just freed up,” she replied, those violet eyes staring at him as she took a drink from her cup. She gave him a flutter of pink, and coming from her, that might as well be a signature on a form declaring her intentions.

“It’s settled, then!” Steven declared. “We’ll head out after work.”

The buzz in the air was tangible, the flock sharing hushed whispers in their native language as they snuck excited glances at him. He knew the implications of a visit to the lounge, and the flock knew that he knew. It was about as close to asking them to take him to bed as he could get without being uncouth. In some ways, he almost felt like he was offering himself to the flock as a reward, but that wasn’t really the case. This was something he had wanted for weeks, but that he had postponed until he could be confident that the flock’s intentions were genuine.

They had shown restraint, and they had proven that their interest in him was about more than just novelty or gratification. More importantly, they had learned to trust him enough to stake their jobs on his suggestions, and they had come to respect him as a colleague.

It was about time he put out.

He looked to Yemi, seeing the diminutive alien bow his head with a respectful salute of red before hurrying off. It was still tinged with a little pink, Yemi no less aware of what Steven was implying than any of the women.

Steven felt a little bad – like he should have offered to bring Yemi along. After all, he had played just as important a role in the test as any member of their team. There was that unspoken romantic connotation, though – the implication that one would be leaving the lounge in the company of the same flock they’d arrived with. While Yemi could probably end the night in a different flock’s bed, as he was plenty desirable, he’d made it pretty clear that casual sex wasn’t his thing. He wanted to be with someone who respected his lifestyle choices. There was no reason they couldn’t have a good time and simply part ways at the door, though. Steven had been on double dates before, and he’d seen plenty of nights where some friends left a club or a bar with company and others didn’t.

“Should I have invited Yemi?” Steven asked, turning to the flock once the male was out of earshot.

“What!?” Ezi sputtered, almost choking on her drink. It was hard to tell if the yellow in her feathers was because of surprise or amusement.

“He worked his tail off to make the presentation happen, and I feel like we’re leaving him out,” Steven explained as the flock looked on with wide eyes. “We all get to go out to celebrate, and he just has to finish work and go home?”

“We’ve invited Yemi out many, many times over the rotations,” Ipal explained. “He’s never once said yes.”

“He probably just doesn’t like us very much,” Tilli suggested. “Looking back on it, we were rather forward with him, the same as we were with you when we first met.”

“I never got the impression that he doesn’t like you, just that he didn’t want the kind of relationship you were offering,” Steven replied. “Now that you’re with me, and you’re treating him a lot better, maybe he could relax and enjoy spending an evening with you. He’s good fun when he starts to let his guard down a little.”

“I don’t think any of us would be opposed to it,” Mima said with a feathery shrug.

“Opposed to it?” Ezi giggled with a ripple of pink. “We’ve been trying to get him out of the office practically since we were hired. Imagine – going to a lounge with two boys…”

She stared into space for a moment, her eyes vacant and her feathers pink, probably imagining some sordid scenario.

“I’m not suggesting he has to leave with us,” Steven added hurriedly. “I just think it would be nice for him to be included as our friend. Or is there some cultural expectation I’m not aware of? Maybe I’d just be making him a third wheel?”

“No, I think it’s a good idea,” Ipal added. “Yemi is Steven’s friend – they’ve been out together. I doubt Yemi has truly been able to relax and have some good herb since he started this job, considering how hard he works.”

“We should invite him,” Paza added in her usual stern way, already having made up her mind.

“He’ll probably say no,” Ezi chuckled.

“Do we have consensus?” Steven asked, the flock replying with flashes of green. “Cool. I’ll ask him. Hopefully he won’t mind us springing it on him so last-minute.”

“Even if he declines, I am sure he will appreciate the gesture,” Mima added.

Steven settled into the cushions, watching the flock engage in one of their rapid-fire discussions, the flashes of their feathers giving him some insight into what might be talking about. Pinks, greens, yellows – they were very excited. Not only would they get to take Steven home, but they might also get to hang out with Yemi, something they had been trying to do for years. Knowing Yemi, he would probably decline politely, but perhaps they could take him out to a more family-friendly venue another day. Still, seeing how he had started to loosen up during the meal with Joseph, Steven was curious to find out how he might interact with the flock when he wasn’t being hounded into becoming a househusband.

***

At the end of the day, the office workers filed out through the lobby, Steven and the flock lagging behind so that they could get Yemi alone for a minute. Rather than crowd around his desk as they had before, the flock kept a respectful distance, watching as Steven approached him.

“Hey, Yemi,” he began as the little alien glanced up at him. “So, I…we were wondering if you were free after work? I know we’re kind of springing this on you, but we talked about it, and we wanted to know if you’d like to join us at the lounge? Just to hang out,” he added quickly, noting the pink and yellow in his feathers. “We just figure that, since you were so instrumental in the presentation going so smoothly, you deserved a little R&R. You might not be a member of the team on paper, but you were part of the team effort. We could get some drinks, shoot the shit – just have a good time.”

Yemi turned his gaze from Steven to the flock, blinking at them like there was something in his eye, then lifted his head to Steven again.

“I…appreciate you wanting to include me,” he began, seeming hesitant. “It is rather late to fit such an outing into my itinerary, however. Perhaps we could schedule a trip for another day?”

“Of course,” Steven replied, giving him a nod. “I figured you’d be too busy – just thought I’d offer.”

“It is appreciated,” he replied, giving both Steven and the flock a flutter of acknowledgment. “I hope you enjoy your visit to the lounge,” he added as he turned his eyes back to his holographic display. That was their cue to leave, Steven turning to see a couple of the flockmates flash a disappointed blue. No matter – they would have their hands plenty full with Steven.

As they walked out into the corridor, Steven suddenly heard a chirp, the group stopping to glance back into the lobby. Yemi was rising to his feet hurriedly, pausing to give his console a few taps, the little gem that hung from his forehead swinging as his feathers fluttered purple and yellow.

“Wait!” he said, flushing pink again when he saw everyone peering back at him. “I…I would like to take you up on your offer. You’re right – I should allow myself some time for recreation, especially after how busy the last few days have been.”

“There he is,” Steven said with a smile, waving for him to follow. Yemi really had grown more confident. Only a few weeks prior, he would never have risked his reputation as a workaholic to spend time with friends, and he wouldn’t have been seen dead at a lounge with coworkers. He was finally allowing himself to be honest about what he really wanted.

Yemi scurried out into the corridor to join them, the flock beaming at him as their little group headed to the elevator.

CHAPTER 16: DELAYED GRATIFICATION

Their train whisked them past the shining neon and glittering skyscrapers, Steven sitting beside Yemi in one of the narrow rows. The little male’s decision to join them had seemed last-minute, almost impulsive, which wasn’t like him at all. Then again, if this was something he had been denying himself, he might have pondered taking just such an outing for some time. He had pounced on the opportunity before it had passed him by.

Steven recalled the flashes of pink that he had displayed while the flock had been hitting on him, his larger male feathers making it harder to suppress. His reasons for not wanting to go out with his coworkers weren’t because he hated fun, or even that he didn’t like Ipal’s flock – they were rooted in his fear of tarnishing his hard-won reputation. Now that he was more secure in his position, and more confident with women, perhaps those fears had been somewhat assuaged.

He seemed filled with nervous energy now, struggling to keep his feathers in their sheaths, his eyes wide as he gazed out of the windows at the passing scenery. The flock were no less thrilled to have him tagging along, peering at Steven and Yemi alike as they occupied the rows of seats directly in front of and behind the pair, whispering to one another almost inaudibly.

“I’m glad that you decided to come,” Steven began.

“You are?” Yemi asked, peeling his eyes away from the window.

“You shouldn’t have to be afraid of enjoying yourself. None of your coworkers are.”

“Perhaps I was overly worried about how people would perceive me,” he conceded. “My position at the company is more prestigious than ever, and I find that my coworkers have been treating me with more respect as of late. If I cannot feel secure now, then when? Must I be on the board of executives before I allow myself time to unwind?”

“We knew that Steven was rubbing off on you,” Ezi chimed, leaning over the back of the their seats to give them a flush of amused yellow. “He’s practically made you an honorary Earth’nay by now.”

“You have seemed more assertive at work,” Mima added with a flutter of pink. “I must admit – the change suits you.”

“This has been a long time coming,” Ipal said.

With a pleased flush of green feathers, Yemi settled into his seat, turning his eyes to the skyline again as he allowed himself a smile.

The train slid to a stop, and they made their way down the narrow steps, the glow of the colorful signs that surrounded them bathing the streets in the fading sunlight. It reminded Steven of the street where he had met with Joseph, and it might be the same part of the city.

Throngs of Valbarans clustered beneath the palm trees that lined the sidewalks, chatting in their native tongue, a sound like birdsong accompanying the throbbing music that bled out of the nearby clubs. The night owls were just waking up. The pink sunset was their dawn, and the coming night brought with it the promise of revelry and more.

“Come on,” Ipal said, taking Steven by the hand and leading him on a winding path through the flocks. “We know a really good place.”

Yemi followed, sticking close to Steven, his head on a swivel as he took in the sights. The rest of the group crowded around the pair, almost as though they were escorts – protecting their charges from the prying eyes of other females.

They soon turned off the main street and into an alley between two of the tall buildings, passing into shadow. Steven might have expected garbage receptacles or trash lying around, as was the case with out-of-the-way tunnels on Ganymede, but even Valbaran alleys were kept neat and clean. It wasn’t deserted, however. At the far end of the cul-de-sac were a couple of flocks milling about outside a door, a few Valbarans leaning against the wall as they chatted, the pink glow from a neon sign bathing them. Even without knowing the romantic connotations of the color, the animated hologram playing a loop of a stylized dancer left no question as to what kind of entertainment the establishment offered.

Unlike the bars and restaurants, this lounge seemed like it didn’t belong – like it was an afterthought or somehow out of place. Steven remembered what he’d been told about lounges often being set up in spaces that had been vacated by their original owners, and how they weren’t usually factored into the city’s grand design. They were a little artifact of disorder in the regimented world of the Valbarans.

“I haven’t visited a lounge since I moved to Kalahar,” Yemi noted, his eyes lingering on the animated sign. There was apprehension in his headdress, but also anticipation.

“Don’t worry,” Steven chuckled, giving him an encouraging pat on the back. “It’s technically my first time, so we can be rusty together. You don’t have to drink or smoke, or even talk to anyone if you don’t want to. We’re here to have a good time.”

“I feel better having you with me,” the alien replied, giving his friend a flutter of green. “I’m reminded of my youth, when I was still studying in my home city. I went out to a lounge with some friends to celebrate our graduation. It’s rather exciting.”

The strangers near the entrance glanced up at the newcomers as they approached, tittering to one another at the strange sight, no doubt guessing the purpose of the visit. It was hard to be discreet when you were a foot taller than everybody else, and Yemi’s feathers could be spotted from a block away. They stepped out of the flock’s path and allowed them to enter, the group making their way down a short flight of steps that led below ground level, taking them into some kind of basement. It could have been an old bomb shelter or maybe some kind of abandoned storage area – Steven had no idea.

The steps leveled out, and they came to a second door, Steven having to duck to get through this one. As the panel slid aside, the sounds of music and conversations filtered out, Steven blinking his eyes against the soft light.

He glanced around as he entered the lounge, taking in the strange sights. It was at once familiar in some ways, yet completely different from any of the establishments that he had frequented so far. It was comparatively small and intimate compared to the bar that he had visited with Joseph, and it was only a single story, lacking the elevated platforms and walkways. The ceiling above their heads was arched, furthering the comparisons to some kind of cellar, and the bare stone was lit by hanging chandeliers that cast a warm glow. The floor was bare flagstone, but it had been covered over with lavish, fluffy carpets that resembled fur rugs.

On his left was a long bar with a polished imitation wood counter, the shelves behind it stacked with colorful bottles filled with unidentifiable spirits. There were a few of the pervasive vending machines, too, snack foods and what must be soft drinks filling their racks. The bar was manned by most of a flock, suggesting that the other employees might be working in another area of the building – perhaps behind the door that must lead into an adjoining kitchen or storeroom. As was tradition, the servers who were carrying drinks and silver trays laden with strange objects were all males – their style of clothing and eye paint clearly intended to entice female visitors. They had the usual ornate plumage, the low-cut tops, and the jeweled diadems. The ink-like pigments framing their eyes almost looked Egyptian to Steven.

To the right side of the room were rows of booths just like the ones he’d seen in many restaurants, but these were walled off from one another for privacy. Each one had a low table that was ringed by a semi-circular couch, the seating scattered with plush, velvet cushions in shades of pink and red. A few of the booths were already occupied, their tables scattered with half-empty drink vials, the smoke from ornate hookahs lingering in the air to make it hazy. It wasn’t foul-smelling or acrid – it had a perfumed scent about it, as though it was flavored with something floral.

Steven could see a few groups of females chatting up boys, surrounding them in their booths, making them the center of attention. There were even a few small parties of two or three unaccompanied males who were undoubtedly there to meet women, a few predatory flocks watching them like hawks, preparing to make their moves. One of the servers had even slid into a booth with his clients, the flashes of pink suggesting that they were flirting. Others watched the evening’s entertainment with drinks in hand, their eyes focused on the back of the room.

Towards the far wall was a small elevated platform that served as a stage, a series of spotlights reminiscent of those from the theater illuminating a dancer, their hues matching his impressive feather displays. Steven couldn’t help but pause to admire him for a moment. Just like the performer at the theater, he showed incredible skill and grace, his sequences of carefully choreographed moves accompanied by mesmerizing flashes and ripples from his vibrant plumage. He moved with the rhythm of the music – its melodic thrum loud but not overpowering – his body flowing like water.

The tight costume worn by the theater performer had been rather revealing, but this outfit was clearly intended to draw the female gaze, exposing the waxed scales of his shoulders and midriff. The shorts that he wore had reflective filigree that caught the light with each shake of his hips, and on the tip of his tail was a neon band, its bright glow painting lingering afterimages in the air. Dangling gems hung from silver chains attached to his diadem, covering his eyes almost like a veil, affording the viewer only brief glimpses of his violet irises. The red paint that adorned his face furthered the effect, darkening the scales around them.

The flock moved over to an unoccupied booth, a few heads turning to watch Steven and Yemi as they settled into the soft couches. The walls of the booths actually afforded more privacy than he would have assumed, blocking out their neighbors so that their occupants could only see the bar and the stage. They were high enough that Steven couldn’t see over them unless he really tried, and there was enough leg room that he could stretch out a little. The flock settled in beside him, and he found himself sandwiched between Ezi and Ipal, with Mima and Tilli on his right. Paza was off to his left, staying close to Yemi, who was sitting a little further away. The curved shape of the seating meant that Steven could have face-to-face conversations with all of them, and nobody was left out in the cold.

“We must look strange wearing business clothes to a lounge,” Ipal chuckled. “Except for Yemi – he always dresses impeccably.”

“More strange than showing up with me?” Steven asked.

“Seeing an Earth’nay in a lounge isn’t that unusual in some parts of the planet,” Mima replied. “So, what do you think, Steven? Was this what you expected?”

“It’s kind of like a nightclub or a bar, but also not,” he mused as he glanced over at the shelves of liquor. “It’s a little like a strip club, but also not. I would call it uniquely Valbaran.”

“This brings back memories,” Yemi added with a tinge of pink in his feathers. “I don’t think I’ve ever visited a lounge already in the company of a flock. Knowing that nobody is likely to approach us makes it easier to relax.”

“How do you usually get started?” Steven asked. “What’s the lounge etiquette?”

“Well, a little drink and herb tends to smooth things along,” Ipal suggested.

“Coming here was my idea, so sure,” Steven said. “We can get a little drunk and high. Wouldn’t be a party otherwise. How about you, Yemi?”

“It has been some time since I have partaken, but I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t want to indulge a little,” he replied with a flash of approving green.

Steven remembered how relaxed Yemi had become while drinking with him and Joseph. Maybe a little indulgence would help him overcome some of his social anxiety.

“You said that you hadn’t had herb before, Steven?” Mima asked.

“Not your kind, no. I’m curious to see what all the fuss is about.”

“We are celebrating closing the contract,” Tilli added.

“And our promotion,” Paza said.

“And we have overtime pay to burn,” Ezi snickered.

“We have tomorrow off, too,” Steven said. “Just for tonight, don’t worry about work or deadlines or office politics. Just focus on having a good time.”

Ipal called over one of the servers and ordered some drinks to start them off, the boy soon returning with a couple of bottles and some crystal vials balanced deftly on a tray. There was also a small silver container that looked like a little pocket watch.

The hookah was already waiting for them at the center of the table, half a dozen flexible hoses trailing from it. It was a vaguely bulb-shaped object with a long neck that appeared to be blown from green-tinted glass, and it was decorated with colorful resins and metal accents. At the very top was something shaped like a bowl protected by a metal cap that was covered in little ventilation holes.

Ipal popped open the pocket watch, revealing it to be a container that was packed with something resembling tobacco or grass soaked in a gummy resin. She took a few pinches of the stuff and lifted the cap, packing the bowl before securing it again. There was a heating element near the top, and she lit it with the press of a button, a red glow emanating from the device as it began to warm.

They waited for a few moments as it got going, then Ipal lifted one of the hoses, bringing a little whistle-shaped nozzle to her scaly lips. She took a long, slow puff, seeming to savor its flavor for a few seconds before exhaling two plumes of smoke from her nostrils. It made her look like a little dragon.

“Good?” Mima asked.

“Yeah, it’s good stuff,” she replied as she suppressed a cough. A ripple of relaxed green spread through her feathers, and she leaned back into the cushions, enjoying the herb’s effects.

“You’re much larger than we are, so it should be perfectly safe,” Mima said as she passed one of the hoses to Steven.

“If an alien offers you drugs, it’s bad manners to refuse,” Steven replied as he took it from her hand. “What do I do – just suck on it?”

“Inhale,” Mima explained. “Hold it for a few moments, then release.”

He did as she instructed, the flock watching as he took a draw. It had a rosewater aroma to it, along with a distinctly fruity taste, the smoke filling his lungs. He held it, then slowly exhaled through his nose as Ipal had.

“Tastes better than I expected,” he said, watching as Tilli began to pour them some drinks.

The rest of the flock took their turns, a low bubbling sound emanating from the hookah as they smoked. Paza handed Yemi the hose, his eye spots shimmering as his feathers flared green, his lack of practice leaving him coughing for a moment. Steven was passed a drink, and he took a sip, finding it a little stronger than the wine they had enjoyed previously. It was still nothing compared to the average human spirit, but it was a welcome change.

“Should I be feeling anything yet?” Steven asked, watching the flutters of green that were spreading through the flock.

“You might need a little more,” Ezi said, gesturing to his hose. “You weigh three times what we do.”

He took another puff, that floral scent filling the air, his eyes drawn to the dancer on the stage. The spotlights changed color to match his feather displays, reflecting off the iridescent eyespots, his movements married to the flow of the music. The little neon band on the tip of his tail painted shapes in the air, like someone holding a glowstick at a rave. As Steven watched, a sense of calm came over him, the pacifying effect of the herb kicking in.

It was impossible not to compare the dancer to Yemi. Could he move like that? Would his scales shine beneath the pulsing lights in the same manner? Not for the first time, Steven considered how similar Valbaran males and females appeared. They shared wide hips and proportionally large thighs – a consequence of their biology that endowed the males with the same hourglass figure. It was the males who preened and engaged in pageantry, waxing their scales to a shine and painting their eyes, wearing clothes designed to draw attention to their slim midriffs and narrow shoulders. They were the smaller sex, more feminine by human standards…

“There we go,” Ipal chuckled, watching his expression. She snapped him back to reality, Steven taking a moment to center himself again before replying.

“Yep, that’s THC alright,” Steven said as he took another draw. “You guys are so high-strung – it’s no wonder this is how you like to relax. This whole lounge thing is a relief, in a way.”

“How so?” Mima asked, sipping at a vial of amber liquid.

“Valbara’nay society can appear kind of…utopian from the outside,” he began. “On a surface level, everyone seems to be a good citizen, and everyone follows the rules. There’s no crime or disorder – at least that’s visible – and there’s enough social trust to leave vending machines and food delivery drones unattended.”

“And that’s a bad thing?” Ipal asked with a skeptical smile, nursing her hose.

“It comes off as inauthentic to someone with my background,” he continued. “When things are too good, we get suspicious.”

“But that’s so sad!” Mima exclaimed. “You’re saying that you can’t enjoy peace and safety without anticipating some ulterior motive or hidden danger?”

“That kind of thinking keeps you alive in places like Ganymede,” Steven replied. “If something is too good to be true, it generally is, and we develop a pretty reliable bullshit radar. These lounges aren’t part of your careful planning and consensus, though. They’re not clean and sanitized – they’re dive bars where people come to get wasted and try to take strippers home. This is the most human thing you guys have shown me so far.”

“That’s good…I guess?” Ipal said as she gave Mima a questioning look.

“He’s saying that a society without a little sleaze is an unnatural thing,” Ezi said, taking a longer drink from her vial. Maybe she was searching for a little bravery at its bottom. “Because deep down, underneath the veneer of civility, we all want the same things. No matter what planet we come from, we’re all just clever animals, and we’re all driven by the same biological urges. He doesn’t trust people who don’t have flaws and faults – people who don’t have selfish desires. Do you trust me?” she asked, creeping closer to him on the couch.

He raised his arm out of her way, her lithe little frame pressing tighter, her long tail slithering across the cushions like a snake.

“I’m very flawed,” she purred, her scaly nose brushing against his jaw. “I have a lot of greedy, self-indulgent desires.”

The flock shared her pink coloration, watching as she lay her head against Steven’s shoulder. Yemi had a tinge of yellow in his feathers, perhaps surprised by the sudden show of affection. He hadn’t been privy to their private conversations, and he hadn’t seen their relationship develop. Still, it was a lounge, and everyone knew what happened at lounges. The little male took another drink from his glass, averting his gaze, but Paza was there to meet it. She slunk a little closer to him, her voice low as she held some private, whispered conversation on their side of the couch.

Steven felt like he should intervene, but there was no hint of blue or purple in the male’s plumage – just pink. Whatever they were talking about, he seemed to be enjoying the attention. Steven had been worried about Yemi feeling like a fifth wheel, or the flock behaving inappropriately around him, but maybe those fears were unfounded. Yemi’s growing confidence meant that he didn’t need someone to hold his hand, and the flock had learned much from their time with Steven. Maybe it was okay to just trust his friends.

Paza had been pretty vocal about her opinion of Steven as a long-term mate, so he didn’t feel any sense of anxiety seeing her flirt with her coworker. What even was she to him – one fifth of a girlfriend? He’d seen people fight over women in bars back on Ganymede, but while the Valbarans might treat their flocks as one unit, it was hard for him to view them that way. His human sense of monogamy was already out of the window. Besides, Paza wouldn’t go against the consensus. If Yemi left the lounge in the company of a flock, it would be with some lucky flock of strangers looking to score.

He let his arm rest around Ezi’s shoulders as she snuggled up to him, his proximity and the pacifying herb leaving her content and relaxed. The rest of the flock were drinking and smoking, chatting about work as they lounged in the soft pillows.

***

They lay together on the couch for a while longer, enjoying the drink and herb as the music pulsed in their ears, Steven growing pleasantly intoxicated. He could drink a hell of a lot more than he could back home and barely feel tipsy thanks to the low alcohol content, and the herb was similarly measured for the diminutive aliens, taking a while for its calming effects to really set in. It allowed him to remain alert and engaged.

As Steven had hoped, Yemi was loosening up as the evening went on, just as he had during their outing with Joseph. He was engaging with the flock more, his conversations growing more lively, his feathers taking on more consistently green hues. When there wasn’t a yoke of anxiety weighing him down, he was downright bubbly. He even managed to get some laughs out of the flock with stories about his difficulties organizing the presentation, their pink hues suggesting that they were quite taken with him.

“I’m glad that you decided to invite him,” Mima said once there was a lull. “We’ve always been curious about Yemi, and it’s nice to finally see what he’s like when he’s not sat behind a desk in the lobby.”

“I think that Paza would say the same,” Steven said as he watched the two interact.

“Are you jealous?” Ezi giggled as she nuzzled at his neck. “You don’t have to be.”

“Nah, Paza told me in no uncertain terms that she doesn’t really see me as a profitable investment,” he chuckled as he took another drink from one of the crystal vials. “I just hope it doesn’t cause contention inside the flock.”

“Well, we decide such things together,” Ezi replied. “And we’ve already decided who we want to take home.”

“Perhaps we should go order some more drinks,” Mima suggested, giving her flockmates a quick feather signal. “We’ll give the boys a minute alone.”

Ezi left Steven’s side reluctantly, giving him a lingering glance as the flock rose from the couch and made their way over to the bar. Paza followed with a little insistence, leaving Yemi and Steven sitting alone. Yemi shuffled a little closer, his drink still in hand, peering up at Steven expectantly.

“Having a good time?” Steven asked, offering him a hose.

“Very,” he replied, pausing to take a puff. “Thank you for pushing me to do this. Now that I’m here, I’m realizing how much I needed a break from the stress of the office. I haven’t felt this relaxed since I was a student.”

“All I did was give you the option,” Steven replied, giving him an encouraging nudge. “You made the choice to come on your own.”

“Ipal and her flock behave so differently around you,” he mused, glancing across the room at the girls. They were leaning on the bar, glancing back at the boys, engaged in their own private conversation that involved a lot of pink plumage. “Just a few days ago, I would never even have considered spending an evening with them like this. They’d be too persistent – too disrespectful.”

“Maybe I can take a little credit for that part,” Steven replied, taking a sip from his glass. “All I really did was give them a choice. We could fuck, or we could have a relationship, and they’d have to wait for the latter. I feel like there’s so much competition for males that the only approach that’s ever worked for them is being aggressive – nobody has ever given them another option before.”

“You have a special way of dealing with them that I hope to emulate someday,” Yemi giggled, taking another drink from his vial. “It’s honestly very impressive the way you stand up for yourself.”

“That’s just good old Earth’nay belligerence,” he replied. “You’re getting pretty good at it yourself, from what I hear.”

“I hope that my being here isn’t interfering,” Yemi added with a worried pulse of purple. “You once asked me for permission to pursue the flock – not that you ever required it – and I still feel the same way I did back then. I don’t want to step on your tail.”

“Nah, I want you here,” Steven said as he reached over to lay a hand on his shoulder. “I wouldn’t have invited you otherwise. I just hope we’re not making you feel excluded. Paza seems to be showing you a good time, at least.”

“It must be so strange for you,” the little male continued with a flutter of yellow. “It’s my understanding that Earth’nay mate in pairs.”

“Generally speaking, but there are always exceptions to the rule,” Steven explained as he spared the flock another lingering glance. “You’re right, though – it’s a little intimidating. I can hardly imagine how a Valbara’nay guy feels.”

“Before you arrived, I never considered that it could be otherwise,” Yemi replied. “You have a way of changing the way that the people around you think, Mister…Steven.”

“You think so?”

“For the better, in my experience,” he added with a warm smile. “The office has become a friendlier place with you here.”

“Well, the company did want fresh perspectives,” Steven replied.

“What a strange spectacle we must make,” Yemi added with a snicker. “Two males – an Earth’nay and a bachelor, accompanying the same flock to a lounge.”

“Is that why we’ve been getting all of these funny looks?” Steven asked, glancing around the room. A few of the unaccompanied flocks had been eyeing them hungrily from their booths, watching them like packs of raptors peering through the undergrowth.

“I think you understand the implication of coming here,” Yemi added, taking another puff from his hose. “At least, how it appears in our culture. Two boys with one flock – wouldn’t that be silly,” he giggled with a flash of pink.

“I imagine it doesn’t happen very often with how spoiled for choice you guys are,” Steven replied. “It seems to me that the flocks are the ones fighting over the males.”

“Oh, it happens more often than you might imagine,” Yemi replied with a flush of pink.

“You’re telling me that you couldn’t take any flock in this lounge home if you really wanted to?” Steven continued with a gesture to the nearby booths.

“Perhaps,” he added sheepishly, raising his vial to his lips. “But I would rather spend the evening with my friends. We’re here to celebrate, after all.”

“I guess they wouldn’t be a good fit for you anyway,” Steven said, leaning back into the couch. “The flocks here will be looking for hookups – they’re probably not the most egalitarian people.”

“They wouldn’t respect me the way that you and our coworkers do,” Yemi said with a flutter of green agreement that was tinged with more rose. “It would be dishonest to suggest that hooking up with a flock holds no appeal, but the expectation that I would abandon my career to become a stay-at-home husband is insulting at best. My options have always been either to be abandoned the next morning, or to be hounded by prospective wives. It’s so refreshing to be here with…no expectations.”

“That’s rough, little buddy,” Steven said with another encouraging nudge. “Tonight is about relaxing, so have a little more herb and a little more booze, and let’s have a little fun.”

“Alright,” Yemi replied with a smile, watching as Steven refilled their vials.

The flock soon returned, sliding back into their seats to surround the two males. Ezi shuffled back into place at Steven’s side, sticking close, while Paza guided Yemi back over to the far side of the curving couch.

“Now, where we were?” Ipal asked.

***

They talked long into the evening, Steven regaling the flock with more stories about Ganymede and humans, finding himself equally engrossed by their tales of life on Valbara. They indulged in their vices, growing more and more comfortable, the flock always wanting to be close to him. Paza was the exception, more focused on Yemi, but the colors of happiness in the male’s headdress made Steven glad of it. The little clerk deserved to enjoy some female attention without any strings attached.

It wasn’t long before the flock started getting more handsy with Steven. There was no need for pretenses or restraint anymore – everyone knew why they’d come to the lounge.

Full of liquid courage now, and with her feathers burning an amorous pink, Ezi climbed into his lap. His thigh made an admirable seat for her, the skin-tight shorts that she wore letting him feel her soft, springy cheeks through the insubstantial fabric. She leaned against his chest, her glass still in hand, her plumage tickling his skin as she lifted her snout to nuzzle his neck. It was as high as she could reach.

“I haven’t been able to get that kiss out of my mind,” she purred. “You know how our memories are. I can still taste it, even now. Will you show me again?”

Steven wrapped his arm around Ezi’s narrow waist, letting his hand rest on her hip, feeling her shift and shiver at his touch. There was still an adorable uncertainty in her eyes, those violet irises peering up at him as they fished desperately for a response. He gave her what she wanted, Ezi leaning into him as they joined, knowing what to expect this time. She took a handful of his suit jacket, lifting herself closer as they embraced, her lips cool and smooth against his own.

He felt her narrow tongue greet him, the taste of her drink still lingering, her pace more adventurous now. Its tapered tip explored him with light flurries and quick licks, swirling around his much larger organ. He could feel her quiver and see her feathers start to flicker each time he brushed her palate or touched her in some unexpected place. This wasn’t merely her second kiss – the concept didn’t exist for Valbarans, so it was all still wonderfully new to her.

Steven allowed himself to slide his hand down to her thigh, his fingers sinking into the spandex-like material of her shorts, the velvet-soft flesh beneath yielding in the most inviting way. The Valbarans were proportionally bottom-heavy when compared to humans, with so much of their body mass in their thighs, their butts, and their long tails. As Ezi let out a soft little trill of desire, he felt his digits meet firm, rubbery muscle. The tissue that allowed her to leap with such ease was delightfully springy, providing wonderful resistance when she flexed. The tight hem of her shorts cut a little dimple into her leg as though to advertise its plumpness, his fingertips leaving the silky fabric to find her glassy scales.

“You can touch me,” she whispered as they broke off their kiss, a fine strand of their shared saliva glittering in the colorful spotlights as it joined their lips. “I want you to touch me.”

Emboldened, he slid his hand behind her, cupping her shapely rump. Just like her thighs, it was sculpted by muscle, making it round and bouncy. There was also a cushion of plush fat, its texture irresistible, bulging into his palm when he squeezed. Steven was starting to get a little more heated now, feeling Ezi’s light frame twitch and wriggle against him as he kneaded her ass, her cheek filling his hand.

Caught up in the moment, he suddenly remembered that they had an audience, the rest of the flock watching them intently. Their plumage was full of relaxed greens and aroused pinks, the curved seating giving them a perfect view. Mima was leaning her elbow on the table with a smile, while Ipal relaxed into her pillows, sipping their drinks as they watched the show. Tilli was leaning forward, her feathers all aflutter, her wide eyes taking in every detail.

Paza was watching from her seat beside Yemi, those violet eyes following the pair, while the flustered male seemed unable to tear his gaze away from the sight. He’d never seen a kiss before – this was his first introduction to the concept, his feathers taking on that now familiar blend of pink and yellow. If he was at all uncomfortable, it didn’t know in his plumage.

Steven lurched as he felt Ezi’s little tongue slide out to lick his neck, glancing down to see that she was starting to fumble with his tie.

“How do I unfasten this silly leash?” she giggled. “I can’t open your shirt.”

Steven loosened the knot enough that she could undo it, then she moved down his chest, undoing the buttons of his dress shirt beneath his open jacket. Her eyes lingered on his exposed skin, and she ran a clawed hand across it, admiring its texture.

“Even a waxed underbelly isn’t this smooth and soft,” she sighed, the concept seeming to leave her almost as intoxicated as the herb. “There are fine little hairs – I never noticed them before.”

“He is a mammal,” Mima added.

“Imagine if he was all furry like Quiqui,” Tilli snickered. “It’s only on his head.”

Ezi slid a hand beneath his shirt, then giggled, turning to her flockmates.

“Just like in the recordings!” she announced, Steven flinching as she probed his nipple. “Male Earth’nay have nipples!” She opened his shirt to show the flock, Steven looking on in confusion as they flashed colors of surprise and amusement.

“What’s the big deal?” he asked. “Don’t male Valbara’nay have nipples?”

“They do not,” Mima replied with a smirk, glancing to Yemi.

“Weird,” he muttered. “Also, what recordings?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Paza replied.

Ipal was closest on his right, so she joined her flockmate, crawling into his lap with her eyes locked to his. He had a Valbaran sat on each thigh now. When he blinked – as humans tended to do – she gave him a satisfied smile, as though that was somehow proof of his desire. Like Ezi, she ran her hand across his bare torso, enjoying the texture of his skin. Pink feathers erupted from the sheath on her forearm even as she traced the beginnings of his abdominal muscles with a black claw. The dancer’s skimpy outfit revealed his neck and shoulders, along with his toned midriff, which were the areas the flock seemed most interested in.

“I still can’t believe how large you are,” Ipal chuckled. “My hands would barely meet if I tried to hug you.”

“He tastes salty,” Ezi mused as she nibbled at his neck, her sharp little teeth pricking him.

“I didn’t get a kiss yet,” Ipal insisted, the two Valbarans jostling for space in his lap.

“Ladies, please…one at a time,” Steven said in mock exasperation. “There’s enough of me to go around.”

“Shut up,” Ipal giggled, gripping his shirt collar in both hands. “Show me how this is supposed to work.”

He reached up to cradle her long face in his hand, stroking her scales with his thumb, some of her initial self-assuredness fading at his touch. Far from being tough and hard, their hides seemed no less sensitive and receptive than skin. She tensed as he guided her closer, then relaxed, sinking into his embrace. She lay a hand on his chest as they kissed, and he wrapped an arm around her in turn, pulling her tight as her flaring feathers cast him into shadow. She was a little more aggressive than Ezi or Mima had been, taking the initiative, her dexterous little muscle dancing across the flat of his tongue.

She shifted position without breaking off, and Steven felt her thighs grip his leg tightly, the little alien straddling it. Unlike Ezi, she was wearing a skirt, this new position making it ride higher until he could almost see what she was wearing beneath it. Her agile tongue kept him distracted, however, her puffy lips pressing against his own eagerly. She didn’t really know what to do, but she had no doubt quizzed Ezi and Mima in private, so she was giving it her best effort.

Steven felt a little less inhibited in turn, pushing deeper, their pace growing more bawdy. He leaned back into the cushions a little further, reclining so that she could lie on top of him, Ezi following suit as she continued to lick and nuzzle at his neck. Both women were all over him now, and he wrapped an arm around each one, feeling Ipal’s powerful tail coil around his lower leg like a boa constrictor. Their three-fingered hands were mapping him out, though they hadn’t wandered below his belt yet. As disreputable as these lounges might be, he doubted whether such public displays of indecency would be permitted. Heavy petting seemed fine, though.

“You two were right – it does feel nice,” Ipal said as she pulled away, wetting her scaly lips.

“I still say it seems unsanitary,” Paza grumbled, taking a sip from her drink as she watched them idly. As aloof as she might seem, there was still pink in her headdress.

“Do all the guys you try to take home get this treatment, or is it just me?” Steven asked.

“This isn’t our usual approach,” Ipal admitted, turning to give Ezi a smirk.

“We don’t get this far very often,” Ezi admitted with a flush of embarrassment. “I don’t think any boy has liked us as much as you do…”

He leaned foward to reach for the hookah again, bringing the two Valbarans with him. Ezi had wrapped her arms around his neck and was nuzzling his cheek, while Ipal was still straddling his thigh. He took a puff, then Ipal snatched the hose from his hand, joining him as she let the fragrant smoke rise from her nostrils.

“How are you liking it?” she asked.

“I’m starting to feel it,” he replied. “I’m feeling…loose.”

“Good,” she purred, leaning in to give him another kiss. He could still taste the smoke on her tongue, fragrant and floral. He drew her closer, sliding a hand beneath her skirt to cup her ass, and he was amused to discover that she was wearing another pair of much shorter shorts beneath it. They rode very high on her thighs – just enough to preserve her modesty. He felt her wriggle as he squeezed, finding her just as toned and springy as Ezi was, a hint of yellow entering her feathers.

“It’s nice to have a guy get handsy for a change,” she trilled, grinding against his leg a little more overtly. “You’re eager – I like that.”

“To be honest, I’ve wanted to jump your bones this whole time,” Steven added. “But I needed to wait to be sure that this wasn’t just going to be a fling. Fucking your secretary might sound hot, but it’s not really the best way to get respect.”

“We were patient, weren’t we?” Ipal asked as she leaned in. He felt her soft lips brush his ear, her pointy teeth pricking his skin as she gave it a gentle nip. “We chose to wait for you.”

“Because we want you so badly,” Ezi added from his left, her hand crawling across his bare chest. “Not just for a fling.”

“Well, I’m all yours for tonight,” he replied. “And tomorrow, if you want.”

“You can still play a little hard to get,” Ipal chuckled. “We enjoy the chase.”

She moved to kiss him again, then drew back at the last moment, smirking as she made him come to her. As they became locked in another lurid embrace, he slid a hand up her waist, admiring its curve, the texture of her fine vest smooth like satin. He wanted to tear it open and see what she was hiding under there, but this wasn’t the right place or time. Instead, he crawled his lips down her slender neck, hearing her gasp as he dragged his tongue across her throat. The scales on her beige underbelly contrasted with her spinach coloration, and they seemed even softer and more delicate, the little alien squirming at the sensation.

“You’re so warm,” she snickered. “Stop that – it tickles…”

He realized that Mima had ventured closer, her soft down brushing against his arm, the aliens surrounding him like a pack of wolves. Mima seemed to signal with her feathers, indicating that it was her turn, and Ipal slowly leaned aside to let her get nearer. Ezi slid off her perch on his thigh, settling into the cushions on the couch to his left, keeping an arm draped as far around his waist as she could reach. Her long tail was still curled over his leg, as though she wanted as much of her body to be in contact with his as possible.

Ipal sat between his thighs, putting her back to him, Steven lurching as she pushed her butt into his groin. Clearly doing it on purpose now, she leaned forward to reach for the table, arching her spine as she picked up the nearest glass. Taking a sip, she leaned back against his torso, treating him like her own personal armchair.

Mima crept in from his right to take up Ipal’s old position, that same seductive look in her eyes that she had shown him in the kitchen, her rosy feathers betraying her intentions. She knelt beside him on the pillows, resting a hand on his thigh as she drew closer, brushing her snout against his bare chest. He stiffened as she kissed him, warm and doting, crawling her lips towards his neck.

“I don’t want to rush things,” she began, her voice low and breathy. There was something about Mima that he found captivating – something she understood about men that the others didn’t. “I want us to take our time and really enjoy tonight, but I can’t wait to get you home…”

“My place or yours?” he joked.

“Yours is closer,” Ipal replied, making him lurch again as she shifted her weight.

“Not one to waste any time, huh?” he mumbled.

“Don’t worry – Paza cleared our schedule,” Ipal chuckled as she took a sip of her drink. “We have nothing to focus on but you.”

Ipal passed Mima a hose, and the fluffy alien took a long draw, keeping her lips sealed as she lifted her face to his. She kissed him, blowing the floral smoke into his mouth, the loving strokes of her tongue chasing it. He held it for a moment, then exhaled, Mima smiling as she pulled back to watch the little cloud rise towards the arched ceiling.

“You don’t need to get me stoned to get me into bed,” he chuckled. “I was pretty sure that asking you to bring me here was basically like signing a waiver.”

“Oh, we know,” she cooed. “A little herb and drink will make everyone a little less…inhibited, though. I have a feeling that there will be a lot of experimentation and improvisation tonight – all things that you’ve proven to be very adept at. The evening will go more smoothly if we’re all more relaxed and…limber.”

“Good job we took tomorrow off,” Paza added, watching them from across the couch. “He’s going to need a recovery day by the time we’re done with him.”

Yemi flushed pink again at the suggestion, and Steven noted that Paza had crept her arm around his waist to keep him close. Seeing them side by side like that, it would be almost impossible to tell them apart was it not for the male’s larger feathers. Their figures were so similar, full and curvy in many of the same places…

“Paza!” Mima chided, flashing her a red signal that was joined by amused green. “We’ll be more gentle than that.”

“If it’s a question of stamina, I think I can handle it,” Steven said. “Keeping up with those little scooters you guys ride is easy enough.”

“A lot of boys make a show of being meek and submissive, even when they don’t really mean it,” Mima continued as she reached up to stroke his cheek. Her hands were naked and covered in scales, but they transitioned to her soft coat a little further up her wrist. “They’re worried that being too easy will earn them a bad reputation. It’s refreshing to meet someone confident – someone who knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it.”

“What about that guy?” Steven asked with a nod to the dancer on the elevated stage. “He doesn’t look like someone who lacks confidence.”

“That’s his job,” Ipal explained. “Taking a boy like that home would be quite the feat.”

“You, on the other hand, are one of a kind,” Mima purred as she settled into his lap beside Ipal. Steven had known that the flock was tight-knit, but seeing how tolerant they were of each other’s presence was surprising. They weren’t only getting touchy with him, but with each other, showing a kind of familiarity that didn’t really exist in humans outside of romantic relationships. He was starting to realize that what came next probably wasn’t going to be a one-at-a-time deal, his heart quickening at the prospect.

Was Paza extending that same familiarity to Yemi? Steven’s mind was a little hazier than usual thanks to all the herb and the distractions, but the little male was no passive participant. Paza was whispering to him quietly, nuzzling his scaly cheek with her snout, having her own private party on the far side of the couch.

“Can I touch your hair?”

He turned his head to see Tilli standing on the cushions to his right, putting her at eye-level, her head tilted in that curious way she tended to do.

“Uh, sure,” he mumbled as Ipal began to laugh.

She reached out to run her hands through his hair, stroking him with her fingers just as she had Quiqui, the sensation of her claws on his scalp oddly pleasant.

“It’s just like fur,” she whispered.

“Here,” Ipal added, reaching back to pass him his drink. “Don’t let it go to waste. This is premium stuff – it’s expensive. So’s the herb.”

“We’re really putting that overtime pay to use, huh?” he mused as he took it from her hand and downed most of it in one gulp.

He reclined into the cushions, practically buried in Valbarans now. Ezi had her arm draped over his belly from the left, her perpetually flared feathers brushing his face as her head lay on his chest, rising and falling in time with his breathing. He let his arm curl around her, resting his hand on the curve of her hip, not shy of touching her.

Ipal was sitting between his legs, her head barely reaching his chest. Her round butt was pressed snugly against his groin, those rubbery cheeks tangible even through his trousers. Her thick tail was folded over, lying beside her, its base brushing against his belt. She was indulging in both the bottle and the hookah, one arm resting on his leg like it was the armrest of some plush lounge chair.

Mima was just beginning her explorations from his right, those gentle, tender hands mapping out his alien anatomy. He shivered as he felt her trace a tendon on his neck with a dull claw, pausing to plant a sucking kiss, Steven blinking as she exhaled a wisp of smoke that rose past his face.

“I can’t wait to taste every inch of you,” she purred, her honeyed words making his heart flutter. “I want to know all of your secrets.”

Growing a little too eager for his own good, he passed his drink to her, then slid his hand behind her. Like Ipal, she had chosen to wear a skirt, the fluffy Valbaran straightening as she felt his fingers probe beneath it. Mima was a little softer than her flockmates, not quite as toned and athletic, her rump bulging between his digits as he took a generous handful.

“Steven!” she gasped, her feathers a patchwork of flustered pink and yellow. “If this is the herb talking, then we need to take a whole pouch home with us.”

He hooked his fingers around the elastic hem of the shorts that she wore beneath it, lifting one of the legs to expose her thigh and cheek. Her covering of proto-feathers was irresistibly fluffy, like the down one might expect to find stuffing a fancy pillow, Mima’s eyes lidding as he delved into it. Coupled with her inviting flesh, she was like a living cushion, her free hand coming down to grasp his wrist as he squeezed. She lurched when he rose a little higher, glancing the base of her tail, a little of the amber liquid spilling from the cup. It landed on his chest, dripping down to his belly, her gaze following it.

Without missing a beat, she lowered herself to his torso, peeling open his dress shirt a little wider. Her small, pink tongue extended, and she dragged it from his navel to his neck.

“Mima!” Ipal giggled, watching over her shoulder. “You’re so raunchy when you get a little liquor in you.”

“Like you said, it’s expensive,” she replied as she buried her snout in Steven’s nape. “We shouldn’t waste a drop.”

The flock was all over him, simply enjoying their newfound proximity, forming a happy little heap on the pillows. They let their hands wander, and so did he, one of them occasionally leaning in for another exploratory kiss. They were learning quickly. Only Paza was the exception, her own attentions focused squarely on Yemi.

It was illuminating to watch them interact. Valbarans didn’t kiss in the way humans did, but they nuzzled and brushed their snouts together, Paza letting her lips and tongue wander across Yemi’s exposed neck and shoulders. His top was cut low to expose those areas, drawing her in magnetically, the way that he flinched and shivered suggesting that he was especially sensitive there. He was radiant, bathed in the moody neon of the lounge, his iridescent feathers catching the glow as they flared with hues of pleasure and excitement. Steven found himself captivated, admiring the paint that adorned the male’s eyes and the sparkling gem that dangled from his diadem, his waxed scales shining.

“You seem almost as taken with him as Paza is,” Mima said, her seductive voice whispering in his ear like a little devil on his shoulder. “Pretty, isn’t he?”

“I dunno if I’d ever describe a guy as pretty,” Steven mumbled, lacking any conviction. She was right – the dividing line between the genders on Valbara was as thin as the vanes of a feather. The beautiful peacock-like spots on his vibrant plumage, the glittering jewelry, the way that the crimson paint framed his eyes – in many ways, he was more alluring than even the females. Maybe the herb was getting to him.

Yemi met his gaze across the table, opening a single violet eye, its lid fluttering as Paza mouthed at his neck. When Steven turned back to the flock, he found that they were all staring at him intently, Ezi especially practically vibrating with anticipation.

“You guys were the ones who were worried about being exclusive,” Steven began, not needing to ask what was on their minds. “If Paza wants to bring him home, and Yemi is cool with it…”

A wave of pink passed through them, the expression on Ezi’s face comparable to Steven’s when he had won the lottery back on Ganymede. They wasted no time filling the air with their frenzied chattering, Paza glancing over when she picked up on the commotion.

Steven saw no reason to spoil the night for Paza and Yemi. It wasn’t as though there weren’t enough women to go around, and Paza had never expressed all that much interest in him to begin with. There were probably some cultural cues he was missing, but fuck it – they were celebrating.

“You want to get out of here?” Steven finally asked. The flock tittered for a moment, but they reached consensus quickly.

“Let’s go,” Mima replied with another flutter of amorous pink.

They rose from their seats in the booth, Ipal pausing to empty her glass, Yemi remaining seated as he watched them with uncertainty in his feathers. The flock grouped up together, waiting for Steven to make the next move.

“You want to come with?” he asked, extending a hand in invitation.

Yemi hesitated, peering back at Steven and the flock with feathers tinged a surprised yellow, blinking rapidly as though he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. After a moment of being dumbstruck, he climbed to his feet. Now, it was Steven’s turn to be surprised, the male’s feathers erupting from their sheaths in an explosion of color. Yemi angled them to put on a display, fanning them out as wide as they would go, holding his arm-sheaths in front of him to create a wall of plumage.

He began to dance, swaying his wide hips in time with the rhythm of the music, his sinuous movements captivating. Instead of showing a single color, the feathers began to cycle, creating patterns that flowed up and down his sheaths in waves of contrasting hues. Their iridescence caught the light, making them shimmer, a pair of eyes like cut amethyst gems glinting as they peered out between the curtain of feathers. It was like watching a bird of paradise put on a show for a prospective mate, the similarities in the theater performance and the more sensual lounge dance now impossible to ignore. Yemi showed no less poise – no less beauty than they did. Shaking his head rapidly now, the eye spots on the ends of his feathers blurred into a dark band, the optical illusion taking Steven’s breath away.

When he was done, Yemi looked back at his companions, perhaps expecting some form of reply.

With a level of coordination that would make backup dancers blush, the flock gave their response, moving as though a single consciousness united them. Steven took a step back to give them room, watching as they flashed their feathers in turn, swinging their hips like pendulums. Its meaning was obvious – Yemi was signaling that he wanted to join them, and they were accepting his proposition. It was wordless, the only sound the hissing of their feathers as the aliens shook them rapidly, but there was something deeper than mere words coded into their display. Steven could only scratch the surface, but he knew enough about their colors to follow along.

Only when their dance ended did Yemi join them again, his plumage awash with happy greens and pinks, Paza taking him by the hand. A few unaccompanied flocks occupying the nearby booths looked on, their own feathers filled with jealousy.

Feeling a little left out, Steven cleared his throat, his friends pausing to glance back at him. The only dancing he’d ever done was shuffling in dingy nightclubs, but he did his best, following the rhythm of the music. He finished his little jig by waving his hands as they had their feathers, unable to keep a straight face as they looked on in confusion.

They soon broke out into laughter and flashing feathers, Mima and Ipal each snatching one of his arms as they led him towards the door.

“You’re an adorable fool,” Mima chuckled, the warm pink in her feathers betraying her.

“If we weren’t taking you to bed before, we certainly are now,” Ipal added as she squeezed his forearm.

“Who could say no to that?” Ezi giggled.

They headed back outside the way they had come, leaving the throbbing music behind them as they emerged into the cool night air. Steven had been right – the night had only just begun in this part of the city. The streets were packed with flocks bathed in neon light from the surrounding bars and clubs.

They made their way to the nearest train station, the flock sticking close to him as they waited for the next maglev to arrive, Mima still holding his hand. As they rode the train back to Steven’s residential band, the flock was awash with excited yellow and amorous pink for the entire trip, their obvious infatuation drawing looks from the scant few other passengers. Ezi and Ipal sandwiched him on the narrow seats, while Paza sat with Yemi, his plumage just as vibrant. While their ride was a mostly quiet one, their body language said more than words could.

CHAPTER 17: FEATHER AND SCALE

All that remained was a short walk down a dirt path before they arrived at Steven’s property, and he scanned his phone at the door, his heart racing as it opened. They piled inside, Mima and Ezi sticking close to him as Paza, Ipal, and Tilli flopped down onto his couch. Yemi stood near the entrance, glancing around with uncertainty. This was his first visit.

“You guys want anything more to drink?” Steven asked sheepishly. For all his posturing back at the lounge, the reality of what was about to go down was starting to dawn on him. He’d know that it was coming for days, but he didn’t really know what to expect. He’d never been with five partners at once, never mind aliens, and he was beginning to wish that he’d dared to browse more of Joseph’s forum. Then there was Yemi – what did the flock have in mind for him?

“We’ve had enough to drink,” Paza replied.

“We don’t want refreshments,” Mima snickered, tugging at the sleeve of his suit.

“So, how does this work?” Steven mumbled as he glanced at the expectant aliens.

“Didn’t learn anything from your crazy girlfriends?” Ipal added as she watched him with a smirk.

“Certainly not how to deal with five of you, no,” he admitted.

“Why don’t you…come over here,” Mima began as she guided him towards the couch by the arm. “Get comfortable,” she continued, easing him down onto the cushions as Ipal and Tilli shuffled aside to give him more space. “And let us take care of you?”

“I guess the flock usually takes the lead?” Steven asked. “Makes sense…”

Paza beckoned for Yemi to approach with a flutter of feathers, and he took a seat beside her, the pair sitting apart from the rest of the flock just as they had at the lounge. Perhaps she was intending to have Yemi all to herself. Steven was a little unsure about having Yemi in the same room while the act transpired, but if nobody else seemed to think it was a problem, maybe he shouldn’t either.

When in Rome…

The little male looked as happy as ever, his feathers stained pink. Paza was all over him already, wasting no time, the little male trilling softly as she slid a hand up his thigh. She leaned close, pressing her snout into the nape of his neck and peppering his throat with little nibbles and licks.

“Just lie back,” Ipal said, easing Steven into the pillows as she crawled into his lap. “And let us take care of everything.”

“Kind of a…nice change of pace,” he mumbled as she began to spread his suit jacket open. Mima snuck in to his right and helped her flockmate along, pulling off the jacket and passing it to Tilli, who folded it neatly before placing it on the coffee table.

Next came his shirt, Ipal popping open the buttons one by one, the rest of the flock leaning in to get a look as she peeled it open. She dragged a claw down to his belt, giggling to herself as she made him flinch, then tried to figure out the buckle. After a moment of fumbling, that was open too, Mima reaching in to help with the zipper on his pants.

“I don’t think this is a two-person job,” Steven commented as they opened his fly, exposing his shorts. “Hey, did you guys do any research on this? I know you don’t like surprises.”

“We know what it looks like,” Ezi declared, kneeling on the couch just behind Ipal as she watched intently. Her feathers flushed pink, and she began to stammer. “I-I mean, uh, we may have looked at some…preparatory material beforehand.”

“We watched some Earth’nay porn,” Ipal explained, making Ezi flutter with embarrassment again. “There’s some of it leaking onto the intranet. Krell porn, too – that was something to see.”

“Well, now you’re making me feel inadequate,” he joked.

“Not to worry – I’m perfectly happy with the present position of my organs,” Ipal chuckled as she reached down to stroke the growing bulge in his briefs. “I think this should work out just fine…”

He lurched when she gave the bulge a squeeze, teasing him as she tried to map its shape beneath the fabric. Her flockmates were crowding him to get a better look, five pairs of violet eyes fixed intently on his groin.

“He’s everted,” Ezi mused.

“They don’t evert,” Mima explained. “At least, they don’t call it that. It’s called erecting.”

“There’s really only one?” Tilli asked, sliding down to the carpet to get a better view.

“It’s, uh…still swelling,” Ipal said with a flutter of yellow, her chuckling taking on a more nervous tone as she appraised his tented shorts. “Shouldn’t it have stopped by now?”

Mima hooked her fingers around his waistband and tugged it down, Steven wincing as it caught on his erection for a moment. When she succeeded, his member bounced free, Ipal flinching away like it was a snake about to leap out and strike her. The aliens peered at his organ as it throbbed in the air, their eyes wide, their feathers a blend of surprised yellow and aroused pink.

“It looks bigger in person,” Ipal mumbled.

“Maybe you should find some new positions for those organs after all,” Paza scoffed from her seat on the couch, pausing her petting session with Yemi to get a look. The male’s gaze followed hers, lingering on Steven’s member, his feathers showing even more surprised yellow than the flock. Unlike them, he hadn’t been expecting it.

“That is not gonna fit – it’s almost the size of my forearm,” Ipal marveled as she gave his shaft a prod.

“Plenty of people have done it,” Mima added with a feather flutter equivalent to a shrug. “If they figured it out, so can we.”

“If we’re done with the physical examination, this isn’t really the kind of romantic mood I was hoping for,” Steven complained.

“Let’s take a more intimate look,” Mima cooed, taking his shaft in her hand. She couldn’t quite close her small fingers around it, but she began to stroke, her cool scales like a soothing balm against his warm skin. She traced its veins, squeezing gently, admiring the way that he twitched and swelled in response. “You’re so hot!” she marveled. “I feel as though it’s going to burn me.”

“What’s this part?” Ipal asked, cupping his balls and making him flinch. “They’re a little furry.”

“Careful with those,” he warned, a pulse of pleasure rocking him as she cradled them in her hands. “They’re very sensitive.”

“External gonads,” Mima explained confidently. “Their body temperature is so high that they need to be on the outside.”

“Definitely the least sexy way I’ve heard someone refer to them,” he grumbled, grunting as Mima slid her hand up to his tip. Her scales were so smooth and flush that there was very little friction, creating an oddly pleasant sensation, as though someone was stroking him with a soft leather glove.

Ipal joined in, gripping him a little further down his length, seeming to test his firmness.

“It’s so hard,” she mused, her feathers putting her arousal on display. “Our boys are a little more flexible…”

“Should we do like in the videos?” Ipal asked as she turned to Mima.

“I suppose,” Mima replied.

Mima drew her hand back, letting Ipal take up position on the carpet between Steven’s legs, her scaly snout brushing against his shaft. He watched, his breath catching in his throat as she extended her pink tongue, dragging it up his length. He could feel her warm breath on his skin – see the way that her eyelids fluttered and her feathers pulsed pink like the beating of a heart. She gave him a few lingering kisses, her soft lips pressing against the underside of his glans, Ipal letting it throb against her nose.

The shape of her jaws was so different from those of a human, but she did her best to mimic what she must have seen in those videos, lifting herself a little higher and angling her face down so that she could slide him into her mouth. She couldn’t suck in the way that a human could, and Steven was wary of those sharp little teeth, but his apprehension melted away as he felt his member rub against the ribbed texture of her palate. Her tongue soon joined it, swirling around the unfamiliar organ as though trying to map out its shape, droplets of her saliva dribbling down his shaft.

“Does it feel good?” Tilli asked, tearing her gaze away from the sight to look him in the eyes.

“Y-yeah,” he sighed, faltering as she felt Ipal’s tapered tongue snake beneath his foreskin. Mima reached down to cradle his balls, massaging them gently, resting against his torso as she watched her flockmate work.

“I think he’s enjoying himself,” she purred, lifting her head to glance up at Steven. She craned her neck, inviting him to lean down to meet her in a kiss, the delicate little ribbon of her tongue probing his mouth even as Ipal’s painted his manhood.

Ezi crept in from his left to sit beside him, awash with pink as she watched the display, clearly wanting to be more involved. She had snuck a hand beneath the tight shorts that she was wearing, rubbing gently under the black fabric, her breathing growing heavier. Steven took the liberty of curling an arm around her, taking a handful of her ass as he drew her closer, her feathers going haywire for a moment.

“How about now?” Mima asked as she pulled away, her voice laden with desire. “Is this more like the romantic encounter you were imagining?”

“We’re getting there,” he replied.

“Okay, I don’t really know what to do with this,” Ipal said as she let his member slide from her mouth. It glistened in the soft light of the living room, the first inch or two shining with her saliva. She was breathing almost as heavily as Ezi was, her little chest rising and falling rapidly beneath her fancy vest. “There’s like…a skin part.”

Steven reached down and pulled it back to expose his glans, Ipal tilting her head.

“S’alright,” he said, placing his hand on her scaly forehead. “It’s supposed to do that.”

He gently guided her back down, little tremors of pleasure making him throb against the roof of her mouth as she resumed her doting licking. She focused her efforts on his newly exposed tip, sensing that he was more tender there, her agile tongue drawing shapes on his flesh. It felt like someone was dragging a wet ribbon of silk across it. Ipal was clumsy, but just like with kissing, she was learning alarmingly quickly.

Mima watched the whole while, her eyelids drooping and her feathers full of desire, gently stroking his balls as her flockmate worked. Steven felt something strange, glancing down past Ipal’s bobbing head to see that one of Mima’s tentacle-like arm sheaths was sliding across his sack. It was fully prehensile and coated in soft, fluffy feathers, slithering around his anatomy like a snake.

“Do you like that?” Mima cooed. “Do my feathers feel good against your skin?”

“Yeah,” he sighed, enjoying the pleasant sensations that were assailing him. There was a flash of pink, and the muscular sheath split open, rosy feathers fanning out. It was such a strange sight – a furry serpent opening up like someone was cutting it with an invisible knife, feathers erupting from within even as it coiled around his balls. She released her hold on him, then used those delicate vanes to tease him, brushing them lightly against his sack. It was like being tickled with a feather duster, the unexpected sensation making him squirm.

“How about this?” she giggled, enjoying his reaction.

“I guess you guys have a lot of tools at your disposal,” he replied, wincing as she dragged those soft feathers against his inner thighs. She juggled his balls in her smooth, scaly palm, alternating between stroking him with her downy fur and glancing his skin with those long display feathers.

Ezi was still sticking close to his left, her hand buried in her shorts, her scaly eyelids fluttering as she pleasured herself to the scene. Sensing her need, Steven moved his hand from her butt, sliding his fingers beneath her elastic waistband. Her eyes snapped open as he groped her bare cheek, the clinging fabric fighting against him. Her scales were as smooth as silk, only adding to the soft, springy texture that was already so inviting. He moved below her tail, feeling his way around blindly, her haywire feather display letting him know when he was close to the mark.

Guided by a palpable warmth, he slid his digits between her legs, her inner thighs already wet and slippery. She snapped her jaws shut and flared pink when he brushed something puffy and hot, the flush scales giving way to delicate folds of damp flesh. With his hand down the back of her shorts, he probed her lips with his middle finger, feeling her lithe frame tense at only the barest touch. She was swollen and needy, all of her bottled-up desires coming to a head, the little alien practically panting as she buried her long face in his chest.

With only a little resistance, he slid his finger inside her, burying it up to the first joint. Walls of wet, satin muscle clamped down on it with surprising force, halting his progress with a throbbing clench. To say that she was tight was an understatement – her small frame, coupled with her toned muscles, gave her a grip like iron.

“God damn,” he chuckled as she nuzzled his bare chest, her headdress tickling his face. “Can I have my finger back, or are you keeping it?”

She pushed out her butt in reply, relaxing a little, driving him another inch deeper. Her insides were pressing around his digit so tightly that he could feel every little twitch and ripple – even the rapid beating of her heart. When he tried to curl it inside her, those narrow walls fought back, Ezi grinding against his hand in response. She swung her leg over his thigh, wrapping her arm around his stomach as far as it would reach, slowly rocking her hips as he began to move.

“She’s been looking forward to this for so long,” Mima purred as she watched the two. “She’s far too proud to say it, but she’s been aching for you ever since that first kiss. We’ve never seen her in such a state before.”

He brought his other hand to Ezi’s chin and lifted her face. She couldn’t look him in the eyes without blinking, which he knew to be a Valbaran show of affection, but she pursed her lips in anticipation all the same. Steven locked her in another passionate embrace, every stroke of their tongues imbued with their newly-kindled desire, her blend of clumsiness and eagerness endearing. For all her bluster, she was almost virginal in the way that she quivered at his touch, more drunk on him than any of the substances they’d partaken in that evening. All the while, she pushed back against his hand in a desperate bid to sink that finger deeper, arcs of pleasure shooting up her spine as she ground his digit against her tender depths.

Ipal was taking a break to give her jaws a rest, watching the two make out as she stroked Steven’s shaft with her hand, her scales sliding against his skin on a sheen of her saliva. Mima was still stroking his balls, the stimulation keeping him eager. They shared his manhood between them, pumping their fists up and down his length, two pairs of soft lips and two questing tongues passing him back and forth like the hose from a hookah.

“Do all males get this kind of treatment?” he sighed when Ezi broke off, her claws digging into his stomach as she gripped him fiercely.

“You have a little more surface area for us to work with,” Mima chuckled. “But, yes.”

“Then, I dunno how the hell any of your boys play hard to get for any length of time. Yemi must be a fucking monk to say no to this for as long as he did.”

“The responsibility of satisfying five or more females can be daunting to some,” Mima replied as she planted a kiss on his pulsing member. “We might exhaust the poor boy with our appetites. Fortunately, his burden is shared tonight.”

She turned to spare the male a sly smile. Yemi was watching intently, his flat chest rising and falling rapidly with his hastening breath, his feathers rosy and prominent. Paza had an arm hooked around his waist, her legs crossed idly as she observed from her seat, far more composed than her wide-eyed neighbor. Steven might have felt uncomfortable if Feng or another human friend had taken Yemi’s place, just spectating as the flock explored him, but Yemi was just so alien that he barely registered as male. Maybe it was because of his species, maybe it was his more feminine appearance and mannerisms, or maybe it was a combination of those things. Either way, Steven found that he didn’t mind his presence.

“Will you make love to Ezi while we watch?” Tilli asked.

Steven turned his head to see that she had climbed up onto the back of the couch and was perched beside his shoulder like some kind of voyeuristic parrot.

“When did you get up there, you little gremlin?”

“I want to see better,” she replied.

“Well, I suppose if you insist,” he said sarcastically.

“Ezi,” Mima chimed, her voice seeming to wake her counterpart from her stupor. “Do you feel up to it, or would you rather he finished you like this? You do seem rather comfortable…”

“I-I want to try it,” she replied, her voice dripping with anticipation at the prospect. Steven withdrew his hand from her shorts, her grip strong enough that it was a challenge, and she rose to a sitting position on the couch beside him as she tried to collect herself.

Before she could proceed, Paza snuck up behind her, finally electing to participate. She wrapped her hands around Ezi’s vest, groping her chest through the finely patterned fabric, leaning her head on her flockmate’s shoulder. Her sea-green scales contrasted with Ezi’s tan, just as the hints of red in her feathers contrasted with Ezi’s yellows.

“He hasn’t even seen one of us naked yet,” she said, whispering into Ezi’s ear. “Why don’t we sate his curiosity?”

Paza began to unbutton Ezi’s top, her pace slow and teasing, watching Steven’s expression to gauge his reaction as though she was unwrapping a gift for him. Ezi’s feathers were filled with arousal and embarrassment, but while she squirmed in her flockmate’s grasp, she never tried to pull away. Her pace agonizingly slow, Paza opened the final button, spreading the vest open. Beneath it, Ezi wore something that resembled a tube top, the black band of elastic fabric covering her chest.

The vest slid off her narrow shoulders, then Ezi raised her arms, allowing Paza to lift the tube top over her head and toss it aside. It was a bit of a struggle to get it past her flared headdress. Steven found his gaze drawn to her breasts magnetically. He shouldn’t be so surprised – he had seen the hints of them beneath those loose tunics, and he had seen the figures of the swimsuit-wearing women on the boat tour with little left to the imagination. Still, he admired them as they bounced free of the compressing tube top, forming two perfect little handfuls.

They were far more shapely than would have been true for a human woman with a comparable cup size, forming pert, round teardrops that quivered softly as Ezi moved. Her flesh was springy and firm enough to maintain that wonderfully full shape, a pair of erect, pink nipples protruding between the fine scales. Her rich tan coloration faded to a lighter beige on her underbelly, painting a trail from her neck to her waist before vanishing beneath her shorts, creating a two-tone look on her chest.

As if to demonstrate their softness, Paza cupped them in her hands, giving them a squeeze that made Ezi’s supple flesh bulge between her fingers like putty. She kneaded, Ezi gasping as Paza pinched her nipples gently between her digits, her boobs springing back to their original shape when she relented.

Paza guided her closer so that Steven could reach, and he wasted no time, covering one of her breasts with his hand. It almost seemed perfectly sized to fill his palm, the scales of her underbelly – and her chest by extension – even smoother and silkier than those of her face or hands. It was easily the equal of human skin. The tissue was dense and firm, providing a delightful resistance, her fat doughy and plush. He could feel that hard nipple digging into his palm. Ezi gasped as he squeezed, pushing out her chest in invitation, her long tail coiling around Paza’s waist.

Steven drew Ezi closer, Paza releasing her with a satisfied smile on her face, settling back onto the couch to join the flustered Yemi. The pair watched from their seat, Paza’s lips whispering in the male’s ear, her hand vanishing beneath the hem of his tight shorts.

Ipal and Mima drew back in turn, giving the pair more space. Ezi straddled his thigh, her shorts soaked through, Steven doubling over to reach her. He planted a kiss on her neck, feeling her shiver, her legs gripping him like a vise. He moved lower, and she leaned back to help him along, watching him with her jaw hanging agape as he crawled down her chest. Steven lifted one of her breasts to his mouth, drawing on her nipple and circling it with his tongue. Ezi delved her hands into his hair in turn, stinging his scalp as she took desperate handfuls, but he was too enamored to pay it much mind.

As he sucked and licked, he slid a hand down the curve of her narrow waist, relishing the texture of her scales. She was a little damp, the moisture making her slick to the touch, and he reminded himself that they didn’t sweat. It must just be the pervasive humidity in the air. Her taut belly was packed with wiry muscle, the contours of her chiseled abs impossible to ignore. Steven traced them with his thumb, feeling them flex at his touch, growing even more defined beneath the soft lights. She was like a coiled spring, all wiry sinew, yet her fat settled in the most enticing of places.

“Are you fucking her or eating her?” Ipal snickered, sitting on the coffee table nearby as she watched.

“Earth’nay seem to love using their mouths when they make love,” Tilli mused, peering at them from her perch on the backrest.

Mima was to his right, lounging on the couch at his side, seeming almost as enamored by the show as Ezi was.

“Can you kiss me like that, or will my feathers get in the way?”

“I’m sure he’ll find a way to improvise,” Ipal added.

Steven’s hand roamed down to her shorts, tugging at the tight fabric, but he couldn’t get them off in her present position. Ezi stood on shaky legs, allowing him to peel the garment off her, exposing more of her tawny sales. Her beige underbelly continued between her legs and down her inner thighs, Steven’s eyes wandering lower to find a pair of puffy lips, flushed subtly pink and glistening with arousal. As he dragged down her shorts, they remained joined by a shining strand, the fabric soaked with her excitement. Her anatomy didn’t seem outwardly different from that of a human woman, save that her labia were covered in those same fine scales as her underside.

She lifted a leg to let him pull off the shorts, then the other, Steven tossing them aside. He reached up to take her by the hips, guiding her into his lap. Ezi gripped the collar of his open shirt with her hands as she lowered herself down, glancing between her thighs like she was preparing to land a shuttle. Her prehensile tail snaked forward to coil around the base of his cock, guiding it as she pressed its tip against her opening.

Steven watched her cushiony lips spread apart to exposed shining, pink flesh, Ezi hesitating as she let him throb against her silken folds.

“You can do it!” Mima whispered in encouragement.

“Don’t be scared,” Tilli added.

Steven sat back on the couch, letting her set her own pace, though the urge to thrust into her was hard to resist. He could feel the heat of her loins on his glans, a bead of her juices sliding down his shaft like a droplet of dew.

Summoning the courage to proceed, she lowered herself down further, the pair wincing in tandem as they overcame some initial resistance. A little ring of muscle stretched over Steven’s head, those same tight, clenching walls that he had felt with his fingers now engulfing his member. He could feel her body fighting to accommodate him, almost like it was trying to reject him, adhering to his every contour like a latex glove. One inch, then another – Ezi’s feathers doing that beautiful haywire thing again as her insides struggled around his shaft. If she hadn’t been so slick and ready, they might not even have fit together.

“Wow, she’s actually taking it,” Paza chuckled. “I’m impressed.”

As she lowered herself another inch, her legs trembling, Ezi let out a stifled trill that made Steven’s heart flutter. She had reached about halfway down his shaft where it was thickest, the extra girth giving her pause. A little further, and he could feel himself bottoming out, filling her completely. There was no part of her narrow passage that wasn’t in contact with him now, those hot, slippery muscles teasing him with little tremors and ripples. There was something in her deepest reaches, like a little fleshy bud pressing into his glans, Ezi having to lock her legs to save from falling over as he squashed it against the roof of her tunnel.

“A-are you alright?” he gasped, grimacing as her walls sealed around him like a tightening noose.

Fine,” she groaned, batting her eyes at him with a flutter of random colors.

“An Earth’nay clitoris is on the outside,” Ipal explained, watching with a blend of desire and surprise that was reflected in her plumage. “Ours is on the inside, and I’m guessing you just crushed it like a fish egg.”

“And that’s good?” he asked, reaching out to steady his crouching partner.

“Oh yeah,” Ipal giggled as she wet her lips.

“I-I can take a little m-more,” Ezi stammered as she let herself drop. She elicited a stifled gasp of pleasure and surprise from Steven, sinking another couple of inches, her elastic insides stretching to accommodate him in the absence of any space left to fill. She settled into his lap, her toned thighs spread wide to straddle him, her long tail trailing down between his legs and off the edge of the couch. She collapsed onto him, shivering as she buried her face in his chest, still holding his collar in her fists as though it was the only thing keeping her moored. That tight ring of muscle at her entrance was gripping his base so tightly that he worried it was going to cut off his circulation.

“Oh fuck,” he grunted as he threw his head back. “That should not have worked.”

“Ezi is very determined,” Paza chuckled, moving her lips away from Yemi’s slender neck for a moment. “You should hear the way she’s been talking about you when you’re not around.”

“Don’t tell him that!” Ezi complained, shuddering as the distraction made her shift her weight a little.

“Ezi, darling,” Paza began with a sarcastic laugh. “He’s wearing you like a sock. The time for playing coy is far behind us.”

Steven wrapped his arms around Ezi, holding her close, the two of them panting together as they tried to get used to the exquisite discomfort of being joined.

“Don’t hold me too tightly,” she sighed, Steven loosening his grip a little. “We can’t breathe if you stop our chests from expanding.”

“Oh, sorry,” he mumbled. They must be more like birds than mammals in that way. He elected to run his hand down her back instead, tracing the wonderful channel that her muscles cut unto her spine, the moisture on her scales letting his skin glide against them. He reached the base of her tail, its texture very similar to that of her thighs, feeling her twitch and clench as he probed it.

She muttered something in her own language that made her flockmates laugh and flush pink, but Steven wasn’t privy to the joke.

“I want to start moving,” she whined, her musical voice wavering. “Just…stay still, okay?”

Steven lay his hands on her wide hips as she began to make slow circles, keeping him buried inside her, grinding his shaft against her tight walls. She remained in that position, never rising or falling, just stirring as she reveled in this new feeling of fullness. It was wonderful to watch the sculpted muscles shift and flex beneath her shining scales, the way that her body reflected the light accentuating her movements, making her shimmer like one of the dancers on the stage.

Just like the male at the lounge, her motions were fluid and sensual, each rock of her hips and slow, teasing figure of eight imbued with carnal need. Her lids drooped, her feathers fluttering, Ezi so engrossed in these new sensations that she almost seemed to forget where she was. Her toned midriff rippled in beautiful waves, the springy cushion of her ass resting on his thighs, her perky breasts quivering each time she punctuated her leisurely dance with a more percussive thrust. Steven wanted to compliment her – to tell her that the hypnotic way she moved was the equal of any concert performer, but he feared she might interpret it the wrong way. Their ideas of masculine and feminine were very different.

All he could do was lie back and revel in the pleasure that assailed him, experiencing every subtle motion of her body, from the swaying of her hips to the twitches of her innermost muscles. He could feel that little bud rubbing against his glans, like it was itchy and she was trying to scratch it.

“What does it feel like, Ezi?” Tilli pressed. She was transfixed, watching from over Steven’s shoulder.

“Its shape is very…distracting,” she groaned, making another slow circle with her hips that made Steven see stars. She had such wonderful control over her body, her torso remaining frozen in place as her lower body gyrated. “It’s so hot…I can feel it beating…”

“You should do what the Earth’nay did in the video,” Mima suggested. “They seem to enjoy friction.”

“Oh, the up-and-down thing,” Ipal added with a flutter of agreement.

“I’m still getting used to this,” Ezi sighed, pushing her nose into Steven’s neck. “But…I want to try.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever get used to that,” Mima purred as she watched more of Steven’s shining length slide out of Ezi. The trembling Valbaran lifted herself, then slowly dropped again, her powerful thighs making the relatively athletic position a breeze for her. She found a slow, tentative pace, her passage clinging to Steven’s shaft like a second skin.

“We barely got it in, and now it doesn’t want to come out,” he grunted.

“You need to loosen up, Ezi,” Ipal giggled. “Maybe you should have smoked more.”

“This is as loose as I get,” she grumbled, gritting her teeth as she drove him deep again. “Okay, that…” She faltered as he bottomed out, putting pressure on her sweet spot. “That’s…good. Right there, like that. Yeah, this is the way to do it…”

Driven by her desire, she became a little more enthusiastic, pushing through her discomfort as she began to rise and fall with a more steady pace. When she grew tired – which didn’t take long for a Valbaran – she would settle into his lap to grind again as she recovered her strength.

Her insides gripped him like a fist, squeezing relentlessly, rings of tight muscle gliding along his shaft on a layer of slippery fluid. Steven was so painfully aware of everything – like his senses had been heightened, every tremor and contraction robbing him of his breath. She was an alien, and they weren’t designed to fit together. This was not the result of millions of years of evolution crafting a perfect pairing, but rather, the biological equivalent of jamming a square peg into a round hole until you made it fit. They were operating at the limits of what their physiologies would allow, and it was decadent.

“You’re getting the hang of it,” Ipal said as Ezi’s fat tail slapped against Steven’s thigh. “You’ll be doing it like an Earth’nay in no time.”

Steven slid a hand up her flat stomach, cupping one of her bouncing breasts again and giving it a gentle squeeze. She sealed shut around him in response, her thighs trembling, the two of them faltering in unison.

“This is gonna be over very quickly if you keep doing that,” she warned, her voice dripping with lust.

Steven felt a sudden surge of longing for her, leaning forward and cupping her face in his hands, her eyes widening as he drew her into a bawdy kiss. There was nothing exploratory or tentative about this one, all pretenses of modesty abandoned, their lips locked as their tongues entwined. He could feel her responding to him, her pace growing faster and her muscles tightening with each stroke, her contented moans and trills of encouragement filling his ears. Her ass bounced against his thighs like a rubber ball, beautiful ripples spreading through her pillowy flesh, those modest breasts quivering like jello with each desperate thrust.

He was moving with her now, rising to meet her downward motions, plunging as deep as her shallow passage would allow. Ezi’s body stretched to accommodate him, almost like it was remolding itself – changing to better suit its new situation. Fever-hot flesh like damp silk wrapped around his shaft, every little fold and wrinkle stark in his mind as it raked across his skin, her toned muscles clamping down on him so fiercely that it took his breath away.

Ezi wriggled and shifted in a bid to take him deeper, her eyes rolling back and her feathers going crazy with flashing patterns whenever his glans reached that swollen bud in her depths. She seemed driven by instinct to stimulate that spot, the little alien fucking him into the couch – at least as much as her sixty-pound frame would allow. She was tiring, but he could sense that she was close, her fists still gripping his shirt collar as her hot breath washed over his chest.

“Ezi, I can’t keep this up,” Steven grunted as she made another maddening figure of eight with his member hilted. “You’re too goddamned tight.”

“A little more,” she pleaded, rubbing her snout against his chin like an affectionate cat. “Just…a little…”

“We don’t have to worry about contraceptives,” Ipal mused, shuffling a little nearer on the couch to get a better look. “This should be illuminating…”

Steven took her by the hips again, her hourglass waist making a convenient handhold, and she slammed down on his cock. Whatever soreness she might have been experiencing was an afterthought compared to her pleasure, and as he filled her to capacity, he felt her diminutive frame start to tremble in his lap. A wave of ecstasy washed over her, tearing through her loins, a ripple of muscle massaging his length in a cruel milking motion. It felt as though a phantom hand was reaching through her body to stroke him, gloved in her warm, slick flesh, each pump accompanied by a flare from her feathers.

Ezi threw herself into his arms, and he held her as she writhed – but not too tightly. Her cool scales were glued to his skin with sweat and moisture, her feathers erupting in his face, rapturous coos and chirps accompanying her labored breathing. Each throb of pleasure made her buck, squashing her clitoris again and creating a delightful feedback loop.

“Wow, I’ve never seen her come that hard,” Ipal said as she watched with an impressed flutter.

Steven couldn’t endure her squeezing and bucking any longer, the pressure that he had been fighting back finally overwhelming him, his gruff voice joining hers in chorus as he let out a groan. He pumped a thick rope of his seed into her, feeling her insides strangle him again in response, her mouth agape as its heat spread through her. It was chased by a throb of bliss, another spurt painting her twitching depths a heartbeat later, his cock swelling and flexing as her passage fought to contain it. There was nowhere for the fluid to go, and he couldn’t inflate her like a little balloon. Even her iron grip wasn’t enough to keep it from spilling out, a pearly glob of his emission sliding down his shaft, Ezi shivering as he pumped another wad into her. She kept moving all the while, keeping up the pace like she was trying to fuck it deeper.

They remained locked together, moving as one, prolonging their shared pleasure for as long as they could. Ezi sank into his embrace, the rise and fall of his chest practically lifting her small frame, her eyes closed as she basked in her afterglow. She almost seemed to deflate, as though all of the tension was leaving her body with every contented shiver, the random patterns in her feathers gradually giving way to pink and green.

As Steven recovered his faculties, he noticed that the rest of the flock was watching him intently. He shifted his weight, the movement rousing Ezi, who blinked up at him happily. She still had him hilted, just the beating of their hearts enough to provoke little aftershocks.

“You alright down there?” he asked, reaching down to give her a pat on the head.

“Mhmm,” she mumbled, trilling happily as he stroked her.

“You look like you enjoyed that,” Paza mused, her legs crossed as she sat on the couch nearby.

“It was nice,” Ezi cooed, slurring her words a little.

“You’re not staying there all night,” Ipal added, waving her away with a flutter of feathers. “The rest of us want a turn too.”

“Stop hogging the Earth’nay,” Mima joked.

“He’s still swollen,” Ezi giggled, wiggling her hips and driving another wince from Steven. “What if we’re stuck like this until it goes down? I wouldn’t mind…”

“I don’t think they work like that,” Tilli added.

“Fine, fine,” Ezi sighed as she lifted herself from Steven’s chest. She was unsteady, but he wasn’t sure if it was because she was exhausted or because her climax had just been that good. He had to admit, sleeping with Valbarans was a bit of a confidence booster.

“Gosh, look at it all,” Ipal whispered as she watched Ezi rise to a crouch. Fat, pearly globs of their shared fluids slid down Steven’s shaft, dribbling down the soft scales of Ezi’s inner thighs. She still looked flushed, her lips pink and swollen. They shared another pang of residual pleasure as Ezi rose off him, his glistening cock sliding out of her, her fierce muscles refusing to relinquish their hold until the very last moment. She flopped down into the pillows beside him, wrapping one of them in her arms and hugging it tightly, her feathers a blend of contented green and stirred pink as she peeked at him over the fabric. Her lids were drooping, and she certainly seemed like she needed a rest, but she was as happy as he had ever seen her.

“My turn,” Mima purred, her sultry voice filling his ear as she crept forward to nibble it gently.

“Hang on,” Steven replied, raising his hands defensively. “I’m gonna need ten or fifteen minutes before I can go again. If you go to town on your males like their cocks are batons in a damned relay race, it’s no wonder they’re so intimidated. Poor little guys.”

“I’m sure that you have other tools at your disposal,” Mima added, running her clawed fingers across his chest. He was sweating now, both thanks to the exertion and the humidity, Mima seeming to enjoy the texture of his wet skin.

“Alright,” he grumbled, starting to strip off his dress shirt as he rose to his feet. “I suppose I signed up for this, didn’t I?”

He took off his pants and shorts, too, setting them on the coffee table along with his shirt. Feeling the flock’s eyes on his nude body, he knelt on the carpet in front of the couch, putting himself level with Mima. She rolled over to face him, her feathers all aflutter with pinks and yellows as he reached out and began to unfasten her vest. She didn’t help, choosing to let him enjoy undressing her instead, her eyes following his hands as he undid each button.

As he pulled the garment open, he saw that her torso was covered in brown feathers, which was about what he had expected. It was harder to make out much detail beneath them, the subtle lines and dimples of her muscles hidden, but he could already tell that she had a fuller figure than Ezi. Her breasts wobbled enticingly as her breathing hastened, covered in the same fluffy, downy coat. She was a little more endowed than Ezi had been, and he could see her pink nipples protruding through the fluff. He reached out and encompassed one of them in his hand, finding it about the size of a softball, flesh as soft as melting wax spilling around his fingers. Mima gasped, her feathers flashing pink as she wriggled, her thighs rubbing together beneath her skirt.

“You’re so soft,” Steven muttered, unable to resist giving her another squeeze. Where Ezi had been firm and perky, Mima was pillowy and plump, those fluffy feathers only enhancing the sensation.

“Will you do what you did for Ezi?” she asked excitedly, Steven casting her into shadow as he leaned over her.

“I can do more,” he replied, lowering his lips to her nipple. He sealed them around it, lashing it with his tongue, kneading gently as he sucked and licked. Mima arched her spine, letting out a soft trill, her violet eyes fixed on him greedily as he teased her.

Molding her breast like putty in one hand, he combed the other through the feathers on her belly, feeling the smooth scales beneath against his fingertips. She was tangibly warmer than Ezi, her coat trapping a thin layer of heat, and the humidity didn’t seem to stick to her in the same way. He ran his hand down to the wide curve of her hip, probing her belly with his thumb and finding a soft little pouch of fat.

“Steven!” she giggled, batting at him with her yellow arm-feathers in mock outrage. “Leave my tummy alone!”

“No way – you’re so touchable,” he replied as he gave her a squeeze. “You’re like a teddy bear I can fuck.”

“I don’t know what that is,” she chuckled, squirming as he sought out her navel beneath the fluff. “We store a little more fat in the colder regions. Will you-”

Steven slid a hand behind her and filled it with her ass, the little Valbaran chirping at him.

“Let’s get this off,” he continued, starting to pull at her skirt. He gripped her by the ankles – able to encompass them in a single hand – lifting her legs to slide down the garment. Next came her shorts, Mima’s feathers awash with pink as he peeled them off her like the protective film on some new gadget. She kept her loins covered with her tail as he released her, Steven admiring the way that her soft thighs quivered when they dropped to the couch, her breasts swaying as she moved.

Her tail was chubby too, and he gave its base a squeeze, Mima gasping.

“Lift your tail,” he said, the flock letting out little snickers and laughs in response. “What?” he asked, glancing around at them.

“That’s rude,” Mima explained, putting on an exaggerated pout.

“Would madame kindly remove her tail to facilitate intercourse,” Steven added with a mock flourish of his hand.

“Well, since you asked so nicely,” she cooed as she slowly slid the appendage out from between her thighs. Even the space between her legs was coated with feathers, but Steven could see that some of them were damp and matted, her excitement sticking them together. They guided his gaze towards her lips, a thin sliver of glistening pink just visible beneath her plumage.

Taking her wide hips in his hands, he tugged her a bit closer to the edge of the couch, Mima letting out a trill accompanied by a flash of excited yellow.

“Are you improvising?” she giggled.

Steven planted his face between her breasts, rubbing his cheeks against her soft down, Mima wriggling in his grasp. She had a wonderful floral scent – likely a result of the soaps or perfumes that she used during her long grooming sessions.

“Steven!” she laughed, delving her hands into his hair. “You cover Ezi in kisses, and all you do is tickle me?”

He began to roam lower, kissing as he went, but it was hard with her feathers in the way. She appreciated it nonetheless, going quiet as he began to stroke her, mapping out her body with his fingers. The soft paunch of her tummy, her wonderfully full cheeks, the cushion of her thighs and hips – her body was a playground. Her feathers were softer than fur or hair, tickling his nose as he roamed down to the edge of the couch. Easing her thighs apart, he got a closer look at her. Her scaly lips were flushed just as pink as Ezi’s beneath her coat, misted with sparkling droplets of her juices.

“Are you going to kiss me there?” she asked, her voice low and husky.

Steven couldn’t resist rubbing his cheeks against her inner thighs – they were so soft and inviting – then he brought his lips to hers. Spreading them with his fingers, he exposed the delicate folds of her vulva, leaning in to drag the flat of his tongue across it.

Mima’s reaction was powerful and immediate, her little hands gripping his hair as she let out a pained whine, her legs closing around his head. She was surprisingly strong, but she refrained from popping his skull like a cherry, relaxing once the initial surprise had lapsed. Steven began to lick slowly, painting her silken pleats, dragging his tongue between her puffy labia. She was smaller than a human woman, and he could completely encompass her loins with his mouth, sucking gently as he drew shapes on her burning flesh.

Valbarans weren’t really shaped for this with their long, narrow snouts and thin tongues, so it was a wholly new experience for her. The rest of the flock crowded around, Ezi watching from behind her cushion, Mima bucking into his face as he buried it between her legs. The fuzzy underside of her tail was beneath him, acting as a cushion that he could rest his chin on. The muscular appendage curled around his torso as far as it could reach, holding him close like a furry tentacle.

“What does it feel like?” Tilli demanded, balancing on the back of the couch as she leaned down to get a closer look.

“It’s…it’s so hot and slippery,” Mima groaned, her feathers starting to pulse with color just as Ezi’s had.

Steven made her moan with another doting lick, tracing her every fold with the tip of his tongue, drawing shapes like he was trying to write his name on her. She had no clitoris, so there was no one place where he felt he should focus his attention. He brushed his lips against hers, joining them in a sordid embrace, her fluids dripping down his chin and making her feathers stick to his skin. He circled her twitching opening, then slid inside, feeling her taut muscles struggle to grip his tongue.

He wanted to do more for her, bringing a finger to bear, her body tensing up as he gently eased it inside her. She was ready enough for him that there was no friction, her clenching walls powerless to halt him as he glided deeper, her warm flesh seeming to pour around his digit almost like a living gel. She was no less tight than Ezi, but he had a little experience under his belt now, and he probed for that sensitive little bud.

It was easy to know when he’d found it, her body tensing up, her feathers making those overwhelmed flashing patterns. His finger was sensitive enough that he could get a better idea of its shape – like the uvula in the back of his throat but dangling from the roof of her passage. She was so tight that he could barely move his digit, but there was just enough give to stroke and squash it.

She seemed to respond to that even more strongly than his licking, rolling her hips as she bucked against his hand, trying to force his finger deeper. Keeping his digit buried inside her, he moved higher, crawling up onto the couch to lie beside her. He hooked an arm beneath her trembling frame and brought her close, enjoying the sensation of her feathers against his bare skin, his hand moving rhythmically between her legs. His head now level with her chest, he drew an erect nipple into his mouth, her spine arching off the cushions as he swirled his tongue around it.

“Maybe there’s something to be said for letting males take charge after all,” Ipal joked as she watched her flockmate writhe in Steven’s arms. “You’re usually the one who dictates the pace, Mima.”

Mima didn’t reply – she was too lost in her fugue, each stroke of Steven’s tongue or curl of his finger making her twitch and wriggle. It was wonderful just watching her move, the soft parts of her figure quivering with each thrust.

He felt her nuzzle at his hair, and he rose higher, guessing that she was probing for a kiss. She was waiting for him there, her scaly lips already parted, the pair joining in a slow and affectionate embrace. Ezi was impatient and brash, but Mima was far more willing to drag things out, enjoying every sensation to its fullest. Her eyes closed, and her feathers flushed with contentment as she basked in her euphoria, the slow strokes of her tongue sending little shivers of pleasure coursing down Steven’s spine. If she minded that she could taste herself on his lips, she didn’t show it, reaching up with a scaly hand to cradle his cheek as they sank deeper into the soft pillows. Her winding tail coiled around his forearm like a snake, its firm grip keeping it in place – a silent demand that he continue until she was sated.

She crooned and trilled as his pace hastened, Steven sliding a second finger inside her, his massage bringing her to new heights. He could see it in her plumage – as easy to read as words on a screen now – her body moving with him in a symbiotic dance. Still enamored with their kiss, she pressed closer, her fluffy frame heaving against his own as her ribbon-like tongue darted around inside his mouth. It felt like she was trying to taste every inch of him – trying to prove her affection with each lash and flurry of licks.

“I knew you’d be fun,” she purred when she finally broke away, burying her face in his neck. “I didn’t know how much I’d want to keep you…”

Her breath coming in ragged, musical gasps, Steven redoubled his efforts. Holding her shivering frame close, he squashed and kneaded that tender little nub of flesh, feeling her tight walls crush his fingers together with each glance. It felt like he was pressing a button that caused her muscles to constrict, her soft thighs gripping his hand, her tail squeezing his arm to the point that his fingertips were starting to tingle with static.

The pitch of her moans rose as she neared her peak, then all of that building tension left her body in a trembling sigh, Mima collapsing into the cushions beside him. He kept her close as she shivered and bucked, but he was sure not to hug her too tightly, remembering Ezi’s warning. She rode out the throes of her climax in his arms, and he kept rubbing to prolong her bliss as long as he could. Watching her peer back at him with adoration in her unfocused eyes was all the reward that he needed. When she finally stopped moving, he kissed her again, and she responded in her own slow and grateful way as she relaxed into his embrace.

“See, I knew you’d think of something,” she giggled as she nuzzled at his chest. “You always do.”

He struggled to withdraw his fingers, then stroked the down on her belly, feeling her squirm and giggle as his tickling teased out another pang of pleasure. It was only when he left her to recover on the pillows that he realized he was rock hard again, his smiling partner reaching out to give him a stroke, walking her fingers up his shaft.

“You’re so swollen again,” she cooed, giving it an encouraging pump with her fist. “You want to lie here with me while I return the favor? I’m feeling especially generous right now.”

“If he’s ready to go again, we should give our boys a proper introduction,” Paza declared as she rose from her seat on the couch with a flutter of red. Yemi’s feathers flushed pink, and he locked eyes with Steven for a moment, his lids fluttering.

“Oh, I’ve been looking forward to this,” Ipal added excitedly. She hopped out of her seat and headed over to the kitchen. “Hey, Steven!” she called once she was out of sight. “You got any drinks in here?”

“Yeah, I think there’s some wine in the cupboard,” he replied, hesitating for a moment. “Hey, uh…what did Paza mean, exactly?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Mima cooed, giving his cock another teasing stroke that made him buck into her hand. “You invited Yemi to the lounge, and we brought him home with us. You didn’t think that he was going to just sit on the couch and watch us all night, did you?”

“I dunno, I figured maybe Paza was more into him than she was me,” Steven muttered. “I haven’t…I’ve never really considered…”

“Well, there’s a certain implication when two males go home with the same flock,” Mima continued. She was starting to look a little uncertain now, glancing to Paza for support. “Unless…the same isn’t true for Earth’nay?”

“Do Earth’nay boys not fool around together?” Ezi added from behind her pillow.

“I…”

Steven hesitated, glancing at the expectant aliens. When his eyes wandered to Yemi, he saw a tinge of worried purple in the alien’s headdress. Suddenly, some of his comments in the lounge began to make more sense. Yemi hadn’t agreed to come solely to celebrate with his friends, nor had he interpreted Steven’s invitation as being wholly platonic. That courtship dance hadn’t just been for the flock – it had been for Steven, too.

Steven had made a dangerous assumption – that Yemi shared his views. Of all the differences in how Valbarans interpreted gender and sexuality, he had somehow allowed himself to believe that male interaction would remain unchanged. Should he make his mistake known now, with Yemi waiting for him to reciprocate?

His mind flashed back to their booth, and what he now understood to be Yemi’s clumsy, uncertain advances. How had he not realized it sooner? The little male’s feathers had been as pink as the sign outside the lounge. The differences between human and Valbaran males wasn’t limited to their culture or their role in society. In many ways, Yemi appeared more feminine than his female counterparts. He was still struggling to overcome the meek and submissive attitude that Valbaran society had instilled in him, and being held to higher standards than the females, his grooming was impeccable.

His scales were waxed to an almost reflective sheen, and his bright eyes were framed with red paint that drew Steven in, the little gem that hung from his diadem matching the color of his violet irises. Those giant feathers with their prominent spots were mesmerizing, and the way that he dressed was tailored to entice. His shorts were so tight that they could have been painted on with a brush, while his top was cut to expose his narrow shoulders and his taut, lightly-muscled midriff. A consequence of Valbaran physiology gave him thick thighs, wide hips, and a narrow waist that tapered into a small torso. Just like the females, he was pear-shaped, the only real difference between them his somewhat smaller stature and lighter build.

This wasn’t the first time that Steven had noticed, but it was the first time that he had really allowed these thoughts to simmer. He remembered the beauty and grace of the exotic dancer on the stage, how those fluid, sensual movements had been reflected in Yemi’s courtship display. The swaying and rolling of his hips, the way that the muscles beneath the smooth scales of his belly had flowed in rippling waves, the flashing of his vibrant feathers – it had been for Steven as much as Paza. Yemi had been offering himself as a partner.

“Well,” Steven began, clearing his throat. “When in Rome, right?”

“W-what does that mean?” Yemi asked, speaking up for the first time since arriving as he watched the females titter and flash their feathers in excitement.

“It means he wants you,” Paza replied, extending an arm towards him. Her sheath shot out like a tentacle, winding around his wrist and lifting him out of his seat, pulling his hand into hers. “It’s just some foolish saying the Earth’nay have.”

“I think it’s quite a wise saying,” Mima said, lounging on the pillows at Steven’s side as she enjoyed her afterglow.

“I think this might be the best day of my life,” Ezi sighed. She was lying on her belly as she watched the interaction play out, her cushion still clutched in her arms.

Tilli was still perched on the headrest behind him, and he wondered when she might make her move and how she might do it. She was such a curious creature, and she wasn’t as overtly sexual as her flockmates. Maybe she only liked to watch – nothing wrong with that.

“Are you just going to sit there staring, or are you coming to bed?” Paza demanded.

“Oh, we’re doing it in bed?” Steven replied as he rose to follow her. He had been starting to feel a little foolish just sitting there on the couch, completely nude, with a very prominent erection. Tilli trailed after him, and Ipal soon returned from the kitchen with a bottle in hand, her feathers bright with excitement.

Yemi was led along by Paza, his plumage a blend of sordid pink and yellow, the little male glancing back over his shoulder at Steven. Perhaps this had been his goal all along.

CHAPTER 18: SECRETARY BOY

Paza lit the bedroom by tapping a control panel on the wall, tuning down the intensity until it was dim and moody.

“I didn’t even know it could do that,” Steven muttered as he stepped onto the room-spanning mattress. It had seemed so large for one person, but the seven of them would fill it rather well. The rest of the flock filed in, taking up positions around the outskirts of the circular room, settling into the pillows and sheets like they were sitting around a campfire. Tilli sat down, then Ezi and Mima followed, the feathery Valbaran still unsteady on her feet. Ipal dropped down onto a pile of cushions with her bottle already uncorked, taking a swig from its narrow neck.

Paza still had Yemi by the hand, and she stopped in the middle of the mattress, turning her trembling charge around to face Steven. Yemi looked almost overwhelmed, his feathers as pink as Steven’s burning cheeks, his scaly lids batting as he struggled to maintain eye contact.

“Go on,” Paza whispered in his ear, giving him a gentle nudge to encourage him to walk forward. “Show him how you really feel.”

Yemi took a couple of unsteady steps towards Steven, slowly lifting his head as he approached, having to crane his neck to look the human in the eye. He barely reached Steven’s chest, his build even shorter and lighter than that of the females, the human’s cock practically poking him in the stomach.

“I never guessed,” Steven began, kneeling down on the sheets to put himself level with his friend. “I suppose I should have, based on what you said to me in the lounge, but chalk it up to me being a dumb alien.”

“Is it…alright?” Yemi asked hesitantly. “Do Earth’nay not…”

“This will be a first for me,” Steven admitted, feeling his heart start to beat faster at the prospect. “But, I’ve seen a lot of firsts since I got here.”

“You’ve been so kind to me since you arrived,” Yemi began, averting his gaze and wringing his little three-fingered hands. “You looked out for me, you involved me, and you tried to build me up. You taught others to see me the way that you do. Until now, no female had ever shown me that kind of genuine, unconditional affection. You didn’t want anything – it seems that you never even realized I had anything to give.”

“I just thought you needed a friend,” Steven replied, not sure what else to say.

“You…confuse me,” Yemi added with a flutter of uncertain purple. “You’re so much bigger than I am, you don’t act like a male, yet I find myself drawn to you. You’re so different that it hardly seems to matter how I refer to you.”

“Yeah, I kind of get that,” Steven chuckled as he rubbed the back of his neck nervously. “You look like…well, you have a lot of features that we would associate with females. You’re small, curvy in the right places…”

“Will you two hurry up and fuck?” Paza grumbled, crossing her arms as her tail waved back and forth impatiently.

“Paza!” Mima complained, shooting her an angry flash of red. “They’re having a tender moment!”

Yemi snickered at them, taking another step towards Steven and planting a hand on his broad chest, seeming to sample the texture of his skin.

“You were gentle with the others,” he said, his voice so low that it was almost a whisper. “Will you be gentle with me, too? You may have me in any way that pleases you – I will do my best to accommodate.”

“God, Yemi,” Steven laughed as he glanced down at the enamored male. “We’re not at the office anymore. You don’t have to serve anybody.”

“But I want to,” he protested, planting a kiss on Steven’s neck as he had seen the females do. He smelled even better than Mima had, floral perfumes and soaps filling Steven’s lungs like he was taking a hit from a hookah. “You appreciate me in ways that others do not. I know that I can please you if you’ll only let me.”

His plea was impossible to deny, Steven reaching down to cradle the alien’s scaly face in his hands, guiding Yemi into a kiss. The male stiffened, his tail standing as straight as a pole and his rosy feathers spreading even wider, his lids drooping as he grew more accustomed to the sensation. His lips were no less soft and smooth than those of the females, like scaly pillows, Yemi leaning into Steven’s embrace as he lay his hands on the human’s chest.

There was uncertainty in each stroke of his tongue, the small, ribbon-like muscle doing its best to meet Steven’s far larger counterpart. Yemi had only been introduced to the concept that evening, but he took to it like a duck to water, falling more and more in love with the act as Steven explore his mouth. He flinched as Steven licked his textured palate, his legs weakening when their two organs joined, every new sensation a revelation.

When their lips parted, Yemi gazed up at Steven with something more carnal in his eyes, his chest rising and falling rapidly. The pair found themselves surrounded by a circle of pink, their audience looking on gleefully. Paza had taken a seat now, satisfied in having played the matchmaker, a smirk on her face as she lounged in the cushions.

Steven felt a surge of desire, and with his blood pounding in his ears, he reached for Yemi’s top. The Valbaran lurched as his fingers slid beneath its hem, lifting the garment, exposing more of the male’s flush torso. His midriff was subtly muscled, the sight of his navel lighting a fire in Steven’s belly, the scales of his beige underside even more touchable than those of the females. Yemi fretted about his appearance, waxing and preening, and Steven could feel it on his silky hide. The alien lifted his arms to help Steven along, but the garment caught on his head, his sheaths spread too wide for it to pass.

“Yemi,” Steven chuckled. “Can you stow those for a sec?”

“S-sorry!” the male chirped, fighting against his massive feathers. “I’m just so…damn these giant things!”

They eventually succeeded, and Steven tossed the top aside, turning his attention to Yemi’s newly exposed torso. The girls hadn’t been lying – he really didn’t have any nipples. His chest was completed flat save for the subtle outline of his pectoral muscles, covered in that same soft, sensitive underbelly. It was oddly alluring, Steven running a hand from Yemi’s collar to the waistband of his shorts, feeling the twin rows of abdominal muscle tighten beneath his palm. All of that societal pressure to look his best – to keep his scales shining and his figure impeccable – and it was all Steven’s to enjoy now.

He felt an irresistible impulse to kiss the alien as Paza had, peppering his slender neck and narrow shoulder, crawling his lips down the Valbaran’s chest. He could feel the flustered male breathing beneath his lips, those glassy scales smooth and soft against his tongue, slick like silk. There were already droplets of moisture clinging to Yemi in the humid air, like someone had misted him with a spray bottle, making him glisten beneath the dim bedroom lights.

Yemi lowered his snout, following Steven’s hand as it trailed down his belly. Steven wasn’t sure what to do next. Yemi was a guy, even if every instinct rattling around inside Steven’s skull insisted otherwise, and he wasn’t sure where to go from here.

Fortunately, Paza was there to guide him. Like a stalking leopard, she snuck up behind Yemi and pounced on him, wrapping her arms around his slim torso as she lay her jaw on his shoulder. She nuzzled his cheek, his surprise fading as her hands roamed down to his waistband, sliding beneath it.

“Let’s see what the Earth’nay makes of you,” she whispered, grinning to herself as she pulled the clinging garment down. She had to practically peel it off him, the tight hem sinking into his soft thighs, but she managed to get it down around his knees. Yemi covered his face with his hands in embarrassment as she exposed him, his feathers burning pink.

Steven’s eyes were drawn between his legs inexorably, but he was momentarily confused. There was nothing there.

Paza’s tail slid between Yemi’s legs from behind, making him shiver as it stroked his inner thigh. It climbed higher, pressing against something soft, starting to make gentle circles. As it rubbed, Steven realized that he was looking at a pair of lips not unlike those the females had.

“Come on,” Paza purred in the little male’s ear, giving his neck a nibble of encouragement. “We are well beyond shyness now.”

The tip of her tail slipped between those lips, stroking slowly, Yemi leaning back into her arms as he let out a shuddering sigh. Something began to emerge, Steven watching as two fleshy lumps appeared, gradually engorging.

The girls had implied that males had two penises, but it looked more like a fleshy tuning fork to Steven. There were two distinct shafts that joined partway down their length to form a Y shape, the two tapered glans covered in tiny bumps – perhaps vestigial barbs? They were small and dull enough that they didn’t seem to server much of a purpose other than maybe extra stimulation. Its color was a dull pink with hints of purple, lighter at the base and growing darker near the twin tips, giving it the appearance of a partially sucked popsicle. It continued to grow, inflating like a balloon, clear fluid dribbling from both ends. Paza used her tail to tease it, encouraging it to swell, but it didn’t get much longer than Steven’s index finger.

No wonder the flock had reacted to Steven’s cock with such surprise and curiosity – their anatomy was so different that he might not have even recognized this as a penis under different circumstances. Paza’s tail curled around it, giving it a squeeze, more shimmering strands of fluid leaking from it. It seemed flexible and fleshy, lacking the firmness one would expect from its human counterpart.

Paza put a hand on Yemi’s shoulder, easing him down to his knees on the mattress. Steven’s cock was about level with the little male’s chest now, throbbing in the air, Yemi’s tail trailing across the sheets as he glanced down at the unfamiliar organ. Paza dropped down behind him, her feathers filled with dominant red and enamored pink, wetting her lips lasciviously.

“If you want to please him, then go ahead,” she purred. “You’ve seen what he likes…”

Yemi leaned in hesitantly, glancing up at Steven as though asking for permission, his lids fluttering in the way that Steven now knew indicated submission. He planted a kiss on Steven’s chest, gradually moving down, his thin tongue darting out to taste the salt on the human’s skin. His soft hands wrapped around Steven’s shaft as best they could manage, starting to squeeze and stroke as he had seen Mima and Ipal do. Steven leaned back a little, resting his hands on the sheets to steady himself, watching as his eager partner roamed lower. Yemi lifted Steven’s unfamiliar organ, weighing its heft in his hands, his pillowy lips finding its leaking tip. He kissed it experimentally, Steven shivering as the alien traced his slit with his tongue, those pursed lips sliding over the glans to cradle it.

The rest of the flock had crawled closer to get a better look, forming a circle around the two boys, their violet eyes flashing as they watched them intently. Paza was back to playing matchmaker again, pressing up tight against Yemi from behind, one of her hands sinking down below his belt to tease him as he sucked and licked.

“That’s it,” she cooed, nuzzling his cheek as she whispered in his ear. “You’re a natural, Yemi.”

“Gosh, they’re so adorable together!” Mima cooed as she watched them with longing in her eyes.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Ezi added with a sly giggle, one hand buried between her scaly thighs. “Do we really get to have them both?”

“Luck seems to follow Steven around like a shadow,” Ipal chuckled, taking another swig from her bottle.

Yemi began to swirl his tongue around Steven’s glans, coating it with his saliva, the warm little ribbon teasing him with every lap and stroke. It slid beneath his foreskin, those fleshy lips pursed tightly, the ribbed roof of the alien’s mouth rubbing against his cock as it slid deeper. His hands stroked the shaft all the while, sliding from its base to its tip. It was as wonderful as it was clumsy, Yemi putting his all into it, making up for his inexperience with earnest effort and a burning desire to please.

Paza’s stroking was certainly keeping him on his toes, the male flinching and shivering as she toyed with his strange organ. She whispered to him all the while, filling his head with sweet nothings in her own musical language.

He began to bob his head, taking the organ as deep as he could manage, Steven’s cock sliding against the cushion of the alien’s slippery tongue. Just like the females, he couldn’t really create suction with his long snout, but he did his best to paint every inch of Steven’s member. His impressive headdress waved back and forth with the motion, making the iridescent eye spots shimmer, the shining jewel that hung from his diadem on its fine chain bouncing against his forehead.

“Does it please you?” he asked, pausing his efforts and lifting his expectant eyes to Steven. There was still a drooping strand of saliva linking Yemi’s lips to his glistening cock, the sight of it making Steven’s heart race. “I don’t…really know how to do this,” he added with a nervous flutter. “I can only try to copy what I saw the flock do.”

“Y-yeah,” Steven sighed. “Yeah, it feels amazing.”

“I’m glad,” he replied, his feathers filling with hues of pleased green. “I want to learn how best to pleasure you – commit your every desire to memory.”

He resumed his stroking, his fists sliding along Steven’s shaft on a lubricating layer of his bubbling drool. His hands were almost as captivating as his tongue, inhumanly soft and delicate from a lifetime of office work, those deft fingers dancing along his length just as they would a keyboard. Lapping at Steven’s glans, Yemi sought out its sensitive underside, teasing him with rapid flurries. One of his hands roamed down to cup his balls, stroking them with that same maddening gentleness.

Steven felt something fluffy at his side, turning his head to see Mima sidling up beside him. She settled into the sheets, resting a hand on his thigh, watching with a smile as Yemi doted on him.

“You’ve always been so demure, Yemi,” she said with a flutter of pink. “I’ve never seen this side of you. You never let us.”

She reached out to touch him, sliding her palm across his smooth belly, his muscles growing more defined as he flexed in response. She was finally able to feel those waxed scales for herself. Years of hounding the poor male, and all it had taken to get him into bed in the end was showing him a little respect and courtesy. Her hand came to rest beneath his chin, Yemi pausing his licking to turn his eyes to her, Steven’s member pulsing an inch from his nose.

“May I kiss you?” she cooed. “It’s Earth’nay custom, after all.”

Yemi closed his eyes and leaned in, the two aliens joining, the pink in his feathers all the permission she needed. They couldn’t kiss as humans did, but Steven saw flashes of pink between their locked lips, those little tongues extending as far as their physiology would allow to intertwine with delicate licks. They turned their heads to the side, interlocking their jaws to get nearer like two pairs of scissors. Yemi seemed no less enamored, Mima giving him a warm smile as she broke away.

This wasn’t just about him and Yemi – the flock wanted to be involved too. Mima took Steven’s erection and lifted it to Yemi’s lips, Paza placing a hand on the back of his neck to ease him down, the male letting the organ slide into his mouth obediently. Paza’s hand was still stroking the male’s strange organ, squeezing it gently between her fingers, a seemingly continuous flow of that clear fluid forming spiderweb strands as it leaked from his tips.

“Are you close, Steven?” Mima asked as she cradled his sack in her hand. She said it with feigned innocence, giving his balls a teasing squeeze in a way that she knew he would enjoy.

“Yeah,” he sighed, a pulse of pleasure surprising him as Yemi’s tongue circled his glans.

“You hear that, Yemi?” Paza chuckled. “You’re doing such a good job that he can hardly stand it. Are you ready to taste him?”

“Here it comes,” Ezi trilled excitedly as she reclined in the cushions. “He’s going to do it again!”

“Finish for us,” Mima pleaded, her honeyed voice almost enough to push him over the edge. “Show Yemi how much you’re enjoying his company.”

The diminutive male met Steven’s gaze, and he found himself drawn in, the red paint that framed Yemi’s eyes contrasting with the green scales and dark sclera to make them leap out. They were such a beautiful shade of vibrant violet, matching the gemstone that hung between them. His nose brushed the human’s belly as he encompassed as much of his length as he could manage, his slimy tongue fighting it for space in his mouth.

Somehow, it was impossible to resist with Yemi peering up at him in a silent plea, one final lash of his tongue sapping the last vestiges of Steven’s resistance. Still sensitive from his last climax, the pleasure crept up on him, bursting forth in a dizzying wave. The first rope of his seed splashed against the roof of Yemi’s mouth, the little alien drawing back in alarm, a hint of yellow creeping into his pink feathers. The next gelatinous strand draped itself over his snout, dangling like the gem on his diadem, Mima stroking Steven’s cock to ease out more. A few more spurts landed on Yemi’s flat chest, the pearly globs seeping down his smooth scales. He turned his eyes down, following a milky droplet as it seeped along the channel between his abs, settling in his navel. Mima smiled to herself as she gave Steven a few more pumps, the last drips falling to Yemi’s thighs.

“Shit, sorry,” Steven stammered as he watched the alien wipe away a hanging string from his chin. “I could have warned you.”

“It tastes bad,” Yemi replied, sticking out his tongue. “But I like it,” he added, his face framed with pink as he gazed up at Steven.

Steven collapsed back into the sheets, sitting on the mattress as he basked in his afterglow, residual throbs of pleasure making his muscles ache. He wasn’t entirely sure what had just happened. Yemi was just as alluring as the females, if not moreso with his shy demeanor and his meticulous attention to his appearance, so Steven hadn’t really thought twice about it. Did this make him gay? The distinction didn’t really seem to exist on Valbara, and Yemi’s alien features made him more feminine than half of the women Steven had met. All that really mattered was that he liked the little guy.

Mima settled in beside him, her feathers tickling his skin, a smug expression on her face. Yemi was in Paza’s care now, leaning back into her arms as she nuzzled at his neck, tracing her fingers through the sticky web of fluid that clung to his torso. Ezi and Ipal soon approached, crawling in to his left and right, the male’s feathers flashing with uncertain colors as they boxed him in.

Their lips sought out his vulnerable neck and shoulders, their hands roaming across his polished scales, the overwhelmed male twisting and bucking beneath the bedroom lights. The moisture and the milky residue that decorated his torso glistened, his iridescent eye spots shimmering, his lithe body even more enticing when it was in motion. His hips swayed, his plush thighs rubbing together, his chest swelling as he grew short of breath. The girls were subjecting him to their signature brand of love, leaving him shivering and gasping, finally able to have their fill of their beloved secretary. Tilli was the exception, sitting apart and merely watching as she tended to do.

“I think you’ve made a lot of people very happy today,” Mima said as she leaned her head on his chest. She let her hand wander into his lap, amusing herself by keeping him hard. “I don’t think that Yemi would ever have found the courage to do this without your encouragement, and he would certainly never have joined our flock in bed. I was a little worried that we had misread the situation,” she added, watching as Ipal gave Yemi a sip from her bottle. “It didn’t occur to me that Earth’nay boys might not get along as Val’ba’ra’nay do.”

“Truth be told, we generally don’t,” Steven replied. Mima cocked her head, the yellow in her feathers begging a question. “I suppose we’re a little less flexible when it comes to sexuality. You guys are all individuals – all the same sex, but you have no problem being intimate together.”

“We are a flock,” she explained, running her clawed fingers across his belly. “Would you reject the intimacy of you own hand?”

“That’s about what I figured,” he said, his chuckle tapering into a sigh as she ran a finger up his shaft. “What about males?”

“They don’t flock with other males in the way that we do,” Mima continued. “Once they leave their parent flock, they tend to remain solitary until they enter a relationship. Some enjoy the company of the same sex just as Yemi seems to, but for others, it’s more of a cultural expectation.”

“How so?”

“Two males going at it as a common fantasy for flocks,” she added with another of her sly smiles. She must share that fantasy, and he had helped to fulfill it. “Even if males aren’t truly interested in other boys, they may put on the affectation to amuse or entice their suitors.”

“I see,” Steven mused. “Kind of like two women kissing in a bar for attention. Huh…”

“It’s going down again,” she continued, giving his receding erection a prod. “It seems that your Earth’nay stamina isn’t limitless. Come – lie with me while you recover. I’m certain that the others will put on a fine show for us.”

They turned their attention back to Yemi, who was now being eased onto the mattress by his three partners. Paza was still dressed in her business attire, making her look even more the part of the ringleader when contrasted with her nude companions. Ipal had set her bottle down, while Ezi was nuzzling Yemi’s neck, all of her restraint finally paying dividends. Steven could hardly envision a better form of positive reinforcement for her.

She seemed to be the most eager of the trio, straddling Yemi as Paza knelt behind him, guiding his head into her lap. Using her soft thighs as a pillow, he glanced down, his feathers filled with both excitement and apprehension as Ezi kissed his throat. She roamed down his torso, dragging her tongue through the seed that still decorated his belly, licking it from his waxed scales. She crawled lower, kissing his hip and bringing her snout to his strange, two-pronged organ. It was swollen and leaking, pulsing gently in time with its owner’s racing heart.

“Let’s do it the Earth’nay way,” she giggled, drawing one of his glans into her mouth. Yemi tensed as she wrapped her lips around it, lashing it with her tongue, Paza laying her hands on the male’s shoulders as she watched him squirm from above.

Ipal took one last swig from her bottle, then moved in to join her flockmate, the two jostling for space. With their scaly cheeks pressed together, they shared his member between them, nursing at one glans each as Yemi’s feathers began to flash with nonsensical colors and patterns. Steven couldn’t see much of what they were doing from his perspective, but he could see Yemi reacting to them, Paza cradling his head in her hands as he arched his back.

When he was suitably overwhelmed, they drew back, Ipal sitting down to watch as Ezi swung a leg over him. Steven was given an admirable view of her toned ass as she put her back to him, the light catching the indent of her spine and the two little dimples above her pert cheeks. She reached down to take Yemi’s shining cock in her hand, guiding it towards her lips. Making a fist, she squashed the two shafts together so that they would both fit, pressing down on them. A shiver crawled up her spine as he entered her, the two aliens joining, her hips slamming down on him. After taking Steven, this much be a cinch.

Yemi moaned as she began to move, rocking her hips just as she had with Steven, keeping her partner snugly hilted. Seeing them together, their style of lovemaking made a little more sense. The pronged member was less suited to an in-and-out motion, but those dull barbs and nodules must provide a lot of stimulation.

Ezi lay her hands on his belly, making slow circles with her hips, throwing her head back as she ground against his cock. Seeing her make love from a distance gave Steven even more appreciation for how she moved and the flawless control that she exerted over her body, the taut muscles flowing beneath her shining skin.

As he watched, wrapping an arm around Mima to keep her close, he noticed that Ezi’s tail was moving. It slid down beneath her, Yemi’s feathers flaring as she pressed its tip between his cheeks, nudging gently. When she pushed a little harder, a couple of inches vanished inside him, but he didn’t protest. Instead, he bucked into her, Paza whispering her sordid encouragements in his ear as his feathers began to go haywire again.

“Is that something you guys usually do?” Steven asked apprehensively, watching Ezi start to pump her tail rhythmically. It slid in and out of her moaning partner, moving in time with the swinging of her hips, stroking him from within.

“Yes, why?” Mima asked with a chuckle. “Want to give it a try?”

“Nah, I don’t think I’ve advanced to that level yet,” he replied sarcastically. “I’m only a half hour removed from my first homosexual experience.”

“We’ll have to ease you into it,” Mima added.

“Poor choice of words,” he grumbled.

Good boy,” he heard Paza purr, holding Yemi’s head in her hands as she stroked his cheek lovingly. “You’re taking her tail so well.”

“He needs the practice for Steven,” Ipal added, waving her bottle in the human’s direction. “Hear that, big guy? She’s getting him nice and ready for you.”

“Is that even going to work?” Steven stammered, feeling his face start to warm. Ezi had been tight enough, and Yemi was even smaller than she was. That wasn’t even accounting for the obvious difference in gender.

“The prospect seems to excite you,” Mima replied, reaching down to give his cock a squeeze. He was swelling again, the few minutes of reprieve apparently enough recovery time. She took it in her hand and began to stroke it, her pace slow and teasing, keeping him wanting as they watched the sordid show together. “I think he’s done this before – look how deep she’s getting.”

Ezi had buried a good three or four inches of her tail inside him now, her thighs clamped tightly around his hips, his cock secured in her tight grip. They seemed locked together, the many points of contact making it impossible for the little male to escape, though the colors in his headdress suggested that such a thing was furthest from his mind.

He seemed dazed, his unfocused eyes moving between Paza and Ezi, one of his hands reaching out to fondle her bouncing breasts as she subjected him to the cruel motions of her skilled hips. He was the object of their affection, submitting to their desires, but they were so gentle and careful with him. It was a kind of loving subjugation that Steven had never experienced before, and he felt a pang of anticipation at the prospect that he too might get to experience that feeling before the night was through.

The aliens had little stamina, so he doubted whether the encounter could continue for much longer. Both partners seemed close to their limits, their musical gasps and trills filling the domed bedroom, their pace growing faster and less graceful.

Ezi sank her tail a little deeper, making Yemi writhe between her thighs, whatever she was doing to him filling his feathers with those nonsensical colors and patterns. It looked like his brain was short-circuiting, his own tail lashing across the sheets like an anaconda in distress, his clawed toes curling. Ezi seemed to be just as taken with him, riding him into the mattress, throwing her feathery head back as her climax neared.

With a shiver, she let out a stifled chirp, her flexible body becoming as immovable as one of her wooden sculptures for a brief moment. Steven could see every muscle tense as the ecstasy tore through her limber frame, those sculpted cheeks quivering as she renewed her impassioned thrusting. Yemi’s eyes snapped shut, Paza cradling his head as he joined his partner in her bliss, watching the pair with a wry smile while their glistening bodies moved together.

Only when Yemi had ceased his bucking and gasping did Ezi slide her tail out of him, Steven watching inches of it reemerge. They remained joined for a few moments more, then she leaned down to kiss his neck, the two enjoying their afterglow as they nuzzled and trilled softly. She lifted herself off him, his two-pronged member popping out of her, the pink and purple flesh shining with their blended fluids. Strands of it still linked them, joining Ezi’s thighs, but it was hard to tell whether it had come from her or her partner. Yemi’s emission was perhaps clearer and more watery than Steven’s.

As Ezi flopped down onto the cushions at his side, her feathers flushed green with contentment, Steven found himself face to face with Yemi. The little male’s lids were drooping, his breathing slower and more relaxed, his member still swollen and dripping. Paza had one hand resting beneath his jaw to support him, the other stroking his chest, his head resting in her lap as he lay splayed on the mattress.

“I think he’s ready for you now,” Mima said, giving Steven’s cock another teasing stroke. “Go to him…”

“Shouldn’t we give him some time to catch his breath?” Steven asked.

“Unless you want to be on the bottom, I don’t think he needs it,” she purred as she gave him another wracking squeeze.

Steven crawled closer, kneeling at Yemi’s feet. There was a moment of hesitation, Yemi’s feathers burning pink, then he opened his legs in an unspoken invitation for his partner to approach. Steven drew closer, reaching down to run a hand up the Valbaran’s thigh. His impeccable scales were as smooth as glass, moist with humidity, the subtle layer of fat making them no less plush and inviting than those of his female counterparts.

“You’re tickling me, Mister Zheng,” Yemi giggled as he pulled away in jest.

Steven wanted to remind Yemi that he could call him by his first name – that they weren’t in the office anymore, but hearing the Valbaran say it in that soft, musical voice flipped a switch in his brain.

He roamed higher, sliding his palm up Yemi’s taut belly, admiring the twin rows of muscle as they flexed beneath his hand. Paza was waiting for him at the top, leaning over the male’s erect feathers to watch, giving Steven a knowing smile.

“Perfect, isn’t he?” she prompted. “Not a blemish on him – scales so smooth that water runs right off them. I’ll bet I could see my reflection in his ass.”

Ezi leaned in from their left, her smaller, three-fingered hand joining Steven’s to stroke the male’s midriff. She still seemed so enamored, glancing between the two boys, her plumage broadcasting her happiness and arousal.

“I can’t believe I got to have both of you,” she sighed, momentarily overcome with emotion. “And now, I get to watch you…”

She reached up to Steven with an unsteady hand, taking him by the chin and guiding him lower, her lips parting to meet him. They shared a kiss, her pace slow and grateful in her state of euphoria, the short creature craning her neck to reach him. The display of affection was so heartfelt that it took all of his willpower not to throw her to the bed and go for round two, but Yemi was waiting.

Ezi sat back to give them space, watching eagerly as Steven shuffled a little closer. He doubled over to kiss Yemi, Ezi’s taste still on his tongue, the two sharing an amorous embrace for a few lingering moments as Paza looked on. Steven could feel the change in Yemi – how loose and relaxed he was now, his initial uncertainty giving way to newfound confidence. The strokes of his tongue were more eager, the way that he leaned in conveying his rekindled desire, all hesitation melted away by the heat of their passion.

“Is this, uh…gonna be alright?” Steven asked as he drew back. “You’re pretty small.”

“If he can take a tail, he can take you,” Paza replied confidently.

“I was more asking Yemi,” Steven added, turning his attention to the male.

“Please,” Yemi whispered, the anticipation leaving him trembling. “I can think of no surer way to satisfy you than by giving myself to you wholly, and without reservation. I want you to take me.”

“Are you gonna make him beg?” Ipal chuckled from somewhere off to their right. “Give him what he wants.”

The little male’s pleading left Steven’s heart pounding and his member aching, his hands sliding down Yemi’s narrow waist to take hold of his wide hips, his sudden assertiveness making the alien yelp. With a primal grunt, Steven repositioned his partner, moving his light frame with the same ease that he might move a pillow. This new position made their members brush together, Steven’s cock pulsing against the alien organ, its warmth palpable.

“D-do be gentle, Mister Zheng,” Yemi stammered as he reached down to grip Steven’s wrist.

“You’re not quite as smooth as Ezi’s tail,” Mima warned, Steven feeling her hand on his back. “Tilli – why don’t you bring us some scale polish?”

“Okay,” Tilli chimed, springing to her feet and slinking out of the bedroom.

“Scale polish?” Steven asked, struggling to keep himself under control with Yemi’s tight little frame pinned beneath him. Tilli returned after a brief delay with some kind of bottle, passing it to Mima before returning to her seat, settling in to watch.

“This gel should help ease it along,” Mima cooed, upending the bottle over his shaft and squeezing out an oozing trail like it was a tube of toothpaste and his cock was the brush. “It’s water-based, designed for polishing scales,” she explained as she gave him a knowing smile. “It’s one of those unspoken secrets that everyone seems to know. Just go slow at first.”

“And here I was just starting to get used to this,” Steven mumbled as Mima spread the cool gel across his shaft, the stimulation making him shiver. “Was this just in my house the whole time?”

“You’re good at adapting to new situations, right?” Ezi said with a flush of pink. “So, adapt, Earth’nay.”

Steven was convinced that it would never work – that there was no way they were going to fit together, but Yemi seemed intent on making it happen. He lifted his legs like a gymnast – keeping his ankles together, reaching down with a hand to spread a pillowy cheek, his tail slithering out of the way.

Mima placed a hand on Steven’s butt, easing him closer and helping to guide him, encouraging him to move below the male’s leaking prong. He pressed his cock between Yemi’s soft cheeks, his skin gliding on the slimy polish, feeling a tight little ring of muscle resist him. Every impulse demanded that he impale the alien, but he went slow, watching his lover cautiously to ensure that he didn’t hurt him.

“Don’t worry – I loosened him up for you,” Ezi giggled.

The initial resistance soon passed, and Steven eased forward, that ring stretching around his glans. The tight little orifice raked over his sensitive flesh and pulled back his foreskin, giving way to hot, tight flesh that pressed around his shaft from all sides. Yemi shuddered as he felt the human enter him, the flock flashing pink feathers, looking on as Steven sank a couple of inches into the mewling secretary.

Valbaran loins were textured with maddening folds and wrinkles, but these walls were smoother – tight in a different kind of way. It wasn’t just clenching muscle – though that was certainly a factor – it felt like someone was squeezing him in their fist through the satin barrier of Yemi’s tunnel. There was so much pressure, but his partner wanted him to push through it, wriggling and pushing back in a bid to take him deeper. Sliding on the layer of lubricating gel, Steven sank another inch, feeling those constricting walls cushion him.

Mister Zheng!” Yemi trilled, his comely whimpering filling Steven’s ears. “You’re so…I can…take more…”

Steven gripped his hips like handles and dragged the trembling Valbaran onto his shaft, winning his fight against Yemi’s clenching muscles as he sank the rest of the way inside. After another few inches, the alien became a little looser, as though the muscles deeper inside his body were starting to relax. Not so for his entrance, the first inch or so still holding onto Steven’s shaft like the rubber seal on a water pump. The pair kept as still as they could manage, growing accustomed to this new sensation, but every throb of Steven’s cock provoked an involuntary squeeze from Yemi that made them both gasp as one.

Fuck,” Paza hissed, stroking Yemi’s feathers as though trying to comfort him. “Look at that – I can see the bulge in his belly.”

Ezi and Mima leaned in to get a better look, and Steven saw that there was indeed a subtle bulge in Yemi’s abdomen just below his navel, marking where the glans was pushing against his stomach wall from the inside. Paza reached out to press her hand against it, chuckling as she made the two boys groan together.

Steven tried to pull out as Paza laughed at them, that first inch holding onto him so fiercely that it would have stopped him in his tracks if it wasn’t for the slimy gel. It caught on his glans, almost making him lose his balance, a tremor passing through Yemi’s shining body as he felt Steven falter.

“Go slow,” Mima advised in that soothing voice, her feathers just as pink as Yemi’s. “Slow and deep. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that your cock was designed to drive boys wild. There’s an organ in there, right where you made that bulge. It’s deliciously sensitive…”

“Prostate?” Steven panted. “You have those?”

“Squash it like you’re squeezing the juice from a ripe berry,” Ipal snarled. “Make him sing.”

Steven pushed back inside, watching his shaft sink between Yemi’s cheeks, keeping an eye on his feathers for any sign of surprise or discomfort. This wasn’t the male’s first time – he’d already taken Ezi’s tail, and who knew how many times he’d done that in the past. If what Mima had said was true, then anal was practiced pretty routinely among male Valbarans, even during heterosexual encounters. The males were perceived to be the weaker sex – the more submissive sex, and a tail or a prehensile feather sheath put even their innermost erogenous zones within easy reach.

While Steven was big compared to what Yemi was used to, the unassuming Valbaran wasn’t out of practice, and he almost seemed to be having an easier time of it than Ezi had earlier that evening. Even while so distracted, Steven couldn’t keep his hands off the little male, exploring his body as the alien’s pillow-soft ass wrapped around his cock. He felt like he was thrusting between two velvet pillows. That ring soon gripped his base, but he didn’t bottom out, Yemi’s elastic insides stretching to accommodate him.

He began to move slowly, rocking into the clenching alien as he held him still by the hips, relying on the weight of his body and the slippery lubricant to help ease their coupling along. The tightness was enough to take Steven’s breath away, those slick, soft walls holding onto him with such force despite their palpable elasticity. It was a struggle to push into him, and a fight to pull back out, as though the mewling Valbaran’s beleaguered body couldn’t decide whether it wanted to expel Steven or stop him from leaving. The delicate, satin membranes caressed him with little flutters and tremors, Yemi’s innermost muscles stroking and milking in waves.

Between Yemi’s navel and his leaking prong, Steven could watch his cock tent the alien’s tan scales, creating a little bump that made his partner clench even more desperately. Every time Steven hit that spot, the little male arched his spine off the mattress, waves of color sweeping through his headdress as his eyes lost their focus. His tail flopped listlessly on the sheets, his legs limp and weak, as though all of the strength had been sapped from his body below the waist. He might have come already – it was hard to tell with all the stringy, clear fluid that his alien organ leaked onto his stomach. Even if Steven couldn’t feel anything other than hot, wet flesh, he could be sure that he was hitting the right spot by Yemi’s reactions alone.

Ipal crawled closer to Yemi’s side, her eyes lingering on his flexing belly, his scales splattered with fluid.

“Mima is right – you two are adorable together,” she said as she bit her lip. “It’s hard just watching…”

She leaned over the male, dragging her tongue across his stomach, planting a kiss on the bulge created by Steven’s member. Yemi flinched as she reached out a hand to stroke his prong, sliding a finger up one of his twin shafts, then pulling it away to create a stretchy string of pre.

“Damn it,” Steven grunted, his pace faltering.

“What?” she asked with an amused feather display. “Does he tighten up when I touch him here?”

Not willing to wait for a reply, she took Yemi’s cock in her fist, giving it a squeeze that pressed the two shafts together. Yemi bucked into her hand, his entrance sealing around Steven’s base in a muscular clench, growing narrow enough to halt his movement.

“So cute,” she purred, bringing her snout lower. Yemi froze up as she slipped his member into her mouth, wrapping her lips around both glans and polishing them with her tongue, strands of his fluid linking her chin to his stomach.

Yemi was overwhelmed, throwing his head back into Paza’s waiting arms, every lick of Ipal’s tongue or flex of Steven’s cock sending tremors of pleasure coursing through him like little electric shocks. Steven almost felt sorry for the little creature – there was no way he could tolerate such delicious torture for long. As his feathers flickered like a damaged display, he wrapped both hands around his snout, holding his mouth in a futile bid to stifle the lurid moans that were slipping out.

“You don’t need to hold it in,” Paza cooed as she gazed down at him, caressing his cheek affectionately. “You can be as loud as you like – there’s nobody in this bedroom but us. Let it all out.”

Every time Yemi exhaled, it seemed to be accompanied by a gasp or a whine, his toned body writhing slowly on the sheets. Steven moved gently so as not to knock him around, finding a lazy tempo, Ipal nursing at his prong. She took both shafts deep into her mouth, making him tighten as her tongue swirled around the base where the two branches joined.

“You’re gonna fry his brain doing that,” Steven muttered.

“Is that a bad thing?” she replied, pausing her sucking for a moment to give him a grin. She returned to the male’s organ, a blend of her saliva and whatever juices he was secreting dangling from her lips in ropes, her hand putting pressure on his belly where Steven’s cock was pushing it out.

They remained locked in their sordid dance for a few minutes more, until Ipal eventually drew back, wiping the slime from her mouth. She reached for her bottle and took a drink, washing it down, then sat beside the two boys to watch.

“He’s all yours, big guy,” she declared.

Steven moved his hands beneath Yemi, sliding them between the silken sheets and his even softer scales, cupping his round cheeks. It had been maddening watching Yemi strut around in those skin-tight shorts, and now, there was nothing stopping him from having his fill. He felt his lover tighten as he rolled that malleable flesh between his fingers – heard him gasp as he sank his digits into the layer of quivering fat to seek out the rubbery muscle that gave the Valbaran such a perfect ass. At fifty pounds, Yemi was as light as a feather, and Steven could lift his hips from the mattress to maneuver the alien around as he pleased. Only Yemi’s shoulders were in contact with the ground now, his head still resting in Paza’s lap as she watched, Steven’s thrusting rocking him into her.

The shivering male arched his spine as Steven changed his angle, putting more pressure on that sweet spot, droplets of clear fluid leaking down Yemi’s impeccably-waxed stomach as his hips were raised higher than his head.

“He’s throwing you around like a Teth’rak with a Gue’tra,” Ipal chuckled as she watched.

“I think he’s being remarkably gentle, considering their difference in size,” Mima added.

“How does it feel?” Paza asked, holding Yemi’s head in her hands.

“It’s…so hot,” Yemi stammered, each thrust making his voice waver such that he could barely get a word out. “I can feel it swelling within me.”

“It’s nothing like a tail, is it?” Ezi giggled. “It’s not scaly and tapered – it’s warm, and you can’t get the strange shape out of your head.”

“Are you speaking for him, or for yourself?” Paza chuckled.

“I’m gonna lift you up,” Steven grunted, hooking a hand behind Yemi’s back.

“Huh?” Yemi asked, flashing yellow. He yelped as Steven hoisted him out of Paza’s lap, one hand supporting his cushiony rear as the other arm curled around his torso to hold him close, Steven careful to give him enough room to breathe. His smooth, cool scales pressed tight against Steven’s warm skin, sweat and moisture blending together to make their contact wonderfully slippery. Yemi’s swollen little prong was sandwiched between their bellies, Steven feeling it rub against him as it pulsed and leaked. Yemi curled his tail around Steven and gripped him with his thighs for purchase just as he had when they’d left the bar drunk that night, burying his face in his lover’s heaving chest. He couldn’t wrap his arms around the human’s torso – it was too wide – so he let his hands rest against Steven’s torso. In this position, Steven could lift him with ease, then lower him back down, dropping the diminutive alien onto his member.

“He’s as light as a doll to Steven,” Mima sighed as she watched their encounter drag on.

“I wonder if you could lift me up like that?” Ezi asked.

“You barely weigh ten pounds more than Yemi,” Ipal chided. “That’s the equivalent of a good-sized fish.”

Steven glanced down at his partner, Yemi shivering in his arms, pressing up tight against him as though somehow desperate to be even closer. His elongated face was turned to the side, his cheek sliding against the human’s wet skin, his rippling feathers rising just high enough to tickle Steven’s nose. In this position, he could go even deeper, bouncing Yemi in his lap. The alien was so reactive, trembling and trilling with each motion, losing control of his feathers when Steven’s glans grazed his sensitive depths.

“You good?” Steven panted, pausing for a moment. “Did you finish yet?”

Yemi turned his snout up, his violet eyes glittering, his feathers stained a contented green as he met Steven’s gaze.

“Yes, but that doesn’t matter,” Yemi replied with a shaky laugh. “You can keep going until you’re sated, Mister Zheng. You’re doing all of the hard work, after all.”

“Don’t tell him that,” Ipal chided, waving her bottle. “He’ll keep you busy until sunrise, and I still want a turn!”

Steven leaned Yemi back a little, doubling over to kiss him, the two sharing a slow and sordid embrace even as his cock throbbed within the alien’s reaches. Yemi was only growing more enamored with the concept after each embrace, doing his very best to reciprocate, the thin ribbon of his tongue darting out to greet his partner. His lips were so full, irresistibly pillowy, the soft like squeaks and chirps that emanated from him sending Steven’s heart racing.

He slid the Valbaran’s small frame off his shaft with a tangible pop, his grip so strong that it took some effort, holding him beneath the arms as his long legs and tail dangled. Yemi’s feathers flushed yellow and pink as Steven lowered him to the mattress, turning him so that the alien was on his hands and knees.

That’s how you want him?” Paza marveled, the pink in her feathers suggesting that she approved. “How sordid…”

Yemi guessed what Steven was expecting pretty quickly, lying down with his perfect peach of a butt lifted into the air obediently, arching his spine and flopping his tail across his back to keep it out of the way. There was already a strand of glistening fluid drooping to the mattress between his legs, each throb of his member making it swing.

“Gosh,” Ezi giggled, the sight seeming to fill her with excitement. “I’ve never seen a boy lift his tail like that before. That’s…wow.”

“You’re saying that you’ve never seen a boy so eager for your attention?” Ipal joked. “Kind of goes without saying.”

“Very funny,” Ezi replied with an exaggerated pout. “I can’t wait to see what a mess Steven makes of you. You’ll be lifting your tail just the same as Yemi.”

Steven drew closer, Yemi having to lift himself a little higher to meet him, his cock sliding between the alien’s plush cheeks. With Yemi’s butt right there in front of him, it was impossible to resist delving his fingers into the male’s rubbery flesh, Steven admiring the velvet fat as it bulged between his fingers when he squeezed. Yemi had an athletic build, and he probably strived to stay in good shape, always fretting about his appearance. Paza had joked about seeing her reflection in Yemi’s ass, but his scales were so smooth and shiny that it didn’t seem so far-fetched.

“Take a picture – it’ll last longer,” Ipal chimed.

“Who the fuck taught you to say that?” Steven laughed, momentarily distracted by the absurd statement.

He placed a hand on his shaft to angle it down, feeling that narrow ring of muscle greet him again, but it seemed easier to push past it this time. Maybe Yemi was more relaxed – more eager now that he knew what to expect.

Those warm, slick walls wrapped around his cock as though they were designed to fit together, Yemi’s spine curving as he felt Steven enter him. This position gave the Valbaran more control over their coupling, letting him push back to take his partner deeper, moving his hips to subtly change the angle of penetration. He was no longer a passive participant just lying there taking whatever Steven gave him.

Holding onto Yemi’s wide hips, Steven began to move, rocking into the alien now that he had a better idea of what he could take. The alien’s butt bounced with each thrust, those soft, springy cheeks cushioning the blows and sending ripples through his flesh. He was so lithe and flexible, his spine compressing like a spring, pulses of color traveling through his erect feathers in a visual display of pleasure. It was almost like a heat map of how best to stimulate him.

Steven lay a hand on the small of Yemi’s back, just above the base of his tail, feeling the moisture that clung to his polished scales. There wasn’t much grace or restraint in their movements anymore, the two lovers driven by desire. Yemi lay his flat chest on the mattress, his spine curving like he was doing some yoga stretch, his head turned to the side so that he could look back at Steven adoringly. Somehow, the little male managed to be as cute as Tilli, as sexy as Ezi, and as comely as Mima, all without ever really trying.

“A-are you c-close?” Yemi whined, his voice hitching with each thrust.

“Yeah,” Steven grunted in reply, feeling Yemi constrict around his shaft almost in anticipation. He was constantly clenching, every subtle movement from Steven making the alien tighten up and flex, his small frame reacting to each pump and stroke. He didn’t need to ask if Yemi had climaxed yet – the evidence was dripping down his inner thighs and sullying the sheets beneath him.

Yemi’s tail reached out to curl around Steven’s waist, its surprising strength encouraging him to stay close. The unspoken request was obvious enough – finish inside me.

The constant slippery, warm pressure was becoming too much to bear, the way that those satin-soft walls glided up and down Steven’s shaft so captivating that he could scarcely focus on anything else. With Yemi’s violet eyes gazing back at him, Steven upped his pace, the soft slapping sound of his hips impacting the male’s scaly cheeks joining the sound of their labored breathing.

“I’ve seen that expression before,” Ezi cooed as she watched the pair from nearby. “Who knew that Yemi would finish him off so quickly?”

Steven was barely aware of the tittering from the flock, entirely focused on Yemi’s striking eyes, the little bauble between them bouncing against his forehead as Steven rocked him. As his pleasure mounted, Yemi pushed back even harder, encouraging him to sink his shaft deeper as though he could sense Steven’s need.

Steven’s climax was upon him before he even had time to prepare himself, the first stab of pleasure tearing through his core, making him double over like a punch to the gut. His fingers sank into Yemi’s soft haunches, the alien’s entrance tightening around his base like a vise as Steven hilted his partner instinctively, nature demanding that he be as deep as possible. Yemi let out a desirous moan as he felt Steven’s member flex and swell within him, straining against those soft, delicate muscle walls. It was chased by a flood of hot, viscous seed that sent his feathers flaring pink and surprised yellow, the warm fluid pumping into his depths.

Steven kept up his thrusting, pulling Yemi onto his shaft, the little male relaxing obediently to let his lover have his fill. His lids fluttered and his feathers burned, his mouth subtly agape as he reveled in the new sensations that were washing over him. He seemed able to feel every splash of emission that painted his reaches, his prong leaking ropes of clear fluid in turn, little tremors of ecstasy making his plump thighs and ass quiver.

Steven’s rutting gradually slowed, and he found a more pacifying pace that allowed them both to revel in their shared bliss, Yemi’s adorable shivering and cooing as much a reward as the sweet ache that permeated his muscles. Only when the pleasure faded to be replaced with a comforting afterglow did they part, Yemi’s muscles fighting Steven for every inch as he pulled out, a little glob of his milky seed leaking between his partner’s cheeks. Yemi flopped to the bed, thoroughly spent, his chest heaving as he recovered his faculties. It had been quite a workout for him. Steven sat back onto the sheets, his member still wet with a blend of his emission and slippery scale polish.

Yemi struggled upright, crawling over to Steven and craning his neck in search of a kiss. They shared a lazy, affectionate embrace as they enjoyed the smoldering remnants of their passion, Steven letting his hands wander across the alien’s irresistibly soft scales.

“I thought it would feel somewhat like a tail, but that was…very different,” the male sighed as Steven cradled him in his arms. “I…I liked it very much. My legs won’t stop shaking, and I still feel so…full. I have never experienced this before.”

“You alright?” Steven asked, peering down at him. “I didn’t hurt you, did I? You’re so much smaller and lighter than I am.”

“No, you were gentle,” he giggled. Steven brought a hand to Yemi’s cheek, the alien nuzzling it contentedly. “I feel as though I could have done more to please you,” he added hesitantly. “Did you…enjoy me?”

“This isn’t a performance review,” Steven chuckled, planting a kiss on Yemi’s forehead just above his diadem. “But yes, enjoying you would be an understatement. Take it easy before the girls jump you again, alright? You’re shaking like a leaf.”

The flock soon moved in like jackals, preening over Steven and Yemi, the colors in their feathers suggesting that they had enjoyed the show. Ezi was almost beside herself, swooning at the two males as they sat together, her every fantasy seemingly fulfilled. Mima was ready to receive Yemi, Steven handing the tired male off to her, the feathery Valbaran burying the male’s face in the inviting fluff of her pillowy cleavage. His lids fluttered as she stroked his head, mothering him and cooing softly, her aftercare like a soft pillow at the end of his wonderful ordeal.

Once again, Steven marveled at how cooperative the aliens were. He and Yemi had become part of the flock, even if only in a temporary sense, and there was no competition or anxiety between any of them. Mima coddled Yemi the same way she did Steven, Ezi seemed just as enamored by them both, and the girls had been perfectly happy merely watching. It was as Mima had said – would one reject the intimacy of their own hand?

For Steven’s part, his human brain was still struggling with the concept of exclusivity between so many individuals. Jealousy was hard to maintain with so many willing romantic partners waiting on the sidelines for an opportunity to join in, and far from being a rival, Yemi was perhaps the most taken with him. It was a lot easier to share with someone who you could throw onto the bed and ravish until they were a leaking, moaning wreck. Perhaps it helped ease his primate instincts to know that he was by far the biggest and strongest among the group, or maybe their mellow, permissive attitudes were infectious.

He felt Ezi sneak in to his left, placing a hand on his thigh. Ipal sat down to his right, watching as Mima cuddled with Yemi.

“You still got some fuel left in that tank, big guy?” Ipal asked.

“Gimme a few minutes, you demons,” he sighed as he admired the view along with them. Was this a one-off thing, or was Yemi going to join their relationship in some capacity? Was that something that happened in flocks? For now, he was content to rest while the opportunity presented itself, enjoying the fading embers of his afterglow.

CHAPTER 19: PERFORMANCE REVIEW

After a few minutes of lounging, he noticed that Paza was watching him with her unwavering stare, those violet eyes piercing through the gloom of the dimly-lit bedroom.

“She’s waiting for her turn,” Ipal explained with a grin, noting where he was looking.

“I didn’t think she was into me that way,” he replied. “I kind of assumed that she’d be focused on Yemi tonight.”

“You assumed wrong,” Ipal chuckled. “I think her patience has run its course, and you look ready to go another round.”

Paza rose to her feet and began to unbutton her vest, tossing it aside with a confidence that made Steven’s heart start to race. She reached down to pull off her shorts, then planted her hands on her wide hips, looking him up and down expectantly. She had a similar build to Ezi but with an ocean-green coloration that faded to beige on her underbelly, forming a narrow strip that guided his gaze down between her toned thighs. She was subtly larger and stockier than Ezi or Mima, her muscles well-defined beneath her shining scales, her bust somewhere between those of her two friends.

“Uh, where do you want me?” Steven asked sheepishly.

“On your back,” she replied without missing a beat.

He lowered himself to the mattress dutifully, his mind swimming with the words that she had spoken to him during their brief heart-to-heart in the restaurant that one evening. Paza didn’t see him as househusband material, and she wasn’t as invested in their relationship as her flockmates were, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t make efficient use of him. There was something predatory about the way she was looking at him, like he was a meal, and she was evaluating where best to start.

She approached, placing a hand on his chest to push him down onto his back, planting her clawed feet to either side of his hips. She barely weighed sixty pounds wet, but he could still feel her weight shifting the soft mattress, his member pulsing as he watched a little bead of anticipation seep down her inner thigh. She was aroused, then – she just had a strange way of showing affection.

Her tail reached down to hook around the nearest blanket, giving his cock a quick rub down before she proceeded. The remnants of his romp with Yemi were still present. Seemingly satisfied that he was clean, that same tail coiled around his shaft, keeping it in place as she crouched over him. She lay a hand on his chest, her breasts wobbling gently as she repositioned herself, using her tail to maneuver his member towards her drooling loins. She sighed as she rubbed his glans between her lips, wetting it with her slippery fluids, the pleats of her velvet flesh caressing him.

Steven rose up to offer her a kiss, but she placed her scaly hand over his mouth, forcing him back down to the bed.

“No,” she grumbled, flashing pink and red feathers at him. “I told you – I’m not licking your mouth. It’s unsanitary.” He tried to reply, but she kept her hand in place, muffling his voice. “Enough of your jibes and jokes.” Steven lurched as he felt the sheath on her forearm begin to slowly wind around his neck, growing like a vine until it had a firm yet gentle grip. “I like my males quiet and cooperative – I don’t care if Earth’nay culture deems that acceptable or not. This bedroom is my domain until sunrise.”

“Yeah, she’s traditional like that,” Ipal snickered as she took a swig from her bottle. “I’d do what she says if I were you.”

“Yeah, alright,” Steven mumbled as Paza removed her hand from his mouth. She caressed his red cheek, testing the texture of his skin, suddenly showing more tenderness. “You can be the boss for a while…if that’s what you want.”

“Keep calling me Boss,” she added, allowing herself a flutter of aroused pink. “I like how that sounds. Perhaps I shouldn’t reinforce the idea that I’m about to fuck my secretary – it could be unprofessional – but I have to admit that it has a certain allure. You’re efficient, you work hard – it’s something that I admire about you. You show me the proper courtesy and respect at the office, and I want that here. It rouses something in me.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said as she lowered herself down.

Having seen Ezi and Yemi blaze the trail, she was a little more confident, but his size still gave her pause. Her tight, silken walls stretched like elastic to accommodate him, her body clenching and fighting him for every inch in spite of how slick she was. It didn’t feel any different from what he had experienced with Ezi – her warm flesh pouring around his shaft like liquid muscle, the wrinkles and delightful imperfections of her depths caressing his skin on a sheen of her fluids.

Yet, there was something about Paza’s demeanor that made it a totally different experience. Where Ezi had been shy and almost virginal, trembling with his every touch, Paza brought that same detached efficiency she displayed in the workplace to the bedroom. There was no wasted time, and she knew exactly what she wanted. She had probably planned out every moment of their encounter three days prior.

With a snarl and a flush of determined red, she pushed past the resistance, using her weight to slide him past that cruel ring of muscle at her entrance. She took him to the hilt in one smooth motion, slamming down into his lap, the two of them gasping together as the sensory overload rocked them. She started to move her hips, stirring him around inside her as Ezi had done initially, keeping a hand on his chest to steady herself as she peered down at him. The desire in her violet eyes was joined by satisfaction, like she was happy to finally have him where he belonged – beneath her. The pink in her feathers was joined by more crimson, perhaps a sign of dominance.

“Fuck, are you alright?” Steven asked as another sway of her hips took him by surprise. “It took Ezi a little while to get used to this.”

“I know my limits,” she replied, giving him another flutter of red that was accompanied by a ruthless thrust. “The question is – do you know yours?”

“Maybe next time we do this, we’ll both start fresh,” he replied as she made a maddening circle around his buried shaft. “Then, we’ll see who can go further.”

“How presumptuous that you’re already thinking about the second time,” Paza replied with a smirk.

“You’re telling me you’re not planning for the fourth and fifth?” he asked.

“I thought I told you to be silent,” she replied, the flush of pink in her feathers betraying her. She gave him another punishing sway that sent his head spinning, the ceaseless massage of her innermost muscles all that he could focus on, each squeeze and ripple sending tingling pleasure washing through him. It hadn’t been that long ago that he’d made a mess of Yemi, and he was still sensitive. It wasn’t a fair fight at all.

“You got it, Boss,” he muttered.

Paza threw back her head, gazing vacantly at the ceiling as her spine stiffened, her tail standing as straight as a rod. She had pressed his glans against her clitoris – Steven could feel it, the fleshy little bud sandwiched between his cock and the roof of her passage. She had more discipline than her sisters, only allowing herself a brief flash of color, but the way that she sank back down like a deflating balloon told him everything that he needed to know.

“I can feel your heartbeat,” she sighed, her claws leaving pink trails on his skin as her composure slipped. “It’s making you throb…”

She seemed to be admiring him now, running her scaly fingers across his chest, testing the firmness of his muscles and tracing the contours of his body as she found a slow and mesmerizing pace. She swayed and gyrated as she straddled him, letting her weight bounce him into the mattress, the soft base of her tail brushing his balls as it trailed down between his legs.

“Our males spend so much time polishing and waxing their scales to get a chest as smooth as yours,” she mused, her pink tongue emerging to wet her lips lasciviously. “The nipples are…strange, but one expects some quirks when dealing with aliens.”

“Can I touch you?” Steven asked, his lust starting to get the better of him. Her sculpted body was swaying atop him like a snake enraptured by a charmer’s flute, the muscles in her core more chiseled and defined than Ezi’s wiry frame or Mima’s soft paunch. The light above them was dim, catching the droplets of moisture that clung to her scales to make them glitter, casting shadows beneath her abs when they tensed. Her ample breasts – at least by Valbaran standards – bounced against her torso with her every thrust.

“I suppose it’s only fair,” she replied, sitting up a little straighter. “You have my permission.”

He slid a hand up her taut belly, starting at her navel, then letting the channel that her six-pack carved into her midriff guide his fingers higher. They firmed up when he touched them, seeming to bulge from beneath her scales, her insides gripping him more tightly.

“She likes to work out,” Ipal explained, taking another swig from her bottle as she watched. “It’s how she blows off steam.”

“At least until now,” Mima added with a wry chuckle. Yemi was still lying in her arms, his eyes wide as he watched their encounter play out. “I have a feeling that she might have just discovered another, more satisfying outlet for her frustrations.”

Steven reached her chest, covering one of her breasts, feeling her supple fat conform to the shape of his hand like he was leaving an imprint in a ball of wet clay. She was fuller than Ezi, but not covered in down like Mima, the texture of her fine scales irresistible.

She sighed as he kneaded, gripping him tighter, pushing back and forth to grind her sweet spot against his glans like she was riding a horse. Her tail began to coil around his right leg, holding onto him to give her more leverage, the appendage pulling him into her. She could barely accommodate him, her depths objecting to his presence with each spine-tingling contraction, but it didn’t deter her.

“A tail is fine when there are no boys around, but I like this more,” Ezi sighed as she watched the pair fuck from her nest of pillows.

“It has an…odd shape to it,” Paza said, her feathers flickering as she looped her hips in a teasing figure of eight. “It’s hot – full of blood. At the right angle, though…” She leaned back a little, laying a hand on her mound as she ground against his member, perhaps remembering where his glans had bulged Yemi’s belly. “Right there,” she growled, a shiver passing through her.

Steven slid a hand down to her hips, gripping them as he encouraged her to go faster, his diminutive partner holding him with her thighs and her powerful tail as she upped her pace. She didn’t seem to want to do it the way humans did – Valbarans preferred to just bury their partner and try to stimulate their sweet spot. For a human man, it was unbearable teasing, Steven’s every instinct demanding that he roll her onto her back and pound her into the bedding as he had Yemi.

“Are you holding on?” she asked, noting his grimace. “You seem distracted.”

“Y-yeah,” he grunted, lying back into the sheets as she stirred him around inside her. She had such a tight hold on him – both inside and out – that she was able to dictate their pace with alarming ease. Steven wasn’t quite overpowered, but he felt that it wouldn’t have been difficult for her to just lock him in place and have her way with him, regardless of her small size. Those muscles were like steel cables.

“Good. I didn’t give you permission to finish yet.”

“You might get a bad performance review if you’re not careful,” Mima joked.

Paza,” Ipal whined, crawling across the sheets with her bottle in hand. “I’m tired of waiting. Can I join in? Surely there’s room for one more?”

“Fine, fine,” Paza sighed with a flutter of pink. “You’re so impatient.”

“I’m honestly surprised that she waited this long,” Mima added.

“What do you mean by room for one more?” Steven asked suspiciously. His question was soon answered as Ipal hurriedly shed her clothes, tearing off her vest and her shorts like the opportunity might pass her by. She was a little unsteady, perhaps tipsy from the wine.

“Finally,” she giggled, swinging a leg over Steven’s head. “I’ve been throwing my tail in your face for days, big guy. I was starting to worry that you’d never get the picture.”

Steven lurched as she sat down on his chest, blocking Paza from view with her bright pink headdress, her silky thighs cradling his head. Her scales were a verdant spinach that faded to a strip of beige on what they referred to as the underside, those softer scales cradling his burning cheeks, the springy muscle tangible beneath her memory foam flesh. It reminded him of the neck pillows that they sometimes gave out on flights between the Jovian moons. Her weight was tangible but not quite enough to be too uncomfortable, her long tail draping itself over his stomach.

Her build was similar to Ezi’s, though she was a tad taller than her flockmate, her figure just as sinewy and athletic. Her modest breasts jiggled as she adjusted her position, shifting her weight, her loins hovering only a couple of inches from his chin. She was already soaked thanks to the show they’d been putting on, her rosy flesh contrasting with the light tan of her lips, his mouth starting to water at the mere sight of it. If the Valbarans had any imperfections, he wasn’t aware of them, their bodies seeming inhumanly perfect to his novice eyes.

“Fuck, you look like you could have been carved out of a block of jade,” he sighed, momentarily overcome by Paza’s incessant teasing. “You’re beautiful.”

“W-what?” Ipal giggled, his compliment taking her off guard. She flashed pink and yellow, covering her mouth with the hand that wasn’t holding a bottle as she stifled a laugh. “You say the strangest things, Eath’nay. How about we put that agile tongue of yours to better use? You have to be thirsty after all this exertion…”

She upended the bottle between her breasts, letting a glug of the red liquid pour down her scales, forming shining rivulets as it followed the indent of her abs and flowed past her navel. He was already waiting for it, joining his lips to hers, a trill of pleasure and amusement escaping her as she felt his tongue graze her vulva. The fruity taste of the wine blended with the more sordid flavor of her loins, some of it spilling down his chin, but he was too swept up in the moment to care.

He rose higher, licking some of the residue from the scales beneath her belly, feeling her tremble with each stroke of his tongue.

“I want what you gave Mima,” she began, her voice wavering with anticipation now. “Will you do that for me, too? It looked wonderful.”

He crawled back down, kissing her inner thigh and sending another shiver of anticipation coursing through her. As much as he wanted to turn things around on her, it was hard to maintain any kind of stoicism with Paza gyrating in his lap, the fact that he couldn’t see her anymore only serving to heighten the sensations that she was subjecting him to. Ipal cooed happily as he buried his face between her legs, some of that sticky, sweet residue still clinging to her satin folds. She leaned back a little, glancing down at him as he began to mouth and lick, her bosom rising and falling rapidly along with her heaving chest. She was wired – she had been watching them all evening, biding her time until she could find an opening like a lioness waiting for her turn to eat from the kill. One hand shot to her chest, cradling one of her breasts as she began to knead and squeeze it rhythmically, the other darting down to delve into his hair. Her stroking encouraged him, her dull claws trailing across his scalp, the alien seeming to enjoy the texture.

“Was he this…warm when you had your turn, Mima?” she sighed. She was starting to sway in time with the lazy motions of his tongue, more drunk on pleasure than her wine now.

“Isn’t it delightful?” Mima chuckled from her seat in the cushions nearby. “Two of us can go at once – that must please you, Paza. It’s a more efficient form of lovemaking.”

“How are you doing back there?” Ipal asked, glancing over her shoulder.

Fine,” Paza grumbled, the tone of her voice suggesting that she was a little more overcome than she would like to admit. “He is…large, but no moreso than I can handle…”

She gave him another cruel sway of her hips, driving his shaft into her tender walls, those fierce muscles never slackening their hold on him.

“Oh, I think he liked that,” Ipal giggled. “I felt him falter. Fuck him harder, Paza.”

He began to protest, but Ipal let herself slide a little lower, sandwiching his face between her thighs and muffling his voice with her loins.

“No, no,” she chided as she flushed pink with desire. “I’ve waited days to see you on your back like this. Keep going.”

He lifted his hands as he resumed his work, sliding them up her thighs, feeling her squirm as he sank his fingers into her welcoming flesh. A little higher, he cupped her rear, filling his hands. Just like Ezi and Yemi, her ass was toned and firm, his thumb dipping into the little dimple of muscle on her cheek.

“Ah!” she yelped, shifting her weight as he gave her a gentle slap. His hand clapped against her scales, sending a beautiful ripple spreading through her fat. “Is that part of Earth’nay courtship? Don’t answer that,” she added, her tone sly as she gripped his hair to tug him closer. “Keep licking…”

Unable to keep still, she began to roll her hips slowly – almost absent-mindedly, lost in her fugue as his tongue danced across her vulva. Her lips were so impossibly soft, as plush as marshmallows, the way that they flushed with blood when she was aroused making them feverishly warm to the touch. He’d learned from his encounter with Mima, and he knew where Ipal was most sensitive now, feeling her little body tense with each teasing flurry.

Ipal let out what might have been a curse in her native language, sagging a little as he pushed his tongue inside her as far as he could reach, her silken muscles closing around it. She was too slippery to gain any purchase, pushing him back out with a wracking contraction. The red liquid inside the bottle glinted as she brought it to her lips again, downing a gulp before lowering it to her chest.

“Here,” she cooed, upending it and letting another few mouthfuls slide down her taut belly. “A flock shares everything – drink, herb, boys.”

Steven drank, the fruity flavor of her wine mingling with her sordid taste again, Paza grunting from behind Ipal as he flexed inside her. He felt her place a hand on his stomach to steady herself, bucking into him as she changed her angle, keeping him guessing.

“Having trouble back there, Paza?” Ipal giggled. “You’re always so distant – it’s unusual to see you this taken with a male. One might think you were starting to go soft…”

“Watch your words,” Paza replied, Steven seeing her bright pink feathers appear over Ipal’s shoulder before her scaly face came into view. “We all know how easy you are, Ipal.”

Easy?” Ipal scoffed, giving her a toothy grin.

“Don’t forget – I know you better than he does…”

Steven watched, transfixed, as Paza’s hands curled around her flockmate and pulled her back into a tight embrace. She coiled her sheath around Ipal’s neck as she had with Steven, not quite choking her, but applying enough pressure to excite. Her hand slid beneath her counterpart’s chin, lifting her head, Paza pushing her snout into the nape of her partner’s neck to nuzzle. Paza’s darker sea green scales contrasted with Ipal’s lighter spinach, the dominant red in her feathers overpowering the pink. Ipal stifled a moan, Paza cupping one of her breasts with the other hand, pressing a perky nipple between her fingers and giving it a cruel pinch.

“Ah! Paza!” Ipal whined as she bucked against Steven’s face. The two women were still riding him, the incessant shifting and movement only serving to drown him in more pleasure. Paza’s tail coiled around Ipal’s belly as she toyed with her flockmate’s chest, letting her sharp little teeth graze her shoulder.

“You can’t even handle a few inches of tail without becoming a shivering mess,” Paza continued, raking her claws down Ipal’s midriff to make her arch her spine. “I should know – I’ve fucked you into a coma before. Perhaps Steven would like to watch next time.”

Steven watched from below as Ipal writhed and squirmed in Paza’s arms, her counterpart’s practiced fingers and sheaths roaming across her naked torso, tweaking her nerves like she was plucking at the strings of an instrument. One of her snaking, tentacle-like sheaths spiraled around Ipal’s breast, creating deep indents in her soft flesh when it squeezed. Ipal’s feathers began to flicker, the rolling of her hips growing more desperate, Steven having to hold onto her narrow waist to keep her in place.

“Finish her off,” Paza said, releasing her counterpart and giving her a dismissive push. Ipal fell forward, planting her hands on the sheets above Steven’s head, doubling over. She was straddling his face now, hanging her head, her breasts swaying as she panted.

Steven sank a couple of fingers inside her, seeking out her sweet spot, feeling her tense when he brushed the fleshy little bud. He began to massage, peppering her thighs and belly with kisses, her abs clenching beautifully as her cramped reaches crushed his digits together each time his lips brushed her soft underside.

He could hear her breaths growing in pace and pitch, her soft moans and trills of ecstasy announcing her mounting orgasm, her thighs trembling against his cheeks as a strand of her fluid broke to drape itself across his face.

It only took a few more curls of his fingers to send her careening over the edge, her feathers going wild as she lost her composure, pushing down on his hand in a frenzied search for more stimulation. He could feel her angling her hips to grind against his digits, Ipal burying her face in the blankets, Steven hearing a muffled whine emanate from somewhere above him. He watched, captivated by the view of her toned stomach, those rows of muscle growing more defined as each wave of her climax rocked her. Her breasts swayed, hanging over him at eye level, firm and springy enough to keep their flawless shape even in this hunched position.

Steven struggled to pull out of her, feeling her loins tremble around his fingers on their way out, then he rose to give her a few more placating licks. Mewling contentedly, she collapsed onto the mattress beside him, her eyes unfocused as she surfed the waves of her euphoria. She still had her bottle clutched in her hand.

“I’m not done,” Paza snarled, snatching his attention away from Ipal with a swing of her hips that was as sharp as the crack of a whip. “What did it I tell you?” she added, gesturing to Ipal’s twitching frame as she resumed her ruthless grinding. “She’s so easy to please…”

“What about you?” Steven gasped, watching her move with a purpose and precision that Ipal had lacked. “What does it take to satisfy you?”

“I expect you to work for it,” she replied, her plumage awash with pink and crimson as she drove him into the bed.

Moving with a fluidity and grace that would put any belly dancer to shame, her pace grew faster and greedier, Paza keeping him buried to the base in her tight grasp. She was stronger and fitter than Ezi, and her pelvic floor muscles were no less toned than those of her stomach or thighs, the control that she exerted over them surprising him. The way that her depths stroked and squeezed almost seemed purposeful, whereas Ezi’s body had been in a state of mild panic as it fought to accommodate him.

There’s that sweet ache I envisioned,” she groaned, making Steven claw at the sheets with another skillful thrust. “It almost hurts, but not quite. I’ve never so achingly full…”

“Paza,” Steven grunted, his head swimming as another wave of silken muscle swept up his shaft. “I’m nearly-”

“I told you to be silent,” she snapped, leaning over him to cover his mouth with her hand again. “Good boys…obedient boys do as they are bade. You should strive to be more like Yemi. Serve me as he served you.” Her expression softened, and she relaxed her grip, sliding her thumb into his mouth instead. He spiraled his tongue around it, watching her feathers ripple, her scaly lips parting subtly. “I want you to look at me while you come,” she whispered. “I want to watch it.”

“Whatever you say, Boss,” he mumbled around her digit.

“You’re so demanding of your boys, Paza,” Mima chuckled as she watched the pair move together. She was strikingly beautiful, just lounging on her side in the pillows, her nude figure on full display. Yemi was beside her, his twin shafts everted again, his eyes following Paza’s movements. “You don’t have to drive him so hard.”

“He can take it,” she replied, her violet eyes locked onto Steven.

Paza still refused to rise off him as humans did, making love in the Valbaran way, keeping him hilted. Leaning her hands on his chest, she increased her pace, rocking her hips back and forth more rapidly. There was no part of her tight passage that wasn’t adhered to his cock, but this motion put pressure on her clitoris, making his glans grind against it. Her muscular tail remained firmly coiled around his leg, pulling him into her, maintaining control over their coupling. She wanted to dictate the pace, when they climaxed, when he was permitted to touch her – like this was all part of her daily itinerary. She had already planned out how she wanted this encounter to go, and he was just along for the ride.

He reached up to take her by the hips, and she allowed it, keeping her unflinching gaze fixed on him as she subjected him to her cruel waltz. Her athletic figure swayed and bucked, her powerful core moving in rippling waves, her breasts bouncing softly with each thrust. Steven could feel her velvet flesh swirling around his shaft, cushiony and slick with her love, the muscles beyond her cradling walls flexing and tensing with a strength that wrung gasps from him.

“Come for me,” she growled, the sight of her intense eyes framed by her rosy feathers making his stomach swarm with butterflies. She was so insistent that the command was hard to refuse, her sordid words alone almost enough to get him there.

Only now did Paza’s feathers start to flicker, having kept her composure for far longer than her flockmates, that stoic facade slipping for a moment as she began to blink at him. Sensing that she was close, Steven started to lift her off the bed, thrusting into her. He might have bucked her off him had it not been for the steely grip of her thighs and tail.

It only took a few more frenzied pumps before he felt that familiar pressure welling, and not needing to stave it off anymore, he let it come. A stab of pleasure shot through him as he painted her depths with his seed, a brief moment of respite soon followed by another wracking throb, his cock flexing inside her with the next rope. He was more sensitive than he had been last time – more tired from the demands of the flock, this orgasm somehow more raw and overwhelming than the last. He arched his back reflexively, lifting off the mattress and taking the little alien with him, her limpet-like grip keeping her securely attached. He wasn’t going anywhere until she wished it.

Paza responded in kind, going as stiff as a statue as she felt his molten emission well up inside her, her eyes losing their focus. It was like she was struggling to process what was happening, this new sensation washing over her, then she sagged back down with an appreciative shiver that traveled all the way down to the tip of her long tail. Her clawed toes curled, her feathers flashing nonsense colors, a pained moan escaping her that contrasted with her contented smile. She lurched with each fresh pump, balling her fists against his chest as the warm fluid filled every possible crease and wrinkle within her, the force of her clenching muscles pushing it back out of her to drip to the sheets below.

Her climax tickled him with each ripple and clench, her pint-sized body fitting him so tightly that their nervous systems seemed almost intertwined, what was felt by one affecting the other. Her spasming loins wrung the last couple of drops out of him as the pair sank back down to the bed, her iron grip finally relaxing, a shuddering sigh leaving her.

“I’m starting to see what had Ezi so taken with you,” she said, opening one eye to peer down at him. “Perhaps you’re more useful than I first assumed.”

“Permission to speak, Boss?” he joked as she gave him one last teasing sway of her hips.

“Fine, fine,” she sighed, unwinding her snaking tail from around his leg. Her grip had been so tight that his foot had gone numb. She shuddered, baring her teeth as he reached up to cup her breast, giving it one last squeeze while he had the chance.

Slowly, she lifted herself off him, Steven watching inches of his glistening shaft slide out of her. His skin was soaked in a sordid concoction of their shared fluids, milky strands joining her thighs, her pink flesh clinging to him like he was trying to peel off a silicone glove. When she finally succeeded in separating, she walked over to a nearby heap of cushions, seeming off balance. Trying to look dignified, she collapsed into the bedding, still dripping as she recovered her faculties.

“I’ve never seen anyone make a mess of you like this before, Paza,” Ipal giggled as she watched her flockmate catch her breath. “Are you sure the Earth’nay isn’t too much for you to handle?”

“I think she’s just getting you back for calling her easy,” Mima added with a smirk.

“You’ll change your tune when you try to take him,” Ezi said as she lay on her belly nearby. “It’s like trying to swallow a whole Gue’tra leg.”

“I got a couple more in me,” Steven said, rising to a sitting position. The flock laughed and tittered like a pack of hyenas, flashing each other signals as he glanced around at them in confusion. “What?” he asked with a shrug.

“You really must have a lot of stamina if you’re offering to continue after satisfying a whole flock,” Mima purred.

“It’s only really been three times,” he replied, feeling his face start to warm. “Besides, what about Tilli?”

He glanced over at the Valbaran in question, seeing her sitting on the cushions near the wall. She had barely said anything during their encounter, and she hadn’t stepped forward to take a turn yet. In fact, she was the only one of them who was still clothed.

“Tilli will come to you when the time is right for her,” Mima explained cryptically.

“Alright,” he conceded. “So…what do we do now?”

Mima rose to her feet and bobbed over to him, placing a hand on his chest and easing him back into the soft cushions. She lowered herself down beside him, then rolled onto her side, wrapping her arm around his head and pulling it into her bosom. Her cleavage wasn’t very deep, but her breasts were even softer and more inviting than the silk pillows beneath him, his face nestled in the fluffy feathers that covered her body. She hugged him as best she could with her small stature, draping her other arm over his chest, her fuzzy tail snaking over his belly to curl around him.

Yemi wasn’t far behind, trailing after her like a lost puppy. She made room for him, beckoning with a clawed hand, and he sandwiched himself between the two as best he could. Fortunately, there was a lot of Steven to go around. The male ended up a little lower than Mima, his head resting on Steven’s stomach beside her feathery tail.

The rest of the flock followed suit, Ezi, Ipal, and Tilli taking up position around him. Like sleeping with a pack of dogs, they snuggled up close to him, Ezi laying her cheek on his chest while Tilli curled up near his head, already starting to pet him. He found himself surrounded by smooth, moist scales and downy feathers, the greens and pinks that the Valbarans displayed letting him know that they felt just as content as he did. Paza waited a few moments longer, then gave a flutter akin to an eye roll, marching over to join them. She lifted one of the cushions, fluffing it up before tossing it beside him, lying down with her flockmates.

“Okay, I could get used to this,” Steven sighed as Mima’s fluffy breasts wobbled against his face. She stroked his cheek lovingly as Tilli combed his hair with her claws, the affection overwhelming him for a moment, making him grin like an idiot. He reached down to scratch Yemi’s head, running his fingers across the alien’s scales and making him flush pink again.

“I don’t think our Earth’nay is used to this kind of treatment,” Ipal chuckled.

“With a single mate at a time? Probably not,” Ezi added.

“Poor thing,” Mima cooed, leaning down to kiss his forehead. “Don’t worry – we’ll make up for your years of neglect. Are you comfortable?”

“I need to be real careful from now on,” he replied.

“Why?” Mima asked, cocking her head.

“I think I used up all my luck for the next fifty years when I submitted that UN application. I’m liable to be struck by a meteor or fall into a crevasse now.”

“Very funny,” Mima replied sarcastically. “You might have found your way to us through luck, but that wasn’t how you found your way into our bed. Luck required only that you do nothing while we made our clumsy advances.”

“And you certainly made that difficult,” Paza added.

“It’s because you asked more from us that you became so interesting,” Mima continued as she gave Paza a flash of red. “We’ve never had a boy make us work for it the way you and Yemi did.”

“We always want something even more when we’re told we can’t have it,” Ipal snickered as she traced a circle on his belly with her claw.

“And, now that you have it?” Steven asked hesitantly.

“It was worth the effort,” she replied, giving him a flash of pink along with a sly smile.

“Time to sleep,” Mima insisted, blowing warm breath into his hair as she nuzzled. “You might not be tired yet, but we are.”

“He’s nice and warm,” Tilli chimed. “This will work well when the weather cools.”

“What are we doing tomorrow?” he asked as the flock shifted their weight to get comfortable. “We have the day off, right? Yemi, are you staying?”

“As long as my responsibilities allow,” the little male replied.

“Perhaps we’ll see how much stamina you really have,” Ezi added with a titter.

CHAPTER 20: MORNING GLORY

Steven woke from a beautiful dream feeling good. Too good…

The flock was still asleep, surrounding him in their nest of pillows and sheets, partially buried in blankets. The lights were off in the windowless bedroom, and it was dim, but some sunlight was filtering in through the open archway that served as its door. He could hear the sound of steady breathing, a few of the Valbarans gently stirring around him as they slept.

He lurched, lifting the sheets that had been draped over him sometime during the night and glancing down to see Tilli nestled between his legs. She had his cock in her hand and was examining it intently, stroking it softly, the pleasant sensation that he’d been feeling now explained.

“T-Tilli?” he whispered, trying not to wake the others. “What the…what time is it?”

“Early,” she whispered in reply. “I like it in the mornings.”

Without missing a beat, she slid his member into her mouth, Steven stifling a groan as he felt her tongue start to explore him. She cradled his balls in her hand, running her fingers across his skin, employing all the tricks that she had observed the night before.

She was clumsy, but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable, the little alien coating his shaft with her saliva and tracing his pulsing veins with her fingers like she was planning on writing a thesis about human anatomy.

Shit,” he hissed under his breath. He leaned back into the pillows and let the blanket fall over Tilli, creating a small lump beneath it that shifted and moved, the muffled sounds of licking and sucking emanating from below. Not only did he have to keep quiet to avoid waking the rest of the flock, but he had to keep still, too. It was a challenge when Tilli’s lips were pursed around his glans.

She wrapped one of her sheaths around his length, the coils of the scaly, muscular appendage encompassing him. It was cool and smooth, slick with her bubbling drool, the muscles flowing beneath those delicate scales like a liquid as it squeezed and tightened. The control that they could exert over their sheaths never ceased to surprise him, the prehensile appendage slithering around his shaft like a snake. With the tube of flesh constricting him, she sucked at his head, sliding her tongue under his foreskin and teasing him ruthlessly. He flinched as her soft feathers tickled his sack – she must have remembered seeing Mima do it – her doting attentions captivating him.

The Valbarans had so many tools at their disposal. Hands, fingers, sheaths, lips, tongues, feathers – it was impossible to know which one she would employ next. He felt the delicate vanes of her plumage caress his tip as the warmth of her mouth left it, her sheath tightening around his base to make him swell and throb. It was soon replaced with her darting tongue, playing across his damp glans and licking its sensitive underside, Tilli gently squeezing his balls in her hand.

“I take it that Tilli is awake?” he heard someone chuckle, turning to see Mima peering at him with her violet eyes. She lay her feathery head on his chest, reaching down to lift the sheets. “Good morning,” she chimed.

“Does she…usually do this?” Steven whispered, grimacing as Tilli dragged her tongue from his base to his tip.

“She’s always been more of a morning person,” Mima replied. “Listen, last night was amazing,” she continued as she traced a circle on his belly with her claw. It was a challenge to focus on what she was saying with his glans rubbing against the textured roof of Tilli’s mouth. “I’m looking forward to seeing where today takes us.”

“What are you two talking about?” Ezi asked, opening her jaws wide in a yawn as she sat up beside him. She rubbed her eyes, then glanced at the lump that was nestled between his legs. “Oh, Tilli’s having her turn?”

Mima pressed closer, lifting herself a little higher so that she could pull his head into her fluffy bosom, stroking his hair affectionately as Tilli’s tongue played across his loins. It was impossible not to become a soup of happy chemicals with those plump, feathery breasts resting against his face. Mima always smelled great – whatever perfumes and soaps she used to treat her feathers seeping into his brain, conditioning him to associate her flowery scent with warmth and comfort.

Tilli was apparently eager to take things further, the little lump moving around as she climbed higher, lifting herself upright. The sheets tented over her as she straddled him, spreading her legs wide and letting his pulsing cock rest against her soft belly, glancing down as though she was trying to imagine how far inside her it would reach. It was a couple of inches past her navel. Tilli was a little smaller than her sisters, so quiet and easily overlooked when compared to Ezi’s bold advances or Mima’s measured seduction, but she knew what she wanted.

She lifted herself a little higher, placing a hand on his shaft to angle him towards her, squishing his tip against her pillowy lips. They spread, the soaking wet flesh of her vulva kissing him. Tilli wasted no time pressing him inside her, the tight fit pulling back his skin to expose him to the maddening folds and textures of her clinging passage. He could feel every wrinkle graze his shaft as she struggled to take him deeper, gliding on her slippery fluids, the resistance of her innermost muscles making him feel like he was making an opening more than stretching one open.

“God damn,” he grunted, Mima giggling at his expression.

“She may be a little small for you,” Mima cooed, watching as Tilli struggled.

Steven was scarcely halfway inside her, and he could already feel himself bottoming out, the depths of her passage tenting over his glans just like the blanket was tenting over her shoulders. Even as stretchy and elastic as her loins were, there just wasn’t room, and they couldn’t fit together. Tilli hung her head, shivering as he squashed her clitoris, the following flex of her muscles making him see stars. It felt like her body was trying to push him out of her, or perhaps crush him between those narrow walls, the slick membranes pressing around him as though trying to take a mold of his every contour.

Unable to ride him or hilt him as her flockmates had, Tilli elected to lean forward, pressing her light frame tightly against his. He was large enough in comparison to her that she could simply lie down on his belly like his torso was a couch, her snout scarcely reaching his chest. Her soft breasts compressed against him, the blanket falling over her such that only her nose was peeking out from under it, her eyes gazing up at him expectantly from within its shadow.

He immediately intuited what she was trying to do, reaching down with one hand to cup her ass, once again marveling at how plush and springy it was. There was something about the way Valbarans were built, with muscle like firm rubber and fat as soft as melting butter, all wrapped up in a taut film of silky scales. It was impossible to keep his hands off them for any length of time.

Slowly, he began to lift his hips, thrusting into her. While he couldn’t get more than about half of his length inside her, and her clenching walls made even that a struggle, he was still able to find a comfortable pace that suited them both. In this position, there was no danger of him hurting her, Tilli’s warm breath blowing across his chest as she became more and more taken with the new sensations.

Her loins sucked on him greedily, like he was being vacuum-packed in twitching, squeezing flesh. The suction made it a challenge to pull out, but when he did, all of those delicate creases and tiny imperfections stroked along his length. The feeling was luxuriant, Tilli straddling the line of what her body could handle, pushing back against him to drive him deeper. Like her flockmates, she seemed to crave the stimulation, her body stiffening each time his cock brushed that sensitive little bud.

More of the flock was waking now, the gasping and soft moans impossible to suppress, Ipal and Paza watching from the sidelines as Tilli writhed atop him. Yemi was nearby, still groggy, his pink feathers impossible to ignore. Keeping one hand firmly full of ass, Steven rested the other in the small of her back to keep her close, his sweat blending with the moisture on her scales to make their contact slippery.

“I didn’t think she was going to fit,” Paza muttered as she lounged in the pillows.

“She’s like a fucking thumbscrew,” Steven grunted, arching his back and lifting Tilli with him as she squeezed. “I can’t keep this up for much longer.”

“So much for all that stamina,” Ezi giggled. “It’s kind of fun seeing you on the back foot, Steven.”

“I don’t think this is a stamina issue as much as Tilli being built like a mouse trap,” he grumbled, bucking into her and making her feathers flicker beneath the sheet. “Feels like she’s trying to pull it off at the root.”

“Hear that, Tilli?” Ipal snickered with a flush of pink. “He says that you’re good at ensnaring cute little mammals.”

Tilli didn’t last much longer, her insides closing around him fiercely like they were trying to snap shut despite him, her velvet-soft flesh compressing against his shaft as the first wave of bliss crashed over her. She let out an adorable, stifled trill, covering her snout with her hands as she began to shake inside the warm confines of her blanket. Steven could feel every little twitch and flutter of her muscles, kneading and caressing him like the massaging water jets on some fancy jacuzzi, that relentless milking motion soon dragging him along for the ride.

With Tilli, there was no holding back – no deciding when it was time to finish. He had no say in the matter, her wrenching insides forcibly drawing out his orgasm, the sensation of being made to come so quickly and harshly leaving him dazed on the mattress. Even as he lay there, his mouth open in a voiceless cry, she kept wringing him with tremors and clenches. Thick, milky seed practically jetted out of her as he filled her with a single rope, seeping down to pool on his belly. She wouldn’t keep still, rolling her hips to eke out every last pang of ecstasy that she could, what felt like a tight fist gloved in satin clutching the top half of his cock.

Snarling like a beast, he gripped her ample rear in both hands, giving her a few more mind-melting thrusts as she shivered and chirped on his belly. There was something primal in him that demanded it, as though some primitive corner of his brain still believed that the gelatinous, oozing mess he was fucking into her tight reaches might still bear fruit.

“Well, look at you two,” Mima purred as her eyes wandered across their heaving bodies. “I’m glad to see you getting along so well…”

“Tilli finished him off faster than even Paza did,” Ipal said as she shot her flockmate a smirk.

“If I had wanted it to pass more quickly, it would have,” Paza protested with a flicker of red that failed to overpower the pink in her plumage. “He lasted only as long as my satisfaction required.”

“Maybe you should prove it,” Ipal added, turning her eyes on Steven. “See how fast you can make him finish next time.”

Steven was focused on Tilli, stroking her head affectionately as she sagged into his embrace, her half-lidded eyes filled with contentment that was reflected in her emerald plumage.

“Hell of a start to do the day,” he sighed.

“It’s a more pleasant way to wake up than an alarm,” Ipal replied, giving him a pat on the chest as she rose to her feet. She stretched, the morning sunlight spilling through the door, illuminating her shining scales as she lifted her arms above her head. He couldn’t help but pause to admire the way that the golden glow shone through the gap in her thighs.

“We should make some breakfast,” Mima added, starting to crawl out of their nest. She extended a hand to Yemi, helping the flustered male to his feet. “You boys need to keep up your strength.”

“You’ll need it,” Ezi trilled.

***

It was surreal just hanging out in the house after what had transpired the night before. They were all the same people, but also a little different, having come to know each other in more intimate ways. The Valbarans had been his coworkers, then his friends, but this was the first time that he really felt like he was truly a part of the flock. There was an ease to their interactions now, like lounging around in the nude was the most normal thing in the world. It wasn’t like anyone was going to get cold in the muggy environment, and the only clothing they’d brought with them were their business suits – not the best attire for sexual exploration.

Steven paused by the bedroom door for a moment to admire the sight. The flock had flopped down onto the couch, their bodies on display, their scales shining with moisture in the humid air and warm sunlight that bled in through the round windows. Yemi was with them, sandwiched between Ipal and Ezi, looking a lot less unsure of himself now that the ice had been thoroughly broken. They were so comfortable around each other, and around Steven, the need for shame or pretense far behind them now. Flashes of their encounters the night before played back in his mind – his hands wandering across those same smooth scales, their athletic bodies writhing against his own, the taste of their kisses. He still felt a little giddy, the afterglow from Tilli’s impromptu session lingering.

They were watching the holographic display – Tilli, Ipal, and Ezi clustered closer together while Paza reclined on the cushions nearby. It appeared that they were introducing a very confused Yemi to the detective show. They made no attempt to preserve their modesty, but it was nothing he hadn’t seen – or tasted – the night prior. Once again, he remarked at how comfortable they were around each other, the bond that they shared more akin to lovers than friends. Steven was wearing only a pair of shorts, feeling the soft carpeting beneath his feet as he made his way over to the kitchen to see what Mima was doing.

The fluffy Valbaran was hard at work making their breakfast, leaning over the low countertop as she mixed a pasty substance in a bowl. He faltered at the archway, seeing that she was wearing nothing but a tiny apron. The garment covered her chest and thighs, looping around her neck and tying around her hourglass waist with a neat little ribbon, her feathery back on display. His eyes were inexorably drawn to the base of her thick tail, the appendage only accentuating her curves, the way that it hung down over her butt concealing much of it from view. She’d only have to swing it to the side, and her cheeks would be on full display. The memory of how they had felt filling his hands was still fresh.

“Steven,” she chimed, giving him a sly glance over her shoulder. “I didn’t hear you come in. I’m making your favorite – fruit and nut snack bars. Do you remember?”

“I remember,” he replied. “You want some help?”

She gave him an affirmative flutter, and he moved up behind her, reaching around her with his far longer arms. Mima was mixing the dough in a bowl, kneading it with her bare hands, a few smaller containers filled with dried fruits and nuts waiting nearby. He joined her, plunging his fingers into the gooey, sticky substance as he helped her mix it.

“Do you remember when we kissed here?” she asked, her telltale flutter of pink feathers tickling his nose. “Our hands were all sticky with batter, and I was wearing this same apron. I lifted my head, and you stroked my neck, then you pressed close and touched your lips to mine in that strange way Earth’nay do.”

“I remember,” he repeated, drawing a little nearer to her. He could feel the downy feathers of her tail brushing against the fabric of his shorts. Still covered in the gooey dough, Mima paused her work, taking one of his hands in hers. She held it, tracing the lines of his palm with her thumb, the pleasant sensation making him shiver.

“I was so fascinated by your hands,” she continued, placing her palm against his as though comparing their sizes. “I must say – I came to know them far more intimately last night.”

“Do you have any idea how good you look just wearing this?” he asked, reaching down to tug gently at the ribbon.

“I suppose it covers just enough of me to be enticing,” she purred, lifting her head to look back at him. “I’m curious,” she continued in her familiar, sly tone. “You seemed to pull back after that kiss, as though you wanted to take things further but couldn’t.”

“You noticed that?” he asked, still captivated as she trailed her claws across his hand.

“It was hard not to. What might you have done if we shared the relationship that we do now, I wonder?”

“Probably something like this,” he replied, catching her in his arms. She flushed yellow, then pink, leaning into his embrace. The fluffy feathers of her back and shoulders pressed into his chest, an excited trill emanating from her as she brushed the growing bulge beneath his shorts with her tail.

“You don’t need much encouragement, do you?” she cooed.

“The tastiest thing in this kitchen right now is you,” he said, her shoulders shaking as she giggled. “We didn’t get to go all the way last night.”

“Maybe I was waiting for an opportunity to get you alone for a while so that I could really enjoy you. Do you have enough stamina left for me after Tilli had her fill?”

He slid a hand beneath her apron, giving the soft paunch of her belly a squeeze, the Valbaran wriggling in his grasp.

“Damn it,” she gasped, arching her spine as he slowly moved up her torso. “You’re incorrigible, aren’t you? You couldn’t leave my tummy alone last night, either. I know, I know – I’m touchable.”

Mima glanced down breathlessly, watching the lump beneath her apron rise, Steven cupping one of her breasts. She sucked in a sharp breath, squirming again, pushing out her butt. His erection pressed into her cheek, as soft as a down pillow, the little alien grinding on him as he squeezed her bosom. Its texture was hardly any different from the fresh dough in the bowl in front of them, melting between his fingers, the gunk that still coated his hands matting her coat.

“Steven, you’re getting me all dirty,” she whined in mock annoyance. “I’m going to have to wash all this off.”

“You’re all going to need a bath before you go home anyway,” he replied, making her plumage flush pink as he circled her nipple with his fingertip. “Do you do that together, too?”

“In that case, let’s make an awful mess,” she purred as she leaned forward. He released her, and she rested her sticky hands on the edge of the counter, arching her spine as she pushed her butt into his groin. Using her tail as deftly as she had her sheaths, she hooked its feathery tip around his waistband and pulled down his shorts, those velvet-soft feathers caressing his shaft as she freed him.

She moved her tail out of his way, presenting her rear, its perfect peach shape and enticing fullness even easier to appreciate in the morning light. She was barely scraping four and a half feet, but her generous assets would fill out the average human woman’s clothing easily enough. Steven lay a hand on her back, slowly sliding it down her spine, leaving a few clumps of wet dough as he went. Mima reached back to unfasten her apron, but he brushed her hand away.

“No. Leave it on.”

“If you say so,” she purred, returning her hand to the kitchen counter and giving him a wiggle of invitation. Using her tail, she spread one of her cheeks, a shining slit of pink catching the light. Her lips parted along with it, exposing a glimpse of her rosy folds, the way that her silken flesh stretched open lighting a fire in him. Sandwiching his cock between her cheeks like a hotdog in a bun, he gripped her hips in his hands, giving her a few teasing thrusts that made his glans brush the underside of her tail. She lifted it out of his way, the motion seeming to embarrass her, her eyes fluttering.

“Well, look at you,” Ipal called from the living room. The flock were leaning forward in their seats to watch, the scene apparently more interesting than their show. “I never thought I’d see Mima lifting her tail for a boy.”

“And to think, she’s usually so dignified,” Ezi giggled.

“Oh, hush,” Mima grumbled as she flashed red and pink. “You’re ones to talk.”

“Hey, when’s breakfast?” Ipal added.

“I think she’s satisfying a different kind of hunger right now,” Paza said. “She’s been patient – let her eat her fill.”

“Poor choice of words,” Ezi snickered.

Steven gripped Mima by the hips, lifting her a little higher, making her stand on her toes so that he could reach. It was his turn to spread her open now, sinking a hand into her cheek and pulling it aside, then sliding his member lower. He felt the warmth of her loins greet him, slick and ready, her winking opening stretching around his glans as he pushed forward. Mima braced herself against the counter, her spine straightening as she felt herself expand around him, sucking in a sharp breath.

Steven had enough experience to know what he was doing now, gently easing deeper, his own breath catching as the ring of slick muscle sealed around his shaft. She wasn’t as impossibly tight as Tilli had been, but it was still like trying to wear a condom that was a few sizes too small.

Mima pushed back against him, the soft cushion of her cheeks clapping against his hips, a wonderful ripple spreading through them. She took him most of the way in a single motion, the sudden flurry of stimulation making him buck, a low groan escaping her as he bottomed out. Her loins almost seemed to swallow around him, squeezing in a wave that traveled up his shaft,

“Fuck, I’m never gonna get used to this,” he grunted as he dug his fingers into her waist.

“That means it’ll stay this exciting forever,” Mima cooed, her usual sultry tone now dripping with lust. She swayed her hips left and right, finding a more comfortable position, her legs trembling as his member rubbed against her clitoris. He could feel it pulsing against his flesh, hot and swollen.

“Which way do you want it?” he asked, faltering as she flexed. “Valbara’nay or Earth’nay?”

“I didn’t seduce an Earth’nay boy for him to give me something I could get from any lounge in Kalahar,” she replied, glancing over her shoulder. “Treat me like one of your own kind. Don’t be scared – I’m tougher than I look. I can handle you.”

At her request, he found a slow and heavy pace, rocking his hips into her springy rump. It cushioned the impact, sending ripples through her cheeks like a mound of jello being tapped with a spoon, her hanging breasts swaying with the motion inside her apron. She kept her tail lifted out of his way despite the comments from the flock. Perhaps it was the cultural equivalent of a woman opening her legs or something of the sort.

She was practically airtight, her muscles fighting him on his way in, then clinging to his shaft on his way out. It was like her body couldn’t decide what it wanted. With Ezi and Paza, he had allowed them to set their own pace for fear of hurting them, but not so with Mima. He was thrusting as quickly and as deeply as he pleased, and she was only encouraging him, matching his tempo as her feathers flashed signals of pleasure and excitement.

Mima’s figure was so full and inviting, the soft meat of her thighs and ass quivering with each pump, the texture of her downy coat irresistible beneath his fingers. He slid one hand from her hip and curled it around her waist, grabbing her paunchy belly and giving it a squeeze. Mima muttered her half-hearted disapproval, flushing bright pink as her loins spasmed around his buried shaft, circling her hips slowly to grind against his cock. The wet, lurid sounds of their rutting filled the little kitchen, the obscene slapping and sucking drawing chatters and trills from their audience.

“I know you can give it to me harder, like you did for Yemi,” Mima growled, her voice low and needy.

Steven slid a hand to the thick base of her tail, gripping it like a handle and using it to pull her onto his shaft, Mima struggling to stay balanced as she stood on her toes. She could clench as tightly as she wanted, but it didn’t stop him from gliding on the layer of slick love that was seeping out of her, dripping down to soak the fluff on her inner thighs. Those rings of muscle almost formed twitching, flexing ribs, combining with the breathtaking wrinkles and folds of her insides to rake up and down his shaft. He could feel them catching on his glans like they were trying to halt him, those scant moments of resistance making the pair grunt and gasp as one.

“This is more like what we saw in the videos,” Tilli chimed from the living room.

“They’re really going at it,” Ipal muttered, sounding a little less sure of herself now.

Holding onto her tail, Steven slammed into Mima, her clitoris scraping against the underside of his glans in this position. He was even more aware of it now, a coincidence of nature putting it in the perfect place to stimulate him where he was most sensitive, only encouraging him to seek it out. It wasn’t like he could miss it – there was no room, his member in contact with every square inch of her tunnel. Those seething muscles never let up, stroking and rippling, wordlessly begging for more. Warm flesh like satin soaked in honey tented over his cock, flexible and elastic, molding itself to better cradle him.

Driven by an instinct that he was now able to indulge, he applied even more force, hearing her clawed toes scrape against the floor as he lifted her off her feet. She was still supporting herself on the countertop, gripping its edge tightly, her beautiful feathers pulsing pink with each thrust like the neon signs outside the lounge. He could watch the pleasure course through her, traveling up her arching spine, curling her tail and sending her sheaths flaring.

He reached for one of her head sheaths, gripping it gently, giving her time to warn him away if it turned out to be too sensitive. Instead, the tentacle-like appendage curled around his fist to give him a better grip. The other reached for him, and he took them both in the same hand, holding them like the reins of a horse. When he gave them a tug, Mima threw her head back, curving her spine as a trill of desire echoed through the kitchen. As he had hoped, it was a little like taking a human woman by the hair, his trembling partner rewarding him with another powerful squeeze as he pulled them.

“You alright?” he grunted, pink feathers erupting from her sheaths in a spiral even as they wound around his wrist. “I’m not hurting you, am I?”

“Not in any way I’m not enjoying,” she cooed, glancing back at him over her shoulder. “We like it deep. I presume you’ve gathered that by now?”

He answered with another thrust, bottoming out inside her, her depths welcoming him with teasing contractions and flutters. Keeping one hand wrapped around her sheaths, he let the other wander, grasping and squeezing wherever he pleased, taking covetous handfuls of her ass and thighs. Of all the flock, she was the one who he envisioned spooning with every night. There wasn’t an inch of her that wasn’t pillowy and warm and inviting.

Wanting to be closer to her, he pulled her upright by the sheaths, almost lifting her off the floor again. Her hands left the counter, Mima reaching back to brace them against his hips, her long tail coiling around his waist possessively. She used it to pull him into her, demanding more, its strength surprising him. Releasing her sheaths now, he curled a hand around her slender neck, choking off a giddy laugh even as it left her throat. His other arm wrapped around her waist, pulling her close and pressing her light frame against his torso. Careful to give her enough room to breathe, he resumed his rutting, leaning over so that he could bury his face in the fragrant down of her nape. He bit gently, nuzzling, enjoying its texture against his cheeks. Her toes were swinging an inch above the floor now, but she had a strong grip with her tail, and her weight was easy for him to support.

He thrust between her soft cheeks, the two lovers moving together, their only purchase the tight hold they had on one another. She gripped his butt with her tail, giving it a squeeze, laughing as he flinched. Mima was like a toy in his arms, her weight insubstantial – Steven able to maneuver the giggling alien as he pleased.

He walked her closer to the kitchen counter, then tried to pull her off him. It was like trying to uncork a stubborn champagne bottle, but he managed to get her to loosen her grip, her loins sliding off him as her tail unwound. The counter was a little lower than was comfortable for a human – sized for Valbarans, but it just so happened that it made the perfect seat for Mima. He turned her around and deposited her on its surface, creating a little puff of flour, admiring the way that her ass bounced. She knocked one of the containers over with a swing of her tail, sending some dried pieces of fruit scattering across the floor.

Her pear-shaped figure was even more pronounced than that of her flockmates, with her wide hips and narrow shoulders, the white apron only just containing her bust and covering her loins. She spread her legs in invitation, letting the garment fall a little lower, teasing him. As he drew closer, his glistening erection bumped into her mound, Mima reaching down to prod it with a finger.

“You want to finish face-to-face?” she purred, craning her neck to peer up at him. “Want to kiss me? You can do whatever you want – I’m all yours.”

He slammed a hand on the counter beside her, making her jump, the motion sending her bust wobbling beneath the apron. Reaching behind her, he unfastened the bow and pulled it aside, revealing her breasts and belly. There were white marks and clumps of dough on her tawny feathers, like a map of everywhere that his hands had roamed. Below were her loins, swollen and drooling on the counter.

Steven took her hips in his hands and slid into her, Mima leaning back a little, her jaws agape as he filled her again. Her body greeted him like it couldn’t bear the mere seconds they had spent apart, renewing its iron grip, so tight that her hot flesh could have been painted onto his shaft with a brush.

The counter shook as they picked up where they had left off, Mima rolling her hips into him, having more control in this position. He could watch her breasts bounce with each thrust now, unable to resist as he caught one of them in his hand, mauling it as she arched her back and whined.

“Are you close?” he panted.

“Oh, I’m already on my second,” she replied with a sultry laugh. “Don’t worry about me.”

She pressed her fluffy forehead against his as they moved together, gazing into his eyes, Steven leaning one hand on the messy counter as he rested the other in the small of her back to keep her close. The myriad sensations of her fever-hot, sopping walls kneading and massaging him were all blending together, making him feel like he was melting inside her. The barriers between them were breaking down, becoming fuzzy and indistinct.

Steven joined her in a kiss, those soft lips meeting his, her ribbon-like tongue probing his mouth even as he pushed into her. Her thighs had closed around him, her tail curling around his back, her three-fingered hands resting against his chest as their lovemaking neared its fever pitch.

“I want it inside – all of it,” she whispered, her words oozing into his brain like a drug. “You promised me an awful mess.”

His thrusts shook the counter, his pace growing more desperate, Mima’s incessant teasing getting the better of him. Sensing that he was nearing his limit, she held him close, the grip of her thighs and tail almost as ruthless as that of her loins. She watched him with those violet eyes all the while, her head crowned with amorous pink, drinking in his every grimace and gasp.

Come on,” she purred, her darting tongue sampling the sweat on his chest. “Be a good boy and let it all out for me…”

Steven leaned over her, wrapping an arm around her to pull her close, hilting her as he struggled to choke back a groan. He was vaguely aware of Mima’s satisfied chuckling even as he pumped the first load into her, those constricting muscles seeming to drink from him with every spasm, her body tensing with each fresh spurt of his seed. She shivered and trilled – perhaps another climax – the grip of her tail preventing him from pulling out even if he had wanted to. Mima went quiet, her eyelids fluttering and her feathers going crazy as she basked in the sensations, enjoying every flex of his cock and warm rope of his emission. It was already seeping out of her, a glob of it falling to the counter beneath her.

Steven shuddered as the surges of bliss rocked him, unable to prevent himself from giving her a few more thrusts, his body moving reflexively. Even after the prior night and his romp with Tilli earlier that same morning, he still had more than enough to fulfill Mima’s sordid request. Another stab of pleasure rocked him as he struggled to pull out of her – never an easy task with Valbarans – her muscles relinquishing their grip to let him slide out along with another dribble of milky fluid. His sticky member bumped against her belly, one last stray rope draping itself over her stomach, matting her coat of feathers.

“Wow, you did make a mess,” she purred as she glanced down at the clumpy dough and cloudy semen that decorated her torso. “I’m as sore as I am satisfied, and covered in alien seed. I’d call that a fine start to the day…”

He leaned in to kiss her again, slow and affectionate this time, the lingering afterglow leaving them both groggy.

“Hey, are you two still making breakfast in there?” Ipal shouted.

“I think we should probably order something,” Steven mused, glancing down at the dried seeds and fruits that carpeted the kitchen floor.

***

Steven stooped to lift the containers from the automated cart, depositing them on the porch before hitting the button that sent it back, watching as it trundled down the dirt path and out onto the road. He was still wearing just his shorts, the way that the Valbarans valued privacy and automation meaning that one didn’t even need to get dressed to order takeout. What a planet.

He bundled the food in his arms and stumbled inside with it, the flock descending upon the containers like vultures as he dropped them onto the coffee table. They passed the packaged food around with their usual speed, working as a team, and they were soon digging in. Yemi was as polite about it as ever, waiting for his turn, but Mima and Ipal soon took it upon themselves to share different dishes with him.

The Valbarans still hadn’t seen fit to get dressed yet, the aliens sprawled on his couch watching the show, a few half-empty drinks scattered around them. Mima was still a little messy, but she’d made some attempt to wash off her feathers. It was obvious that they’d need to bathe, and he was looking forward to it.

“So, what are we doing today?” he asked as he settled in next to Ipal. “Yemi, are you staying over today? I know we kind of sprang this on you.”

“I took the day off, so I can stay,” he replied with a flutter of green.

“We don’t really have a plan,” Ipal added with a feathery shrug, pausing to eat a piece of grilled meat from a foam container. “We figured we’d just let you improvise.”

“I bet that makes Paza rather uncomfortable,” he replied, glancing at the Valbaran in question with a smile.

“As long as we plan to be inefficient and directionless, I can tolerate it,” she shot back.

“This may terrify you, but sometimes Earth’nay will bum around doing nothing for an entire day without being productive at all,” Steven continued as he popped open one of the containers. “I think it’s important to set aside time to do absolutely nothing.”

“I’m sure that we can think of ways to occupy ourselves,” Ezi added with a flutter of pink.

“Hey, you guys ordered herb?” Steven asked as he fished inside one of the bags. He pulled out a little sealed packet of off-green plant matter. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

“Why should we not be able to?” Tilli asked.

“Never mind,” he chuckled. “You reckon there’s a hookah around here somewhere?”

“Almost certainly,” Mima replied.

“I have so many more shows and movies for you guys to watch,” Steven continued excitedly. “Music, too. You have no idea.”

“We should show you some of our media,” Mima added with a glance to her flockmates.

“Do you have some favorites?” Steven pressed, shifting his weight on the couch. “Do each of you have a favorite movie, or do you do the consensus thing? How do you decide what to watch?”

“We all generally agree on what to watch, but we don’t necessarily all watch at the same time,” Ipal explained as she chewed on a piece of fruit.

“Are you guys gonna be alright with only your business suits to wear?” Steven asked. “I’m more than happy for you to spend the day here, but it’s alright if you need to head back to your place and pick up some things. Same goes for you, Yemi.”

“You’re assuming that we didn’t plan for this,” Paza said.

“Why wear anything?” Ipal chimed. “We’d only have to get undressed again…”

“You would be a philosopher-queen on Earth,” Steven said with an exaggerated bow.

“You said that you would show me an elephant,” Tilli insisted.

“Oh yeah,” he mused, pausing to take a bite of a seaweed square. “I suppose I did, didn’t I? You know what – you want elephants, you get elephants. Lemme see if I have anything…”

He pulled them up a nature documentary – one of the many files he had brought with him, and they began to watch. The hologram showed scenes of the Serengeti, the sun hanging low over the plains, silhouetting a herd of giraffes and the region’s signature trees. This must have been the flock’s first time seeing these animals, even Paza leaning a little closer with interest, the aliens watching the strange creatures stride across the display. There were lions, zebras, herds of wildebeest fording rivers as they contended with lurking crocodiles. Tilli’s eyes lit up when she saw the elephants – a creature so strange that Steven doubted whether even he would have believed the description without having seen one already.

Despite their present situation and their conspicuous state of undress, the enjoyment he got from sharing these things with the Valbarans was at the forefront of his mind. There was no doubt that they’d make love several more times throughout the day – the aliens had probably already planned it out – but for now, it was enough to share a meal and a show. He had once offered the flock a choice between becoming friends with benefits or entering into a real relationship. They had chosen the latter, but they had become friends before becoming lovers, and he had to admit that he’d never felt so at ease around someone who he was bedding. They could go from hanging out and eating takeout one moment to fucking the next without it ever feeling forced or unnatural. While initially an outsider, Yemi had slotted into their unconventional relationship like a missing puzzle piece, and Steven found that he could scarcely envision the flock without him now.

It had taken both Steven and Yemi time to warm up to the flock – it hadn’t been love at first sight by any means, but he now found himself wondering if he could ever bring himself to give this up. Steven had never felt lonely in his life – not while leaving everything behind to move to Memphis, and not even when coming to an entirely alien planet where nothing was familiar. He was self-sufficient, confident in his ability to navigate new situations, and he had never needed another person to complete him. Now, he was a part of the flock, and losing them would mean losing six little pieces of himself. Maybe it was love, or maybe this was how Valbarans always felt about their flockmates, but he knew only that he wanted very badly for it to continue.

“Steven,” Ezi chuckled, giving him a nudge. “You’re staring into space. Or are the elephants just that captivating?”

“I’m not as captivated as Tilli, clearly,” he said with a nod to the little Valbaran. She was watching the feed with that same wide-eyed expression, the narrator talking over footage of a game warden drone hovering above a pack of hyenas that were picking at a dead zebra.

“It’s strange to me,” Ipal mused as she chewed at a protein bar. “This is a game preserve, correct?”

“Yeah, Earth has parks and preserves that are dedicated to safeguarding the planet’s biodiversity,” Steven replied. “Some of these species almost went extinct a few centuries ago, but rewilding and repopulation efforts brought them back.”

“Here, we do things the opposite way,” she continued. “Civilization exists almost exclusively within our walls, and everything outside of them is like your preserves.”

“Well, we’re not as good at not having babies as you guys are,” he said. “This is all second-hand, of course. I’ve never been to Earth, and I don’t imagine I ever will. Some people see it as a kind of pilgrimage – something they want to do at least once before they die. They want to return to the cradle of humanity where our species originated.”

“You don’t want to do that?” Yemi asked, tilting his head.

“I mean, I probably would if someone offered me a free trip,” he replied with a shrug. “I just don’t really get wanting to go back to a place you’ve never been. Ganymede is where I come from, and my parents, and their parents. You have to go back generations to find someone who could walk outside without a suit in my family.”

You can,” Tilli said.

“Huh?”

“You can walk outside without a suit.”

“I guess I can,” he replied with a smile.

“This is your home now,” she added, turning her attention back to the documentary.

“I suppose it is,” he chuckled, sinking back into the couch.

CHAPTER 21: WATERTIGHT

Once they had finished eating and they were done with their documentary, they decided to take a bath. Mima especially needed to clean her feathers after their encounter in the kitchen. Heading outside naked was a very strange feeling, but Steven kept reminding himself that these little estates were landscaped with privacy in mind, the carefully sculpted hills and strategically placed trees shielding them from any passers-by. It was somewhat of a necessity when your washroom was in the garden.

They crossed the blue-green grass and sank into the water, which was always kept at a comfortable temperature, the little stream that fed it trickling gently. There were so many little sounds – the rustling of branches in the breeze, the soft splashing of the water, the chirping of birdsong. There was life everywhere he looked.

He immersed himself up to his chest, the aliens marveling at him, prompting him to give them a confused look.

“What?” he asked.

“You sink,” Ipal explained. “I remember on the boat you said that you had dense bones, but seeing it is no less strange.”

Steven noticed that the aliens were all floating on the water’s surface, some lying on their backs while others bobbed waist-deep, using their long tails to balance themselves. He reached for Ezi, who was nearest, putting a hand on her shoulder and trying to push her down. She was remarkably buoyant, bobbing back up again like a pool toy as she laughed at him. She exhaled, emptying her air sacks, and only then did she sink deeper.

There were tiered areas of the pool where the Valbarans could more comfortably sit, letting them relax at the water’s edge, Steven having to lie further back to immerse himself up to his neck. He dunked his head under the water, brushing his wet hair out of his face as he surfaced, seeing the Valbarans sifting through the little wicker basket of soaps.

“Your favorite isn’t here, Mima,” Ipal said as she rummaged through the bottles.

“This one looks alright,” Tilli added, brandishing a container. “Xo’cotl fruit scent. There’s a feather comb for you, Yemi, and more scale polish.”

I’ll take those,” Ezi declared, swimming over to Tilli. With the comb and one of the bottles in hand, she made her way to Yemi’s side, sitting him down in the shallows and starting to groom his impressive feathers. They turned pink as she gently spread the suds, running the comb’s teeth through the fine vanes, the little male seeming to enjoy the sensation.

“It’ll do until we get home,” Mima said. Ipal and Tilli waded over to her, taking up position to her left and right as she sat in the chest-high water, Ipal popping the cap and upending some of the fragrant gel into her hand. “You should join us, Steven,” Mima added as she gave him a sly glance. “After all, if you’re going to be our male, you’re going to need to learn sooner or later. Communal bathing is an important part of belonging to a flock.”

Belonging. The word made his heart flutter for some reason, and he shuffled a little closer in the water, watching as Ipal began to rub the gel into Mima’s downy coat. It quickly created a lather, Ipal spreading the foamy substance across her flockmate’s shoulder and down her arm, Mima lifting it to help her along. On her right, Tilli was following suit, rubbing the shampoo into her neck.

She looked like a princess being tended by her servants, but this was probably the most efficient way to go about it, and he had no doubt that she would return the favor. She lifted herself a little higher, resting her elbows on the grassy bank, her breasts rising above the suds that were floating on the water’s surface.

“Come,” she said, beckoning to Steven. “You’re the one who made such a mess of me, after all. It’s only fitting that you should help clean me.”

He waded closer, holding out a cupped hand as Ipal offered the soap bottle to him, pouring a glob of it into his palm. He brought his soapy hands to Mima’s chest, rubbing the slick gel into her feathers, using his fingers to comb through the soft down as he might a human’s hair. His fingertips slid against the smooth scales beneath, Mima arching her back at his touch, always so wonderfully receptive. It was an excellent pretense to fill his hands with her incomparably soft flesh, Steven weighing her breasts in his hands. He began to knead gently, the shampoo making her wonderfully slippery, her nipples growing firmer as her supple fat bulged between his fingers.

“That dough is in there pretty good,” she sighed, pushing out her chest to encourage his squeezing. “I do appreciate how…thorough you’re being.”

“I feel just terrible about getting you so dirty,” he replied.

“I’m sure you do,” she snickered, no longer able to keep the amused yellow out of her feathers.

After lingering on her chest for far longer than was necessary, he roamed lower, spreading the white foam down her torso as he went. Her belly was just as soft and inviting, Mima squirming in the water as he squeezed it, Steven using the pretense of washing away the residue from their prior encounter as an excuse to toy with her. She seemed to have accepted her fate now, making no more comments about how much he enjoyed the fullness of her figure.

He slid beneath the surface as he mapped out her thighs with his fingers, the warmth of her loins contrasting with the comparatively cooler water, the soap making his digits glide against the satin folds of her vulva.

“As much as I’d love to float here and let you have your way with me again, I really do need to get clean,” she chuckled as she turned in the water to put her back to him. “Keep going…”

He spread more soap across her back, moving down her spine, feeling her body tense and relax at his touch. The aliens had claws, and even as dull as they were, they couldn’t massage the gel into her fur in the way that he could. Mima closed her eyes and began to sway, the green and pink in her feathers letting him know what she was feeling, another tremor tickling her as he pressed his digits into the base of her spine.

“Mmm, not bad,” she murmured as her tail curled into a spiral beneath the water. “We’re discovering more and more novel uses for our Earth’nay as time passes.”

He moved down her narrow waist to the flare of her hips, spreading the suds across her cheeks, never letting an opportunity pass him by.

“I can’t help but feel like you’re making up for lost time,” she purred, rolling her hips as he sank his fingers into her cushiony flesh. “You don’t need to hurry, you know. We have all day to take things as slowly and as indulgently as you want.”

“Now that we’re together, you can have us any time you like,” Ipal added as she lounged nearby.

“And vice versa,” Ezi added. She was off to their right, standing waist-deep in the water as she shampooed the feathers on Yemi’s head.

Ipal exhaled, sinking into the pool until only her eyes were above the water, pushing herself along with her tail like a crocodile. Steven felt her take a handful of his butt, Mima chuckling as he lurched.

“Communal bathing includes you, you know,” Ipal said as she glanced up at him. “I think we’ll need all hands on deck. There’s a lot of ground to cover.”

She took his hand, leading him over to the shallower area of the pool, Mima taking the other as he passed her. They guided him over to the water’s edge, the sloping silt beneath his feet creating a depth where he could sit and they could stand to reach him more easily. He sank down, the water rising just above his navel, the flock wading and swimming their way over to surround him. Ezi pulled Yemi along by the hand, his feathers still covered in suds.

“I’m perfectly capable of washing myself, you know,” Steven mumbled as he watched them pass around the soap bottle.

“Do you want us to stop?” Ezi chuckled.

“Well, I didn’t say that,” he muttered as he watched her rub her hands together to create a bubbling lather.

Mima was behind him, and he felt her soft breasts squash against his back as she leaned in, starting to spread the cool gel across his shoulders. It was a lot of distance for her little hands to move, but she kept close, almost using her fluffy body as a living loofah. He felt himself sag when she reached his neck, her gentle hands gliding on his wet skin, applying pressure in a kind of pleasant massage.

Tilli went for his head, starting to rub the foam into his hair, her claws trailing across his scalp. Having one’s hair washed felt incredible regardless of the circumstances, but surrounded by his lovers, he could really enjoy it.

Ipal and Ezi lifted an arm each, coating his skin in the soap, Ipal spiraling her sheaths around his forearm to help spread it further. He had remarked on the softness of their scales before, somehow just as smooth as human skin, the absence of any hairs or imperfections giving them a silky texture. Combined with the layer of slippery soap, it was downright decadent, his brain fizzing and popping as his attention jumped between the different sensations that assailed him.

Ipal trailed her claws down his wrist, Ezi rubbed his bicep, Tilli massaged his scalp, Mima traced his spine with her fingers, Yemi spread the foam across his palm – it was impossible to focus on any one thing. Only Paza was missing, but she soon appeared in front of him, standing waist-deep in the water, her chiseled figure and perky breasts glistening wet. She drew closer, planting her feet to either side of his hips as though she intended to mount him again, but she extended a hand in a silent request for the bottle instead.

She filled her hands with soap, leaning over to coat his chest, her rubbing motions making her bust sway back and forth. Her snout was only an inch from his face, close enough that he could have reached out to kiss her, but he didn’t dare push his luck with Paza. If she wanted him, she would take him, and there would be nothing ambiguous about it.

“Damn, they didn’t say anything about a spa day in that UN brochure,” he sighed as Mima caressed his neck with her soapy hands.

“A flock is expected to take good care of their male,” Ipal said, a tingle of pleasure shooting up his arm as she stroked his palm. “Their males, in our case,” she added with a flush of pink. “If we’re going to enjoy you, we have to keep you in pristine condition.”

“Washing your hair is like washing Quiqui,” Tilli giggled.

“You guys won’t need to go back and feed her?” Steven asked.

“No, she has a food dispenser,” Tilli replied. “She’ll be fine for a day or two.”

Steven leaned back a little as Paza trailed her way down his torso, her hands sliding on the contours of his lean figure. It might be his imagination, but he sensed that she was lingering, enjoying the texture of his skin and the tensing of his muscles more than she would like to admit. Perhaps their encounter the night prior had given her a better appreciation for him, or at least of what he could provide for her. Even if she never really fell in love with him the way some of her flockmates had, he was an attractive male full of vigor, and she had plenty of uses for him. If he wanted tenderness and affection, he could go to Mima. He kind of liked Paza’s more aggressive attitude. Upon reflection, he could have a different flavor of partner six days of the week if he wanted, and all of them on Sunday.

“You’ll have to stand up if we’re going to reach the rest of you,” Ezi cooed, giving him a pat on the arm.

He climbed to his feet, the water sloughing off him, standing knee-high in the pool. Paza leaned back as his conspicuous erection almost hit her in the nose, planting her hands on her cocked hips and lifting her head to narrow her eyes at him.

“What?” he asked sheepishly. “This whole communal bathing thing wasn’t my idea.”

“Give me the soap,” she sighed, extending her hand. Ipal passed it to her, and she coated her hands with a fresh glob, starting to pump them up and down his shaft. Her grip was tight, the texture of her scaly palms luxuriant against his skin, gliding in the slimy gel. Even with two hands, she couldn’t encompass his shaft completely, her fingers not quite able to close around it.

“Whoa, slow down,” he grunted as his knees began to grow weak.

“I can still smell Mima on you,” she grumbled, though the pink flush in her feathers contrasted with her disapproving tone. After what he’d learned the night before, he no longer needed to ask how she recognized the scent so easily.

Ipal and Ezi began to coat his hips and thighs, their hands wandering, Steven flinching when they neared his erogenous zones. The already intoxicatingly indulgent massage was taking on a far more sexual tone now, the Valbarans just as eager to get their hands on him. Mima was behind him, and he could hear her chuckling as she covered his butt in suds.

“We really should get you some nice shorts to wear,” she purred.

“I don’t think I could pull those off,” he grunted, faltering as Paza circled his glans with her finger.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Ipal giggled, sliding her hand between his legs to cradle his balls in her soapy hand.

Yemi had been a little more hesitant to participate, but his newfound confidence reared its head, and he drew closer to spread the slick gel across the human’s midriff.

Steven might have the stamina of several male Valbarans combined, but at this rate, even he was going to have an empty tank before the day was through. The flock was ravenous.

It was a struggle just to stand up as Paza’s deft hands slid up and down his length, glistening ropes of the gooey soap sagging from his pulsing shaft, her eyes focused on his member intently. She peeled back his foreskin, rubbing his glans with her thumb, honing in on where he was most receptive to her touch.

“So big and strong, yet so easy,” she hissed as she looked up at him with streaks of crimson in her pink feathers. “I could bring you to your knees with a single finger if I wanted to.”

“And I could toss you over my shoulder like a rucksack, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Paza gripped his glans in her thumb and forefinger, giving it a squeeze that made him double over as she smirked at him.

“I think he’s clean enough,” she said, turning her eyes to Ipal. “Are you going to take your turn, or will you keep us waiting all morning?”

“If you think you can take him,” Ezi added with a chuckle.

“If Yemi could do it, I think I can,” Ipal replied. Steven turned to face her, his cock still throbbing from their teasing, and she took it in her hand. She led him over to the edge of the pool, the rest of the flock crowding around to watch, boxing the pair in.

“You’re a little bigger than Tilli,” Steven began as she waded into the shallows, slowly rising from the water. “I don’t imagine you’d have that much trouble.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” she cooed, planting her hands on the grassy bank. She leaned over, resting her upper body on the shore, raising her butt out of the pool as she presented herself to him. The water level rose to her upper thighs, just barely reaching her loins, a strand of conspicuously stringier fluid drooping from her swollen lips. She was soaking wet in more ways than one, her damp scales shining in the sunlight, accentuating every muscle and curve as though she had been polished like a fancy sports car. His eyes followed the indent of her spine, moving down to the two perfect dimples above the base of her tail, her wide hips leading into her round cheeks. They were so firm and springy that he could have bounced a lug nut off them.

She glanced over her shoulder, giving him a flash of pink feathers, then lifted her tail. Mima had seemed embarrassed by the gesture, but Ipal was wanton, waving the appendage back and forth as if to say come hither. She used its fat base to slap her ass, making her flesh jiggle invitingly, the rest of the flock snickering behind him.

“Come on, big guy,” she chimed. “You’ve made me wait long enough.”

He was an old hat by this point, wading closer, the sloping bottom of the pool putting him at a very comfortable height relative to her. Just as he had with Mima in the kitchen, he reached out to take her wide hips in his hands, sliding his cock between her cheeks. Where Mima’s coat was fluffy and her figure was full and plump, Ipal was leaner, her scales as smooth as satin. She felt even smoother while wet, Steven letting his hand slide from the small of her back to her ass, finding rubbery muscle beneath the thin layer of squishy fat. The Valbarans were bottom-heavy, and Ipal was no exception to that rule, arching her spine as he dug his fingertips into her cheek. He pushed his cock lower, sliding it down to her vulva, her warm flesh brushing against it.

“No,” she warned, prompting him to pull back. “Guess again.”

“Oh,” Steven muttered, trailing off as she grinned back at him. “You mean…”

“You didn’t think that only boys did it this way?” Mima asked, sidling up beside him. She reached out to grip his shaft, weighing it in her hand. “Ipal enjoys it,” she added, sliding her fingers along his soapy length. “So, unless you have any objections…”

“No, I just…wasn’t expecting it,” he muttered as Mima guided his member higher.

“Let’s get you nice and comfortable,” she purred, sliding his glans between her flockmate’s cheeks. He felt Ipal tense as his tip glanced her bud, the little knot of pink flesh standing out against the beige scales that surrounded it, soap suds clinging to them.

“I’ve seen you take a few inches of tail, but are you sure you can handle all of that?” Paza asked nonchalantly as she reclined in the water nearby. “You’ll be embarrassed if Yemi shows you up.”

A little more scale polish should keep things running smoothly,” Mima added, upending the bottle into her hand and coating his shaft with the slippery gel. “Just take it slowly.”

Ipal curled her tail around his butt, pulling him closer and helping to guide him, encouraging him to press into her. Just like with Yemi the evening prior, there was so much resistance that he doubted whether they could fit together at all, but she was even more eager and persistent than her male counterpart.

Mima’s feathers flushed pink as Steven pushed forward, watching her flockmate stretch around his glans, Ipal shuddering as the sensation rocked her. That tight ring raked over him, the warm, clinging flesh of her tunnel wrapping around his pulsing shaft in greeting. He felt her muscles squeeze and ripple, her insides so much hotter than the cool slime that coated his length.

“Jeez, that’s cold!” Ipal gasped, her giggling making her tighten up. “I need it deeper,” she groaned, her feathers flickering as she thrust back against him. She took him by surprise, that slick soap letting her glide a few inches more, the muscles deeper within gripping him less ardently than those at her entrance. Satin-soft membranes of damp flesh slid against his shaft, smooth and elastic, the muscles beyond their bounds twitching and squeezing.

“Are you alright?” Mima asked, standing in the water beside them like she was refereeing. “He’s not too much for you?”

“He’s so deep I can’t even feel the first half of it anymore,” Ipal groaned.

“Any deeper, and you’re going to be tasting him,” Paza scoffed.

“Shut up, Paza!” Ipal groaned as she clenched around Steven’s shaft. “I need to concentrate…”

“Sorry, I didn’t realize that taking it in the ass was so mentally taxing,” Paza mused.

“Steven, don’t laugh at her!” Ipal whined as his chuckling made him flex inside her. “You’re gonna make me come, you big dumb…ugh. I almost hate how good this feels right now – how much I want to fuck your stupid brains out.”

“I don’t think that’s how this works,” Steven replied, wincing as she shifted her weight. “I’m the one fucking your stupid brains out.”

“Then stop talking and start fucking, stupid!

It was a struggle to pull back, Paza cackling at them as he fought against Ipal’s vise grip – strong enough to halt him even with the lubricant. He could feel her body responding to his every motion, clenching and twitching, her spine arching. Her wet scales shone brilliantly beneath the morning sun, every droplet of water sparkling like dew. Steven kept one eye on her feathers, wary of hurting her, but she seemed to have some experience. Like Yemi, this couldn’t be her first foray. She must have been on the receiving end of a tail or two in her time.

He watched his member vanish between her springy cheeks as he pushed forward, her flesh soft and rubbery, quivering as she absorbed the impact of his thrust. His hands roamed across her lithe body, Steven taking his fill of her, letting his fingers sink into the welcoming meat of her hips. She circled them slowly, teasing him, her ass bouncing against him as they found a comfortable rhythm together.

“What does it feel like?” Tilli asked as she lurked in the water to their left.

“Like he’s scraping against my clitoris from the inside,” she groaned, a wave of muscle rippling down his shaft as she clenched. “I’m so full…it’s all I can think about…”

Steven kept pace, rocking into her, his movements creating small waves that lapped gently at the pool’s edge. Her tail kept its desperate grip on him, keeping him close, encouraging him to move. The delicious tightness of her entrance was where he focused his attention – and where she seemed to be the most sensitive, the way that it squeezed and flexed letting him know just how much she was enjoying their coupling. Beyond it was that smooth, stretchy tissue, the satin membranes caressing him on his way in and out.

The other girls had been so tight that it was a challenge to last long enough to satisfy them, but this duller, more relaxed pleasure made him feel like he could keep it up all day. He had more control, and he could slow down if he felt he was getting too close.

“Dumb alien and his stupid fat cock,” Ipal grumbled, lying her head in the grass. “Stupid…secretary program. Can’t even use a shopping cart…”

“What are you babbling about?” Ezi giggled.

Steven gave her a harder thrust, her tail coiling around his waist more tightly, her svelte frame stiffening. She took handfuls of the grass, her feathers displaying hues of desire, her hips rolling as though she was trying to grind him against something within her.

He reached down and took her by the upper arms, so slim that he could almost close his fists around them, lifting her upright and holding her there as he increased his tempo. Her butt bounced against his hips as he slammed into her, ropes of shining fluid seeping down her inner thighs, dripping to the water below to leave cloudy splotches. He was tall enough to see over her, her head barely skirting his chest, giving him an admirable view of her breasts clapping against her torso. She swayed with his rutting, her eyes unfocused, her headdress a mess of nonsensical colors and patterns.

“Now who’s the one getting their brains fucked out?” Paza chuckled.

“Whoa, I can see him pushing out your belly,” Tilli said as she leaned in to get a look. Yemi dared to wade a little closer, his plumage flushed pink, perhaps remembering how Steven had given him the same treatment the night prior. Paza sidled up beside him, sticking close, one of her hands vanishing beneath the surface of the water. It was obvious what she was doing by the way the little male’s feathers fluttered.

“You’re gonna turn me inside-out,” Ipal giggled drunkenly.

“W-want me to slow down?” Steven grunted.

“Did I say that, dummy?”

As he continued his thrusting, Paza slunk over to them, drifting through the water like a crocodile stalking its prey. She had Yemi’s hand clutched tightly, leading him along, the sly smile on her face and the red in her feathers suggesting that she had something in mind for him.

She squeezed the captive male between Ipal and the bank, guiding him out of the pool to sit on the grass, his legs and his long tail trailing into the water. Yemi found himself face to face with Ipal, his feathers flaring pink and yellow as she met his gaze, her hungry eyes wandering down to his everted prong.

Paza tilted her head, watching their coupling for a moment, then reached out to place her hand against Ipal’s belly. Ipal flinched, Paza smiling as she felt Steven’s cock bulge the wet scales outward beneath her palm.

“I’m impressed, Ipal,” Paza chuckled. “You aren’t this flexible when we’re doing our exercises. I think you can handle a little more, though.”

“Two shuttles, two hangars – you get the idea,” Ezi said with a mischievous grin, quickly catching on.

Ipal moved closer to the edge of the pool, keeping her tail securely coiled around Steven’s waist to ensure that he came with her, planting her hands on the grass to either side of Yemi’s soft thighs. His member was erect and leaking again, the pink and purple organ pulsing gently with excitement, his flat chest swelling as Ipal leaned in to nuzzle his neck. She lifted a knee to the bank, then the other, climbing out of the water to straddle the wide-eyed male. Ipal was still at a comfortable height for Steven, keeping him hilted inside her, making him wince as the motion stimulated him.

Strands of Ipal’s fluids drooped from her flushed, needy lips, seeping down her inner thighs and draping themselves over Yemi’s twin shafts. Steven had her dripping, and it wasn’t just the water. She placed a hand on the male’s chest and lowered him to the grass, making him lie on his back, her loins poised scarcely an inch above him.

“I want both my boys at the same time,” she purred, glancing back over her shoulder at Steven with a flush of pink. “Think you can learn to share?”

Ipal reached down with one hand to squash the twin shafts together, far more confident with Yemi’s smaller organ, swallowing them both in a single thrust as she dropped down onto him. It was a wondrous sight to watch them both shiver and flash their feathers in tandem, like their bodies had melded into one, Steven feeling Ipal tighten up as Yemi entered her.

As well as Ipal’s clenching and squirming, Steven could feel Yemi’s oddly-textured organ sliding against the underside of his cock through the thin membrane that separated the two passages. There had scarcely been enough room for him alone, and now that they were sharing, Yemi’s prong was fighting him for space. Steven could feel it throbbing and twitching, moving inside Ipal, the novel sensation making her falter.

“Wow, look at you – taking two boys at once,” Paza mused as she leaned on pool’s edge nonchalantly. “Better make the most of it, you two. She won’t last long now.”

“You w-wouldn’t last any l-longer than me, Paza,” Ipal stammered as the pleasure made her feathers go haywire.

“I’m looking forward to putting that to the test,” Paza chuckled.

Steven didn’t need to start moving again – Ipal was doing it for him, pushing back to slide herself down his shaft with a desperate fervor as she rode Yemi into the grass. His prong was buried as deep as it could reach, filling Ipal’s already compressed insides to capacity. Steven could feel it moving, Ipal making slow circles with her hips, both shafts tangible as they ground against his cock beyond the thin wall of flesh.

The intense pleasure had Ipal delirious now, her head lolling as Steven plunged into her from behind, her cheeks bouncing like she was dribbling a ball in his lap. She had Yemi pinned securely beneath her, sandwiched between her powerful thighs, his tail brushing against Steven’s leg beneath the water as it trailed into the pool. The little sighs and gasps that emanated from the two Valbarans only drove Steven on, his own ecstasy mounting along with theirs, a vicious feedback loop of tightening muscles and swaying hips holding the trio captive.

Ipal delighted in making Yemi squirm, keeping him buried in her depths and grinding in the Valbaran way, Steven grimacing as he felt the male’s prong rub against his shaft from within. She was doing it on purpose, pressing the two organs together and trapping all of that achingly sensitive tissue between their shafts. Yemi reached out to grasp one of Ipal’s breasts, giving it a gentle squeeze, both Ipal and Steven gasping in tandem as it made the shivering woman clench.

“You three are so cute together,” Paza said, looking on with a satisfied smile. “Maybe this arrangement will work out better than I anticipated.”

With another rub of her sweet spot, Ipal climaxed hard, her lithe frame starting to tremble. She sagged forward, hanging her head over Yemi, using her tail as leverage to keep Steven hilted. Her legs shaking, she let out a pained moan that Steven hoped wouldn’t alert their neighbors, her already airtight passage closing around him as her feathers erupted into flashes of random colors. He could feel every tremor that coursed through her beleaguered body, her ruthless muscles wringing him, her tight opening sliding up and down his length on the layer of slick gel as she bounced on his shaft. Those walls of smooth, elastic muscle fought against him, caressing him in waves as her opening held onto him like a finger trap. Yemi wasn’t faring much better, the contractions of her loins massaging his twin shafts, Steven feeling him buck and writhe.

“Told you she wouldn’t last,” Paza chuckled.

Still quaking with the aftershocks of her climax, Ipal glanced back at Steven over her shoulder, her feathers taking on a telling pink and red hue. Her long, prehensile tail slithered from around his waist, its tapered end gripping the base of his cock like a tentacle. She pulled him out of her, every muscle in her narrow passage struggling to prevent him from leaving, raking along his shaft. He slid out from between her cheeks with a tangible pop, then she guided his still-glistening member lower.

“Paza is right, I’ve been selfish,” she began in a mocking voice. “I finished before you boys were satisfied. Let me make it up to you…”

Yemi tensed up as Ipal guided Steven’s member to the base of his tail, the slimy gel that still coated it making it glide against his silky scales. Ipal was still straddling the panting male, and he couldn’t see past her, but he could feel the warmth of Steven cock. She tugged Steven closer, sliding him between Yemi’s cheeks, his glans throbbing against the alien’s entrance.

She waited, knowing that Steven would take things from there, a flutter of satisfied green filling her headdress as he thrust into Yemi’s tight ass. Hot, narrow walls of luxuriant flesh welcomed him, spreading apart as he hilted the trembling male. Yemi let out a yelp that tapered into a moan, his tail coiling around Steven’s leg beneath the water like a snake, gripping him as though desperate to keep him close.

He was still joined with Ipal, the smirking female starting to move again, teasing her partner with artful strokes of her wide hips. Beset from the front and the back, Yemi could do little more than lie on the grass, his jaw agape and his eyes unfocused as his lovers drowned him in ecstasy. Steven thrust into him, his glans pressing into Yemi’s sensitive prostate, Ipal resting her hands on his belly as she stirred his prong around inside her. Her eyes were fixed on him intently, her feathers filled with desire, her tongue sliding out to wet her lips. With her weight pinning him, Yemi couldn’t have moved even if he had desired to. All he could do was writhe, his spine arching off the ground, his clawed toes curling in the water. His tail was gripping Steven’s leg so fiercely that it was starting to cut off the circulation.

Ipal sat up and leaned back into Steven, her narrow shoulders pressing against his chest. He wrapped an arm around her to pull her close, her slender frame sliding against him, her scales still damp from the pool. Steven peered down over the fan of Ipal’s feathers, watching her athletic frame twist and gyrate, her soaking wet abs flowing beneath the tan scales of her underbelly. Yemi’s eyes met his, batting his scaly lids, every breath that he exhaled joined by a comely trill or a pained whine. It wasn’t hard to see what had the flock so infatuated with him – he was so cute that Steven could hardly stand it.

Yemi threw back his head as he felt a hot wad of Steven’s emission pump into him, sucking in a sharp gasp, his feathers going wild. Steven watched his cock bulge the shivering alien’s abdomen as instinct compelled him to push it deeper, filling the stretchy little pocket of flesh, each fresh rope of seed joined by another wracking clench from Yemi. Ipal laughed excitedly, giving Yemi a few more punishing thrusts, no doubt feeling him release inside her as Steven fucked an orgasm out of him.

Finally, he released Ipal, and she fell forward into Yemi’s waiting embrace. She held her lover close, the pair wrapping their arms around each other, Ipal burying her face in the panting male’s neck as they enjoyed the tickling aftershocks that followed in the wake of their pleasure. Yemi peered up at Steven, his face almost obscured by Ipal’s headdress of pink and green feathers, his expression one of flustered satisfaction. Ipal was still thrusting gently, easing out the last few pangs of Yemi’s climax, her pace lazy and placating now. She was intent on gleaning every last drop of enjoyment from him that she could.

Steven was still hilted, and Yemi’s tail was still firmly coiled around his leg, the little alien refusing to let him leave. Only when Ipal elected to slide off him did he rouse from his state of euphoria, his prong sliding out of her, a sticky web of fluid drooping from between her thighs. Yemi peered back at Steven with one violet eye, gasping as the human withdrew in turn, the male’s narrow insides keeping their fierce hold until the moment the two separated.

Steven watched a glob of his seed seep between Yemi’s scaly cheeks to pool at the base of his tail, his partner letting out a trembling sigh. Still shaky, Yemi slid back into the water, relaxing at its edge as he took a few moments to collect himself. Ipal followed, guiding Yemi’s head into her bosom, stroking his scales as his plumage flared with patterns of contentment.

“That was worth the wait,” Ipal murmured happily. Paza drew closer, sidling up to Yemi’s left, giving Steven a brief flash of appreciative green before joining her flockmate in her doting aftercare. The little male looked as happy as Steven had ever seen him, all of the usual tension and anxiety that he exuded in the office burned away to leave him relaxed.

Steven waded a little deeper and lowered himself down into the pool, letting the cool water immerse him up to his shoulders. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen this much action in such a short period of time. His balls were actually starting to ache with the effort of it all – he wasn’t a teenager anymore…

“Have we finally found your limits?” Mima purred as she floated her way over to join him.

“Gimme a couple of hours, and I’ll be good,” he sighed as he sat on the pool’s bottom.

“You are certainly persistent,” she chuckled, slowly drifting around him in a lazy circle. “Ipal is clearly feeling good about our choice of mates, as am I. I suspect that even Paza is starting to come around in her own way.”

“Just like in your stories?” Steven asked.

“Just like in my stories,” she conceded with a flutter of pink. “I believe that disrespectful makeup sex was your preferred term.”

“Don’t mimic my voice,” he snickered. “That’s weird.”

“Breakfast, a show, a relaxing bath,” Mima continued as she let herself bob on the surface at his side. She was lying on her back, as buoyant as a pool float. “What do you have in store for us next, I wonder? The day is still young, and we have plenty of time to fill.”

“I’m sure I’ll think of something,” he replied.

“You are rather good at thinking on your feet,” she cooed. “Until then, will you help me wash my feathers again?”

“Aren’t you clean by now?” he asked, raising an incredulous eyebrow.

“I could always be cleaner, and you could always use the practice,” she replied with a sultry smile. “I expect that you’ll be very adept with your hands after we’ve been seeing each other for a while.”

“How do you want to handle that?” he asked. “It’s a little early to be moving in together, don’t you think?”

“You could leave a change of clothes and some of your things at our place,” Ezi suggested, emerging from beneath the water next to him. She shook her head like a dog, spraying him as she dried her feathers. “All you brought with you was that tiny little bag anyway.”

“I do travel light,” he conceded.

“Then you could come back with us from work and stay overnight whenever you liked,” Mima added with a flutter of approval. “We wouldn’t want to overwhelm you, after all.”

More of the aliens were swimming over to join them now, picking up on the conversation. Yemi and Ipal seemed to have recovered, bobbing their way through the water.

“Yeah, we know that Earth’nay need their alone time,” Ezi said.

“I dunno,” he mused, pausing to scratch his chin. “I think I’m starting to like this whole flock thing. Maybe I can…ease into it. What about you, Yemi?” he added as he turned to the little male. “I don’t really know how to quantify this relationship, but I feel like you just…fit.”

Yemi floated there pensively for a moment as he considered, the girls sharing glances, waiting for his reply. They might have spoken for him or tried to pressure him before, but now, they kept quiet. Steven wasn’t sure if everybody else felt the same way, but it seemed to him that Yemi was the missing puzzle piece – an element that completed their strange little flock.

“It is a rather…unconventional arrangement,” he replied, struggling to keep his pink feathers from flaring. “That said, I am not a very conventional Val’ba’ra’nay. I didn’t want to be pressured into leaving my job to sire children or maintain a home, and I didn’t want flings with flocks who didn’t value me beyond the entertainment I could provide.”

“We wouldn’t ask you to do anything like that if you didn’t want to,” Ezi added hurriedly, Mima giving her a nudge and a flash of red to tell her to shut up.

“Ever since you began spending time with Steven, you have all been acting differently,” Yemi continued. “You seem more pat