The slightly crooked wheel on Janny’s cart squeaked as he strode down the corridor. Stopping outside the maintenance staff lounge, the handle of his mop clattered against his feather duster and he hurriedly glanced about himself. Two Endoleons were approaching - astral engineers, from the colour of their uniforms - Janny didn’t want to draw too much attention to himself, certainly not before he’d had a chance to apply some oil to that wheel. He had a reputation to maintain as head of maintenance staff on the TS Daer-Hub.
He’d hoped to have a moment to steel himself but the Endoleons’ wide grey forms were almost upon him and he made a point of never being seen to be loitering, never mind the squeak of the cart. They were chatting between themselves and passing a small silver clipboard back and forth Out of the dark red skin of his forearm, he sprouted a long, spindly hook to open the door. Then, with a single deep breath, he let it ping back around and reform in his arm as he wheeled the cart purposefully through the door, eyes facing straight ahead.
The cool white light was bright on the eyes, but Janny had no problem with the shift. Endoleon eyes were significantly more sensitive than his, so light in the corridor was dimmer, and maybe slightly purple. It was one of the areas where the light could be brightened but it automatically reset when an Endoleon presence was sensed. Janny’s eyes, Daerian eyes, were as adaptable as the rest of his body, so he could immediately see his assembled workforce in front of him.
Janny realised most people wouldn’t consider three sleepy Daerians a workforce, but they were his staff and they could be a workforce if they wanted to be.
“Alright everyone!” He clapped his hands together, hardening the skin of his palms at the last moment for a better thud.
Cri groaned. Upumsel sighed. Fri fidgeted with the handle of the mug she was holding.
“Today we have some duct work, some electronics and some lavatorial plumbing. And if you’ll each take note of your schedule packet…” He wrestled a touch screen tablet out from its holder - which always held it slightly too tight to the side of his cart - and pretended to click send on the schedule email. He’d actually sent it a while ago, but of course it would do morale no good to acknowledge that likely none of them would have read it.
“Why can’t we just do one each?” Cri moaned. She kept her head spikes in tight braids and was fidgeting by unravelling then redoing each one in turn.
“Ah!” Janny held up an index finger. That would intuitively be how anyone might expect us to go about today’s duties. But we are not anyone. Cooks ‘n’ Cleaners don’t transfer just anyone into an important Endoleon ship.”
“Yes they do,” said Upumsel, still leaning against the wall. One of the room’s three little wooden tables was right in front of him yet still he chose to lean against the wall, with dirt on his maintenance boots no less. He went on, “It’s all automated, heard. Choose based on your company ID, know.”
Janny substituted in the extra words to make “that’s what I heard” and “don’t you know” from what Upumself was mumbling. Between the wall leaning and the single row of spikes along the middle of his head, disdain for full sentences never surprised Janny.
Janny had a little tendril pop out of his cheek and tap the side of his nose. “That’s just something they say to keep you on your toes.”
Fri raised a hand and tilted her head to the side. “But wouldn’t a reward for good work be a big winter bonus rather than being sent away to space?”
Janny slightly tightened his grip on the tablet and tried to pretend they hadn’t had this argument at least ten times since being on board. If he could wrap it up here, maybe they could just about start working on time.
“Well, it hardly matters,” he said, “Because we’re here now, among the stars. Let’s keep them clean people!”
Just as Cri began to say something - presumably a complaint - there was a vibration beneath Janny’s feet. The floor was only thinly carpeted over a metal platform - and that platform was suspended over ten feet of air, which Janny knew from storing most of his materials down below. So the noise was spectacular, as the sides of the platform clattered against the walls, and the chains going down to each corner rattled up and down.
Then it stopped.
Janny looked up from his feet, to which he’d had his eyes glued as he tried to keep his balance, and glanced over at Cri. “Did you have something to say, Cri?”
“Ugh, what was that?” she whined. “Do you think we’ve hit space gravel again?”
Janny righted his mop, which was now hanging precariously to the side and threatening to topple over, bringing his bucket with it. “For the last time it’s not ‘space gravel’. Those rocks are called micro-asteroids and our pilots have been doing a wonderful job navigating them. Now, let’s get to work.”
Unfortunately, just as his three staff members seemed to finally be starting to move, there was a much tamer vibration in Janny’s pocket, accompanied by a sharp beeping ringtone. His hand tensed with impatience as he took the tech-pod out and answered it.
“Hello?” he said. “Head Janitor Rolgen Gomm speaking.”
“Gomm, we need you down here in the cockpit,” said the deep, slightly gurgling voice of one of the Endoleon pilots. Janny couldn’t tell if it was Pilid or Ret.
He checked the screen for the name of the caller but the contact was listed only as “cockpit”, so he defaulted to rank. “What’s the matter, pilot? Those buttons still sticking? I told Fri to be as liberal as she liked with the oil but she was very nervous you see-”
“The buttons are fine!” the pilot interjected. “We need a Scentian speaker.”
“I’m from Fladaer,” Janny replied, “Daer-Ta doesn’t have a global language, you understand.”
“Yes, yes,” the pilot said, “But they did colonise your people for half a century. You must have picked something up. Besides, you picked up Endoleon remarkably well. Between your home background and your linguistic proficiency, you’re just the being we need, Gomm. We don’t have Scentian programmed into our directory.”
There was a flicker of pleasure at the back of Janny’s mind in response to the flattery. It was true, as well. He’d worked hard at perfecting his Endoleon and made sure his entirely Fladaerian staff spoke only Endoleon on board the ship too. But he had a job to be getting on with, and neither Cri’s moaning or Pilid/Ret’s schmoozing was going to get in his way.
“Look, I have a lot of urgent electrical work to be getting on with for communications. Are you sure this could not wait until my lunch break? I’m sure whatever you need me to translate won’t have grown legs and run away,” he said, ignoring the raised eyebrows from Fri. He’d forgotten the others were only hearing half this conversation.
“Run away, no. It doesn’t seem these Scentians have any intention of going anywhere,” the pilot said.
For a moment the irritation bubbling up in Janny’s brain fell flat. “What did you say, sir? There are actual Scentians on board? I thought you meant you needed a text translated.”
“I gathered that,” said the pilot. “I wouldn’t say on board, so much as they have hijacked our piloting systems. For the love of the boundary star would you get down here, Gomm?”
Janny’s breath hiccuped a little but he managed to keep his composure. “I’ll be right there, sir.”
He hung up the pod and took in the wide eyes on the faces of his staff. Oddly enough, this was the most animated he’d seen them all week. Maybe, just maybe, he could harness that before he went. “Right then! Big day! Get yourselves sorted and I’ll be back to check in with you later, yes?”
“Janny…” said Fri, looking from Cri and Upumsel then back to Janny. “Did you say there were Scentians on board?”
Janny’s leg twitched with a desire to get on with something, but he met her eyes and said, “Yes. I’m off to find out what they want.”
“You going to give them it? Whatever it is they want?” Upumsel asked, in the highest pitch voice and fullest sentences Janny had ever heard him use.
“I’m going to find out what they’re saying,” Janny said, “The Endoleons will decide what to do.”
Upumsel shook his head but didn’t say anything.
“Right then!” Janny exclaimed, “I’ll be off. Call me if you have any issues with the schedule, but I think you’ll be pretty pleased with the calibrations, if I do say so myself.”
Janny left them his cart, though he didn’t love walking along the corridors without its comforting weight before him. But if they were going to get their best work done they needed the best resources. Maintenance was still what he was paid for, no matter what these Scentian fellows had to say.