Odela led Janny through the door and into a quiet plaza. Janny did his best to take in her chattering as she took him across to the other side but his eyes kept wandering, absorbing instead his surroundings. The centre of the plaza was a fountain, wide spraying purple liquid from a spindly metal structure. From there out the different decorations were in wider and wider rings - thick bushes encircling the fountain, cobblestone paving around that, then a circle of wooden benches on soft pink clay.
“Janny, are you alright?” Odela stopped and stared at him, eyelids also clacking in the silence as she blinked.
“Huh? Sorry,” Janny said. He gestured around himself. They were parallel to the dark metal fountain, strolling along the cobblestones. “It’s beautiful, all of it.”
Odela sighed, smiling at him. “That it is, though I thought you said you’d been to the Hub before?”
Janny shook his head. “Not for longer than an hour or so. And we only stretch our legs on the loading dock, you see.”
Odela purses her lips, which softened a little as they pressed together. “Ah, well, you might as well enjoy your time here. There will be a community night here in a few hours. Why not come back out once you’ve got settled in the hotel?”
Janny nodded, his breath easing out of him. The ground felt a little stealthier beneath his feet and he managed to focus on Odela’s kind, earnest eyes. “Yes, quite. Good plan. Good to have a plan.”
Odela reaches down and patted him on the shoulder with a wide, ten-fingered hand. “You’ll have a great time.”
Janny was more able to join in conversation as they finished crossing the plaza, though it turned out to be difficult to get a word in edgewise with Odela anyway.
“Right, here you are,” she said eventually, coming to a decisive stop with a stamp of her foot. She stumbled briefly. “Oops. Forgot I was in heels.”
They were on a flat, grey pavement, made from maybe carbon fibre or one of those special types of glass. In front of them stood a tall wide building, with four windows on each floor. It was painted lilac, except for some off-white cornices ringing around the bottom of each floor.
“I like the colour scheme around here,” Janny said, taking in the wall in front of him.
Odela had made a move towards the door. Through its glass panels, Janny could just about see a desk, with someone moving around behind it.
“Oh, yes, that was Birt’s work. I tell you, that boy deserves a raise,” Odela said. “You’re ready, right?”
Janny opened his eyes wide. “I wasn’t trying to stop - I mean - I was just saying.”
Oleda shrugged, which produced a clacking noise Janny couldn’t even place the origin of. “No matter. Come along.”
Janny nodded and followed her inside. The reception was well lit with warm yellow lamps hanging from the ceiling. Around the room were hung at least a dozen framed photographs of views from space, geological wonders, structures of architectural magnificence. The photography varied massively in quality from one picture to another, one waterfall even obscured by a big orange shadow halfway across.
“Hey! Over here!”
Janny whipped around, slightly over-twisting his neck. The clerk at the desk, a thin orange being with long spindly arms was gesturing at him.
“Oh, hello,” Janny said.
“You know, you go to the farthest reaches of the galaxy and all anyone notices is the time you accidentally put your thumb over the lens,” the being grumbled, pointing at the photograph with the orange shadow.
“Did you take these?” Janny asked.
“Yes, yes, those are my handiwork. Now, come forward please.” The being snapped his fingers and reached into one of his desk drawers as Janny took a step forward. Just as he reached the desk, the being tossed a clipboard onto the surface, spinning it around so it faced Janny. “Just fill this out and we’ll get you some accommodation.”
At the top of the form Janny saw the words ‘Daer-Ta, Fladaer’. He supposed he had walked in speaking Fladian but still, it was impressive they had a form there waiting for him.
“Okay, I can do this cost,” Janny said, looking up. “Do you accept Endoleon wage card?”
“Don’t worry,” Odela said, “Captives stay free, right Birt?”
Birt hesitated, but nodded. “Going to put me out of business, but yes. So then, Odela rescue you?”
Janny nodded vigorously as he filled out his name. “She was brilliant. Really put them in their place.”
Odela made a buzzing vibration noise. “You were brilliant, Janny. You barely needed my help.”
Janny’s heart squealed as he finished up his admin. “Thank you.”
Birt took his clipboard back and scanned the details with amber eyes. “Alrighty then, here’s your key. You’re in room twelve, buddy. Welcome to the Lofi Hotel, premier destination for members of all flexies.”
Janny raised an eyebrow. “Flexies?”
Birt tilted his long thin face to one side. “You’ve never heard the term? You know, any of the species of the tri-system? Endoleons, Daerians and Finsets, like me? It’s the umbrella term for species who can manipulate their forms to extreme extents. Like twisting ourselves around and round.”
Birt waved one hand then whipped it around his torso. It wrapped around and around, all the way up to his shoulders. He lifted his hand up from his left collarbone and gave another little wave. Janny gaped and let his own arm extend, reaching out to Birt, who was now unravelling himself. Birt stopped halfway and shook Janny’s hand.
“Nice to meet you, mate,” he said. “I’ll help you get settled. Then later on you’ll join us for the festivities, right?”
Janny looked around at Odela, who was watching this with a bemused smile.
“I’ll be off,” she said, “Have to get back to work. But I’ll come check on you tonight, if that’s alright with Birt.”
Birt put a hand on his chest. “Come on, you know we’re always welcoming to outsiders… especially ones who bring something for the barbecue.”
Odela chuckled as she moved to the door. “Well, yes, quite. I shall bring you some Hot Horcs.”
“Yes!” Birt clenched his fist. “Thanks, Odi!”
Odela nodded curtly, once to each of them, then took her leave.
Birt was still grinning when Janny turned back to face him. “Seriously, dude, you are in for a treat tonight. Lemme show you to your room.”
Birt led Janny through a few short, dimly lit corridors with a door or two on each side. After a few lefts and a right, then another left, they entered a narrow stairwell. There were a couple of small windows but for the most part it was dim too. Still, nowhere near as dark as the spacious corridor of an Endoleon ship.
Janny’s room had a window onto the plaza, which Birt stood looking out of for a moment. When he turned around, his face was dark in contrast to the bright sunlight that flooded in behind them. Janny knew they had moved closer to the nearest star - Silden, it was called by Daerians - and it occurred to him that it ought to be warmer, especially in a hotel room with the windows closed.
As Janny’s eyes adjusted, which doesn’t take long for a Daerian, he realised that Birt’s expression was also rather dark.
“Are you alright, by the way?” Birt asked, all the excitement gone from his voice.
Janny crowned. “Little warm, but yeah.”
“Just… you hear things about that lot…” Birt’s eyes searched his face.
Janny tilted his head to the side. “Scentians?”
Birt moved closer and spoke barely above a whisper. “The SRA. Scentian Resurgance Army. I mean, sunsake, how many of them were there?”
“Two…” Janny replied.
“Only two in one of those big drifters?” Birt’s eyebrows raised.
“Their craft was tiny,” Janny said. “I barely fitted. And they were nice to me.”
“Then why’d you escape?” Birt asked, his voice getting a bit louder.
Janny looked down. He mumbled, “A fair point, I suppose. I don’t know that much about politics.”
“Look, man, I don’t know you but just - be careful. I wouldn’t trust a Scentian as far as I could throw my arm,” Birt said. His eyes darted about and he added, “Or an Endoleon, really. Just… stay safe, man.”
He patted Janny on the shoulder and headed for the door. He looked round as he reached the doorway and put the smile back on his face. “You realise you were talking to yourself about windows and the sun, right?”
Janny sighed, but also smiled. “I’m just going with the flow at this point.”
Birt laughed. “Fair enough, buddy. And it’s cool here because all the species in our area are as far out as each other from their respective suns - we like roughly the same temperature.”
“Ah,” Janny said, nodding. “That’s very interesting to know.”
Birt smiled with one side of his mouth and put his hand on the door frame. “See you at the party tonight.” As he swung lazily around and headed off down the corridor he called, “There’ll be lots of interesting stuff there!”