The general hustle and bustle of any given planet’s spaceport was almost identical to that of any other airport, trainport, carry-port or port-port; thousands of people coming and going with merchants and food cards making a quick buck in-between. The exteriors of these stations were mostly the same, with layout modules and navigation lanes that had been standardized over millenia. However, the interior of each station was very much within the purview of the local governing body, and was usually one of the first impressions exo-solar visitors would get of their hosts. Because of this, the station and elevator interiors were meant to make a statement, be it one of riches and wealth, one of hearth and home, or one of brutalist architecture and cold utilitarianism. The interior design was left to the locals, and due to the lack of paint-by-numbers kits, sometimes things got a little bit unique.

Gentle expanse, up until just a few short decades ago, was the kind of station that wasn’t necessarily a backwater, but wasn’t a tier-1 megasystem – it fell somewhere in the middle. Sure, there were pillars and tiles made of obsidian and silver and gold, the local governor welcomed you with a pre-recorded speech, and the “best local food” was always just a few feet away from any offloading ramp. That all changed after the Moths attacked and after their subsequent… domestication. Gone were the bland yet somewhat homey pictures and holograms of planet life, instead replaced with videos of high-speed low-drag humans clinging to an oversized goth butterfly as they raced around a sportsball loop. There was new cuisine, new adventures, new science and new products to enjoy, and for better or worse the humans and the allure of humans had taken center stage from the time you stepped off your ship until the time you got back on. At least, that’s how the system-wide government marketing department wanted, and according to their tourist tax revenue, it was working.

“{I don’t get it.}”

The Dusty-blue Dorarizin male turned towards his fellow traveling companion, lowering his bag to the floor with a magnetic thunk as he attempted to read his fellow Dorarizin’s expression. His companion had stopped dead in the middle of a somewhat busy lobby, and the flow of passengers and light goods started to move around them like water around a rock. “{What do you mean?}”

“{I mean.}” His earthy-brown furred friend replied, pointing towards the very-empty human section. The human section was arranged in an amphitheater-like design, with rays of benches radiating out from a central focal point, with a gated continuation of the human-section behind the central point, leading to parts unknown. This, in and of itself was nothing out the ordinary for any visiting human; the benches were slightly padded, the tables were the right height, there were plenty of free outlets for your smaller devices, and everything was sectioned off properly to stop any general chaos that would ensue when you keep hundreds of people together against their will due to scheduling delays. Earthy-brown was pointing at all that, and at the lone human who stood in the welcome-center cylindrical tube of knowledge, but not specifically at either. He was, instead, pointing at the first of many small, bronze pillars, connected by a strand of velvet. “{That.}”

Dusty-Blue flicked his ears slightly condescendingly as he raised his hand. “{They’re called tiny-chompers, and they’re these little sweethearts about yea tall-}”

“{Oh tug on the last tuft! I don’t mean that.}” Earth-brown replied, rolling his head to the side. “{Look at the welcome area: the ropes. Why do they have a maze of ropes?}”

Dusty-Blue opened his mouth to respond with the obvious “it’s for managing people” but then thought for a moment: Most other places he’d been to – the ones without tiny-chompers, of course – didn’t have an easy rope maze to get to the entrance; usually people just queued up like normal adults and waited around for their turn. That would mean that rope mazes for humans existed because either (1) they are incredibly easy to corral with just a piece of rope, (2) they are unable to stand in line properly and efficiently, or just (3) that they really do like mazes but don’t actually want to get lost. Dusty-blue thought hard, and realizing that none of the obvious answers shed a good light on their new neighbors, decided to do the obvious thing and just ask.

“{Come on.}” Dusty-Blue said, waving his hand as he picked up his bag and hefted it over his back. “{Let’s go ask – we might even run into one or two of the tiny-chompers as well, if that’s not a projection over there.}”

Greg sighed as he watched the two Dorarizin talk among themselves, casting furtive glances and gestures at his customs station. It’s not that he hated his job – he enjoyed being the go-to person for new people and visiting families for Gentle Expanse, and telling them all of the fun stuff to do and generally building excitement for his home. It’s just that, well. If you work with people, on your feet, in the front line of a pseudo-retail environment (the gift shop DOES count), you just end up getting tired. It’s nothing personal, really – it’s just… well. Making sure you’re happy the whole shift through is exhausting and sometimes the mask slips.

“Hello valued traveler – please note that you’re in the human section, and that more species-appropriate accommodations can be found to your right.” Greg said in a professional yet courteous monotone, motioning from behind his cylindrical podium to the general direction of “right”. Xenos wandering into the human-only area happened dozens of times a day, with or without other people around; it wasn’t usually a problem unless the curious tourists were lone Dorarizin near some random humans, and even then he had a pretty high-pressure near-zero celsius watered-down-vinegar hose he could hit ‘em with remotely to get his message across. Most wanderers Greg dealt with were good natured, assuming that he hosted a human-centric exhibit, or that maybe they could talk to him to get assigned a human for their stay. Very rarely were people belligerent, and in his 8 year career only one person tried to pry the bars open and escape into the gated human-only section. Station security was, of course, called, and… well.

He got the month off after that one.

“[Greetings! We are two brother-friends who are interested!]” A Dusty-blue Dorarizin called out, waving both his arms excitedly above his head from side to side.

Greg hummed to himself as he saw the Dorarizin attempt to be welcoming; they obviously had either picked up bootleg comms, or just haven’t updated from the base package. Shaking his head, Greg motioned for them both to come nearer, and with a bit too much giddy excitement the incredibly large xenos pair bounded over to his reinforced station.

“[Hello, new friend! I am [————]” Greg’s implant happily translated, playing a low tone in lieu of the Blue Dorarizin’s name. “[And he is [———].]” Greg’s implant continued, playing a higher tone. “[We have come. Why do you have rope jail?]”

Greg chuckled a bit, and decided then and there to actually try; his shift was almost over, after all, and it wouldn’t hurt to do an actual good deed for the day. He distracted the brown Dorarizin by simply placing his hand on the glass, and with barely-restrained glee the much larger, much older adult xenos placed his own hand on the other side of the barrier. With one xenos down, he turned to Dusty-Blue. “Please look for a file broadcast by any open government node within the welcome packet that says ‘local human speech update’, and run that update on your wetware at your earliest convenience.”

Dusty-Blue seemed to stare into the middle distance as he connected to the secure node, and Greg did his damnest to hide his smile as the update hit Dusty-Blue’s wetware, the Dorarizin’s tongue blepping out and back into his mouth as the update hit. He turned to look at his traveling companion, only to find that he had taken up a lot more of the glass.

“[Hi.]” Earth-Brown said, a wide smile spread across his face and ears. “[Hi. Hi! Hi!]”

“Hello.” Greg replied, grinning. “You should download the update as well.”

“[Hi!]” Earth-brown said again, smushing his cheek against the reinforced glass of Greg’s booth. “[Hi!]”

“[Oh, wow, our software version was well out of date!]” Dusty-Blue said, finally focusing on the human. “[Were you even able to understand what I was asking earlier?]”

“Hi.” Greg responded to the Earthy-Brown Dorarizin – immediately rewarded with another hello, before replying to Dusty-Blue. “Firstly, yes – it was very bad English, but I understood most of it. You’ll still want your friend to install the update, because once you get away from the “human” districts the distribution node network drops off pretty sharply outside of government buildings. You’ll also want to fill in your own nameplate, or you can roll the dice and let us fill in your nameplate for you.”

“[Is that tradition?]” Dusty-Blue asked, squatting down slightly to be on eye-level with Greg. “[My name translates to leaping-through-meadows. Can you give me a nameplate like that?]”

Greg thought for a moment, looking the eager alien over. “How about bluebell? It’s a type of flower, and you are a bit blue.”

Bluebell smiled with his ears. “[I think that will work. What about my friend here, home-gentle-will?]”

Greg looked at the Earthy-Brown Dorarizin, who greeted him once more. “[His name is Borkbork.]”

“[Ah.]” Bluebell said.

“[Hi~]” Borkbork replied, bodily pressing up against the glass just a little too hard.

“So what was your actual question?” Greg said, moving his splayed hand up the glass much to the entertainment of Borkbork. “You said something about rope jail?”

“[Hah! That’s what it translated as?! Good heavens.]” Bluebell shook his head and stepped to the side, pointing to the rope maze in the waiting area. “[We were just wondering why you have a rope maze in your waiting area.]”

Greg furrowed his brow as Borkbork said hi. “The… safety barriers? They just help people stay in a certain area, I guess?” Greg studied Bluebell’s body language as the Dorarizin dealt with a few competing emotions, before apparently ultimately settling on something sweet.

“[I… see, thank you.]” Bluebell said, as Borkbork chimed in again. “[That was all we wanted to know.]”

“Wait, wait. You don’t want to know about tourist attractions, or human cuisine, or vacation spots, or have any totally inappropriate questions about my physiology?” Greg asked, for the first time (and to the whining complaint of Borkbork) taking his hand off of the glass to rest it on his center console. “You’re not… interested?

Bluebell ducked his head slightly. “[No! Not at all, we very much are! My brother-friend and I have planned and saved up for months for this trip! It’s just, well. Bad manners to pry into strangers’ lives, right?]”

“I’m sorry, I’m just so used to… well. People treating me like a curiosity!” Greg laughed, placing his hand back onto the glass and being rewarded with the thump of Borkbork’s paw on the opposite side, and yet another greeting. “You’re very considerate.”

“[Thank you very much!]” Bluebell said, deciding to just sit down in front of the booth. “[I feel bad for asking now, but you did offer – what should we do? Where should we go? I heard the Emerald Screen spa was a very good place to go-]”

“If you wanted to see humans in the wild?” Greg interrupted, hitting the nail on the head as Bluebell sputtered a bit before his brain caught back up.

“[When you put it like that-]” Bluebell started, before Greg dismissed him with a wave of his hand.

“It’s nothing – we’re not only used to it, but it’s not bad and we help out with our planet’s economy. What’s not to love?” Greg said, shrugging. “Besides, you’re a lot better than most of the people I get; you’re looking at me as a person, which is what 90% of tourists don’t get, and so they don’t get what they really want.”

“[What do they want?]” Borkbork asked, suddenly about his wits, to the utter shock of Bluebell and Greg. Borkbork looked at his friend, slightly shocked. “[What, you thought I wasn’t paying attention? I am!]”

Greg furrowed his brow, biting his lower lip in thought. “Then why did you-”

“[Hiiiiiiiii~]” Borkbork replied, pawing at the glass. “[Lookit! They’re so small and white!]”

“Ugh.” Greg sighed. “So that’s what I’m more used to, if you were wondering.”

Bluebell frowned slightly, but not unkindly. “[I will groom his fur backwards tomorrow morning as penance.]”

“Good!” Greg said, clapping his hands – and was instantly mirrored by Borkbork, whom he was now actively ignoring. “So, although the best accommodations for you would be in Silver City, you’re going to be paying a hefty premium and you’re not going to be getting your little adventure that you’re hoping for; if this glass was not in the way, your friend would most likely have cute-aggressioned me to certain injury.”

“[I would not!]” Borkbork said, unconvincingly, and when he made eye contact with an unimpressed and disbelieving Greg, smiled and said hello.

Greg turned away, and focused his attention solely on Bluebell, utterly ignoring Borkbork creeping into his line of sight. “So, just remember to keep your hands to yourselves. You do need to be trained to handle us if you don’t want restrictions or chaperones, and most of the locals are now trained by birth on how to manage us – and vice versa.”

Bluebell’s face dropped in disappointment. “[So… there’s no… it’s not wild roaming? I can’t human-spot?]”

“I. Hm.” Greg inhaled deeply, and looked at Bluebell hard, studying his face. “Can I see your ID?”

“[My ID? My home system ID or the visitor’s visa that I got from customs?]” Bluebell asked, turning his bag over in his lap to open up the corresponding zipper.

“Either works.” Greg replied, tapping a few indicators on his console. He dismissed security asking if he was alright, notified his colleague that he can clock in but won’t be in-booth for a bit, and opened up a background check app. With a simple pip of his handheld scanner against the visitor’s visa, Bluebell’s entire public history appeared on his monitor. Greg looked for a few key indicators, given it was a Dorarizin he was talking to: Did have children at home, was married – so it’s a guy’s only vacation, it seems – no felonies or misdemeanors on his name or his pack name. Has handled infants before, so he’d get some of the analogous training almost immediately… and it was something special they saved up for.

Greg groaned internally as he felt his mask slip.

“Alright, listen to me and listen to me well, I’m going to only say this once.” Greg said, pulling off a sticky note and beginning to write. “One of my cousins – on my mom’s side – is running a restaurant… Well, helps run a restaurant down near Three Hills. It’s an invite-only place, and I’m trusting you – look at me.” Greg said, pointing his pen at Bluebell, who was listening with rapt attention. “Don’t tell anyone I sent you there, got it? Near Rah – the college – ask for where Anne Marie Beaumont works, and when you find it, show them this at the door.” Greg finished writing on the post-it and slid the slip of paper into the one-way transit box, sliding the shut box out to the outside world. Bluebell gently opened the lid to the box and pulled out the slip of paper, studying it intently. “If you do go, you keep your hands to yourself or expect to get shot.”

“[What, like, shot out the door?]” Bluebell asked, looking over the incredibly small note with a furrowed brow. “[Is that some local term?]”

“No, I mean, physically shot.” Greg said, tilting his head from side to side in emphasis to his point. “That code word is only good for this week – the next 4 days, really. If you’re cool, they’ll give you next week’s word. If you’re not, you won’t get it, and if you’re … well. Don’t be bad – I know you won’t be.” Greg said, his hand gently patting the air between them in a placating gesture. “But you need to watch out for Borkbork. You do that, and you’ll get what you’re actually hoping for, for half the price, if that.”

“[What… kind of place is this?]” Bluebell asked, turning the note over in his hands.

“It’s exactly what you’re looking for.” Greg said, pressing a button on his desk. Immediately the glass turned from clear to a black opaqueness, the booth scrolling “We’ll be back!” text in most major interstellar languages. The two Dorarizin friends looked at each other, before tapping the glass on the booth and waiting.

No response.

“[What… what does his note say?]” Borkbork asked, sniffing around the cylinder for any more genuine human interaction.

Bluebell looked at the front of the note again, the simple human scrawl on it’s plant fiber page making the object itself almost priceless. “[I don’t know… I can’t read human.]”