Stories They are Smol

Smolive Garden, Chapter 23: DeMOTHcracy

He was himself, and he had always been himself, and he knew that on an instinctual level that there were others like him, but who were not him. Scent markers, pheromone triggers, wing patterns, quirks on landing and takeoff – all these thing helped him realize where he ended and others began.

There were other ways for him to know, tastes on the air and feelings in his head that uttered imperatives, commands that he obeyed without understanding why. Why, itself, was a thought that was beyond him; he obeyed the Queen, he avoided danger, he followed the swarm which were-him-and-yet-were-not-him, and he was a part of something much larger, but only for a time.

It was only when he swarmed around the others, the barkless ones that were not grubs and yet not ravenous, that he understood that his own self could have a sound. It took him many moons to understand that it was his sound, one that he himself could not make, but it helped him understand more about where he ended and others began. There were other barkless ones, ones who pushed him and shouted loud sounds at him and in some times injured him, but he learned where they began and ended to avoid them, and their sounds made no sense. The big ones were unknown and unknowable, the small ones were friendly and good, and made the good sound for him.

It also usually was a sound followed by free food, so it was worth paying attention to.

The sound – his sound – was repeated, and he raised his antennae up in attention, the scents and chemicals of the air passing over the delicate organ. His compound eyes focused  as best they could on the barkless ones, who were hiding behind a jagged rock. He backed up against the wall, his abdomen pressing against the cold, smooth rock, and rocked his body back and forth. The rocking was automatic; he didn’t understand how or why he should warm up his muscles, or stretch, or the build kinetic energy into his legs. He just rocked when anticipating something, because that’s just what he did.

There was another yell, a flash of light, and he dove forward, screaming.

“GO GET IT BUCKEYE!” Brian yelled as he pulled the trigger on his food truck technical, a single hotdog launched from the weapon barrel at a significant fraction of the speed of sound. Buckeye the moth, wiggling in anticipation and joy, dove forward, his mandibles wide as he bit down furiously on empty air. The hotdog sailed past him, splatting against the wall.

“That’s 37 in a row he’s missed.” Pytor said, making a note on a clipboard as the semi-feral moth turned slowly around to eat the treat that had smushed onto the wall. “Double or nothing he gets the next one.”

“That’s a bet I”ll take.” Brian said as he aimed down his gunsights at Buckeye’s forhead. “He can’t miss this one, he loves chilidogs.”

“[You’ve said that the last 10 times.]” Taffy said, a frown on his dull banana-yellow features as he lifted another cooler of pre-made hotdogs into the back of the truck, opening the side of the white cooler and attaching a conveyor-belt feeding mechanism. “[Are you sure we should be doing this?]”

“Doing what?” Brian said as he pulled the trigger again, Buckeye watching the hotdog sail over his head, right between his antennae and hit the wall once more.

“[Teaching this wild animal to associate us with food?]” Taffy said, watching the weapon cycle in another foil-coated hotdog, the previous foil “casing” wadded up and ejected from a port on the side of the gun. “[Not that this… machine isn’t impressive, but we’re really messing with the wildlife here. It’s going to start thinking these trucks are food, and if it teaches the others-]”

“To be fair to Buckeye, he’s been breaking into our restaurant for decades and it hasn’t spilled out to any other moths.” Brian said, racking the slide to fill the chamber with meaty goodness. “But I think that’s on account of the head damage he got as a grub.”

Taffy paused for a moment before pulling his hood in tightly, turning his body clockwise to look at his human friend at head level. “[No one decided to take him to a wildlife veterinarian?]”

“Why would we do that?” Brian said, pausing from his game of shoot-your-friend to raise his gun helmet visor and look at Taffy. “My dad said he regained consciousness after a day or so, ate the blanket they wrapped him in, and hung out after that.”

“[It’s a wild animal, even if you’ve partially tamed it.]” Taffy said, uncurling himself and resting his arms on the top of the technical’s driver cab, letting the warm air seep up through the open cab window and against his chest. “[What if it had a family? Or a hive or something that misses him?]”

“Well that’s why we keep throwing the leftovers into the forest out back.” Pytor said, matter-of-factly. “It’s compost if they don’t eat it, and if they do then Buckeye has friends.”

“[There’s no way that’s legal.]” Taffy deadpanned.

“You’d be surprised what’s legal when the cops aren’t around.” Brian said, tilting his head forward to slide the visor back down on his face. “Anyway, our growing boy over here needs his snackums yes he does yes he-“ Brian pulled the trigger and fired a chilidog right at Buckeye’s head, and for the first time in the past hour he animal opened his mouth and caught it mid-flight.

The humans cheered, the Taffy sighed, and Buckeye’s antennae went straight up as he finally understood what the barkless ones were trying to do all this time.

The big bright had dimmed when He awoke, his antennae unfurling as consciousness returned. Buckeye tasted the air, his eyes focusing back into clarity as he overcame what could only be called a “food coma” brought to him by his friendly barkless ones. There was a flash of light, and then warm food, and a flash of light, and warm food…

Two free neurons snapped together deep somewhere within Buckeye’s dented skull. With a moth equivalent of a grunt he stood up, his legs wobbling underneath his significantly engorged frame. He felt rounder now, and with his new shape, a new sense of power.

However, with great power comes great responsibility; Buckeye knew this without truly knowing, chemical signals and instincts flooding his brain and giving him purpose. Such a bounty was too much for him alone, and so must be shared with the swarm. With great determination and a significant amount of effort, he spread his wings and gave a mighty flap, launching himself a few inches into the air before immediately falling back on his feet.

Buckeye stood there for a moment, his wings twitching, before attempting flight again, this time spreading his legs a bit wider to give himself more surface area as he leapt up, his wings flapping down as hard as possible.

He made it a whole foot off the ground before crashing back down, his swollen fuzzy abdomen thumping against the cool pavement of the weapons proving ground. Buckeye turned around to look behind him, then completed the revolution to face forward once more, a look of confusion – if moths could express that properly – seeming to flash over his face.

He began to walk back into the forest, every so often giving a half-hearted flap of his wings in an attempt to get skyborn.

There was a change in the feeling of the night, and this First One’s eyes focused, turning away from the rapture of the night and his first flight. The moth turned himself groundward, his multi-limbed grip on the mushroom “tree” he was perched on making soft squeaks of protest as his clawed feet sunk into the bark. This First One’s antennae swayed in the cool night air, the skies above dim with moonlight to all other creatures but his kin.  

That One wasn’t Him. He knew this because of where he began and ended, and sometimes knowing which one was Him and which was not him took a while. This First One was able to identify, immediately, that That One wasn’t him based on a simple fact: The First One had never seen one of him so round before.

His antennae swayed again as he watched That One drag himself along the ground into the sleeping grove, his abdomen leaving a trail in the ground-litter below. Buckeye didn’t seem to be injured, didn’t sway with the blight-sickness, didn’t give off a stench of rot, and so the First One became… curious, for lack of a better term.

With a mighty flap of his wings, the First One launched himself from his perch, lazily dropping to the forest floor with gentle, halting wingbeats. He studied Buckeye as he descended, filtering the air with intent. There was no stench of sickness on him, but there was a stench, a smell that tickled some part of his brain. He needed to know.

Curious antennae leaned forward, trying to make a connection, and returned a chemical signal that closely resembled a heavy groan.

Buckeye unfocused his compound eyes, leaning away from his swarm-mate. He knew without knowing what he must do, but hated the idea of doing it. With a deep inhalation that shuddered his entire body, Buckeye rolled his proboscis out and spread his wings.

With an insectoid grunt he wiggled a bit to the right. Then he lifted alternating legs. Then a wiggle to the left. He turned himself around, slowly, his overfed stomach protesting at the need to move at all, before raising his antennae and tongue to the sky. What was just one audience member turned to two and then a dozen, as Buckeye continued his dance.

There is food. Many food. Small barkless give food. Half a flight west.

 The growing swarm watched him with interest, every so often a probing tongue brushing against his abdomen, feelers patting his wings, getting a sense of where Buckeye went, what he had seen. Zesty corndog dust stuck to new antennae, cool ranch dressing licked up by unsuspecting tongues.

There WAS food. MANY food.

Buckeye stopped dancing. He wasn’t sick, not by any means, but he was tired, and with reassuring scents and pats from his antennae he laid down on the forest floor and passed out. The growing swarm around him, however, was of a mixed mind. No Queen demanded fealty, no fires needed to be spread, there was no migration… and food was plentiful anyway, as long as everyone kept to their own business.

But the flavor. The First One licked at his foot before placing it on Buckeye’s abdomen, pulling away an orange dust and putting it absentmindedly into his mouth. It tingled on his tongue, it touched parts of his mouth that he had never known were there. It energized him, it thrilled him – it was something new, something…. Good.

Many food. Only Half a flight west.

The First One, still full enough from his feeding a few days ago, decided it would be good to see what this new dust was, and how it could be eaten, and with a chemical curiosity slowly took to the skies.

They are Smol Stories

Smolive Garden, Chapter 22: Taco Truck Technicals

Azul kept mashing the “go up” button in vain mimicry of her warm-cuddle coworkers, believing somehow that the aggression she put into the button press would be translated into vertical speed. It didn’t work, and a large part of her mind knew it wouldn’t, but it made the situation feel better and that’s what mattered. As the elevator finally reached her office suite it let out a happy series of chimes, the otherwise calming melody seeming to mock her as it delayed the opening of the doors.

Azul didn’t rush out of the elevator so much as poured herself out, pushing every inch of herself that she was physically capable of through the widening gap  as the doors slowly and otherwise majestically opened. Stumbling out into her office proper, she looked up with wild eyes to see what remained of the associated board of directors acting uncharacteristically jovial.

“[I’m back, I’m back!]” With a hurried slide she positioned herself behind her desk again, making no attempt to clean herself up as she reconnected to the call with hasty apologies. “[A thousand apologies, everyone – there was a rockslide that had to be picked up downstairs.]”

Drewgre-of-Arroz laughed, flicking his ears. “[Not a problem – we were entertained while you were gone! Your little helper came back in while you were gone.]”

Azul’s blood turned to ice, and her face dropped. “[Oh.]”

Gkrusk rested her muzzle on the heel of her palm, idly tapping at a tablet off screen with her free hand. “[Oh, don’t be so bitter, it was fine. In fact, he had some really good ideas.]” Gkrusk looked up at her camera with a sly smile. “[I quite like the idea of branching out to adventure dining locations.]”

“[Adventure dining?]” Azul parroted, the whipcrack switch between evil megacorporation and daily marketing duties causing her thoughts to skip a beat.

“[Yes. We have the materials and the money, why not build a restaurant inside an active volcano?]” Gkrusk said, scrolling through a list only she could see. “[Or a lone mountain range near some unpopulated part of our core territory? We’d have the food distribution network there already, and winter sports are always in vogue.]”

‘<Evil volcano lair.>’ Azul immediately thought, and grimaced. ‘<Secret mountain base.>’

“[Some of his ideas were ah, quaint, to say the least: Orbiting stations, asteroid constellations, things like that.]” Gkrusk continued, rumbling contentedly.

“[Was it something he called ‘starkiller base’?]” Azul asked, hesitatingly, feeling the pressure of a migraine starting to build in the center of her skull. 

“[Why yes! So he did bring it up to you before!]” Drewgre-of-Arroz said, nodding approvingly. “[It’s so good to see subordinates take the initiative, and we can completely understand your hesitation in autonomously directing so many resources for unproven projects.]”  

“[I’m sensing a ‘but’ here.]” Azul said, interrupting the director as she rubbed her clenching jawline. “[And I’d like to cut this off before you come out of the tunnel. I think there’s been a fundamental cultural disconnect between what we projected, expected and executed on, and what our human colleagues are doing. We need to readjust accordingly, immediately.]”

“[I’ll say.]” Kqi’pi said, looking over a report. “[Completely shifted my paradigms on synergistic foodservice and win-win collaborative-disruptive models.]” He looked up at the camera, completely serious as he tapped his desk with his free hand. “[We can involve shareholders and stakeholders in a staked steak model on something called a blockchain, which according to my notes is a linked butcher’s station for all kinds of meats.]”

Azul inhaled deeply, trying to center herself as the board of directors – her superiors by far – built momentum, sliding at breakneck speed towards a cliff’s edge that only she could see.

“[I believe we should shutter all our operations in regards to this new business line, effective immediately.]” Azul said, slowly, forming the words and letting them fall out of her mouth like formed stone. She was dimly aware that the conversation had quickly died down, and that realization gave her the strength to press on.

“[The humans don’t view our interstellar organization as anything other than an evil megacorporation – no offense to anyone here, we’re all in that same basket to them – and so have taken the opportunity to form a culture of scofflaws. What I had originally assumed were quirks of our new colleagues are instead purpose-built to form this corporate division into a liability for the entire conglomerate. The self-created corporate slogans are battle-cries, the PPE we’ve provided is kitted out more towards a security service, and our methods of payment and recruiting are subversive at best. Our initial marketing drive-by was an actual drive-by, for Sotek’s sake!]” Azul cried out, opening her eyes and raising her hands in exasperation. “[There is so much more, but this needs to be stopped, and stopped now!]” 

There was a moment of dead air before the conference call erupted in hearty, superlative laughter, a few of the Directors shutting off their video feed to save face from the lack of composure. Azul visibly drooped, the weight of their disbelief physically pushing her to the floor. Her chin rested against her desktop, the rest of her body slowly sagging under the camera’s horizon.

“[Oh come now, this isn’t your first pushback.]” Drewgre-of-Arroz said, his tone turning oddly paternal. “[I understand you have concerns, and we’re willing to hear them out, but given your previous reports there’s a lot of growing pains to a human-led, or partially human-managed corporation. We’ve already put a follow-up meeting next month, so we can revisit this issue then. Who knows?]” The elderly Dorarizin male shrugged, his greying muzzle opening to flash pearly-white teeth. “[This could all be over by then.]”

“[That’s what I’m worried about.]” Azul said, mainly to herself, as one by one her management signed off from the call.  

Elder Ti’miquek was no stranger to hard work, or loud work; although his career seemed to be ending in food service, he had spent some time doing everything from swinging a hammer to turning a wrench. Not on the same job, mind you, but during that hundred year or so period he was trying to find himself and settle down he wore multiple hats.

It had been a long time since he worked for a shade tree mechanic’s shop, and it
took him a little while to hold a conversation properly in-between the sound of air wrenches and plasma torches. His daughter only notified him of a nearly seven-figure purchase for the company, it’s line-item description in his accounting software only said “light manufacturing: misc”. In-between shifts Tictac decided it would be a good idea to swing by the new property and see what the new generation was getting up to, and if he would be needed to help in the quality control of what he assumed was food manufacturing.  

What they were getting up to was utterly confusing, looked concerning, had nothing to do with foodstuffs and was unfortunately very expensive.  

“[You’re telling me the cultural significance of these … machines is that important?]” Tictac half-yelled, tilting his body down to get close enough to Brian to hear what he was saying.

“Mate.” Brian fully-yelled back, the task made harder with his still-down welding visor over his face. “Nobody – no seppie, no tinhead, no bogan be they bloke or cunt would argue with this choice. It must be done.” Brian stressed, his hands spreading wide from his body as he spoke.

“[Fair… dink home.]” Tictac attempted, his translator doing it’s best to marry a respectable language to Australian. “[Did we really have to pay for shipping from Earth?]” 

“I know a guy who knows a guy, so these won’t show up on any manifests.” Brian said, slapping the aluminum panel of the vehicle in question. “Met a truckie one arvo that works for corporate – says they’ve been doin’ it since old Earth. Wherever there’s aggro, you’ll find em.”

Tictac tilted forward, mimicking to a startling degree one of those drinking bird mobiles as he looked the underside of the vehicle over. Four synthetic wheels, simple friction brakes, batteries and an engine that ran on some sort of fuel. The shocks were simple coils, the power differential nothing more than gears. To call the machine in front of him primitive would be an insult, but considering he
commuted to his company on an automatic hovercraft with inertial dampening
systems and full-preening back massage chair, it was the only word that came to

He kept it to himself, though, so as not to be rude. “[But you said this was a toy.]”

Brian laughed, which was more for show than anything given he had to go arms akimbo and yell out his laughter for it to be heard over the pneumatic hammer. “This ain’t a toy, ya dag! It’s a Toyota!”  

“[They’re not the same?]” Tictac asked, rearing back to half-height. “[No offense meant, but it looks very light. Simple.]”

Brian rested his hand on the white Toyota truck, patting it gently. “Now, yes. But soon she’ll be a technical, and then we’re delivering with style. Hot fresh fried foods and firepower in fifteen minutes or less, or you pay us double for the trouble!”

Tictac flicked his receding headcrest in mild confusion. “[Is that our new slogan?]”

“Can it be? I won’t tell anyone, promise!” Brian said, Tictac feeling the shit-eating grin spread underneath the unmoving welding mask.

Before Tictac could respond to the little human there was a loud bang – the kind of bang that came not from industry but from accidents, and the two quickly turned to look at the commotion. What looked like an AA turret had fallen the last few feet from it’s hoist onto the flatbed of a truck, the sudden weight popping one of the tires and causing the entire vehicle to lurch to the left, ultimately tipping over and spilling everything to the floor.

There was a pause in the workshop as everything came to a halt before someone yelled out “I’M OK!”. A cheer went up, a couple human managers wandered over with clipboards in hand, and most everyone took it as a cue to chitchat, check phones, or hang out at the soda fountain water coolers. Very slowly things got back to a kind of normal, save for the humans in question who had been summarily kidnapped by bright orange-masked people and pulled away into a side closet that Tictac had never noticed before.  

“[I don’t like that I’m this far out of the loop.]” Tictac said, frowning slightly. “[We were supposed to be a family establishment, serving our community.]”

“We are, and we are! Just, expand your definition of ‘family’ and ‘serving’.” Brian said, finally flipping up his welding mask to expose his soot-and-oil smeared face. “We’re simply a group of loosely related individuals who want to maintain our standing in our local geographic area through any means necessary. In that, are we not like your own founding feathers?”  

“[Fathers, and no. If I remember my history, this system was founded initially as a rest stop and resort.]” Tictac said, sighing. “[Can you just promise to be careful? I’d never hear the end of it from everyone’s families – the actual families – if something happened to you or any of the other humans in my employ.]”

“You don’t consider us family?” Brian asked, voice thick with forced and overdone emotion. Whatever he was going to stay was immediately shushed by Tictac’s hand smushing against his unprotected face.   

“[That won’t work on me, especially coming from you.]” Tictac said, a slight smile on his face. “[But it has been interesting seeing what you and my daughter have been up to. Speaking of, do you know where she is?]”

Brian shrugged, his face covered by the larger xenos’ palm. “Mffmfhfm mmff.”

Tictac looked down at the human who continued to talk into his palm, and idly wondered if whatever madness that was endemic to their race was infecting him slowly. “[You’re right! I’ll check her office first – and thanks for agreeing to work for unpaid overtime.]”  

“HHEH!” Brian yelled into Tictac’s palm, before he was swept up into a hug.


Stories They are Smol

Smolive Garden, Chapter 21: Of Tribes and Timecards

[Princess] pressed her tongue against the roof of her mouth and rubbed a well-worn worry spot with the flat of her tongue. Ever since she started working full-time with tiny-chompers, she had to get noseblind to a few common smells: a little bit of fear, the overwhelming scent of pick-me-up, a couple copper tangs of blood. The various colognes and deodorants that they slathered on themselves only masked,
partially, everything else, and so it was through discipline and training that her and the rest of her kin managed to maintain control over more primal desires.

As the tiny-chompers spilled out of her grasp and onto the loading tarmac like an uncontrolled tide of leapers, [Princess] smelled blood – which was so disturbingly normal that it barely even registered anymore, oil, grease and various industrial solvents. They’d been busy in her short absence, but as she looked around she couldn’t tell what exactly they were busy doing.

Tiny-chomper-big-energy leapt up from the floor, bounding over to a group of his cohorts that were busy kinetically disassembling an aptly-named “fork-lift”, and started to babble happily among the other tiny-chompers. [Princess] knew that it was mandatory during normal business operations to always keep her translator on, updated, and listening to all frequencies. She also knew that nobody really checked any of that, and that is a hill she was willing to get written up on.

With a smirk she gave a mental command, the tiny-chomper band clicking back on. Suddenly adorable babbling snarls and yips were replaced by a menagerie of actual, legitimate voices; accents from throughout the rim, high class touches and proper deep baritones from frames two sizes too small. [Princess] let the change wash over her for a few moments, before finishing the shutdown procedure of their

Tiny-chompers never remembered to engage the manual clamps, and for the life of her [Princess] couldn’t figure out why. She stomped down on the lever, the metal vice clamping down on the right most landing support strut, locking the vehicle to the tarmac. As she moved to the other side of the transport to kick down the second lever, her ears started to perk up: the rolling babble and cacophany of conversation that always surrounded her tiny-chompers was forming into a coherent chant. By the time she engaged the second vice, the chant had formed a call-and-reply, but the words made absolutely no sense.

[Princess] looked up at her bosses bosses’ boss, made eye contact and shrugged.

“[Don’t raise your voice, yelling undermines your own authority.]” Azul said to the reflection of herself in the elevator mirror, as she descended to the shop floor below. “[Ask the same question multiple ways in order to get the full picture. Use small words. Remember, your size is intimidating enough to your subordinates.]” Azul felt the sudden shift in momentum as the elevator neared her floor, and she fussed over her suit out of habit. With a gentle chime the door slid open, and Azul pasted on her winningest smile.

She continued to hold up that smile with titanic effort as she was summarily and obviously ignored. Before her were two groups of warm-cuddles, One who had taken all the orange protective gear, and the other, the yellow. The two had formed a circle around what could only be described as an effigy of their work, with a chosen handful playing music with whatever they could get their hands on.

Azul frowned. Usually rituals to [O’shaa] were done for auspicious reasons, such as the birth of a drone flock or the certification in [fork lift] of a fellow warm-cuddle. Rarely such gatherings were done on dark days, like safety inspections or bring-your-daughter-to-work day. For them to go to such lengths for an initial delivery… well.

Hopefully it was a good thing.

“[Ahem.]” Azul cleared her throat, the low rumblesnap punctuating the space between the beats of the warm-cuddles’ impromptu song. “[I’m sorry to interrupt, but, could someone fill me in on what’s going on?]”

The ocean of warm-cuddles and other xenos onlookers parted, and a human with a staff made up of what looked like blinking emergency flares stepped forth.

“We hench.” He stated, and immediately chirped up from the crowd scattered words and exclamations of “hench” and “preach it!” and a couple “muahahas” before he raised his hand, silencing the onlookers. He pointed his staff at the still-smoking food truck, the battle damage still fresh.

“We now have an arch!” He roared, and the crowd went wild, the chanting resuming, increasing in timbre and pitch. Azul shrunk back slightly at the sudden burst of noise, before raising her hand in an attempt to silence the crowd.

After a few moments, she had peace. “[Thank you for that initial explanation, that cleared up a lot. Would you kindly elaborate on those words and their particular meanings?]”

The safety shaman crouched, tilting his head as if to examine Azul for the first time. “We hench. We hench for you.”

“[Yes.]” Azul began, before being silenced by the striking of the fuse-staff against the ground.

“You are the big boss.” The safety shaman said, using very small words. Azul wondered for a moment if this was part of the bit, or if it was a backhanded way of insulting her intelligence. “From grand sky-palace-“

‘<Yep.>’ Azul thought. ‘<Definitely part of the bit.>’

“-we receive orders from the evil league of evil.” The shaman continued, and Azul smiled despite her best efforts to remain stoic.

“[That’s one way to label upper management.]” Azul retorted.

“And so we rain fire and hate upon our enemies!” The shaman yelled, raising his staff to hold in his hands high above his head. The gesture was a bit lost on Azul, as  his hands only reached her shoulder height. She shared a quick look with her fellow triads, the other xenos giving approximations of shrugs and bemused grins. “By the blood oath we swore! By the benefits promised us! We fight, and scheme and die and kill-“

“[Oh, wait wait no. No we don’t do that here.]” Azul interrupted, waving her hand dismissively as she straightened up, subconsciously asserting her authority. “[Weapons are nonlethal for [the xenos] and only to be used in self-defense in regards to other humans. Doing otherwise would be absolutely illegal, and we don’t condone such acts.]”

Her words caused a stir among the warm-cuddles, who alternated between hushed conversation and loud expressions of their disapproval. A few feisty individuals even attempted to start a chant of “New number one!” but the meaning was lost on her and didn’t take among the crowd.

The safety shaman tilted his head again, before resting the staff in the crook of his arm. Reaching up, he pulled off the welding mask that was turned into a fearsome effigy, tucking it under his other arm. Azul stared into the visibly confused and – alarmingly – worried human, his brown eyes staring into her own.

“Where do you think we are?” He said, softly but not unkindly. “You pay us through shell company intermediaries.”

Azul frowned slightly. “[Yes, but what does-]”

“Money laundering!” a human in the crowd cried out, and much to Azul’s horror was met with various murmurs of agreement.

“You give us custom weapons and battle suits.” The shaman continued, rolling his wrist in a ‘come on, think’ gesture. “They wear your emblem.”

“[That’s investing in your safety and comfort-]” Azul continued, slightly less certain.

“After arming us, you told us to destroy your enemies and all who stand before you.” The human said, matter-of-factly.

In a small voice, Azul attempted a rebuttal. “[Strong language is the core of pep talks amongst employees and is fundamental to corporate morale.]”

The safety shaman shook his head and looked up. Azul followed his gaze, up past the banners that – now that she looked at them – showed swords piercing the planet, a fist crushing the continent they were on, a snake-like creature with a fanged grin encircling the solar system. Interspersed between them were banners that proudly displayed such slogans as “All things will bow” and “We are inevitable”, which given the terrifying new context looked less like a nice company morale booster and instead looked like something much worse.

In an increasing daze, she looked back down, horizontally scanning past her employees to her glowing red and spiked [forklifts], the fog machines pumping out a gentle haze along the floor, her heavily up-armed and up-armored battle food trucks, and increasingly menacing water coolers placed every 30 meters along the wall.

Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth when she noticed the little buttons to open and close doors were in the shape of skulls.

“What did you think this all was?” The shaman said, before Azul’s panic attack set in and her vision darkened.

“[We are not a criminal organization!]” Azul chanted to herself, waking up to the repetitive mantra echoing loudly within the elevator that she didn’t remember rushing to. There was a pounding at the door that she couldn’t be bothered to deal with, her body too heavy to pry off of the ice-cold floor.

‘<Breathe>’ a small voice inside her suggested, and she inhaled as deeply as possible. The banging on the door slowed down, and much to Azul’s surprise, she realized it was her heartbeat that was ringing around her skull. ‘<Just breathe. You can always take some time back up in orbit-.>’

Another wave of sickening panic rolled through her body from her tail to her hood at the thought of leaving the planet to flee to what was apparently now an orbital command bunker.

“[We are not a criminal organization!]” Azul cried out, inhaling deeply once again. “[How could they think that? Why would they think that! What sane person responds to an ad for an elite, discrete group of like-minded individuals to perform vague acts at the behest of a multi-system megacorpor-oh no.]”

Azul paused for a moment, her cries dying in her throat, and reviewed everything she’d done since arriving in this system in the new light of “evil boss” as she mouthed out silent words.

Additional flair for management? Officer stripes.

Employee shuttle? Untraceable transport.

Personal protective equipment? Goon squad outfits.

S.W.A.T. breakdown of competition? Hit list.

Free breakroom snacks? Bribery.

Azul had nothing that she uncovered in this new light that didn’t feed into the new narration. An underground base wasn’t “utilizing urban space properly”, a chic tower in the center of town was obviously an evil spire hiding in plain sight, and as she looked it was everything and everywhere.

‘<Is this what happens to you when you spend too much time in the Strix’ssl’nress crowd?>’ Azul thought, slowly blinking as she stared up into the elevator light. ‘<Big city, fast times, power brunch and apparently evil corporations.>’

With a wave of nausea Azul picked herself up from the floor, pulling herself to a sitting position with her arms. The panic attack was now falling behind, replaced with cool calculation of odds, avenues of attack, and cost-benefit analysis.

“[We can stop this right now.]” Azul said, picking at her fingers as she thought out loud. “[Generously donate to local officials and make whole the people we just attacked. File for articles of dissolution, give everyone a generous severance package, take the physical assets and distribute them via other companies and fronts to the general public. Launch the primary and backup servers into the star and stay 10 systems away from this place forever.]”

Azul leaned against the wall, using it as a crutch to stand up. “[This is doable. If any reporter makes a mountain out of this, it can be brushed off as an isolated incident.]” Azul stretched her spine slightly, the staccato pops releasing small bursts of endorphines as she regained her former physical and emotional posture.

“[My plan should work if we can move quickly. All I need to do is notify the board -]” Azul lurched forward as she finally remembered: The board. The conference call that she abandoned that was going on right now. Azul pressed the office floor button, and kept spamming it the entire ride up in the vain hope it would somehow make the executive lift move quicker.


Stories They are Smol

Smolive Garden, Chapter 20: Out of the Mouth of Babes

“[Red, or blue?]” The warmcuddle asked, holding the first uniform up to Sreshec before switching to the second.

Sreshec gnawed on her tongue as the warmcuddle – one of her many assistants – alternated uniforms, a look of serious concern on his face as he studied her expressions for any indication of which she favored. Morale was incredibly important in any organization, and Sreshec knew this; she also knew, from her time working hand-in-hand with these new sapients, that a furrowed brow and intense stare was them utilizing at least 80% of their concentration and will.

If they stuck their tongue out, then it was a definite 100%.

[Presses-buttons] was definitely using somewhere between 80 to 110% of his concentrative abilities, alternating his gaze between her face, the uniforms, and some middle-distance seen only to him. Sreshec didn’t understand why “her best #2” needed to have a special uniform, or why color-coordination among job types was so important, but she marked it up to a cultural quirk and laid on it. That, or this is direct competition for letting her “super assistant” get the largest hat and jealousy was now running rampant throughout the ranks.

“[Ma’am?]” Warmcuddle [Presses-buttons] asked, holding up both uniforms.

“<Oh, uh. Red, definitely red.>” Sreshec said, and instantly the warmcuddle’s face brightened.

“[The color of blood! Of course! To strike fear in the hearts of our enemies!]” He beamed, gripping the selected uniform to his chest. “[Now to pick out capes!]”

Ice spiked in Sreshec’s veins at the thought of wasting another 3 hours of her day. “<No, no, no need, no capes. We’ve already selected your shoulderpads, knee guards, shoes, socks, bracelets, individual bracelet charms, onesie uniforms and facepaint. I think that’s enough progress on this part of the business for this week.>” Sreshec deflected, resting her hand on [Presses-buttons]’ shoulder. “<We do have other things on the schedule for today, if I recall correctly?>”

“[Right! So you had an all-hands meeting that number one is taking care of, but that was scheduled at 0900. Union hall meeting at 1040 that number 3 took care of – short list of takeaways there, but we’re getting a new vendor for our break room, the current one doesn’t meet our quality standards-]”

“<Don’t we… produce our cafeteria food in-house?>” Sreshec asked, and was met with a dismissive shrug.

“[That’s what the union wants, so they get what they want. Their main feedback was apparently things were too “mouthy” to snack on.]” [Presses-buttons] said, tilting his head from side to side. “[I can see that.]”

“<But what does that even mean?>” Sreshec asked, slithering behind her desk to wake her computer from it’s forced hibernation. “<You use your mouths to eat! Everyone does! What’s wrong with being mouthy?>”

“[It’s… it’s just. Like.]” [Presses-buttons] made some vague hand-gestures that looked like he was eating something, or trying to, before giving an inscrutable expression followed by another little shrug. “[Anyway. Those bids are going out and we’ll figure out a new vendor or set of vendors from there. You had a board meeting at 1230-]”

Sreshec looked up suddenly. “<You didn’t move that? It’s 1400!>”

[Pushes-buttons] smiled sheepishly. “[They said they’d wait when I asked if I could put them on hold.]”

Sreshec keyed in a few quick commands to pull up her ongoing programs and tasks, her workstation immediately responding with the helpful notification that a long-distance interstellar conference call was ongoing in the background, and had been for apparently the past 3 hours. She smoothed out her charcoal black casual-power suit before maximizing the program, immediately beginning a litany of apologies and assurances that such a waste of time wouldn’t happen again.

She looked up at the meeting program indicator, and noticed in mid-deference that the interstellar call was paid collect. Somehow.

“[You just noticed that too?]” Ori’kitily said, a grin wide on his feathers as they splayed out. “[The rest of the team and I have a bit of a betting pool to see who ends up actually getting the bill. Would you like to buy in? 20,000GRC to start.]”

“<I didn’t even know that was a function. Isn’t this a corporate account?>” Sreshec mused, slouching a bit as the concern and stress started to ebb from her body. “<Still, I’m incredibly sorry that everyone’s time has been wasted.>”

“[Not at all.]” Ngrera-of-Grzulf said, waving her hand dismissively. “[The warmcuddle in question just turned off the monitor after a few unsuccessful attempts of putting us on hold.]”

Sreshec looked up over her desk terminal with a flat gaze, [Pushes-buttons] responding with a happy little wave before shutting the door behind him. “<So this entire time the camera’s been on me?>”

“[I would have gone with Blue, honestly.]” Ngrera-of-Grzulf continued, cleaning her claws just offscreen. “[I have to ask, though – I’ve noticed a 200% jump in office ancillary expenses, is that due to wardrobe changes or the banners?]”

Sreshec scratched over her eye as a round of chuckles rolled through the attendees. “<It’s got to be a cultural thing, that’s the only explanation. Morale’s never been higher and our employee feedback scores are off the charts.>”

“[Certainly.]” Nress’press’o interrupted. “[Motivational banners, corporate art and uniforms are all legitimate expenses. My concern is with what seems to be a seven digit RFP for catwalks, pneumatic catapults and foam pads, along with red laser weapons. Very specific about the color, aren’t they?]”

“<I was told it was an eighty’s aesthetic. Speaking of, they’ve also included fog machines and movable backlighting as well.>” Sreshec said, resting her chin in her hand as she stared into the camera. “<It’s been an experience. To cut you off at the pass, no, we’re not going to give them photon ordinance; their PPE already includes small caliber weaponry and safety suits, and that’s enough.>”

“[I’ll say!]” Ori’kitily said, unfolding an ornate accessory fan and fanning himself for additional emphasis. “[Are they always like this? Do you think we can hire them on for multigenerational work?]”

Sreshec grinned widely. “<Oh, you think that costume conversation was something? They do daily chants at the start of every shift.>”

Immediately the conference call erupted into chaos, a dozen voices demanding videos, warmcuddle transfers to their offices, cries of disbelief and laughter. Sreshec smiled as she saw her otherwise composed comrades let the mask slip, and let the energy naturally die down.

“[Wait, wait. Shreshec.]” Bi’ik’reg’i said, fanning his forearm feathers as he waved his hand to gain attention. “[I notice that your background is different. Did you move your office?]”

“<Very observant, [Bi’ik’reg’i]. With all of the construction at our planetside headquarters and with our new employees being, ah, themselves.>” Shreshec said, doing her best to speak between the lines lest she fall afoul of HR. “<I thought it prudent to have an elevated, glass office. It allows me an orbiter’s view of manufacturing processes, our food truck bay, safety concerns->”

“[Clandestine warmuddle activity.]” Ori’kitily said, dryly.

Shreshec smiled, turning away from the camera. “<That doesn’t hurt either. If you increase my funding to allow for a secure broadcast network, I could let you remotely observe your investment in real-time.>”

Nress’press’o laughed, slapping his desk with a free hand. “[What a tactful way to ask for a raise! I love it, funding secured.]”

Shreshec suddenly looked up and arched her back to project a powerful, yet reserved demeanor as her office door opened, unannounced. [Pushes-buttons] poked his head in, hanging onto the doorframe in a in-yet-out kind of entrance to her room and gave her a little wave.

“[I forgot to mention, your 1300 has been on hold too.]” [Pushes-buttons] said with a smile, giving her what she now understood was a “thumbs-up” positive hand gesture before disappearing behind the suddenly-closed door.

“<He didn’t even cancel that? I thought he would’ve moved our second meeting if he put you on hold!>” Shreshec said in disbelief.

“[I’m certain the local government is used to it.]” Bi’ik’reg’i remarked, straightening himself up in his seat as the assembled board of directors began to make themselves more presentable. “[Time moves differently for them, afterall. The warmcuddles, not government workers.]” Bi’ik’reg’i paused for a moment, as if in mid-thought. “[Actually, time may move differently for government workers too. Do we have any data on that? Can we collect data like that?]”

“<Are we ready?>” Shreshec asked, pointedly ignoring the question. Various silver-light indicators clicked off within the picture-in-picture meeting, and with a firm thought Shreshec used her implant to merge the two calls together. Instantly the audience size doubled, corporate opulence mixing with local government standard, the latter group very obviously in the middle of other work.

“[Oh, are we on now?]” an elderly Dorarizin male asked, adjusting the heavy-duty glasses on his muzzle as he looked up from the tablet he was reading. “[You know you have to give new warmcuddles proper training for such technology – their implants aren’t as advanced.]”

“<Duly noted, ah, Secretary.>” Shreshec said, dipping her head politely in deference and partially to stall as she worked on pulling up his name. “<We will endeavor to improve our training moving forward, Secretary [Hunter]. Huh.>”

“[Blunt, isn’t it? But, how often do you get a second naming ceremony?]” Secretary [Hunter] remarked, smiling. “[You may also want to mark that such training should be frequent, and repeated. If anything, it gives you an excuse to do a head count.]”

“[I hope your time on hold was as productive for your team as it was for ours.]” Nress’press’o said with a beaming grin.

“[Well, it was interesting, to say the least.]” Swipressnssren, nee [Persimmon] said, scratching his jaw. “[I understand asking about uniform choices, but is it standard procedure for your company to provide such cumbersome headgear?]”

“[Headgear?]” Ori’kitily asked. “[Are you talking about Sreshec’s assistant, [Pushes-buttons]?”

“[He didn’t come to you with the, uh.]” [Persimmon] mimicked a very tall, very cylindrical hat going offscreen from his crown. “[Headgear is really the only word I have for it. I would call it a hat, but it has to be at least half his height, and he needed to strap it in.]”

“[I hear height is very important to them, from an organizational standpoint.]” Bi’ik’reg’i remarked, flipping through his notes.

“[Speaking of.]” Ii’pii’pi, nee [Bigbird] interrupted, a claw pointing at her screen. “[I noticed from both drone flyovers and your office background that there’s been significant progress in building out your facility. What’s the key to that organizational success?]”

“<I think it’s the uniforms, honestly.>” Shreshec admitted, turning her head to the side to look down from her glass box onto the food manufacturing floor below. “<I let them design their uniforms – of course, not compromising on safety, security or tracking->”

“[Of course.]” [Bigbird] agreed.

“<-But otherwise, I let them have free creative control. They’ve added in morale banners, motivational pledges, they self-organize and self-train, for the most part. I understand government at any position is under a lot more scrutiny, but it may make sense to run a controlled test of greater autonomy among the warmcuddle ranks.>” Shreshec continued. “<I’d be happy to compile our findings in a report and send it over to you in a week or so, HR Manager [Helpful-heart].>”

“[We’d be delighted to read it!]” [Bigbird] said, feathering her headcrest in excitement. “[I can’t tell you how many other governments, both regional and galactic, ask us for best practices. Anything we can share would be a great help.]”

“<I’ll make sure to put it on the to-do list.>” Shreshec said, continuing to look off-screen as one of the bay doors opened. “<Sorry, it seems that one of our food trucks is returning->”

“[No problem at all.]” Secretary [Hunter] said, waving his hand dismissively. “[It’s always good to make sure everyone follows proper procedure.]”

“<Yes…>” Shreshec trailed off as the food truck in question returned. It was her company’s truck, that much she could tell – the brand name was visible from her office, the distinctive and copyrighted color scheme bright, brilliant and welcoming. Save for the smoking engine, the blown out serving window and the raked bullet holes along the passenger’s side, the vehicle returned in exactly the same condition it left in.

“[Ma’am?]” [Persimmon] said, trying to bring Shreshec back to the conference call. “[Is something going on?]”

“<It’s nothing.>” Sreshec paused, the conference call forgotten as she watched the driver pull out three warmcuddles, who as soon as their feet touched the pavement scattered to independent groups of other warmcuddles. The Driver, a Dorarizin, looked up at her office and gave an exaggerated shrug as the floor started to erupt in alternating chants of “HENCH” and “ARCH”. Each group claimed a chant word, and began to whip up the other into a frenzy.

Sreshec frowned. “<Can we postpone this meeting for a few moments? I need to see what’s going on at the floor.>”

“[Oh! Famous last words.]” Secretary [Hunter] said, unwittingly prophetically.

Stories They are Smol

Smolive Garden, Chapter 19: Phone Home

The ring that pierced the silence of the foyer was a bright mechanical one, an iron clapper ramming against a small aluminum bell housed within the base of the telephone the source of the cacophany. The telephone itself would have been considered an antique model before The Great Clusterfuck – at least, it was made after an older model. Its mother of pearl, gold-trimmed handset rested on two golden arms, providing all the cutting edge ergonomics that the 1910s could offer. The turquoise keypad flashed slightly, the small LEDs embedded in the number dial hinting that this was a recreation of something from the old countries, something to tie the diaspora to the times before. As it was a reminder of where they came from, the family that owned this particular machine placed it alone, on a stand, in a place of honor, with it’s back up against the wall.

However, if you were to point out to Josette Mignon Fleur de Boudreaux-Beaumont that her genuine reproduction voice-messenger only device was, gaudy, gauche and anything but genuine, why, that would be a scandal, and she wasn’t sure her aged heart could take such a thing.

Long, crimson acrylic nails spread a smoky-hued bead curtain apart, like some grand dame moses splitting the red sea in twain. Faded autumn curls mixed with the gray snow of age cascading down the woman’s shoulders, a lone turtle hairpin holding back enough of the tangles so she could see. Josette frowned, slightly, her gentle laugh lines wrinkling a bit deeper as she sucked on a butterscotch hard candy, the beads gently rolling back against her sun-tanned shoulders and back as she moved forward in purposeful thought.

There were many ways to send messages in the Boudreaux-Beaumont clan, and some were more important methods than others. To use the mother of pearl phone, why…

Someone wanted a direct line. Someone wanted attention.

 The phone continued to ring as Josette stepped forward, crossing her arms partly to close her lounging robe, and partly in deepening thought. It was a Tuesday, so the poker ring she was part of couldn’t be calling to settle debts – it was too early in the week and they were most likely still too hung over to remember she palmed a couple chips. She also most definitely had a permit for her improv jazz band’s performance tomorrow, unless someone had filed yet another preemptive noise and/or indecency complaint. On a lark she leaned back, gripping the doorframe for support, as she scanned the livingroom for her husband.

No dice; her children had long since flown the coocoo’s nest, so silence didn’t necessarily mean something catastrophic was unfolding without her knowledge. But nothing was on fire, and the cars were still in the garage – and in one piece – so most likely he was puttering about somewhere in the house.

“That means,” Josette drawled, her accent putting her somewhere between the delta and the bayou, “it must be one of the cher bebes.”

Josette closed her robe, making herself presentable; even though it was a phone call, you were still entertaining someone in your household, and there’s decorum when it comes to such things that you don’t ignore. Crossing the foyer with quick, purposeful steps, she picked up the receiver and cradled it in her neck with one swift, fluid motion.

“Comment ca va, bon ami?” Josette cooed into the phone, her voice sounding like a warm hug from long distance.

“Comme ci, comme ca” Came the uncharacteristically sweet and gentle voice over the line. Josette knew enough about her children and grandchildren to know when someone was ok, truly ok, and pretending to be ok. For Anne-Marie, inheritor of the family’s firecracker soul, to respond with a de rien?

“Qui ci parlez? I know that’s not my Marie – did someone break your heart again, mon ami?” Josette replied, a little more ice in her voice as she put away the gentle old lady persona and clothed herself as the matriarch.

“No, mon vielle, grandmere. You know I’m working at that restaurant, yea?” Anne-Marie started, her voice soft and sweet, but with a slight sadness to it. Josette placed herself on a slight guard; either something was really wrong, or the little imp was going to ask for some more “book money”.

“I do, I do. M’ still proud of you for sharin’ the trinity with your cochon coq, mon ami. If your boss ever wants to jump in a pot herself, let me know – I got some good seasonin’ for them.” Josette replied, teasing slightly. “But what’s wrong? Why are you calling me on the turquoise?”

Anne-Marie sighed, cupping her hand around her phone slightly to muffle the background noise that had started to filter into their conversation. “We have some competition, grandmere. They’re a bit aggressive, to say the least, and I could use help.”

Josette laughed, not unkindly. “Cho! If you think I’m gonna get yo tantes and oncles to pick your cooking over mine, you are a couillion! Though, some men are into cute idiots, mon ami.”

“Bon Dieu, Grandmere! No – I would never live that down! No, these boo doo jerks have come over and roughed up our store! Telling us yats to get out and close shop. Gave us a dallas handshake just a lil while ago!”

Anne-Marie paused on the line, and heard only a light muffling noise as Josette pressed the receiver to her bosom and let loose an unladylike string of words that started to peel the varnish off of the pecan wood telephone stand.

“Ahem.” Josette responded after a few moments of composing herself. “My old ears must have misheard you, cher. You’re telling me some fonchock tried to impress upon you, my darling grandchild, that you should leave your job? One of our fonchocks?”

“Yes, mema. Four, maybe five men?” Anne-Marie replied. “Swooped into the parking lot and peppered our front. Nothing that would have killed, but enough to make a statement.”

“Were they-“

“No, grandmere, they were not the Dauterive boys, and according to mama they haven’t been within a parsec of you for 75 years.” Anne-Marie interrupted.

“You never know with that family of bon-de-riens.” Josette said sharply, examining her nails as she rested her hip against the blistered table. “Everyone worth knowing knows you’re a hardpoint restaurant, and those tete de cabri idiots would still try to pull off something like this. You know Bill left your grand-auntie at the altar?”


“Ah! You know I’ll take care of you, my pauvre bete.” Josette said, smiling, as within her mind the Boudreaux-Beaumont family tree was quickly mapped and pruned down to a need-to-know size. “I’ll make a few calls and let the kin know. But speaking of kin, it’s good for you to know your history, and it’s been so long since we last spoke. Don’t tell me you were calling only because you were in trouble!”

“No, mema, not at all!” Anne-Marie replied, backpedaling slightly. “I was going to call you this weekend but this came up, so I thought I’d call and visit early, that’s all!”

Josette responded with a noncommittal murmur, her grin widening as she continued to examine her perfect nails. Grandchildren were a blessing, of course, but there’s nothing in the Good Book or otherwise that says you can’t mess with ‘em from time to time. Josette had something that was rare enough to exploit in Anne-Marie’s call: a captive audience.

“Well, then let me tell you about your cousin, Anthony. You know, the freckled boy on your auntie Belle’s side? The one with the off-center face?”

“It’s not off-center, mema. That’s not a nice thing to say.” Anne-Marie replied.

Josette  clicked her tongue. “Oh you look at him and tell me Belle didn’t slide him down facefirst on a metal slide in July. Poor boy looks over your shoulder every time you talk to him, and Belle always did get distracted when her kids were young. Anyway.”

Brian smelled blood, as it was in his nature to do so.

It was a quirk of human societies that different scenarios played out in different ways depending on the cultures of the people present. More collectivist societies would read the energy in a room and do their best to mellow out with it. Other, more individualistic societies would – in some cases – do the exact opposite, creating a cacophany of energy and competing ideals. However, in all such things, there are outliers, and for mankind those outliers happened to be from the upside-down.

Certainly, the British accelerated the process of societal drift by shipping over only criminals, ne’er-do-wells, and other misfits and vagabonds; the shitposters of the Victorian era needed somewhere to go, after all. Combine that with a desolate wilderness, years-long delay in connecting with your home cultures, strange and quirky wildlife and you end up with something that can only be described as an “Australian.” This, of course, was no excuse, and  leading human sociologists were almost utterly convinced that there must be something about the visage of a kangaroo that drives men mad.

Brian was a shitposter, like his father, and his father before him, and it was by and large the main reason why he squatted in front of Anne-Marie with a wide, shit-eating grin on his face. Anne-Marie was still in Tomtom’s clutches, that hadn’t changed: the Karnakian made for a very soft prison. The real prize was whomever was on the other line, as they were making Anne-Marie discuss, with increasing clarity, points of familial interest.

“No, Grandmere, that’s not the boy that I’m dating! No! Yes, his eyes are just like that, but that’s not the point!” Anne-Marie said, blushing furiously as she glanced at Brian with barely concealed rage. “No, I haven’t had that problem in years – yes, I’m very sure. No Grandmere, I’m not raising my voice at you.” Anne-Marie continued, very much increasing her volume as Brian tilted his head, doing his best to eavesdrop on the conversation. “Yes, mema. Yes. I didn’t know the whole place was mothfields as far as the eye could see.” Anne-Marie said, doing her best to both humor her Grandmother and also get off the phone as fast as possible. “Yes. Yes I’m still feeding that wild one, yes – Buckeye is a good moth!”

Brian looked up at Tomtom, who was way out of her depth. “So.”

Tomtom had tilted her head flatly, staring down at Anne-Marie with the right side of her  head, her left set of eyes looking up at the ceiling as she studied the human with great interest. Brian’s interjection snapped Tomtom out of her examination, and with a twist of her neck she became a much more level headed individual. “[Yes?]”

“Whatcha thinkin’ bout?” Brian replied in a sing-song voice, his grin growing ever wider.

Tomtom shifted slightly, her underfluffies shrouding Anne-Marie’s legs and lower torso. She paused for only a moment before taking the bait. “[Well. For one, I’ve never seen her turn this shade of crimson. Do you think she’ll be alright?]”

“Alright? Yes. Will she ever recover?” Brian said, standing up. “Probably not. So, how’s that andouille sausage that Anne-Marie definitely told you how to make?”

“[Sausage?]” Tomtom answered, slightly confused as Anne-Marie became a little more excitable. “[I don’t remember her Andouille recipe-]”

“Sure you do!” Brian interrupted, far too loudly, his voice carrying out from the kitchen to the crew cleaning up the dining room. “You know, her creole family recipe from the panhandle of Florida.”

There was a skip in the phone conversation as Brian continued. “Yeah! You start off with some good catfish, add in some thyme, bell peppers – doesn’t this ring a bell?”

“[I… think so? I’m sorry, I don’t remember.]” Tomtom foolishly replied, her best attempt to placate one human causing a squirming fury in the other.

“Don’t lie about that, Tomtom!” Brian said, leaning in close as he continued to be just-a-bit-too-loud. “After she shared her hushpuppy recipe with Tictac, you asked for more, nah, yeah? And ever since you learned you could do a crayfish etouffe in olive oil-“

“No! No! Arete-ca, Grandmere!” Anne-Marie held the phone away from her face as a barrage of cajun french assaulted her through the speaker. She placed the phone against her chest, immediately receiving heartburn as with her free hand she pointed two fingers at her eyes, and then directly at Brian.

“I will kill you for this.” Anne-Marie growled, as over the phone her Grandmother conferenced in Anne-Marie’s mother, sisters, and ALL her aunties.