Stories They are Smol

Smolive Garden, Chapter 18: Guerilla Marketing

Professional, commercial kitchens are a thing of orchestrated chaos; everyone is busy making everything from scratch – or near scratch – all the time, for every client, as the orders come in. There’s custom requests, prep-work for certain dishes, re-makes and send-backs, and generally not enough idle space to have anyone hanging out doing nothing for any period of time.

It was only in those in-between moments, where one meal rush had ended but the next one didn’t quite start up yet, that anyone could get a word in edgewise, which is exactly why Anne Marie was standing as close to the center of the kitchen as she could, furrowing her eyebrows as she reviewed the clipboard.

“It’s still not good enough.”

Tictac and Tomtom sighed, the father-daughter duo trilling out a long note an octave apart.

“[Do you mean the numbers, the marketing, or my cooking?]” Tictac said, stirring something that could vaguely be called “5 alarm chili”. “[And I’ll warn you, Anne Marie, that I’m cooking with the big pot – so I can just toss you in if you sass me again.]” Tictac added, smirking slightly as he reached overhead for the spice rack.

“My employer is coercing me with violence!” Anne Marie cried out, pressing her clipboard tightly to her chest as she swooned against Tomtom’s side.

“[You know I’ll help, right?]” Tomtom said, smiling as she gently pushed the human off of her side, making sure not to stab the little sapient with the knife she was holding in her dominant claw. “[Hold you over the pot by your ankles and let dad season you first.]”

“I taste perfect as I am, thank you very much.” Anne Marie responded, licking her index finger before pressing it against her hip with a sizzling hiss. “I’m hot stuff.”

“More like hot air.” Jack quipped as he stacked clean serving-trays on the prep-table shelf for the upcoming dinner rush.

“No respect. I can’t get no respect.” Anne Marie sighed, shaking her head. “I fear for the   next generation.”

“[You are the next generation! Now what is this about – you’re not usually so jumpy about reporting, Anne.]” Tictac said, putting the pot over his very alarming chili to let it simmer. 

“So it’s a bit of column A, a bit of column B.” Anne Marie said, looking back down at her clipboard and thumbing through the first few sheets of paper. “In column A, we’re doing very good income-wise. Our costs are basically fixed low, the shrapnel cleanup is down to a science, pay is what it is and all in all we’re making money hand over fist.”

“I’m sensing a but.” Jack said. Anne Marie pointed to her sizzling hip again, earning a groan from her human colleague.

“Column B is the part I’m confused by. Word of mouth marketing has been working wonders for us for the past few months, but I’ve seen a slowdown on the numbers of people who sign up on our waiting list starting a few weeks ago. Brian says this is normal, but he also puts Vegemite on his ice cream so his definition of normal is suspect.” Anne Marie continued, looking through a few additional pages. “It’s nothing that’s going to put us out of business, but it is a flattening of the curve.”

Tomtom paused for a moment as Anne Marie finished, flattening her headcrest as she thought. “[Exactly how is this a problem? We’re saturating the market, most of our clientèle is off-world anyway, and the waiting list is still booked solid for 8 months, if I’m remembering right.]”

“[We’re actually pulling in enough money I was thinking about buying one of those comet-chasers.]” Tictac interjected, reaching up to turn on the kitchen CRT monitor shelved in the top corner of the room as he derailed the conversation. “[You know the kind? Big, silver, has enough space for a flock of 12. Was  going to run that by your mother next week as a first-stage retirement. Go see some of the galaxy, go on a couple of pilgrimages, see how Second-fledgling-twice-removed Peep-Peep is doing.]” Tictac leaned back against the unused part of the grill, idly watching the local news on a grainy screen. “[It’d also be really good for camping, if we wanted to start that up with your siblings and their chicks.]”

Tomtom sang a few notes in thought as she worked on her staging area, the center island a sea of sliced, diced and julienned vegetables. “[Dad, I never took you as one for traveling around the galaxy. You sure you want to leave me in charge?]” She smiled a toothy, saurian grin. “[I might ruin our good name, you know.]”

“[And the silver palace of [Hi’tii’] grew tarnished in the clouds.]” Tictac replied, shrugging as the television babbled on. “[You’ve all done so well for me with this idea. Our debts are paid off, we have enough GRC in the bank to never work a day again, and if our tax planner is right, we’ll be able to pay for our grandchicks’ futures, whatever they may be.]” Tictac said, giving a pointed look at his still painfully single daughter.

Tomtom ignored the look. “[Regardless of what you choose, I’m glad we were able to help out you and mom, even if our sales are flattening.]” She said, bringing the conversation back on track. She turned to beam at Anne Marie, rolling her crest from side to side in an attempt to project a feeling of comfort to her confusingly-concerned friend. “[In regards to the data, it’s fine! We’ve already gone above and beyond what we could have hoped for. The money’s rolling in, our customers are happy, the place has never looked cleaner, and the value of our family business grows every day! Everything’s going to be fine, no matter what happens.]”

Jack dropped a serving tray as a full-body shudder rolled up his spine as the words left Tomtom’s mouth. “Oh nooooooo~”

You bitch!” Anne Marie screamed, spiking the clipboard against the tiled floor as both Karnakians eyed the outburst with measured surprise. “Why would you ever say such a thing?!”

Tomtom laid her knife down on the cutting board and wiped her hands on her apron. The pause allowed her to collect her thoughts, and she turned to face Anne Marie once more with a serious, albeit slightly condescending look. “[It’s not a crime to hope for positive things in the future, and I will not be made to feel ashamed to express joy in everyone’s hard work paying off.]”

“Oh that’s not the point.” Jack breathed out heavily, steadying himself against the prep station. “You said it like that.”

“[Like what?]” Tomtom said, before some sort of commotion out in the parking lot raised a few flags on the security system the humans had installed. The CRT monitor blinked a couple times before switching from the news to a multi-windowed picture-in-picture mode of every security camera feed, the software rapidly cycling to the cameras of interest.

Someone had apparently landed pretty hard in the lot, right in front of the door. Although unfortunate, drunk drivers weren’t unheard of, and accidents did happen from time to time. However, the vehicle in question was a brand-new, state of the art food truck, with incredibly suspect branding on the side. That’s the first thing that tipped everyone off that something was up.

The other thing was the automatic weapons pointed out of the food truck’s serving window. With no warning they opened fire, gunshots echoing in a neighborhood that had never experienced anything as much as a carjacking in 400 years. Alarms went off and internal window shutters snapped close, adding an extra layer of defense against the lead pinging off of the already bulletproof windows.  

To the credit of Tictac and Tomtom, they both flung themselves ontop of their human coworkers, doing their best to shield them from harm with their very bodies. What felt like an agonizing eternity of fully automatic fire later, the guns fell silent, and over the tinny speakers a voice could be heard.

“Don’t cummy to McDummies!” The foodtruck speaker warned, as what sounded like a few “heh”s and “nyeah”s cut in from the background of whomever was speaking. “This is just a taste of our secret sauce! Close up shop and fuck off back to wherever you came from, because this planet is ours now! Go home, unless of course, you want to try our new Shamwok shake. We guarantee you that a shrimp was involved in the frying of all our dairy products. Wait this can’t be right-“

Anne Marie wiggled furiously underneath Tomtom, the Karnakian fretting as she tried to apply enough pressure not to cause injury and keep her human friend safe. It was a losing battle, as eventually Anne Marie successfully pulled out her handgun.

“FRY OR DIE, BITCH!” She roared, and leapt out into the dining area. With a burst of speed that belied her petite size she sprinted to the front welcome chamber, sliding into the hostess booth and quickly thumbing on manual controls. Flinging the doors open with a switch, she turned on the defensive turrets and painted a particularly gastly green-and-orange van with a laser targeter.

She responded to the hello with one of her own, her automated chaingun revving up to speed in a few seconds before pouring out shot in a tight line. The foodtruck shook as it was racked with return fire, and in a moment the antigrav thrusters kicked in and the offenders sped off into the sky.

= = =

“[What was that, what the fuck was that?]” Tictac repeated for the hundredth time, pacing the kitchen with Jack in his arms. The Karnakian was no stranger to violence; he had his fair share of schoolyard fights and barroom brawls in his youth. This, however, was a completely different game, one that went from zero to one hundred faster than he could blink.

“It was called a “Dallas Hello”, and It’s her fault, honestly.” Anne Marie said, squirming both in protest and to make a point as she was held firmly in Tomtom’s slightly-too-tight arms.

“[Oh no, you can’t blame this on me!]” Tomtom said, tilting her head to give Anne Marie the stink eye.

“Yes we can.” Both humans responded in sync, before Anne Marie started a staring contest with her captor.

Jack cleared his throat as Tictac made another worried, hurried revolution around the center kitchen island. “There is a bit of a thing that comes with words, and it usually means a lot of stuff. With these words and stuff, you just know when you know.” Jack started, before pausing. “That was a totally unhelpful way to start.”

Tictac trilled a sharp note in agreement as he continued to pace, passing his daughter as she sat on the floor in a battle of wills.

“Look.” Anne Marie said as she kept her head tilted back, keeping her reddening, unblinking eyes on Tomtom. “We both used 9mm rounds.”

“[That’s lethal for your species.]” Tictac replied, not stopping his pacing. “[Someone tried to kill you! To kill us!]”

“No it’s not – look, they tumble in the air, but that’s beside the point. The point is they drew a dick on our window!” Anne Marie said, squinting at the absolutely-somehow-cheating coworker who continued to stare back, unblinking. “They even did that in front of your salad, Tomtom!”

“[None of that matters if your safety is in jeopardy.]” Tomtom replied, as cool as ice and as firm as steel. “[This isn’t a joke.]”

“Of course it’s not, but safety is relative and we can always be safe again, later.” Anne Marie said, hissing slightly as her left eye involuntarily closed. “The most important question is, who are they and why are they copying our racket?!”

“They called themselves McDummies, so, that’s one question answered.” Jack said as he involuntarily made the circuit again. “As for the other question… Hey Tictac.”

“[Yes?]” Tictac said, slowing his pace down just a little bit.

“How much did we make last month? Gross, not net.” Jack asked, turning in his employer’s arms for a more comfortable position.

Tictac slowed down as he thought, eventually coming to a complete stop. “[Not counting taxes, fees, costs, I’d say at least one… one point five million.]”

Anne Marie whistled as Jack waved at her. “There’s your answer to one and two. The question is, what do we do about it?”

“[Call planetary security.]” Tomtom said, continuing to stare down the firebrand in her arms. “[Someone knows what we’re doing, and can pick us off if they choose to.]”

“[Do what they say and close up shop; we’ve made enough money.]” Tictac said, finally placing Jack down with a soft apology.

“Do what we want cause we’re free.” Jack said, smiling, as he patted Tictac’s cheek.

“Call my network.” Anne Marie said, stubbornly, as both of her eyes screwed shut. “Someone is cramping my style, and I refuse to give up without a fight.”

She stared through clenched eyes at the location of where she thought Tictac and Jack were, and puffed out her chest. “As my ancestors used to say, Simp snacker firearmsmas.”

Stories They are Smol

Smolive Garden, Chapter 17: Orientation Day

The young man walked along the overly-wide sidewalk, head down, kicking a gray pebble with his foot. Keith Urban was having a day, and he was idly wondering how much worse it was going to get before bed. It started well enough; a friend of a friend was curious about him, the campus coffee shop was empty, and he was able to hitch a ride on one of the Orbital Mechanics 101 TAs.

However, that was the end of his good luck. As always with introductions, Keith had to explain to his blind date that no, there’s no relation to the long-dead Terran musician, and that yes, his parents just thought it was funny. This eventually devolved into questions about why he wouldn’t change his name (because he liked it?), why doesn’t he go by a different name (…because he liked it?) and why his parent’s taste in names was bad (because they liked it?). The inevitable question-and-repetitive-answer session always pissed off his dates, and they usually ended before the coffee reached the table.

So, he found himself walking back to his dorm room, alone, again, lost deep in his thoughts. He kicked the pebble that he was dribbling down the sidewalk with extra gusto, skipping the dirt clod down a few paved tiles until it hit a half-folded piece of paper with a loud thwak.

Keith frowned. Having a bad day was one thing, but littering was another thing entirely. With an internal sigh, he walked over to the flier and bent down, picking it up and shaking off his loyal pebble. He was going to throw it away as soon as he found a trash can, of course, but curiosity got the better of him and he opened the advertisement.

In garish neon green-and-pink lettering emblazoned across the top, the words that assaulted his eyes and his very sanity: You should cummy work for McDummies!

Utterly stupefied by the mental whiplash, he continued to read on autopilot. McDummies – name pending change after 3 rounds of focus group studies, as the small print so helpfully pointed out – was an exo-system food experience that was looking for highly motivated and dubiously ethical college students who had not taken any philosophy courses nor were enrolled in any form of criminal justice programs for a part-time, customer-facing, potentially kinetically-energetic position. The pay was negotiable, full benefits were included, and in-person orientation interviews were being held at the regional transport hub docks, bay 18, today. Casual dress only.

Keith looked up and into the middle distance, ignoring the bottom half of the flier in his hands. Either this was a candid camera setup and he was going to have a funny story to tell his family, or this job was an actual, real-life henchman opportunity.

He weighed his pros and cons. On one hand, if this was something illegal he would be jeopardizing his future life and career before it even began. On the other hand, he would get paid to dress up in a jumpsuit and go “nyeah, boss!” at opportune times. He might even get to patrol a chemical factory, or be the guy who feeds dangerous fishes in his supervillain’s office. Maybe he’d even get to do a fistfight with a detective who was only a few days away from retirement!

Keith immediately called a personal transport. It wasn’t even a close decision.

= = = = = = = = =

Azul looked out at the assembled crowd of warmcuddles from the relative safety of a hastily-prepared stage curtain. She marveled for a few moments as they milled about, babbled together, and generally enjoyed the free refreshments that were provided. Even if this entire endeavor struck out, at least she had the data that her restaurant group’s food was palatable to warmcuddles. Mostly. It was also a treat just to see so many assembled together, acting naturally, and Azul made a note to record the entire process for posterity’s sake.

The crowd was mainly college students, just as she had hoped. There were a few older warmcuddles in the mix, but idle curiosity isn’t a crime – and it might do well to have some of the wiser, more reserved of the species helping to manage groups of the more rambunctious ones.

As she peered out between the slightly fluttering curtains, her gaze was caught by one warmcuddle, who waved at her enthusiastically. “[Hey, Boss!]”

The effect was immediate. Not only did a majority of the warmcuddles stop talking to each other and focus directly onto the stage, but there was a smattering of “[Aye Boss!]” and “[It’s the boss!]” thrown at her general direction. Like it or not, Azul reckoned, she needed to make an introduction now. With a bit of flourish she flung the curtains out, the casters they were hung on squeaking with protest at the sudden force as they spread open. A lone spotlight clicked on, focused on her from above as she slithered out to the main stage.

Azul cast an imposing figure, which was her intention from the start. Warmcuddles, from her research, were notorious for getting a bit lost if you didn’t immediately grab, retain and command their attentions. She loomed over her audience in her most potent business suit; glowing epaulets on her shoulders framing her face’s sharp features, the skin-tight suit sliding down her frame to leave nothing to the imagination while still being impressively modest. Azul’s deep blue scales flashed in-between open tiger-striped strips of cloth along her ribs, and the whole ensemble ended in a studded belt and pantline whose embedded force projectors gently rotated the obsidian jewels that dotted her lower half. On her chest, the emblem of her organization, emblazoned in rubies and gold.

“<Good afternoon, everyone.>” Azul stated, looking over the audience with a cool, unblinking expression. She waited and let her silence linger, as a few of the warmcuddles elbowed and whispered to each other before ultimately settling down.

“<Thank you all for coming.>” Azul continued, nodding slightly in the manner of warmcuddles before immediately launching into her business pitch. “<You’re here because you want more from an employer, and from a career. Either you found one of our advertisements, or were recruited by one of your fellow warmcuddles. Whatever the case may be, you’re here today on what I hope will be the beginning of a long and bountiful relationship. You may call me Azul.>”

“[This is a good boss.]” one of the warmcuddles on the front row said to his friend, who was nodding vigorously.


“<Wherever you are currently employed, whatever you are currently doing, is not enough for you. You want to be on the sliding ridge of progress. You want to have your name remembered as part of something greater.>” Azul said in her best presentation voice, moving her arms to the tempo of her speech. “<You want to take control of your own destiny, to carve out your own territory and to run it how you please – and that is where I, and my conglomerate, come in.>” Azul smiled, coyly. “<We do offer franchise opportunities, after all.>”  

One of the warmcuddles started to clap in the back of the warehouse, before being shushed by someone close to him. Azul noted, as she looked around the audience, that she had gained their rapt attention.

“<The idea is very simple.>” Azul continued, as behind her a holoscreen flickered to life, showing a very rough idea of a food truck. “<My conglomerate and I would like to establish a presence in this system that will brook no argument and allow for no competition. To that end, we feel a mobile option will be the best way to build our pathprint for the initial few years of our operations.>”

The slide changed to the interior of the food semi-truck, showing what kit would be available. “<None of you will have to worry about where you’re going, and you won’t have to be customer-facing when it comes to taking orders. The goal for you will be to appear where and when we need you, as an antagonistic force assigned to this mobile, ah, kitchen.>”

Azul clicked forward to the next slide, showing the personal protective gear for the warmcuddle teammates. “<If you decide to join us, you’ll be assigned a team leader – picked out among you all, of course – who will help co-ordinate outside operations. There will also be multiple tri-species colleagues who will be doing most of the heavy lifting, but you can rely on them for protection if things get a bit too heated.>”

A hand went up in the back, and Azul paused for a moment, weighing the pros and cons of finishing her foodtruck orientation or opening it up for Q&A. The warmcuddle, taking the pause as consent to continue, piped up.

“[Will we have armored suits?]”

“<Yes.>” Azul said, rapidly clicking through a couple slides to get to the UTF-approved warmcuddle handling kit. “<We have modified our own suits, of course, but everything we provide for you will be above UTF specifications in terms of safety and handling. Any tri-species team members that are with you on your shift will also have full handling and triage training.>”

“[What about weapons?]” Another warmcuddle asked from the back, and Azul smiled.

“<You are allowed to carry whatever you feel you need for personal protection. My team is still writing out proper rules of antagonistic client engagement, so to speak, but our assumption is that you won’t kill our customers. Yes, you up here.>” Azul said, pointing to another warmcuddle who had his hand raised.

“[Will we have color-coordinated suits?]” The warmcuddle asked, with a grin so wide it almost split his face in two.

“<Certainly. It would actually make sense to color-coordinate dress code, given the clear lines of demarcation between job duties. For high-visibility, your warmcuddle suits – so far – would be bright pink. Team leads we haven’t thought about->”

“[Why not purple?]” One of the older warmcuddles ventured, and Azul pointed to him directly.

“<Good idea! We’ll implement that for the first round of testing and then see how it goes.>” Azul said, making a note of the warmcuddles who were showing initiative. “<The goal for the upcoming fiscal year, and for your positions, is purely to test out if this model will work. If it does, then not only will we replicate this across the galaxy, but you all as the inaugural class will have the pick of territories that we already operate in. Yes, the female in the red jacket.>”

The girls’ hand went down. “[Where are your operations based out of now?]” She asked, leaning forward in her seat.

“<Currently we’re operating incognito out of an exo-system satellite hub that we have in orbit around this planet.>” Azul stated, to the apparent awe of the warmcuddle audience. “<However, there will be planet-side hubs that we will operate out of – this being one of them – that should be well within commute distance.>” Azul continued as she saw another question form on the warmcuddles’ lips. “<As this is a part-time position and we want to maintain an under-the-radar presence, our hope is that your current employment and scholastic positions will provide enough flexibility and stability for what will most likely be a bit of a start-and-stop position over the first 90 days.>”

The female human bit her lower lip, and looked at Azul with a searing hot gaze that the Jornissian entirely missed. “<Yes, the male in the long coat.>”

“[Do we have a nemesis, boss?]” The warmcuddle asked, in an accent that Azul had never heard before. The question brought an involuntary grin to her face, and the executive cut off the presentation.

“<You know, that’s an excellent question. Interestingly enough…>”

Stories They are Smol

Smolive Garden – Chapter 16: The absolute and most correct choice

There are many people who ‘live’ and ‘work’ in space; trillions of sapients, collectively, worked in ships, on stations both large and small, on tethered asteroid colonies and a dozen other forms of interstellar habitation and industry besides. However, there is a particular line of demarcation between those who ‘live and work’ within the bellies of these massive beasts, enjoying the purified air, recycled water and faux greenery and parks of the relative safety that kilometers of reinforced bulkheads and metal shielding can provide, and the people who actually went out into the void to make their daily bread.

There’s always been a disconnect between the two, and the core decoupling is because there are so many things that just don’t work in true vacuum. For starters, and most obviously, there’s no breathable atmosphere – so you wear a suit, which isn’t too far removed from other activities one could find themselves doing, but every conversation you have comes via a radio set, and there’s still delay between sentences. If you’ve got three or more people working together on a project, you can have an unfortunate side-effect of multiple overlapping conversations happening at once, bouncing around the workzone for hours.

Take gravity – for granted, of course. You step outside the range of the local graviton field generator of your ship or station and suddenly everything is weightless. Everything. It’s almost a rite of passage for new exo-workers to ignore the “no really strip your body of everything or else you’ll be in a snowglobe” orientation for their first day of work only to find that snack, loose hair tie or earring floating about their head for the rest of the shift. This, of course, doesn’t speak to the general discombobulation of having magnetic boots or hands keeping you steady while the rest of your form becomes a wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube-human.

But that’s what unites all the species of the Galactic Senate: we’re all tubes, at the end of the day, wrapped around an anus.

Speaking of, sound is another thing that just doesn’t work when it comes to exo-work; the thousand small bits of feedback your brain gets working in an atmospheric environment are absent when working in space, and have to be intentionally artificially added for both safety and sanity’s sake. Most suits now have built-in speakers around the interior of their user’s helmet to give them audio cues to what their camera-fed-suit-computer sees around them.

With all of that being said, the workers who were repairing the micro-cracks on the outside of [The Starlight Flower]’s viewing windows could have sworn they heard lightning crackle and thunder rumble from somewhere.

= = = =

Azul, nee Sreshec, laughed in her observatory, as her mirrored walls slowly twirled, casting a kaleidescope of colors and vistas that dazzled the eyes and confounded the mind. Gone, swept away in her madness were the stacks of carefully compiled notes, the decision trees of planetary and solar organizations, reams of ordinances with meticulously-highlighted loopholes and notes scribbled in the margins. The tower of televisions had been cast down – or up, the gravity just outside her platform was purposefully shut off, a demented snowglobe of broken technology, static-fuzzed screens and glitching newscasts orbiting around her.

Sreshec knew. After her… dinner experience, and trading contact information with her ambitious rock-climbing dining companion, she spent the ride up and out of atmo in deep rumination. She reflected, turning herself more and more inwards, trying to fit the non-euclidean thought patterns into her own. It was enlightening; it was shocking. Horrifying, in a way, and yet somehow cozy. Somehow right. Her mind expanded, and crossed over from the warm sands of sanity and common decency – common business best practices – and rested on the perch between reason and madness. Laying on that fine line, she looked down, one eye into the abyss and one onto the firmament, and laughed.

Was this how her ancestors felt, when the first integration began with the Dorarizin, or the Karnakians? When an alien mind touched her people’s own, did the very strangeness of it make them curl up in fear – or was it something else entirely? Perhaps an exultation that struck down at the very core of the soul as the recently-finite vista of possibility and potential was moved, far and past the horizon – Azul reasoned this was what filled her being, drowned her mind, and opened her eyes.

“<Antagonistic food service is the future. Of course!>” Sreshec roared at a captive view-screen, laughing at her reflection as she flung the offending item against the observatory glass, it’s crunch and bounce going largely unnoticed. “<How could I h- no, how could we have been so blind? For millenia!? It was sitting right there, unused, unwanted! Romance, adventure, joy, authenticity, novelty, family, speed – worked, tirelessly into the ground, but hate! We- we never used hate against our customers!>”

Sreshec let out a scream – primal, freeing, as she twirled in on herself, tripping over her own tail and landing on her back against the cool floor. The impact pushed the air out of her lungs, and for a brief few moments Azul struggled to inhale, relishing slightly in the burning of her lungs. The discomfort cleared her mind, and the mad joy bled from her features as she stared up at [The Starlight Flower], her former magnum opus. The solution had displayed himself, and she had taken him with all the fury and passion she could muster, but now – now came the other questions, now came reality and the morning after.

Her breathing slowed, then settled, as she stared up at the ceiling, a thousand thoughts racing through her mind as the part that could never be switched off began to sort and filter through the necessary next steps. It would do no good to just hire a mercenary company to serve flatbread, and neither would it be acceptable to flood certain politicians’ coffers with a bounty of election donations; she was part of a conglomerate, and such things eventually radiated out to the rest of the network and put those investments in jeopardy.

Besides. If you couldn’t crush your adversaries within the bounds of the law then what was the point?

“<Functionally unlimited creds does make things a lot easier.>” Azul mused, folding her hands over her stomach as she thought out loud. “<They’ve put together a network on the cheap, which I admire, but that obviously can’t be replicated elsewhere on the planet or else you’d have competing factions – eventually that spills out into the open, and, hm.>”

Sreshec blepped her tongue out slightly. Although a mercenary company would cost too much, would it be too far-fetched to hire some small-time criminals?

She frowned as she turned that thought over, eventually discarding it outright; criminals wouldn’t do – racketeering charges are how they get you. Aligning with a political movement might work in the short term, but that movement would then dictate what and where you did from then on, lest you lose the core.

There was also the pesky problem of political movements becoming radical, and the last thing Sreshec needed was a branded transport bomb going off outside of a rival’s cafe. Terrible optics and all that, although it usually did lead to an increase in search volume and ridge-traffic. No, the answer lay somewhere else. As Sreshec continued to turn over the question, every solution came saddled with it’s own problems.

How did they solve it?

Sreshec blinked, slowly, as a slightly-manic giggle bubbled out of her throat before being tamped down. That was such an obvious trail of thought that… well. With a smile she raised her arms, her implants triggering and connecting with her computer network. She pulled up the information the warmcuddle handed her, her recording of his face, the location, all the little bits and bobs of data she had clandestinely taken, and fed it to the machine. Slowly, imperceptibly, a puzzle piece took shape and a network formed.

This warmcuddle worked here and was related to that warmcuddle, potentially, given what public records she could pull. These suppliers here and there were vendors of that secret restaurant – given their location and menu options. Transport traffic and tail-traffic would probably pull from these local neighborhoods – the web grew, and Sreshec lost herself in it’s growth for a few hours, happily rummaging down through ous’st-burrows and laughing when the came to dead ends.

After months of slithering in a circle, she was finally out – she was finally making progress. She let her exhausted arms fall to the floor, splaying out as the network finally crystallized.

A family restaurant.

A loyal, but small customer base.

A dozen, dozen little warmcuddles, and enough implied behind-the-scenes dealings to actually make this business plan work.

They all went to the same university, Shreshec noticed, and clenched her hood tightly in thought. Warmcuddles, for all their many flaws and idiosyncrasies, were very good at building communities and integrating themselves into the nooks, crannies and unused spaces between people and places. The network they made in this college is probably what the restaurant crew was relying on in order to function. Disable that, and you break the only competition in the system…

Or, you could co-opt it, Sreshec thought. If that network is as tight knit as she suspected, then word was probably out already. If that was the case, then coming in as the second-choice job offer could work – and would work even more brilliantly if they paid more and had better benefits.

Sreshec smiled. Having functionally-unlimited creds really was unfair.

Sreshec rolled over onto her side, staring down at the planet below as her mirrored walls continued to spin. But how to continue making the playing field unfair? Now that was the market-dominating question. Getting the permits required to build a physical space was already damn difficult, and if she actually floated what she was thinking of doing to any regulator or inspector her restaurant group would most likely be banned from a good many systems.

No, a static building was right out. That means her restaurant must travel – a perch would be a bit too conspicuous; nothing says “pay attention to me” than a permanently floating building. Interplanetary construction also had it’s own red tape, and that tape usually doubled when you brought warmcuddles into the picture, so a wandering celestial restaurant was also out.

For a brief moment Sreshec thought about a potential aquatic, or even submersible establishment – certainly a new challenge, but working with a warmcuddle shipwright might be an interesting experience. That idea was quickly crushed once she very quickly realized that (1) this business model would need to be replicated, and not all planets had massive bodies of water to travel in/under, and (2) according to galnet gossip, warmcuddles had a bad habit of being violently ill when you wiggle the floor underneath them and sometimes popped if they came up from underwater too quickly. 

That left land. It would have to be big enough to seat a few clients, and a kitchen, and wait staff – Sreshec sighed, as she stopped that runaway caravan of thought. That line of thinking was way too large, and her competition was small – in both size and, ah, stature.

What if you shrunk it? Maybe, make it delivery only? A small transport, big enough for a kitchen and quick-turn crew. Add in a couple more warmcuddles to really sell the idea and to actually be the stars of the show – it would bring the idea out to the public, so they would immediately have competition, but first-mover advantage in these kind of paradigm shifts was huge and if parlayed correctly, her conglomerate could be writing the conduct rules for everyone else.

With an activated thought, the supercomputer built into her restaurant-station complex began to churn out potential business names, the translation coming out stilted but still readable. [Schwarma-Queen Saboteurs], [Pizza Palace Punishers], [Burger Lord Hit Squads],  [McMan’s Authentic Northern Ireland Experience and British Daycare] –

As the names scrolled past and were fed into a separate neural network for weighted sentiment analysis against the planet’s culture, Sreshec paused for a moment. Warmcuddles were adorable, they were friendly, they were hearty and scrappy and other things besides, but they were also alien. She was about to embark on a targeted campaign to disrupt and destroy something they had created, and potentially co-opt it as her own.

Would that come back to bite her?

Would they even care?

Sreshec gave herself a little mental shrug as those thoughts came and went. Warmcuddles had such short lives – most likely, they didn’t hold grudges, and if they did it’d be over very soon.

It’d be fine.

Stories They are Smol

Smolive Garden: Chapter 15 – Watercooler

“ATTEN-SHUN!” Roared Anne-Marie, and the dozen or so wait-staff snapped to attention, saluting whatever or whoever happened to be in front of them at the time of their shift manager’s call. Anne-Marie smiled as the kitchen doors swung shut behind her, looking over her crew with pride.

“Well done out there, everyone!” She barked, stomping up and down the prep aisle as her crew took whatever chairs, tables or hopefully-off flatiron griddles as seats to listen to their after-action report. “I’m very proud of all of you out there! No casualties, plenty of cash!”

Ti’miquek cleared his throat as he continued to do dish duty, not looking up at the assembly. “[Inside voices, please.]” He stated in that fatherly tone of if-you-don’t-there’s-dishes-with-your-name-on-them. Anne-Marie frowned a bit at his interruption, but remembered very quickly that you never ever fight the cook staff – they have far too little to lose and no patron ever sees their face so they’ll dodge a police line up – and recovered her momentum.

“As I was saying.” Anne-Marie continued, a couple decibels softer, the clinking of clean plates interrupting her every so often. “Well done out there, everyone. I’ve been reviewing the numbers from the till and from the security feed; Tomtom will be out here soon to give everyone their cut – and it’s a nice one.”

There was a scattered round of applause, as Anne-Marie pulled out her tablet and clicked it on. “So. First, we only had to shoot three patrons this evening! If anyone was wondering, yes, that’s a record! Usually we’re around 5-7 with at least one life-flight, so the fact that we won’t be having to bribe our driver tonight means that cost comes back to you. Ah, Jim.”

“Yo.” Waved a blue track-suited young man, smiling wide. “I was quick on the guns today, yeah?”

“Yeah, nah.” Anne-Marie said, Jim’s smile quickly fading. “You also are the cause of our only friendly-fire incident tonight-“

“Wait, it was you?” cried out one of the other crew, pointing an accusing finger. “Bro, shooting your teammates is cringe.” 

Anne-Marie clapped her hand against the back of her tablet. “Fist, Heath, we are not going to bring back 2070’s slang, it was a terrible decade and we all just need to forget it ever happened, stop trying to force it cause that’s not groovy.”

“Jackanape.” Heath responded, crossing his arms.

“Only if I come from the Jakanape region of France. If I don’t, then I’m just a sparkling jackass.” Anne-Marie retorted, getting a single unhinged laugh from Tictac before he composed himself and continued dish duty. “Ancient slang aside, you did shoot Carol in the back, but tremendous kudos to table team 3 for parlaying that into a double-theft!” Anne-Marie tucked her tablet under her arm and applauded softly, the rest of the crew – sans Jim  – golf clapping in response. “The fact that we were able to re-sell that table the same entree and appetizers is incredible, and that only pads our profit margin. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the real goal to perspire towards-“

“[Aspire, dear.]” Tictac corrected softly, not missing a beat as he continued to clean.

“-Work hard towards.” Anne-Marie continued, ignoring her adopted work-dad. “With sweat and dedication and gumption.” 

There was an awkward pause, and someone cleared their throat, before Anne-Marie continued. “So moving on, we have updated reviews! Seventeen flawless reviews, minus the usual riff-raff means that Tripsuggestor now actually suggests us, and we’ve finally climbed from a half-a-star to a whole star! Just 9 more stars to go before we have a flawless review score.”

“[Wait, who rated my restaurant at a half-a-star?]” Tictac asked, the dishes now being forgotten as he turned to face the human servers. “[When did we get on that platform? What?]”

Anne-Marie grimaced, trying her best to turn it into an honest smile. “Welllllll this is something that goes back, uh, at least a couple decades, but-“

“[My restaurant has been rated as a half-star for decades?!]” Tictac replied, staring his shift-manager down ferally. “[Why.]”

There was a hollow-coconut sounding thunk as Jack took off his helmet, dropping it on the griddle he sat upon, and pulled up his phone. “It’s tradition. Give me a sec.”

“[It’s tradition to disparage my business?]” Tictac said, rearing up to a very intimidating height, his chest plumage splaying out underneath his apron. “[What kind of cruel, sick joke is that?]”

“Half-Star. The Hash Browns were baked, laid on a bed of sour cream. Felt the first bite wind it’s way through my digestive tract, undigested, like a stone. What I thought was pepper was instead licorice pop rocks, my tongue died in my skull. Did not realize the giant hash browns were stuffed until I hit the gooey turmeric-cilantro center. It had the consistency of honey and hardened when cooled. Also didn’t use the restroom for 4 days, was able to continue my cram session for finals uninterrupted. 0/10, you have to try it with chili oil.”

There was another pause as Jack’s words sunk in, Tictac’s expression unreadable. “[But… the UFO plate is one of the most ordered dishes for new customers.]”

 “To be honest, we thought you knew that your food was the bad-good-bad kind.” Jack said, tapping his phone as he worked through his notifications. “Why did you think we called it the Unidentified-Food-Object plate?”

“[Because I change it based on what’s in season, so it’s a nice surprise whenever you get it?]” Tictac ventured, uncertain, as if reading from a script he was no longer sure was the final version.

“You cooked human recipes, fixed them to karnakian, dorarizin and jornissian tastes, and then served them back to humans.” Anne-Marie said, talking gently with her hands waving about to punctuate her point. “Why did you think that we would call it good?

There was another quiet moment as Tictac slowly deflated, staring into the middle distance with a frown.

“Hey dino-dad.” Anne-Marie said, gently placing her hand on the older karnakian’s chest. “We wouldn’t have it any other way, either.”

“That’s the entire point, you know.” Jack said, chuckling softly. “Your food isn’t just cheap and filling, it’s an experience.”

“[Even if that experience is terrible?]” Tictac replied, flatly. “[Even if my 400 year old establishment drops to a half-a-star?]”

“[Whooooo’s ready for the payout~!?]” Tomtom sang out as she backed into the kitchen, her tail parting the double-doors before she turned around to look at the crew. Her smile suddenly faded as she read the vibe of the room, and she placed a stack of envelopes on the order counter. “[Apparently… no one. Anyone going to tell me what happened? We didn’t have a life-flight today, so it’s not a casualty, right?]”

“Yer da’s realized his food is shit.” Brian said with all the tact of an aussie as he draped over the plastic salad crate, messing with his phone. “But he’s forgot we’ll fight a cunt if they start shit with ‘em.” He continued, recovering with all the finesse of a marketing major.  

“[They rated us a half-star, Tomtom.]” Tictac said, looking sadly at his daughter as more humans walked over and began to pet the aged restaurateur.

“[I. Hm.]” Tomtom replied, thinking for a moment. “[I think they’re just messing with us, Dad – us and each other. I mean, take a look at Brian here.]” Tomtom said, gently nudging the crate that Brian was laying on. “[How many dozens, if not hundreds of times has he said your food was terrible?]”

“[Every time he comes in.]” Tictac replied, only slightly trying to dodge the consoling snout pats from Anne-Marie.

“[That’s the point, dad. For it to be every time, he has to come back multiple times. He’s a regular, and he’s brought in his friends – who actually pay, I might add – and he even helped us with trivia night a couple nights.]” Tomtom continued, smiling slightly.

And I provide a fresh review of your restaurant every day!” Brian said happily, grinning from ear to ear. “So you’re welcome for that.”

Tictac flared his crest as he stared down the relaxing human – a man he saw grow up, befriend his hatchlings, and even come to work for him – who also apparently has been producing scathing, raving reviews for years about his life’s work, and was overcome with such a maelstrom of emotions that a single, solitary word escaped his lips.


“AAAYYEEE THAT’S A TRUE BLUE AUSTRALIAN RIGHT THERE~!” Brian roared, wiggling all his limbs in triumph as the salad crate creaked, cracked, and ultimately fell over, depositing the cheering human to the floor on a bed of wilted romaine. He rolled over and sat up, pointing a finger triumphantly at the flabbergasted karnakian. “And we’ll fuckin fight a cunt if they mess with you, cunt!”

Tictac sighed, the internal tension that was building inside him bleeding out as he accepted the myriad of hugs, pets and pats from his work staff. He still stared intently – but not angrily – at Brian, who returned the glare with a grin and fingerguns.

“[Wellllllll~]” Tomtom cooed, tapping her fingers against the prep table. “[I’ve got 18 envelopes here, but I was doing a headcount and only see 16. Who left before pay?]”

“Uh, Andy and I think… I don’t know, my best guess Jill?” Anne-Marie said, flipping her tablet on with one hand and continuing to pet her boss with another. “Yeah. Looking at their suit IFF tags, they left with two separate patrons about an hour or so ago. Well, Jill did, Andy bailed like 3 hours ago.”

“Oh, speaking of bailing and booking, what was the deal with that suit?” Jack asked, putting away his phone. “The one that sat with sesame?”

“Government spook; we’ve bribed them before and we’ll do it again.” Brian interrupted, grunting as he stood on the lettuce. “Do you think she’s planetary, or system? I think we’ve got enough blackmail on everyone local.”

“[No, I don’t think that. Sarah.]” Tomtom replied, calling out the human in question before handing her an envelope stuffed with illicit cash. “[I think that may have been a food critic. Mike.]”

Brian laughed, before doing his best to mask it with a cough as he was shot a dozen dirty looks. “Wh. Ah, well, then we’re about to get very popular then, aren’t we?”

“[Maybe. Jim, this is yours-]” Tomtom said, lightly tossing the envelope over to Jim, who waved it back in thanks. “[But we still keep to our operating procedures. Anne-Marie.]”

“In a minute, I’m still patting.” Anne-Marie replied, ignoring the huffed chuckle from her boss as she continued to pat and boop the snoot. “If it is a food critic, how do we want to handle her? That kind of exposure will get our entire network noticed, and that’s going to put some of our finders in a lot of hot water.”

“Blackmail should work.” Jim said, flipping through the plastic notes. “It’s kept everyone else shut, and as long as no human actually dies then we can cover up any accidents.”

“[Bruce…]” Tomtom said, trailing off as she looked at the expectant human. “[…will get yours later.]” Tomtom grinned as she ignored his protests, and continued to flip through the envelope roster. “[Andy and Jill are gone home early, so I’ll have to reduce their cuts by a bit. Heath.]” Tomtom passed out another envelope. “[And that’s a fair assumption, I think. Clara, here’s yours. What was that ping you wanted to talk to me about from yesterday, Anne-Marie?]”

“Oh!” Anne-Marie said, finally releasing her boss’ cheek from her encouraging patting. “It has to do with Buckeye.”

“[I thought we set out a feral moth trap for him.]” Tictac questioned, gently hugging the lingering humans before letting them go. “[He’s not hygenic.]”

“First, we are not killing our mascot.” Anne-Marie said, putting her hands on her hips. “Second, I’m certain we all agreed to reimburse the company for any pizza dough that Buckeye’s larva ate.”

“[Wait, it’s laying eggs?]” Tictac said, tilting his head in concern. “[That’s… we can’t have an infestation, that actually will get me shut down.]”

“We don’t let them stay inside! For long.” Bruce said, rallying to Buckeye’s defense. “We only offer them a little salami, from time to time, as a treat. And some of the hush puppy. And UFO. And sushioup.”

Tomtom folded her arms. “[Bruce, have you been feeding the wildlife?]”

We shouldn’t throw out food, no matter how bad it is.” Bruce said, defiantly, as he crossed his arms in response. “Those are wasted, empty calories and they can be put to use creating the next generation of horrifically deformed-due-to-nutritional-deficiencies wildlife.”

Anne-Marie rubbed her temples. “Bruce, you’re not supposed to dump the food scraps outside, come on man.”

“Everyone loves Buckeye though!” Bruce rallied. “You can’t honestly tell me that when that adorable, fluffy bastard tries to scramble his way into a too-small door that your heart doesn’t melt. Come on!”

Tomtom shook her head. “[I can already tell that you’ll fight us to the death over this, so don’t lead him inside. Keep Buckeye outside and we won’t have animal control actually shutting us down. Is that a deal?]”

Bruce saluted Tomtom with one hand, and with the other – lightning quick – made a grab for his pay. He would’ve gotten away with it too, if someone didn’t come up from behind and give him a little well-deserved push on his lettuce soapbox, sending him scrambling to the floor.

“OI! What’s that for?!” Bruce yelled, rolling over onto his back to be greeted with a faceful of smiling frycook.

“[No pay until you’re done with dish duty.]” Tictac said, grinning, before grabbing Bruce’s ankles and dragging him to the back.

Stories They are Smol

Smolive Garden, Chapter 14: Zero Michelin Stars, and proud of it

Professional education comes in many ways; it can be delivered in a formal classroom environment, can be self-taught, or – in many instances – is simply produced on-the-job as it happens. The rarest of all forms, however, is when a professional watches something unfold, and has enough experience to draw from to develop an internal lesson plan. In most cases, the professional in question generates their own internal narrative and slowly pieces together exactly what’s happening, how it’s happening, who it’s happening to, and most importantly why it’s happening.

Azul’s internal narrative had none of that. Anne Marie was a little rascal to Sesame, crawling over the jornissian as if she were nothing but an animate cushion, rifling through her pockets and generally being a little terror. When the food came roughly a third of Sesame’s portion was intercepted from the table, the warmcuddle happily devouring the food that she didn’t pay for. The conversation between the older professional and the younger protege came in fits and starts – mainly due to Anne Marie’s random interjections that had to be addressed, and if she wasn’t staff Azul had half a mind to ask her to leave the premises.

However. There were moments where Anne Marie was utterly charming; whenever Azul needed help navigating the new foods she ordered, or had a question about warmcuddles, or even [Gentle Expanse] itself, the warmcuddle host responded with grace, honesty and an earnest joy that was almost overwhelming. Anne Marie expressed moments of genuine concern for the quality of the food, the comfort of her guest, and the overall atmosphere of the environment; when anything was found lacking, she either found a way to fix the problem or promised to address it for a future visit.

The two sides didn’t mesh in Azul’s head.

As the night wore on, Azul left the two friends to fall into conversation with themselves, and studied the restaurant as it slowly filled out. She was seated at a green table, the only indicator of which was a little green circle slapped onto the well-worn but refurbished tabletop. All of the other guests who selected and sat at such marked tables gained a warmcuddle companion; for some they sat a few feet apart, most likely because they dined with the new patrons, while others got the Anne-Marie treatment and seemed quite bemused at the fact. It was obviously a mixture of dining and performance, and Azul could understand that part of the business structure; themed and theater restaurants were nothing new, holding an appealing charm all their own. That structure, at it’s core, made sense.

The red tables, in comparison, made absolutely no sense. Separated by a transparent, modular, manufactured physical divider the red tables were utterly confusing. Orders were given and received as normal, and the food arrived no later or worse for wear than at any other table. But once the food hit the table and the server got out of… for lack of a better term, arming distance, all hell broke loose.

 Armored warmcuddles – their suits padded and reinforced with something that looked decidedly more military surplus than civilian make – did everything they could to harass, cajole, taunt, distract and generally mess with the patron. Some diners succumbed to the tiny, soft, nearly-crying eyes of the warmcuddles as they begged to have ‘just a bite’, while others used pack tactics, secret tunnels, false ceiling tiles and a dozen other tricks up to and including flashbangs to separate a patron from the food they rightfully ordered.

Others… well. Azul watched as a male warmcuddle with a most impressive feathered mane glued to his suit’s shoulders and neck approach a single female dorarizin, who began to sweat uncomfortably. Azul could guess at what was said, and she… didn’t like the implications. Apparently neither did the patron once she acquiesced and the warmcuddle yoinked the food out from under her nose and ran.

The red tables were filled with mayhem of every single flavor possible, and it was barely 30 minutes into the night before the first gunshot went off, and Azul wasn’t even entirely sure if it was because a patron got too handsy, a warmcuddle got scared, or the beginning of a fast food eating contest. Regardless, there was a new smoking hole in the wall and a round of cheers, the ball-gunner turret in the corner of the restaurant wiggling his weapons in… victory? Menace? Something unknowable, and Azul really didn’t have the inclination to go over and ask.

In the midst of all of this, the chaos, the kindness, the shenanigans and the salsa, what finally pushed Azul over the edge was the blue tables, which were not advertised or even an option when she first came in. At first glance, Azul assumed they belonged to long-time or high-ticket patrons, but as they slowly filled up the truth was much more mundane and insane. These tables were in the far back of the restaurant, and were only accessible by warmcuddles who came in the back fire-exit door that was constantly propped open by a little hunk of wood jammed in the doorframe.

“[Locals’ only entrance, only for warmcuddles.]” Anne Marie said, jolting Azul out of her stupor and focusing her attention back to her boothmates. Anne Marie was half in the booth, half draping over it, her head and upper torso turned to follow Azul’s spotlight gaze.

She lazily pointed at the totally unguarded door over her shoulder with her thumb. “[Most people don’t pay attention, so we don’t have security there – and regardless, it is a fire escape so code won’t allow us to button it down tight. Warmcuddles want trash food too from time to time, and it makes no sense to force them through the same security mesh that we did you.]”

“<I’m just…somewhat at a loss.>” Azul murmured, taking in hand one of the filled, fried dough rounds and biting into it, the gooey and overly-greasy interior popping in her mouth with an audible crunch. “<I’ve never seen this model replicated anywhere.>”

“[So you’re saying we have something proprietary?]” Anne Marie said, grinning as she flopped back down on Sesame, the jornissian letting out a little grunt as the warmcuddle settled back in to her living seat. “[Something we could possibly patent and turn into a semi-legal franchise operating out of a deniable asset nation-state on the periphery?]”

“<You watch too much drama.>” Sesame said, teasing the warmcuddle with a piece of bread loaded with a greenish-blue dip. “<Real life doesn’t work that way.>”

“[You don’t know you’re not a doctor.]” Anne Marie replied, fussing against Sesame’s breaded attack. “[But Azul, you should definitely give the volcano dip a shot; we’ve added in our blue berries to a traditional three-spice dip, made with tree-testicles imported in from Dirt. It’s good, especially if you don’t mind fatty plant fruit.]”

“<I’ll get to it…>” Azul trailed off as she looked at the kitchen, her professional curiosity scrutinizing everything that she could see, every hint that the swinging double-doors would give her. If the green tables made sense, the red tables were managed insanity and the blue tables an island of normalcy in a sea of incoherency, the kitchen area made her downright incensed.

“<Is that a bag of unprocessed t’chouli? On the countertop – not in a refrigerated environment?>” Azul half-asked to Anne Marie, half spoke to herself. As Anne Marie began to respond, she was immediately cut off by the scrutinizing snake as she began to ramble.

“<They spoil within minutes if they’re not kept near arctic temperature – you have to take them from the freezer to the pan immediately.>” Azul said, pointing a finger questioningly in the kitchen’s general direction. “<Not to mention, you’re definitely using the same prep area for meats and ocean foods, which can’t be hygienic without a sterilization procedure between sets at minimum.>” The blue jornissian turned to the warmcuddle in question, her expression sharp with criticism – only muted slightly by utter confusion. “<Everything I’ve seen out here is fried or raw. You’re not using the same oil for multiple types of food, are you?>”

Anne Marie shrunk slightly into her friends’ coils. “[I mean, cost cutting measures don’t uh, and the food hasn’t hurt anyone yet, um, delivery partners with produce, aah, varying professional standards?]” Anne Marie ventured, starting and dropping trains of thought and excuses as she noticed they didn’t sway Azul in the slightest.

Azul leaned against her backrest, the faux-pleather padding squealing slightly in protest at the unexpected weight, and drilled into Anne Marie with her gaze. “<The intergalactic convention on processed foods requires a chemical and UV screen over food prep stations before any rotation, and I don’t see anything in that kitchen that looks remotely like a light bar. How are you stopping cross-contamination?>”

Anne Marie curled up, partly because she had fallen too deep into Sesame’s coils, and partly because she wasn’t used to being on the receiving end of a professional grilling. “[We uh. Use a wet rag with soapy water and just…]” The warmcuddle made a little wiping motion with her hand.

Azul experienced every single stage of grief within a few seconds, oscillating between disbelief, bargaining, anger, sadness, fourthmeal, disappointment, ennui, nage and aneurysm. 

Seeing the excitable nature of her companion, Sesame cleared her throat and wrapped her arms around Anne Marie defensively. “<I know it’s not managed to your exacting standards, but that doesn’t mean->”

“<Standards?!>” Roared Azul, the slightly-too-loud outburst gaining her the attention of the surrounding tables and at least one ball gunner. “<Professionals have standards! This?! This is an edible bio-hazard masquerading as a themed insane asylum!>”

“[I thought you said they couldn’t tell when we reheated the pork, Tictac!]” Yelled someone from the far back of the kitchen, and Azul trilled a high, steam-pipe burst of exhaustion and anger.


Azul snapped back to Anne Marie, and was greeted with a wholly different kind of warmcuddle; she was standing up straight, her chest was puffed out, her flair was somehow shining bright, and her eyes were full of determination. She also had a gun, and that was an important fact that helped Azul realize that she was in an illegal establishment, and that maybe yelling isn’t the right thing to do.

“[Just because it’s not something you’re used to, doesn’t mean that it’s bad!]” Anne Marie said, waving her pistol around as she spoke, much to the concern of Sesame and everyone else within gunshot range. “[Different people and different cultures prepare things differently, and that kind of uniqueness is the spice of life! None of our patrons have gotten too sick, no one’s been to the hospital, and the food is deep fried to hell and back again anyway, so if it was crawling on the countertop it isn’t when it hits your tabletop!]”

A few of the patrons looked down at their food with newfound trepidation, but Anne Marie continued with her inspirational speech. “[We’ve been following all warmcuddle food safety standards, and look at us! Healthy as beasts of burden! Swift as a coursing river! Mysterious as the dark side of the moon!]” She continued, raising her arms in triumph as she spoke. For a brief moment, Azul was taken in by the spectacle: a small being, unable to defend themselves, unable to do many things that she took for granted was challenging not only her, but the very universe itself with a defiant spirit and a loaded weapon and no fear in her heart. She was, in a word, commanding, and Azul felt the magnetic pull these new additions brought to the galaxy.

Of course, the universe, not one to be mocked, chose this time to interrupt Anne Marie’s beautiful crescendo with the only local that never paid his tab, attacked the staff with impunity, and who stole food without even being employed. A cheer drowned out Anne Marie as, with the slamming open of the propped emergency fire-exit door-

“<Is that a feral animal?!>” Azul asked, pointing past Anne Marie to the giant moth that had forced half it’s body into the establishment. The wild animal had a very obvious dent in it’s head, with a permanent but faint after-image of what looked to be a stamped license plate askew on it’s forehead.

“[Oh hey it’s Buckeye! WHO FORGOT TO LEAVE BREAD FOR BUCKEYE?]” Yelled Anne Marie, the earlier insult to her friends and family totally forgotten as the wild animal scrambled it’s forelegs against the wall, turning sideways in an attempt to get further into the restaurant. 

The moth was soon swarmed with warmcuddles, the patrons at the red tables taking the opportunity to wolf down their food in peace as the new distraction bought them much needed breathing room. The moth, who was waving it’s antenna in rhythm to the chant of it’s name only stopped it’s manic attempt to break in once a stolen entree was brought near it, the wild animal following the plate of food with rapt attention.

“[Don’t worry, they’ll shoo him out – he usually doesn’t come in from the side door, he’s more of a kitchen moth than anything else; he’s also why we all had to stop wearing cotton aprons.]” Anne Marie stated, shimmying down from her perch atop Sesame to the open space on the seat beside her. “[Speaking of kitchen, let me go check on how things are doing – I’ll also put in an order for more food safety prep bullshit, if it’s that important to you, but you’re either going to eat the food we bring you or pay for it to go cold. You good?]” 

“<Yeah… yeah. I’m good. Sorry.>” Azul closed her eyes and nodded, a century’s worth of exhaustion smothering her like a wet blanket. The media, the stories, the data painted such a picture of the warmcuddles that Azul had built up in her mind, but the reality was so much more qualitative.

The warmcuddles lived like this.

They wake up every day and they choose to live like this.

Azul rested her head against the booth’s backrest, opening her eyes to a checkerboard drop-tile ceiling. She stared into the middle distance for a few moments before tilting her head down, witnessing an incredibly bemused and smug Sesame enjoying her probably-not-food-safe warmcuddle plant dip, while in the background, past the warmcuddles who were using the distraction to steal more food from their patrons, a ball gunner teased the feral animal with the barrels of his weapon.

She took it all in, all at once, in a single, unfeeling, numb moment, and her internal, professional narration rationalized the exact wrong lesson.