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.”