Sreshec leaned back in her bowl chair, the exhaustion and frustration of the past few weeks replaced with a tentative curiosity. Gone were the mountains of paperwork and the carefully curated 3D prints of various solutions to esoteric problems; instead, simple relationship maps adorned the wall, each tied to a singular news story.
Here, in [First Shoals], a story of an out-of-towner stumbling onto an illegal trade ring. There, in [Silver City], a high-speed bust of illegal warmcuddle food carts. On another wall panel, the story of a fake chalet that was built for voyeurs illegally viewing local “guests” and was only busted after a gang of pesky warmcuddle kids decided to poke around. Every wall had something like that plastered over it’s frame; a literal warmcuddle-interest piece dissected into it’s component parts, further cataloged with notes and graphs in an attempt to put together a quantifiable value to qualitative data.
But all of the stories she followed were somehow off.
Sreshec examined her earliest handiwork, and the piece that she returned to after every subsequent story was broken down into it’s component parts and questions: The DILFs at fraternity row. It was the perfect template piece that raised all the red flags in the back of Sreshec’s mind, and slowly she started from the beginning once again.
Two Dorarizin males, from far out of system, pick a random college in a random college town far away from any of the major tourist hot-spots for some reason. They have no family here, they have no friends here, they have no business interests here, but somehow they’re able to integrate into the local culture, captivate college students – which, Sreshec admitted, wasn’t that hard – but most importantly gain access to the warmcuddle areas. From what Sreshec knew of the recently-tamed pests, they were still mostly-feral and only bonded to one or two handlers; rare and prized were the Moths who grew up sociable enough to work at petting zoos.
This means out-of-towners were shown an intimate view of local, unique warmcuddle culture, and given the nature of the Moth industry in general, that view was most likely in the presence of a local warmcuddle. It was everything she was trying to do – so how did they do it?!
Sreshec dunked her hand into a bowl of trail mix, idly stirring the produce of a dozen systems as she thought. Any legitimate entity would be advertising an experience like this with a marketing budget the size of a small moon even if it was only targeted at the ultra-luxury market, meaning that whatever was going on was either (1) bespoke, or (2) random happenstance.
Sreshec would have counted the DILF dynamic duo as a random, happy happenstance, but then she began to see the same story repeated everywhere. The stories were mostly the same: Whoever put this together always had an out-of-system client, it always involved the locals, it was primarily warmcuddle focused and warmcuddles, to some degree, helped in the execution of the experience.
It was too scattered though, too decentralized to find any form of progression from one event to the next. Sreshec pulled out a twisted root of Grish, snapping the tart treat in her mouth like a carrot as she mulled the situation over in her mind; it couldn’t be just one group – nobody was iterating on past wins, and the industries that kept cropping up were far too diverse to fall into any one company’s wheelhouse without being a massive mega-conglomerate, and, well. She was having problems; what hope did anyone else have?
“<No. Multiple smaller groups, perhaps?>” Sreshec muttered around a full mouth, grinding the root down slowly as she continued to think. The groups couldn’t be regional; every city seemed to have it’s own unique problem, and that problem wasn’t repeated anywhere else…so how?
“<Or maybe I’m trying to dry my bread before it’s mixed.>” Sreshec said, tapping the grish root against her snack bowl, as if to make a point. “<Focus on the sales funnel, not the business process. How did they find their marks? How do you advertise that you’re an illegal business to foreigners without them immediately snitching t->”
Sreshec tensed, slightly, as the truth slapped her right in the face mid-monologue: the triad population wasn’t the ringleader in these instances, it was the warmcuddles. They had the criteria, they made the plan, they picked the marks and they called the shots. That’s the only reason why so little prison time, if any, was being dished out for these otherwise horrific breaches of health & safety – it was the warmcuddles all along.
“<Oh you little bastards.>” Sreshec sighed out, narrowing her gaze at the “random” human who was involved in the DILF Diaries, the small alien smiling wide as he brushed down his moth. “<Don’t you give me that look.>” She warned, pointing the leftover grish root at the wall panel accusingly. “<You lied to me. You lied to me because I didn’t expect you and that’s not fair.>”
Sreshec smiled at the little bastard in question as she popped the last half of her snack into her mouth, her jaws snapping shut around the morsel of food. “<So, now we’re faced with the billion credit question: how do I make myself a mark?>”
= = = = =
The Karnakian ran her talons against the fired mineral clay, digging furrows into the crafted sculpture piece as it softly produced a sound between a chime and a string instrument. She was playing the soft melody of [O’ii’s’’s love ballad], providing a gentle background to every conversation within [The Starlight Flower]’s VIP deck. The patron list for the night read like a who’s-who of the system and regional scene, with politicians, artists, business moguls and generally upper crust people filling out every seat, stool and bowl that the space station had.
The only lone exceptions kept to themselves, in a high Ultra-VIP booth overlooking the rich, powerful and influential. They were recent criminals – wandering vagrants, really – and it was slowly starting to dawn on them that maybe, just maybe, they were out of place.
“[Soooooooo….]” rumbled Bluebell, stirring a free drink that would otherwise cost a month of his wages. “[Exactly how did you get these reservations?]”
Borkbork hummed softly as he cracked the mollusk egg over the rapidly-heating shot glass, picking the concoction up and slamming it back just as the ovum began to sizzle.
“[Kooh! Wow~!]” The dorarizin coughed, placing the crystal glass back on it’s serving plate. “[That’s… that’s a heady feeling.]”
Bluebell sighed as he pulled up a small gel pearl with a disposable silver spoon, biting the drink and snapping the spoon off at the thread, gnawing on the bowl and all. “[You know, you can’t keep dodging my questions.]” He said, mumbling around a partially-full mouth.
“[Oh, alright.]” Borkbork replied, smirking. “[I just know you won’t believe me at all.]”
Bluebell leaned back against the plush seat, staring at his friend across the small table. “[Try me.]”
Borkbork mirrored his companion, grinning as he bounced his back against his backrest. “[I got a galnet message that said I won a contest I don’t remember entering.]”
“[I hate you.]” Bluebell said, chuckling. “[But seriously.]”
Borkbork shrugged, resting his hands on his lap. “[I am being serious. The message came straight from this place, I called the number to check and…]” Borkbork waved his hand idly to the left, pointing at the planetrise visa that framed the backdrop to their conversation. “[So here we are.]”
Bluebell frowned, flicking his ears in thought as he furrowed his brow. He studied his friend for a few moments… and found that he wasn’t lying. Bluebell turned his head and studied the people below; every so often he’d catch one of their glances as they looked up, and just as quickly they’d look away.
“[I wonder why.]”
Borkbork leaned forward once more, preparing a second shot of the inebriating concoction as the Karnakian’s song finished up. “[No clue, but I’m certain that the empty third seat at our table holds the answers.]”
“[Maybe. I was just thinking this table was a default three-seater.]” Bluebell said, looking to his right at the empty bowl seat. “[But I guess that would make no sense in a place like this; everything is custom, so everything is here for a reason.]”
“[I think we’ve been found out.]” Borkbork stated, cracking open another egg. “[But, obviously the cops don’t have this kind of budget.]”
“[Well I didn’t talk!]” Bluebell said, leaning forward to pick up another small spoon, stirring his drink to a froth with a bit of nervous energy. “[I know you didn’t either, which means we were most likely spied on – so possibly the broken circle? The 8 sisters?]”
Borkbork flicked his ears in the negative, lowering his head slightly as his shot was almost finished cooking. “[I think that’s a bit too much of an overactive imagination. With the amount of red tape we had to go through just to visit this system, you think a crime syndicate could pull of tugging this station here for nefarious reasons without alerting a few rangers?]”
“[Fair point.]” Bluebell replied, stopping his spoon to watch the little pearls of his drink bounce against the silver obstacle.
“[Do you…]” Borkbork started, before trailing off, looking past his friend as the door to their private booth opened up silently. The deep blue Jornissian that stood there was clad in a form-fitting iridescent black dress that shimmered as she slithered towards the duo, the small micro-drone lights that trailed and orbited her as much a part of her ensemble as anything else. As the small robots circled her, it was immediately evident that a significant part of her exposed skin was covered in a pattern of small gems, each one shining brilliantly in the fleeting light. Bluebell quickly followed his friend’s gaze, turning around in his seat to watch the newcomer with interest, and couldn’t help but notice that the Jornissian’s dress had a very interesting cut to it.
“[Good evening, proud lords.]” The Jornissian said, dipping her head as the jewels that were adhered to her hood shone in a dazzling pattern in the micro-lights. “[I’m very glad you two could make it. My name is Sreshec, and it has been a pleasure to be your host.]”
The two Dorarizin shared a look with each other as their mystery benefactor took the empty seat at the table. With a wave of her hand she placed a drink order, and after only a few moments the private bar on their level had created, plated, and served her drink. She took a sip of the steaming liquid, dragging out the long pause as long as she could.
“[Well…Sreshec, thank you very much for the invitation.]” Borkbork said, tilting his head back in a gentlemanly greeting. “[I have to admit, I was very surprised to receive it.]”
“[Well.]” Sreshec chuckled softly, dragging her finger along the rim of her glass. “[I saw your news story and just had to get to know you both a bit better.]”
“[Ah. That explains the cut.]” Bluebell said, letting his spoon rest inside his drink. “[While we are both very flattered by your advances, both of us are happily married with many, many pups.]”
Sreshec laughed, softly, covering her mouth with a free hand as she did so. “[Oh! Well, I will admit that thought had crossed my mind, purely given your respective physiques, but no. This-]” Sreshec said, motioning to her outfit. “[-is for another target tonight. However, you two are my VIP guests, so it’s only right that I take care of you both first.]”
“[Is that innuendo?]” Borkbork asked, innocently, as he pointed between his friend and the host. “[Are we still doing innuendo? I haven’t had to flirt in a few years so I’m a bit dusty on it.]”
“[I promise you, honored father.]” Sreshec said, dipping her head slightly as she picked up her drink once more. “[There will be nothing untoward happening to you tonight.]”
“[Well that’s no fun.]” Borkbork pouted, the line delivered just as Sreshec started to sip her drink. He looked away, but studied the Jornissian out of his peripheral vision as she struggled to not cough up her drink. “[Here I thought I was going to be given an indecent proposal or two.]”
“[You know I’d be first.]” Bluebell said, grinning, as he spooned out another pearl of intoxication. “[You always need to be warmed up a bit.]”
“[Ah!]” Borkbork said, leaning back against his seat. “[But once I’m fired up I don’t stop, and I’ve never had a complaint yet.]”
Sreshec continued to cough silently, her torso heaving with the effort to get under control. After a few moments she swallowed hard, before clearing her throat. “[Be that as it may, gentlemen, I do have some things that I’d like to ask you.]”
“[Oh, well, the secret really is to roll your tongue as if you’re pronouncing the letter ‘q’.]” Borkbork replied immediately, earning a light kick under the table from his friend for the trouble.
Sreshec tilted her head slightly, turning towards Bluebell as she motioned to Borkbork. “[Is he… always like this?]”
Bluebell sighed. “[Every moment of every day – but that’s neither here nor there. What kind of things are you curious about? What could possibly interest you about two average vacationers on a long trip to a foreign land?]”
“[Ah, well. That’s exactly what piqued my interest, if I may be honest.]” Sreshec said, pointedly looking at Borkbork before picking up her glass again. “[You two had a very interesting experience with the local college, from what I gathered – but that’s not what I’m interested in. Instead, let me … tell you why you’re here.]”
Sreshec held her drink in her hands on her coiled lap, running her thumb along the ridge. “[Two people of modest means find themselves in a working town, far from any resort, attraction or interest, and within a day have apparently warmed up the warmcuddles to the point that they’re vouching for you against the local constabulary. People like myself have to go through some rounds of training, sensitivity courses, and a dozen other things just to be left alone in the same room as our little friends, yet you two bypass the line within a day of planetfall. So how does one come into a strange system and pull that off with no connections, resources or motives?]”
Sreshec raised the glass to her lips, and paused.
“[How did you do it?]”