Warmcuddles really are a marvel.

Sreshec smiled to herself as she flipped through her notes, the din of Gentle Expanse’s spaceport settling into a nice background hum. The evening spent with the two Dorarizin had paid off in a wealth of information given both explicitly and implicitly; Sreshec liked to think that it was her feminine wiles and quick wit, but if she was being truthful it was probably the addition of unlimited, high-quality intoxicants of their choice on demand helped tremendously as well. After she had cracked their outer shell and given them many assurances that no, she wasn’t a cop, and no, she wasn’t interested in smuggling or kidnapping – and she absolutely wasn’t into warmcuddles like that – they opened up.

Somewhere, down on the planet below, was a restaurant that achieved everything her and her management group were trying to accomplish: free-range warmcuddles, in a safe environment, providing a unique dining experience – and, of course, charging an arm and a leg for the whole thing.

It turns out that all of her underlying assumptions were incorrect; she shouldn’t have been looking at the “traditional triad” for answers to her problem! The solution to her restaurateur woes laid with, of course, the warmcuddles themselves. Specifically, it rested with the more entrepreneurial warmcuddles who didn’t want to bother with such things as red tape, zoning restrictions, or paying taxes yet still wanted to provide a unique dining experience.

“<Unfortunately, I still have to.>” Sreshec mumbled, taking a sip from a prepackaged vending-machine tea. Part of the information that she gleaned from the two Dorarizin – Borkbork specifically – was to not look like you’d say the phrase “do you know who I am” or “let me talk to your management”; to that effect she traded in her 45,000GRC management power dress-suit for a 45GRC oversized soft top, her palladium credit chit was turned in for a modest debit card, and her travel kit was replaced with… whatever off-brand mass-produced crap the travel store had in stock.

She tapped the bottom of her can against the food court table, scrolling through more notes as she tried to blend in with the rest of the crowd. Finding a contact, according to Bluebell, was as easy as walking up to one of the warmcuddle guides and just talking to them – but that couldn’t be all of it, that would be way too easy. Sreshec continued to scroll through her notes, recordings and other miscellaneous data, trying to find the simple thread that connected this apparently planet-wide network of illegal warmcuddle businesses together… and came up with nothing.

Sreshec looked up, eyeing an inconspicuous booth in the middle of the warmcuddle section; every so often she’d accidentally make eye contact with the warmcuddle who was manning the booth, and would make a point to look past them so as to not raise suspicion. Whether or not it was working… she couldn’t say; of all her skills, ‘staking out an illegal underground restaurant group’ wasn’t on the top of the list, but she hoped the general volume of people would keep her out of the little warmcuddle’s mind for long.

So Sreshec sat and waited, and scrolled and thought; it was the same booth as the one Borkbork and Bluebell approached; it matched the exact same location from the security footage her group acquired ‘specifically for layout and traffic flow purposes’ – which was technically correct, so they weren’t breaking any laws. Yet. But was it the same warmcuddle? The Humans were much more picky about the data they shared, and she couldn’t get an employee roster no matter how much she, or her team of lawyers, tried.

Borkbork’s cheerful description of “The most adorable and pure reddish-pinkish-white [warmcuddle] with the tiniest lil chompers and bright, innocent eyes, just tall enough to hug forever” helped absolutely not at all, and so she sat and studied. Most likely, she’d get one chance at this; if she failed, not only would the network know that one of their gateways was compromised, but she herself could never try to probe another “in”.

After a few hours, the general background sound of the food court terminal died down, and Sreshec looked up from her tablet to note that she was relatively alone. The major cruise ships had already offloaded their passengers, the exosolar business rush had come and gone, and save for the people like her who were waiting for another transport there were just employees and maintenance crew doing what they could in-between rushes.

“<Fortune favors the bold.>” Sreshec said to herself, clicking off her tablet and sliding it into her pack. With a few practiced, deep breaths she centered herself, took off her “I’m just a nobody” mask, and put on another.

Mike spoke into his collar as the deep-blue Jornissian finally made her way over to his booth. It wasn’t that he – or security – were worried about her; she obviously carried no weapons, wasn’t aggressively postured, and looked about as dangerous as a doormouse. Well. Relatively dangerous; Mike wasn’t about to go out there and salsa with the strange snake-lady, after all, but he wasn’t worried about having to dip out of his booth or call for backup. No, the reason why he spoke hushed tones into his emergency vox was for an entirely different reason, and he had about 50GRC riding on him knowing the crowd.

The Jornissian made her way over to the roped section and paused for a moment, taking a look at the empty maze. Mike really had no idea why it always mesmerized the xenos, but he’d honestly pay to know: were they fascinated by puzzles? Did they think the rope maze had a deeper meaning? Was it something cultural? Mike mentally shrugged, before tapping at the glass and waving the woman over.

“Hello valued traveler!” Mike began, as the frumpy-looking Jornissian looked at him and smiled in an incredibly awkward way. “P-please note that you’re in the human-only section; more species-appropriate accommodations can be found to your right.” Mike motioned with his hand, and watched with piqued curiosity as the xenos didn’t follow his movement, but kept her eyes locked to his.

Ah. He totally was going to win that bet.

“Ma’am, can I help you?” Mike ventured, as the Jornissian continued to study his features, the tour guide starting to feel less like a person and more like a piece of meat.

“[Oh! Sorry, are you Greg?]” She asked, pushing her arm out of the oversized sleeve to scratch at her cheek.

Mike leaned back, somewhat stunned. “I’m… sorry, whatnow?”

“[Greg, the Human!]” The Jornissian said cheerfully, pulling out her tablet. “[About so tall, bright cute eyes, pinkish-white? You’re him, right?]”

Mike inhaled, deeply, as he steadied himself against the center console, a million thoughts racing through his mind – but the loudest one, by far, was deafening:

“Are you really his nerdy bookish Jornissian girlfriend from another system?! Really?!

Sreshec paused for a moment, flicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth as she took a split second to think about what the warmcuddle just said and the trail she was sliding down, and if she really wanted to go that route.

“[Y…yes?]” Sreshec ventured, tilting her head to the side. “[Are you Greg?]”

“Wh-NO!” Mike said, slamming his palms against the table. “We look nothing alike! Don’t you even know what your boyfriend looks like?!”

The two aliens stared at each other, the silence immediately turning awkward as Mike studied the now incredibly uncomfortable Jornissian with a deep scrutiny. Mike leaned forward, slightly, as he ventured a gentle, but powerful question.

“D…do you think we all look alike?”

“[Wh-whaaaaaaat? Noooooooo, absolutely not! All warmcuddles are unique-]” Sreshec said, rapidly scrolling through her tablet notes, burying her head slightly into her baggage as she denied anything and everything. Mike watched her for a few minutes as she sputtered some obvious HR nonsense as if it mattered, the Jornissian trying to backpedal furiously while still staying in place. Mike had to admit, she was cute when flustered, but now was neither the time, nor the place.

 “Look. I can obviously tell you’re not from around here.” Mike started, placing his hand on the glass between them in a placating gesture. “So how about you tell me your name and we start from there?”

“[Oh! My name is Sreshec.]” Sreshec said, dipping her head slightly.

Mike hummed softly. “Wow, you got that nameplate translated right over! No human-given name though?”

“[Ah, no.]” Sreshec admitted, placing her tablet in her bag as she gave the warmcuddle her full attention. “[Do I need one?]”

“It’ll help. Usually we go by what your name of origin means in parts, and then try to find something out of there. However, I’d just call you Azul – it’s a very fitting name.”

“[Blue?]” Sreshec said, tilting her head to the side. “[It’s very… obvious, isn’t it?]”

“Obvious doesn’t mean bad, per se.” Mike said, waving his hand dismissively. “And if you don’t like it, you can always get it changed by filing some official paperwork. But, now that I at least have your name, Azul, why are you here? How can I help you?”

Sreshec smiled. “[Well, I was looking for Greg-]”

“No.” Mike interrupted, giving Sreshec a very flat look. “You’re looking for Greg, but that’s not why you’re here.”

Sreshec’s heart skipped a beat, a painful icy pit growing in her chest. “[I-I assure you, I really am looking for Greg!]”

“Alright. Let’s say that’s the case.” Mike said, crossing his arms as he studied the puzzle in front of him. “You’re a strange Jornissian looking for my coworker. I might know how to get in touch with him. Why are you looking for him?”

Sreshec swallowed, her mouth suddenly and unreasonably dry. “[I … am his out-of-system girlf-]”

“Nope.” Mike interrupted again, adding in a sigh. “Lie to me again and I’ll ask you to leave. Now.” He sat down on his swivel chair, hands resting on his terminal keyboard. “Why do you want to talk to Greg? For real, this time.”

The two sat, staring at each other, separated by triple-reinforced glass for a few moments before Sreshec decided that the game was up, and it was best to come clean – well. Mostly clean.

“[I need an access code.]” Sreshec half-lied, omitting an incredible amount of detail as Mike leaned back in his chair, a wide grin spread across his face.

“Well, well, well. How the turn tables have… turned. Table.” Mike said, radiating a smugness that vindicated at least 5 generations of his ancestors. “Exactly what kind of access codes are we talking about here? Like, stuff we can resell, stuff the adults should know about, or maybe a private code to an apartment planetside?”

Sreshec blushed furiously and screamed internally. It was one thing to have screwed up her operation; that’s fine and it happens and you learn from it and move on. It was another thing entirely to be teased by a warmcuddle – a species she wasn’t even attracted to! – and to have absolutely no way to clear things up! She ground her teeth together, clenching her jaw as she tried to think of something to say as the warmcuddle just continued to radiate an absolutely intolerable aura.

‘<They scanned his ID.>’ Sreshec suddenly remembered, a desperate plan of action forming in her mind. Quick as a flash she rummaged around her pocket for her real, actual ID – the one thing she couldn’t downgrade – and slapped it against the window with a resounding smack.

“[Check ‘em.]” Sreshec said, summoning as much confidence as she could as the nonplussed warmcuddle scanned her ID with a handheld device. She watched as his expression went from nonplussed to surprised, to downright confused as he looked at her, then her ID, then the information that was on the screen.

“Wh- wait, who? How-“ Mike began, but was immediately cut off by a looming Sreshec, who grinned not-at-all-kindly.

“[I’m here because I know what you did. We know.]” Sreshec stated, lying through her teeth.

Mike, for his part, furrowed his brow and leaned forward, scowling. “Listen, threats don’t work here, and they sure as shit don’t work on me, so how about-“

Sreshec needed something else, something to push… ah.

“[We have the search engine history to prove it.]”

The change was immediate; Mike broke out into a cold sweat, his body trembling slightly as the color bled from his face. “H-how? I was behind seven proxies… how?!

Sreshec pressed her advantage, tamping down the morbid curiosity of what she just happened to uncover. “[Not important – what is important, is sharing those codes. You know the ones – to that place in [Three Hills].”

Mike frowned, then scrunched up his nose – Sreshec admitted it was kind of cute – before looking the Jornissian up and down again, and not at all unkindly. “Fuck’s sake… so you lead with the ‘Greg’s girlfriend’ line? That’s a new one – but if you know that much about us, th-then you want it too!Mike accused, shaking his finger at the blue stranger. “So don’t you start kinkshaming me!”

Sreshec clenched her tail as she so desperately crushed the thousand questions she wanted to ask and the dozens of misconceptions she wanted to clear up, the warmcuddle blushing fiercely as he ripped off a piece of paper and began to scribble on it.

“If you’re here for that, then fine – you’ll want to find the place that isn’t there, say this phrase-“ Mike underlined a part of the message he was writing out, “- and that’ll get you in. If you have problems, ask around; I’m sure you’re smart enough to figure out who you should talk to, especially if you’re part of that community.”

With a “[Wait, what?]” and the sudden sliding open of a transfer tray, Mike practically shoved the small slip of paper into the Jornissian’s waiting hands. He looked to his left and right, before holding his thumb and pinkie finger to his face.

“Call me!” He said, before immediately shutting off the glass, leaving an incredibly disturbed Sreshec looking at herself in the reflected mirror. She looked herself in the eyes and felt slightly dirty, but couldn’t figure out why. Sreshec looked down at the slip of paper in her hand, the tiny writing itself probably worth 5 or 6 figures on it’s own.

If only she read warmcuddlese.