The klaxon suddenly sounded, the preparation room bathed in an eerie red light as from multiple entryways the human crew rapidly assembled. Each of them were kitted out in a custom suit, bright and colorful yet hiding civilian-grade armor protection, emergency padding, and dozens of holsters and pouches.

Some of those holsters and pouches were filled with innocuous things: extra cutlery, menus, straws, crayons and playmats (for the young and young at heart). Other held more fun and exotic things like grenades. Flash grenades, of course! Any damage to the establishment or innocent patrons came right out of their pay, and they weren’t about to not pay taxes on less money, after all.

Each human lined up, side by side in almost perfect military precision, heels snapping together smartly as they stepped into their assigned spots for roll call. There were only two people in the room who were not so attired: The first was Anne Marie, who had very much altered her suit to look more … authoritarian, with epaulets, a half-cape made from an old tablecloth, and dozens upon dozens of receipts stapled to her chest, forming an interesting medal collection of past customers and harrowing tips. The second was an incredibly bewildered and concerned Tik’akri, who started to have a sneaking suspicion that she was losing managerial control, and that she may want to do a mandatory video tape training about it.

“READY FOR FLAIR CHECK!” Barked Anne Marie, as the dozen or so humans began slapping stickers and kitschy crap to their suits and harnesses.

“[Ah.]” Tomtom said, clacking her claws against the back of her clipboard-tablet in growing concern. “[Anne Marie?]”

“Oh Captain My Captain!” Anne Marie responded, spinning around on her heels to face her manager. “What can I do for you, glorious leader? We’re about to start our pre-shift war chant-slash-sacrifice.”

“[Is that why I’ve been seeing so many opened stuffed animals in the dumpster out back? N-nevermind.]” Tomtom shook her head, making a mental note to ask Brian for control of her own camera security system. Again. “[Not important – can you please introduce me to these… wonderful new strangers that are in my kitchen? Possibly by first explaining to me, uh, why they’re here?]”

Anne Marie saluted with the wrong hand. “Certainly, el Presidente! Do you remember what you told me last week?”

Tomtom stared into the middle distance as she racked her brain. “[Things under the sink are not ‘cultural heritage sites’, tips must be shared with cook staff, you must sign off on reading the employee handbook, you cannot start a ‘holy war against the degenerate red tables’ no matter what you say your employee manual says-]”

“No no no. I mean the stuff about scaling up, expanding our footprint, all that kinda marketing crap that doesn’t really mean anything once you think about it.” Anne Marie interrupted, rocking back and forth on her heels. “You specifically asked for, and I’ll quote, ‘I don’t know, people who like money and have loose morals I guess’, unquote. Well!” Anne Marie grinned, waving her hand at the unknown crew, who all cheerfully waved or saluted back.

Tomtom sighed, screwing her forward eyes shut. “[Of course you’d take that at face value. Of course. Have we put them under any forms of contract?]”

Anne Marie’s grin wavered a bit. “Well… define contract.”

“[Alright, shift is starting in 10 minutes so we’ll get back to that. Have they agreed to the emp- the correct and legal employee handbook?]” Tomtom asked, correcting herself mid-sentence.

“Photocopier’s out of stygian blue, so it can’t print.” Anne Marie replied, sheepishly. “But they all promised they’d comply!”

“[But you hired them because they had quote ‘lose morals’ unquote]” Tomtom said, performing the human gesture for quotations with her claws.

“Well yes, but they’re the right kind of loose morals!” Anne Marie protested, placing her hands on her hips and puffing out her chest. “And I know loose morals when I see ‘em! Wait.”

Tomtom inhaled deeply, centering herself as she focused. Her father still hadn’t returned from a quick grocery run, so they still had time to go through an interview, a rapid-fire employee orientation, get some documents signed, and possibly a crash course on server etiquette.

Tomtom’s head twitched ever so slightly as she heard the back door crack open, the offending plasteel slab bonking against the wall as her father walked into the kitchen with an armful of boxes. “[Hey! I’m back, I’m back!]” He cheerfully crowed, dropping the boxes at the end of the prep-station island, looking up as he dusted his hands. “[Just so… you… know.]”

Tictac stared at the new humans, who had placed stickers and ribbons and all sorts of things all over their bodies. The one nearest to him gave him a sheepish wave, faux-feathers flittering off his forearm and onto the floor. Tictac took one look at the strange human, and turned to his daughter. “[This is your dishwashing liquid; you soak in it.]”

Tomtom let out an exasperated, gutteral groan, her body sagging in defeat. “[Daaaaad-]”

“[Don’t you Dad me, you little chirper.]” Tictac replied in the tone of chastising parents everywhere. “[I’m just the fry cook now, and if these new friends of ours aren’t out of the kitchen by the time I finish prepping the sous stations, I’m going to force them to help.]”

“Right!” Anne Marie cheered, clapping her hands together. “You’re out of touch, and we’re out of time, so let’s get down to business to sell these buns.”

The assembled humans groaned, but generally remained in line while Anne Marie paced back and forth in front of them. “Green Team is assigned to the Green tables, your job is conversation, level two cuddling and menu recommendation. Remember, your patrons are here for the friendly package. We’re not Waffle House, for fuck’s sake, so no fighting.” A third of the humans did various forms of salute, and it was only then that Tomtom realized that the bright and eye-watering colors that they had slapped on their suits were there on purpose.

“Blue Team is security!” Anne Marie barked, and was rewarded with an overly-enthusiastic “OO-RAH” in response. “Aah, my PDF friends! Ball turrets in every corner, and we’ll definitely need double-exposure over Red Team. Since we don’t have any of those nice, new powersuits-“ Anne Marie stressed, giving a pointed look to Tomtom. “-make sure to use the mouseholes we’ve drilled into the wall supports.”

“[Wait you did what to my walls?]” Tictac said, suddenly looking up from the mountain of cabbage he had been chopping.

“[Don’t mind him, he’s just the fry cook.]” Tomtom replied, cutting her father off with a sarcastic smile. “[Do continue the orientation, Anne.]”

Anne Marie replied with a double salute, using both hands, before turning back to her team. “Remember your shell order: Rock salt, rock salt, buckshot, slug. If you’re getting past slugs just switch to DU-lethal or incendiary.”

“[Sunbeam I don’t like those words.]” Tomtom said, looking between his daughter and the unleashed humans. “[Can we talk about this?]”

“Shift starts in 5 minutes and we charge by the planck time!” Anne Marie beamed, before firing off multiple salutes to Red team, who eagerly returned each one with laughter. Anne Marie made her way down the line to the final section of crew. “And you, my fellow Expanders, men and women after my own heart.” Anne Marie paused for a moment, placing her hand over her chest. “You, I have no words save for three.”

Grinning a feral grin, Anne Marie spread her arms out wide, and uttered a phrase unknown to the Karnakians in the room, but made them shudder with fear all the same.

“Go goblin mode.”

Sreshec tugged at her blouse, realizing much to her dismay that she was very overdressed. She had chosen to accessorize her attire with a jeweled necklace and artisan hood-clamp; both of those went into her purse the moment she stepped outside and actually got a look at the place. The transport that she had rented was a luxury model, granted, but not one that would raise too many suspicions given the overall income of the planet. That, combined with her formal attire and presentation was supposed to give off the airs of someone who was well-to-do, but not necessarily powerful; an approachable, lower-upper class, or upper-middle class.

However, the shopping center that the warmcuddle sent her to was not exactly in an upscale location. Sreshec’s hunch was that only deep pockets could have funded such an enterprise, but the pressure-washed sidewalk, the re-painted storefronts and the broken cart return very much spoke otherwise. Her only real indicator that she was in the right place was the professionally-maintained ‘run down’ storefront she stood before; whomever had boarded up the windows made sure that no graffiti touched them, and whatever sign used to advertise this space was removed, but the dust of years had been cleaned off from the wall behind it leaving only a faint gray outline of what once was. Whomever had put this together had done so amateurishly; you have to let a little grime seep into the corners to give it the recently-abandoned look.

“<First time?>”

Sreshec turned to look at a fellow Jornissian who was many centuries her junior, and whom she had mistaken as just a random stranger who just-so-happened to be shopping at the mall.

“<Pardon?>” Sreshec responded, doing her best to keep her voice and actions neutral. “<May I help you?>”

The younger Jornissian sighed, swaying to the side in a tired gesture. “<You don’t have to play coy with me, I’m here to go eat with the warmcuddles too.>”

Sreshec’s mind went into overdrive: was this a fellow customer? A federal agent? Perhaps, she had been tailed from the station and this was corporate espionage? It wouldn’t do to have another Dewdrop Hotel incident…

The other Jornissian sensed Sreshec’s pensiveness, and shook her head in a very warmcuddle motion. “<I’m a student at [Peaceful Progress University], my name’s Seseren, and I’ve been eating here for literal years.>” Seseren said, with the exasperation that only comes when youth must explain things to the aged.

“<Oh.>” Sreshec said, the realization that the person she was talking to wasn’t part of some intricate game of intrigue and was, in fact, just a local hitting her square between the eyes. “<Sorry, yes. My name is Sreshec, and it’s a pleasure to meet you.>” Sreshec said, dipping her head in polite greeting. “<I apologize for any earlier… awkwardness; I’m not from around here, as you can tell.>”

Seseren returned the greeting, waving her hand dismissively. “<Don’t be, don’t be. It’s basically an open secret at this point; every day a couple of foreigners come to this parking lot and disappear into this ‘run down’ building.>” Seseren laughed a bubbly laugh, covering her mouth with her hand. “<Sorry, it’s just, anyone with any observation skills would know what’s going on!>”

Seseren smiled, holding her messenger bag in her arms and against her stomach. “<But the rules are different for locals, so it’s no big deal. They should be opening now, if you want to join me.>”

Sreshec paused for a moment as the sheer serendipity washed over her, before shrugging. “<Certainly! At this point, I’ve been made – what do I have to lose?>”

“<That’s the spirit!>” Seseren said, turning to slither to the front door. “<So if I may ask, where do you come from? What do you do? You’re very well… paid.>”

“<Isn’t it impolite to pry?>” Sreshec replied, building a mental profile of the young lady she walked with.

“<For all you know we could be entering a drug den – one of those really bad ones you see in the movies.>” Seseren replied, smiling. “<You could be my mark!>”

Sreshec hummed softly, making a point to pause just on the sidewalk as she looked the place over. “<No, I think not – this doesn’t remind me of any of the brothels I’ve been to, and half of the real hard stuff would’ve caught this place on fire long ago.>”

“<Whu. Wait – brothels?!>” Seseren replied, pausing halfway through opening the front door.

Sreshec laughed. “<Oh, so now I’m not allowed to tease? That’s no fun, and speaking of: I work in hospitality, if that answers your question.>”

“<I…guess it does.>” Seseren said, tilting her head to the side as she opened the door completely to enter the waiting room. “<If we sit at the same table, I’d love to pick your brain; I’m trying to figure out what career I really want to pursue, and I’m a bit overwhelmed.>”

Sreshec dipped her head again as she entered the surprisingly dark entryway, the sunset’s dying light snuffed out as the door closed behind them. “<I’d be happy to.>”

“[Happy to what?]” Intoned a modulated voice, and Sreshec turned to look at the deeper, darker part of the waiting room. As her eyes rapidly adjusted to the low light, she noticed that calling it a waiting room would be a generous assessment: with it’s spartan features, sound-dampening walls and apparent automatic weapons installed into the ceiling, it was less ‘welcome area’ and more ‘maximum security prison.’ The only hint of there being any form of ‘welcome’ were the benches near the booth at the center, and the few food vending options to bide your time until you were called in further.

“<Hey there, warmcuddle-doublechecker!>” Seseren said, cheerfully waving to the human behind the booth. Sreshec continued to make mental notes as she moved to the side, letting the local do the talking.

Doublechecker smiled and waved, the paper ribbons stapled to her chest fluttering with the movement. “[Hey hey, glad to have you back today! You know you don’t have to keep camping out here, right? We can take care of ourselves.]”

“<You once got lost in my house, doublechecker.>” Seseren deadpanned, while the warmcuddle frowned.

“[All your walls look the same and it’s a damn tunnel complex. It’s not my fault you don’t live in boxes, like civilized people.]” The warmcuddle retorted, making the motion of holding a box in her hands. “[Nice, neat, logical. Not loopy. Speaking of, you in the back.]”

Sreshec slithered forward to the front of the booth, mindful that the turrets seemed to track her. “<Yes?>”

“[Hold still.]”

Sreshec got as far as “<Excuse me, what?>” before she was bathed in an almost nauseating sensation of light and force, a tingling sensation pricking her entire body before just as quickly going away. She steadied herself against the booth for a moment, attempting to both blink away the spots in her vision and force down the sudden vertigo.

“<By the cold, wet void, what was that?>”

“[Correct! Don’t worry, that was a totally probably safe scan that you just went through, but you look like you can afford medical so you’ll be fine.]” Warmcuddle Doublechecker said, as Seseren’s body shook with light laughter. “[Now, is it a table for one or two? Are you vouching for her, [Sesame]?]”

“<I am not.>” Seseren, nee Sesame said, shaking her head in a human manner. “<We just met out in the lot.>”

“[Alright. Drop everything you’ve got in the basket here-]” Doublechecker said, sliding open a teller box from just below the booth window. “[and I do mean everything. Also, we’ve been recording you since you came in, so do give us verbal confirmation if you’re here alone or not.]”

Sreshec composed herself as quickly as possible, murmuring a barely audible “<I guess so.>” as she unceremoniously dumped her purse and jewelry into the teller box.

“[Awesome.]” Warmcuddle Doublechecker said, slapping the box shut underneath the teller booth glass. In the same swift motion she slid out a single, laminated sheet of paper; Sreshec reeled as her mind attempted to find any proof of culture, prices or food but only found legalese and T&Cs. “[You’re leaving everything you’ve got with me, there’s multiple dampener fields in there, so don’t use an implant to broadcast or record or your brain’ll fry! At least, that’s what the vendor told us when we paid him in cash for all this stuff.]”

Sreshec wobbled back to her full height, attempting to regain what little dignity she had left. “<I see, and I agree to the terms.>”

The warmcuddle clapped, smiling. “[Oh that’s wonderful! We can edit that wherever we need – thank you! Now, really simple rules: You never lead, you only follow. If a warmcuddle tells you to do something, you do it, and if they tell you to stop you stop. Understand?]”

“<Yes.>” Replied Sreshec, slipping into the comfortable persona of a corporate lead before a legal team.

“[If you fuck up, you get shot – and yes, we do live ammunition here. First few will be non-lethal, and after that, well. You were assaulting warmcuddles in their own restaurant, so that’s on you, legally. My advice, as always, and it’s always ignored is that if you see us pull a piece you keep your peace. Capiche?]”

“<I understand and will comply.>” Sreshec responded surprisingly cooly, even though her core was on fire with the twin emotions of fear and excitement.

“[I already know the scribblings of the guy who sent you here…]” Doublechecker trailed off, before giving a very pointed look at the paper. “[…fucking degenerate. If we like you and get to know you, you come back. If we don’t like you, you don’t come back. You make it a problem, we show edited but unquestionable proof of you committing multiple regional-class felonies to our court system.]”

“<Piling the pebbles on our side of the board, aren’t we?>” Sreshec said with a slight smile, and was rewarded with an honest, but wry grin.

“[Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Now, I don’t see an indicator on your pass so I have to ask here: Red or Green?]”

Sreshec stilled her breath and thought quickly. ‘<Red means stop in warmcuddle signage, but it also means luck to some cultures. Green means go in the same, and also means the same in other warmcuddle cultures. Green is also the color of their homeworld flora, for the most part, so it could be a growth option, whereas red is the color of blood, but also meat, and some of their favorite fruits. If we do a side-by-side comparison, what would the safest bet be?>

Sesame coughed, softly. “<You may want to rephrase that question, Doublechecker. I don’t think she got any form of orientation.>”

The warmcuddle shook her head slightly. “[Thinking with his crotch again, alright. Do you want a warmcuddle as a dining companion, or do you want burgerslut?]”

Sreshec blinked, slowly, as the options were boiled down to something that seemed incredibly logical and something that seemed…par for the course.


“[Green it is! You and [Sesame] want to sit together?]” Doublechecker said, as she buzzed them in.

The older Jornissian looked at her younger counterpart, Sesame, who was trying and failing to hide her hopeful excitement at the prospect, and decided to do her one good deed for the day. “<I’d be happy to.>”