“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.