The young man walked along the overly-wide sidewalk, head down, kicking a gray pebble with his foot. Keith Urban was having a day, and he was idly wondering how much worse it was going to get before bed. It started well enough; a friend of a friend was curious about him, the campus coffee shop was empty, and he was able to hitch a ride on one of the Orbital Mechanics 101 TAs.

However, that was the end of his good luck. As always with introductions, Keith had to explain to his blind date that no, there’s no relation to the long-dead Terran musician, and that yes, his parents just thought it was funny. This eventually devolved into questions about why he wouldn’t change his name (because he liked it?), why doesn’t he go by a different name (…because he liked it?) and why his parent’s taste in names was bad (because they liked it?). The inevitable question-and-repetitive-answer session always pissed off his dates, and they usually ended before the coffee reached the table.

So, he found himself walking back to his dorm room, alone, again, lost deep in his thoughts. He kicked the pebble that he was dribbling down the sidewalk with extra gusto, skipping the dirt clod down a few paved tiles until it hit a half-folded piece of paper with a loud thwak.

Keith frowned. Having a bad day was one thing, but littering was another thing entirely. With an internal sigh, he walked over to the flier and bent down, picking it up and shaking off his loyal pebble. He was going to throw it away as soon as he found a trash can, of course, but curiosity got the better of him and he opened the advertisement.

In garish neon green-and-pink lettering emblazoned across the top, the words that assaulted his eyes and his very sanity: You should cummy work for McDummies!

Utterly stupefied by the mental whiplash, he continued to read on autopilot. McDummies – name pending change after 3 rounds of focus group studies, as the small print so helpfully pointed out – was an exo-system food experience that was looking for highly motivated and dubiously ethical college students who had not taken any philosophy courses nor were enrolled in any form of criminal justice programs for a part-time, customer-facing, potentially kinetically-energetic position. The pay was negotiable, full benefits were included, and in-person orientation interviews were being held at the regional transport hub docks, bay 18, today. Casual dress only.

Keith looked up and into the middle distance, ignoring the bottom half of the flier in his hands. Either this was a candid camera setup and he was going to have a funny story to tell his family, or this job was an actual, real-life henchman opportunity.

He weighed his pros and cons. On one hand, if this was something illegal he would be jeopardizing his future life and career before it even began. On the other hand, he would get paid to dress up in a jumpsuit and go “nyeah, boss!” at opportune times. He might even get to patrol a chemical factory, or be the guy who feeds dangerous fishes in his supervillain’s office. Maybe he’d even get to do a fistfight with a detective who was only a few days away from retirement!

Keith immediately called a personal transport. It wasn’t even a close decision.

Azul looked out at the assembled crowd of warmcuddles from the relative safety of a hastily-prepared stage curtain. She marveled for a few moments as they milled about, babbled together, and generally enjoyed the free refreshments that were provided. Even if this entire endeavor struck out, at least she had the data that her restaurant group’s food was palatable to warmcuddles. Mostly. It was also a treat just to see so many assembled together, acting naturally, and Azul made a note to record the entire process for posterity’s sake.

The crowd was mainly college students, just as she had hoped. There were a few older warmcuddles in the mix, but idle curiosity isn’t a crime – and it might do well to have some of the wiser, more reserved of the species helping to manage groups of the more rambunctious ones.

As she peered out between the slightly fluttering curtains, her gaze was caught by one warmcuddle, who waved at her enthusiastically. “[Hey, Boss!]”

The effect was immediate. Not only did a majority of the warmcuddles stop talking to each other and focus directly onto the stage, but there was a smattering of “[Aye Boss!]” and “[It’s the boss!]” thrown at her general direction. Like it or not, Azul reckoned, she needed to make an introduction now. With a bit of flourish she flung the curtains out, the casters they were hung on squeaking with protest at the sudden force as they spread open. A lone spotlight clicked on, focused on her from above as she slithered out to the main stage.

Azul cast an imposing figure, which was her intention from the start. Warmcuddles, from her research, were notorious for getting a bit lost if you didn’t immediately grab, retain and command their attentions. She loomed over her audience in her most potent business suit; glowing epaulets on her shoulders framing her face’s sharp features, the skin-tight suit sliding down her frame to leave nothing to the imagination while still being impressively modest. Azul’s deep blue scales flashed in-between open tiger-striped strips of cloth along her ribs, and the whole ensemble ended in a studded belt and pantline whose embedded force projectors gently rotated the obsidian jewels that dotted her lower half. On her chest, the emblem of her organization, emblazoned in rubies and gold.

“<Good afternoon, everyone.>” Azul stated, looking over the audience with a cool, unblinking expression. She waited and let her silence linger, as a few of the warmcuddles elbowed and whispered to each other before ultimately settling down.

“<Thank you all for coming.>” Azul continued, nodding slightly in the manner of warmcuddles before immediately launching into her business pitch. “<You’re here because you want more from an employer, and from a career. Either you found one of our advertisements, or were recruited by one of your fellow warmcuddles. Whatever the case may be, you’re here today on what I hope will be the beginning of a long and bountiful relationship. You may call me Azul.>”

“[This is a good boss.]” one of the warmcuddles on the front row said to his friend, who was nodding vigorously.


“<Wherever you are currently employed, whatever you are currently doing, is not enough for you. You want to be on the sliding ridge of progress. You want to have your name remembered as part of something greater.>” Azul said in her best presentation voice, moving her arms to the tempo of her speech. “<You want to take control of your own destiny, to carve out your own territory and to run it how you please – and that is where I, and my conglomerate, come in.>” Azul smiled, coyly. “<We do offer franchise opportunities, after all.>”  

One of the warmcuddles started to clap in the back of the warehouse, before being shushed by someone close to him. Azul noted, as she looked around the audience, that she had gained their rapt attention.

“<The idea is very simple.>” Azul continued, as behind her a holoscreen flickered to life, showing a very rough idea of a food truck. “<My conglomerate and I would like to establish a presence in this system that will brook no argument and allow for no competition. To that end, we feel a mobile option will be the best way to build our pathprint for the initial few years of our operations.>”

The slide changed to the interior of the food semi-truck, showing what kit would be available. “<None of you will have to worry about where you’re going, and you won’t have to be customer-facing when it comes to taking orders. The goal for you will be to appear where and when we need you, as an antagonistic force assigned to this mobile, ah, kitchen.>”

Azul clicked forward to the next slide, showing the personal protective gear for the warmcuddle teammates. “<If you decide to join us, you’ll be assigned a team leader – picked out among you all, of course – who will help co-ordinate outside operations. There will also be multiple tri-species colleagues who will be doing most of the heavy lifting, but you can rely on them for protection if things get a bit too heated.>”

A hand went up in the back, and Azul paused for a moment, weighing the pros and cons of finishing her foodtruck orientation or opening it up for Q&A. The warmcuddle, taking the pause as consent to continue, piped up.

“[Will we have armored suits?]”

“<Yes.>” Azul said, rapidly clicking through a couple slides to get to the UTF-approved warmcuddle handling kit. “<We have modified our own suits, of course, but everything we provide for you will be above UTF specifications in terms of safety and handling. Any tri-species team members that are with you on your shift will also have full handling and triage training.>”

“[What about weapons?]” Another warmcuddle asked from the back, and Azul smiled.

“<You are allowed to carry whatever you feel you need for personal protection. My team is still writing out proper rules of antagonistic client engagement, so to speak, but our assumption is that you won’t kill our customers. Yes, you up here.>” Azul said, pointing to another warmcuddle who had his hand raised.

“[Will we have color-coordinated suits?]” The warmcuddle asked, with a grin so wide it almost split his face in two.

“<Certainly. It would actually make sense to color-coordinate dress code, given the clear lines of demarcation between job duties. For high-visibility, your warmcuddle suits – so far – would be bright pink. Team leads we haven’t thought about->”

“[Why not purple?]” One of the older warmcuddles ventured, and Azul pointed to him directly.

“<Good idea! We’ll implement that for the first round of testing and then see how it goes.>” Azul said, making a note of the warmcuddles who were showing initiative. “<The goal for the upcoming fiscal year, and for your positions, is purely to test out if this model will work. If it does, then not only will we replicate this across the galaxy, but you all as the inaugural class will have the pick of territories that we already operate in. Yes, the female in the red jacket.>”

The girls’ hand went down. “[Where are your operations based out of now?]” She asked, leaning forward in her seat.

“<Currently we’re operating incognito out of an exo-system satellite hub that we have in orbit around this planet.>” Azul stated, to the apparent awe of the warmcuddle audience. “<However, there will be planet-side hubs that we will operate out of – this being one of them – that should be well within commute distance.>” Azul continued as she saw another question form on the warmcuddles’ lips. “<As this is a part-time position and we want to maintain an under-the-radar presence, our hope is that your current employment and scholastic positions will provide enough flexibility and stability for what will most likely be a bit of a start-and-stop position over the first 90 days.>”

The female human bit her lower lip, and looked at Azul with a searing hot gaze that the Jornissian entirely missed. “<Yes, the male in the long coat.>”

“[Do we have a nemesis, boss?]” The warmcuddle asked, in an accent that Azul had never heard before. The question brought an involuntary grin to her face, and the executive cut off the presentation.

“<You know, that’s an excellent question. Interestingly enough…>”