The sun was setting.

Borkbork knew this, not just because he felt the yellow starlight turn orange against his closed eyes, nor because he knew what time Bluebell rented the personal transport craft and so could guesstimate when this planet’s sunset was going to occur. No, he knew this because in the transition period between day and night, the air carries a certain heaviness, in both temperature and scent. Things seem to get weighted down when night falls, which is why Borkbork was taking the time to savor the irony:

Their personal transport, which was currently 2-seater top-down convertible, could also fly.

Borkbork let his head rest just outside the window, the furious wind whipping around his silver-speckled mane in a roar one could only hear a few thousand feet up in any given planet’s atmosphere, and let himself get lost in his own thoughts.

‘{I really need to get atmo rated. Ground and sea is too limited.}’ Borkbork said internally, the bite of the air getting progressively colder as the denseness of night settled in. ‘{I also need to get out of the house more often. Sometimes it feels like I’m losing who I used to be.}’

He opened his eyes, the last rays of sunset peeling back, a haze of orange slowly seeping into a deep blueish-black. Looking down, he mused they must be passing over a large lake or ocean; nothing looks so black as water at night.

“{It’s as dark as the pits!}” Roared Bluebell over the cacophony of the wind, the autopilot being ever-so-gently nudged by his right hand, his left arm hanging out the other side of the transport.

He turned to Borkbork, grinning wide. “{Sorry! Just saw you looking down there!]”

“{Lake?}” Yelled Borkbork, and Bluebell shook his head in the negative.

“{Ocean!}” Bluebell said, leaning in over the shared center console to spare his voice a bit, his safety restraints straining against his frame. “{But it’s Forest and then inland – 30 minutes!}”

“{It’s as black as the mudflows!}” Borkbork suddenly said, the thought percolating in the back of his head finally coming out. “{Remember?! When we were like-}”

“{180? Yeah! YEAH!}” Bluebell said, getting unreasonably excited. “{Oh man, I wonder if this place has mudflows! Could you imagine – we could see if there’s a body scene here!}”

“{With the tiny-chompers?! HAH!}” Borkbork roared, his laughter barely drowned out by the wind as he leaned back in his seat, the electronically-warmed foam padding contouring to his body perfectly. Bluebell rolled his eyes at his friend’s laughter as his breath came out in frost; once night fell it fell, especially up here. With a light gesture of his hand against the control rod his rented transport, a personal luxury land/air taxi, descended and began to slow. As they bled speed and height a thin, metallic ribcage pushed itself out of the back of the transport and silently connected to the front windshield. With another gentle tap and a crackle of electricity, multiple layers of hard light, distributed energy and general personal shielding kicked in, and at the speed of light the sound turned off. 

“{Woah!}” Bluebell yelled in the relatively-silent cab, the wind roaring through only the open windows on either side. “{Come on, let’s get this thing sealed!}”

The two Dorarizin pulled in their offending limbs, and the cabin – now realizing there were no living blockages in the way – crackled shut the cabin. Instantly the air pressurized slightly, the internal circulation systems kicking on as both heating and filtration started to do their things.

“{Just to be on record.}” Bluebell said as their ears adjusted to the new speaking and hearing volume. “{I think the tiny-chompers would probably get buried alive in the pyroclastic flow, but maybe they could still bauble?}”

“{No. No way.}” Borkbork said, trying to gauge by his friend’s expression if he was still yelling or not. “{You get one of those within a dome? It was already hard enough to crack crust, but now you’re asking rescue to trench open the volcano? Nah – they’d never risk it, and the expense would be too much and they couldn’t say no.}”

“{Fair point, fair point.}” Bluebell replied, finally at his normal indoor voice. “{So now I have to ask – did you notice we have seasons here? You still, yanno?}”

“{Do I still believe that seasons are superior to perfection, and the answer is always a yes!}” Borkbork replied, reaching down to pick up his somewhat-alcoholic beverage. “{I know you love having the perfect day and scheduling your weather, but there is a certain charm to each season being utterly unique.}”

“{Sweetmeat, please. Imagine knowing what to wear every single day – really, imagine it. Imagine knowing how to accessorize with the day’s sunset, or enjoying meteor showers on demand! It’s all so wonderful, and you don’t have to deal with, well.}”

Borkbork grinned. “{The unfortunate truth that chaos and randomness exist in the universe and that, rather than being a lone pebble against a flood, we should be content to be a mountain holding a stream?}”

“{I told you marrying that Zgrak’’r girl was gonna get you back into plata.}” Bluebell sing-songed, reaching for his own drink as he let autopilot assume direct control. “{Bet you’re glad I told you to enroll your pups into hearthsday school classes now, hmm?}”

“{I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about; that was a totally independent decision on my part.}” Borkbork stated, tilting his head so far back that his nose touched his headrest, waving his drink defensively in the direction of his friend. “{And anyway, if this was an idea of yours, it doesn’t mean all of them are winners! Seasons are best.}”

Bluebell sighed, overly-weary, as he took a deep drought of his incredibly stiff and sweet drink. “{Living on an arcology station does not expose you to any more dangers than living on a planet, or on a normal hoop; if anything, it’s the best of all worlds. You’re large enough to have your own stable atmosphere, all the weather is optimized, you can make-to-order your own land if you really want to, there’s so many good things about it! Like – like no bugs.}”

“{I’m fine with bugs. They’re my little odd-legged friends.}” Borkbork said, returning his body posture into something slightly normal. “{I worry about long-term sustainability; station living is as cheap as it is because everyone knows those things are almost always totally scrapped every thousand years or so as they do a full refit. Your arcologies are supposed to be modular fixes, but those are going to be really expensive and I’m not so sure about paying the premium to live somewhere that I might have to leave anyway is a great idea. Plus? Planets are natural. Literally no upkeep.}”

Borkbork drank deep, letting the cold spice mix crackle down his throat, savoring the heat that bloomed from his chest after a few moments. “{Ah, damn, that’s the good stuff. But really? Really. Seasons let you accessorize more.}”

“{Oh here we go.}” Bluebell said, downing the rest of his drink in one go and slamming it into the trash compactor chute. “{Bite it.}”

“{Seasons.}” Borkbork said as he leaned forward, his windswept mane keeping most of it’s poof as he held his hands between them – as if holding an imaginary globe. “{Be they hot and dry, cold and wet, or any combination therein, they allow you to build up quite a wardrobe. Now you pick any, oh, two? Four?}” Borkbork said, rotating the imaginary globe between them. “{And if those are your major seasons, the ones you didn’t pick are your minor seasons. If you like cold and wet, your other major season will be hot and dry. Your minor seasons are hot and wet and cold and dry; those need a wardrobe too. Maybe you just have rainy and dry seasons – fine, point still stands that topography is going to give you all sorts of niche surprises on a natural planet, with seasons. But I know you.}”

“{Oh? Friends for this long, and you think you know me?}” Bluebell sassed, reaching for another unopened drink. “{The mysteries of my past would carve out the rest of the amphitheater of Kraurg’khst.}”

“{You once called me in the middle of my wife’s homecoming, crying, because you found a squelec and wanted to keep it.}” Borkbork said, slowly. “{And you did not think for a minute that the phrase, pops like a squelec, meant anything?}”

“{You swore you’d die before telling anyone. Remember that, that’s a death pact.}” Bluebell said, pointing a finger at his friend as he cracked open his next drink with his teeth, ripping a hole in the can with one fluid motion. “{Can’t go back on those.}”

“{Mmm. But I know you, and what I’m trying to say is that seasons give you unique food.}” Borkbork replied, reaching down to see if any of his drinks were left. “{The same product, but grown and harvested in wildly different conditions, gives you wildly different flavors and textures, and you can’t get the same experience importing, I know this, look at me~}” Borkbork sang-teased Bluebell, who for his part took interest at the inky blackness outside his window. “{That’s the entire reason why we’re on this trip to begin with, which means you know I’m riiiiiiiight~}”

“{Hm. I will admit nothing!}” Bluebell said, and for the rest of the ride down the two chatted amiably.

Borkbork stared at the … establishment, and attempted to put together the right string of words to ask what he was meaning to ask. When that adorable tiny-chomper in his little red suit asked them to go visit his family, there was absolutely no way he could say no. What he had assumed was that the tiny-chomper would direct them to an … exclusive, potentially VIP establishment run by a group with very deep pockets, and the two of them would get a million credit treatment for dirt cheap because we’re the tiny-chomper’s friend. What he did not expect was a shopping center that was designed a couple centuries ago, but still tried to modernize as much as they could for the times. It was admirable, sure, and obviously run by hard workers, but… really?

“{That transport probably costs as much as this restaurant.}” Borkbork said over his shoulder as he smoothed down his semi-formal clothing. “{You sure that little rug-tugger isn’t playing a prank on us? I hear they like to do that – something about their height determining how mischievous they are.}”

Borkbork was right to be concerned; the windows of the establishment they were directed to were tinted to total opaqueness, and even seemed to be sound-proofed; the doors were rebuilt and something was done to the front if the leftover construction dust and debris was anything to go by. A sign used to hang up above their heads, but now it’s void was all that could be seen, and even then only closely; someone had scrubbed the top of the building clean of grime, removing all but the faintest of shadow outline, and Borkbork could only really tell because of the loose electrical connections and still-unfilled bolt holes that jutted out of the wall in planned intervals. Whomever ran this establishment had gone to sudden great pains to seem abandoned and unused, while the rest of the mostly-empty shopping center seemed eerily normal in comparison.

“{I’m sure, and I’m sure we’re going to be fine.}” Bluebell said, tapping the anti-theft nub on in his palm, before slipping the rental key token into his midsummer robe. “{We’re not too overdressed, we’ve saved up enough to give this a shot and if it’s nothing, we can still go back to the real resorts… just not the ones we originally picked out.}”

“{Well.}” Borkbork said, rolling his shoulders as he walked towards the door. “{If anything, we’ve got a story to tell.}”

“{That’s exactly right! Besides, this is a college town, which means there’s a party going on somewhere right now. We’ll find it if this doesn’t pan out.}” Bluebell said, smiling as he looked down at the handwritten note. “{Nothing lifts your spirits like teasing college students, trust me.}”

Borkbork laughed, rolling his head in astonishment. “{Really?! You?!}”

“{The entire amphitheater.}” Bluebell said, turning to his friend as he knocked on the door. “{I mean it.}”

“[What’s the password?]”

The two Dorarizin froze as the synthetic voice drowned out a very human one.

“{I have a note, but I can’t read tiny-chomper.}” Bluebell said, suddenly stepping back as a latch opened up in the center of the door. Bluebell looked at Borkbork, who could only shrug, and decided to toss the note in. The latch clacked shut, and the two Dorarizin stood outside in the cool night air, utterly silent. Moments turned to seconds, turned to minutes, and as Borkbork opened his mouth the door slowly swung open into pitch darkness.

“[Step inside please.]” The tiny-chomper voice said, this time from far within the inky blackness. “[Both of you, together. You’ll fit.]”

Bluebell and Borkbork looked at each other before timidly, tentatively squeezing into the relatively small doorway and immediately losing each other in a blackness that was very obviously manufactured, and very obviously total.

“[We’re giving you a quick scan, don’t worry.]” The tiny-chomper said, sounding much closer now. The black turned a deep blue for a few seconds before light finally bloomed; the two friends found themselves on their hands and knees in what looked like a drunk tank security booth. In the center of the room stood a tiny-chomper behind a reinforced plasteel screen, waving happily, her little outfit bright with vibrant colors; benches lined the walls near her booth, and the closer you got to her the nicer things seemed to be, with what looked like local magazines and even a few vending options standing proudly on either side of her station. To the right, the entrance, and to the left was what Bluebell assumed was an exit into this very same room.

“{What was that?}” Borkbork said, shaking his head as he stood up. “{I lost everything there for a moment – no senses, it felt like I was freefalling!}”

“[Yeah I got a cousin that works down at the safe space manufacturing plant, this is a refurb model, so no worries!]” The Anne-Marie beamed, waving her two customers over. “[I’m tiny-chomper doublechecker, and thank you for coming!]”

“{That didn’t answer any of my questions.}” Borkbork said, walking slowly towards the human, who was nodding in the affirmative.

“[That’s correct! Now will it just be the two of you?]” Tiny-chomper Doublechecker asked pulling up two comically large menus and sliding them underneath her glass wall onto the service shelf outside. “[I need verbal confirmation.]”

“[Yes?]” Bluebell responded questioningly.

“[Wonderful! We are going to record these responses, and if we get got, you get got, got it? Good.]” She pointed down at the menus, which upon actual inspection weren’t menus but instead, terms of service. “[You’re leaving all your communication devices with me, there’s a dampener field in there so don’t try to use an implant to broadcast or record either. Now.]”

Bluebell and Borkbork leaned forward in rapt attention, and the tiny-chomper sighed. “[No, I mean, now.]” To emphasize her point, she rattled the collection box from her side, causing the flap to shake violently.

The duo “oh”ed softly, and after a brief rummaging around pockets, deposited their phones, tablets, beads and bobs into the bin.

“[Good, now I can actually start. You never lead, you only follow – if a tiny-chomper tells you to do something, you do it, and if they tell you to stop, you stop. Get it?]”

“{Yes.}” The duo replied, the dawning realization that ‘oh shit this was actually happening happening to them at the same time.

“[You fuck up, you get shot. Yes. Yes. Rock salt, birdshot, slug, spite round until empty; my advice is as soon as you see the gun stop what you’re doing, because we only carry automatics.]” Tiny-chomper Doublechecker said, as nonchalantly as describing the weather last week. “[Got it?]”

“{Yes.}” The duo responded, dumbstruck.

“[We know you, we like you, you come back. We don’t, you don’t. You make it a problem, we show proof of you committing multiple regional-class felonies. Good?]”

“{Uh.}” Borkbork said, turning to look at Bluebell. “{Do we-}”

“[You’re really way too late you know.]” The tiny-chomper said, grinning. “[The fact that you’re here is already not [acceptable], so you might as well go all in. Just don’t be dumb or everyone’s going to have a bad time, alright?]”

“{Yeah, alright.}” Bluebell said, nodding as he turned to Borkbork. “{What? I didn’t come all this way to back out now.}”

“[That’s the spirit of my favorite patrons!]” crowed a voice from behind an opening door, the warm light of a cozy restaurant-slash-speakeasy pouring into the ‘welcoming’ room. In the middle of the doorway, behind no protective gear other than what looked like a civilian leisure-pressure suit, crouched a tiny-chomper who was giving his species it’s namesake showing of teeth to Borkbork. “[And I love converting the nonbelievers!]”

He stood up, pointing to his chest with his thumb. “[I’m tiny-chomper dropped-on-head.]” Brian Cooper said, before suddenly pointing at Bluebell. “[’An tonight we’re gonna see if you can fit an entire [quiet] puppy in your mouth.]”