At every fast food joint, no matter how far into the future you go, there’s always a secret menu. Corporate will never acknowledge it, regional will attempt to tamp it down, but if you go to the fun fast food joints that have lax management and say the secret words, you’ll get the best bad food your money can buy. These could be burgers, drinks, special sides – or special sauces, in the case of the McGangBang. Mike, as a proud American, was well versed in the art of secret orders, so when his motley crew saddled up to the order counter of the Dairy Queen in the Human aid ship Dinosaur Bandaid’s food court, he stared down the teenager at the cash register in the way only an old hat could.
“Can I get uuuhhhhhhhhhhh-”
Bleppy stared enraptured at the menu as it cycled between warmcuddles holding things, eating things, and just existing. P“pacheep was more… well, curious is one word you could use.
Talkative is another.
“[What’s… what’s a [tater]? Is it precious? Does the food actually have fire in it? Can you eat fire? Why does the food get taller the further down the menu you go? What’s that bendy thing that comes out of the cylinder?]”
“Uhhhhhhhhh-” Mike continued, as the teenager started to look between the group nervously. Nate peeked out behind Bleppy and waved, while Drongo – the only other responsible adult in the group – made sure to hold back his inquisitive xenos charges.
“Um, Sir, if-”
“Three peanut buster parfaits with chocolate soft serve, additional caramel, banana and strawberry sauce on top.” Mike suddenly said, smiling.
“S-sure thing.” The teenager responded, the automated attendant behind him quickly getting to work producing the custom order. Within a matter of seconds the food was prepared, and the sweet treats were passed out to the three xenos – while Mike maintained eye contact with his son the entire time. P“pacheep, not to be ungracious to his hosts, thanked his chaperones, the assembled bemused crew of Dinosaur Bandaid and the teenage server behind the counter before promptly eating the whole thing, plastic capsule and all. Drongo at least had the sense to uncap the top and lick at the treat, but Bleppy…
Bleppy cradled the gift of custom, authentic and real warm-cuddle food in his hands, turning it over as if it was a rare jewel. No amount of persuasion, or ice cream melt, would convince him to devour the contents inside – so as his parfait turned into a soup and started to smear over his hands, Mike saddled back up to the counter and made his second order. Another custom parfait for the Jornissian, a large dipped cone for himself, and absolutely nothing for his son.
“Come on Dad-”
“Isch!” Mike said, raising his hand in a slightly-threatening gesture. “The good sons get ice cream because they don’t worry their mother for days on end!”
Nate sighed, but spread his hands defeated. “Fine, fair. How are you enjoying it, Bleppy?”
The Jornissian dipped his head to stare at “his” warmcuddle, holding the treat to his chest – but still not opening it. “[I don’t… I love it. I’ll cherish it forever.]”
“You’re gonna cherish some ants real soon if you don’t start eating, boyo.” Mike said, taking a bite into the hard shell of his ice cream. “Come on, then. Eat it or not, we gotta get back with the group.”
“What’s the plan?” Nate said, falling in behind his father as he led the group back to the shuttlecraft he commandeered from The Last Word.
“Simple. You’re going to get checked out six ways to Sunday by medical and interviewed by some nice suits who are all named “John Smith”. Everyone else is going to have a nice trip to Sol.”
“How is home, by the way?” Nate said, sliding his hands into his pants pockets. “It’s been a few years, but it couldn’t have changed that much.”
Mike laughed as he waved his ice cream cone around. “You’d be surprised, son. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re starting to put colonies on the gas giant satellites-”
Nate whistled. “Impressive! Is that just Jupiter? Or Saturn too?”
“You’ll see.” Mike said. “Now come on – we’re supposed to be home for supper by 6.”
– – – – –
Sol was… Sol.
This isn’t just a recursive statement; Sol was how humans shorthanded the name of their home system. They are a proud and noble race, so when it was pointed out that the name roughly translated to “best star, I like”, humanity dug in it’s heels and refused to change the name of the system. This kind of stubbornness extended to everything from ship design to the location of outposts and colonies; to the minds of their xenos allies, things were placed haphazardly with little regard to future growth, ease of access, or safety standards. When asked, humans generally responded with something about aesthetics, or long-held racial dreams, or how “cool” it would be to make the surface habitats of their moon (called moon, of course) into a giant happy face. Or dick. Depends on who you asked.
Sol was also Sol. As a home system, it had the same rights and responsibilities of the other home systems of the other races; the Senate met here. There was power here in this system; thousands of ships came and went every day, shipping people, raw materials, cultural tchotchkies, media, exotic foods, pets – you name it, it could be found here. It was remarked by xenobiologists that the human race – for being so primitive, for having so many problems at almost every level of their society and being – adapted remarkably well to suddenly opening up to the entire galaxy. They adapted to new ideas, to new sensations, to new cultures and everything that came with them at a breakneck speed, all while still holding true to who they were before first contact.
They were hesitant about the new food, though. Alien food poisoning was something no one wanted to experience first hand.
Sol was Sol. An industrial powerhouse endlessly fueled by material poured into it by their galactic neighbors; logicians would be able to proudly point to an influx of material that roughly equaled the volume of Pluto coming into the system every single year. Ships were being cranked out at dockyards that orbited every single stellar body that had a stable gravitational field, prefabricated products were built by the billions, personal effects were exported by the metric kiloton to be sent to all the corners of a ravenously curious galaxy. The demand was endless, the supply was endless… all that mattered was that the ships docked on schedule, filled with riches, and left on schedule, filled with riches.
Task force Old Yeller warped into Sol far outside of the Oort cloud, passing IFF indication to the outermost Senate patrol ships. Only the bridge crew – and those with enough clearance to listen in to the wash of chatter broadcast on every single EM wavelength – were able to get an idea of the majesty, the industry, and the sheer volume of OSHA complaints that were occurring all around them, in every single passing moment. With minor fanfare the task force was escorted by UTF tugs to the Shipworks station in orbit around Titan, and with almost no recognition at all, the surviving crew of The Perfect walked from one alien ship to another.
Nate, however, saw and heard none of this, as he sat in a bare metal room with a few dozen CENTRAL spooks for almost the entire ride in, going frame-by-frame through every single video camera, personal recording, and eye-witness testimony.
– – – –
Stk’shzsk stood in awe at the size of… well, everything. His space port at home was nothing more than a glorified flat tarmac, and the pirates that he worked with had the most industrial capability that he had ever seen… up until now. When The Last Word docked at the shipyard, Stk’shzsk assumed he’d be pressed into a small room with a couple hundred other people, queue up to be processed, given a bare room and a bunk… but not this. Dumbfounded, he looked around – at people moving, talking, bartering, arguing, meandering around a room that was easily double the largest warehouse his former employers ever stepped foot in. This was on top of the fact that there were warmcuddles about, and everyone acted as if they were nothing special… as if they were ordinary! He watched as the little aliens would climb on walls, yell out orders, drop food, apologize to cleaning robots, install greenery, talk to the plants, crawl into vents, appear behind panels and doors that looked flush and inconspicuous to the naked eye – all the while the other races treated it as normal.
“<You looking for someone?>”
Bleppy turned to face his escort, a female Jornissian who studied him a little too intensely. She picked him up from his room aboard The Last Word, and was his only companion out of the ship and onto the station. He would never dream that the look she was giving him was one of interest, and if anything, the fact that she also held a pretty aggressive-looking weapon in her hands dissuaded him from continuing that line of thought.
“<Ah, well, yes. I was looking for my warmcuddle->”
The Jornissian chuckled. “<Yeah, that’s not going to happen. Over here.>” She motioned with her rifle, and the two stepped out of the main thoroughfare of the dockyard’s ship terminal. As they did so, the flood of xenos and human crews filled in the gap, moving through the space they used to occupy like living water.
Stk’shzsk started to wring his hands, coiling up on himself as he looked near his escort – not at her, mind – as he didn’t want to… challenge her. “<What do you mean? Wiggle-nap should be getting off of the ship soon enough->”
“<First, you’re not cleared to know what happened to your warmcuddle guest.>” His guard said, matter-of-factly. “<Just because you spent some time with him doesn’t mean you get to keep doing that.>”
“<Oh.>” Stk’shzsk said, softly. “<I… thought->”
“<That you’d continue your little adventure?>” The Jornissian said, completing his sentence with a wry smirk. “<Nah. At least, not yet, not without approval, and definitely not without his consent.>”
Stk’shzsk looked down at the bare metal floor, before looking up and around once more. Dozens and dozens of warmcuddles would catch his gaze, give him a wave or a smile, and continue about their day – but none of them were his, and none of his fellow xenos looked like they were giving him the time of day. He continued to look – to find his brother, to find someone who worked with New-hope, to find anyone familiar…
“<We can stay here all day, but nothing’s going to happen.>” The Jornissian guard said, and paused for a few minutes. When it was clear that Stk’shzsk wasn’t giving up, she sighed.
“<Here.>” She snapped her tail, the sound attracting a few eyes – but getting Stk’shzsk’s attention. “<You are still on parole, and you are still … well, totally unqualified to be anywhere near this solar system, let alone these people.>”
“<S-so?!>” Stk’shzsk replied, doing his best to look determined. “<I spent days with New-hope, and->”
Bleppy’s guard shrugged, her torso rolling. “<And if he wasn’t in that suit you would have killed him->”
“<I WOULD NEVER.>” Stk’shzsk furiously roared, staring fiercely down the barrel of a live rifle.
“<Easy.>” The Jornissian guard said, coldly meeting his gaze. “<I didn’t mean to insult you->”
“<Then how dare you->” Stk’shzsk began, before the muzzle of the weapon was pressed firmly against his forehead, and he remembered himself and his current situation.
“<Easy. I’m just one of your guards, but I know you’re harmless as a warm breeze, which is why I haven’t blown your brains out right now.>” The guard said, words cold as ice. “<But if you lose your scales like that again with someone else, you may not be so lucky.>”
Stk’shzsk inhaled sharply, but said nothing. Moments passed, before his guard lowered her weapon. “<I wanted to let you drink it in, but that might not be the best idea. Come on.>” She tilted her head, and without a protest Stk’shzsk slithered down a side corridor.
“<Slower. Near the wall.>”
Stk’shzsk did as his guard instructed, holding his hands tightly against his waist. She directed him – a right here, a left there, down this way, stop here – for what seemed like an hour, and as she did the chaotic din of warmcuddle life started to fade from his hearing, until it was silenced altogether, replaced by the unfeeling hum of electricity and machines.
“<Here’s where I drop you off, for now.>”
Stk’shzsk looked at the nondescript door that stood before him, and rolled his jaw nervously. “<What’s… behind there?>”
The Jornissian guard shrugged. “<I could tell you, or I could point out that you have no choice. Go in.>”
Stk’shzsk turned around and shot the guard a look, but she grinned in response – her hood flaring out smugly. “<You gotta love what you do or else every day is a mire. Now go on.>” She motioned with her weapon, and Stk’shzsk turned back around. As he slithered forward the door slid open – to a nondescript room. On the right was a Dorarizin … doctor, it looked like, and a Karnakian technician surrounded by the tools of their respective trades. There was a warmcuddle, in a suit much like New-Hopes, and Stk’shzsk’s hope rose unbidden. Before he could say anything a voice called out to him, and he turned. Standing to the far left was a warmcuddle… made very obviously out of hard light. It waved to him, and he noted that the suited warm-cuddle was mimicking the gesture – or was it the other way around?
“[Haha, hi! I’m warmcuddle don’t-feel-bad! Come over here and give me a nice hug, new friend!]” The hard light simulacrum said, bouncing in place. Stk’shzsk looked at the panel of xenos, before turning back to shoot a questioning look at his guard – and was rewarded with a prod from her weapon. He looked at the suited warmcuddle, before moving towards the hard light doll.
“<Oh, hello warm-cuddle-don’t-feel-bad. I’m Stk’shzsk, and it’s nice to meet you.>”
“[Likewise!]” The warmcuddle said, raising it’s arms in the universal symbol for “uppies”. Stk’shzsk smiled and pulled the warmcuddle into his arms, holding the dear new friend tightly.
“<Wh-what?>” Stk’shzsk said as he pulled away, the hard-light doll contorted in a horrific new shape, covered in big blocks of orange and gray. He looked between the doll and the panel, who were busy talking amongst themselves.
“[Terminal damage to spinal column: 14 crushed vertebrae.]” The doll said, hanging limply in Stk’shzsk’s shaking arms. “[Damage to rib cage: 9 fractures. Terminal damage to internal organs: Lung punctured 4 times. Heart punctured once. Esophagus crushed. Liver-]”
Stk’shzsk fell into a panic, picking up the doll as he spun in place. “<N-NO! No, I didn’t – I didn’t mean to->”
“[-internal bleeding— Well there we go.]”
Stk’shzsk looked at the doll in his arms, which now no longer looked deformed and instead looked … well. Somewhat normal again.
“[Sorry about that bud! But that’s why they call me warm-cuddle-don’t-feel-bad! Hah!]” The doll smiled a human smile, reaching up to pat the shaking Stk’shzsk on the snout. “[Welcome to training!]”
Stk’shzsk darted his head out of the way, looking the doll over in fear. “<Wh-what?! Are you ok?! Ar->”
“[Easy there, bud. Everyone who wants to interact with my people needs to go through this training-]” The warmcuddle pushed against Stk’shzsk’s chest, and he let it go, the doll standing upright as it’s hard-light shell reformed. “[-and what you just experienced is something everyone goes through.]”
Stk’shzsk tore at his face and neck, collapsing on the floor in anguish. “<I-I’m sorry, I would never->”
“[Woah! Woah, hey, easy there bro!]” The doll said, moving forward to console Stk’shzsk – who for the first time recoiled at the touch of a warm-cuddle. “[Look, I wasn’t kiddin when I said don’t feel bad – Scrubby, the doctor, actually decapitated his doll the first time he went in for a headpat.]”
“<He-who-wha?>” Stk’shzsk babbled, before his vision was filled with a softly smiling Dorarizin female.
“[Hey there – yep, that was me. Crushed the warm-cuddle’s skull like an ice bubble.]” The doctor said, reaching down to check Stk’shzsk’s vitals. “[You’re having a mild panic attack right now, just roll your breath for a minute, alright?]”
“<I, hnnn->” Stk’shzsk whined as a hand was pressed against the nape of his neck, his rapid heartbeat slowing down as his gaze darted between the doctor, the floor, the hard light human looking at him with pity…
“[You gotta calm down, friend.]” The doll said, crouching down. “[You’re going to be “killing” me thousands of times, until you don’t anymore.]”
“[Because you’re built of heartier stuff than we are.]” The human doll said matter-of-factly, tapping it’s chest. “[And so until we’re all certain you can handle humans, physically, without causing damage to them… well. You won’t be leaving this part of the station. Everyone who comes to work in Sol has to go through this training, and a lot more – but for you, we’re speedrunning it.]”
The human doll smiled a smile, and for the first time Stk’shzsk couldn’t tell if it was kind.
“[Now.]” The doll said, pointing directly at Stk’shzsk’s face with an extended arm. “[Pull my finger.]”
– – – –
“[Alright. Five minutes left in the shift, everybody – let’s finish strong.]”
Bleppy hummed to himself as he moved his crane into position. The ship he was working on – a shuttle craft colloquially known as a “puddle jumper” – was about halfway done, and the next shift to take over would finish the job; all he had to do was position the back frame properly for the welders to do their work. With speed borne out of years honing his craft he ordered his small swarm of utility drones to latch onto the skeleton of the ship, his crane arm moving outwards while the gimballed jets of the drones kept him true. He slowly moved the metal and carbon structure into place, and slowed it’s momentum down just in time for his shift timer to ding.
“[That’s it! Sixers and Twelves, change your shifts – and thanks again for your work today!]”
“<Thank you too, foreman.>” Bleppy said over intercomm, to a cascade of warm-cuddle sign-offs and babble. It had been 8 months of “training” to be let out of his part of the dockyard, and another three to be rated to do the work he was brought here to do. During that time he somehow became a minor celebrity with the warmcuddles on the station, and he enjoyed the attention he got from them and others. Clicking off the analog switches to his station he pushed his terminals away from his body, the egg-like capsule that was suspended in space slowly retracting back to the body of the station. He felt the minor jolt of actuator arms clamping down on his operator’s nest, and with a slight hum the feeling of artificial gravity kicked back on. His screens turned off and bay doors closed around his vision, cutting off his view of the warmcuddle gas giant “king thunder guy” and the wider Sol system. He tilted his head back and reached up, unscrewing the lock on his operator’s nest, and with a hiss of equalizing pressure the airlock door opened. He slithered up and out, waving at his fellow operators as they did the same – some warmcuddle, some Dorarizin, some Karnakian or Jorinissian like himself.
He tapped the implants on the back of his head, opaque hard-light vision adjusting visors shrouding his eyes before fading to clear. He was offered the chance to get corrective surgery and geneological scrubbing – get his brain wired to see depth of vision properly – but was dissuaded from doing so by almost every single warmcuddle he met. He smiled to himself as he slithered onto the moving walkway, tapping his wrist computer to check in with his parole officer that his shift was over. He hesitated for a moment, his finger hovering over additional commands; he was invited to yet another warmcuddle after-work party, and although he enjoyed his coworkers immensely, it just… didn’t feel right. He wasn’t ready.
He told his parole officer that he was headed right home, and turned off his computer. Straightening his back, he waited for the door at the end of the walkway to open up into the working part of the station, and braced himself for the wave of sights, sounds and smells that almost always overwhelmed him. It was a good type of sensory overload, and Bleppy never wanted to get used to it. The doors slid open, and –
“[Well hey there, stranger!]” Nathaniel Callaway said, standing arms akimbo behind the now-opened door, a gigantic grin plastered across his face. “[I see they got you in uniform now!]”
“<Warm-cuddle-New-hope!>” Bleppy yelled, gaining the attention of quite a few people as he darted forward, before remembering himself and recoiling back. The end effect was him flipping himself onto his back, landing on the cold metal floor with a hearty thud.
“[I didn’t know I had that effect on people.]” Nate laughed, walking forward to stand over his one-time guardian. “[You doin’ alright there?]”
Two well-worn hands darted forward and wrapped gently-but-firmly around Nate’s arms, slowly pulling him down to lay flat on Stk’shzsk’s chest in the most awkward horizontal totally-not-gay-bro-hug the station had seen in the past 3 weeks.
“<When did you get here? What’s going on? How long have you been waiting? Where have you been?!>” Bleppy said, the thousand questions rolling around his mind finding no filter as they poured out of his mouth. He was rewarded with laughter, and a few hearty pats on his cheek.
“[Hey there, hey there. Let’s go grab something to eat first, and then we’ll catch up, yea?]”
“[So.]” Nate said, smiling softly as they sat in one of the many food courts on Titan shipyard. Bleppy had coiled himself underneath like any proper gentleman, sitting with a straight back and goofy smile on his face, drink long forgotten in his hands.
Nate, for his part, was drinking 8oz of pure espresso.
“<So!?>” Bleppy replied, wiggling in place. “<How have you been? Do you want to come over again? What have you been up to? What->”
“[Hey, hey!]” Nate laughed, waving his hand for silence. “[One at a time. I’ve been fine – more than fine. Had a lot of debriefing to do, wrote a book, spent time at home, checked up on the crew. Everyone’s in good health, and my family would love to get to know you.]”
“<Really?>” Stk’shzsk squeaked out, and Nate nodded.
“[Yep! Your brother also sends his regards; He’s going to be staying in Andromeda doing something or other, but he’s in good health as well.]”
“<Oh. I had, uh, I guess->” Stk’shzsk mumbled, embarrassed. “<I kinda forgot->”
“[Don’t be! He’s going through the same shit you did – just as intense.]” Nate said, sipping his drink. “[Considering you’re both ex-felons, you don’t even really have the ability to talk to each other just yet. I just wanted to let you know I checked in on him, he’s doing fine.]”
“<Thank you, New-hope.>” Bleppy said, rewarded with a pshaw from his human friend.
“[It was nothing. I finally renegotiated my contract, so I wanted to swing by and see how you were doing before I went out again-]”
“<Wait.>” Stk’shzsk leaned forward. “<Went out again?>”
Nate sighed. “[Ah, yeah. I have to finish the terms of my contract-]”
“<S-so you’re leaving?! You’re leaving me? But->” Stk’shzsk looked around, swallowing hard as he searched for some answer in the faces of strangers that passed the two of them by. “<But you just got here. You can’t->”
Leaning forward, Nate gently booped Bleppy’s snoot. “[Buddy, I know. I spent weeks railing against the system, but… well. When you make the agreement with the UTF that you go to see the stars, they demand their pound of flesh. Eer.]” Nate muttered something under his breath, before starting over. “[Getting into the internship program is something that you have to earn. With it comes space adventures, new friends, tons of money, but also – and I know it’s odd coming from me, but – responsibility. When we, ah, “met” it disrupted my contract; the UTF demands I finish it out. I was able to get them to agree to this meeting, here, but…]” Nate tilted his head to the side, and Stk’shzsk followed his gaze – eventually locking eyes with Drongo, who was leaning against the adjacent wall. He gave a little wave, and Stk’shzsk nodded slightly. “[…I’m going to be out of system by the end of the day.]”
Stk’shzsk looked down at his drink, closing his eyes tightly as dark emotion washed over his heart. “<S-so I’ll never see you again?>”
“[What?! Th’fuck, no. You dork.]” Nate laughed, shaking his head. “[It’s like, two years, tops. Also, did you forget the galnet was a thing?]”
Nate sighed, placing his cup on the table between them. “[I’m not going to be going anywhere, Bleppy. They’re making sure I only travel between high-security systems from now on – the boring routes only. We can trade letters when I’m near a node, and I’ll send you my family’s comm numbers so you can connect with them too for real-time communication. Besides, you’ve probably made dozens of friends these few months-]”
Stk’shzsk looked away, and Nate hummed. “[Bleppy, buddy. You have to make new friends-]”
“<But, but they’re not you->”
“[Sure, but they’re them.]” Nate said, grinning. “[They’re just people, brother. You’ll do fine.]”
“<You sure?>” Stk’shzsk said, rotating the untouched cup in his hands nervously.
Nate nodded. “[Yes. I am sure, and you can trust me.]”
“<Well. I’ll do it for you, warm-cuddle-new-hope, but I won’t have any other best friends!>” Stk’shzsk replied with way too much determination, causing Nate to burst out with laughter. In the middle of his gigglefit his PDA pinged, and with a fading grin he read the notification.
“[Ah, beans. I really gotta go, we’re finishing prep on bay A-18-]”
“<Oh! That’s your ship?>” Bleppy said, perking up. “<I worked on that ship!>”
In a flash, Nate leapt up, gripping Stk’shzsk’s shirt tightly. “[The name! Bleppy, please, the name!]” Nate begged, looking over with mounting fear as Drongo sensed something was amiss, making his way towards the duo.
“<It’s… warm-cuddle-new-hope, really?>” Bleppy said, placing an awkward boop on the human’s forhead. “<You don’t know?>”
“[Pleasehurryplease-]” Nate rambled, and with a confused tilt of his head Stk’shzsk leaned forward and whispered the name into Nate’s ear. The effect was instantaneous; his brow furrowed, he frowned, and his grip went slack. He stared into the eyes of his friend, shaking his head slightly as he processed the new information.
“[That’s… such a stupid name.]” Nate said, as with a small apology Drongo pulled him away from Stk’shzsk’s lap and took him back to the stars.