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Two unusual things happened that night at work: Simon met a woman and he killed an alien.
The woman was in the part of the restaurant the owners set aside as a makeshift locker room. There were some shelves and hangar racks, a few plastic chairs scattered about, and a shower curtain that separated the men’s side from the women’s. There were stacks of buckets scattered throughout the long, thin room, which were used by each of the “servers” to dispose of the wetnaps and other supplies they used to cleanse themselves before and after a meal. The place was cleaned thoroughly every night, but the flowery antiseptic chemicals only made it smell like a clinic.
Everyone wore the same thing during the job: dark blue shorts and short-sleeved shirts made of paper, the kind of thing people wore in hospitals or tanning salons. Anonymous and disposable.
After they had all changed, but before the customers arrived, the curtain was pulled back and the servers mingled a bit, chatting idly about their days, news and gossip, the normal co-worker fare. Obviously what they had eaten that day was a perennial favorite topic, as well. That night, Simon noticed a new face, standing roughly between the men’s and women’s sides, arms folded and looking vaguely uncomfortable. Early was the first to say something.
“Hey, new chica in the casa today. She looks muy caliente. Yo quiero…um…shit, I’m out of Mexican words. Let’s go say hi.”
The woman noticed them approaching and cocked her eyebrow suspiciously. Early put on his big, friendly grin and nudged Simon with his elbow when they reached where she was standing. “There’s no way, Doc,” he said, pretending to continue some conversation they’d never had, “I’m telling you, she can’t be an Army vet, she’s too hot. They only let the hot ones in the Air Force.”
As usual, somehow Early had known exactly what to say to break the ice. The girl gave a strange little half-grin that only hit the right side of her face, and she lifted the sleeve of her shirt to reveal the unit tattoo on her shoulder.
“Damn, wrong again,” Early said with mock disappointment, “guess that’s why you’re the smart one, Doc.” He showed his own tat, which to anyone outside the service probably looked a lot like the girl’s, and then held out his hand. “I’m Early and this here is my battle buddy, Doc.”
“Josefina. Call me Jo.” Despite her small hands, her grip was firm; not exactly like she was competing, but clearly showing she could hang with the boys. Simon could see the Army on her now that he was looking. Her thick black hair was pulled back in a simple, military style bun — no hair below the collar line, but he guessed it was about shoulder-length when she let it out. He didn’t see any makeup, and her only jewelry was a pair of small golden studs in her ears, the type up to Army reg. She probably hadn’t been out too long.
“It’s nice to have another Army here,” Early said. “We’re starting to get outnumbered by the other services.”
“Yeah? I transferred here from the LA branch. That place has a buncha Navy, from San Diego. Most everyone here a vet, though?”
“Yep, of one flavor or another. Here lately we’ve been getting a lot of dumbass Oorahs.” Early gestured over to a cluster of men. “Watch this. Hey Marines! You guys ready to have some fucking space alien toss your salad?”
“Oorah!” Came the simultaneous reply, followed by laughter and a few fist bumps.
“Fucking jarhead retards,” Early laughed with them.
Jo gave her cockeyed grin again, and Simon thought it was the sexiest thing he’d seen in a long time. Something about the way it only hit half her face, like she was too demure to reveal her emotions fully, but too mischievous to keep them all to herself. Simon noticed she was looking right at him, studying him studying her, still wearing the grin. He looked away quickly.
“So, um, LA huh?” he said. “I didn’t even know Merdeux had other locations. Why’d you transfer?”
A ghost of some memory flitted across her face. “Yea, LA, Miami, they’ve even opened one in London. I just needed a change of scenery, you know? They offered me London, but I’m an East LA girl, we don’t do no tea and crumpets. I’m more beer and pizza. So I chose New York.”
Early nodded, “Yeah, I had heard they were branching out. NYC’s still the first though. I’m one of the originals, myself. They found me banging around doing physical therapy at a VA hospital,” he pointed to his knee and the thick network of scar tissue there. “My boy Doc here saved my leg, so I got him a job. I figure I do him five or six more favors like that, we’ll be just about even.” Early reached out sideways and gave Simon a hard, brotherly slap in the chest when he started to protest that they were more than even.
“They found me in a VA hospital, too,” Jo said. She looked up at Simon, dark eyes behind thick, dark lashes. “So you were a sixty-eight-whiskey, huh? Medic saved my life after an IED.” She reached out and put her hand on Simon’s elbow. “That’s a tough job, see your friends hurt like that, and still keep it together. You guys are my heroes, you know?”
“It’s, uh, they train us. It’s training. I just wanted to help.” Early gave Simon a sidelong glance of exasperation as the words stumbled out of his mouth.
One of the managers walked into the locker room holding a walkie-talkie up to his ear. It squawked and the manager replied, “Roger ETA.” The man barely looked at the servers. “Five minutes ‘till the first van arrives, let’s get strapped in folks.”
“It was good to meet you, Jo. I’m, uh, glad you transferred here.” Simon tried to sound nonchalant and failed. Still, that half-grin reappeared, and a hint of blush rose in Jo’s dusky cheeks.
“Yeah. I think maybe me too, you know?” She turned and followed the other servers who were heading into the Merdeux’s dining area.
Simon and Early stood for a moment, watching her leave as others slid past them.
“You, sir, are about as smooth as my wrinkled cock,” Early said.
Since each server was tailored for a specific patron, it was more or less random placement each night. Where they went depended on how the SEETs wanted to sit, and that was worked out when the orders were submitted each day. Each server was assigned a number, which corresponded to a certain opening in the tables.
Getting into position was an awkward affair that didn’t get much easier even after two years of practice. Simon crawled under the table and did sort of a modified pushup to slide his legs into the stirrups. He grabbed the belts hanging from the heavy metal table’s underside and fastened them around his waist. The portion touching his belly was wide and flat, cushioned with a built-in heating pad that some people felt helped with the process. The belts ratcheted, although Simon had to use one of his arms on the handlebars to hold his weight up and prevent the contraption from cinching his skin.
Finally in place, Simon felt the pressure of the belt and the heat of the pad kicking in, stirring the first hints of movement. The inverted position made the blood flow to his face, and he pushed on the handlebars to adjust the angle and relieve the pressure a bit. As he did he looked around at his fellow servers. Early and the new girl Jo were not close by, positioned in some section he couldn’t see. The others near him were finishing up their own contortions. Simon noticed on his first night of work that none of the others ever looked around. Even Early wouldn’t look at him when they were under the table. Most wore headphones, either listening to music or feigning so to block out any noise. Some also wore dark, wraparound sunglasses — although it was very dark under the table already.
A knock on the door at the back of the restaurant meant everyone was in place and the evening’s patrons had arrived. The tablecloth was dropped fully around them, and they were enveloped in darkness. With that, the servers all reached back and slid down their paper shorts, revealing themselves to the cool air of the establishment through the holes in the tables. The sight of dozens of asses sticking out of tables might have elicited laughter from outsiders, but not from any of the workers at Merdeux. These were professionals, highly paid for their discretion. Below the tables, there was the faint creak of leather straps, a slow pulse of breathing. Above the tables, there was nothing but the background hiss of the high-powered air filtration unit.
The aliens made a rasping sound as they moved across the hardwood floor, their tails covered in a thick but flexible material that they wore, almost like the sole of a giant shoe. They conversed with each other in their slobbery language, smacking juicy sounds that made Simon cringe, knowing what was coming soon. Occasionally one of the sitters would say, “Right this way sir,” or “I’m sorry, you’re actually seated at seat six,” and the aliens would respond in their robotic voices with “THANK-YOU” and “I UNDERSTAND.”
One of the aliens, speaking loudly in his native tongue, made what Simon assumed was a toast of some sort, or maybe a prayer. Above him, he could hear the sitters pouring glasses of water for the guests, which was really the beginning and the end of any actual “waiting” they’d have to do. The alien giving his wet benediction concluded and clapped his hands together.
The meal began.
Simon knew even before this job that human bowel movements were measured on the Bristol Stool Scale and ranked from 1-7. He had learned it during his medic training; it was among the questions you sometimes needed to ask someone who got sick in the field. One was hard lumps, what Simon’s mom used to call “rabbit turds.” Seven was basically pissing out your ass. Three and four were considered “normal” or “ideal,” and, when thinking back on it, Simon was a little amused to remember that the official diagnostic for both three and four compared them to sausages. It made sense, considering how sausages were made, but it was even more amusing in Simon’s new occupation.
The restaurant’s standard was three to four, as well, which was achieved by balancing water intake with fiber supplements. Simon could tell he was hitting a pretty perfect four this evening, smooth and easy, sliding right out. Unlike a normal bowel movement, Simon forced himself to pace, releasing slowly by regulating his breathing and pressure on his diaphragm.
The way the SEETs ate actually varied a bit. Some of them used utensils, spooning off bitefulls like a tasty mousse. Others used their fingers, pinching and plucking from the vine. And still others just dove in, wrapping their lips around and taking chunks and often using their nimble tongues to lick the bowl when they were done. That’s what Simon had tonight, a real go-getter. He could feel the alien’s warm hands on his cheeks, spreading him gently. He paced his movement to the alien’s progress, something he was used to at this point, slowly extruding the food as the customer consumed.
Most meals took about thirty to forty minutes, and, considering the pay, it was almost ridiculously little work. But this evening, the glowing face of Simon’s watch told him almost seventy minutes had passed, and still he could feel the alien’s face pressed against him. The alien had slowed down considerably, and now it was almost like it wasn’t eating at all. At first, Simon thought it was just savoring the meal, but as the minutes ticked by he began to wonder. He tightened his abdominals, letting out a little more in the hopes of rousing his patron. Nothing, no reaction.
The aliens all came as a group and all left as a group. Simon could hear them slobbering to each other. He was no linguist, but it felt like they were growing impatient. To hell with it, so what if it doesn’t tip me well, Simon thought, and unloaded the rest of the alien’s meal in a single push.
Simon heard one of the chairs slide back, and the quick steps of a sitter moving over. “Something I can help you with, sir?”
“I DESIRE TO CHECK ON MY FRIEND-ALLY,” came the cold reply. “THERE HAS BEEN NO MOVEMENT IN MANY INCREMENTS OF TIME.”
Simon heard the rasping sound of the new alien move towards him and a jiggling as the alien patron already on him was presumably shaken by his “friend-ally.” The new alien made a loud series of gurgles, which were returned by the others in a wet cacophony. One of the other aliens used its translation device, which sounded as emotionless as all the others: “EXPIRED. GET THE AGENT, EXPIRED.”
More chairs were pushed aside, and Simon heard heavy footfalls. A loud, authoritarian voice boomed, “Get them in the vans and get them home, ASAP.” There was no disobeying that voice, and people scrambled to do as they were told.
Heavy footfalls approached Simon’s table and he saw the shadow as their owner stopped in front of his position. The tablecloth was pulled up, and a flashlight beam blasted into Simon’s face. He winced at the sudden explosion of light.
“You. Out. Now.”
“We’ll try to make this quick…” the Homeland Security agent glanced down at the file in front of him, “Simon.”
To be fair, Simon couldn’t remember the agent’s name, either. Stackman, or Stockman, or something like that. Early called him stache-man, because he had a huge mustache — a beautiful, Magnum PI job, black and shot through with just a few accents of grey. He had conducted Simon’s background check on behalf of Merdeux, and he occasionally did spot checks of the restaurant, looking for possible threats to the aliens.
Stache-man slid a piece of paper across the desk of the tiny office that he’d commandeered two hours earlier from the restaurant’s manager. “Look over that list and confirm for me that you ingested all the items noted.”
Simon read the sheet. It was an accounting of the order he’d received that morning, right down to the portion sizes. “Yes, this looks right.”
“Including the last item?”
The last thing on the list was the plate of blanched mushrooms. “Sure. Mushrooms, that’s normal food, easy stuff.”
The agent took the list back and shook his head. “Pooch screw,” he said.
“I’m not following,” Simon said. “Was the order not right? All I did was eat what they sent me…”
Stache-man looked at him for a few moments, sizing him up. Finally he leaned forward and said, “I was a Ranger. Did three tours.”
Simon nodded softly, unsure where this was going.
“I’m just saying that because it means we’re kind of brothers. I reviewed your service record, you’re a decorated vet. We’re on the same team, so I’m going to trust you.”
Simon nodded again, waiting.
The agent sighed. “It’s the mushrooms. The Slugos…that’s what we call them at DHS. What is it you guys call them again?”
“Right. SEETs. The SEETs, they can’t digest mushrooms. Horrible allergic reaction, something about the proteins. Did you know mushrooms had protein?” Simon shook his head. “Yeah, me neither. I thought they were like vegetables, but they’re loaded with the stuff, or so the eggheads say. It’s kind of ironic, you know? Considering where mushrooms grow, and then what the SEETs eat…” The agent chuckled, then looked uncomfortable and glanced away.
“Anyway, mushrooms,” he continued quickly, “they never should have been on the menu. The orders come in digitally from the Slugo mothership. We’ve verified everything is secure on our end, nobody tampered with it. So you’re in the clear. It looks like it was just an accident on their end, somebody didn’t get the word about the food allergy. Nobody really knows how they pick their…your…how they pick the food. Some of the stuff they have you guys eat…I don’t know how you do it.”
“Money,” Simon said.
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess that would do it. Speaking of which,” the agent pulled out an envelope from his inner jacket pocket, “this is for you. From them…the Slugos.”
The envelope contained ten-thousand dollars in new hundred dollar bills.
“Wait. I don’t get it. I accidentally kill one of them, and they give me ten grand?”
Stache-man nodded. “Look, I said I was going to trust you. People don’t know about the mushroom allergy. There are…lots of things people don’t know about our new friends. That money is for your discretion concerning this situation. I’m not going to delude myself. I’m sure you’re going to tell your roommate” — another quick glance at the file — “Early, about what happened here. Maybe that’s for the best, considering both of your…professions. Just don’t go blabbing to every Tom, Dick, and Harry. Because you never know, sometimes Harry turns out to be an alien-hating wackjob asshole.”
Simon was unsurprised to find Early waiting for him, but he hadn’t expected Jo to be there as well. The two walked over as Simon and Stache-man emerged from the back office.
“So what’s the verdict, government man? Was it…” Early opened his eyes wide and waggled his eyebrows with faux drama, “…murder most foul?”
The agent shook his head dismissively and said to Simon, “You’re free to go and to resume work effective immediately. Remember what we talked about.” He turned to Early. “Take your boy home.”
Simon smiled at Jo. “You didn’t have to stay, thanks.”
“Fuck yeah she did,” Early cut in. “That’s the code man, she knows she’s one of us. We stick together. Brown star solidarity, baby.” He held up the inverted OK sign, and Simon returned it, chuckling.
“It’s fine,” Jo said, briefly reaching out to touch Simon’s arm. “I’m just glad you’re alright. Early’s right, we need to stick together, especially in this crazy business. It wouldn’t be cool if you got arrested right after we met. People would probably think I was, you know, bad luck or something.”
“So seriously, Doc, what happened?” Early asked.
“Nothing,” Simon said, unable to meet Jo’s gaze. “I guess the thing was just old or something. Natural causes.”
Jo hailed a cab, leaving the boys to walk home to their apartment. On the way, Simon filled Early in on the real cause of the alien’s death.
“Fucking crazy man. So they’re all allergic like that?”
“I guess so,” Simon said. “That’s basically what the agent said, a severe food allergy common to all the SEETs.”
Early headed straight for his laptop as soon as they entered the apartment. “I’ve gotta check out the web, see if anyone else knows this shit.”
“Look, man, the agent said we shouldn’t tell people about this. Some loon might, I dunno…”
“What? Making a fucking mushroom WMD? A shitake suicide bomber?” Simon and Early started to laugh. “You afraid of a Portobello Pearl Harbor?”
“Ass. Yeah, I guess I am.” Simon said. “This is how we get paid, after all.” He took out the envelope the agent had given him and shook it for emphasis.
“Aren’t we quite the whores? Well have no fear, Doc. I promise, I’m only going to search a few sites I know. Check in on the blogs and chat boards of some…concerned parties I’ve run across over the years. I’m not going to post anything, just see what’s already out there. Cool?”
“So no club ‘till closing time tonight? The famous Regular, world-renowned party machine, forgoing an evening of debauchery to stay at home and surf the web? This night just gets weirder and weirder.” Early flipped him the bird, already clicking through web pages on his laptop. “Fine, snoop around. I’m hitting the rack.”
When Simon got up the next morning and plodded groggily out to the apartment’s common area, he found Early already at the kitchen table, awash in the soft glow of his computer screen. Disoriented, Simon looked around, thinking he’d overslept. But it was only just morning, not much later than usual for him.
“Holy crap, man. Did you stay up all night doing that?”
Early jumped at the sound of Simon’s voice. “Fuck me, Doc. Gave me a heart attack.” Early looked at his watch. “Damn. I guess I did. You should see some of the shit that’s on the web about the SEETs man. Stache-man was right, there are some real psychos out there. Nobody seems to know about the mushroom thing, though. But man, there is some other crazy shit that folks do know.”
Simon sat down across from Early and yawned expansively. “Like what?”
“Well, take a guess at one of the industries the SEETs are buying out. No? I’ll tell ya. Diaper services.”
“Shut up.” Simon waved his hand at Early dismissively.
“No, Doc, seriously. Check this out,” he spun the laptop around to Simon. “This guy, he’s a total fucking nut, but he’s also an accountant, and he digs into the financial records of all these companies that have been bought out by SEET-shell corporations. Most of it’s over my head, probably just legit shit. But the dude has all these records of diaper services across the country being bought out. And he also says that the SEET-owned diaper services are beating out the rest of the competition, because they charge almost nothing.”
Simon looked at the webpages, full of conspiratorial rants and copies of supposed financial records. “I dunno, this could be nothing…”
“Bull, Doc. I mean, this guy’s a loonytoon, no arguing. But he doesn’t know that the SEETs eat shit! There are some folks out on the web, they do know, but this guy has some cockamamie theory about SEETs trying to indoctrinate infants in their cribs. He’s just clueless. So it’s like, why would he lie? And I mean, it makes sense. I’m sure baby poop isn’t as tasty as what comes out of Josefina’s sweet ass every night,” Early grinned dirtily, “or hell even out of mine. But I bet you it’s okay in a pinch. It’s probably like their equivalent of a microwave dinner.”
“Man, I just can’t see the SEETs loading up their honest-to-God spaceship with used diapers. It’s not astronaut food, for Christ’s sake.”
Early snapped and pointed at Simon. “Astronaut food, good one. Rows and rows of freeze dried diapers, fucking alien MREs, baby. Everything a growing SEET needs!”
Simon laughed and stood up, starting towards the apartment’s door. “I’m going to grab tonight’s order, get started. Far as I’m concerned, this is none of my business, I get paid to perform a service.”
“Yeah, yeah, bring it in. Sounds good,” Early said, already distracted again by the lure of the web and its conspiracy theories.
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