The rowdies were back at table six. They wanted service, and by God, they were going to make damn sure they got it. They were so dissatisfied with the lack of service that they all began to act like a bunch of friggin' ten year olds and started beating on the tabletop to get some attention.

I adjusted my hair tie and plastered on my best food-service smile.
You always had to smile. You got docked if you didn't.

There were three of them, total. The two banging on the table looked human enough, though that really doesn't mean much around here. They were probably part of the stream of new miners that've been leaking into town lately. They were wearing tan uniforms I didn't recognize, and looked exactly the same, except one was wearing a hat and the other wasn't.

Clones, then.

The third was a Brillo. I winced. Brillos are basically giant meshes of living metal. Nice folks, but play hell on the furniture, and I'd just spent all morning polishing the place up. Ah well.

"Hiya folks," I said. "What can I get for you today?"

One of the clones arched an eyebrow and flashed me a sleazy grin. I recognized that grin. You get a bunch of guys on a new (to them) planet, tell 'em to play space cowboy, and suddenly everyone thinks they're god's gift to women.



"I didn't say-"

"You didn't have to. No." I turned to the Brillo. He seemed like the most reasonable out of the lot.

"What'll you have?"

There was the sound of metal scraping against metal.

I nodded and jotted down the order.

"Four burgers and a serving of molten boron. Got it. Anything to drink?"

The metal shivered.

"With or without sugar?"

Scrape scrape scrape.

"And for your friends?"

"Beer for me," said Hat Guy.

"Me too," said Sleazy-Not-Hat-Guy.

"Alrighty then." I finished writing the order down. "I'll be back when your grub's ready."

I left them chatting amongst themselves and went to give Gaz the order.

Gaz is the cook, and no, his name really isn't Gaz. His name is seventeen syllables long and pronounceable only if you've been eating sand for the past week. I call him Gaz because.

I stuck the order on the hanger in the window between kitchen and dining room and went to go check up the other tables.

It was a slow day, and things were pretty mellow, 'cept for the rowdies. Bill and Jackson were over in their booth playing cards. Maria and Xiria were being lovey dovey in their own booth- and lemme tell you, there's nothing more squicky than watching someone with tentacles play footsie.

Hi, Aggie, said a small voice inside my ear. A smile split across my face and I turned to see Tech huddled up in his corner. Can I have some of that tea, too?

I nodded.

Tech's a sweetheart. In here all the time, but sticks quietly in his little corner table, usually with a few macroscreens spread out around him so he can catch up with his reading. Dunno his real name. Everyone just calls him Tech.

I'd just given everyone their drinks and was about to go back for the first order of food-food when Tech looked up.

Uh oh, he said. Trouble brewing.

Four seconds later, Squidge bolted through the doors.

"Aggie!" he shouted. "Hide me!"

"Squidge, what the-"

He leapt over the counter and ducked inside the kitchen. There was the sound of clattering pots and pans. I winced. Gaz was not going to be happy about that.

Tech tugged at my sleeve and then gestured to the window. I checked.

"Crap," I said.

Outside, three men in gray association uniforms were poking around and talking to people, apparently asking which way Squidge went.

"What did you do this time?" I said.

"I didn't do nuffin!" he shouted back. There were scattered chuckles from the usual crowd. It was Squidge; he was always doing something.

"Don't worry, Squidge," said Jackson. "They can't come onto a privately owned establishment without-"

To say the door exploded wouldn't be doing it justice. It didn't explode, not really. It simple fell apart into a million little splinters while still standing in the doorway. After a split second, all the little splinters flew inwards. Everyone ducked and managed to shield themselves except for the stupid waitress who'd been standing out in the open. The three men stepped inside.

The Association of System Stability. The guys in charge of, well, everything. About two months ago, right around the time the mining operations really kicked in, they decided that our little planet was actually worth looking into. This didn't go well with the locals: most people here were second generation and didn't like the idea of outside government sticking their noses into things.

Of course, everyone called them the ASSholes.

The one I took to be the leader strode forward.

"Where is he?"

I straightened up, trying to look him in the eyes as I did. All I could see, though, was my own reflection in is visor. I decided to go for the offensive. "Why the hell did you break the door?"

The two other ASSholes were wandering around the room, checking all the customers. "We know he came in here," said the leader. "No use denying it." He lifted his head and raised his voice. "And tell him that things will go very badly for him if he doesn't get out here right now."

"Now wait just a minute," said Jackson, getting to his feet. He waddled over to us. "Now I don't know what all this is about, but I do know there are protocols an-"

The leader didn't say a word. he just ever-so-casually placed a hand on the holster at his hip. Jackson went silent.

"Now," he said again. "Where-"

I turned and saw one of the men halfway into the kitchen. "You can't go back there!"

"He's in here, boss," he called.


Too late. There was the sound of shouting. Of growling. Pots clattered, metal hit metal and a loud roar rattled the room. I winced. Gaz didn't take kindly to strangers barging into his kitchen.

A second later, both Squidge and the uniformed man were thrown bodily out of the kitchen by a thick green tentacle. They flew across the room before hitting the wall. The kitchen door slammed shut.

The other two association men were on them instantly. Everyone stared at them. They couldn't do this, right? It couldn't really be happening. They dragged Squidge away, kicking and screaming and bawling for his mother.

"Where are you taking him?" said Maria.

One of them glanced back at her on the way out. "Headquarters for questioning. We'll give him back in one piece. maybe."

And they were gone.

The diner went quiet after that, and stayed quiet for a long time. Everyone was either looking at each other or trying not to look at the doorway.

Xiria broke the silence first.

"They . . . they cant do that, can they?" she looked over at the rowdies. "Can they?"

The hatted one frowned. "I don't. . ."

The brillo spoke up.

"That's right," said Bill. "Plus there's all kindsa forms 'n stuff they need." He shook his head. "Draggin' folks off like that. 'S bad news."

Everyone nodded and raised their glasses.

"What," said Maria. "You're just going to let them take Squidge like that? Just like that?"

"He threatened me," said Jackson, eyes wide. "Didn't say anything, but it was there." He was rattled. I don't think anyone's ever so much as raised their voice at him before.

Tech had turned a sickly turquoise color.

"What have you got?" I said.

He shook his head and sank a little deeper into the chair.

I can hear him. He's scared.

"What do you expect us to do?" said the unhatted clone. "We're just miners."

Nobody said anything. That seemed to be that. I went to get the broom, trying not to think of Squidge screaming for help and snotting up. Wood chips fell out of my hair, but I couldn't bring myself to care.

What else could I do? I went back to work.

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