To put it plainly, Carla was starting to panic. This was probably due in part to the fact that everyone else in the complex was running around screaming. Granted, being new to the team, she wasn't quite sure what level of panic would be most appropriate at the time, so she figured that mild skittering panic would have to suffice until she had a clearer idea and could settle into a nice comfortable jibbering panic later.
Jack was a fury of activity directing folks into looking for something. Rhino and Roger had raced out earlier. Occasionally, Carla would hear them on the radio reporting in, never saying much. Phil, well, she was in the main bay, and Carla knew that she wouldn't get an answer from her, well not one she could understand.
Carla peeked into the computer room and smiled a bit. Russell was back, she could always talk to him. She stepped into the room and gave a bit of a wave, "Hi Russell."
Shimo nearly jumped out of his seat. "What?? Who are you? How did you get in here??" He looked like a frightened rabbit, Carla thought he should cut back on the caffeine or something.
"Russell? Calm down. It's just me! Carla!"
"Oh, you must be the one that Roger told me about." Shimo said and sort of settled back into his chair. "What can I do for you.. uhm, Carla?"
Carla wasn't quite sure how to deal with that, so she ignored it for the time being. "I was just kind of wondering why everyone has got their knickers in a knot. Should we start watching out for big falling rocks?" She said with a light laugh.
"No, unfortunately, it's not that kind of disaster. It's worse than that." Russell turned back to his screen. "We got a report that someone in Sheboygan saw a sign saying a McZigmunski's was coming soon."
Carla stood absorbing that detail.
"What's a McZigmunski's?"
"It's a restaurant." Russell replied.
"Yeah, not a very good one, really."
Carla started to get a bit angry. "All this panic about a restaurant?"
Shimo looked up from the monitor at her. "Imagine, if you will, the combination of a Seven- Eleven, Starbucks and McDonalds all rolled into one with the marketing power of several sectors behind it."
"And that's bad because..."
"How often do you see a Starbucks, McDonalds or Seven-Eleven?"
"All the time, they're everywhere."
"Yes, yes they are, but that pales in comparison to McZigmunski's. Here let me show you something." Shimo tapped a few keys and the image of a small asteroid displayed. "This is asteroid 09z23, Chupatha system. Here it is again a month later." The image was almost identical except that it featured a small red and blue shop emblazoned with a large 'McZ'. "And again four months later..." This time, there were about ten of the shops located on the small asteroid. "After a year..." The asteroid was now covered with the shops. "All that because someone stopped by the first shop and bought a Taj and a slice of pie to go."
"All those shops?" Carla said in near disbelief.
"We're not totally sure, but we believe the collapse of Cignus 192 into a black hole was due to a two for one sale on roast cubba sandwiches."
Carla figured that now would be a good time to slip into that jibbering panic.
"So.. So what can we do?" Carla more screamed than asked.
"For now, stay calm." Jack urged. "I've put in a couple of calls to find out what we can do legally. Unfortunately, I don't know if it's going to be much. McZ's has a pretty powerful lobbying force and they've got explorer rights. Unfortunately, getting an answer's going to take time. Ladies and Gentlemen, we're going to need to go undercover."
Roger and Phil both raised their hands. Roger's possibly a bit higher due to his "more flexible" nature. Phil shot him a look that would have seared a steak.
Jack wasn't surprised at all. There was a reason that McZ's was that popular, and he didn't want to risk the operation due to an addiction to deep fried xyppies. He picked up where he left off. "..and that's why we're sending in Carla."
"ME!?" Carla said in near total shock.
"Yes. You. You'll pass whatever screens they have, and frankly between me, Rhino and Shimo, you stand the greatest chance of getting the job, appearing to enjoy it, and not wind up in the deep fryer."
Shimo laughed and gave Rhino a friendly shove. "Heh. Yeah, I could just see you falling into the deep fryer."
Most of the table cleared their throats.
Carla tried to adjust her uniform. It was cheap, ill fitting and since the only natural material in it was herself, itchy. It was also a hideous combination of colors that spoke of fun-food and good times, provided you were colorblind.
Mr. Smith was the store manager. He was also nearly a foot shorter than her, no matter which way he stood, sat or lay. His skin had a near shine to it from his nearly constant sweating. He spoke with a grating, raspy voice that made her want to clear her own throat just to see if it would help his. It didn't.
"Ovah, heeya we've got our beverage selection, It's automated, but make sure that the lids are on tight. Some of those are messy if they escape."
"You mean spill?"
"There, that's the shop. Any questions?"
"Uhm, yes." Carla asked, "What exactly are those?" She pointed to a large batch of cooling deep fried strips. The looked something like french fries, except that they were blue green and sprinkled with red flakes.
"Those? Those are our biggest seller! They're called zippies. sliced from fresh tako roots. Here, try one, but they can be a bit addictive."
Carla sniffed the fried item, It smelled a bit unlike anything she had ever had before, not bad, simply different, and almost floral.
Smith popped a few into his mouth and munched merrily.
Carla took a bite. It wasn't that bad, it was starchy and a bit sweet with a hint of anise or maybe... burning plastic? Suddenly Carla got a full taste of the significantly less delectable treat. Her mouth filled with the lingering essence of aged cheese and burning rubber.
"Mighty tasty, aren't they? You get one free large serving a day, but you'll have to pay for any more, understand?"
Carla nodded, desperately trying not to get any more on her tongue. Smith took a few more as he turned to walk away. "Management however gets as many as he likes." He chortled. Carla looked for anything she could spit her fermenting mouth load into. She dove toward a trash can.
She poured herself a cup of some beverage that tasted like carbonated strawberries and bacon. It was awful, but significantly less so.
"This place is a threat?" Carla said mostly to herself. The rest of the afternoon was spent mostly with Carla alternating between total boredom and trying not to taste any more food. Smith was disturbingly chipper even for an opening day with no customers. Carla was growing more and more concerned that she wouldn't get a chance to find out anything about this place.
"Carla? I'm going out to check on a few things. If you have any problems, call me."
"Ok!" Carla called back as she heard the back door close. She waited a few moments to see Smith head off in his BMW. Carla got to work quickly. She made her way to the back office. It was locked of course. It was also right next to the restroom. She went inside the restroom and locked the door, then walked through the adjoining wall. Quickly and carefully she went through the various filing cabinets, manuals and reports.
Nothing was unusual. In fact the only thing that was odd were that none of the incoming goods had return addresses on them, simply routing numbers. There was a computer terminal nearby but Carla knew better than trying to hack into it. That was Shimo's trick.
Fifteen minutes later she phased back into the ladies room, unlocked the door and went back out into the restaurant.
Roger and Phil were like five year olds. "Did you bring us anything?"
Carla looked at them. "Ugh, no! I like you guys!"
Roger looked the most crestfallen, "I heard that you get a free large order of Xyppies if you work there."
Carla's eyes grew wide, "You.. you actually like those things?"
It was a rare moment, but Roger actually looked confused. "Wait, you don't? Did you try one?"
"Yes, I couldn't spit it out fast enough. Those things were absolutely disgusting."
Roger and Phil looked at each other, then Jack. "Something's going on here." Roger said. "There are several races who have become so addicted to Xyppies that they've had to turn planets into rehab farms. Xyppies are the single favorite junk food for every single creature out in the cosmos."
"They can have my order. Jack those things made me wish I had a three week-old road kill skunk slurpee just to get rid of the taste. I spent the better part of the afternoon not puking whenever I had to walk by the bin."
"Rhino, any word from Betelgeuse?"
"Yes, actually. Officially our hands are tied. Their explorer's license allows them to set up outposts and relay stations on non-Federation worlds. We're still checking on if that extends into selling off-world provisions. Since most of the stuff they have is prepared, there's no real risk of contamination. Still I suppose it wouldn't hurt for us to go inspect their facilities. Unofficially, well, you know how much GC loves them."
Jack smiled. "Yeah about as much as a stripper at a Southern Baptist Convention"
"And the feeling is mutual.", Rhino continued.
"Still, it does fall within our obligations." Jack's brow furrowed. "Maybe it's time we paid a little visit to McZ's. Carla, stay here."
"Roger, Rhino? You're with me. Phil, stay in contact here and Shimo, try to make it through the afternoon?"
Shimo looked at Jack not quite sure what to make of his comment.
"That's the place?" Jack said as the van pulled up across the street.
Roger drew a heavy breath through his nose. "Ah, yes!"
"Roger, we're on official business here. Don't make me regret bringing you. Ok, everyone got what they need? I don't want to go in as a threat, but I don't want us unprotected either. Let's go."
Before Jack could open the door to the van a long black limousine pulled up in front of the restaurant. A very large hand connected to an equally large gentleman in dark sunglasses and darker Italian suit held on Jack's door. Jack gave a quick protest as Rhino and Roger prepared themselves.
The suit gave no outward sign of concern and simply said. "You are requested to wit'hold from any action until he has had a moment to speaks wit' you."
Jack held up a hand and Rhino and Roger froze. Two more equally large and well dressed individuals jogged over to the limo and opened one of the doors nearest the van. The nearest figure listened to his ear piece, nodded and said. "Please gentlemen, if you would follow me." He opened the door. Jack, Rhino and Roger exchanged glances in a silent conversation, then exited the van and headed toward the limo. As they approached the door, a voice called out from inside.
"Gentlemen, it is good to see you, and I am pleased that you share my concern about our mutual interest. I assure you that I bear none of you any ill will, so if you'd be so kind as to leave your larger toys with my associate, we can have a more relaxed conversation."
Again the three exchanged looks. Jack nodded, then looked to Rhino. Even if they were to give up their larger weapons, each had a wide supply of better concealed ones that would suffice in a small area. Rhino's paranoia was equaled by his curiosity as to who this individual could be. Reluctantly he nodded as well and the three handed over their larger items to the large gentleman who held out his arms. "If it's ok with you, I'd prefer staying out here."
The voice chuckled a bit. "I am disappointed, but not surprised. Please gentlemen do what makes you feel comfortable and happy. I like happy. I love to see people smile."
Jack and Roger entered the limo while Rhino and the well dressed armory rack got into a staring match.
Smith smiled and looked to the opened door. Two large well dressed men entered, followed by a man with red hair and oddly pale face. Red Hair took a last drag off of a cigarette before flicking the remainder out the opened door. As he exhaled he gave the establishment a long studied gaze.
"Welcome to McZigmunski's! What can I get for you gentlemen?" Smith said with practiced charm.
Red hair laughed low at the universal greeting. then held up a gloved finger. "No, I believe in this case it's what I may get for you. Which in this case is a bit of advice." Red strolled casually up to the counter. "See, you're new here, and I appreciate the fact that you're interested in getting started. After all, we're business men, you and I. We live by the whims of a fickle marketplace, isn't that right boys?"
"Yes SIR." the suits exclaimed in military precision.
Smith became more serious. "Is this some sort of extortion?"
Red Hair laughed hard at that. "Do I look like some kind of petty two-bit thug to you? I'm deeply insulted by your accusation, but I'll let it pass this once. No Mr. ... Smith? Heh, nice one, very creative. No, Mr. Smith. like I said, I'm a simple business man interested in protecting my market. As such, I've gone to great lengths to be assured of that.
Several years ago I became familiar with your company and the methods you generally employ. Frankly, I was a bit disturbed. As I'd said in the past, I pride myself in good competition and fair play. I must say Mr. Smith, that your McZigmunski's does not have the same sense of fair play that I am accostomed to.As such, I've taken it upon myself to raise my concerns with my fellow restaurateur's who have shared my distress."
"I'm not sure I understand what you're implying Mr..."
"Please, last names are so formal. Call me Ron."
"Ah, ok, Ron. I'm not sure what you're implying. McZigmunski is simply providing customers with what they want."
"Of that I'm quite sure you are." Ron continued. "You see, I know that you've carefully created your products to have wide appeal. I know that you've spent who knows how much to identify certain chemical properties that have the highest and shall we say widest appeal. You've even managed to adopt cutting edge technology to ensure that you're fine food products are met with a good deal of appeal."
"Yes we have, and there's nothing wrong with that." Smith said defensively.
"No, no there's not. In fact it's something that I've done quite often myself. Granted not to the level that you're doing, but that's because I don't have quite the budget that you do."
Ron walked over to the bin of Xyppies. "I must admit, that I found your tactics to be sheer genius, really. The thought of imbedding nanobot technology in food to stimulate pleasure centers is truly remarkable."
"There's no proof that.."
Ron dropped the Xyppie into the trash and wiped his hand against his yellow jump suit. "No, of course not. Like I said, though, it was pure genius. It was something I'd have done myself had I your budget. No, I had to stick with something a bit simpler, although just as effective for my means."
"You see, Mr. Smith, I know a fair amount about your operations here and along with my associates, we've been waiting for you to make your move. Well, waiting isn't quite the right word. We've been... preparing. Now, there's absolutely no proof of the fact that we've been supplementing our own fried foods with agents that might make it very difficult for your nanobots to operate, again, provided you actually used them, which means that your food must actually appeal to the local population on it's own merits."
Smith blanched. then started to turn purple and sweat even more.
"Mr.Smith, You behave as if I am an enemy of yours, rest assured that I am not. I'll have you know that minutes before I entered your fine establishment, I spoke with some members of Galactic Customs who were interested in scanning your foods. Had they found nanobots, I belive that your company would have been in a rather awkward position."
Smith blanched again. A pool of (hopefully) sweat started to gather around him.
Fortunately, I trust you when you say you don't, so my discussion was probably needless. Still, I'm certain you appreciate me saving you some valuable time."
Ron took a large order of Xyppies from the rack and dropped them into a sack. He took out a $100 bill and placed it on the counter. "I believe that this should more than cover the cost of these. I'll be interested in seeing how they compare against mine." Ron walked to the door.
Then stopped. "Oh, one other thing. Again, I'm not stating that you do use them, but if you were to try to use your nanobots for any other purpose. Rest assured that I've already taken measures. Good day, Mr. Smith, and welcome to the neighborhood." Ron turned on his oversized red shoes and left.
"They did what?" Jack said with a note of disbelief.
Shimo reported back, somewhat astonished himself. "Apparently every single major fast food joint in the satellite's footprint sent up a burst of focused microwaves. The wave fried the satellite in place. Heck, we didn't even know McZ's had a satellite up there, and that burst was enough to take out a heavy cruiser. I don't know who your friends are Jack, but I'm glad they're on our side."
"Well, they are for now. Let's start keeping an eye on them."
"What about McZ's? Are they still a threat."
"According to the guy that we talked to, they're going to make sure that they stay at just one franchise. I didn't ask how they planned on doing that, and since our hands are tied, we can't shut them down either. What about that sample I gave you?"
"You're right, there was something on them, possibly sleeper nanos, but there's now way to say for sure. Sleepers build themselves from other elements, and we don't know what the missing bits are or what these things were supposed to do."
"Clever, not enough to build a court case off of, but enough to raise a few eyebrows. Send what you can to HQ. I'm sure a few folks might be interested in them. I'll go give Roger and Phil the good news that they can go there for meals on occasion. Oh, here."
"Wow, cool, free coupons for Happy Meals! Where'd you get these?"