Now without a mask, I could see Tamra smirking at my shocked reaction. "He's called an Ishuca. From planet Nudapwa. They're very good workers. Taught us a lot about horticulture. This one is named Eybarbe."

The octopus thing waved at me. I smiled and waved back. "That's...kinda cool!...Can I pet it?"

She chuckled. "You can try."

I reached for it, but the thing snarled and bit me, made a bunch of noises that reminded me of the gibberish speech of Woodstock from the Peanuts cartoon.

And then it sprayed me with something that made me wish I hadn't removed my mask.

"He says not to interrupt him while he's working and keep your hands off him."

I stared at the woman. If the little octopus guy was truly an extraterrestrial and not a genetic experiment of some sort, I couldn't help but wonder if she were getting horny right now, and what her social life must be like. Of course, I couldn't bring myself to ask those questions out loud. "Do you...hang out here a lot?"

The woman shrugged. "Sometimes. When I need to think. It's a nice place."

I bet it is, I thought. A lot of secluded areas in this domed greenhouse.

Regardless of what the woman did with those...things, or whether they actually came from space, I wanted to see more. After all, this was "Only the tip of the iceberg." "You know, I think I'm starting to like this place."

Tamra looked amused. "Just wait until you're doing calls! That's really going to blow your stockings off!"

Naturally, our next stop was a call center.

Not at all what I expected. Instead of a cube farm like every telephone based company had, I got walked into a carpeted room full of shiny chrome drums, each roughly seven feet tall, and not much larger than a closet.

The average call floor is noisy, dozens of employees yabbering at once to various customers, but you barely heard anything in this one. Nobody seemed to be hanging around the place either. "Is it always this quiet?"

She gave me a nod. "Our sound canceling devices are highly advanced."

A hidden door on one of the drums slid open, and out stepped a person I thought for sure was a man, dressed in a uniform like mine. Upon closer examination, however, I discovered it to be only a plump woman with a butch haircut. The individual had breasts.

As the stranger left, Tamra showed me the opened compartment: Gray walls covered in a sponge-like material, padded bench, something like an oversized hamster water bottle, a little table like you'd see on the back of an airplane seat, and a big bizarre looking electronic device with a vague resemblance to a computer. "You'll go over the basics of all this equipment during training. Your water bottle automatically replenishes from the outside water supply, but you can also bring a snack or bottle of your favorite beverage if you'd like. Just no full course meals."

"That's...pretty standard...except the guinea pig bottle."

"The fixtures are changed and sanitized at the end of every shift. The client wants us to avoid messes, so your other beverage goes into a similar but insulated container."

I frowned. "I see."

"That concludes our tour. All that's left now is to get you a drug screen. Right this way..."

I thought for a moment she'd give me a paper and ask me to go outside to get the testing done at LabCorp, prompting no small amount of anxiety about me walking around in public with that getup. What actually happened was still humiliating, but in a different way.

They tested me in the mini hospital.

It was set up kind of like a room in a family clinic. Sterile, displaying the typical medical accoutrements, it smelled of disinfectant, had one examination table and two curtained hospital beds. A few of the items in the glass displays looked unearthly, a few even glowing, others like polished chrome medieval torture devices.

I found the staff of the hospital rather...shocking to say the least.

During the tour, I hadn't the opportunity to get a good look at them, but now I saw that the red haired young nurse in the short labcoat had pointy ears and hands with only three fingers,* and her lab assistant...he was a five and a half foot tall purple salamander with bat ears.

"W-wow," I stammered. "Hello."

The `elf' chuckled at my awkwardness.

"New hire," Tamra explained. "We need a drug test."

"What happened. Get tired of using an outside company?" I glanced down at my dress. "Not that I'm complaining or anything..."

"What we're testing for, you can't get in one of those corporate testing centers."

"I thought you said I was clear for Covid."

"You are, or you wouldn't have made it this far."

"Let's just say, in the past, a few applicants have shown up with some very interesting substances in their bodies." The redhead stuck a sort of memory card into the side of a tube shaped device, fitted the interior with a condom-like liner, and handed it to me.

The object had an opening on one end, a sieve-like attachment on the other. "What am I supposed to do with this?"

"Pull it over your penis and urinate through it."

I stared at her in disgust. "Seriously?"

Her facial expression implied this was as ordinary a procedure as a stool sample. She looked as indifferent to the idea as one of those grumpy nurses at LabCorp would be about a specimen jar. "Yes. The Sopolo will scan your waste molecules for illegal substances, health defects and cloning."

I reddened. How many more humiliating things was this company going to subject me to? "Oh...kay..."

I nervously fingered the box on the side of this obscene device, but then stopped when I realized that I might be telling volumes about my personal life by accident. "What exactly would have happened if I had been a woman?"

"We get a special cup with a liner."

"I'm wearing a diaper. Isn't there some way for you to just do your reading from there?"

She grimaced. "Gross."

"And a condom thing isn't?"

"Yes. It doesn't have to touch...anything unsanitary."

"I haven't used it. It's brand new."

"So's the Sopolo liner."

"This is a one time test, Mr. Finch," Tamra said. "They only make those for daily situations."

"Like a pill factory?"

"Exactly."

"I...really don't have to go right now."

The nurse gestured to a bed. "Then have a seat. Would you like a soda? Pepsi? Mountain Dew? Azaoca? Apple juice?"

Swallowing, I seating myself on the plastic covers. "Sure. Pepsi's fine."

"Tobhas!" she called, making a series of loud chirps and clicking sounds.

The purple creature set down a nasty looking saw, handing me a stainless steel bottle.

I frowned. "Why's it in a thermos?"

"We bottle it ourselves from a reservoir. It reduces waste."

"So, what, you got a lake of Pepsi?"

"No. We make our own sodas from carbonated water and syrup. It's kept in a tank."

"Clever." I took a swig. "Tell me something, am I the only guy in the building that has to wear a dress, or is this really a job requirement?"

The nurse shrugged. "Does it matter? You seem to be the type of guy that would enjoy it."

Blood rushed to my face. "Hey! I didn't come here to be insulted!"

"He's a little insecure," Tamra muttered. *"But I think he really wants to work here." The tone of voice seemed to hint that I was a closet queer, but what she said implied that I'd better get used to the uniform if I wanted the job. Her comment made the nurse chuckle.

I decided to shut up and get the test over with.

I found the drink to be everything I expected, except for tinges of something tasting of Fisherman's Friend cough drops and little beads of gel flavored like burnt popcorn. "What did you put in this?"

"Just something to make you pee."

With a shrug, I drank more, staring at their urine tester. "There's holes in the bottom of this. How is it going to read anything?"

She gave me a look like I were crazy. "Your planet is so barbaric. Pissing in a plastic jar? It's disgusting!" She sighed. "The Sopolo is computerized. The matrix of filters scans waste particles as you-"

All of a sudden, my bladder felt like it were going to explode. I jumped to my feet, fighting the urge to let it all go right there. "Where-"

She pointed to a sterile looking hospital bathroom. "Place the Sopolo in the cabinet when you're finished."

I hurried inside, slamming the door shut behind me.

It was humiliating, but I performed their little obscene test, sticking the device in a cubbyhole above the toilet tank.

"Am I done?" I asked when I came out.

"Basically."

The nurse took a gun shaped device into the restroom, suctioned the urine tester into its barrel. She pushed some buttons, stared at the gun's little monitor. "Congratulations. You're negative for illegal substances." She frowned, squinting at the results.

"Something wrong?" Tamra asked.

The nurse tapped the gun. "It's nothing. I think there must be something wrong with the device."

"Does he need to be retested?"

"No...I'm just trying to figure out why every time I use this thing, the device seems to always say that the subject has 1.3% Xikkar count in their system. Even when we re-test our subjects, it always comes back to that same number."

"If the reading is accurate, would that much Xikkar interfere with job performance?"

The nurse shook her head. "It's too small a quantity, and I don't even know if it's his doing. Your guy has none of the symptoms of Xikkar abuse. This definitely looks like an error."

Tamra smirked. "He doesn't strike me as a drug addict. I think he'll be fine."

She checked a clock. "Well. It looks like we timed this just right. Your class will start in a couple minutes."

The woman took me to a classroom, a drab gray cube with rows of work tables, markerboard and beat up chairs. What didn't look standard for an office of this type were the silver cones and miniature sandboxes full of rocks I saw at every desk. The place smelled of carpet cleaner, dry erase markers, starch, lavender perfume, some foreign scents I couldn't identify.

The chairs had been occupied by a dozen uniformed students...and four other things.

Young men and women of Midwestern diversity, black, white, two Hispanic, all in gray dresses. The scent of starch and perfume I detected probably came from all those dresses being together in one area

In the `other' category...wow.

A couple of them looked like human sized chipmunks with beaks and long lizard tails, clad in lingerie, which, to their credit, did bear the company logo.

I saw a thing like a giant cockroach with a grasshopper head. It wore a harness with the D logo.

And then I saw her.

A slender green figure, clad in leather harness and thong, with four arms and a pair of tusks growing from the sides of its head.

I stared at the frog-like face with awed fascination. Large eyes, small antennas, bald head decorated with a jeweled wreath. It appeared to be female.

The stranger's widely spaced toad's eyes blinked me in puzzlement. They didn't quite meet mine, but I didn't care. I smiled bashfully, giving her a little wave.

Okay, so I was more than fascinated. I didn't even care she was hairless and had no nose, or breasts for that matter.

She let out an amused snort, but seemed to be even more puzzled.

Not wanting to be rude, I looked away, which caused the creature to giggle.

"Stop drooling and take a seat."

Another snort.

The lovely green creature sat in the back row. Although bashful around woman, this...alien wasn't quite a woman, and my curiosity emboldened me. Spotting an empty chair next to her, I jumped at the chance, pretending to just randomly choose that particular seat.

I cast her a bashful sideways glance, pretended to be focused elsewhere.

I stared at the sandbox in front of me, poking one of the rocks.

Tamra slapped my hand. "Don't touch that."

"Gee," I muttered. "Somebody takes their Feng Shui way too seriously!"

She turned to face the rest of the class. "Everybody. Hands off the Gezrot. This is highly sensitive material and you can seriously damage the mechanism if you're not careful. They are imported and not very easy to replace."

I placed my hands in my lap, impatiently awaiting an explanation.

It didn't come. Instead, Tamra excused herself to take care of other business matters.

I would have introduced myself to the creature beside me, but my encounter with the Ishuca made me a little cautious, and then our presenter stepped into the room.

He seemed mostly human, clad in white shirt and tie, with rather ordinary blonde hair, Caucasian skin, and unremarkable Irish nose, but his ears looked freakish. Pointy and covered in fur, it looked like someone had grafted German shepherd ears to the sides of his head. A raccoon-like tail poked out the back of his slacks. His name: Vuembi.

The creature greeted us and launched into a training session.

Surprisingly prosaic for a weird looking space mutant. I usually liked science fiction stories with histories, but the history of a company? Let's just say they made a lot of money and there were no exploding spaceships involved. At all. And the word DOGOS, apparently, stood for something of alien historical value, and had no English equivalent. My head and eyelids started drooping before he reached an interesting part: Our customers.

Apparently we had the capability of making calls to distant planets, which involved a little over one hundred different races and species. They all looked really cool, I mean, if you like the idea of alien biology. A guy in the front row said he didn't like scifi at all, his favorite film being The Fast and the Furious. He looked bored, despite how his movies were also fantasy epics with flying cars.

The novelty wore a little thin when we delved into the employee handbook. You'd think training for a job like this would be exciting, but whenever you have a corporation, everything gets mired in the driest laws and company policies. For example, each region has its own special time zone restrictions, and we have to read planet specific scripts.

To save time, and your patience, I've spared you the details. If you're really interested, you can look them up elsewhere on this site. What they don't know about my breach of the NDA won't hurt them.

When my attention wandered, I stared at my instructor's tail, or the rodents, or my green seat partner. Of course, that only served to make them more attentive to the lesson.

Well, except for one of the pregnant rodents. That thing smiled at me, running a paw up her stockinged thigh, pretty much explaining her present condition. I cringed, focusing on the instructor.

Not every planet had marriage, they had other types of arrangements, and you had to address the right party based on their sexual configuration, except if they were aesexual and reproduced by cell division. Sometimes there was a third party that provided mitochondria to the offspring, so three individuals, all married to one another, could handle the same account.

Planet Spargo was a big slavery planet, which offended the African Americans in the room until they realized the slaves were not black, nor even human. Some regions of the planet allowed slaves to speak on `massah's' behalf, other's required special permission or written documentation. Oddly enough, the only one who walked out on that part of the lecture and quit was a heavy set white woman.

"Hey, man," someone said in the front row. "It's been two hours. Can we please have a break?"

"I'm sorry," Vuembi replied. "Breaks are not allowed during a productive workday. Labor laws are slightly different here. You should all be wearing appliances that take care of your need to go to the bathroom. Those of you who are smokers will also be provided addiction counseling. Water bottles can be found in the cabinet in the back of the classroom."

A lot of offended murmurs resulted from this, but only one person left.

"Does this also bother you?" the green creature muttered to me. The voice was low and husky, her breath smelling of cinnamon and curry. I loved it.

"Uh, what?"

"Not having breaks. Humans are finding this offensive."

"Oh! Right!" I shrugged. It was a scummy policy, but as a new hire I knew I didn't have any pull in unionizing. Also, I'd signed some paperwork that more or less stayed that I accepted their break policy. They rushed me through that part, but I remembered it being mentioned. "I've been in companies where they didn't allow me breaks until late in the day or when the replacement guy comes in to keep the assembly line going. I don't like it, though."

"Your species has inefficient bladder configurations. Especially your females when they're pregnant."

I felt a twinge of envy. "Guess I know who not to bring along on a road trip."

From that point onward, I tried to ignore the sounds of diapers being used.

"...Speaking of labor laws, I think this is a good time for you to receive your employee handbooks..." Our instructor passed out binders like the girls in the hallway had been carrying, along with laminated instruction sheets and little pads to take notes.

A slender green hand passed me the materials.

Again I was staring. My eyes traveled down the female's long neck, admired her bare, muscular belly, her bony hips...An orange tint spread across the creature's chest, accented her cheeks. "Human, I don't think we've been formally introduced."

"H-hi." I was never good at formalities.

"My name is Ibira." She offered me a hand, her harness straps creaking as she shifted in her chair. "I believe this is your custom." When I hesitated, she offered a second right hand.

I grinned, eagerly shook both of them. "Jason. I...Sorry, about the-" I was trying to apologize for staring while I continued to stare at her. I mean, she had no bellybutton. I forced my eyes upwards, staring in to solid hazel-green eyes that didn't meet mine all the way, due to the spacing. "N-nice to meet you." Up close, I noticed she had an exotic animal muskiness to her, one that distracted me to the point of not thinking.

Ibira cleared her throat, indicating that I should take my booklet and pass the stack along.

"Sorry." I pretended to be really interested in my booklet.

Half the book contained nothing but bullet point listings of various laws and guidelines. I had to sign and date several documents, agreeing to the terms of things I never knew existed. Again, if you want to see the handbook, and are in need of sleep, you're welcome to it.

My eyes widened when I saw lines in the booklet like "Door to Door Collection Guidelines," which actually sounded like instructions, and "Employee to Employee Fraternization and Cohabitation Policy." Again, too complicated to be a simple "No, don't do it," but nobody ever explained these items to me. They just told me I wouldn't have to worry about that, just sign the paper and move on to the next one. Someone did ask about the "Employee Enslavement and Redemption Process" section, but we were told that it didn't apply to our facility.

As I filled out yet another sheet, I felt a tap on my shoulder, but when I glanced that way, I only saw the cute green thing busying herself with paperwork.

Another student had seated himself in the chair to my right during the lecture, but he seemed ill humored, and scowled at me for even looking at him. I could sympathize - unless you're gay, you don't especially want some other dude staring at you while you're wearing a dress.

I heard a snort, but it wasn't the guy, and Ibira appeared to be oblivious, mutely occupied with filling out forms.

It didn't take me long to figure out the prank. I leaned toward Ibira, muttering, "I didn't know they had grade school on your planet."

She smirked, but made no admission of doing it. "What ever do you mean?"

I only rolled my eyes and tried to listen to the instructor.

We had a little introduction time, each one of us getting in front of the markerboard and saying a little bit about ourselves like we were in kindergarten or something.

A lot of people came from some weird company called Abadak, and already knew each other. When they didn't come from that place, they came from Encore. I'd heard of Encore, and worked for one of its affiliate companies, but apparently had been left out of the loop when it came to Abadak and other places these people had come from. So yeah, a lot of that stuff I didn't find very memorable because it went right over my head.

What I did find memorable was when Ibira went up to present:

"My name is Ibira. My homeland is the province of Gugabind on the planet Zutdabi. I have one year of customer service and collections experience, I like sports and painting, and I was separated from the U-Bank facility during the razorback invasion, so I'm here to learn operations with DOGOS."

I committed her words to memory, turning them over in my mind to see how I could use the information to impress her. When my turn came, though, I had nothing too impressive to say. I had a year of job experience, I did do artwork, and karate, which was kind of a sport.

With introductions out of the way, Vuembi activated one of the strange devices on our desks by flipping a rock. The sandbox made the sound of running water, and an abstract symbol appeared in the air. "On each one of your desks, if you haven't noticed yet, there are Gezrot. These are highly advanced computer systems from planet Woirtu. You are now free to experiment with the interface."

These devices had desktops, but it was all holographic. Things floated in the air instead of moving around on monitors, and the desk had a third dimension, a constant annoyance.

Classmates flicked the rocks randomly, creating the sound of a gurgling stream. I did some experimenting myself. It turned out the sound was illusionary, and when I rolled around a spherical stone, it moved a cursor. Some electromagnetic force kept the rocks from leaving the sandbox.

Vuembi had us log into the system, and he taught us how to use the main computer programs. It was really complicated, and not at all like the Windows operating systems I'd been used to. Although fascinating, I doubt the average person would find it interesting, so I won't go into the details. A lot of the program features I didn't even get an opportunity to use at my job. If you really want to know, I've got the technical manual posted elsewhere on this site, and you can look at that.

I noticed two of my classmates tinkering with the device, clicking the rocks around until a holographic image of a topless purple woman with four breasts appeared above their desk.

The boss, understandably angry, stomped over to them as they giggled and pointed. He flipped a few rocks and the picture disappeared. "Gentlemen, all policies regarding use of electronic communications apply to the Gezrot. If I see you accessing Xalxub or any sort of pornography again it will be grounds for termination, do I make myself clear?"

I'd later encounter this Xalxub thing in real life, but that's another story for another time.

The two nodded nervously, making themselves very slight in attempts to draw the attention away from themselves.

We spent the next hours opening and closing various menus and accessing different windows in a repetitive style that resembled martial arts drilling.

Complaining of problems with her computer device, my green companion changed desks, seating herself in the row in front of me. Conveniently for me, she had chosen one which allowed me to admire her body without having my view obstructed by a chair...or conspicuously turning my head.

When the creature caught me staring at her dappled rump, she rolled her widely spaced eyes and turned away.

We spent the next two hours learning how to operate a myriad of confusing programs , menus and notation screens. I often got bored of the repetition, and found my eyes tracing the curves of the green figure in the next row.

She really caught me this time, frowning and furrowing her brow in confusion.

Turning red in the face, I bashfully smiled and waved to her, an action that caused her to giggle, her skin changing that orange tint again.

She batted her lashes at me, stuck out her oddly shaped tongue, turned around in her seat.

With the exception of a few random appraising glances, she didn't look at me again for the rest of class. The change to her skin color almost seemed permanent.

I gave up, driving myself deeper into the training. Vuembi was telling us about how we had to wear our uniforms every time we stepped into the video chat booth, how we'd have to maintain a professional appearance appropriate for our alien demographic.

I heard a knock on the door, and in stepped a bald brown skinned female, in a dress with a stylish Black Panther motif. "Is this a good time?"

Vuembi nodded. "Everyone, this is Osmifa, our Employee Ambassador. She'll be going over a few programs our company offers."

The young woman launched into a speech about how to use our paychecks on a website to order dress uniforms (called Ipsego), how to earn Customer Excellence Points and redeem them for special outfits or other perks, then some things about addiction counseling, sexual harassment reporting, `Abuse and lose' guidelines for use of the chapel, `off campus housing,' on various planets...I still wasn't sure how we'd get to space, or why Earth laws had ceased to apply to us, but Osmifa seemed pressed for time, Vuembi a little impatient to return to weightier business matters.

Okay, so I already knew for a fact that aliens existed, so maybe Earth laws didn't apply to my situation, in the same way Will Smith had to burn his fingerprints off to join the Men In Black, which made me less inclined to ask anyway.

Osmifa's eyes had no whites in them at all, a weird, unnatural feature in an otherwise ordinary but beautiful face. Not really something I could avoid staring at, especially when she spoke, though nobody brought up the subject out loud.

"Hey," someone asked. "How many CEP earn us the right to wear pants?"

To my surprise, Osmifa had an exact figure. "Three thousand per quarter. Less if you're tenured."

I had to say something. "Actual men's pants? Not just tights or pantyhose?"

"Yes, Mr. Finch," Vuembi answered. "3K earns you the right to wear whatever you want for that quarter. You can dress up like the Cookie Monster every day if you like."

To wrap up, Osmifa told us we could see her in her office if we wanted to talk, she seemed to be in the counselor capacity.

"She's been doing this for centuries," Vuembi agreed, though I doubted the validity of that statement.

Since Ibira had been looking my way anyway, I tugged my collar to indicate my dress, made a shrug that signaled "Why?"

She smirked. "Their outfits only have two sleeves."

"You'd think they could make you one with more."

"Perhaps in a few months. It has to be discussed with HR. Currently they think that my quasi-primitive appearance will give customers a sense of user friendliness and easy to understand simple communication, making my skill and efficiency a pleasant surprise."

I grinned. "I see."

Class didn't get dismissed like I hoped. Instead, Vuembi commenced a lecture on calculating Arcuva, some sort of universal alien currency that doesn't add up the way American dollars do. And I thought I hated math before.

If you're really interested in how it works, I've posted the details elsewhere on this site, but this kinda stuff is only exciting to math geeks.

After the lecture had gone on for more than half an hour, Vuembi dismissed us for lunch, much to my relief. I guess they had decided against feeding us intravenously.

I still hadn't gotten used to the idea of peeing on myself, so I hurried away to the bathroom. Unsurprisingly, the place was near empty, only a couple guys plugging drainage hoses into their diapers. I used the toilet the normal way, seeking out the cafeteria.

Nice restaurant style setup. Several small tables, a buffet counter, and a couple booths. The smells that greeted me were not conducive to a healthy appetite. While I could smell potatoes and a cheddar broccoli soup, I also detected sour cabbage, a kind of meat that smelled rotten, and something scented of epoxy or moth balls.

I followed a line up to the counter, staring at the people and the food.

To my shock, behind the plexiglass spitguard at the buffet counter, I saw the fat bellied, bearded IT guy from my last job, ladling out potatoes and strange looking meat. Under his apron, I he wore a `Han Shot First' Star Wars t-shirt. I imagined this job was right up his alley. "What happened, Tom? Didn't Sprint pay you enough?"

He laughed, plopping a white mound on my serving tray. "No, they did not. Nice dress, by the way."

I rolled my eyes. "How come you don't have to wear one?"

"I'm still doing IT. Nobody sees me, thank God." He stuck a tongful of greenish red meat in an adjacent square. "All they cared about was my ability to jury rig ethernet cables and modems to their alien electronics so the shit runs without them ordering parts from the other side of the galaxy."

"Lucky you," I groaned. I pointed to the meat. "What is this stuff?"

"Vornok. We mix alien food with the reserves so we can meter it out. You'll get used to it."

"Vornok?"

He didn't explain, he just shrugged like `Vornok is Vornok.' "The team acquired it during a sortie. This is the last time we can serve it before it expires."

"It looks expired already," I joked.

Tom laughed. "Trust me. You don't want to eat Vornok when it's expired, unless you wish to experience paralysis."

"How do I know I won't experience it now?" I cried.

He waved a hand at the other employees eating plates of the stuff. "They look just fine to me."

"I'll take your word on that...What do you mean by `sortie?'"

"People go out on the planet sometimes. We find stuff that is suitable for human consumption, we put it in the cafeteria." Again, that `whatever' shrug.

I got some cornbread and a kind of broccoli casserole at the next station. They had those aluminum soda bottles on the next row, but people assured me that none of them contained that stuff that makes you want to pee really bad...unless it's a prank. I looked for a cash register, but it seemed they didn't have one.

Our strange looking Employee Ambassador stood at the far end of the buffet, also clad in an apron. I waved to get her attention. "Hey."

"Hey yourself."

"Um...Is there a cash register around here somewhere? I have a debit card..."

The girl chuckled. "Newby, food rations come directly out of your salary. Take whatever you want."

I frowned. If lunch was to come out of my salary, I would have at least made sure it came out of Applebee's or something.

I carried my food to an empty table.

Vornok wasn't the most pleasant thing I've ever tasted, sort of like liver, pickles and Waffle Crisp cereal, but I was hungry, so I choked it down a few mouthfuls.

I nearly gagged on the `roast beest' when I saw a curvy green body slipping into the chair across from me.

Two of her hands set down a tray of mystery meat and potatoes. A third set down a glass of water, her fourth self consciously straightening the leather harness that wrapped her body like a rubber band. "Mind if I sit here?"

I swallowed hard. "Yes!" I sounded eager, but I realized I'd said the wrong thing. "I mean, no, go right ahead!"

She touched her fingers together, muttered something under her breath, made a dainty slice through the Vornok meat.

Just seeing her doing that slight observance made me suspect that I actually loved her.

Since saying so would make for very awkward conversation, I decided to try safe territory first, if I even had the guts to do that. "I...have so many questions...What's a razorback?"

She ate a bite of her food, shrugged both sets of shoulders. "They're merciless blue savages from the planet Qansedru. They look a lot like your `pigs', but they have horns and walk on two legs. I would respect them, as their lifestyle resembles mine in many ways, but they're not very intelligent, and rather bloodthirsty." Her expression darkened, her fists clenched as she practically growled out her next words. "They killed several of my coworkers and friends, kidnapped dozens more. I will exact revenge when I have the opportunity."

But then she straightened, and it was like someone had flicked an off switch on her whole demented, rage filled vigilante persona. She smiled, calmly chewing the slice of meat she had cut with such care. "How about you? What's your story?"

I resolved to never piss this alien off. "Uhh...Nothing real exciting...My dad's a karate instructor, and my mom works at a health clinic..."

She actually seemed interested in all that, asking me a lot of things that should be obvious to the average American. Well, she was an alien.

"So what's that Abadak place like? It seems like I'm the only one who hasn't worked there."

She sighed. I think I was boring her a little. "It's a company. They have a lot in common with your `Encore.' Multiple breaks in the day, less control over employees' hours..."

"Maybe I should have found a way to work there."

She put a hand to her tusk, giving me a look that asked, `Would you really?'

We lapsed into an awkward silence. I made another attempt. "What's your favorite sport?"

"Mepkiza."

"What's that?"

Ibira's expression now seemed to say, `Seriously?' "I've got a better question...Why were you staring at me?"

I suddenly felt hot with embarrassment. "I..um..sorry. I've, um, never seen anything like you."

The alien smirked. "You seemed a little more than curious."

I swallowed. "Is that bad?"

She giggled. "No. I understand you've never seen an alien before?"

I shook my head. "Never."

"We have programs, you know."

I gulped. "I'll take your word on that."

She stood up, spreading her arms wide as she turned in a circle. "See all you wanted to see? Done staring?"

The room felt suddenly sweltering. My cheeks couldn't have turned a darker shade of pink. My words likewise came out clumsily. "I...um...maybe?" But I really wasn't done.

Her eyes seemed to widen, her skin coloration seeming to change in response.

"So..." I ventured. "You're from Zutdabi."

She nodded. "And you're an earthling."

"Ibira. Does your name have a special meaning?"

"Does yours, Jason?"

"I'm named after a Greek hero. How about you?"

"Ibira means `Dream Hunter.'"

"So what happens if you catch one? A dream?"

"You ever been a hero?"

I chuckled. "Fair enough."

It got uncomfortably quiet again.

I finally got up the courage to say, "Uh..you look very...interesting."

"I'll take that as a compliment," She laughed. "I suppose I should be glad that I interest you."

Ibira leaned over the table, lowering her voice. "I thought that you seemed...very interested."

A lump momentarily caught in my throat. "Is that a good thing?"

She leaned closer, looking me in the eye. Well, close enough to looking me in the eye to make me nervous. "Maybe."

I gave her a nervous smile. "Yeah. I'm interested. You look cool."

Ibira shrugged. "I wear very little, but I am not uncomfortable in this climate."

"No," I stammered. "I mean , you look...cute. Really cute."

She gave me a blank look. "Are you saying that you find me sexually attractive?"

The alien was being a little too forward for me to be comfortable. All I could think to do was quickly blurt no.

She seemed taken aback, almost like I had slapped her.

I didn't want the conversation to go in that direction, either. With my face incredibly flushed, I backpedaled as fast as I could. "That's not what I meant."

Her eyes narrowed in anger. "And what exactly did you mean."

"No, I mean, yes, I mean...kinda?"

"Kinda yes, or kinda no?"

I swallowed. "I don't know. I mean, it's exotic. It's..."

Her two left hands tapped the table impatiently.

"Okay, okay!" I stammered. "I do find you (ahem), attractive, but we don't know each other that well, and I wasn't sure if it was proper to say something like that at this point, especially with all those harassment policies-"

She smiled. "I find you `cute' as well."

I could have fainted.