The cafeteria in the Headquarters of the Protectors of the Plot Continuum didn’t look too terribly different from that of an average high school. To be sure, the walls, ceiling, floor and even furniture were an identical textureless grey, and the people chatting and eating ran the gamut from humans to illithids to a Triceratops, with most dressed in all black. Still, it was a large, rectangular room with long tables lined through the middle, and one wall dominated by a row of portable metal carts filled with various foods, dished out by more black-clad humanoids wearing hairnets.
Based on the facial expressions of those seated at the tables, the food was on par with the high school cafeteria cliché, as well.
One day, a portal began to open in front of one empty wall, starting as a point in space, and expanding to either side to form a line. The line then began to fill out, upwards and downwards. While portals were entirely commonplace in HQ, portals large enough to cover an entire cafeteria wall were not. Agents began to either rise from their seats or take cover beneath the tables, nearly all reaching for some lethal instrument: a blade, or a firearm, or, especially, a crowbar.
They were still stirring, however, when the wooden hull of a small ship erupted through the giant portal, crashing partly onto a (fortunately vacated) table. A surge of waves splashed out from beneath the ship, covering the floor in a spreading puddle of salty-smelling water. The ship rested at an angle, with the lower portion of the bow resting against the edge of the portal, and the bowsprit pointing towards the ceiling. This gave the assembled, murmuring agents a clear view of the ship’s figurehead, a very muscular merman giving a flirtatious smirk. The figurehead’s chest was covered in some dark, dried-out sea grass that stood out well from the light coloration of the ship’s wood and gave a decent impression of chest hair.
Because of the angle at which the ship sat, the rest of it disappeared below the line of the room’s sight. With no further movement from the portal visible, the agents began to become restless, some beginning to approach the ship, splashing through the puddle of sea water. One yelled out, “Someone call for security!”
Fr’sst, the kitchen’s live-in mouser, leaped onto one table. Balanced on his three legs, the cat glared at the figurehead with eerie, orange eyes.
Just then, a woman with dark brown skin strode out of the portal and climbed up the visible portion of the ship’s deck. She wore a white, ruffled shirt with long sleeves and light brown pants tucked into black boots. She wore a white bandanna over her forehead, which covered most of her reddish-brown hair.
She cautiously raised her head over the railing, taking in the room and the people filling it. Then she leaned over the railing and saw the tables’ contents (as well as the staring feline). She grimaced (and the figurehead did likewise) at the greyish, blotchy and glittering food, some of which was jiggling despite no one being nearby to bump it and set into motion. She slid partway back to the portal and called through. “Aye! These ones’ll want some food, for sure!” She approached the bow again and spoke loudly into the cafeteria. “Hail, heavily-armed office workers of various species! I be Captain Marilena del Rena, and this be my vessel, the Pizza Run. Forgive the name; ‘tis thanks to the previous owner, a bizarre teenager from another world what invaded me own. The full story be too long to tell; rest assured the cully lies in Davy Jones’s locker, and his magic ship be mine own, now. Along with a capable but dull crew, what don’t talk much.”
As she spoke, men with blank expressions began to appear through the portal, lugging barrels and chests to the bow. They had differing heights and features and skin colors, but most agents recognized them as background characters that hadn’t been described in a story. After one man had set down his load, Marilena wrapped an arm around his waist and lowered her head to the same level. “To be fair, though, they’ve personality enough . . . where it counts.” She grinned. “Aye?”
“Aye aye!” yelled Agent Luxury. “Woooo!”
Marilena laughed hard, shutting her eyes. “But to continue, me crew and I sail about from world to world, collectin’ various supplies and plunder, and sellin’ ‘em elsewheres. Our specialty . . . be FOOD!”
With this, she reached into an open barrel and pulled out a whole tuna. She tossed it towards Fr’sst, who caught it in midair by the throat, despite the fish matching his own size. He landed on the floor and dragged the tuna into a deep shadow under one of the tables. (The shadow should not have been nearly as deep as it was, considering the lighting in the cafeteria.)
As Marilena’s crew began opening more containers filled with food, nearly every agent present rushed towards the ship to try to get some for themselves. The bit characters began throwing knotted ropes over the sides to allow easy access to the deck. The same agent from before yelled out, “No one call for security!”
Marilena continued talking, louder and louder to be heard over the growing babble of excited voices. “Now, we best be preferrin’ tradeable goods, so’s we can barter again elsewheres, but money’ll do better than naught, especially coin what can be melted down.”
Apart from the fish (which didn’t move very quickly, since most agent teams had at least one member who couldn’t be trusted not to start a fire while heating something), the Pizza Run carried berries and nuts in hundreds of different shapes, sizes and colors; unidentifiable meats that had smoked and salted into jerky; candies and other hard treats and desserts; and exotic fruits and vegetables, both fresh and dried. One particularly moist and sweet-smelling veggie began to attract a crowd—until one of the generic pirates identified it as “Hentai Bush root.”
For her part, Marilena found herself repeatedly astonished at some of the things the PPC agents were trading to her. Tasteless-looking, glittering jewelry that hurt her eyes by being two different colors at the same time. Various wires and bolts and metal casings, clearly the fragments of technology tampered with beyond survival. Animals pelts with unnaturally flawless fur and disturbingly perfect feathers, yet were too obviously organic to be imitation. Nonetheless, she found herself grinning; things that some might label “off” or “unsettling” she could easily spin as “exotic” or “mystical” in another port. She was pleased with and proud of herself for discovering a new source of unusual trade.
One pair of cafeteria doors (which anyone would attest had already been open a moment ago) were suddenly thrown loudly open, and two figures moved in quickly, guns drawn and at their sides. One was another black-clad humanoid, but the other was a man-sized plant with a “head” full of fluffy white flowers. Seeing her newest customers suddenly start retreating from the ship while pocketing their purchases, Marilena understood these two newcomers were the local equivalent of the Royal Navy.
“Well, lads and lasses. And otherwise!” She nodded to the Triceratops. “I must be shovin’ off, now. Thank ye kindly for all the business.” She kept an eye on the swiftly approaching security as her crew jabbed poles into the crushed table and the edges of the portal to dislodge the ship’s hull. “But we shall surely return! So keep a weather eye on the horizon.”
The ship finally slipped backwards off the rim of the portal—the wooden merman’s left hand was now dislodged from the hull to give a wave of farewell—and a great splash was heard just before the portal clicked closed, right in front of the two new arrivals.
The officer and weed looked at each other, holstered their weapons, and turned to those agents who hadn’t already snuck away and left the cafeteria. They stood back to back, arms or leaves crossed. Now, agents, the Dandelion said telepathically, talk to us. What happened here?
As a group, the remaining agents averted their eyes and dispersed, muttering to each other. The guards looked at each other, the humanoid grimacing and the Dandelion giving off psychic vibrations of frustration. These changed to a swiftly expanding bubble of surprise as a new, much smaller portal opened just above them. A wet fish flopped through the air, dripping onto them, before plopping into the puddle of water on the floor with a splat.
The humanoid shrugged. “Evidence is evidence, I suppose.” They leaned down to pick up the fish, but winced as four sharp claws impaled the back of their hand.
Fr’sst held the officer’s gaze as the cat moved his face very, very slowly towards theirs. Just as their noses were about to touch, Fr’sst gave a long, low hiss. The officer very gingerly extricated their hand from Fr’sst’s claws and pulled it away from the tuna.