The next morning, Lucky Beast had the bus ready bright and early, as promised. At first light, Kaban and Serval broke camp and left the Administration Special Area behind, heading for Renraku City.
What should have been no more than an hour's drive took them all morning, thanks to the condition of the long-neglected road, but Kaban and Serval were used to that by now. They had a well-practiced routine all worked out for helping the Lucky Beasts, who weren't well-suited to manual labor, navigate the dilapidated byways of Japari Park.
At mid-morning, with the bus bumping along a relatively clear stretch, Serval was standing in the topside cupola when she suddenly remarked,
"Hey, Kaban. Have you noticed how quiet it is?"
Kaban climbed up beside her, settling her elbows on the roof of the bus, and replied, "My hearing isn't as sharp as yours... but yes, I had. It's strange."
Serval nodded. "This jungle should be alive with noise at this time of day. There ought to be plenty of birds, if nothing else... but apart from us, it's like nothing's moving out here. It's been that way since we crossed that river about an hour back. And we haven't seen a single Friend the whole time we've been out here, either."
"That's true," Kaban said, sounding as if she'd just realized it. "The ASA is forbidden territory, but we're far enough from the perimeter now that we should've run across at least one or two. Now that I think about it, I'm surprised there weren't any at the river."
For the rest of the trip, though there was nothing obviously wrong, both travelers felt vaguely uneasy; but nothing happened, and they entered the remains of Renraku City without incident.
As the Japari Bus plodded through the potholed, rubble-strewn streets, Serval and Kaban stood in the cupola, looking around them in wonder. In their time together, they'd been to many far corners of the Park and seen many wonders, but neither of them had ever seen anything like this place except in pictures. The view of it from the roof of the Admin building had given them some idea what to expect, but seeing up close—being right down among the tall white buildings—was something else again.
Apart from quiet exclamations of amazement, the two took in the sights in silence. As the first surge of wonder ebbed, Kaban felt it being replaced with a strange sense of melancholy. It was similar to the feeling of loneliness and... loss? Something like that, anyway... she'd felt while exploring the Admin building, except on a grand scale. After a few blocks, the emptiness of the place started getting to her.
She wondered if it could be some metagenetic echo of her, her humanness. She'd always wanted to meet another human, ever since she learned she was one, but it had gradually become apparent that she was the only one in the Park, possibly the only one in the world... and now here she was in a place where untold thousands of them had once lived, worked, and played. And they were all gone. Every last one of them.
"Kaban?" Serval asked, her voice full of concern. "Why are you crying?"
Kaban blinked, her hand rising to her face. She hadn't been aware that she was, but yes, those were definitely tears running down her cheeks.
"I-I don't know," she stammered, wiping at her face with the hem of her shirt. "I just... I feel like I've lost something I loved, even though I don't know what it was."
Serval gave a knowing nod. "Ahh," she said, and gathered Kaban up in a tight hug. "I know that feeling. I don't understand it either, but I've felt it before."
Kaban held on for a few minutes, feeling her equilibrium returning, then separated with a grateful smile. Neither said anything else—there was no need—but they were still standing hand-in-hand when the bus came to a halt.
"Are we there?" Serval asked, bounding down from the cupola ladder.
"The streets beyond this point are impassable by bus," Lucky Beast said. (Serval took a moment to enjoy the momentary illusion that the robot was speaking to her, though she knew it was really reporting to Kaban as she came up alongside.) "We will have to proceed on foot. Shall we go?"
Kaban nodded. "Lead the way."
"Very well. Mind the gap," the robot admonished as the bus's side door swung open.
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Part II: The Lost City
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
© 2019 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Kaban and Serval followed Lucky Beast through the deserted streets in silence for a couple of blocks. As they picked their way through the rubble littering a crossing, Kaban noticed that Serval seemed edgy—her eyes darting around, black-tipped animal ears twitching here and there.
"What is it, Serval?" she asked quietly.
"Somebody's following us," Serval murmured. "Whoever it is, they're almost silent, but I'd swear we're being stalked."
Kaban blinked. "Can you tell where they are?"
"No. They're good," Serval admitted. "Really good. But if they get any closer, I'll spot them. Don't worry."
"OK," said Kaban with a nod. "I'll leave it to you."
They saw nothing, and though Kaban listened hard, her human ears picked up no sign of whatever Serval could hear; all she heard was the scrape of their shoes on the pavement, the soft mechanical sounds of the Lucky Beast's waddling gait, and her own heartbeat in her ears.
"This place just goes on forever," Serval remarked, to break the tension if nothing else. After all, she reasoned, they weren't worried about being stealthy.
"Mm," Kaban agreed as the two followed Lucky Beast around another corner. "Lucky Beast? Do you know how many people this city held before it was abandoned?"
The voice that answered the question wasn't Lucky Beast's. Low, a little raspy, and touched with an accent Kaban couldn't place, it belonged to the person who stepped suddenly out of an alley a few paces ahead of them.
"Fifty thousand people used to live here," she told them.
Kaban pulled up short. "Wow," she said under her breath.
"I told you she was good," Serval muttered.
The figure before them had, like them, the general form of a young woman, in this case a fairly short and somewhat stocky, tough-looking one. She had unkempt medium-brown hair cut short, with a pair of small, round animal ears set up high; these were furred in the same color on the back, but pink on the inside, and quite mobile. A long, tapering, naked tail flicked fitfully behind her. Black lines reminiscent of whiskers flanked her rather prominent pointed nose, which looked like it had been broken at some point and not set properly. Her eyes looked black too, at first glance, but a closer look revealed them to be a very deep red, which caught highlights as her gaze swept warily around.
The really remarkable thing about this Friend's appearance, though, was what she was wearing. It looked like some kind of military uniform, not dressy but like battlefield fatigues, all in essentially the same shade of brown as her hair, except for chunky combat boots and heavy gloves in a sort of rawhide yellow. She also had on a beret, which Kaban had missed at first glance because it, too, was the same color as her hair.
When she spoke again, Kaban and Serval saw that she had pronounced front teeth, reminding them both a bit of their friend American Beaver, but narrower.
"Now it's a ghost town," she declared, gesturing generally to the ruins around them.
Order: Rodentia | Family: Muridae | Genus: Rattus
"The name's Brown Rat," the brown-clad Friend went on. "Norway to my friends. I don't know if you two qualify yet. Who are you and what's your business in my little empire of ashes?"
"Um... my name is Kaban," said Kaban. "I'm a Ranger from the Kyōshū Region."
Brown Rat snorted. "There haven't been any Rangers in Japari Park since long before any of us was born. Pull the other one."
"It's true!" Serval objected, her dander raised by the other's tone.
Brown Rat looked her over with obvious distaste. "Great. A cat of some kind. My day is complete."
"I'm Serval, the... well, serval. I come from the Savannah Area in Kyōshū. I'd say it's nice to meet you," she added sarcastically, "except you're kinda doing your best to make it not."
Brown Rat regarded her with a raised-eyebrow deadpan for a second, then laughed. "Touché, pussycat," she said. "Sorry. I get edgy when company comes, especially when they don't call first. Which they never do, because nothing in this town works. The hell is a serval, by the way? You look like a cheetah to me."
"We're like cheetahs—kind of—but smaller and better at jumping," Serval explained.
"Ah. OK." Brown Rat took a few steps toward them, then leaned and sniffed at Kaban a few times, her whisker markings—were they tattoos? Serval wondered—wrinkling. "Never smelled anything like you before. No ears, no tail, no claws, no teeth worth writing home about... the heck kinda animal are you?"
"I'm human," Kaban told her.
Brown Rat raised both eyebrows at that. "Wot," she said.
"That's how she's a Ranger," Serval pointed out. "Only humans can be Rangers."
"Are you havin' me on? Human? After all this time? How many of you have come back?"
Kaban shook her head. "I'm not from outside. I was born in the Savannah from a Sandstar eruption. I'm a Friend. I just... happen to be a Friend whose animal side is also human."
"... That's confusing," Brown Rat declared.
"Tell me about it," Kaban replied.
Brown Rat stared at her for a second, and then they both broke up laughing.
"Awright, fair enough," said Brown Rat. "At least you're the only one. You had me thinking, Aw cripes, there goes the neighborhood for a second there. So. Back to my original question. Actually I guess it was technically my second question, but anyway. What are you doing here, of all places? Nobody comes here."
"We need to get to the Park's old Nutrition Lab," Kaban said.
"Do you know it?" asked Serval.
Brown Rat laughed. "'Course I do. Building full of food, you don't think a rat's gonna know exactly where that is? Follow me." As they set off, she added back over her shoulder, "Only it's locked up tighter than a tick's arsehole, you know. I've spent half my life trying to get into that place and been thwarted every time. If it's not the Bosses chasing me off, it's the doors I can't chew through."
"I'm hoping my Ranger access can get me inside," Kaban explained. "I need to find out if there's anything in there that I can use to repair the Park's food supply."
Brown Rat eyed her narrowly. "Why? Is something wrong with it?"
As Lucky Beast and Brown Rat led her and Serval deeper into the ruins of Renraku City, Kaban mulled over what was bothering her about the place. It was more than just the peculiar melancholy that had settled over her at its emptiness. Something was wrong here, something not as it should be. And it wasn't just that the city was abandoned. She'd been expecting that.
She had plenty of time to think it over, since after being told the full story of why they were there, Brown Rat didn't have much to say. She seemed dumbstruck by the idea that the Park even could just run out of food. Even she, an expert in urban survival used to fending for herself, ate Japari Buns. Had come to take them for granted. After all, they were always around. Baskets of fresh ones just appeared, often without her even spotting the Boss who dropped them off. The idea that, one day soon, if nothing were done, they would just stop coming left her deeply unsettled.
In an effort to lift her new acquaintance's spirits, and maybe make up for the bad foot they'd started out on, Serval attempted a little bit of friendly conversation at one point, asking,
"Do you live all alone in these ruins, Brown Rat?"
"Almost," Brown Rat replied. "Couple of the snake girls from across the river venture into the tunnels under the streets sometimes, but they don't hang around. And we get the odd bird Friend stopping by to rest on the way from somewhere else to somewhere else. Only the hardiest ones. This place has a bad reputation."
"Can't imagine why," Serval mumbled.
"The only other permanent resident here is my cousin Black Rat, but we probably won't see her. She keeps to herself—stays up in the high floors of the taller buildings, mostly. I think she's nuts, most of these buildings aren't exactly what you'd call stable, but..." She shrugged. "Roof rat gonna roof."
Kaban listened to their conversation with half an ear, pleased that they seemed to be getting on better, but mostly preoccupied with her own thoughts.
She didn't put her finger on what was bothering her until they rounded a corner and their destination came in sight. Upon first spotting the Japari Park Advanced Care and Nutrition Laboratory, Kaban suspected she and Serval would have been able to spot it even without guidance, once they were in this part of the city. It was the only building that was intact. More than intact, it looked almost pristine. Its once-white concrete was a bit grimy, but the low, bunker-like structure still had sharp corners and smooth walls, where the buildings all around it were partly collapsed, or burned out, or sheared off above the second or third floor like broken teeth...
"That's it," Kaban said suddenly.
"Huh?" Serval asked, turning a puzzled look to her friend.
"You say something, Ranger?" asked Brown Rat.
"I've been feeling like something's out of place about this city since we got here," Kaban said, as much to think it out aloud as to explain it to the others. "It's not just that it's empty, I knew that. And looking at this," she went on, gesturing to the mostly-ruined block ahead of them, "I've realized what it is. There's too much damage."
"Lot can happen in however many umpteen years," Brown Rat said, but Kaban shook her head earnestly.
"No. I've seen too many other abandoned structures in the Park, I know this isn't normal. Things left alone for years may crumble, or rot, or eventually fall down, but look at this place. Look at all the rubble in the streets, look at what's happened to these buildings." Serval and Brown Rat did as she asked, the one nodding with dawning agreement, the other narrowing her eyes skeptically.
"This city wasn't just abandoned," Kaban insisted. "It's been destroyed."
"Ehh," said Brown Rat, waving a dismissive hand. "You sound like the girls who live over the river that-a-way. They say something lives in the sea hereabouts. Something very big and very bad. It's why Friends don't come around here, by land or by sea." She shrugged. "Personally, I think it's a bunch of hooey. I've lived here for years and never seen any 'sea monster'." Shaking her head, she concluded, "You ask me, the humans did this on their way out."
"Maybe," said Kaban, but she sounded unconvinced. "I admit I don't really know what humans are like, even though I'm one myself. I'm the only one I've ever seen. But I know I wouldn't ruin a place just because I was leaving it. I'd try to leave it in as good a shape as I could, as a favor to whoever came along after me." Looking around, she hefted her backpack unnecessarily, in what Serval instantly recognized as an unconscious gesture of unease, and said, "All the same, I think we should do what we came here to do and get out as fast as we can. I don't like this place at all."
Brown Rat looked faintly offended, but let it drop. Instead, she nodded toward the Nutrition Lab and said, "Well, at least the lab itself is in good shape. The Ancients built this place to last, it must have been important to them."
"I hope we'll be able to get in," Serval said.
Lucky Beast, which had kept its own counsel this entire time, halted in front of the lab's massive metal front door and reported, "The Advanced Care and Nutrition Laboratory is a secure facility. I will require your explicit authorization to admit you and the Friends in your care, Chief Kaban."
"In your care? Excuse me?" Brown Rat muttered under her breath, but Serval shushed her with a wave as Kaban crouched before the robot.
"Uh... you have my authorization as Chief Ranger to admit me, Serval, and Brown Rat to the Nutrition Lab, Lucky Beast," she said.
"Authorization logged. Please wait a moment while I open the doors. In the future, they will open automatically for you."
Facing the building, the little robot emitted a stream of odd electronic noises, its eyes doing that rainbow flicker thing again. A moment after it finished, the door made a loud metallic clunk, parted in the center, and slid open to either side.
"Please enter. I will begin the tour," said Lucky Beast. "It will take approximately two hours."
"Can't we just skip to the part where you find out if what you need is in here?" Brown Rat asked, but Serval shook her head with a knowing smile.
"Ohhh no," she said. "Boss does things at his own pace, and it doesn't do any good to try and rush him. Kaban and I learned that lesson a loooong time ago."
"If you say so," Brown Rat replied, shaking her head. "You two are weird."
"You have no idea," Kaban said, a trifle absently, as most of her attention was taken up with assessing their surroundings.
On the inside, the Nutrition Lab was even more unusually pristine than the outside. Not just by the standards of Renraku City's ruins, but measured against any place Kaban had seen before.
Some of the facilities back home in the Kyōshū Region were in good shape, maintained and repaired by the Lucky Beasts or the Friends who had taken them over. The Japari Café on Mount Vicuña, for instance, which Alpaca Suri lovingly maintained, or the Forest Lodge, which Campo Flicker looked after with a proper innkeeper's pride. Others, like the Library, had been damaged by the elements beyond the Friends' ability to repair, but their remains were curated with meticulous care by their occupants.
Nothing there was perfect, though; it all showed the marks of time and wear, although in the case of the Japari Café and the Lodge, Kaban was sure their proprietors would prefer she called it "patina". But this place... this place looked, and felt, and even smelled brand new. Not merely as if it had been looked after, but as if it were too new to need looking after. If it weren't for the fact that it was completely deserted, it would have seemed like a fully operational facility in a park that was very much a going concern.
As Lucky Beast had promised, the tour took the better part of two hours, and by halfway through it, Kaban was privately amused to notice that both Serval and Brown Rat were visibly chafing with impatience. She wasn't feeling any too patient herself, come to that; she was simply better at coping with it. She would have had to admit, if pressed, that she wasn't any too interested in the details of the research laboratories or the qualifications of the long-gone staff who had once worked there.
"Which brings us to the capstone of the tour: the second-generation Japari Bun Production Unit," said Lucky Beast, halting in front of a double door at the end of a long hallway. "This beyond-cutting-edge equipment will completely rewrite the book on food preparation technology, with implications reaching far beyond the confines of Japari Park. It is scheduled to replace the existing Mark One food production system soon, after which the Japari Consortium will begin promoting and licensing the technology galaxy-wide. This is truly an exciting time."
Kaban had to restrain herself from giggling at the inherent goofiness of the high-flown marketing-speak being uttered by Lucky Beast's monotone mechanical voice. Brown Rat was looking so edgy by this point that she suspected she'd have caused a small explosion of temper if she showed any levity at this moment.
Instead, she said earnestly, "I can't wait to see it," and Lucky Beast took the cue and opened the doors.
The room beyond was clean and white, like all the others they'd seen on the tour, but rather larger than most. Apart from a couple of workstations with swivel chairs, it was dominated by a single large piece of equipment, its function not immediately obvious, which stood in the middle of the room atop a sort of rostrum made of clear glass. The bottom part of it, standing at waist height on top of the glass pedestal, looked a bit like the little electric oven Alpaca Suri used to heat up the snacks she sold along with her famous tea at the Japari Café (which, according to the label on the front, used something called "micro-waves").
On top of that, surrounded by a tangle of wires, metal brackets, and unidentifiable electronic-looking widgets sealed inside a big glass box, was a cubical crystal perhaps twice the size of a person's head, illuminated from within by an ever-shifting rainbow light.
Serval gasped. "Is... is that Sandstar?"
"Can't be. There isn't a single piece of it that big anywhere outside the Great Mountain," Brown Rat said.
"The Mark Two represents a revolutionary new application of the power of the mysterious substance we call 'Sandstar'," said Lucky Beast as if they hadn't spoken. "By leveraging Sandstar's strange power along with the most advanced matter manipulation technologies available, it can generate consumables literally from thin air. It is genuine magic, in the Clarkeian sense of the word."
"What does that mean?" Brown Rat wondered.
"No idea. Doesn't matter," Serval said. "Did you hear what he said? It makes food out of nothing!"
"When final testing is completed later this year, this single machine will replace the much larger and more complicated production system now in place," Lucky Beast went on. "By itself, it will supply the nutritional needs of the entire Park." It paused then, presumably programmed to leave time for its audience to express wonderment, then continued, "The system's flexibility is such that it can produce a wide range of custom-tailored Japari Buns, each optimized for the needs and tastes of a subset, or even a specific species of Friend. This allows for a much greater range of offerings than the Mark One's primitive customization system enabled. Would you like a sample?"
"Heck yeah I would!" Serval declared, but of course the robot ignored her, so Kaban replied,
"Oh, uh... sure! That would be great. How about something a serval would like?"
"Please leave it to me," said Lucky Beast, and it turned and "spoke" to the machine the same way it had to the door.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then the machine made no more dramatic a sound as a faint hum for a couple of seconds, followed by a bright ding! (exactly like the sound Alpaca Suri's micro-wave made, Kaban was inwardly amused to notice). The door on the front of the machine popped open, and there in the cavity within was a miniature Japari Bun, perhaps a quarter of the usual size, iced in green and gently steaming.
"Bon appétit," Lucky Beast deadpanned, then added matter-of-factly, "Disclaimer: This food item may not be suitable for human consumption."
Serval took the mini-bun out of the machine, sniffed at it curiously, and then, to Kaban and Brown Rat's surprise, nearly swooned, wobbling visibly on her feet.
"Oh wow," she said, "that smells amaaaazing," and then she gobbled it down as though starving, scattering crumbs.
"Dang, Ranger," Brown Rat observed. "Do you not feed that girl or what?"
"Of course I do," Kaban replied, slightly indignant.
When she'd finished eating the sample, Serval stood silent for a few moments, still facing away from her companions, not moving except to wobble in place a little more.
"Serval?" Kaban said, taking a step toward her. "Are... are you OK?"
Serval turned very slowly around, moving as if underwater, and looked back at Kaban for a moment with glazed eyes that were not quite matching sizes...
... and then sprang forward and hugged her with all four limbs, arms around her neck, long legs locked around her waist, crying joyfully, "Kaaaaaban-chan!"
"Serval-chan?!" Kaban blurted, staggering back. Serval wasn't very heavy, but the move was so unexpected, Kaban nearly fell over backward before she could get her feet properly repositioned to hold them both up.
Off to the side, she could see Brown Rat staring pop-eyed, uncertain whether to be horrified, hysterically amused, or what, as Serval started rubbing her cheek against Kaban's and purring loudly.
"loveyousomuch," she mumbled, almost unintelligible, since still purring while speaking.
"I—well, that's good but—what the?!"
"love, love, looove," Serval replied, punctuating each repetition with a raspy lick to the side of Kaban's neck (and making her wince and giggle each time, in spite of her mounting concern).
"Serval, what's gotten into you?!" Kaban pleaded.
"Well, by the looks of it, play your cards right..." Brown Rat muttered, but she stopped when Kaban shot her a moment's you're not helping! glare mixed with an incandescent blush.
"The sample I provided was formulation 72-549, recreational supplement for felids," Lucky Beast explained. "Its active ingredient is a concentrated extract of Actinida polygama, also known as matatabi or silver vine. This elicits feelings of euphoria and intensely amplified affection in feline users."
"Now she's biting me. Or... sort of chewing. And drooling on me," Kaban said uncomfortably.
"lvvvymmm," Serval declared around an increasingly sodden mouthful of Kaban's shirt and shoulder.
"Also, biting and drooling," Lucky Beast confirmed.
"I don't suppose they've got something like that for murids," Brown Rat wondered aloud, then shook her head. "Nah, on second thought, forget it. Need to stay focused."
"The peak of the effect should pass in approximately ten minutes," Lucky Beast added. "These preparations are guaranteed to be safe and non-habit-forming, making them the perfect treats for your most special Friends."
"O... K, that's kind of creepy when you put it that way," Brown Rat said.
"Mm," Kaban agreed helplessly.
Twenty minutes later, while Serval sat on the floor off to one side and hid her face in abject embarrassment, Kaban (dressed above the waist only in her black undershirt, while the red one hung over a chair to dry) and Brown Rat examined the food machine.
"I need to take this back to the Kyōshū Region somehow," Kaban explained as she circled the machine, considering the way it was mounted to the glass pedestal. "According to the Professor, that's where the distribution center for the whole Park is. We can't reprogram the Lucky Beasts to come here for their quotas of Japari Buns, we have to move the machine to where they're expecting to find them."
"Any idea where?" Brown Rat wondered. "Kyōshū's a big place."
"I've never been there myself, but I have some friends who've seen it," Kaban said. "One of them should be able to show me the way, if I can just get it over to the island. Lucky Beast? Do you know of a way we can transport this to Kyōshū?"
"There is no need for you to concern yourself with that, Chief Kaban. When final testing is concluded and the Mark Two system is ready for its formal rollout, the Park Facilities staff will relocate it."
"There's been a change of plan," Kaban said. "Facilities isn't available. We'll have to do it ourselves. That's why Serval and I are here."
"Checking. Checking. Error. Facilities Management Department not responding. Adopting Chief Ranger contingency plan." Returning from its internal reverie, the Lucky Beast faced Kaban and told her, "I will prepare the Mark Two's safe-transport case and shut the unit down for transfer. The dismantling and stowage process will take approximately one-half hour."
"Good. Thank you," said Kaban. Picking up her shirt—still a bit damp, but livable—she crossed the room and crouched down by Serval, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Serval? Are you feeling OK now?"
"I am so. Sorry. I did that," Serval replied, face still in hands.
"Why? I was surprised, but once I got over the shock, I thought it was really sweet. Except for the part where you chewed on me," Kaban qualified.
Serval laughed in spite of herself, then turned slowly around to face her, still red-faced. "Yeah, uh... sorry. I dunno what—I just lost it. All I could think of was—well, anyway. It felt kind of like a wild release, except, uh... kissy instead of fighty."
"I'd rather have you kissy than fighty," Kaban assured her.
Another slightly-reluctant laugh. "Yeah, but in front of strangers?"
"Don't worry about it. Brown Rat's a little gruff, but she's a friend," Kaban said, drawing Serval into a (somewhat less assertive) hug. "It's fine, it's fine."
"Did I hurt your shoulder?" asked Serval in a small voice.
Kaban rubbed her back and reassured her, "Only a little. I'll be OK."
"Do you think we can get the machine out of here?"
"I think so. Lucky Beast is getting it ready now."
"I hope the three of us can move it," Serval said, sitting back and starting to look a little less flustered. "I mean, we at least have to be able to get it back to the bus by hand."
"Hmm," Kaban agreed, nodding. Then, turning and raising her voice, she asked, "Lucky Beast? How much will the machine weigh when it's all ready to go?"
"Including its safe-transport case, the total unit shipment weight is one thousand seven hundred sixty-four pounds."
Brown Rat frowned. "That's gonna be a stretch with only three of us."
"Mm. Especially since I'm not very strong," Kaban agreed, rubbing the back of her head ruefully. "We might be better off trying to clear a path for the bus to get here instead of taking the machine to it."
"Some of those chunks of concrete are a lot heavier than that, I reckon," Brown Rat said. "We better see about getting some backup. Let's go outside a sec."
The three of them retraced their path to the front of the lab and out. Once out on the street, Brown Rat took a couple of strides away from the other two, looked around, then put thumb and forefinger to either side of her impressive incisors. Drawing breath, she produced a piercing whistle that reverberated up the canyon of broken concrete and echoed in the distance for several seconds.
As the echoes faded, a dark shape flitted along one of the nearby rooftops, then sprang to the shell of a lower building next door, slid down a mangled drainpipe, and clattered down a pile of rubble before trotting over to join them.
The new arrival looked very much like Brown Rat, only a bit shorter and slimmer, and with black hair instead of brown. She was dressed in similar clothes, too, which were also black, but with the same yellowy-brown boots and gloves. Her red-black eyes and animal ears were a bit larger, her face slightly more pointed.
"What's up?" the newcomer asked. Her voice was hushed and a little hoarse, as though she weren't used to using it very much.
Order: Rodentia | Family: Muridae | Genus: Rattus
"Guys, this is my cousin, Black Rat. Blackie, this is Serval, and Ranger Kaban. They're from the Kyōshū Region."
"A Ranger? Seriously? Is she human?"
"Well, paint a white stripe down my back and call me a skunk," Black Rat mused. "So that's what they look like." Then, tilting her head, she asked, "What do you need?"
Brown Rat explained the situation as concisely as she could. Black Rat listened without interrupting, her head remaining on one side the whole time; then, straightening up, she said,
"Well, I like eating, so I guess I'm in. Serval and Kaban, huh? Call me Blackie. Has she said you can call her Norway yet?" she added, tilting her head at her cousin.
"She said she wasn't sure we qualified," Serval said.
"That was before the Sample Bun Incident," said Brown Rat with a sly grin, making Serval blush bright red. "I think we're all pretty good pals now."
Before Blackie could request clarification, if she intended to, the whole group's attention was captured by an unexpected sound: a distant, rolling percussive noise, drifting in from the direction of the sea.
"Thunder?" Serval wondered, looking quizzically up at the clear blue afternoon sky.
The four stood and listened for a few seconds. The distant rumbling and crashing carried on, intermittent but not stopping. Kaban's brow furrowed. It did sound like thunder, but there was something different about it. It had the wrong... the wrong rhythm, maybe? Like the tempo was all wrong, the crashes coming too rapidly, each peal going on for a little too long. It didn't sound to her like the normal storms that rolled in off the south sea from time to time.
Maybe they're different up here in An'in, she told herself, and said nothing. Being in this destroyed city on the edge of an unfamiliar region was probably just getting to her.
"That must be one hell of a storm," Norway mused. "Were you guys planning to get the food wingus back to Kyōshū by sea?"
"We'll have to," Kaban said, nodding. "It's way too heavy for any bird Friends we know to fly it back—even all of them working together. I hope we can find a boat."
"There's still one of the old ferries docked down at the front," Blackie said. "I don't know if its engines work, but it's still afloat."
"Well, we better hope Boss works fast," said Norway, eyeing the sky. "You don't wanna be trying to sail back to Kyōshū in a typhoon. Depending on how fast that storm gets here, we might have to wait it out in..."
She trailed off, looking perplexed, as what they all assumed was thunder suddenly kicked up in both frequency and intensity, becoming a furious, rolling cannonade that sounded less and less natural as it went on. Beyond the buildings blocking their view of the seafront, the sky flashed and flickered, like clouds in a thunderstorm—but the weather here in the city was still clear.
"What the...?" Serval wondered, and then, with a final shattering crash and the brightest flash yet, the mysterious storm fell silent.
"All right, that was weird," Blackie said after a few seconds of a quiet so sudden and deep it felt almost unnatural.
"Yeah," Norway agreed.
"Let's... go see how Boss is getting on," said Serval nervously.
Kaban nodded. "Good idea, Serv—"
"What the hell?!" Norway interrupted, pointing into the southward sky.
to be continued in Part III: Whoever Fights Monsters
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
Friends Like These
From the Chronicles of Japari Park
Part II: The Lost City
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
with the gracious aid of
The EPU Usual Suspects
(in order of appearance)
Based on Kemono Friends created by
Kaban created by
title banner made using
Kemono Friends Title Generator
E P U (colour) 2019