The thunder of the blast was still reverberating as the four Friends pulled themselves, blinking and shaking their heads, back up out of cover. At the far end of the embarcadero, they could just make out Goji-chan, cast in silhouette by the flames of the burning crater she stood looking into. Off to her right, what remained of one of the streetside buildings toppled forward and fell into the street like a parting comment. Goji's silhouette didn't even flinch.
"What... just happened?" Norway wondered, yawning to pop her ears.
"It's cute how you think any of us would know," Blackie observed dryly.
"I... I think that was Goji-chan's wild release," Serval said, a note of awe in her voice.
"What in the hell kind of animal does that?!" Norway demanded.
"Kaban, do you—" Serval started to ask, but Kaban wasn't there. She didn't seem moved by the spectacle at all; as soon as it was safe, she'd left cover, put down her backpack next to the chunk of rubble she'd been sheltering behind, and run to the wreckage of the food machine.
"... Oh," Serval finished, her face falling. In all the excitement, she had managed to forget, if only momentarily, that the monstrous metal creature Goji called "X" had destroyed it.
"... Crap," Norway muttered.
The three arrived at Kaban's side to find her on her knees by the remains of the machine, holding a couple of the broken pieces in her hands and futilely trying to fit them back together. Without a word, Serval knelt down and hugged her from behind, trying as best she could to comfort her. Not knowing quite what to do with themselves, the two rats stood a little way off to one side.
Catching movement out of the corner of her eye, Blackie turned her head and saw Goji's silhouette moving against the dying flames.
"Um... she's coming back this way," Blackie said. "Maybe we should get out of here."
Serval looked up, puzzled, without releasing Kaban. "Why?"
Blackie gave her an are-you-kidding-me look. "Uh, did you see what she just did? Now that she's got her wits about her, maybe she's remembered that she fancies a bit of Friend brûlée for dessert."
"Don't be silly," Serval told her. "Also, you live alone in an abandoned city. How do you even know that word?"
Despite herself, Norway snorted. "Really? Did you just ask a rat how she knows a word about food?"
Serval didn't reply; her attention had been drawn in the other direction. Kaban's backpack had just fallen over and was now rolling around on the ground, saying repeatedly, "Help. Help. Help."
"Boss!" she said, brightening. "Maybe he'll know what to do. Somebody go help Boss!"
"Hang on, I gotcha," said Norway. Righting the bag, she opened its flap and drew out the ruffled but unharmed Lucky Beast that had come with them from the Nutrition Lab.
It didn't acknowledge her, of course, but when she set it down on its feet, it waddled over to stand next to Kaban. Without being asked, it illuminated the crystal lens affixed to the front of its body, using itself as an impromptu flashlight to light up the wreckage.
Goji arrived then, her expression grim, but calm. Whatever fury had possessed her during her battle with the metal creature, that creature's destruction seemed to have sated it. Kaban noticed her approach and looked up (and up, and up), tears of frustration tracking her face.
"We were so close," Kaban said helplessly.
Goji crouched down beside the machine, surveyed its remains for a moment, then shook her head regretfully.
"I'm sorry, you guys," she said. "I had no idea Rampage was after part of this thing. I assumed he'd ignore it, and you, and focus on me." She reached out and gently took one of the pieces from Kaban's hand, regarded it for a moment, then placed it back amid the other shards and went on, "Can you tell me why it's so important?"
Kaban pulled herself away from her knowingly pointless attempt to reassemble the machine and raised her head again, meeting Goji's eyes. They were back to red again, all traces of the strange glow that had overtaken her gone now. Even with the daylight faded to a dull glow in the west and only Lucky Beast's lamp to light the area, she noticed that the taller girl's once-shredded clothes were whole again, all her injuries erased.
Of course, she thought irrelevantly. The Sandstar...
After a moment's pause to corral her thoughts, the answer she gave out loud was, "It was our last chance to save Japari Park."
By the time Kaban had finished the more detailed explanation that followed, the last of the daylight was gone. Goji sat in silence for a moment, absorbing the information she'd just been given with a grave frown on her face.
She was drawing breath to speak when Lucky Beast suddenly declared, "Alert. Alert. The Mark Two Production Unit has sustained irreparable damage in transit."
"Nothin' gets past you, does it, Boss," Norway mumbled under her breath.
"Please come with me back to the Advanced Care and Nutrition Laboratory," the robot continued, pivoting and heading off inland. "I will prepare the backup unit."
Blinking in surprise, the five looked at each other for several silent, quizzical seconds.
"Did Boss just say 'backup unit'?" Blackie asked, and then they were all scrambling to catch up.
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Part IV: Homecoming
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
© 2019 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
They arrived back at the Nutrition Lab to find it abuzz with Lucky Beasts. It was hard to tell how many of them were about, since they were all identical, but Kaban counted at least four all in the lobby at once as they hurried here and there on inscrutable errands, carrying mysterious pieces of equipment atop their heads. That in addition to the one she and Serval had brought with them from the Administration Special Area, which stood on what had been the reception counter and seemed to be supervising all the activity.
Noticing her entrance, the supervisory Lucky Beast turned around and told her, "Preparations to relocate the Mark II backup unit are now under way, Chief Kaban." After a brief pause in which it scrutinized Kaban and her companions with various hidden sensors, it went on, "I detect significant fatigue and superficial injuries. Would you like to make use of the Laboratory's VIP guest quarters?"
"Ooh, that sounds good," Serval said.
"In just a moment," Kaban agreed, nodding. "First I'd like some more information about this backup unit."
"Technically, it is the Mark II prototype," Lucky Beast explained. "It functions in the same way, but the hardware is less elegantly constructed and not suitable for mass production. It was dismantled once the production test-type unit was completed. My colleagues are retrieving it from storage and reassembling it now. It will take approximately ten hours to complete this process and get the unit fully prepared for transport. In the meantime, you should rest." The robot intercepted a passing duplicate with a burst of digital code, then went on, "This Lucky Beast will guide you to the VIP quarters."
Sensing that it would be useless to press the issue further, Kaban nodded acquiescence and let the second Lucky Beast lead her group down the hall. Presently it conducted them into a large sitting room fitted out with comfortable-looking sofas and chairs. Several doors led off from this room into others.
"This is the VIP suite," the Lucky Beast explained. "Please select whichever bedroom you prefer. I will bring fresh Japari Buns for you and the Friends in your care."
"Thank you," said Kaban, and then added awkwardly, "Um, hold the silver vine, please," which drew snorts of laughter from Norway and Serval (somewhat embarrassed laughter, in the latter case).
"Unfortunately, the Mark II system is down at the moment," the robot told her. "Only conventional Mark I Japari Buns are presently available."
"That's fine. Thanks," Kaban repeated, and the Lucky Beast turned and trundled out.
"What's a 'bedroom'?" Norway wondered.
"Humans used to have a room in their homes set aside just for sleeping in," Blackie told her. "I've seen 'em in some of the abandoned high-rise apartments."
"Seriously? That doesn't seem very efficient," Norway mused. She went to one of the doors, opened it, and said, "I'll be damned, it's true! Look at this! It really is a room with just a bed in it." She turned back and looked at Kaban, remarking, "Your people were weird, Ranger."
Kaban, at a loss, just shrugged a little helplessly. Letting it pass, Norway went to the next door, then the next, then stopped and said, "Now what the heck is this one for?"
"Let me see," Blackie said, moving up next to her. "Oh, one of these. I never did figure out what these are for. That big thing looks like some kind of drinking trough, but they're always empty."
Serval crowded up behind them, looking between their shoulders, then laughed. "You two have been living in the ruins for too long! That's a bathroom. Here, I'll show you," she went on, then herded the two into the room and shut the door behind her.
Kaban, who had wisely identified a situation in which she did not need to get involved, stayed put in the living room. She and Goji stood for a few moments in a somewhat awkward silence, looking at each other.
My report on this mission is going to be off the chain even by our usual standards, Goji thought to herself, but what she said out loud was, "My mom sleeps in volcano calderas sometimes, but only when she's full-size. Mostly she has a townhouse near Republic City University."
Kaban clearly had no idea what she was talking about, but was just as clearly too tactful, or too bashful, or possibly just too preoccupied with the current situation to say so. She just nodded with a noncommittal sound.
"Before I got my own place," Goji went on, "I spent half my time there, and the other half at Dad's condo in New Avalon."
She was aware that she was rambling by this point, but didn't have the energy to stop herself. The last of the fumes from the evening's Energon shot were burning off, and she was going to need one of those bedrooms very soon, but before she could crash, she had to get a better sense of what was going on here. Trying to gather her thoughts, she sat down on one of the couches (unconsciously arranging her tail with the ease of long practice).
Kaban sat down on the loveseat opposite, and the awkward silence resumed for a few more seconds. Then, just as they both opened their mouths to speak, Blackie's voice rang out, a bit muffled, from behind the closed bathroom door:
"These come off?!!"
Goji blinked, her train of thought derailed again, and angled her eyes at the door; then she and Kaban made a moment's bemused eye contact, and both of them started to giggle.
Once they'd come down from their fits of giggles, the two looked at each other in a less awkward silence for a moment.
"I have a lot of questions," Goji said.
Kaban nodded. "So do I," she agreed.
"But I'm too tired to ask them right now," Goji went on.
Kaban nodded. "So am I," she agreed.
"So... why don't we talk about it tomorrow, while we're on the way to wherever you're taking the gizmo? I know..." She hesitated, picking words, then continued, "I know after what you guys saw tonight, it must be pretty weird having me around, but I'd like to help you with it however I can. Especially since it's my fault the other one got wrecked."
"I..." Kaban paused, blushing slightly, then said, "Well, I won't say it's not weird, but... it's not too weird," she went on with a slightly wry smile. "Serval and I are pretty used to things getting weird. And I'd certainly like to have your help. I think we're going to need a lot of it if we're going to succeed."
"OK. Good." Goji yawned hugely, all her sharp triangular teeth on full display, then said, "Right now, I need sleep."
Before Kaban could reply, the hallway door opened and the Lucky Beast returned, bearing a large basket of Japari Buns on its head. "Apologies for the wait, Chief Kaban. Dinner is served."
"After food," Goji corrected herself, and they both laughed again.
They each had a bun. Kaban guessed from Goji's reaction that she'd never had one before, or at least couldn't remember it if she had, because she seemed surprised and made another of those cryptic remarks ("It's like if they did curry meat buns at The Baozi Experts! I'll have to suggest that the next time I'm there, this is great"). Then, excusing herself after another enormous yawn, she went off to one of the bedrooms and shut the door.
Kaban left the rest of the buns for Serval and the rats (noting as she did so that, if nobody got greedy, they ought to have enough left for breakfast in the morning) and selected another of the bedrooms for herself. Removing her backpack, pith helmet, and boots, she lay down and shut off the light, secure in the knowledge that Serval would be able to find her, whichever room she picked.
She was mostly asleep when the bed shook slightly, rousing her, and Serval's familiar weight settled half-beside, half-atop her. She was warm and smelled slightly of fruit, fresh from the bath, and Kaban smiled sleepily in the dark; it was the aroma of the standard soap to be found in all the Park's bath facilities they had yet encountered, and brought back pleasant memories of the Kyōshū Mountain Area hot springs.
"That was hilarious," Serval murmured quietly. "They'd never seen running water indoors before. Blackie thought I was trying to drown her. Was I ever that clueless?"
"Mm-hmm," Kaban replied.
"Rude," Serval said, but she still sounded amused.
"No more than I was, though," Kaban qualified. "I didn't even have a name."
"Lucky for you, you ran into the friendliest cat in the Savannah," Serval said, then reached across Kaban and took her free hand, as was her custom. "Raaar. Got you."
"Please don't eat me."
Goji woke an indeterminate time later with the kind of heavy head that always followed a full-strength post-battle crash. She wished, not for the first time, that someone could construct a wristwatch that would survive her... unique lifestyle. This room didn't have any windows, so she couldn't tell if she'd been out for six hours or sixteen.
Yawning, she uncurled herself, raising her head from where she'd rested it on the last third or so of her own tail, and clambered out of bed. The living room was deserted and the clock on the wall said it was 4:30 AM local time. She couldn't remember exactly when she'd gone to bed, but it hadn't been that long after dark, so maybe nine o'clock? Not the most epic crash she'd ever pulled, then.
In the basket on the coffee table, three more of the Japari Buns were gone. Goji considered bagging another one herself, but decided to leave it for later and went into the bathroom. She didn't really need a bath; one of the weird side effects of the supercharge she'd pulled on the local Energon was that all the grunge from the battle had sort of burned off. Even her clothes seemed to have... well, basically grown back, which was strange, but convenient. All the same, she had always been a believer in the therapeutic power of hot water.
She had to settle for a shower, which was par for the course in facilities scaled for normal people without ten-foot tails, but she still felt refreshed as she went back to the bedroom she'd staked out. She wasn't sure what to do while she waited for the others to wake up and start their day. Get some more sleep, she supposed.
She was climbing back into bed to make good on that idea when she noticed what looked like a magazine sitting on the bedside table. Something about it aroused her curiosity; she sat up, switching on the lamp, and picked it up.
Upon closer inspection, it wasn't a magazine at all, but a marketing brochure for Japari Park. Someone had evidently expected the person staying in this room to be a prospective investor, and so had left this document—part sales flyer, part prospectus—for the visitor's information and enticement.
Goji was about to dismiss this as uninteresting, put it back, and go back to sleep when she found herself looking at a full-page photograph of someone who looked very much like Serval.
Meet your new Friends! said a cheerful headline, and below that, a block of text:
An exciting new development in exobiology has taken place at Japari Park, and soon we will unveil its fascinating result to the galaxy!
The person you see on this page is not a human being. Until just a short while ago, she was an ordinary serval (Leptailurus serval): a small wild cat native to the African grasslands of Earth, one of the many species of Earth wildlife transplanted to this world in the 21st century as part of the failed Natureworld experiment. Like all such animals, normal servals are not sophonts—but this one is! She possesses intelligence comparable to that of an adolescent human and speaks both Neo-Japanese and Anglo-Standard fluently.
How is this possible, you ask? Have the zoologists and researchers of the Japari Consortium branched out into the ethically thorny field of biosculpt-enabled uplift? Hardly! What you are seeing here is the result of a natural phenomenon unique to the environment here in Japari Park! Serval here is an example of an entirely new class of beings we've named Friends, and we believe that our new Friends have a very exciting future ahead of them—a future you could be a part of!
A Friend is born when an ordinary animal is exposed to
The text reached the bottom of the page and cut off there. All thoughts of sleep banished, Goji turned the page and kept reading, straight through the entire booklet. When she finished, she read it again, then sat on the edge of her bed regarding it in silence until she heard the sound of movement out in the living room.
I know some people who definitely need to see this, she thought, and tucked the booklet away.
The backup Mark II unit required two cases, each about the size of the one the original unit had taken up. By mid-morning, they had them aboard the old ferryboat and secured on deck. As for the boat itself, it was old and rusty, and most of the instruments in the wheelhouse weren't working, but the hull was still seaworthy and the engines started up under only minor protest. They were idling smoothly as Norway and Blackie said their goodbyes at the dock.
"Seems like we've been here before," Norway remarked. "Hopefully there isn't another sea monster waiting for you guys to try and leave again."
"My contract was only for one, so if another shows up, you're on your own," Goji quipped. When that elicited no response other than a round of skeptical looks, she added lamely, "... That was a joke."
"Anyway," said Blackie after a moment. "Good luck out there."
"You two take care of yourselves," Serval said. "If you ever get lonely in this place, you'd always be welcome in Kyōshū."
"We'll keep it in mind," Norway said.
"Chief Kaban, do you believe you are sufficiently familiar with the operation of the vehicle?" asked Lucky Beast.
Kaban nodded. "I think I've got it. Thanks for all your help."
"It is my job," the robot replied, inclining its body. "I will assist you in casting off. Safe travels."
The boat chugged away from the pier with Kaban at the helm, while Serval and Goji stood at the after rail and waved until they could no longer make out figures on shore.
It was a relatively short run from Renraku City to Kyōshū, with only about half an hour out of sight of land on either end at the ferry's leisurely cruising speed. They had just sunk the mainland behind them when Goji put her head into the wheelhouse and said,
"We've got company. Something small and reasonably fast-flying, coming from the south."
Kaban ducked her head slightly to get a better angle for looking up through the wheelhouse windows, then frowned. "I can't see anything."
"You wouldn't be able to yet," Goji told her. "I have... kind of a sense for flying things. Just keep your eyes open. Whatever it is should be in sight soon."
"Bird Friend spotted~!" Serval sang out from up on the wheelhouse roof. "It looks like Rock Pigeon. Wow, she's a long way from home."
Kaban made sure the helm was locked, then went aft with Serval and Goji to greet their visitor, who waved and circled down to land on the broad expanse of weather deck abaft the wheelhouse.
Never having seen a Friend whose base animal was a bird before, Goji had been expecting her to have wings on her back, like a Thanagarian, or possibly feathered arms like a harpy. Instead, she was slightly nonplussed to see that the girl—who did, it had to be admitted, resemble a human rock pigeon, grey sweater vest, iridescent scarf, pink sneakers and all—had only small wings on her head, no bigger than the ones that a regular pigeon would sport.
"Laws of physics? I threw those away for you," she muttered. "It's like being back in the Spirit World."
"Pardon?" asked Serval.
"Nothing, never mind," Goji replied, shaking her head.
Order: Columbiformes | Family: Columbidae | Genus: Columba
"Greetings, travelers," said Rock Pigeon cheerfully, bowing first to Kaban, then Serval, then drawing back slightly in surprise at the sight of Goji. "Oh my! A new Friend? Hello! I'm Rock Pigeon, or sometimes people call me Dove. I hope we can have a peaceful time together."
"Uh, hi," said Goji, a little awkwardly. "I'm... you can call me Goji. And peaceful sounds good," she added with a little smile.
"Professor Konoha sent me to find out what that amazing noise last night was," Rock Pigeon explained to Kaban. "She assumed you must have had something to do with it, since she knew you were in the area."
"It's, uh... kind of a long story," Kaban said, putting a sheepish hand behind her head. "And not really important right now. I hate to turn you right around and send you away again, but can I ask you to take a message back to the Professor for me, please, and a couple of other people?"
"Sure, no problem," Rock Pigeon replied. "It's what I do!"
Kaban outlined her needs as succinctly as possible. The avian Friend jotted a few notes in a little notebook she wore strapped to her wrist, then said her goodbyes, spread her improbably small wings, and took to the sky again, circling the boat once and speeding off to the south.
"I'm impressed by her sense of direction," Goji mused as she watched Rock Pigeon fly away, making an unerring beeline to the south.
"Well, she is a homing pigeon," Kaban pointed out.
"It was nice of the Professor to send someone to check on us," Serval noted.
"Mm," Kaban agreed. "I should have asked the An'in Lucky Beast to send her another message last night, but after all the excitement, I forgot all about it."
They pulled up to the northern Kyōshū dock a bit past noon, judging by the sun's position, and found four figures waiting for them on the pier. Two of them were the unmistakable figures of the Professor and Mimi, near-identical but for their colors. Standing at the forward rail, Serval recognized the other two as the people Kaban had asked Rock Pigeon to find. She wasn't sure why Kaban asked for those two, specifically, but she was looking forward to finding out.
Kaban shut down the ferry's engines a short way from the dock, letting the boat's momentum bleed off as it coasted the rest of the way in, and they bumped up alongside without too much of a jolt. Serval and Goji jumped down and got busy making the mooring ropes fast; Kaban made certain everything was properly turned off and squared away, then followed them down to the pier.
"Everyone," she said, spreading her hands. "I'm so glad Rock Pigeon was able to find you all so quickly. It'll save us a lot of time, and we don't have that much left."
"Kaban. Welcome back," said the Professor.
"Indeed, welcome," Mimi concurred.
"Greetings, Kaban," said the device strapped to the Professor's wrist, and Goji was intrigued to note that, in addition to sounding just like the little service robots she'd seen back in the city, it looked a lot like the gadget she'd noticed on the front of each one. "It has been 76 days since you were last in the Kyōshū Region. Welcome back."
"Lucky!" said Kaban, a delighted smile breaking out on her face in spite of the seriousness of the occasion. She went forward to accept the device from the Professor, securing it on her own right wrist. "It's good to be home. Is everything all right?"
"I am pleased to report that normal operations have continued uninterrupted in your absence," Lucky replied.
"Hello, Serval, how was your trip? Oh, just great, Boss—I didn't run out of rations and have to eat Kaban to survive or anything!" said Serval sarcastically.
"Serval, do not eat Kaban," said Lucky, and both Serval and Kaban laughed. Goji got the impression of an inside joke of long standing, which made her smile slightly, even though she didn't get it.
"Have you found something?" the Professor asked, brushing straight past all the social nonsense.
Kaban took no offense. "Yes—but we still have a lot of work to do." She nodded toward the boat. "Let's go aboard and I'll explain. Oh—right, introductions first. Everyone, this is Goji-chan. Serval and I met her in Renraku City."
The Professor drew back, her largely expressionless face showing as much surprise as it could show.
"Renraku City!" she blurted.
"You found it?" Mimi asked.
Serval nodded, grinning. "Yup! And then we kind of, um, broke it," she admitted, her smile turning a little awkward. "But that wasn't really our fault, and it was pretty messed up when we got there... anyway."
The Professor, recovering her aplomb, ignored Serval's digression with faintly magnificent indifference, instead turning to Goji and saying, "Greetings, new Friend. I am Professor Northern White-Faced Owl, wise above all."
"And I am her Assistant, Eurasian Eagle Owl," Mimi added.
"We are the chiefs of this village," the Professor declared.
"For we are wise," Mimi explained.
What is it about owls and ego? Goji wondered, thinking of a certain spirit librarian, but she kept her face neutral as she gave them a polite bow.
A short way away, a slim girl slouching in the depths of a two-tone brown-striped hoodie snorted. "Don't you two ever give it a rest with that?" she asked.
Order: Squamata | Family: Paraviperidae | Genus: Cryptogloydius
"This is Tsuchinoko," Mimi explained.
"She is a Friend who is an animal Science has never accepted as real," said the Professor.
"We can only speculate that this is responsible for her ill-tempered nature," mused Mimi.
"Oi!" Tsuchinoko objected.
Order: Sphenisciformes | Family: Spheniscidae | Genus: Eudyptes
"Yo!" said the black-and-white-clad figure next to Tsuchinoko with a cheery wave. "Southern Rockhopper Penguin here! You can just call me Iwabi, it's easier."
"Goji-chan, huh?" said Tsuchinoko, ambling over to peer more closely at Goji. She was wearing geta, which reminded Goji pleasantly of home, although she noticed that Tsuchinoko's were much stranger than the ones her father often wore; they had only one tall "tooth" apiece, more like short stilts than sandals. Goji wondered how the girl managed to walk in them without breaking an ankle—and make it look so easy.
In the shadow of her raised hood, Tsuchinoko's eyes glowed an eerie cyan, close to the color of the short, messy hair peeking around the edges. She regarded Goji closely for just long enough to make her start feeling slightly uncomfortable, then stepped back out of her space and said,
"Hmm. I always thought the Legendary Beasts were a myth." She shrugged, hands still in her hoodie pockets. "Then again, people say the same about me, as Her Owly Majesty so tactfully points out."
Before Goji had a chance to formulate a response, Mimi cut in sharply, "Tsuchinoko, this is really not the time for your absurd theories about the World Before."
Tsuchinoko sighed. "You see what I have to work with," she said sourly. Then, shrugging, she retired to stand by Iwabi again. "She does have a point, though. Let's cut to the chase: What did you find, Kaban, and why did you ask for Iwabi and me?"
"Yeah, I'm kinda wondering about that myself," Iwabi admitted. "I mean, I can see why you would want Tsuchi involved if something weird is going down, but I'm at a loss as to why you need a member of an idol unit."
Kaban nodded. "Come aboard," she said, "and I'll explain everything."
Once they were all up on the ferryboat's weather deck, seated around a folding table Serval found down in the cabin, it took Kaban half an hour to make everything as clear as she could to her audience: the unfolding crisis, which the Professor and Mimi had so far kept secret from everyone else in the Kyōshū Region; Admin-Istra and Renraku City; the Nutrition Lab; the Mark II food preparation machine; the terrifying appearance of the monster calling itself Rampage, its destruction of the Mark II, and Goji defeating it (with the exact details of how that was accomplished glossed over); and, finally, their departure from the city with the parts of the Mark II prototype.
"According to the An'in Region's Lucky Beasts," Kaban finished, "the managers of the Park intended to set the Mark II up here in Kyōshū, replacing part of the existing system. That means we need to take it to the food preparation area. Iwabi, I know you and the rest of PPP went there, years ago... do you think you could find it again?"
"Hmm... yeah, I think so," Iwabi said. "I gotta tell you, though, we barely got out of there with our tailfeathers intact. The Bosses do not like Friends messing around with the food supply."
"Hopefully, Lucky and I will be able to convince them that we're supposed to be there," said Kaban, the fingertips of her left hand unconsciously touching the Lucky Beast module she wore on her right wrist.
"Now that you have been logged as Chief Ranger of the Park, that should present no difficulties, Kaban," Lucky said. "All Lucky Beasts will recognize your authority."
The Professor blinked. "Chief Ranger?"
"How did you accomplish that?" Mimi wondered.
Kaban shrugged a little sheepishly. "I really don't know. When I introduced myself to the Lucky Beast we met in the Administration Special Area, he checked my ID against the Kyōshū Region's personnel system and found the record Lucky entered for me there. He said something about resolving a mismatch, and then started calling me Chief."
"You are the only Ranger in Japari Park," Lucky pointed out. "Logically, once registered with the central administration system, that would make you the highest-ranking one."
"Ha!" said Tsuchinoko with a sly little grin. "Sometimes I love how dumb the Ancients' smart machines were. No offense, Lucky."
"How come she can get an answer out of you without threatening Kaban?!" Serval demanded.
When Lucky did not reply, Mimi speculated blandly, "Perhaps he simply dislikes you, Serval."
"That's not it!" Serval insisted, arms folded.
Iwabi put up a hand, like a student in class. "Um... can we maybe focus on the not-starving part? I'm still sort of freaking out about that, to be honest."
"Yes. Sorry," said Kaban, as apologetic as if the digression had been her fault. "We still have a big problem. The machine we found was powered by a giant Sandstar crystal, the biggest I've ever seen outside the Great Mountain. Not only big, there was something... something special about it. But when Rampage, um... happened... it was destroyed. If we're going to get this one working," she went on, patting the case beside her, "we have to hope there's another one... and that we can find it."
"I begin to understand why you got me involved," Tsuchinoko mused.
Kaban nodded. "You know more about the Park's mysteries than anyone," she said. "Even the Professor and Mimi—no offense—haven't studied the Ancients like you have."
"We prefer to confine ourselves to verifiable facts," the Professor said stuffily.
"Indeed, we do," Mimi agreed, then softened very slightly and continued, "However, in this instance..."
"And this instance only..." the Professor allowed.
"We must acknowledge that you are correct," Mimi finished, and both owls turned attentive stares to Tsuchinoko.
The cryptid Friend blanched slightly as their undivided attention, conveyed with their enormous, unblinking orange eyes, grated against her natural preference for being unobserved. For a second, Kaban thought she might overturn the table and hide behind it. Then she got hold of herself with a visible effort of will, turned to face Kaban so she wouldn't have to see the owls' intense scrutiny, and cleared her throat, torn between self-importance and social terror.
"What else can you tell me about this special Sandstar crystal?" she asked.
"It was huge!" Serval said, gesturing with her hands to estimate its size. "Bigger than your head with your hood up. Maybe even bigger than African Elephant's ears."
"A perfect cube," Kaban added, her face thoughtful as she dredged her memory for details she might not have consciously registered at the time. "Smooth as glass on all six sides, like someone had made it that way and polished it. But... there was something else. I only saw it outside the machine for a moment, and it was a long way away, but..." She frowned, rubbing her forehead in frustration. "I can't put it into words."
Kaban blinked, surprised out of her brain-racking, as Goji suddenly moved, heading around the Professor and Mimi and up to the wheelhouse.
"Goji-chan?" she wondered.
"Give me a second," Goji replied. "I have to see if—aha, here we go."
She came back a moment later with the boat's logbook and a pencil. Laying the former down on the table, she opened it to the blank pages at the back, then took the pencil and, with the tip of her tongue wedged in the corner of her mouth, started sketching.
With quick little strokes of her pencil, the picture took shape: a cube, drawn in pseudo-three-dimensional perspective. Then, once the outline was complete, she drew a second cube with lighter strokes, nestled within the first and connected at the corners.
"Like that," she said. "It's a tesseract. A four-dimensional cube." Seeing that her audience didn't get it, she drew four simpler forms in the space around the hypercube, naming them as she went: "Zero dimensions, point; one dimension, line; two dimensions, square; three dimensions, cube; four dimensions, tesseract."
Iwabi scratched her head. "OK, I'm lost."
Tsuchinoko sat forward and flopped back her hood, revealing that her eyes were actually grey in daylight, and stared at the sketches for a long few seconds, her lips moving as if forming unvocalized words.
"... So that's what it's called," she murmured after a few more seconds' reverie.
"But I guess Tsuchi isn't?" said Iwabi, sounding more puzzled than ever.
"Have you seen one before, Tsuchinoko?" Kaban asked gently.
Tsuchinoko tore her eyes away from the diagrams and turned them, looking troubled, to Kaban. "I have," she said. "A long time ago. I'd almost forgotten about it. Not long after I first changed, I explored the caves under the Great Sandstar Mountain." She ignored the two owls' simultaneous sharp intakes of breath—Sandstar Mountain was holy ground, where trespassing by Friends was forbidden—and went on before they could chide her, "I saw something like that in one of them."
"Can you take us there?" Serval wondered.
Tsuchinoko closed her eyes for a moment, collecting herself. Then, looking Kaban in the eye, she said matter-of-factly, "I would rather do almost anything else... but yes, I can." Then, regaining a little of her customary nonchalance, she nodded toward Goji and asked, "How's your big friend at fighting Ceruleans? Because we're going to find a lot of them down there. They spawn in those caves, you know. Or whatever Ceruleans do to make more Ceruleans."
"I don't know about Ceruleans, specifically," Goji said, "but I reckon I'm pretty handy in a fight."
"You'll need to be," Tsuchinoko told her.
"Iwabi, you don't have to come along for this part if you don't want to," Kaban said. "We just need you to guide us to the food prep area once we have the Sandstar."
Iwabi shook her head. "Nah, I'm in. What kind of idol would I be if I let you guys do all the heavy lifting and only showed up at the end? Besides, I'd rather be doing something than waiting around for you to come back."
Kaban smiled. "We'll be glad to have you," she said.
"Yeah, more backup is always more good," Tsuchinoko agreed.
"Well, then." Kaban sat gathering her thoughts for a moment, then turned to the Professor and said, "I guess we have a way forward."
to be continued in Part V: Field Expedient
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
Friends Like These: From the Chronicles of Japari Park
Part IV: Homecoming
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
with the gracious aid of
The EPU Usual Suspects
(in order of appearance)
Northern White-Faced Owl
Eurasian Eagle Owl
Southern Rockhopper Penguin
Based on Kemono Friends created by
Kaban created by
Shingoji Nakajima inspired by
Shin Gojira (by Toho), by way of
the fan comic Shingoji-chan by Kishida Shiki
E P U (colour) 2019