The huge chamber left behind by the Ancients' attempt to mine Sandstar from the Great Sandstar Mountain was exactly the kind of place Tsuchinoko would have liked to spend a long time examining. As the self-appointed archaeologist of Japari Park, she had spent her entire life as a Friend seeking out and studying the relics left behind by the humans who had once occupied and operated the Park. She would have been the first to admit that she possessed a slightly obsessive personality, and the Ancients were her obsession: who they were, why they built Japari Park, and what drove them to abandon it just as, by every indication she'd yet found, things were getting really interesting.

She could happily have spent weeks, even months, in this place, meticulously searching for clues to those matters among the shining columns and jaggedly irregular formations of Sandstar crystals that filled the vast space.

Of course, that would have required it not to be the site of a pitched battle between a strange visitor from another world and the biggest horde of Ceruleans she'd ever seen together in one place. The noise of that conflict, reverberating throughout the cavern, was almost as distracting as the possibility that she and the small group she was with might be spotted and set upon by the Ceruleans themselves at any moment.

Keeping as low as possible, Tsuchinoko clambered over a jumble of Sandstar blocks, her eyes searching the shadows cast by the mineral's otherworldly glow for any details that might help her find her way through this crystalline maze.

"Ow!" she said as she slipped down the far side of the heap, banging an elbow painfully on one of the cubes at the bottom. "Dammit!"

"Are you all right, Tsuchinoko?" asked Kaban, crawling after her as quickly as she could while staying quiet.

"Sure, great," Tsuchinoko replied, rubbing her elbow. "You know, one of the advantages of being a Friend was supposed to be that I wouldn't have to crawl around on my belly any more."

Iwabi slid face-first down the glassy slope of one of the larger blocks nearby, remarking to herself that the sensation paled somewhat when what awaited at the bottom was a dusty skid to a halt rather than a refreshing plunge into cold water. "I heard that," she agreed ruefully.

"Do you see the thing we're after anywhere?" Serval whispered as she crept carefully after Kaban.

"If I did, don't you figure I'd be picking it up by now?" Tsuchinoko snapped. "Don't rush me! I don't handle pressure well."

"I'm not saying I'm unsympathetic," Iwabi said, "but I bet the Ceruleans won't care about your psychological problems."

Tsuchinoko's only reply was an irritated hiss. At times like this, she wished she had a tail rattle, like some of her cousins.

A moment later, she froze, her cyan-glowing eyes widening in the gloom. Even though it didn't really work that way any more, her tongue involuntarily flickered out, tasting the air.

"There it is," she whispered.

Platina Jazz
"Welcome to Japari Park"
Anime Standards Vol. 6 (2019)

I have a message from another time...

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Undocumented Features Future Imperfect: FRIENDS LIKE THESE (From the Chronicles of Japari Park)
Part VI: Field Expedient

by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer

© 2019 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

The others all turned, following her eyeline, and looked. Kaban took a second or two to spot it, nestled as it was in a formation of other, similar-looking crystals: a perfect cube of Sandstar, its glow slightly brighter than that of the nodes around it. It was right there, perfectly in the open, looking like one could just pick it up and carry it away. There were only two problems:

  1. It was more than halfway up the nearly vertical rock face at the far end of the chamber; and
  2. Lying between them and that rock face was a wide pool of inky black water, depth unknown.

"And me without my swimsuit," said Iwabi with a sigh. "Oh well, it's pretty warm in here by my standards." She took off her Japari Park T-shirt, handed it to Kaban, then shrugged back into her hoodie and zipped it up tight. "Here goes nothing!"

So saying, she walked to the edge of the pond, stood looking down for a moment, then hopped lightly off the edge—and disappeared completely into the dark water.

"Iwabi!" Serval cried, remembering just in time to keep her voice down. The three watched the water for an apprehensive second or two, and then Iwabi surfaced a few yards from shore, shaking her head.

"Well, that's plenty deep," said the penguin philosophically. "Cover me, I'll be right back."

She struck out for the opposite shore, and Kaban, who had never seen her swim any real distance before—the aquatic parts of PPP shows were always done in much smaller pools than this—was amazed at how fast she was. In her humanoid form, she swam with a powerful breaststroke, adapted from the way her original body would have "flown" through the water with wings adapted into hydroplanes. At each stroke, she disappeared completely below the surface, and when she appeared again, she was several body-lengths beyond where she'd gone down. It took her only seconds to swim a distance that Kaban judged would have taken her at least as many minutes.

Iwabi emerged from the flooded pit on the far side with a wild leap that trailed Sandstar sparkles behind her, springing out of the water by more than twice her height to alight on a half-buried boulder partway up the rock face. Without hesitating, she bounded upward, making great both-footed leaps from one prominence to another, until she stood on a narrow ledge before the cube Tsuchinoko had spotted earlier.

Up close, it was even more impressive than it had been from the far side of the pool. Just as Kaban had described the other one she'd seen, it looked like an artifact, not a natural phenomenon, so perfect were its cube shape and the smoothness of its faces. And within it—outside it?—constantly changing places with it?—the mindbending shadow of a second cube, impossible for Iwabi's three-dimensional mind to perceive fully. It was simultaneously fascinating and somehow disturbing, making her want to stare at it forever and never look at it again.

Giving her head another firm shake, she recovered her concentration, reached out, and took hold of the cube. It was warm, and its surface felt slightly elusive—almost amorphous, as if its true shape defied her sense of touch as it did the sight of her eyes, and yet not soft or squishy like a normal shapeless object would be. She got as firm a hold on it as she could and pulled, hoping it wasn't fused to the crystals around it.

It wasn't; with a soft, musical sound, it popped free of the formation. Grinning in triumph, Iwabi turned around—and saw a squad of Ceruleans bouncing over the ridge she and her friends had just climbed down to reach the edge of the pool, behind Tsuchinoko and the others.

"Guys! Look out!" she cried, and the three turned to confront their attackers, but the shout also attracted the Ceruleans' attention. A couple of them broke off their attack on the others to come after her instead, only to plunge into the pool and sink instantly out of sight.

A third Cerulean that had headed her way seemed to notice what had befallen its fellows. It paused at the water's edge for a moment, as if considering its options... and then rose from the ground and started floating up toward her, apparently borne aloft by nothing more than the sinister humming noise it was making.

"Oh, that's just not fair," Iwabi grumbled.

Then, calling forth her wild side again, she enfolded both her arms around the cube as tightly as possible, got a short running start on the narrow ledge, and jumped as far out as she could. She hit the water feet first, throwing up a tremendous splash, and surfaced nearly halfway to the opposite shore. Even hampered as she was by having to keep hold of the cube with her arms, she reached that shore long before the floating Cerulean could alter course and follow.

Luckily, the Ceruleans that had come this way to investigate were all relatively small, and between them, Tsuchinoko, Serval, and Kaban were able to dispatch them without injury.

Iwabi burst from the water in a last spray of Sandstar sparks, stumbled to a halt between Tsuchinoko and Serval, and fell to one knee, momentarily tapped out from the effort of her hell-for-leather swim.

"Heads up," she panted, "brought one back with me."

Tsuchinoko and Serval turned, seeing the aerial Cerulean making for them across the pond. Serval spotted the twinkle of its core stone on its curved upper surface and gauged the distance, preparing herself to spring onto it and strike from above.

Before she couple complete her calculations, Kaban stepped past her, scooped up a fist-size rock from the ground, tossed it lightly in the air, and caught it again, weighing it in her hand. Catching Serval's eye, she gave her a wink—

—And then, with a shimmering wild release of her own, she wound up, raising one foot clean off the ground, and hurled the rock with a complicated full-body motion that turned her almost completely around, switching her stance from one foot to the other in the process. Trailing Sandstar sparkles behind it, the rock hurtled through the air, spinning end-over-end as it did so, and struck the Cerulean's stone with a sharp, reverberating crack!


Its core stone fracturing, the Cerulean disintegrated, bursting into a cloud of particles that cooled, darkened, and sank into the pond.

It had taken Kaban a long time to figure out that there was something physical, as opposed to cognitive, that humans did better than almost any other animal. For the longest time, she'd assumed that wasn't so—that compared to every other Friend's in the Park, her purely human body was soft, slow, and weak, and the quickness of her wits and the flexibility of her mind were the only advantages she could count on.

As with most of her best discoveries, she'd made this one while under pressure. One fine day in the Mountain Area, with her back to the wall and no other options, Kaban had learned that other animals might be bigger, or stronger, or faster, or see better in the dark, or all of the above... but humans, properly motivated, were really, really good at throwing things.

She allowed herself a millisecond's glow of triumph at Tsuchinoko's deadpan, "... Nice throw," before the urgency of the situation brought her back to business.

"You got it!" she said, noting the glowing cube still cradled in Iwabi's arms. "Great job, Iwabi. Let's go get Goji-chan and get out of here!"

"Oh—don't look directly at the cube," Tsuchinoko cautioned, a little too late.

"I looked at the cube, Tsuchinoko," Serval replied in an absent-minded tone, staring glassy-eyed at it.

Kaban looked around and picked up Iwabi's T-shirt, which she'd dropped to free her hands for rock-throwing, then wrapped it around the cube and broke Serval's incipient trance.

"Sorry, Iwabi," apologized, but the penguin, still catching her breath, waved it away.

"When I released my wild side to get across the pond, my swimsuit grew back," she said, unzipping her hoodie to prove it. "Weird, right?"

"That's because our clothes are part of what makes us Friends, and—" Tsuchinoko began in her "expert voice", then stopped herself, shook her head, and started trying to herd them all ahead of her. "Never mind! Let's go, let's go!"

They went.

Fortunately, Goji wasn't hard to spot, since she towered over everything in her vicinity and was glowing. She was still by the entrance, surrounded by Ceruleans that she'd broken but not quite killed; they would regenerate in time, but with so many of them crowding around, she didn't always have the luxury of finishing them off before some other matter commanded her attention. It was an inefficient way to fight, but there weren't a lot of options in a mob situation like this one.

On the plus side, what with all the stray Energon radiation in here, she felt like she could've kept this up pretty much all day, and she'd quickly figured out that these things couldn't actually hurt her much. A few of them had sharp edges that had done a number on her clothes... again... but thus energized, her hide was tougher than theirs, and she could just keep smashing them indefinitely. There was a danger that they might manage to mob-rush her and pin her against a wall, though, so she had to keep her wits about her.

Kaban and the others scrambled over the heap of debris to her right, zigzagging between crushed and mangled Ceruleans. Seeing them coming, Goji pivoted and lashed out with her tail, opening a path for them to reach her side.

"Did you get the thing?" she asked, not taking her eyes off the enemy. A group of them tried to rush her from the right, or possibly get past her and strike at the Friends, but she intercepted them with a flying elbow and tail-swept the area clear again.

"Got it!" Iwabi reported, holding up the shirt-wrapped cube.

"Then let's get the hell out of here!" Goji declared. Summoning her strength, she seized a boulder bigger than she was tall, hefted it above her head, and flung it into the main mass of Ceruleans, mashing a few and scattering the rest. (Her father, teaching her to fight years before, had called this maneuver "Bowling for Baddies".) While they regrouped, she and the others took the opportunity to leg it.

The Ceruleans didn't take long to recover; there were simply too many of them for such a maneuver to hold them for long. Within seconds they were pouring out of the chamber in hot pursuit.

Seeing that Kaban was getting winded—she had good endurance, but it was optimized for a less frantic pace than this—Goji swept her up with one long arm, lugging her like a duffel bag.

This deep within the mountain, the mine was a maze, and occasionally fresh spates of Ceruleans would burst out of side tunnels, forcing sudden course changes and diversions. Only Tsuchinoko's knowledge of the tunnels and her pit sense kept them from getting hopelessly lost or crushed between advancing enemy masses as they made their way back toward the surface.

They had the exit in sight when yet another stream of Ceruleans erupted from the last side passage before the exit. Tsuchinoko, Serval, and Iwabi made it past, but Goji had to pull up with a cry of consternation before she charged straight into their midst.

"Keep going!" she yelled to the others. "I'll find another way!"

There was only one other way to find, really, in the form the last side tunnel they'd passed before this one. She had to really hustle to backtrack to it before the mass of Ceruleans surging up the main tunnel caught up, but reach it she did, and fortunately there weren't even more Ceruleans coming down it as she hung a hard right and darted into it.

"OK," she admitted, "this could be better."

"At least we're going up and not down," Kaban pointed out, and Goji realized she was right; the floor of this tunnel wasn't level. She was running up a grade, not steep enough to pose a problem, but definitely heading uphill.

She risked a glance over her shoulder. Sure enough, the stream of Ceruleans had branched, some of them chasing her up this passage while the main body of them kept after the others. Teeth gritted, she applied herself to the task of staying ahead of them. At least this uphill tunnel didn't seem to have any side branches, so there was nowhere for more ambush parties to come from—but did it lead anywhere?

They rounded a bend, the soles of Goji's boots scattering gravel, and saw that it did. Fifty yards or so ahead, a blazing irregular oval of daylight showed that they were nearly outside... but as the tunnel leveled off, it became apparent that they were also going to come out halfway up the mountain.

"Well, that's not ideal," Goji observed, then mumbled as if to herself, "Still, with the amount of energy floating around in here..."

"Goji-chan?" Kaban wondered, a note of concern coming into her voice, as she noticed that Goji wasn't slackening her pace; she was still running toward the tunnel's end at full speed, sheer drop into nowhere or not. Then again, the alternative was being caught by the Ceruleans, which would probably throw them out anyway, but...

"Kaban?" said Goji, her tone almost conversational.


"Whatever happens in the next few seconds, just hang on," Goji said, shifting her grip so that she held Kaban against her chest behind crossed arms.

"OK," Kaban agreed, because really, what else could she do?

As she crossed the last few yards of solid ground they had to work with, Goji still didn't slow; if anything, she poured on more speed, closing her eyes and bowing her head in concentration. With a last bounding stride, she cleared the tunnel mouth and leaped out into space.

What a nice view from up here, Kaban thought abstractly as the Savannah spread out below them. There's the tree where Serval and I... hm?

Her train of thought was disrupted as it occurred to her that they weren't plunging to their deaths.

Tsuchinoko, Serval, and Iwabi stumbled to a halt by the Japari Bus, breathing hard, and turned back to look at the mountain. There was no sight of pursuit for the time being—but no sign of Goji or Kaban, either.

"Should we go back?" Iwabi wondered.

"Are you out of your flightless mind?" Tsuchinoko demanded.

"We can't just leave Kaban and Goji-chan!" Iwabi protested. Turning to Serval, she went on, "Right?"—but Serval was looking past her and pointing into the sky.

"Look!" she cried, and they looked.

High up on the mountain, a dark shape had just jumped from a high ledge. From its size and color, it had to be Goji-chan, and from this distance, Kaban could only be made out as a smudge of red and white standing out against the black of Goji's clothes. They hurtled out, away from the mountainside, and began to arc downward. Serval drew breath to cry out in dismay, but before any sound could emerge, Goji's shape suddenly... changed.

From her back, a colossal pair of wings unfurled—not the feathered wings of a bird, nor the leathery wings of a bat, but iridescent wings made up of millions of glittering scales. They were like the wings of a gigantic moth, their jagged scarlet-and-blue markings calling to mind the shape of the plates running down her spine.

"You can fly?" Kaban asked, astonished.

"Not in this gravity," Goji replied. "I can't bend the laws of physics as much as Mom can. The best I can manage in a Standard environment is about a four-to-one glide." She smirked. "This isn't flying, it's falling with style."

While the three Friends watched in amazement, Goji and Kaban swooped down from the mountainside toward them. At the last moment, Goji pulled up slightly, flaring to land like a bird; she still hit the ground fairly hard, but with finesse, her wings seeming to dissolve into a cloud of blue sparks as she tucked and rolled, taking the impact on hip and shoulder and sparing Kaban the brunt of it.

"Oof," she remarked, clambering to her feet. "Not my most graceful entrance." Bending to help up her erstwhile passenger, she asked, "You OK, Kaban?"

"I think so," Kaban replied, feeling herself for injuries. "Where's my hat?"

"Right here, no da!" declared a voice from behind her, and they all turned to see a figure standing in the middle of the dry riverbed, just by the mark Goji and Kaban made when they hit the ground, holding up Kaban's pith helmet like some sort of holy talisman.

"Kaban!" the new arrival declared, her rounded animal ears twitching and ringed tail lashing the air with emotion. "It really hurts my feelings that you didn't ask me, the number-one treasure hunter in Japari Park, to help you with this, no da! But it's fine now, no da."

Order: Carnivora | Family: Procyonidae | Genus: Procyon
Common raccoon
Procyon lotor

Tossing Kaban's hat to her, the newcomer struck a triumphant pose with fists on hips and announced, "Raccoon is here, no da!"

Another Friend, this one blonde and sporting an unusually large pair of fox ears, scrambled down the riverbank next to Raccoon, raised a hand and said in a rather less dramatic tone, "Hiiii, guys. Sorry about this. We stopped at the watering hole and Hippo was there..."

Order: Carnivora | Family: Canidae | Genus: Vulpes
Vulpes zerda

"Hi, Fennec!" called Serval cheerfully, waving back. "Hey, how are you at running for your life?"

Fennec tilted her head quizzically. "Huh? I mean, I'm OK at it if I haaaave to..."

"Great!" Serval declared. "Because, um..." She nodded for Fennec and Raccoon to look behind them.

The ground shook. A hundred yards behind them, what looked like a flash flood rounded the bend in the dry riverbed and started boiling toward them—a flash flood of bouncing, bounding, rolling spheres in a rainbow of colors, each sporting a single staring eye.

"What do—" Fennec began, but then she turned and saw the teeming multitude of Ceruleans bearing down on them. "Ohhhhh," she said, then grabbed Raccoon's arm and dragged her along as she joined the expedition party in headlong flight to the Japari Bus.

"Holy crap, no da!" Raccoon declared, trying to look back over her shoulder and run at the same time, as they all scrambled aboard the vehicle. "What did you guys do, no da?!"

"And who's thiiiis?" Fennec wondered, glancing up at Goji.

"Explanations later, fleeing now!" Iwabi panted, bounding onto the bus behind them.

"Ah!" said Serval as a thought struck her. "Goji-chan! Do that fire-breathing thing!"

"Are you nuts?!" Goji replied. "That mountain is full of raw Energon. If I hit it, I'd blow us all to Fedora Core!"

Serval gave her a curious look. "Where?"

"Never mind!"

Kaban fired up the bus and put her foot down, and for a moment the expedition party entertained the notion that they might have gotten away, but two things became apparent in short order: the Ceruleans weren't giving up, and the bus wasn't going to outrun them.

"They really don't want us to have this cube thing," said Iwabi.

"Can't you make this thing go any faster?!" Tsuchinoko demanded, crowding up behind the driver's seat.

"It's a tour bus, not a getaway car," Kaban replied with just a trace of asperity.

"What's a 'getaway car', no da?" Raccoon wondered.

"I'll explain later!" Tsuchinoko snapped.

"If we live that looong," Fennec qualified, watching with a mix of awe and fear as the surreal wave of Ceruleans slowly but surely gained on the trundling bus.

Quincy Jones
"It's Caper Time (The Self Preservation Society)"
The Italian Job (1969)

As the canyon widened out onto the Savannah plain, the Ceruleans fanned out with it, their mass getting lower but wider, so that they resembled less a wave than a stampeding herd. This didn't make their approach any less worrying, since now they'd be able to engulf the bus from the sides as well as the rear when they caught it.

Goji watched them approach for a few seconds, then went to the ladder in the middle of the bus compartment and called forward to Kaban,

"As soon as we're clear of this canyon, hang a hard turn!"

"Which way?" Kaban asked without turning around.

"Doesn't matter!" Goji replied, starting up the ladder. "Just get the mountain out from behind us."

Despite their situation, that remark called a little smile to Kaban's face. "Got it!" she said, and bent lower over the wheel, as though that might wring a little more speed out of the bus.

Iwabi watched Goji throw open the hatch to the rooftop observation cupola and climb out onto the roof, then turned a quizzical look to Kaban. "What's she doing?"

"You'll see," Serval replied for her, and Iwabi saw the same knowing little smile on her face, too.

Tsuchinoko followed Goji up the ladder, stopping with just her head and shoulders out of the hatch. The black-clad visitor was balanced in a low crouch on the rear half of the roof, her back hunched and long tail cocked above her head like a scorpion's, hands spread for balance. Beyond her, the Ceruleans were less than fifty yards behind now, close enough that Tsuchinoko could hear them thundering over the ground like so many rolling boulders.

And then, to her slightly detached horror, the situation got worse. Some of the Ceruleans near the front of the pack transitioned from rolling to bouncing, jumped higher and higher for three or four bounds, and then... didn't come down. A couple at first, then handfuls, then dozens of Ceruleans took to the air and added "above" to the list of directions they were about to swamp the bus from.

Under the clatter of the bus over the rocky ground and the rolling thunder of the Ceruleans' advance, Tsuchinoko became aware of another sound, one she couldn't immediately place: a low, pulsating hum, almost inaudible at first but growing steadily louder. After a few seconds' confusion, she realized it was coming from Goji, and it was pulsing in time with the brightening violet glow of the jagged plates on her back.

Of course, she thought. The Legendary Beast...

The Ceruleans on the ground were a mere thirty yards behind, the flying ones no more than half that, when the sloping banks of the canyon finally fell away altogether and the bus could maneuver. Kaban immediately made a left turn, hand-over-handing the bus's steering wheel as hard as she dared. She judged it perfectly, making the turn as sharp as it could have been without threatening to overturn the unwieldy vehicle.

The mass of Ceruleans had more inertia; they thundered out onto the plain, forced into a long, arcing left turn of their own to correct their course and intercept the bus. The flying ones fared better; the nearest of their number were now close enough to hit the bus if they dove on it. For the moment they chose not to, perhaps waiting for greater numbers to arrive.

"What are you waiting for?!" Tsuchinoko shouted at Goji.

"For the rest of them to be in range," Goji replied, nodding toward the colossal dust cloud that now shrouded the land-bound Ceruleans as they swept in from the right. "I'm only going to be able to do this once."

She waited one second longer than she dared, and would've pushed it longer, but the first wave of flying Ceruleans started what was obviously an attack run and forced her hand.

"Cover your eyes!" she bellowed to her compatriots below. Her own third eyelids flicked shut at that instant as well. With this many of them, this close, she didn't need to see them anyway. Their unique energy signature stood out to her seventh sense like a bonfire on a salt flat.

Tsuchinoko slipped lower, so that the coaming around the roof hatch was just below eye level, but she couldn't bring herself to withdraw entirely. Not if what she expected was really about to happen.

The glow and hum of Goji's dorsal plates peaked in both frequency and amplitude, the pulses blending into a continuous bright light and electric-transformer snarl. She bent still farther forward, nearly falling to all fours on the roof—

Not one but dozens of blindingly white-violet beams sprang forth, lancing out not from her mouth but from all along the rows of plates lining her spine and upper tail. They drew a lethal, incandescent web in the space above the bus, sweeping out like the quills of a colossal porcupine to sweep the sky all but clear of the flying Ceruleans. A narrower, more concentrated beam issued from the tip of her tail, tracking and eliminating the few who escaped the web like a precision instrument.

The aerial threat dealt with, Goji ceased fire for a moment, kneeling still on the upper deck and gathering herself for the second phase. Tsuchinoko watched in slightly dazzled fascination as the glow, diminished somewhat by the first salvo, built back up again. By now the main body of the Cerulean horde was upon them, sweeping in from behind and to the right—so many of them, spread out so widely, that there seemed to be no end of them.

With a defiant roar, Goji raised herself up, opened her jaws, skipped straight over the smoke and flames she'd opened with in Renraku City, and unleashed the undivided power of her atomic beam upon them. Before Tsuchinoko's shock-widened eyes, the beam swept from horizon to horizon, leaving a rolling wave of explosions in its wake.

It took only seconds—seconds which seemed like a half-hour apiece to their closest, most astonished witness—to completely erase what had been the biggest force of Ceruleans anyone in Japari Park was ever likely to see.

When it was over, Goji turned a grin to Tsuchinoko, white smoke rolling out between her slightly-parted teeth.

"That oughta hold 'em," she said, and then fell to her knees and sprawled flat on her face in front of the roof hatch.

The sun was low on the western horizon, and the last of the minor brush fires sparked by the annihilation of the Cerulean horde had gone out, when Kaban heard their strange visitor stir and groan. By the time Kaban reached her side, Goji was sitting up and looking blearily around the interior of the parked Japari Bus.

"Oh good, you're awake," said Kaban, kneeling next to her. She got out her canteen, wetted a cloth, and put it to Goji's forehead, asking, "How are you feeling?"

"Like I could eat an entire horse," Goji replied, her voice slightly hoarse. Then she blinked still-unfocused eyes and said punch-drunkenly, "Sorry, that was probably weird in this context. Are there horse Friends?" Before Kaban could answer, she went on, "I meant like a regular horse. Anyway it's a figure of speech, I would never eat an actual—"

With a full-body start, she seemed to wake the rest of the way up then. Abandoning the thought, she said instead, "Oh crap! How long was I out?" Once more, Kaban had no time to answer; even as the rest of the group gathered around, Goji lurched unsteadily to her feet and declared, "I have to call in, my mission officer must be having puppies after that light show. Kittens. Cubs. Whatever rhinos have."

"They're called calves," said a mellow male voice from outside.

Goji and all the Friends turned to look out the open side of the bus... to see a rhinoceros—a regular rhinoceros, not a Friend—standing beside it, peering in at them with an amiable sort of expression.

"But I'm not a cow, thank you very much," the rhino continued, sounding faintly amused.

"What the... ?" Iwabi asked no one in particular.

"A talking rhino, no da!" Raccoon exclaimed, a trifle superfluouly.

"It sure iiiis," said Fennec, sounding somewhere between dubious and resigned.

"Oh, for—dammit, Rhinox!" Goji cried, managing to sound exasperated and fond at the same time. "What are you doing here?! I told you I'd take care of this!"

"You also told me you'd call if you got in over your head," Rhinox pointed out.

"I was going to tell you I had everything under control, but I, uh... guess I sort of blacked out right after," Goji admitted.

"Sounds like 'over your head' to me," Rhinox replied complacently.

"Wow. Smug rhino is smug," Serval murmured to Kaban, who nodded.

"I suppose you've never needed a nap," Goji said sarcastically. "Get off my back or I'll tell everyone about the bean vines."

Rhinox eyed her narrowly, then sighed, conceding, and said, "Truth to tell, I was planning to come down anyway. Optimus wants another pair of eyes on the situation here." Chuckling, he added, "I was barely able to talk him out of coming in person."

Goji arched an eyebrow, briefly considering to herself how a Freightliner would manage to be inconspicuous in a nature preserve, then realized she was thinking of the wrong Optimus and rolled her eyes.

"Right. OK, fine. You blew your cover anyway, I guess I might as well introduce you. Guys, this is a friend of mine. He's been keeping an eye on me from orbit while I tried to take care of business down here. That's standard procedure on the kind of job I was on, when I thought this was an uninhabited planet and I was just here to take out Rampage," she explained.

"Hiya," said the rhino. "Just call me Rhinox."

Domain: Anorganica | Kingdom: Mechanoida
Order: Cybertronica | Family: Protoformidae | Genus: Maximalius

Maximalius rhinox

"So," Rhinox asked. "Did you get what you were after?"

"We sure did," said Serval, indicating the cloth-wrapped bundle perched on one of the bus seats. (Iwabi had reclaimed her T-shirt in the Savannah heat, so they'd wrapped it in Serval's instead.)

"I'm a little concerned about it, though," Kaban said. "It's definitely... special... but it's quite a bit smaller than the original."

"Let me have a gander," said Rhinox, ambling closer to put his head in through the open side of the bus. Kaban carefully unwrapped the cube for his inspection, careful not to look straight at it.

"Mm. Hmm. Yup," said Rhinox after considering the object carefully for several seconds. "That's an Energon crystal tesseract, all right. Good news is, the size isn't a problem. Infinite energy is infinite energy. Doesn't matter how big the crystal is, it's the fourth-dimensionality that matters."

Most of that went over his audience's heads, but the reassurance was enough to put smiles on faces as Kaban wrapped up the cube again.

You said Rampage was able to hold one of those in robot mode? Rhinox's voice asked from Goji's comm implant, inaudible to everyone else in the bus.

Goji, who had never gotten the hang of speaking into one of these things without doing it out loud, nodded.

Huh, Rhinox replied. Pretty sure if I maximized right now, being this close to an E-wave source that powerful would put me straight into stasis lock. Too bad you had to blow him up, I'll always wonder what kind of chassis mod he had to be able to stand up to that.

Without any useful reply to that even if she could've communicated it privately—What was I supposed to do, glue him back together?—Goji changed the subject, saying out loud, "So I guess it's back to Lion's castle now, eh?"

Kaban nodded. "Mm. Time to see if all this has been worth it. Are you feeling up to coming the rest of the way? Or do you need to leave now that your mission's done? You've done so much for us already, I don't want to assume..."

"Nah, are you kidding?" Goji replied. "Leave before the end?"

"I wouldn't mind tagging along either, if you don't mind," said Rhinox. "I'm going to have to write one heck of a report about all this, so I'd like to see how it turns out in person."

"Ah. Yes," said Kaban, looking slightly uncomfortable. "I've been thinking about that. I mean, I didn't know about you, but I figured Goji-chan would have to report to someone about what she's seen here..." She trailed off, unable to put her concerns into words, but Rhinox seemed to understand anyway.

"Don't worry," he said gently. "I'm on your side. My people messed this world up once already; I'm not about to let it happen a second time."

"When did rhinos mess up the world, nano da?" Raccoon asked Fennec, who shrugged.

With Rhinox joining the expedition, Kaban and company had more reason than ever to be grateful that they'd gone with the larger Japari Bus. The smaller one would have struggled to move a full-grown rhinoceros by himself, let alone the rest of the group—a situation that would only get worse once they collected the ton or so of equipment stashed at Lion's castle.

By the time they reached Hippo's watering hole the next morning, word had gotten around about the strange, dramatic light show in the Savannah. Everyone they met along the way on their two-day drive back to the Plains Area asked about it. More worrying, everyone knew or surmised that they were on an important expedition, and quite a few seemed to know what it was about. Nobody was panicking yet, but there was, understandably, a certain tension in the air.

Once they picked up the cases of equipment at the castle, it became obvious that the word had spread all over the Kyōshū Region, if not throughout Japari Park. In every Area they passed through, Friends sought them out to thank them for trying, wish them good luck, or even, rather touchingly, offer them supplies.

Three days out of Lion's demesne, they passed through the Mountains Area and entered unknown territory. Even Kaban and Serval, who had explored every other corner of Kyōshū Island, had never ventured beyond the Mountains and into the restricted area to their east, where lay the Park's food production area. Kaban hadn't been authorized to enter that area before her accidental promotion to Chief Ranger; and besides, without any need to go there, they had chosen not to tamper with it.

Among the expedition team, only Iwabi had been there before, having braved the exclusion zone with the other members of PPP to appropriate supplies for Kaban's first off-island expedition, many years before. She hadn't been back since—before this emergency, she couldn't have been paid to go back—but she remembered the way well enough. Finding the tunnel through the mountains was the only tricky part.

High on the mountainside, where the tunnel emerged from the rock, Kaban stopped the bus so they could all appreciate the sight of what lay beyond. To the other team members' amazement, this was a lake surrounded on all sides by jagged mountain peaks—Goji and Rhinox, with more of a background for this kind of thing, recognized it immediately as the remnant caldera of an ancient supervolcano—with a low-lying, lushly green island in the center. In another example of Japari Park's unnaturally discrete biomes, it was warm and pleasant here, where the climate over on the other side of the mountain was bleak and icy and wholly uninviting.

"Amaaaazing," Serval murmured, draped over the driver's seat from behind, her chin on Kaban's shoulder.

"I know, right?" Iwabi said, a trifle smugly, then admitted, "I didn't really get a chance to appreciate it last time I was here. Kinda too busy running for my life."

"I don't think the Lucky Beasts would actually have killed you," Kaban said.

"Trespassing in the Crater Area is a very serious offense, but we are programmed never to harm a Friend," Lucky confirmed. "If any are caught in the area, they are restrained and escorted back to their normal habitats. However, all members of this Expedition Party are protected by Chief Ranger Kaban's authority."

"Well, that's gooood," said Fennec laconically. "I don't think I wanna be 'escorted' back to the desert, it doesn't sound like much fuuuun."

Kaban might have agreed, but before she had the chance, Lucky's lens glowed bright green on her wrist and he declared, "Attention. I am receiving a software update from the Special Administration Area's Lucky Beast Alpha. Communiqué for Chief Ranger Kaban: 'Arrival of Mark II equipment in Crater Area logged. Ready to initialize Food Distribution System conversion. Please proceed to the Visitor Center.' Navigation data is attached. Please engage autodrive."

"Uh... OK," Kaban agreed. After a moment's hunting, she pressed the appropriate button on the bus's minimalist dashboard, then sat back with her hands off the wheel.

John Williams
"Theme from Jurassic Park"
Jurassic Park (1993)

Under Lucky's wireless guidance, the bus made its way slowly down the tortuous track from the mountainside tunnel to the lakeshore, then proceeded along an overgrown, but still navigable shoreline trail until they'd gone perhaps a third of the way around the island. From down here, the lush beauty of the crater lake and its surroundings was even more vividly evident than they had been from up on the mountain: a dense, temperate forest of mostly deciduous trees, fragrant with wild flowers.

When they reached the end of the track, the bus halted, and for a moment the expedition members looked at each other in puzzlement: What now? That lasted only a moment, until Lucky announced,

"Now engaging amphibious mode. Please keep your extremities inside the Japari Bus during the conversion."

And with that, and a few mechanical jolts and thuds, the vehicle slid into the water, transformed in moments from a tour bus to a tour boat.

"Huh," said Serval. "Never knew the bigger ones could do that."

"Mm," Kaban agreed, nodding.

They chugged along in the lake for the better part of half an hour, until they reached a point almost exactly opposite the mountainside tunnel. Here, Lucky guided the bus-boat in a broad right turn, swinging the prow around to face the island. As it did, they cleared a small headland, and their destination swung into sight.

The expedition party gazed in silent amazement at the sight before them. Nestled into a cove on the shore of the island was a pier that looked long enough to accept the Park's inter-island ferryboats, and off to either side, a pair of concrete ramps reaching down into the water. Beyond the ramps, a broad boulevard paved in white stones and flanked by neat rows of trees extended up a small hill.

At the top of the hill stood a broad building faced in the same white stone, its neomodernist façade instantly reminding Kaban and Serval of the Park Administration building back in An'in. Upon the pediment above the portico in front were the familiar colorful letters of the JAPARI PARK logotype, and below them, in somewhat more sober carved letters, the words


Two things struck Kaban about this building in quick succession. The first was that, unlike every other building she'd ever seen but one, it wasn't a ruin. Even the well-preserved buildings used and kept up by the Friends of the Kyōshū Region, like the Forest Lodge and the Japari Café, were aged and weathered structures, maintained by people with the will, but not necessarily all the skills and resources, to keep them in perfect condition. Those that had been completely abandoned since the humans left, like the ones in the Special Admin Area, were crumbling wrecks.

Only once before had she seen a building that was perfectly preserved, and that was the Care and Nutrition Laboratory in the ruins of Renraku City. This one was like that: clean, pristine, its every surface smooth and gleaming. It was a glimpse into what the whole Park must have looked like, back when it was new and the people running it had every expectation of enduring success.

The other realization, following immediately on that one's heels, what that although in perfect condition, it wasn't quite finished. Here and there, panels of the facing stone were absent: not broken or fallen away, but as if they hadn't yet been installed. There were also were piles of building materials, not fallen into disordered jumbles from a decaying structure, but neatly stacked and ready to be put in place. There were even pieces of machinery, which she guessed had been used in the construction, standing around amid the incomplete landscaping, as though their operators had just left them where they stopped.

Even with that flaw, though, the Visitor Center was a breathtaking sight to people accustomed to the usual shabbiness of Japari Park's long-abandoned places. The Friends among the expedition team all gazed on it in silent wonder as Lucky drove the bus up onto one of the ramps, converting it back into bus mode as he did so, and they proceeded up the white stone avenue toward the building.

Tsuchinoko found her voice first: "'Visitor Center'. They must have intended to open this place to the public when it was finished."

"That makes sense," Goji agreed. "I found a brochure in the Nutrition Lab that talked about taking the Mark II food supply technology to market once it was perfected." And the Friends, she didn't add out loud; that wasn't a worry any of them needed right now.

"The An'in Region Boss talked about that, too," Serval remembered. "When we took the tour of the lab. That was before you showed up, Goji-chan."

"Still sorry I missed the Sample Bun Incident, whatever it was," Goji remarked, causing both Serval and Kaban to blush.

"Now arriving at the Crater Area Visitor Center," Lucky announced, bringing the bus to a halt. "Please install the Mark II equipment within."

Inside, the Visitor Center was as handsome and as slightly-incomplete as the exterior. It had beautifully tiled floors and a subdued but grand sort of décor, with a lot of white marble and discreet bronze accents. The walls were decorated with elaborate bas-reliefs of various animals, and a few statues of larger and more impressive ones were scattered in niches here and there, including a particularly well-rendered sculpture of a bull moose with a colossal set of antlers.

"That's some rack on Moose, huh?" Tsuchinoko remarked, causing a couple of the Friends to give her puzzled looks and Goji to stifle a bark of laughter.

Much of the round central chamber was given over to chrome tables with four or six chairs around them. Counters ran along the curving walls, behind which the walls were covered in metal-edged slots whose function was not immediately obvious. And at the back center of the room they found the largest niche of all, empty save for a short glass pillar that was instantly recognizable to those who had seen the Nutrition Lab.

"This must be where the thingy goes," Serval observed. "Do we have any idea how to put it together?"

"Lucky? Do you have installation instructions for the Mark II?" Kaban asked.

"Unfortunately not," Lucky replied. "The prototype was never intended to be installed in this facility. The fittings you see here are for the production test unit, as is the documentation I have received from the An'in Region's Alpha."

"Oh no," said Iwabi, her shoulders slumping in disappointment.

"Now what do we do, no da?!" Raccoon wondered.

"Well... we'll have to improvise," said Kaban, with a confidence she did not altogether feel. "Let's get the cases open and have a look."

She was, as she'd feared, none the wiser with the cases open. Although often hailed (usually to her bashful embarrassment) as the cleverest animal in Japari Park, she had no frame of reference for any of this stuff; the most complicated device she'd seen before this point was Alpaca Suri's micro-wave oven, and she didn't know how that worked, only how to use it. These metallic boxes and cables and mysterious fixtures might as well have been so many rocks as far as Kaban having any idea how to make a magic food machine out of them.

She was sitting by the larger case, looking at its contents and racking her brain for something she might try, when Rhinox ambled up alongside her and peered into the case as well.

"Hmm," he said. "That's interesting. I mean, as molecular synthesis transmats go, it's pretty basic, and the packaging is a mess, but it looks like a sound enough design. Want me to help you put it together?"

Kaban blinked, then eyed the rhino's profile closely. Was he messing with her?

Rhinox felt her scrutiny and turned his great head to meet her eyes. "Seriously," he said. "I know I don't look it, but I'm pretty good with stuff like this. Just, you know..." He hunched his shoulders in a sort of rhinoceros shrug. "No thumbs."

Kaban smiled and gave a seated bow. "Thank you. I'm in your debt. Are you sure it's OK? You won't get into trouble for interfering?"

"Nah, not at all. You got this far," Rhinox told her. "I'm just gonna help you get over the last hurdle, that's all."

It took four hours for Kaban, with her friends' directed help and Rhinox's helpful suggestions, to wrangle all the stuff out of the two cases and get it put together in the niche where the production Mark II was meant to go. The resulting conglomeration of equipment didn't look as elegant as the rest of the building, but it was all there, all connected, and seemed sturdy: an irregular stack of mysterious boxes covered in what looked like tiny rectangular windows, with a compartment in the middle like the one the Mark II had had when it was set up in the Nutrition Lab, and an enclosure for the power source at the top.

The Friends present were all too short to reach the latter, so it fell to Goji to do the honors. She stood before the machine with the tesseract in both hands, regarding the nest of receptors and wires where it was meant to go, for a few seconds. Then, silently reciting Shepard's Prayer in her head, she slotted it into place.

With a chiming sound like a Sandstar release, the tesseract's glow brightened and spread throughout the machine. The front of the enclosure clicked shut automatically, hiding the slightly mindbending sight of the hypercube from the eyes of onlookers. On the modules that made up the machine's main body, the little window-like bits lit up, revealing themselves to be dozens of tiny multicolored lamps. A moment later, the screen next to the dispenser compartment flickered to life, showing a friendly welcome screen.

"Mark II system powered up," Lucky reported. "Commencing startup diagnostics. Please wait warmly." The Friends and Goji held their breath for several agonizingly extended seconds while whatever was going on inside the machine happened.

Then, with a cheerful noise, the welcome screen changed to an equally friendly-looking menu, and Lucky announced, "Diagnostics complete, no faults found. Mark II system ready."

Cheers, high fives, hugs; the next minute or so was a blur of celebration, as everyone gathered around Kaban and Rhinox, unanimously declaring them the heroes of the hour.

"I knew you could do it, no da!" Raccoon blubbered, tears streaming down her face. Overcome by emotion, she clung to Kaban in a way that flummoxed her and caused a faint, instantly-quashed spark of jealousy in Serval. "You saved Japari Park again, no da!"

"Raccoon-saaan," said Fennec indulgently, prying her away from the bemused human and drying her tears.

"No, really," Kaban protested, her face nearly as red as her shirt. "I couldn't have done it alone, not even close. Rhinox is the one who knew how to actually make this stuff work. Without Goji-chan and Norway and Blackie, we'd never have gotten out of Renraku City alive. The Lucky Beasts in the An'in Region did everything they could for us. Tsuchinoko knew where to find another cube, and Iwabi's the one who got it out of that cave and brought us here. Serval-chan kept me going on the trail all those weeks before we found the Admin Area. We..." Tearing up herself, she sniffled, smiling, and went on, "We all saved Japari Park."

"Attention," Lucky said suddenly, somewhat spoiling the tone of the group hug that followed. "Communiqué from An'in Region Lucky Beast Alpha. 'Park-wide Food Distribution System conversion in progress. Calibrating Mark II system with estimated demand parameters. Some unusual behavior may result. Do not be alarmed.' Message ends."

"Unusual behavior?" said Tsuchinoko, tilting her head.

"What kind of unusual behavior?" Iwabi wondered.

A moment later, the food machine's central compartment glowed and dispensed a Japari Bun—rather forcefully dispensed it, ejecting it clean out of the machine and toward the middle of the room.

"I got it!" Serval cried. Deep instinct propelled her to snag the bun in mid-air, as her wild pre-Friend form had once leaped to catch birds on the wing.

A moment later, another bun shot forth. "I got it!" Serval declared again, springing to intercept that one as well.

Before anyone else could react, the slots behind the counters all along the wall began to glow, and then they, too, started discharging Japari Buns—one every second or so for the first few seconds, and then faster and faster, until warm pastries were volleying forth like fire from dozens of machine guns set in an arc all around the back half of the room.

"I got—I—wait—I don't got—what—haaaaallllp" cried Serval as she tried in vain to catch the next half-dozen buns, then fell before the onslaught.

As Kaban hurried to rescue her, the rest of the Friends, Goji, and Rhinox retreated as well, those who could do so shielding their faces from the flying food. Before long, the bun flood threatened to fill the room and bury them all, as if in a snowdrift or a sand dune.

"Whoa! Sorcerer's Apprentice mode engaged," Goji remarked as the sea of pastry reached her hips.

"Where's Hululu when we really need her?" Iwabi wondered, struggling to keep from being bunned under.

"Fennec! Raccoon will save you, no da!" Raccoon declared, although no one could see how she intended to accomplish that.

And then, just as it seemed they might perish in the most preposterous imaginable way on the brink of victory, the tide of Japari Buns stopped and the machinery fell silent.

"Calibration complete," Lucky announced. "Thank you for your patience. Please enjoy any excess product that may have appeared during the calibration process."

The Friends, Goji, and Rhinox lay amid the carnage, half-buried in Japari Buns, and glanced around at each other for a few seconds before bursting out laughing.

"I think we're going to need some help to get through this lot," Goji mused.

Food Emergency Expedition, Day 90

The last day

We didn't have to wait long for that help. All over the Park, Lucky Beasts were breaking their usual silence and telling nearby Friends that the food crisis was resolved, and that the Crater Area, formerly known as the Farm Area, in eastern Kyōshū was no longer restricted territory. Interested Friends were encouraged to visit the new Crater Area Visitor Center, which was now open to the Park's guests (which didn't exist, but never mind) as well as all residents.

The first of them, mostly fliers, arrived just before nightfall, including Professor Konoha and Mimi-chan. By midday today, virtually everyone in Kyōshū had turned up, guided by Lucky Beasts through new tunnels and mountain passes, to check out the new attraction. Even Norway and Blackie came, hitching rides over from An'in with a couple of curious bird Friends.

With so many Friends coming to see what had happened, the whole thing turned into a block party like I haven't seen since we defeated the Black Cerulean, years ago. They filled the Visitor Center's dining hall, experimenting with the Japari Bun dispensers' menu system and trying out all the new things the system can make. Our band got back together, the rest of PPP was there, and everyone had a great time. It was the perfect way to cap off a long and tough expedition.

(Serval-chan got Lion all hopped up on Recreational Supplement 72-549. Before long, she was declaring her everlasting love for Moose, which Moose thought was good but also very confusing, particularly when the part with the chewing and drooling started. I don't think that was very nice of Serval-chan, but it was funny. Even Moose thought so... eventually.)

Lucky told me the other Lucky Beasts are setting up little kiosks all over the Park now. He called them "remote nodes" for the new food system. His colleagues will still be patrolling with baskets of regular Japari Buns, like they always have, but now anyone who wants something specific can just find one of the terminals and call up whatever they're after. The Ancients would have been charging guests Japari Coins to use these, I suppose, but Lucky says they're free for Friends.

Everyone's very excited right now, but hopefully once people have had a chance to adjust and the novelty wears off a little, life in Japari Park can get back to normal.

For the time being, anyway...

The next morning, while most of the partygoers were still sprawled around the floor or the grounds of the Visitor Center sleeping it off, Goji and Rhinox slipped away as quietly as a rhino and an eight-foot kaijū girl can slip. In practice, this proved not quite quiet enough, as they entered the clearing behind the Visitor Center to find three people waiting for them.

"Taking off without saying goodbye?" Tsuchinoko asked, leaning casually against a tree, hands in her hoodie pockets.

"Really now," said Serval mock-indignantly from a branch of that tree, right above her.

Kaban stepped out from behind the tree on the side opposite Tsuchinoko, asking with a smile, "After all we've been through?"

"We figured it would be best to do it so nobody saw us leave," said Goji.

"Not that we haven't made things plenty weird just by being here," Rhinox added, "but, you know... there's weird, and then there's what we're about to do."

"This isn't the last you'll see of me, though," Goji said. "Probably. I hope."

"The people we work for are going to want to keep a close eye on this place," Rhinox explained. "We work for an organization that tries to safeguard peace and justice wherever we find it—to make sure people like you are free to live the way you want. Not everybody in the galaxy is dedicated to those ideals... and a society like yours is incredibly vulnerable to people who aren't."

Kaban nodded. "I understand. I've been thinking about it a lot since I first learned where Goji-chan came from. I want to know what's out there—and I don't think I'll be alone in that—but most Friends aren't so curious. They'll just want to live their lives."

"And they have that right," Goji agreed. "So we—the outfit we work for, I mean—will do whatever it takes to keep the wrong people from finding out about you, or keep them away if they do."

"Luckily," Rhinox added, "we're pretty good at that."

"So," Goji concluded, "once we make our report, our bosses will almost certainly send a couple-three folks back here. Ambassadors, emissaries, whatever you want to call them. Not to interfere with your world, but to keep an eye on you, learn more about you, and provide a point of contact if you want to reach them. And if I can swing it," she added with a little grin, "I'll be one of them."

"In the meantime, you guys should decide if you want to send anyone out," said Rhinox. "If your own leaders decide to pursue any kind of contact with the outside, you'll need a scout or two to look around and report back on what's out there. That way you can make informed decisions about how involved you want to be with the outside world—if at all."

"Gee, I wonder who's gonna volunteer for that mission," said Tsuchinoko sarcastically, making Kaban blush.

"Yeah, figured as much," said Goji. From a pocket that seemed too small to have contained it, she produced a gaily patterned red-and-blue paperback book, which she tossed to Kaban, saying, "Read up on that when you get a chance."

"It'll save you some work when the time comes," Rhinox agreed, nodding.

Kaban looked down at the book, read its title, then smiled. "I will! Thanks."

"Look, we better get going before everybody else starts waking up," Goji said. "You guys take care of yourselves, all right? With any luck, I'll see you again soon."

Kaban took off her pith helmet and bowed deeply, holding it before her chest with both hands. "Thank you both so much for all your help," she said.

"No worries," Rhinox said.

"It's what we do," Goji agreed. Then she raised her right hand, spreading her fingers in a curious two-fingers-each-side V formation, and said, "Be seeing you!"

A moment later, her figure and that of Rhinox began to glow with a sparkling blue-white radiance, faded away, and disappeared.

"Wow," said Serval.

"You don't see that every day," Tsuchinoko observed.

"Well," said Rhinox as he moseyed down from the Steelhaven's transporter platform, "I think that went very well. Rhinox: maximize." After returning to robot mode, he stretched his arms and cricked his neck with a satisfied grunt, then went on, "Haven't worn that altmode for so long in quite a while. Anyway, I'm going to get us headed to New Avalon. Why don't you get some more sleep? You still look beat, and the writeup can wait until we get back to the office."

Goji nodded. "Good idea."

Out in the corridor, they headed in opposite directions for a few paces; then Rhinox paused, turned, and said, "By the way. Shingoji?"

Goji paused, turning. "Mm?"

"You did good," Rhinox told her. "A UCS is always tricky, and you handled this one well. You judged the situation, determined that you were with the right kind of locals to play it straight, and didn't push them around. You intervened, but only to help them do what they were trying to do anyway. You ran some big risks for the sake of these people and their way of life." He smiled. "That's all solid work, and it'll all be in my report. The Primes will be pleased, and so will the Chief."

Goji smiled. "Thanks, Rhinox."

"Hey, it was all you," said Rhinox with a shrug. "I'm just reporting it."

"Hey Kaban?" asked Serval from her tree branch.

"Yes, Serval?" Kaban responded, closing her new book on a finger and looking up from her spot at the foot of the tree.

"What do you think we should do next?"

"Hmm," said Kaban thoughtfully. "Well, we have some time before the ambassadors Goji-chan told us about will get here." She considered the matter for a few moments, then smiled and said, "Let's go to Campo Flicker's lodge. After everything we've been through, I feel like just lying around for a little while."

Serval grinned. "That sounds good to me," she agreed. Then she jumped down from the tree with a quiet "hup!" and landed before Kaban in a predatory crouch, which she immediately abandoned in favor of snuggling up alongside her.

"Raaar. Got you."

"Please don't eat me."

"Wasn't gonna."

John Williams
"Welcome to Jurassic Park"
Jurassic Park (1993)

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Friends Like These: From the Chronicles of Japari Park
Part VI: Field Expedient

by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer

with the gracious aid of
The EPU Usual Suspects

The Cast
(in order of appearance)
Southern Rockhopper Penguin
Shingoji Nakajima
Common Raccoon
Lucky Beast
and pretty much everyone else

Based on Kemono Friends created by
Yoshizaki Mine

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