It was that sort of droning lull at the end of the gap between periods. That liminal window when everyone was still trying to relax but didn’t really have any time to, and all of the High School kids were gathered in great masses in the halls like clumps of algae on the surface of a fishtank.
A small group of students had gathered around, listening in amusement as they were regaled with tales of the previous day’s shenanigans.
One such story was particularly daring, full of danger and excitement. A second-hand jumper race in an abandoned apartment complex with jury-rigged lighting on a makeshift track and some not-so-legal modifications to the safety systems.
The crowd listened to the story intently; some amused, some curious. Jumpers weren’t uncommon, especially among the upper-classmates, but not many kids had the time or resources to get the licensing and flying classes done. Not if they wanted time for other extracurricular activities, too. For some it was a must, but for most, they just waited until it was convenient.
Stories like this, though… made getting one seem downright… rebellious.
“So, I punched myself into the computer, and shut all the exhaust pipes except for the main one. That bad boy revved up hard and I shot forward like someone had strapped a rocket onto the seat. Blew past Georgie like he was sitting still! Needless to say… I won the bet. Not that there was any doubt.”
There was a bit of self-congratulatory laughter and some of the other kids hooped and hollered a little.
“That’s extremely dangerous, you know…” A voice piped up towards the back of the crowd. The little wave of jubilation subsided and Talon turned, a frown settling on his face as the group parted a little from his gaze to a small rat in a Yat-Sen and loose slacks. He was carrying his tablets under his arm and adjusted his large, round reading glasses as Talon’s gaze found him.
Talon put his hands in his black, pleather jacket’s pockets, his eyes hidden behind mirrored aviators as he took a few steps forward, leaning down to get on eye level with the rat.
“What?” Talon said, contempt in his voice, “You don’t think I know what I’m doing?”
“I know that if you had closed off the flow release too far, then it would have overloaded the cells and they would have exploded. You could have very well been killed for your little stunt,” The rat responded cooly, adjusting his glasses, “And I think, that our classmates should know the dangers of such reckless behavior.”
The group murmured a little bit and a sneer twisted its way onto Talon’s face.
“Oh, what a nice little lecture there. Maybe next, you can tell me about the dangers of riding with the field down. ‘Cause apparently you think I’m stupid.” Talon said, his head bobbing a bit with each syllable to impress on everyone gathered around just how irritated he was before he practically spit the last word in the rat’s face.
“Not stupid. Ignorant.” Connie said defiantly. Talon cocked his head to the side, his chin jut forward to meet the inside of his beak.
“Oh. I guess that’s okay then.” Talon said, before standing back up to his full height and looking around at the crowd, “Hey everybody, little Scrawny Connie thinks that I don’t know how to handle a Jumper. He thinks he’s sooooo smart, don’t he?” He said in a mocking tone, snorting loudly through his beak to punctuate.
Connie grit his teeth, glaring at the lanky bird as he returned every ounce of contempt in kind through his gaze.
“Just because he did sooooo well on some placement test coming out of Junior High, he thinks he is better than me. In fact, I think[/ that [i]he believes that he’s better than pretty much everyone, am I right?” Talon says, gesturing to the whole crowd which stays largely silent, shifting about nervously under the pressure of Talon’s irritation..
“That’s ridiculous, I just think that such irresponsible behavior is-”
“Nu-uh-uh!” Talong interrupted, holding up a finger towards Connie. He tilted his sunglasses down, and bored his gaze into the rat’s.
“What I think… Constantine,” Talon said very slowly, his tone sharp, “Is that you.”
He paused, for just a second, hand quivering. Then the muscles in his neck tightened visibly.
“Need to mind your own business!” Half way through the sentence, Talon dipped one hand down and picked Connie bodily up, his classmates scurrying back as he spun and thrusted the little rat into the lockers with a loud BANG that reverberated down the hall. Connie’s tablets clattered against the floor and he wheezed loudly as the air left his lungs, Talon holding him pinned up against the metal locker door. Talon wasn’t terribly strong, but he was a good bit older than most of his classmates and a good bit larger than Connie especially. There was a burning look of barely constrained rage present on Talon’s face as he leered over Connie.
“That’s the problem with you people. You don’t know when to keep your mouths shut! You always have something to add! Do you have any idea how annoying that is, you pencil-necked little weasel?” Talon snarled through a clenched beak as he twist the fabric of Connie’s shirt.
“I’m a rat actually…” Connie said, breathless, before Talon’s other palm slammed into the locker next to his head.
“THAT’S WHAT I MEAN! YOU CAN’T JUST SHUT THE HELL UP! CAN YOU?” Talon screamed at his face, some of the other groups of students taking idle notice of the situation.
There was an uneasy moment, and Connie was sure that the bird was about to start beating his face in. But the pause lasted too long and he felt Talon’s arm relax right before the bell interrupted the scene. Talong pushed his sunglasses up again and let Connie go, the rat dropping onto his behind as the elder upperclassmate looked down on him scornfully.
“You, just need to know when to stay out of things, you uppity little shit. You’ve been a pain in my ass since the day you got here and I’m about sick of it…” He sneered down at Connie before straightening his jacket, popping the collar up and turning away back to the now dispersing group of students.
Connie sat against the locker for a moment before deciding that he could rest in class. He shook from the adrenaline of the encounter, scooping up his tablets from the floor. One had been cracked, but he could repair it next period. Still, it was worth it to throw a damper on Taylor’s parade. Some people in this world just have more gumption than sense.
It was cold.
Talon stood shivering in the doorway, the shutter closed behind Shen and himself as he took ragged breaths, as deep as he could manage without pulling anything apart.
The home was a modern affair. Orderly with sleek new appliances and integration, a holo projected on the front wall against the base of the stairway in front of a rather uncomfortable looking white couch. There were shelves set into the walls rather than free-standing variants with unlit dome light fixtures overhead. The only light currently came from a faux-fireplace, the only concession to the modern design, emanating light and heat into the room, the ‘flames’ flickering occasionally to emulate the liveliness and inconsistency of a steadily burning fire.
After a moment of quiet, a rat emerged from the back of the den, a scowl on his face as he walked towards them. He was about their age, maybe a little younger, and wore a familiar red Yat-Sen with a postal service patch on one arm, a pair of sleek AR field glasses settled on his snout. In his hand were two StypSticks, and he adjusted the focus on his glasses slightly as he looked them over, quickly fixing the settings on them before handing one gingerly to Shen, giving him a gentle nod. Shen took it with a grateful smile, clutching it in his hands as he stood next to his friend.
The rat then looked up at Talon and flipping the pencil around in his hand, holding it like a knife, he pressed a button on its base with his thumb. It let out a soft electronic whine and gripping it tightly, the rat drove the other end up against Talon’s ribs through his shirt. Talon gave a pained start, gritting his teeth as there was a thump of compressed air against his side before breathing in deeply out of sheer discomfort. His ribs popped loudly in a somewhat disconcerting manner as he took the air into his lungs, but after a few seconds the pain subsided and he exhaled slowly. His eyes lost focus and Talon felt a little lightheaded for a few seconds as welcome relief washed through him, relaxing his muscles and causing him to lean back against the shutter behind him.
Satisfied, the rat turned back around and tossed the spent pencil unceremoniously onto the coffee table before plopping down on the couch and picking up his tablet.
Shen shifted about, still holding the ready pencil in his stubby little hands. “Thank you… Postmaster Muller.”
The postmaster gave a long sigh, rolling his eyes and looking up from his tablet to Shen.
“Please, Shen. Just Constantine is fine.” He said as reassuringly as he could. Shen nodded, looking down at the pencil in his hands and then at his wet clothes.
“O-oh! Um… could I use your shower… I need to use the dry cycle… If you don’t mind, that is. It would be really kind of you.”
“No no,” Constantine replied, holding up a hand and smiling, “Feel free. You could probably use a shower after… that.”
Shen gave a nod and smiled in return, waddling towards the back of the den to the bathroom there. “Thank you so much, P- Er… Mister Constantine. Thank you.” Shen said once more appreciatively before disappearing into the bathroom. Constantine just shook his head and returned to his reading.
Talon watched his friend waddle off.
“Yeah… thanks. Thanks, Connie.” Talon said quietly, still cold and shivering from his soaked clothes. He could wait a few minutes for Shen to return however. Connie just sniffed softly in response. Talon ground his beak a bit, looking back over at him, watching the rat sit there quietly reading whatever it was on his tablet.
“You… you didn’t have to let us in, you know. I really… appreciate that.” Talon said a little louder, trying to get the rat’s notice.
“I know.” Connie said after a moment of silence, still not looking up. “The emergency alerts specifically advised against opening up for unknown persons outside, actually. I was just going to ignore it.”
“I guess you just couldn’t… ah… resist my beautiful voice, huh?” Talon said, a little smile settling on his face as he tried to lighten the mood just a little.
“You could say that… You two were screaming your heads off.” Connie said cooly, flicking the screen with his finger to move to the next page.
“Well yeah. We were being chased by a giant friggin’... centipede from Mars or wherever! The thing was enormous!”
“You don’t say.” Connie remarked, sounding uninterested.
“Listen, I know it sounds crazy, but I swear on my feathers. You ask Shen, he’ll tell you the same thing! It was a m-”
“Relax. I believe you.” Connie said firmly, not looking up, “There was a video broadcast on the emergency network, showing one of them emerging from a crater in the commercial district.”
“Wait, in the commercial district? You mean there was more than one? Oh jees…” Talon put his hand up to his face, rubbing it and leaning against the wall.
“Quite possible. But, it matters not. We should be fine inside, providing we don’t make too much noise and draw attention to ourselves by screaming or playing loud music,” Connie remarked and gave Talon a sidelong glare, “The Consulate will decide what to do once either the storm blows over or the dome is restored. They’re already bouncing ideas back and forth over the emergency network.”
“What to do? What can we do? We don’t have an army. Hell, we barely have cops! And I don’t think a bunch of stunsticks are going to be robust enough to deal with those things!” Talon said, gesturing as he started pacing back and forth near the door.
“Regardless, just be glad that you’re in here, and they’re out there.” The rat remarked, “What were you doing out there anyway? Late getting back?”
Talon’s mouth curled a little at the jab, but he tamped any unpleasantness down for the moment.
“Me and Shen were out at the park when we got the alert. We were heading back when we heard something… we turned towards the water and saw this… thing… coming out of the clouds.” Talon said, leaning against the wall as he described the initial event. It was hard to think about, as unbelievable as it was. It was even more unbelievable that they were alive, but they were, with a little bit of luck and a little bit of providence.
Constantine nodded as Talon spoke, listening and eventually actually starting to pay attention. He set the tablet down and leaned on the arm of the couch, watching his still somewhat sopping wet guest relate his waking up, the discovery of the monster and their flight here.
“After we crawled out of the bushes, I tried to call Benny and Kaz, but I couldn’t connect to the network. I didn’t want to double back and face running into that thing again… so...
...I remembered where your old house was, and I came here. I was expecting to find your parents, but… uh… you know.” Talon said, shrugging and rubbing the back of his neck, occasionally glancing over at Constantine’s face to catch his eyes before looking off at the wall or the ground again.
“My parents moved out for a more rustic place down in the Bubble. I decided to stay here because it’s close to work and I like the place,” Connie says, matter-of-factly, “Regardless, you did the smart thing, surprisingly. Believe it or not, I would not left you and Shen out there in the middle of a hurricane. I can’t have you being sick on top of your normally tepid performance, can I?”
“You know, Connie, if you really need an ass to ride, I know some people who would help you out there,” Talon said, getting his swagger back a bit, a little out of relief and some out of pure irritation. Connie snorted loudly through his nose, about to say something before Shen appeared, his clothes and quills dry as he thumped his hat against his coat.
“Okay… I’m done. It feels so much better to be dry…” Shen said, putting his hat back on and wiping the water out of his ears with his finger, “You wouldn’t believe how heavy this coat is when it’s wet…” Shen remarked quietly. Talon and Connie both glanced at each other, the tension that had risen slowly dissipating.
Talon gestured to the bathroom.
“I’m gonna go freshen up…” The bird said and walked past Shen, the door shutting behind him. The hedgehog blinked and looked back the way Talon had gone before smiling back at Connie sheepishly.
“It- It’s been a long day so far…”
Tom approached the Minister’s office, her reedy voice permeating through the door as she conferenced over the emergency lines.
In tow were Travis, and their rabbit co-worker from before, Davis Lane. He was an IT specialist and often worked with Travis on various projects and data processing in addition to fixing computer issues and generally keeping things running around the Centre. Tom figured that if anyone could work up a viable electronic solution to a few of their problems, it was those two. Tom was mostly here to delegate, but it sounded like the Minister had some issues of her own.
“Yes, I understand. We haven’t been able to get in contact with Climate Control. No, I don’t know what happened. It might have overloaded their systems. They might not even have power, I don’t know.”
Tom leaned closer to get a better listen and the door opened as he grew unintentionally near, Travis and Davis hopping backwards behind him a few centimetres or so as Minister Domina turned around, the holographic representations of the other officials stopping to look as well.
The slim, yet imposing looking fire ant stood there for a moment before motioning them in with one of her delicate arms, the joints clicking and turning in almost mechanical motion that would make Tom squirm if he thought about it for too long. She was clad in a somewhat militaristic looking black tunic with a stiff collar, a matching pair of slacks and a set of flat canvas shoes. It was always hard to tell her expression, just from looking at her, but fortunately, her personality wasn’t nearly as harsh as one might first suppose. In all Tom’s time at the Weather Bureau, she’d actually been exceptionally nice. But he made no mistake, she was a presence and commanded her appointed field with complete authority.
The three entered quietly, the door shutting behind them as Minister Domina returned to her call.
Tom recognized a few of the faces projected up onto the wall.
There was Chief Underpaw on the left, an imposing panther with wide shoulders and thick burly biceps that just barely had enough uniform stretched over them to look professional. He always looked angry regardless of his mood, and he had a keen glare that pierced into your gaze, even over holographs. He was currently hunched over a desk, several open containers scattered across it, a spotlight in one hand lighting the underside of his face as he occasionally fiddled with the focus ring anxiously. The rest of him was stone set, however, only belied by the rise and fall of his chest and an occasional twitch of muscle here or there.
He only gave Tom and his fellows a cursory glance as they entered before locking his gaze back on Minister Domina. No doubt the cops had been thrown into chaos by the sudden appearance of these… creatures from another world. That had to be addressed post haste… somehow... and even if that hadn’t been an issue at all, the sudden drop of the dome would have still required an investigation and the Chief was under the gun to produce results.
In the middle was Director Wiles, a small middle-aged weasel in a white lab coat and large, round spectacles that flickered now and again with little bursts of information. He stood there nervously, wringing his coat in his hands as he looked around, not really taking note of the new people. Brief motion and noises of distress could be seen and heard over his holo as orderlies and nurses rushed past in a blur. As Minister of Health and Human Services, he was stationed at Brightwater Urgent Care, the city’s only hospital on the Rim, which was probably not in the best way currently. The doctor was getting a bit white upstairs already and this afternoon had quite certainly added a few grey hairs, if not straight up cut a few months off his life, he felt.
Just behind him and slightly to the side, towering over the little doctor, was a large alabaster woman dressed in a nurse’s outfit that was… suitable if only barely. Her cap covered her eyes with its bill and she had a sanguine sort-of smile on her face, one hand settled on the Director’s shoulder. She was… a snake or something similar, it was hard to tell just by looking as she took up a large portion of one side of the view. She gave Wiles a squeeze now and then when his shuddering got too intense, seemingly calming him down a bit.
The one on the far left was none other than Neith Pendergast, Minister of Tourism and Commerce. She was hard to miss, reclining back in a lounge chair somewhere down in the Bubble. A cuttlefish, Miss Pendergast was quite proud of her figure, which had been painstakingly (and rather expensively) altered, honed and expanded. It was something regarded with some eccentricity and discomfort by her peers. She, however, didn’t care. She had even gotten a holo-lens with an extra wide view so that she could show herself off during conversations. Her skin flickered with intricate patterns, settling into a sort of psuedo-Egyptian set of stripes along her hood in gold and black as she lounged with a smile, wineglass in hand, sprawled out like she was generally seen on so many billboards and magbites.
Pendergast was always a bit… intimidating to Tom. It wasn’t that he didn’t like women, though she was excessively amorous… And it’s not that Tom objected to the ‘built’ look, even if her rack was frankly somewhat ridiculous. It was more a tactile thing… the constant glossy dampness of her skin, the long, squirmy tentacles she had that she kept tied behind her back in a sort of fleshy bow, and the little, almost invisible seams in her skin in places, like the upper parts of her legs…
Ugh... that really made him shudder. She was put together like a doll.
Domina’s other most trusted associates amongst the Consulate, Mister Thornbush, the Minister of Finance, and Miss Dunerunner, Minister of Personnel and Acquisitions, were noticeably absent from the little party, which was more than somewhat concerning. Out of the two dozen or so Consulate Ministers, they were probably Domina’s closest friends and not having them present of all people, even over the emergency line, was a bad sign.
Domina stood, two arms folded behind her back, her eyes scanning her compatriots as she returned to the attention.
“As I was saying, right now only a few things are clear to us,” she said firmly, starting to pace as she talked.
“One, we are greatly lacking in general communications. The wireless network is down and our hardlines are the only thing that’s keeping us in touch. We can send out alerts, but the citizens are currently cut off from the PETNet and are bound to start panicking soon, even if they don’t catch sight of those… things.”
“Sounds like some of the relays are damaged…” Miss Pendergast said, sitting up, her… everything bouncing noticeably in her painted-on dress as she set her wine down on the small table next to her, “If some of the net was destroyed, the remaining traffic could easily overwhelm the system, leading to the whole thing locking up, especially with everyone in a tizzy like this. Sadly, I don’t think we’re going to be able to calm everyone down, given the current situation…”
Domina nodded in return, spinning on her heel as she proceeded back in the opposite direction.
That leads us to number two. We need to get the dome back up by any means possible. If we can’t establish communications with Climate Control from here, then something bad has happened to the control system. Chances are there is some damage and the system either needs to be repaired or restarted. Unfortunately, getting someone out on a boat in this storm is going to be a bitch and a half, but it might be our only option, especially if we can’t rely on what limited personnel are there currently.”
Chief Underpaw cleared his throat, setting his spotlight off to the side which darkened his visage a bit, “Providing you can get somebody down there to the Inner Docks, I suppose I could lend you one of our speedboats to get your people out to the Central Island. With the winds it will be dangerous, though, so you’ll need someone who can actually handle the thing in weather.”
Domina looked over to him, stopping in place, “Can you provide someone?”
Underpaw gave a stern nod, “If you have a technician that’s willing to hoof it across town, aliens be damned, then I will get somebody there to drive you out. But I’m not sending them until you’re absolutely sure. We’re going to need all hands on deck for this one.”
“Understood,” Domina responded, “And that brings us to my third point, Emergency Services. We need need to make sure that our citizens are safe. This means getting help and care to the people that need it-”
“I’m doing everything I can!” Wiles interrupted Domina, the ant regarding him quietly, tucking her arms behind her back as the weasel shook on the other end of the line, “We’re very, very understaffed and already people are flooding in with injuries! We have enough beds but that doesn’t matter if we don’t have the hands to treat everyone, and our primary power connection was damaged during the incident, so we’re running off of emergency power already! Not only that! But if one of those things shows up we have no way to protect anyone! It’s not like we can close the doors!”
Wiles winced and put his hands on his head. His nurse moved her hand to his opposite shoulder, pulling him towards her bosom tightly and whispering something in his ear as she began rubbing his neck. After a moment he started to calm visibly, breathing deeply through his nose as Underpaw let out a low growl and sat back in his chair.
“Yes… well, once we assess the situation, I promise we’ll send a squad over to guard the hospital. It’s nearby and that’s the least we can do…”
“Please…” Director Wiles said weakly, looking as if he was about to implode. His nurse pat him gently, whispering to him again. He gave a nod, and shakily turned away as she ushered him off camera, the big woman returning after a moment by herself.
“I’m so sorry,” the nurse said in an oily tone, her voice carrying a slight accent somewhere between English and German, a soft hiss on certain syllables. Her tongue flicking out briefly amidst her pause before she perked up a bit, showing her intimidating set of needlelike teeth with a cordial smile, “But Director Wiles needs some rest. You see, he had already been up for three days prior due to some important engagements and was on his way to return home when things began to... get out of hand. Unfortunately his nerves are a bit… shot.”
“Right… very well, Hemlock. Tell him to update us if there’s any further developments.” Domina returned, the Nurse nodding in response, her smile persistent.
“Of course, of course! I’ll let you know if there’s anything we need. Take care~” She said brightly, the feed cutting and the remaining holos jockying a bit to move closer together to one another.
“Well, good to know things there are in good hands~” Neith said brightly, her tone making it difficult to discern if that was sarcastic or an honest statement, though she flashed her own sawtooth smile at Domina, “I suppose I’ll try and get in touch with Professor Phine and see if he can work us up something. I would say try and cluster everyone up in a safe place if you can. Maybe around the elevators, but I’m sitting underwater right now, so I don’t know if that’s going to work.”
Neith downed the rest of her fine blue bubbly and let out a soft sigh, adjusting herself purely for her own indulgence and Domina’s benefit. Underpaw just looked annoyed.
“Well, you do what you need to. I’m going to see about getting something set up so we can defend our people. For now, however, I have nothing further to report, so unless someone has something useful to say, I have a department to run. Underpaw out.” He said tersely and reached forward to shut the camera off.
Neith sighed, pouting a bit as she bit into her plump lower lip. “For people who are supposed to be in charge of emergency services, they don’t really do so well in an emergency, do they?”
“They’re doing their best; we all are,” Domina responded simply.
“Have you heard from Anton or Vicky yet?” Neith asked a little more apprehensively, resting her hands on her knees and compressing herself a bit, her pattern breaking up into little waves of multicolored dots.
“I have not… I’ve been trying to get in touch, believe me. Most of our Ministers are out of reach at the moment, which does not bode well for the state of our infrastructure,” the ant remarked, heaving a bit of a sigh.
“Well, if you find anything out, let me know. I’m using the hardlines to send out distress calls to the nearby domes via the PETNet, but nobody’s responded yet so I don’t know what the situation is. If I can’t get anything done from my house, I’m going to have a long swim ahead of me.” Neith said, managing to quirk a little smile in spite of herself.
“Well, you’ve never had any problem getting wet before,” Domina remarked, causing Neith to burst into giggles before the cephalopod stuck her tongue out in return, giving the fireant a wink.
“Don’t you know it. You just be safe. Okay, Dommy? I’ll call back later. Ciao~” Neith said, snapping her fingers, the feed cutting instantly. The Minister gave a soft sigh, her back turned to her three employees who were still waiting in cowed silence.
She turned on her heels, pressing all four of her palms together in pairs in front of her as she looked between the lot of them.
“Well then. Whatever information you have, I hope it’s good. We’re going to need it.”