Fun Fictional Distractions
The characters Kailian and Nakase belong to Nakase and are used by permission.
Kailian blearily opened her eyes. She was vaguely aware of a dream about a giant hammer chasing her around, bapping her on the head now and then. When she woke, the hammer was gone, but the pounding continued. She grunted and rubbed her head.
“Stop that,” she muttered.
Sunlight was filtering in through the canvas. She was wrapped in a soft woolen blanket, and smells of something cooking were filtering in. Slowly she sat up and looked around. It was odd waking up and not remember where she was, or how she got here. The tent was a warm and inviting place to wake up, at least. Although she could have done with less light, right now. She covered her eyes.
It was a while before she ventured out of the tent and into the mini town that had sprung up in this valley. She had her forearm draped over her eyes. It smelled like bacon was being cooked somewhere, probably over a wood fire from the smell of the smoke. She could hear conversation and some laughter filtering in from somewhere. That’s when the gunshots started, and the screaming. Kailian was suddenly very awake and alert.
Where was Nakase? Where was Teerian? She had to find them right now. She darted through the makeshift path between tents looking to each side, her face eerily calm. Her gun was already out as she cleared each intersection. She turned quickly as a running figure appeared out of the corner of her eye. They stopped as she turned to lock onto them, ready to fire. She was already squeezing the trigger when her eyes met frightened, panicked ones, and she stopped just shy of squeezing off a shot.
“Where is it?” Kailian said in a low, gruff voice to the frightened human girl.
“The… the kitchen!” she stammered breathlessly.
Kialian sprinted off past her, checking the isles between tents with a glance as she charged in the direction of several more shots.
There were two of them, both with energy rifles, making their way through the kitchen area. They looked like humans, both wearing armored masks. She could see other figures crouched behind different improvised cover spread out throughout the area. There was Nakase and Teerian crouched behind a tree with a boulder beside it. They were with five or ten other crouched figures. Kailian roared and sprinted in their direction. She opened fire on the two men, covering the area all around them with small blasts. Aiming could become a priority when she was closer. One of the figures stumbled backwards, tripped and fired a couple shots into the air as they fell onto their back. The other dove behind a couple of metal drums.
“Stay down, both of you!” Kailian shouted to Nakase as she ran past her.
She laid down more blasts around the barrel as she came upon it. Shots whizzed by her head as she closed on it. One of them nicked a feather on her ear. A massive cloud of white particulate was launched into the air as the barrel was punctured, and a smell like burned bread filled the air. Kailian barely made out the silhouette of the humanoid as they stumbled, bent low, through the cloud. She put about ten shots on him. He fell and convulsed. She wheeled around, looking for more targets. There was Saignus, a long staff in hand, spinning it, facing the other assailant.
“Get out of here, you fool!” she shouted, raising her gun again.
The other attacker turned to fire at Kailian, who leapt to the side. She kept an eye on the figure as she rolled, getting ready to fire at him when she was on her feet again. As she was coming up, she saw the masked figure slowly rise into the air, beginning to flail and scream. That’s when she saw Saignus doing more of those weird Tai Chi like movements, facing the levitating attacker. Several rocks around the man were also rising slowly.
The panicked assailant was gyrating their body to train their gun on Saignus, squeezing off a few shots as Kailian came up, locked on and fired. There was a female-sounding scream as a few of them found their mark on center of mass. That’s when the assailant’s weapon let a burst of fully-automatic fire loose, spraying in a broad arc. Kailian saw Saignus move very quickly as the shots came in his direction, looking like a glitch clipping from one location to another. He did some sort of spin and move his hands together. The assailant fell, and the rocks around her tumbled down on top of her with a crunch. Kailian ran up to the small pile and kicked the rifle away from the hand, taking a finger with it. She whirled around to face Saignus, who was suddenly standing close to her. She holstered her gun and reached out to grab the collar area of his robes. She pulled him up so they were eye-to-eye.
“You!” Kailian growled, barring her teeth in a vicious-looking snarl. “We need to talk…”
The character Kailian belongs to Nakase and are used by permission.
So here they were, hidden just out of sight from drink central. Getting Teerian back here took some coaxing. It was frustrating how difficult it was, getting him to do anything. Kailian hadn't worked this hard at concealing her frustration since working her last consulting gig. How long ago had that been? No expenses had bounced yet… That was a good sign. The kegs had been easy enough to open, and mugs weren't that hard to find, although they were more like shot glasses for a Valkyrie dragon.
"More?" Kailian said, pointing to Teerian's glass.
Teerian just stared at it in his hand like it was a foreign thing.
"You downed your last drink in one sip," she said.
"I don't drink much anymore," Teerian finally said softly.
"Well, tonight you can," Kailian said, trying to sound light and happy. "Who said you couldn't? Whoever it is. They've gotta get through me to stop you."
Teerian's shoulders slumped a little more, and he gave Kailian a sideways glance. His ears were down, too. Oops.
Kailian forced a snarly smile and held out an open hand towards the mug in Teerian's hand. Slowly, without looking up, Teerian set it into her hand.
Progress, she thought. One step at a time.
A few more cycles of this, and he at least started holding the mug out for refills faster. Perhaps the social lubricant was working.
"Do they keep you from drinking, here?" She asked.
"Saignus says it's not good to depend on it," Teerian said softly.
"Well, you gotta have some chill time now and then," Kailian said. "What do you do to relax around here?"
She could feel a little warmth starting to spread through her chest, finally. It had only taken 12 mugs worth.
"There's not much time to relax," Teerian said, taking another mug-full down. "We meditate a lot, and we travel a lot, but I'm kinda used to traveling."
"Did you travel a lot… Back there?" Kailian said softly.
Teerian nodded as she refilled his mug again.
A heaviness settled over the conversation for a moment. Both of them knew what she had meant. Anyone who knew anything about Valkyrie dragons had heard a thing or two about the merciless world they came from.
"What did you do?" Kailian muttered softly to him.
"I was a dancer," Teerian said.
"Oh," Kailian said, "You did travel a lot."
The warmth was finally spreading up to her shoulders and arms. She felt more relaxed.
"Yeah, dancers had it rough there. Were you a slave or free?"
Teerian shrugged and looked away, "I don't remember."
Kailian stared at him, watching his face for an openness that didn't seem to be there. She grunted.
She held out her hand towards his mug, and she took it. She refilled it and handed it to him.
"I'm glad you got out," Kailian said softly.
Teerian sniffed a little. It was hard to tell with him looking down like that, but there may have been tears. Kailian could feel anger welling up as she watched him. She wanted to gut whoever hurt him, whoever was hurting him.
Teerian tipped his mug back and gulped.
"So do they really take care of you, here?" Kailian said in a low tone.
"Yeah," Teerian said curtly, a little nervously.
"I can help if they aren't," she said. "Really."
"Ok," Teerian said softly.
Kailian looked away into the darkness. The sounds of music filtered in softly from the dining area.
"Nobody understands what it's like," she said, "being one of us."
She drank a draught and turned to the keg to fill her mug again.
"Everywhere I go, everyone stares. Everyone treats me like I'm some kind of monster."
Teerian was looking at her now.
"Just going into a town means I have to be ready to fend off a bunch of people who can't just leave me alone and let me do my thing."
She drank another draught and stared into the darkness. The warmth was spreading down her arms, now.
"It was worse back when everyone different on Earth was still in hiding… but even now that self-aware animals are a protected class, I still have to watch my back…"
She looked over to Teerian, who had turned to face her. His pupils were overly dilated, and he seemed to be swaying a little more where he sat.
"What?" Kailian said. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
Teerian smiled, and Kailian thought she heard a giggle. Without a word, he opened his arms and leaned against her chest, wrapping his arms around her waist. Kailian leaned back, looking down and snarling.
"What are you doing?" She said.
"Just wanted a hug," Teerian said softly.
"No," Kailian said, pushing him away. "Why do you think you can do that?"
Teerian sat up again, looking up at her. His face conveyed hurt.
"But...I just thought…" Teerian said shakily.
"Don't touch me without asking," Kailian said, her voice rising. She could feel her heart rate picking up, and her breathing was getting faster.
"Ok," Teerian said, "can I please?"
He was already leaning in again, arms already opened.
"No," Kailian said, her hand on his chest, "you can't."
She glared at him.
Teerian sniffed. Watching the tears roll down his face filled Kailian with rage.
"No," she growled shakily.
Teerian looked down for a moment. He slowly stood up, and still looking down and sobbing, walked away.
"Is everything alright?"
That was Saignus's voice. He strode through the torchlight towards Kailian.
"How long have you been there?" Kailian said, glaring at him.
"I just got here," Saignus said, calmly looking her in the eyes, his staff planted in the ground by his side. “I saw that Teerian is upset.”
Kailian just glared at him.
"Is Teerian okay?" Saignus asked.
"I didn't hurt him," Kailian growled.
"Are you okay?" Saignus asked.
"What is okay?" Kailian muttered.
Saignus shrugged. "If you find out, clue me in."
Kailian sighed and looked away.
"And what do you care?" She said. "As long as people keep working for your cause…. Whatever it is…"
"I see," Saignus said. "But what if they are my cause?"
"If you've had enough to drink, we have a tent that might fit you if you want a place to chill for a while." Saignus said. "It's this way."
Saignus walked away at a leisurely pace. Kailian sighed and growled. She got up with a clank and a grunt. She set off following the soft-looking yellow dragon.
Everywhere Kailian saw people cleaning up, gearing down for the night. Kailian followed Saignus through the dining area, then through an area full of lanterns and tents. It was a little hard to focus, but Kailian could still make out warm, soft light emanating from inside the canvas structures. They made several bleary turns before coming to a large tent. It looked like it was built to accommodate a family of 8 humans. Saignus stood still, watching it until Kailian came alongside him, arms crossed. She shivered a little. Saignus gave her a smile and stepped forward, pulling back a tent flap.
There were several lanterns inside burning low. Pillows and blankets on different colors were all over the floor. The spicy smell of incense drifted outward, along with the scent of pine.
"Thanks," Kailian said, starting forward and ducking into the door. She didn't remember much of what happened after that.
The characters Kailian belongs to Nakase and are used by permission.
The smells of the dinner were better than any restaurant Kailian had been to recently, and the people here seemed to smell okay, too. The most frustrating part was the dance of dining and serving that seemed to be going on. Every now and then in the conversation, someone or another would randomly get up and go get something and serve it to several people around their part of the table. Sometimes they would go to another portion of the long table and get a dish from several sections away to take it back to where they were seated. Sometimes they stood talking for a while before returning with whatever they went for. There was a lot of talking and laughter, and it was confusing her, and that was distracting her from more important questions, like the one she turned to ask the middle-aged vulpine woman beside her.
"Where are the drinks?"
"Hmm?" She said, looking away from a conversation she was having with several others about chakras or something. "You want me to show you?"
"Sure whatever," Kailian said.
She had been thinking of leaving the table to get away from all this noise, anyway. Being around so many people at once was not her thing at all. Maybe she could lure Teerian back to the log where they had been sitting before dinner. She pondered this as she walked through the grass behind this fox with her lilting jaunty steps.
She was wearing a long, flowing dress and lots of bangle bracelets on each wrist. Kailian wrinkled her snout, baring her teeth a little. This bouncy little furball barely came to the height of her waist, but she didn't show any signs of trepidation around Kailian. That's when it dawned on her that not many of those here were jumpy around her, not like usual. Well, other than Teerian, the one creature there she really wanted to talk to.
"It's getting dark, here," the little vulpine said casually. She turned to face a torch that was planted in the ground, and cradled the wick in her delicate paws. She breathed gently, and a flame danced to life between them. Light slowly spread from it.
"Hey… Do that again," Kailian said.
The vulpine looked up at her, one ear cocked.
"Okay…" she said, looking confused as she walked to another torch a few yards away.
The frustrating part is that Kailian could almost remember what that felt like. That was so long ago. She felt at her back, along the creaking metal implants on her spine. She grunted softly as she watched another small flame dance to life. The vulpine's small face smiled at her beside the new light.
"So what, do you like doing party tricks with lighters?" Kailian asked. "That's not very impressive."
That was met with a soft, canine sounding giggle.
"You mean this?" The woman said, holding up an open palm with a small flame above it. She passed it from one paw to another, focused intensely, shadows dancing around her from her little flames. She split them into two, one for each palm. There was a strength and intensity to her eyes as she looked to Kailian again, and the flames disappeared.
Kailian rolled her eyes and grunted.
"I've seen better in old movies. Before there was CGI," she said, crossing her arms.
"Are you still thirsty?" The foxine said, already busy lighting one more torch.
"Damnit," Kailian muttered, trying not to sound hurt.
Images flashed in her mind of her younger days, when fire was danced from her own hands like an extension of herself. She could remember how wonderful that power felt. She growled.
"Everything we have to drink is over here," the fox said.
She was standing amidst several barrels and drums. There were crates and boxes sitting around, too.
"Ew," Kailian said, "Wine…"
The sound of flowing water could be heard. In the torchlight, Kailian could see a tap coming up from the ground, and the vulpine was filling a tray of glasses from it.
"You want one?" She said, looking over her shoulder at Kailian.
"No thank you," Kailian said curtly, looking through some of the crates. "Aha.."
"Oh," the fox said. "You found Captain's stash. He's the only one around here who drinks beer."
Kailian lifted a keg from a wooden crate. She counted several more sitting there.
The fox said, "He says he saves buying a few months worth."
"Months?" Kailian grinned, "It'll be gone by morning."
Maybe that would rattle miss pretty fire fox lady. It was time to claim some space, here.
The vulpine lady laughed.
"He'll have a fit." She said, slapping her thigh and turning to look Kailian in the eye with a grin. "Do it!"
Kailian stood there silently, holding the keg by the flange with her fingers.
"Okay," she finally said, "You're cool. Can you do something for me, though?"
"What?" She said.
"I need you to send Teerian back here," Kailian said.
"Sure," she said, giving a cheeky grin. "I'll have him bring you a straw."
Written by Saignus
Artwork by Nakase
The characters Kailian and Nakase belong to Nakase and are used by permission.
The trip to get across the border took some artful logistical dancing. Finding new vehicles to borrow was easy enough. The hard part was having a passenger along. That almost ended the trip several times.
"No, we're not going through border security," Kailian had to reiterate several times, "It'll be fine…."
The vehicles she could steal across the border were older, but at least they had less security gadgets to rip out before she could get them to go.
"No really," she had to say, "It's fine. We'll totally return them when we're done, okay?"
Ocampo, Michoacán itself was a tiny town, the kind you might not even notice if you were traveling through it. Driving around it, Kailian only counted about five restaurants in the whole town.
"What are we even looking for here?" Nakase asked, her hand over her face.
"I don't know, okay?" Kailian said, speaking before Nakase was silent. "Now, please! Keep it down while I look around. Ooh, a butterfly! A monarch, too."
Nakase sighed. "I think those went extinct years ago."
Kailian was doing her best to ignore her. This town was a tiny dump, but she was so close to making big progress. The itch in her fangs was powerful right now, and she was loving it. She licked her lips as she turned down another street.
"Bunny," she said with a dark cackle.
Nakase broke her fall with her arms on the dashboard as Kailian brought the truck to a very abrupt stop. She made sure to get out of the truck before Nakase could say anything, and crossed the muddy street.
"Hey!" she shouted. "I need to talk to you!"
The brown rabbit startled, then froze in place as he watched Kailian approach. He found himself looking straight up into her intimidating grin when she stopped.
"The heck do you want?" He said, still in a stance to leap away.
"I see that hand behind your hip, buddy," Kailian said. "I'll mess you up if you try."
The two glared at each other as the rabbit slowly brought his hand out from behind his back.
"You follow Sai around, don't you?" Kailian said. "I saw you in that video."
"Maybe," the rabbit said, ears twitching nervously. "With your attitude, ma'am, the only reason I'll do anything for you is because he told me to."
He's gonna squish so good, Kailian thought. He only came up to her knee.
Or maybe I'll bite him in half…
"If it's the Oracle you're looking for," the rabbit said shakily, still glaring, "Take the main road into the reserve."
He gestured broadly towards the southeast.
"Look for the playground. You'll be able to see it from the road."
Kailian nodded, grinning.
"Good little bunny," she cooed. "Run along now…"
She swung her open palm near the ground, sending the rabbit tumbling several yards along the pavement. He was silent as she walked back to the truck and got in, but when she glanced back to grin one last time, she saw him glaring, shaking with rage.
"What did you do?" Nakase said, holding her hands out palms up.
"Oh he'll be fine," Kailian said, waving nonchalantly on the direction of the raging rabbit. "Besides. I got what I wanted."
She started the truck, and Nakase was pushed into her seat as the truck sped off.
"Please tell me you're not going to start more violence," Nakase growled plaintively.
"Relax," Kailian said. "We're going to a playground. It'll be fun.
A video had been leaked of an off-grid meeting, and the Sai the Oracle guy was there. Kailian was watching it while Nakase slept in the passenger seat of the self-driving box truck she had lifted to get them out of town. The light of Kai’s tablet was the only light for miles in this place. She knew the light might wake Nakase, but she also knew how fast clips like this seemed to disappear these days, so it was worth it.
The yellow dragon laughed on the screen as an off-screen voice, probably the person making the video, kept asking him questions. The video was looking up at his chest, so it must have been shot by a normal-sized human, or something of a similar size.
"Yeah," the yellow dragon said, "Like most of us, you've been taught to gather information from outside yourself. From articles, books, expert opinions…"
"And you want to fill my head with your facts, right?" The off-screen voice cut in. "Why should I listen to your facts and info over people who have doctorates in…"
Kailian was scanning the background, beyond the yellow dragon in his deep orange robes, half listening to what was being said. There were several individuals moving around. They were all outdoors under a clear blue sky.
"So you want to know why anyone would want me to teach them," the dragon said, sitting up from leaning in to listen to the questioner. "First, I'm not interested in giving anyone more facts. The journey I'm on, the one some have chosen to follow me on, is to find clarity, and to experience freedom, lightness, in their bodies. Learning and understanding with the head can’t do that."
There was a brown rabbit walking by giving the person making the video a scowl as he passed.
"Mhmm…" Kailian said to herself. She remembered a rabbit being mentioned by that redneck motorcycle gang. That's not what she was looking for, here, but it was a sign that she was on the right track.
"...Well, you already know everything needed to do anything I can do," the yellow dragon was saying. "There's a reason why most hero's journeys end in the same place they started. The hero goes on a journey to be shaped by experiences, not dead knowledge..."
Kailian sighed deeply and slowly. She kept scanning the background, slitted pupils wide. Why would a guy like this have a Valkyrie dragon around, anyway?
More passers by in the video were giving the camera looks. The way it bobbed suggested concealment, perhaps in clothing or a pair of glasses.
Kailian snarled a little. There were so many times she felt less like a hero in her own story, and more like a monster. Even here, now, when non-humans had a place in society, she still could feel trepidation from others wherever she went. Sometimes it was fun to play that up, to make people jump. A visceral fear response, immediate fight or flight, from casuals or targets felt like a form of power, and power was fun. Not that she got to play with that much anymore. Not since her career change.
"Hey! No cameras allowed here! Sai, he's got a wearable!" Sputtered the rabbit as the video turned to look at the rabbit running up quickly.
"It's alright," the yellow dragon said. "I'll take care of it…"
The camera jerked, and Kailian saw him. He was in the background.
"Aha!" She said, nearly shouting.
The yellow dragon, Sai, did some movements with his hands, blurred by the camera as it turned to look at him again. In the next frames, the camera slowly adjusted as whoever was recording looked around a city street and said, "shit!"
Kailian backed up the video and zoomed in. That definitely was a Valkyrie in the background.
"Yep," she smiled. "I'm gonna find you, you nasty little brother."
"What?" Nakase said drowsily.
Kailian looked over to see Nakase stirring slowly.
"I'm so sore," Nakase said plaintively.
Kailian glared, her own ears drooping a little.
"Please," Kai said, rolling her eyes and looking away with a pained expression, "You'll get used to it."
"Where are we?" Nakase said, looking around the pitch blackness outside the vehicle.
"Safe for now," Kailian growled. "That's all that matters."
"No, I have work to do," Nakase said.
Kailian sighed and slumped.
"I was doing so well," Nakase mumbled, "I was getting somewhere. So were you, I thought. Why did you have to do…. All this? Why now?"
Kailian glared into the darkness. Her tolerance for words was dropping really quickly.
"How are you seeing clients if you're doing stuff like this?" Nakase said, sounding more tense.
"There has to be more to life than just work all the time," Kailian growled.
"Have you stopped seeing clients!?" Nakase said, her eyes getting wider.
Kailian opened the door, got out and closed it behind her. She rubbed her back and grunted.
Why does she have to be like this? She thought to herself, baring her fangs and clenching a fist.
She walked around to the back of the truck, activating a light in her jacket. She had already broken off the locks, and the latch was easy enough to operate. She opened the door enough to pull out the saddle bag. She carefully pulled out the metal figure. She pulled the paper from her coat. Sure enough, the size of the paper and the figure were about the same. Kailian smiled, showing her teeth. She laid the figure carefully on the paper.
"Wouldn't you know it," she said proudly.
She read the words that weren't blocked by the figure aloud.
"The monarchs sleep where the children played
Find the door in Ocampo Michoacan
Where the lightest wings pervade
Kailian looked at the message silently for a moment.
"It still doesn't make sense," she growled.
Ocampo and Michoacan were a place names. That much was obvious.
She set the message and figure down with a soft clank and pulled her tablet from her pocket.
"Aha," she said with a grin.
Her ears flickered and she looked up to see Nakase coming around the truck.
"Looks like we're going to Mexico." Kailian said.
"We?" Nakase said, still sounding flustered.
"You know, whatever." Kailian growled. "I'm going to Mexico. You can come with."
Nakase looked around the dark. Woods were barely visible around them. She sighed.
"Fine," she said at last. "I'll go. There's a mess waiting for me when I get back, anyway."
Kailian nodded. She was already thinking of how to get there. It wouldn't be easy, but she wasn't letting this mysterious little brother get away, again.
Nakase had gone back to her desk. Her frustration was showing on her face, even as she tried to get back into the documents she was working on. That's when Kailian kicked the door in.
"I KNEW it," she bellowed as she came inside, then propped the door up against the frame, then slid the couch against it from the inside.
"What the...." Nakase said, mouth agape, "Why do you have to do things like this!?"
"We have to leave, NOW!" Kailian shouted.
Nakase shook as she got up with a whimpering growl. She could already hear sirens wailing in the distance.
"Not again," Nakase sputtered.
"Open the door," Kailian said, her back against the wall, gun at the ready.
Nakase pulled the couch back and the door fell. Kailian nodded sideways to Nakase as she moved out onto the stairs, laying down more cover fire at something below. Nakase ran behind her.
There were two SWAT vehicles arriving as Kailian came cleared the stairwell. They were old enough that they still had visible wheels with rubber tires. Entry level vehicles, not military grade.
"Hey," she said, "This will be easy."
She ran with a roar at one of them. She did a flying kick that drove through the windshield like an old-fashioned plastic milk jug. The officer in the passenger seat dove out of the vehicle without reaching for his weapon. The driver stared wide eyed as she braked hard.
"Out," Kai said, starting to push.
The driver screamed, hands clumsily grasping for the seat belt buckle frantically until she could loose it and bail. Kailian wedged herself into the control station and brought the SWAT vehicle to a screeching sideways halt in front of the stairway she had emerged from.
There was Nakase. She had dashed away from the stairwell as the vehicle came screeching towards it.
"Get in!" Kailian shouted, gesturing towards Nakase ran over, opened the passenger door and got in.
"What the..." Nakase started to say angrily, but she was slung to the seat as Kailian punched the petal and the vehicle lurched forward. The SWAT team members had opened the back door, and they fell out into a heap as Kailian sped off.
Shots started hitting the side is the vehicle like a rainstorm. One of the back tires blew.
"Shit," Kailian growled as she corrected the swerving course of the vehicle. Kailian bared her teeth as she stomped the pedal again, freeing the rim from the damaged tire and sending sparks everywhere. Nakase's claws were digging into the seat beside her. Her ears were back and down, and she was whimpering to herself. The shots pattering around them decreased as they got farther away.
Kailian swerved through an intersection, knocking a couple of smaller cars aside. If she could get them out of town, they could find a different vehicle to switch to, and then she could plan her next move.
Overall, that's turned out pretty well, she thought. She looked over at Nakase.
"I guess you're coming with me," Kailian said over the roar of the wind, glancing over at Nakase.
Nakase just looked away. Was she sobbing? Kailian gave her a brief glare before went back to fighting the steering wheel to keep them on the road. She growled to herself.
Well, she had that feeling she wasn't the only player, anymore. She was right. Maybe it was better to have Nakase along so no one would mess with her while Kailian found the other Valkyrie. Were these people, whoever they were, after the other Valkyrie, too? That would complicate things. Ugh.... So many things to worry about. Kailian felt her side. Thankfully the saddle bag was still there.
The important thing now was to go shopping. It was time to find another car. Hopefully something heavy and fast that the actual owner wouldn't miss for a few days head start.
Something was off. Kailian could feel it, and that agitation made her feel like snapping.
"It's all right," she growled to herself. "Everything is fine... Nothing is fucked..."
She was climbing the stairs to an apartment. Without thinking about it, her green slitted eyes looked over her door, checking for signs of tampering or foul play. That done, she moved in close enough to knock. It opened for her. Nakase's snout peered from behind the door.
"Hey Kai," Nakase said.
Kai nodded, and Nakase looked away. She disappeared behind the door, and it opened up. Kailian walked into it.
After a quick sweep of the room, she took a breath and sat down on a couch that was too small for any Valkyrie. She looked up to see Nakase, dressed in black. She sat down with her back to Kailian and started typing something on a holographic keyboard projected onto her desk. Her claws on the composite board made an irregular, rapid tapping.
"I need to use your 3D printer," Kailian said in a softer tone.
"Okay," Nakase said without moving. "I'll log you in after I get this sent."
Kailian looked around uncomfortably.
I really don't have time for this, Kailian mused.
The online chatter had picked up in the last few days, but now tones of postings by off-grid media had gotten more suspicious, more guarded. Kai had been in a lot of chaotic situations, and right now, the senses she had developed were telling her that she wasn't the only player in this game anymore. But why?
"It's ready," Nakase said cooly.
Kailian turned her gaze toward the box-like device set in a cabinet. She got up with a grunt, a wince and a clank from her back, and walked over to the thing, already pulling out a memory crystal and looking for the port.
"You look tired," Nakase said, leaning against a wall with her arms crossed.
"I'm always tired," Kai said in a soft growl.
Naka nodded. "Still doing consulting?"
"Yeah," Kailian nodded as she tapped a touchscreen. "I'm also trying to track down a guy on the side."
"Like, for a job?" Nakase asked, her tail twitching a little.
"No," Kailian said, sounding a little tense. "There's another Valkyrie out there."
Nakase's ears flared forward.
"How is that possible?" Nakase asked.
"I don't know," Kailian snarled. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen him with my own eyes."
Nakase sighed. Kailian glanced at her. She was giving Kai a muted gaze, head down. Kailian looked back to the touchscreen, trying to hide an extra snarl. Why did she have to do that?
Kailian tapped a green button on the interface, and the printer quietly hummed to life. Kailian focused her gaze on the arms inside moving in patterns.
"What are you printing?" Nakase asked. "It looks really flat."
"An important clue," Kailian said.
For a moment they were both silent. The printer was the only sound aside from the central unit that kept the apartment warm.
"It looks like paper," Nakase said.
"It is," Kailian said, sounding a little tense. "I couldn't even find old fashioned paper anywhere. Forget finding a printer that uses it. Easier to use this thing to just print paper and text all in one go."
Nakase nodded. Kai could feel her steady gaze. Kai flickered her ears and let out a big breath.
"Do you have to keep staring at me like that?" Kailian said suddenly, turning to glare at Nakase.
Nakase startled and looked away.
"Sorry," Nakase said, her ears drooping.
Kailian looked away, clenching her teeth behind her lips.
"I'm..." Nakase started, then paused. "I wasn't trying to make a problem..."
She sounded so hurt. Kailian sighed. She really didn't want to be here right now.
The printer beeped. Kailian opened the bay and snatched the finished piece gladly. Nevermind the recommended cool-down time after printing. That was for weaklings. She looked it over. It had been so long since she had held paper in her hand like this.
"The heck does that say?" Nakase said. "It doesn't make sense."
Kailian held the paper closer to her chest.
"Neither can I," Kailian growled, "But I'm going to."
Nakase shrank back, slumping a little.
That's right, you, Kailian thought.
"Did Roboy help?" Nakase asked finally.
"He might have," Kai said. "It was a scan, and we had to convert to something printable."
Kailian sighed. This just never got any easier. Nakase looked so contrite.
"I needed a physical copy, because I've been looking at it for days, and nothing makes sense."
She held the paper out for Nakase to see.
Nakase reached up to take it. Kai held onto it and kept her steely gaze on Naka until she took the hint and stopped grasping it.
"Why are there so many random spaces in the text?" Nakase asked, looking up and flickering one ear forward.
"I don't know," Kailian said. "It's probably a clue, though."
Nakase smiled shyly. Kailian's focus on the page was intensifying.
"Roboy ran some encryption detection programs on the spacing," Kailian said in a low voice. "And on the text around the extra spaces."
She shook her head slowly.
"Nothing. Same for all this gibberish."
She pointed, gesturing across the page.
"It's all nonsense."
They both looked at the page silently for a moment. That's when Nakase surprised Kailian with a giggle.
"Okay, this is random. I want to color the spaces in and see if they make a picture."
Kailian gasped and her eyes widened.
"You do that..."
Kailian was already scanning the page with her eyes. Could it really be that simple?
"No way..." She muttered to herself. "Ah! Those butts...."
"What?" Nakase said.
"Well, are you gonna color them in?" Kai said with a hint of a snarly smile.
Nakase looked up into Kai's eyes and blinked a few times, smiled nervously and said,
She turned and walked away.
Kailian looked down at the paper in her hand. Even without the spaces highlighted, she thought she could see a shape, and it looked vaguely familiar. But from where?
She growled to herself.
Both frustration and excitement were building. She was close to solving this. She could feel it. Days of effort were about to pay off.
That's when it dawned on her.
She gasped. She trotted to the door.
"Kailian?" Nakase called out. "Where are you going?"
There was no answer.
Kailian still had the motorcycle. It was down in the parking garage nearby. Kailian reached the vehicle, and opened the saddle bag on the side.
"There you are," she said, pulling out the metal dancing man cut-out from the campsite. She picked up the whole saddle bag and slung it over her shoulder. That's when a shadow caught her attention near the corner. Kailian stood taller and turned to look down the corridor. All her senses had pricked. She put her hand to her gun.
"Come out and show yourself, coward!" She bellowed.
She watched, tense, ready, for any movement. That's when her ears swung back. She gasped and dove as an energy blast came at her from behind. The motorcycle jumped and erupted into flames from the impact of a shot. Kailian leapt from behind two cars, her gun blazing in the direction the blast came from. She laid down a line of fire as she ran sideways towards the door. Two shadowy figures dove behind cover down range.
Kailian's palm hit the exit door so hard it came off of the hinges. She kept running.
Government buildings are usually the slowest to change, and this one was no exception. Sure, they were cleaned by robots now, but the smells of musty masonry and strong cleaning agents still hung close in the halls. Sherman had grown fond of those smells, but he would never tell anyone that. He was afraid they might think he was weird. Things were hard enough for foxes in mixed offices like this without doing things to stand out.
"Let's see now," he muttered to himself, looking over his monitor, watching another simulation continue to run. These things took so long, even on quantum machines, and he was bored.
He got up and slowly walked out of his office into the hall, sneakily sniffing the air.
"What are you smiling about there Mr. Nightwing."
Sherman started a little and looked over at a bench on his left.
"Uh, hey Richy," he said to the man sitting there. "What's up?"
"Aw, you know," Richy said, waving a hand in the air and passively staring in Sherman's direction.
Sherman could hear Richy smacking his chewing gum, as usual. It echoed in an interesting way in these halls, and only his sensitive cannid ears seemed to pick it up.
Sherman walked over and sat down beside Richy. His tail, mostly under control, still twitched and swung a little. It had taken him years of conscious practice to keep it from swinging wildly around other people who weren't used to that sort of thing.
"You hear about agent Sanders?" Richy said with a smile of contempt.
"No?" Sherman said, ears perking some.
Why was he always the last one to hear about these things?
"He and his boys scared off a lead bad," Richy said with a laugh. "Went in there acting all double o-7 and now he skipped town."
Sherman gave a shallow laugh, because he knew that's what he was supposed to do. He wondered often if Richy saw through his courtesy laughs. Right now Richy was busy with laughter of his own. That was comforting.
"Was that for the Exodus project?" Sherman finally asked when the time felt right.
"Nah, that was for that breach a few weeks ago in the data center in Chicago," Richy said, smacking his gum. "But they might be tied together. Ya never know."
"How's that going?" He said, "the investigation, I mean."
"On Exodus?" Richy said. "Man, we don't know nothing."
He shook his head.
"All we got is noise from cave man media sites. They planning something big, but we don't know if it's a protest, terrorism or what."
Sherman looked away. He had always thought it odd that this off-grid movement had such an extensive media presence. It seemed like most of the cases they worked on these days were around one "OG" group or another. Some people in the office had taken to calling them cave man clubs as an inside joke.
"That Oracle guy keeps showing up, so he's involved somehow," Richy said. "He's probably heading it up. I don't know. People way up in the food chain are onto it, though, and if they're nervous, I guess we should be, too."
"What about that incident in Peru?" He asked. "The one with the plane?"
"Oh that," Richy said, "Yeah, the boss thinks it might be related. Looks like a lone actor."
Richy shrugged. Sherman thought the face he made as he did was amusing.
"We'll see, Nightwing. We don't ever have all the pieces."
Richy smacked his gum a few more times. Sherman looked down the hall towards his office.
"Well, I better get back to the scenarios I'm running." He said.
"Good luck with that, man," Richy said.
"Thanks," Sherman said, giving Richy a smile he hoped was convincing.
Sherman got up and walked back towards his office.
He knew the simulation he was running was of a mass disappearance event. Was that related to this Exodus case? He would have plenty of time to think about that while he ran a few more instances this afternoon.