KATIPO I: Restart: Part Four
The place you’re supposed to meet Rhi is far too loud and cramped for your tastes. It’s a seedy little joint in the middle of the Fairgrounds, small and suffocating between a gym and a Spooky Foods shop. It used to be a fabric store, if you remember correctly, and it seems to have shrunk since then. It smells like coconut milk outside — probably from the shy stand that’s not too far away, but, well... who really knows with this place...
You didn’t have any outfits in your closet that fit properly, so Riff let you borrow some of his clothes — a slimming black shirt with some band’s logo in blue writing on the front and back, silhouetting a Werelupe pup and a Crokabek; a pair of black jeans that are torn across the knees; a pair of black boots with long laces and scuffed toes... Your hair is tied back. Your delicate faerie wings are big enough that they nearly drag on the floor. You feel ridiculous. Why does Riff dress like this? But, oh well. Nobody really bats an eye at you when you approach the bowling alley’s large glass doors — honestly, you realise, the awkwardly dark outfit probably helps you fit in a bit more around this place — and that’s enough to help you breathe out the rest of your worry.
As you enter, there’s a bar to your left with a few men and women sitting and laughing and drinking fancy imported Neocolas, and an arcade to your right with two or three kids standing around a large game box and holding plastic Virtublasters. A ridiculously tired-looking blue Nimmo stands behind a counter ahead of you, slightly to your left, staring at a row of red and blue shoes, seemingly contemplating something-or-other. He’s not paying attention to the doorway, and apparently doesn’t see or hear you enter, but that’s honestly a good thing, considering you’re really not in the mood to pay for anything right now. “If they didn’t ask, it isn’t illegal,” Alex would have said. You shiver at the thought.
With only the smallest increase in the speed of your steps, you turn and walk to the bar — still slowly, incredibly casually, as if you’re a regular at this place. It smells like a disgusting mix of chili and unguberries. The bar itself is sticky with spilt soda that nobody’d bothered to wipe down, and you’re almost afraid to sit down on the barstool — it’s made of some black wood-looking material with fake red leather on top, stained and fraying with white strings around the edges. Someone’s put on a Twisted Roses song from the jukebox, and it rings clear throughout the entire building, echoing with the sound of strikes and taps — the sound of marble crashing against marble. It all makes your head spin — you’re far too tired to deal with this sort of noise right now — but you try your best to ignore it. Honestly? The thing that’s bothering you the most is... why are there so many people here this early in the morning...?
You take your seat, then order a coffee; iced.
The man behind the bar looks at you as if you’re insane.
A lovely Draik in stiletto heels, skinny jeans, and a grey flannel shirt soon sits down next to you. She smells rather nice — saltwatery, almost — and the colour of her scales is honestly brighter than anything else in this building. She’s wearing thick, black-framed glasses that are half-covered by her curled lavender hair, so you can’t really see her eyes, but you already know that they’re yellow. She just asks for an apple Achyfi.
You’re looking at her with your head slightly tilted in her direction, resting your cheek on the knuckles of your right hand. It’s Rhi. You’d recognize her scent and her slight Maraquan accent anywhere. She glances liquid sunshine in your direction when she catches you staring, and you give her a friendly smile. Rhi’s expression brightens as she realises it’s you, then she gives a wide grin in response, scooting her barstool closer to your side while the bartender brings you both your drinks. No matter what you look like, Rhi somehow always knows that you’re you. She says it’s the way your eyes glisten, or something cliché and fake-sounding like that, but it’s the closest thing to a real explanation that she’s ever given, so you just accept it. You two haven’t seen each other in almost a year, and you’re beyond glad that she still remembers you. “How are you doing, Cameron?” She asks, patting your shoulder gently, then taking a sip of her soda. “You look wonderful this evening... albeit rather gloomy.”
You thank her and say that you’re rather enjoying this new body, but that you needed to borrow someone else’s clothes. She smiles in a way that tells you that she could tell the clothing wasn’t yours, looking you up and down, her lips kissing the rim of her soda can. She blinks twice — once vertically, once horizontally. She’s always had lovely eyes. Most Maraquan pets do. “I’m assuming your mod told you absolutely nothing,” Rhi says as the bartender disappears through a doorway that leads to, presumably, a kitchen.
You take a sip of your coffee and give a hugely exaggerated roll of your eyes. You can tell that she understands the motion means “yes” in the way that she snickers, then shakes her head in response, mumbling a soft “figures” under her breath.
You shift, she shifts, then she looks all around her to check to make sure that nobody is within earshot of your conversation, masking the motion behind a gentle hairflip. The sound of marble crashing against marble grows deafening as several people throw their shots all at once, and it echoes through the building again. You cringe slightly at the sound while Rhi says, “I’m just here to report our findings from the information that you’d gathered from your speaking with Miss Xaine,” then takes another sip of her soda. Your eyes meet for a second — blink-blink — then you nod, eager to hear so that you can get moving.
The sound of marble crashing against marble again, like cannonfire mixed with happy yeses and frustrated nos. Somebody starts playing Wock Til You Drop on the jukebox. Your headache’s getting worse. You take a sip of your coffee that’s probably too big.
Rhi hums a bit to herself as you finish your sip — what’s more like a swig — then eyes the kitchen door to make sure that the bartender isn’t coming back any time soon. She scoots closer still. “Alright, well here’s what I found...”
You turn slightly to watch as Rhi pokes her purple-painted claws into a small black purse (that you didn’t notice she’d had beside her) and pull out a little notepad. She takes a pencil out of her flannel’s breast pocket and holds it in her teeth while she flips through a few of the notebook’s pages. Eventually, she finds what she’s looking for and acknowledges it with a little nod. “Alright,” she begins, and you turn to face her more. “So the first thing we did, of course, was try to find info on this AJ & Associates business. A bit of digging and some rather heated arguments via transmissions and fax led us to what, er... oddly enough seems like just a random crypt somewhere near Market Town.”
You didn’t notice that she was drawing a small map on her notepad as she spoke until she tears out the slip of paper and hands it to you. You take it and look it over with a bit of a furrowed brow. You’ve travelled around Neopia and its surrounding stars enough to recognise that she’s drawn the lighthouse that rests at the tip of the Brightvale coast, indicated the nearby Rathbone Family’s Crypts, then detailed a small path leading through some trees to another location she’s messily labelled “crypt??” and circled with thick, black lines. “That right there” — she points a clawed finger towards the circle she’s drawn — “was thought to be just another series of ancient tunnels used as gravesites for the surrounding kingdoms’ royalty, but, well... intel suggests that some things other than Spyders have moved in over the past few years.”
You raise your eyes from the map to meet hers. She blink-blinks at you as you chew your lower lip. “Intel?” you eventually ask.
She takes another sip of her drink, crossing and uncrossing her ankles, then flips her hair over her shoulder again, masking another check for unwanted attention. “Tony used some big words on some small brains and eventually got the lighthouse keeper to spill some info about what he called, uh...” She flips through a couple pages of her notebook with two delicate fingers, then snorts a bit into her soda can as she reads what’s written. “What he called ‘fancy electricity-light-wearin’ astro-freaks in clunky quilt-lookin’ armour.’ I’m, uh... I’m sure you understand why I just had to write down the exact wording.”
You chuckle, and she chuckles, then she flips back to the first page of notes. “Well,” she continues, “after that, Tony managed to translate enough of this guy’s medieval gibberish to gather that some people from out of the realm had been sneaking around into and out of these so-called crypts. Some scaredy-prince from Market Town backed up that he’d seen what he thought were grave robbers around his family’s graveyard — uh, the Rathbone one that I marked on the map there — and some of the villagers from the swamp town next door to that kingdom said that they’d seen them too, and that they definitely looked like they were wearing clothing more typical of Central folks, so...”
“So that’s all the proof you guys really needed to set that location in stone, right?” you guess her concluding statement.
“Mm-hm,” and she takes another sip of her Achyfi.
More marble against marble. The jukebox is still playing songs from the same album. The bartender glances through the kitchen door’s window at you, but then turns back inside to do whatever. You scratch your wrist, then fix your hair. “So the location’s set then,” you begin to prod, “but what about the actual people? The AJ character and such?”
Rhi flips through a few more pages. Blink-blink, blink-blink. “Well, unfortunately, we could really only find the location, and all of the sources who gave us this info said that it seemed like the characters coming in and out changed on an almost daily basis.” She pauses, then gives her notepad a condescending look. She taps the eraser tip of her pencil against the pad quickly, then gives a short hum. “Not really sure if that’s true or not, but Tony said they all seemed confused enough.”
You purse your lips. “So there’s no hope that anyone knows the details?” you ask, dreading the answer that you’re sure you’re gonna get.
And, unfortunately, you do get it... “Nope. Just the location. So...”
You sigh loud enough to cut her sentence short. “So now me and the rest of I/I unit have to get hands-on with it, right?”
She snickers a bit against the aluminium rim of her soda can as the kitchen doors finally swing open, then the bartender finally returns to his post in front of you, carrying a small plate of food in his hands — snacking on fries drenched in ketchup. “Well, that is your job, Cammy dear,” Rhi says, hushing her voice.
You roll your eyes, then take another sip of your coffee — one of an actually reasonable size this time. You shake your head. “You wouldn’t happen to know who else is going with me, would you?” you ask, turning your head slightly away to watch the building’s front doors swing open. “Me and Sam are almost always together, but...”
She shakes her head no before you can finish your question. You can see it from the corner of your eye, and you shut your mouth with an exaggerated sigh. You honestly figured that it was useless to ask, but you’d decided to try anyway. “Dang it,” you mutter, “I really didn’t want to deal with that Zinux guy again...”
Rhi gives an oddly genuine gasp. “Oh Kelpbeard, that little oink is your mod on this mission?”
The fact that she sounds so irritated at the notion helps you feel a bit better about your being so irritated. You catch yourself starting to smile, and the corners of your mouth twitch as you try to hide the expression. “Unfortunately,” you say, once again shaking your head. You kick your heel against one of the barstool’s legs as Rhi rolls her eyes, then blink-blinks at the ceiling. “You don’t like him either?” you ask.
She flips a hand at you. “He really does mean well, I think...” she says, sounding only half-genuine, “but... he goes about conversations rather, uh...”
“Poorly?” you suggest.
“In layman’s terms, yes,” Rhi answers, again snickering into her Achyfi.
Well, at least you’re not the only one. Oh well. You suppose you’ll have to deal with him again... If only Alex were still here... You shake the thought from your mind as you flip your hair over your shoulder. “Well, I guess I should get back to HQ as soon as possible then and see what’s happening,” you say, your lack of enthusiasm crystal clear in the way your tone resonates.
Rhi gives you a scolding glower. “When was the last time you slept?” she asks, sounding like a nagging parent.
You return the sideways glance. “I’m not tired, Rhi,” you say, and you know that she knows it’s a lie, but, well... what can she do, right?
Rhi blink-blinks frustratedly, but then gives you a warm smile. She’s always had faith in you. It’s flattering, honestly — both the fact that she’s concerned about you, and that she’s still letting you go off with her blessing despite that. You’ve missed her. You really wish that she hadn’t moved from the KATIPO’s alpha location to the its beta one... “Well, take care of yourself,” Rhi says, lifting her soda can as if to give a toast. “I’ve gotta stay to meet with a few more agents, so I’ll catch you later.”
You give her a short nod and a smile, then finally stand to leave as the jukebox starts playing Sticks N Stones.
Sam’s got her legs kicked up onto her desk, her head resting on her fist as she watches Iansaari play Ghoul Catchers on a palm-sized communications device, him whining about a particularly tricky-looking combo that he clearly wants to get but that apparently has no idea how to. Sam’s fur looks softer than usual. She’s probably changed shampoos for the third time this month. She’s playing with her own kneecap as Iansaari makes pained faces and whimpers under his breath. Tony’s sending Neomails across the room while Riff pokes fun at you for still needing to borrow his clothes.
The Interrogation/Investigation unit of the KATIPO is sort of a joke among the rest of the academy, partly because everyone in the unit is at least ten years younger than everyone working in the other departments, and partly because everyone working in the other sectors of the academy is jealous that, despite the “lack of experience,” you and the other members of your team get the most work done.
The KATIPO operates like a food chain, sort of. It starts at the bottom: the students are overworked by the professors, the professors get all of their course material from the reporters, the reporters’ documents are just dumbed-down versions of the work done by the researchers, the researchers are at the mercy of the interrogators/investigators — you — and anyone and everyone cowers under the shadow of the demigods at the top of the mountain: the mods. The level of snarkiness increases exponentially with every tier climbed. That’s another reason everyone hates you and the rest of I/I so much.
Your sector consists of only five people: yourself, Sam, Riff, Ian Saari, and Tony Bianchi. Tony’s a Tyrannian Skeith whose motto in life is “leave work at work.” What that means for him is, since he’s I/I’s communications expert, and spends all day making professional phone calls and writing dissertation-sounding Neomails, he insists on only speaking semi-understandably whenever he’s not in the middle of something important. Iansaari is a grey Bori who, given the fact that there is a total of six Ians working in the academy, has been fated to live his life with his first and last name joined. He tends to whine more than anything, but he’s the only one who can fix a Virtublaster in three seconds flat, even if it’s been reduced to scrap, so everyone just pats him on the back and lets the complaints slide. He and Riff are affectionately known as “the Riffians” — pronounced like “ruffians” — around the sector, being the two tech experts, and everyone likes to joke that they’re siblings. Honestly, though, everyone in your sector is practically siblings at this point, and Alex used to be your mother, until, well...
Iansaari slams his head down on his desk with a quiet moan as he fails to come up with a solution to his puzzle problem. You turn to look and see him lift his communicator over his head, where Sam eagerly takes it and starts clacking away aimlessly. Tony’s cussing under his breath and Riff’s trying to fix your hair. You’re just keeping quiet and trying to enjoy your cold buckwheat noodles — a meal which you’re not sure if you should call breakfast, lunch, or dinner at this point.
Reprieve finally comes in the form of the office’s communications hub blinking and ringing its pleasant little windchime ring, and everyone groans out their own versions of the word “finally” at the sound. Tony kicks himself off of the wall of his desk, his rolling chair sliding across the fraying carpet until he reaches the hub, then answers with his obnoxiously professional and more-than-well-rehearsed script: “Tony Bianchi speaking, KATIPO operative perm ID number two-six-six-point-two, Interrogation and Investigation department number oh-oh-twelve. Please state the purpose of this call.”
Everyone slowly inches their office chairs closer as Tony drums his stone-clawed fingers on his desk, nodding along to whatever the person on the other line is saying, humming out little affirmative-seeming sounds every few seconds. “Correct, all of the operatives listed are prepared for a mission,” he says, giving you, Riff, and Sam all long looks in the eyes, then reaching for a pen and paper. “Mm-hm, mm-hm,” and he begins to write something down. “Mm-hm, correct — ah, pardon, was that Brightvale or Brightdale?” He crosses something out, rewrites it, then, “Mm-hm... oh, I see...” and he underlines something aggressively — what you see, as you lean over his shoulder more, is the word “UNDERGROUND.” “Right. Correct. Yes. Thank you for your time, sir. Yes, I shall have them dispatch immediately. Good day, sir.” Then he hangs up.
Sam is the first one to speak again with a loud, “So?”
Everyone gathers closer as Tony spins around in his desk chair — a full 360, then the last 180 to face you all. “Awright,” he mumbles, letting his professional voice dissolve into his honestly more-pleasant-sounding, casual, guttural tone. He pulls the notepad into his hands again. “So looks like s’gonna be the same’s usual. Sammy, Riffraff, an’ Cammy go in while me an’ Ee stay back here.”
Iansaari throws his head back. “But what if there’s another malfunction with the blasters?” he whines at the ceiling. “I have such a hard time fixing errors from a distance and... and...”
Sam interrupts with a snort. “Would you really rather come with us to wherever?” she questions, sounding haughty, trying to get him to hush before he gets all existential again.
Iansaari just buries his face in his hands.
“Rhi said this was all gonna be in Brightvale,” you say, directly to Tony, trying to stay on track while Riff laughs in the other two’s direction. “Is that still the case?”
“Yeah,” Tony says, giving a nod that rocks his entire chair. “Some crypt next to some other crypt or somethin’ — I dunno yet, but they should be faxin’ the map over right about...” And, right on cue, a machine over on Riff’s side of the office starts whirring, and Tony gives a snap of his fingers. “There she is,” he says.
“So when do we dispatch?” Riff asks as he slides his chair over to the machine, grabs whatever its printed, then slides right on back.
Tony opens his mouth to respond, but Sam beats him to it. “He told the guy on the phone immediately, Riff,” she says, her snootiness somehow more aggressive than usual. “Didn’t you listen?”
Riff flips a hand at her and sticks out his tongue. This time, you’re the one who laughs.
But Tony nods again. “Yeah, immediately,” he says, confirming what you already knew, “so you guys should start getting ready. I’m gonna ready my end here.”
You’re already out of your seat by the time he says “start.” You just want to get this all over with so you can finally go home and get some much-needed sleep. Your joints ache as you stand, and you know that you’re not actually dizzy, but you still feel that way, for some reason. Oh well. You stretch your arms, then your wings, then your legs... then your communicator starts to ring.
Sam looks up at you and gives you a questioning look, but then turns her attention back to Iansaari, who is off complaining about something to do with blasters, or something — who knows with him — and is apparently much more interesting than your mystery call. You pull the annoyingly beeping communicator out of your pocket and check the text that flashes across the screen.
The ID reads “VOID.”
That’s... probably not good.
You excuse yourself, and everyone nods without really hearing what you said, then you head out into the hallway to answer. “Hello?” and you’re greeted by nothing but static. You would assume that this is just Tony’s friends prank calling you again, but... they wouldn’t do that without him, right?
Eventually, though — and thankfully before you start to really worry — a voice comes through from the other side, sounding, oddly enough, somehow... familiar. “Cameron? Cameron Jacks?”
When you’ve finally put a face to the voice in your head, you’re a little shocked. More than a little. You stutter your reply: “T—... Tatum? Is that you? How did you get my numbe—?”
“Listen,” the alien Aisha interrupts, “I don’t know what it is that you people down there think you’re getting into, but... I care about you, Cameron. I do. You’re very nice, and we got along, I think, so, just... just...” She huffs. “I’m just... giving you fair warning.”
Your volume increases a little too much for privacy’s sake as you respond with an angry, “What in Neopia are you talking about?” It’s a useless question, honestly, but you still find yourself saying it. You’re too confused and irritated to care. You kick your heel against the ground anxiously as you hear her sighing from the other end of the line. Then, a foreign voice calls her name from somewhere off in the distance, and you squint your eyes, as if it’ll help you hear it better. It doesn’t.
Tatum gives a little groan. “Cameron, don’t come here,” she says, incredibly sternly, but also sounding incredibly worried.
You narrow your eyes at nobody. “Go ‘there?’ ” You hope that the quotation marks you’re putting around the word with your fingers are made clear through your inflection.
She responds with nothing but a blunt, “Yes.”
You’re assuming that the “there” is Brightvale, which means... “So you do know what’s happening with the ray...”
She interrupts, obviously trying to deflect whatever guilt or blame your words force her to feel. “Cameron, listen, just...” You hear her scoff. You hear her groan. You bite your upper lip. Your blinking is fast. Still, after a while, all she says is, “Yes. I’m sorry.”
You wait, and she waits, but nothing but silence comes between you.
You’re the first one to break the hush. Your voice sounds more threatening than you realised was possible. “What are you people doing?”
She takes a deep, deep breath, but all she says is, “Please don’t try to find that out.”
Then the call is terminated.
And you decide, right here and now, that you’re not going to listen.
To be continued…