Eran hadn’t slept.
It wasn’t the first time he’d spent the entire night assisting Zamira in looking for recruits. Nor would it be the last. He just couldn’t get himself to accept it as routine. Had the Boss really forgotten that he was a damn celebrity? That he was in charge of the oldest and most important institution in the City? If it wasn’t for him, this place would still be filled with the Imperials’ misguided vision of history, and the revolt would’ve been crushed.
See, I’m the only one who thinks outside of the box around here, he thought to himself. Call me crazy all you want.
For the first time in what might have been weeks, he’d changed into another shirt, which was to say that he’d doubled down on his philosophy of ‘fuck being professional’. Instead of the minimalist garbage most of his coworkers wore (save Zamira and Yataga), it depicted the head of a sabre-tooth cat with their fangs on full display, a faithful reproduction of a cave painting. The original was likely a self-portrait, and proved that complex works of art existed long before the supposed date of the Convergence.
There’d inevitably be some kind of outcry about it, both from his supporters and detractors. Depending on who you asked, he was either disrespecting feline culture or committing blasphemy against the Duality’s word.
Today, the meeting room was surprisingly empty. There was no sign of Zamira, and she was the most punctual animal he knew. Before going to the warehouse, she’d given him the go-ahead to deliver Rienne and the jackals to the Boss. What she’d been doing in there, though, was completely unknown to him. It had to be something serious if she wasn’t in time for her morning coffee. Idiotic banter aside, she was one of his closest friends. He had to find out what’d gone down last night.
Someone knocked at the door.
Eran sighed and got off his seat. It was notably much larger than the others, as the standard-sized ones were far too small for an adult bear. After years of sitting in it, the memory foam was permanently accustomed to his shape, which was fine by him. He usually ignored the Boss’s suggestion of getting a replacement. In the City Museum, nobody had higher authority than Eran Orsan. And he had every intention of keeping it that way.
“Come in.” he said, grabbing the door handle so hard it nearly broke off. He often forgot about his strength, to the point where he’d unintentionally broken several of his own exhibits and dioramas.
Yataga, a crow with bright crimson eyes, walked into the meeting room. He’d ditched his top hat for today, which was certainly unusual. Eran had first met him at a skeptics’ conference five years ago, where the two had worked together to debunk the age-old Imperial idea of avians being the first children of the Duality.
“You’re early.” Yataga grumbled.
“And?” Eran shrugged.
“Nothing. Just an observation.” The corvid promptly poured himself a cup of coffee, frowning as he stuck his beak into the mug.
“Hey, hey. I’ve got several mugs made specifically for avians, you know-”
“You think I care?” Yataga said. “I just chose the cup that was closest to the kettle. Things are better when you don’t take unnecessary detours-”
“Drinking coffee in an awkward way might just be a detour in of itself-”
“Are you trying to make me look stupid? I thought we were work partners.”
“Making animals look stupid is what I’m famous for. Though I’m just trying to make things a little more convenient for you.”
“Yeah, right.” Yataga rolled his eyes. “Honestly, I have better things to worry about…speaking of which, have you seen Zamira anywhere?”
“Nope. She just up and vanished. Signal from her earpiece went dead. Didn’t have a phone on her either.” Eran didn’t realise it, but he was stuttering.
Trying to distract himself from the issue at hand, Eran took out his phone and checked the latest trends on Muzzlebook. The usual suspects were all there. Drama involving B-list celebrities. Those primetime shows on Taramaca One that everyone forgot about within a week or two. And of course, a slew of influencers who’d gotten cancelled over something stupid they’d said while drunk ten years ago. Curiously, the UnderDogs were also trending – the same band that the jackals had mentioned yesterday. He gritted his teeth, clicking on the relevant hashtag to see what the matter was.
@UnderDogsOfficial – The social media management team is seeking to contact the TPD about recent events. Please stay calm. We can confirm that every band member exited the stadium unharmed and left the City without any issues, although what happened afterwards is unknown.
20th June, 06:00 AM
@newmusicdrama – **BREAKING** – ALL FOUR UNDERDOGS REPORTED MISSING AFTER STADIUM ATTACK
20th June, 06:05 AM
@blackvixen666 – listen, i’ve gotten enough messages about kendo’s disappearance yesterday. just give me a break. i only hooked up with him for one night and yet y’all really think i know everything about him
20th June, 7:45 AM
@andrasunderdogz – As the former frontman of the UnderDogs, I feel it is my responsibility to tell you all not to worry about my bandmates. There were several days where we all got needlessly drunk and wandered off into the darkest corners of the City, then slept in an abandoned house. We got reported to the authorities as missing multiple times, and we all turned out fine in the end.
This is nothing new.
20th June, 08:53 AM
Zamira. She’d gone missing on the exact same night. He cursed himself repeatedly, muttering that it was just a coincidence, just a freak accident. She could sort this out herself, right? And if she couldn’t, him and the Boss could locate her easily.
For the first time in months, Eran’s trademark smile subsided.
His morbid curiosity got the better of him. He scrolled through the UnderDogs’ official account to look for anything relevant, then clicked on their frontman’s individual page. Kendo Arctos, as he was called, just loved to type in all caps, to the point where his apparent “too-cool-for-school” attitude was obviously something manufactured rather than inherent. A facade, if you will.
@kendoarctos – TONIGHT’S THE BIG NIGHT!! ME AND THE DOGZ ARE KICKIN’ OFF OUR SUMMER TOUR! TARAMACA CITY, PREPARE TO BE ROCKED!
19th June, 15:54 PM
@kendoarctos – AWOOOO! YOU CAN LISTEN TO OUR NEWEST SINGLE, “CHASING TAIL” ON ALL MAJOR STREAMING PLATFORMS RIGHT NOW!
17th June, 09:03 AM
The rest of Kendo’s timeline was littered with an assortment of photos and status updates, all of which provided no clues as to what might have happened to him and the other UnderDogs. And Zamira, Eran thought. The post that stood out the most was an image of what appeared to be Kendo hugging a pillow with a drawing of some cartoonish blue wolf printed onto it. “ONLY PACKING THE ESSENTIALS!”, Kendo had written, before going on a long diatribe in the comments about how it certainly was not unhealthy for him to obsess over his non-existent trophy wife.
“By the Abyssal, how touch-starved is this guy?” Eran remarked.
“Eran, we have some very important issues to discuss. Now that we’re settled down, we should just get on with it.” Yataga said, awkwardly straining his neck to get the best view of the phone screen.
“I mean, maybe that’s not the best way to put it. He and the drummer apparently have a thing going on, judging by some of his photos-”
“Eran.” Yataga snapped.
“Shit, dude, I know. Give me some room to breathe.”
“Okay. Instead, I’m going to try a little experiment on you, since you seem to be very fond of them yourself.”
“It’s part of my job, bird-brain.”
“Imagine, for a second, that Iberna was standing here in my place. If he was the one to tell you that you needed to find Zamira, would you still try and change the subject at every given opportunity? Would you still try to hide your responsibilities behind your flawed ethic, knowing that your reputation within Libris might be at risk if you didn’t look out for your associates? Since Iberna’s obviously the only animal you care about around here, Eran-”
“Don’t you say that to me. Don’t you DARE say that to me, Yataga. Look, I appreciate the effort and all, but hear me out for a second. I’ve already made a few connections which might give us some clues as to where Zamira’s gone. I’m secure in my position as deputy head of Therio Libris, and I have every intention to prove that I can maintain an adequate balance between my two lives. I’m doing the best I can.”
“You’re doing the bare minimum.” Yataga set down his coffee on the table, shifting his intense red gaze to Eran.
The bear did a double take, trying to think of a good way to respond. The Boss never showed up to coffee mornings, though that wasn’t the point of the analogy. Yataga had only brought it up to make him rethink what his priorities were. In that case, perhaps that balance he’d mentioned was more like teetering on the edge of a tightrope, where any drastic movements meant a certain fall. Sure, you might survive that fall, but your life would never be the same again. Damn, did that bird-brain know how to get under his skin.
“Tell me about said connections. Unless you still insist on keeping everything to yourself.” the crow deadpanned.
“Right,” Eran began. “While I was out on the highway last night, we fetched three new recruits – all of which had some connection to a band called the UnderDogs. In case you’ve been living under a rock, a ‘terrorist’ attack hit their stadium yesterday. And now they’ve all gone missing. Along with Zamira.”
“I’m going to play Abyssal’s advocate for a second. What if all these disappearances are just a coincidence? We still don’t know the full details of last night’s events.”
“Jeez, your mind games are going to give me a headache. For now, let’s do some digging into the whereabouts of the UnderDogs. I think the best place to start would be our newest recruits.”
“Questioning them before you’ve even performed the initial assessments?”
“It’s an urgent matter.”
“Ah, good. For a moment, I was worried you didn’t fully comprehend the gravity of the situation.”
“Enough with this crap, Yataga! Let’s just get on with it.”
“Hm hm. It seems as if you’ve already learned something from me today, Eran.”
The Taramaca City Museum, having opened its doors to the public once again, was brimming with visitors. The meeting room itself was located on the floor dedicated to ancient life – naturally Eran’s favourite section, and undoubtedly the one he spent the most money on. It was no surprise, then, that it attracted the most visitors by far. Even the scale model of the solar system in the top floor couldn’t hold a candle to the bedazzling array of fossils that he’d collected over the years. He was quick to turn away anyone who so much as hinted at this bias, resulting in most extended council meetings turning sour very quickly. For that reason, he hardly ever arranged them in the first place lest his prestige be damaged even further.
Once you entered the ancient life floor, you’d be met with a wide, enclosed corridor with multiple exits, most leading to exhibition rooms that frequently rotated or replaced their respective displays. A massive painting covered the walls and ceiling, split into three distinctive parts for the three major eras that complex life had existed on Kimos. The first showed underwater creatures such as ammonites, and later some of the earliest terrestrial ancestors of amphibians and reptiles. The second was covered with dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes, with the less iconic but equally fascinating Mesozoic animals like mosasaurs taking a backseat. The third, representing the current era, showed many extinct species that bore a great resemblance to extant ones, with a significant portion dedicated to ice age megafauna. When commissioning the piece, Eran had only one specific demand for the artists: that they leave out the Convergence. Even so much as mentioning that word around Eran could get you in trouble.
“What’s on the agenda? Well, besides finding Zamira.” Yataga asked as he made his way to the corridor’s main exit.
“That’s the Boss’s only requirement for today. I, for one, am going to look into securing a valuable new specimen.” Eran said the latter sentence with an air of anger.
“Never heard that one before.” The crow opened the door with his wing-hand.
“See, you’re perfectly capable of turning handles. Why did you need me to open the meeting room door for you?”
“I didn’t want to risk intruding on any important business. I have standards, Eran.”
“Something which I lack, apparently.”
“Took the words straight out of my beak.” Yataga continued, not even showing a hint of a laugh.
Using the lift was a no-go right now, because a family of ostriches was hogging all of the space within it. Lifts in the City appeared oversized to outsiders, often comically so…although there was a damn good reason for it. They had to be large in order to accommodate for larger animal species.
In a similar vein, the stairs were broad, boasting multiple railings that could be used by different species. The lowest, most commonly used by mice and hummingbirds, was just under a metre high. The highest, at a staggering three metres, was only ever used by giraffes.
The walls next to the stairs were plastered with ‘NO FLYING EXCEPT IN AN EMERGENCY’ signs, which had to be placed all over the museum after multiple incidents of birds and bats causing havoc in exhibit rooms. There was no explicit law in Taramaca against indoor flying, but it was heavily discouraged to no end.
“So…a new specimen? I daresay that you’ve piqued my curiosity.” Yataga said after reaching the ground floor. Eran was still a few feet behind him.
“It’s being auctioned off in the evening. Those Church bozos finally knocked some sense into themselves and decided to sell off some of their assets.” The bear clenched his fists.
“The theologian in me wants to debate you on that statement, but I digress. It must be a truly one-of-a-kind specimen if the prospect of the auction alone is rousing you that much.”
“One-of-a-kind is an understatement. It’s the world’s only complete specimen of an azhdarchid.”
Yataga just stared at him.
“Okay, okay. Imagine what you’d get if you smushed a stork, a bat and a horse together. Then give it a wingspan bigger than a fighter jet. That’s pretty much what an azhdarchid is.” Eran said.
“I still don’t understand.” Yataga said.
“Fine, I’ll spare you all the details. They’re a family of pterosaurs which just so happen to be the largest flying animals ever known to exist on Kimos. The fossil I’m after represents an entirely new species.”
“Well, the second largest, after Tavisin of course.” Yataga muttered, turning towards the reception desk.
“Shit! We’re in public.” the bear said, marking an abrupt and awkward end to the conversation.
Reception was just outside of the gift shop, which consisted of a marble desk and a cloakroom for anyone who wanted to stash away their belongings while visiting the museum. Admission was free, apart from a select few paid-only exhibitions. The receptionist, a chameleon called Shale, was happy to answer any questions posed to her by customers and staff alike.
“Good mornin’, boys. What’ll it be today?” Shale said, her skin gradually shifting from blue to orange.
“Bought some new supplies last night. I need to know where they’ve been moved to.” Eran said. Since he couldn’t mention the recruits out loud, he always substituted something else in their place when talking about Libris matters during open hours. With Shale also working as the head of recruitment, she was the best animal to ask for any information regarding new members of Libris.
“Far north side of the storage quarters. Checked over ‘em multiple times last night, and they should be all in one piece.”
“Alright, I’ll be on my way-”
“F-forgot to mention one thing. The supplies are in – whatcha call it? – quadrant time?”
“Quarantine.” Eran bit his lip.
“Yeah. That.” Shale frowned. “Should be safe for y’all. We just can’t risk any cross-contamination.”
Eran’s phone rang in his pocket, cutting off what he was about to say. He hadn’t changed the ringtone from the default jingle, which got on everyone’s nerves. The amount of times you’d hear that repetitive xylophone tune every day in the City could get quite crazy.
He recoiled when he looked at the screen. It was from an unknown number. To get hold of Eran Orsan’s contact information, you’d have to be a close associate or high-ranking member of the Taramacan government. The alternative – that someone had leaked his info – was just as, if not even more frightening. There were more than a few animals out there who (in their view) had reason enough to dox him.
Shaking his head, he declined the call. His lock screen was absolutely littered with notifications from Muzzlebook and pay-to-win games he forgot he’d installed in the first place. He’d have to turn alerts off sooner or later, for fear that he’d end up with the attention span of a damn brick.
While on his way to the ‘storage quarters’, he blocked the number to ensure that whoever was at the other end of the line would never bother him again.