After seeing that sensational news story in the Subeta Tribune, we all heaved a great sigh of relief. None of us had expected that they’d take the toaster ploy anywhere near that well, and we were all infinitely glad to find out that all of Subeta was populated by oblivious morons. Otherwise, we’d all have been in deep trouble.
In the beginning, I was just an ordinary Fester on an ordinary rock shelf, in a pretty homogeneous mountain range in the smooth, pale Saherimos. I had two companions known as Gohnn and Siegvardt, the former a large, stocky Twilight-coloured Irion with a bell around his neck, and the latter a deep Dusk-coloured Dragarth with an icy, apathetic temperament. Sometimes we formed a trio, I taking the lead with the other two hovering loyally along behind, and other times each took to his own course, but in any event, we went largely unnoticed as we wandered through the cold, misty shrubland. It was an okay life, but something of a bleak one—most of the time the land seemed devoid of all activity except maybe a stray dewdrop or two running off the spinifex blades, or maybe an ant crawling out from under a rock every so often, and if two of us managed to bump into each other in a chance encounter, it was a lucky day. We met few others while we were there, much less others that might be called comrades or even acquaintances.
That is, until that one day when a black Endeavor painted with streaks of dark blue and cyan came gliding over at a low altitude, rapidly decreased its speed to zero, and suddenly dropped out of the sky without warning, sending little fragments of tinted steel and brass all over as it violently crashed into the ground.
Or that’s what I imagine happened. The way we actually experienced it, the skies got all dark and rainy, there was a big crashing sound almost like an explosion, and then Siegvardt and I discovered the Endeavor later that day. I recall a high concentration of dark clouds close to the area the Endeavor crashed, with the sound of its crashing sort of intermingled with the sound of thunder, and a medium rain falling when we arrived that before long dropped to a light drizzle and then let up entirely. The Endeavor itself looked rather like a dragon-shaped scrap heap—both wings were contorted from the impact, the segments of its neck and tail were splitting apart to show mechanisms and wiring, and much of one leg was practically about to fall off, among other things.
“Delivering abort message number 169,” it addressed us. “Failure of internal components experienced. Cannot proceed with assigned mission to site 87.”
Siegvardt sauntered along the machine’s periphery cautiously, lowering his front half like a feline to get a closer look at some of the exposed cables and jumping sparks, while I took a small, fluttering jump over to the anterior end and gently prodded the muzzle up off the sand a few times. There was no immediate reaction.
“Looks like it’s about the end of the line for this one,” Siegvardt remarked.
“Shame,” I replied. “I bet it was a fine thing before it crashed.”
With that, the two of us turned around and began to head back, regretful to see such a magnificent piece of engineering go to waste, but not really sure if it was even any of our business or worth our attention. We were just a few steps away from returning to our dreary, uninteresting previous lives when suddenly the machine issued out another loud declaration.
“Stop! Damages are localised and identifiable, and normal processes are still capable of operating. Unit may still be recoverable by servicing.”
“Servicing?” I wondered, pivoting my head around to look back at the fragmented and distorted heap of metal, which hadn’t moved since the last time it addressed us. “Sieg, go get Gohnn while I wait here. I have an idea.”
Gohnn gave an exhausted gasp and buckled to the ground, beak falling hard between his forelegs and bell flying upward with a bright clang as the fragmented automaton came clattering down off his back more noisily than an upset supermarket display.
“Agh, this cursed thing…” he grumbled. “I suppose it was a good enough idea to start out with, but I think this one is just a bit more trouble than he’s worth.”
“That may be so, but we only have about a mile or two left before we reach town,” I reminded him. “And then who knows what will happen once it’s repaired? Maybe it might tell us something about that… site 67, was it? Or maybe the local Blackmoon fleet will even pay us for returning it.”
Gohnn shrugged and gave a sigh as he heaved the Endeavor up onto his back again.
“Maybe… though they’d have to pay me a great sum to carry this thing for much longer.”
Despite all the hardships and complaints, we somehow made it the rest of the way to town in less than five hours, and with only a moderate amount of help from Siegvardt in carrying our all-important cargo. Soon enough, I managed to locate the white, black, and red of the Blackmoon tent from the air, and was able to guide the other two in to drop it off in time for a trip to the marketplace and the local spring. However, when we returned to the tent the next morning, the mechanic had something rather unexpected to tell us.
“I noticed a little something about that Endeavor while I was working on it last evening,” he told us. “It isn’t one of ours.”
“It isn’t?” Siegvardt asked.
“Nope. All Blackmoon Endeavors are marked ‘BLA’. This one says ‘TEA’… I don’t know if it came from Centropolis‘ Get Mugged shop or what, but in any event, it sure isn’t ours. I did fix it up to working condition, though, and I guess you can take it with you now.”
Gohnn, beginning to nod off at the back of the tent, perked up with a small t-ting from his bell.
“Take it with us…?”
“Yeah, take it away,” The Blackmoon mechanic urged with a wave of his hand. “We don’t have any use for it.”
And with that, the black, blue, and cyan dragon rose off the tent floor, givingthe hinges in its wings a test by joining and separating them, and slowly and powerfully moved toward us one step at a time.
“Assigned designation is TEA-03, ‘teal-three’. All internal components are functioning at or above acceptable capacity. Unit is ready to accept orders.”
Siegvardt began to steadily walk away, watching the machine with a narrow-eyed, wary gaze from over his shoulder; a subtle ring trickled out from the side of the tent where Gohnn clung to the canvas, trying to look tough but trembling slightly. Myself, I took on a content and cunning expression as close to a smile as I could manage, and deliberately flapped into the path of what my friends seemed to think was some kind of huge, frightening monster.
“Nice to meet you, too. I’m Amperius.”
TEA-03, as we would later find out, was part of a covert “Project Teal” centred in the Darkside, known on the inside as Project Tempest. Site 87, the area TEA-03 was assigned to return to, was a codename for the headquarters of the project, and its mission was to fly an important magical essence it had created and collected in its power crystal back to the main base. But somehow, TEA-03 failed to contain the essence, causing the power crystal to rupture and damage much of its system; after that, it couldn’t control itself any longer, and dropped out of the sky. The rainclouds we’d seen had come out of the sudden leakage of magic.
That hardly does justice to the way TEA-03 told it, though—that was just plain amazing.
Unit assigned to site 87. Affiliation: Project Teal. Special equipment includes power crystal and Yunium transistor. Intended purpose of power crystal component is to accumulate magical energy. Intended purpose of transistor component is to increase potency of magical energy upon discharge. Assigned objective is to provide magical energy to Tempest Project for the purpose of creating new public class of Subetapet. (Tempest Project definition is identical to Teal Project definition.) Uncaught exception released due to irregularities in magic-handling process caused catastrophic failure of power crystal component and initiated system-wide component failures, leading to sudden and unpredictable termination of velocity control assembly and fluctuation of power supply component and resulting in near-destruction of unit due to loss of integrity. Unit is now in acceptable to favourable condition. Unit has currently been re-assigned to the company of Amperius et al.
The Teal Project, AKA the Tempest Project, had been set up by one Captain Watts from Riverside, a steely old man who—I think being about the only one to do so—greatly envied Major Drills‘ position as manager of the Riverside Public Works Corps and all the wonderful things he’d been able to accomplish there. Unable to accept his own lack of imagination and initiative or tolerate taunts like “Captain What?” any longer, the Captain decided to make a name for himself by starting up a project that would one day produce a new type of Subetapet more powerful and frightening than any every seen before. The name of it would be Keraunas, and it would embody all the suddenness, destructive power, and unpredictability of a thunderstorm.
And yet, for all that fumbling through the desert, endless floating across the ocean, and preaching about great ideals and how people used to worship lightning and how we were all going to down in history, Sieg and I got stuck with the great honour of cleaning bathrooms.
“Ah, what fun,” Siegvardt remarked while simultaneously guiding a sponge and a mop thanks to his flexible tail. “I bet we’d never have seen such a pointless waste of water in the Saherimos.”
“Hey, at least we’re getting fed here,” I reminded him.
“Only because you eat out of the trash.”
“What was that?!”
“Unit is operating at exceptional capacity,” TEA-03 contentedly stated, utterly ignoring the rest of us as it squirted out more water onto the walls through the six or so holes in its tail created by removing the spikes. Ever since its last accident, it had been demoted to cleaning duty with the rest of us even with its components now in “satisfactory to excellent condition” after another round of servicing, but it didn’t mind at all—actually, I don’t think it ever had any opinions of its own, to tell the truth.
Our next job was tidying up plants and shampooing carpets as the “interior decoration and maintenance crew”, along with such other wonderful privileges such as moving around furniture, polishing windows, and picking up broken glass, which we seemed to end up doing all too often.
“Another broken beaker?” Siegvardt disgustedly complained while grudgingly sweeping the tiny fragments of glass into his dustpan. “The carelessness here is appalling.”
Gohnn walked leisurely into the room with a faint jingle.
“If you call that carelessness, you should see some of the equipment in the central laboratory. I saw a flask with one narrow neck at the top and another pulled through the side as though it were taffy.”
That was only the first of it, though. As time went on, the more we saw, the more we began to wonder about the kind of experiments being carried out at the facility—corroded forks, massive ash piles, scattered fields of wood splinters, discarded bits of amber, bent metal rods that were hardly even recognisable—but we never really questioned it for the most part, assuming that Captain Watts and other central members knew what they were doing and eventually all the failures would lessen. Yet for some reason, they only seemed to pile up and become more destructive. One day we saw a Cadogre labelled CYA-08 wheeling out a table with a massive hole in the middle. Another time, two Endeavors labelled TEA-05 and TEA-07 had to bring in a trolley of new floor tiles. And on another occasion, one of the smaller laboratories was closed up entirely with an “Out of Order” sign, emitting highly unpleasant smells. But one of the most amazing things of all came from a single steel screw.
For a while, I forgot about the screw. I didn’t really want to remember the screw, and I probably would have been just fine if I’d never recalled it ever again. But somehow, it did come up again during a discussion of all the other things that had happened and whether we should leave the Tempest project. It began when Gohnn was looking wistfully out one of the side windows, then lowered his forelegs back to the floor and turned to face me with a faint tinge of regret.
“I think it’s time we headed back to the Saherimos.”
“What? Why?!” I asked, throwing forth my head and shoulders with outrage. “If we go back there, then we’re guaranteed to be nothing!”
“Just like we are here, more or less,” Siegvardt pointed out.
That was true enough—we were, in fact, still just part of the cleaning crew after all our time here, even in spite of being promoted to a sort of “cleaners first-class”. We had come across some much better jobs in the Saherimos—but then again, there’d also been that job beating out rugs, which I’d never do again for two million sP. It was almost worth it just to not get stuck doing stuff like that.
“I don’t know about you two, but I’m never going back,” I asserted. “At least not until this project reaches its goal. Think about it, every single one of us is going to get a free Keraunas Potion once the recipe is perfected, and we’ll all be legends for making it possible for every Subetan that wants one to have one—at least for a price. Hmm, I wonder how much we could get for one, anyway? We could practically keep the project open indefinitely as a—”
Before I could finish, Gohnn stepped directly into the area that I was waxing, and met my gaze eye-to-eye. The small metallic rattle from his bell only offset the awkward silence all the more.
“Amperius, we need to leave—I think the dangers are beyond anything we could imagine. Do you remember the day with the screw?”
I remembered, and all too well; it’d begun when we found a small, sharp-pointed steel screw on the floor. We discovered the screw when it came spontaneously rolling out from around the corner, and Gohnn just happened to set down his foreleg in such a way that he missed it by only a couple inches. His bell rang out loudly as he noticed it and quickly withdrew his leg again.
“Hey, who’s dropping screws?” I called out. “Show yourself!”
A small Arid Wyllop scampered out from behind the corner innocently, throwing back his ears timidly and retreating a bit when he saw us.
“You can have this back,” Gohnn somewhat irritably told him, giving the screw a little push in the Wyllop’s direction with his beak.
The Wyllop quickly zipped over and retrieved the screw, then just as quickly disappeared behind the corner again. Soon enough, he was back to whatever he’d been doing, and the periphery of the room was once again filled with loud whirring noises.
Gohnn’s head jerked to a slant in sudden realisation, and his ears gave a slight twitch. Cautiously, he crept over and around the corner to get a better look. And when we followed him there, it was quite a sight.
The Wyllop, along with a Torrey, was equipped with a power drill and a screwdriver and was driving screws into a large sheet of titanium that was intended to disguise a great, gaping hole melted through over half the area of the wall of the central laboratory. The wall one level outward from that was also strangely singed and splintered, though it was still managing to stand.
“Uh…?” I started to ask, astounded.
The Wyllop and Torrey both looked terrified, and immediately unplugged their drills and disappeared down the hallway.
“Amperius, all these disasters are making me think that nothing good is ever going to come out of this project. Why can’t we just go back to simpler times without halved tables or massive explosions?” Gohnn had asked.
“I don’t know about you, but I don’t see what’s so great about it,” Siegvardt had said. “I mean, I don’t know if I prefer boiling desert or scorching volcanoes, but neither is really that good.”
“Amperius, there is a bell,” Gohnn had explained. “There is a great bell, situated next to the stormy sea. The winds are blowing, and some time soon, the bell is going to toll.”
They’d hinted, they’d pleaded, they’d insisted, they’d ever-so-subtly-implied—but no matter what they said, I wasn’t going to listen to them or their silly extended metaphors about tolling bells. I’d made a vow that no matter what happened, I was going to see the project through to its completion.
“You two can go home if you want, but you don’t know what this project means to me,” I finally told them. “I’ve never really been unusually strong, or quick, or in any way all that unique, but if I turn Keraunas, I can be a new Subetan. Mysterious. Powerful. Electric. There’s something about thunderstorms that I’ve always found interesting, and I think there’s nothing that would suit me better.”
And so, in the interest of sanity and the future of the project, I walked straight into the central meeting room and decided to give the Captain a piece of my mind. But what I actually found there was something a little different than my expectations. They hardly minded my sudden barging-in or snatching an empty seat at all—the meeting I’d walked on was, in fact, just a candid one about picking up pieces.
“Yeah, it’s true,” the Captain acknowledged. “We’ve really got no idea what we’re doing here. But what are you gonna do about it, son?”
“Me? I’m… well, I’m—”
“He doesn’t have anything more than the rest of us,” an impertinent Devonti seated next to one of the five main human alchemists interrupted. “After amber, keys, that crazy thunderbird chase, the Endeavor fiasco, and that nasty lightningrod incident, I don’t think there’s anything that will work.”
“Have you tried traditional symbols like oak leaves or vipers?” I asked.
“Every one we could possibly find out about,” one of the head alchemists who wore a brass thunderbird emblem replied.
“And you’ve looked at every conductive metal and static-holding material?”
“Every single one we had any chance of getting.”
An impatient-looking Feli that seemed to belong to another head alchemist set one paw over the other on the table and turned to me with narrowed eyes.
“What do you suggest we do?”
I took a deep breath and steadied myself, knowing this had to be said in the right way and the right tone, and with the right state of mind to pull off. Carefully, I turned around on the seat of my chair and hopped up with a flutter of my wings to take a position at the very top of it, then turned around again to face the room.
“Well, I know this might be a stretch, but I think your hearts just aren’t in it.”
As I predicted, there were scowls and gasps. Shocked and disgusted whispers spread around the room from nearly everyone but the Captain, who quickly dispelled them by bringing his fist down onto the table.
“What do you mean our hearts aren’t in it, feather-duster?”
“I mean what I say. I mean that you don’t have what it takes to produce a Keraunas potion, because you don’t have the will to make it happen. Maybe, for all I know, what’s missing from the spell is a sincere desire to actually become Keraunas… a hope, a dream. Maybe you don’t know what Keraunas is. Maybe you don’t know what it means. Maybe that’s what’s holding you back.”
The Captain paused to think about it a moment, briefly put a couple of fingers to his stubbly chin, and finally nodded.
“I get your point, son. It’s true, it might be we haven’t got the resolve or what-have-you, and as much as I dislike that mushy heart-stuff, you may be right. And if you are, I’m sure as hell not gonna lose to the Major now for denying it.”
“But Captain—” the head alchemist with a green half-cape adorned with Serpenth-looking things objected.
“Don’t you ‘but Captain’ me,” Captain Watts scolded. “Dragon! Bellwether! Get in here!”
After a long pause, Siegvardt and Gohnn reluctantly entered with unusually light steps, as if they thought they were walking into a minefield. Everyone at the table, including me, looked at them with surprise.
“Oh, and you too! Tango Echo Alpha Zero-Three!”
Much more readily than its flesh-and-blood counterparts, TEA-03 walked right in and over to the Captain’s side without hesitating at all.
“Unit is ready to accept orders.”
With that, the Captain got up from his chair and turned his attention to the back of the room.
“Fester, Bellwether, Dra—uh, Dragbolt, Dragchain… Draganchor? No…”
“Dragarth. Fester, Bellwether, Endeavor, and Dragarth! The four of you and the five of them are gonna be on the next stage of this project,” the Captain announced, gesturing over to the five head alchemists in the centre. “Get to know each other well, ’cause I’m counting on you.”
“What, in your opinion, is a storm made of?” I asked.
“Why do you—”
“I’ll tell you later. Just answer it.”
“Well, I think of it being made of wind and water,” the alchemist with the white cloak and Feli offered.
“Power, majesty, and rage,” the one with the green half-cloak and Serpenth emblems replied.
“It’s really nothing more than a bunch of particle charges. But for me, it’s always conjured up images of restlessness and encroaching walls.”
“Dissatisfied spirits,” the one with the thunderbird emblem stated.
“Very good,” I told them, having TEA-03 take down all their responses. “Now let’s move onto the next stage.”
The next stage was shapes, colours, and inkblots, which each of the members had to select from as most representative of certain qualities.
“Why are we doing this?” the white-cloaked alchemist’s Feli asked, ashamedly looking from one end of the room to the other and hiding the page of inkblots she’d been given.
“I’ll tell you that later,” I repeated. “Just circle some blobs, and we’ll be done shortly.”
Grudgingly, the team drew circles around the polygons, swatches, and smudges they thought were the most powerful, and TEA-03 gladly collected them while I was planning out the next exercise.
The third step was to get out in the air of the Tempest highlands, where everyone was to stand still and make a certain assigned pose with their eyes closed while I observed. This was the stage that was the most difficult, since everyone had all sorts of questions and kept interrupting it.
“How long do we have to stand here?”
“Until I tell you to stop,” I answered.
“What is this supposed to accomplish?”
“You’ll find out later.”
“Why do I have to stand on one leg and pose like a narwhal? And what does posing like a narwhal even look like?”
“Figure that out for yourself,” I replied.
After many days of strange exercises and stranger questions, and two much longer days going through all my data alone and then peer-reviewing them with Siegvardt and Gohnn, I finally called the rest of the team in again to announce my results.
“All right, I’ve analysed all the data, and I’ve decided that the most important elements of the Keraunas colour are darkness, fluctuation, history, and intensity. Here I’ve drawn a diagram of an example Keraunas-coloured Feli; as you can see, the dark colours symbolise darkness, the floating electric sparks show fluctuation, the shadow markings and subtle colours here hint at a mysterious past, and the points of white show explosions of intensity in an otherwise-contained character—see, there we go back to fluctuation. What do the eight of you think of it?”
The team took a moment just to stare at the picture in awe, amazed if not necessarily by my artistic skills by the uncanny way the design reflected their input and how perfect it was at capturing the essence of a storm. The Feli, in particular, looked at it with wide eyes, somehow not quite able to believe it.
“It’s… amazing,” the Feli praised.
“So that’s what the colour and shape tests were about,” the one with the pale violet-blue hat commented.
“I didn’t know you had it in you, A-volt,” Gohnn uttered, almost starting to tear up.
But I did. I gave them a storm pet, and now I was going to carry the project’s vision through to the finish. Doing that would require me to step out of the eye of the tempest, but I was prepared.
I did it. Against all my friends’ and teammates’ better judgement, I went to the top of the building with the jug of ingredients they had mixed together per my suggestions, and I perched myself on the top spire and spread out my wings on one of the darkest, most treacherous-looking days we’d ever seen. And after a long, tiring, rainy hour and a half, it happened.
The lightning came down, and it passed through the metal stopper, through the brim-filled jug, and through my veins. And it burnt, and I fell. I don’t know how many feet it was, but I fell a long way of not being able to move, and I knew I was going to hit the ground with a splat.
But I didn’t. Somehow, I was able to spread out my wings and take a great swoop that launched me back into the air. And the stiffness quickly went away. It’d worked.
Everybody cheered me on, and a couple of them, including the Feli, even embraced me. But oddly, none of the others ever seemed to be able to attain quite the same characteristics that I had either by drinking the potion produced that day or in any subsequent attempt, even with the exact same recipe; even though some of them were able to get the same blacks, cyans, and pinks, or even the same electric aura, there was always a little something missing from each of them, even if it was just a couple of black spots. Nobody could really figure out why, and for weeks on end, confused experiments continued to produce black-only pets, grey pets with blue swirls, pets with only little dabs of pink, and pets with odd white, pink, and blue checkerboards, among other things. Even the Feli on our team was missing half the black markings I’d put into my drawing and the bright tip that was supposed to be on her tail.
On March 18, word went around that the SAI was going to be coming and investigating the premises within a couple of days. Captain Watts, however, was destroyed by all the failures, and couldn’t bear to show his face to the world with the possibility that Major Drills and all his friends in the Riverside Public Works Corps might laugh at him. Instead, he ordered that we pack up all the supplies and destroy the building, and we did just that. After getting all the important ingredients out and doing two roll calls and one Cadogre/Endeavor check, the Tempest project left the building, moving on to a new, classified location where they’re still trying to this day to perfect a Keraunas potion suitable for widespread use. And with the help of TEA-03 on the roof and two of the head alchemists down below, I set up the failed lightningrod experiment again on a massive scale and used it to destroy any last traces that we’d been there.
“But isn’t that going to look suspicious?” the white-cloaked alchemist’s Feli asked.
“You’re right,” I realised. “Hang on—I have something that’ll have them running around in circles for weeks.”
And thus, I flew up high over the dark, burnt chasm, and dropped in the toaster.