"You're sure? Not at all?"
If the sea cucumber had eyebrows, he would surely have been raising them. As it was, he still managed to look incredibly offended. "Miss Eight," C.Q. Cumber finally said, intentionally throwing the honorific between them like a soldier digs a foxhole, "I can assure you, there is no-one more knowledgeable about the Deepsea Metro than I am, and I can also assure you, there is no stop labeled Kaidan-cho. Or Orochi Tower. Or any parks. They are not even valid station names."
The Octoling slumped her shoulders, deflating with a sigh. "Oh. ...Okay. I just…" She sighed again, almost, the noise turning into a half-growl of frustration deep in her throat as she reached up to tug at one of her hair-tentacles. A little too tight. She pulled down hard enough for its color to blanch. "Sorry. I just can't get it out of my head, and I didn't mean to… to insult you, or anything."
The conductor's body rippled and he lifted himself up to give her a reassuring nod. "No harm done, Miss Eight. Or Essie, rather, since that's what you prefer." His tone shifted to something far more tender now. "Perhaps if you ask Iso Padre? It might be something away from the lines I know, after all. Perhaps he's found some hint of these places."
She looked behind her shoulder, grip finally relaxing on her tentacle. "Do you think so?"
"It's worth a try," he encouraged gently - and as she bounded off to slip between train compartments, he reached a tendril up to tip his hat in goodbye.
Outside, distant neon signs flickered in a murky haze in-between kelp spires. Essie nimbly didn't stumble on the connection between cars, but did end up half crashing into the wall because of her speed. Iso Padre wasn't at his usual place - in fact, all trace of him seemed to have disappeared. Except… She blinked, spying a glint of something beneath the bench. She reached out to grab it, and then sat back on her heels.
An Inkling doll - a doll that had seen better days. Essie hummed a little to herself as she straightened the doll's long, elegant kimono. "I guess your other tentacle's chipped off," she murmured, brushing the dust off the doll's face. "Well, it's okay. I hear asymmetry's all the rage these days." Another few more adjustments to the obi, and she tugged the robe's sleeves on down again, setting the doll's arms straight. "You almost look like you could ride on my shoulder, if I balanced you right… but let's do this for right now while we find where Iso Padre went." Essie hooked the doll's legs down, shifting the joints so that the doll was left sitting politely as she held it in her hands, its back resting on her chest.
This time, she moved far more carefully on through the car. One of the longsnout dogfish on commute looked up from his newspaper as she passed, and she heard him mutter under his breath something about how she was far too old to be playing with dolls. It just made her want to reach up as if to cover the doll's ears to prevent it from hearing such nonsense.
The cafe car, full of its complimentary concessions, was surprisingly empty. Just as well, she thought, given how it didn't have much more to offer than sandwiches with wilted lettuce and a coffee pot that always seemed to be nearly-gone but never quite finished, no matter how many cups of sludge someone got for themselves. As she passed one more car over, the train clattered by another neon sign - this time impressively close, but flickering rapidly.
There they were. Rather, she heard them far before she saw them. Cap'n Cuttlefish had claimed a corner of one of the back cars, stretching out the seats to make something like a bed. (He had claimed it was for all his benefit, but they both knew that was a polite lie.) Iso Padre had pulled out from his bag a small ukulele - one of the strings long since replaced with something that couldn't quite hold a sharply tuned note, but still serviceable - and was strumming, accompanied with a decisive beat of one of his other hands tapping the body of the instrument. Cap'n's radio bounced in the opposite seat, its antenna light flashing pink. "...Engine runnin' hotter than a boilin' kettle! My job ain't a job! It's a damn good time!" ("Language," Cap'n muttered almost reflexively.) "City to city, I'm runnin' these rhymes, on location, tourin' 'round the nation, Off the Hook always on vacation - got an itchy trigger finger, but a stable turntable! Hey, hey, hit it, Padre! Soloooo!"
Iso Padre laughed at this, doing a frenzied flourish and then looking over to see Essie. "Ah, there you are, young squire!"
"I'm not interrupting, am I?" She shyly offered, even as she smiled.
"Naw, that's as far as I've got on that one," Pearl said cheerfully over the radio. "I gotta get Marina to figure out some really fire chorus that we can go into 'roundabouts there. She's the best at that."
A short burst of giggles, and the light on the radio flashed teal. "Pearl, did you forget I was still listening?"
Iso Padre thankfully saw fit to save them all from the awkward silence. "Ah, you found Princess Sakuya! She must have fallen out of my bag - thank you for retrieving her for me," he said, happily reaching out to take the doll from her. "I can only hope she's not too angry with me."
"I don't think so. Maybe a little dusty, but an adventure with a happy ending isn't anything to be too mad about," Essie said, playing along a moment before she flopped down onto the seat. "Iso Padre, can I ask you something?"
"Ask away, young squire. After all, I owe you a boon for bringing Sakuya-Hime back to me," he said, gesturing broadly as he spoke.
"Do you know where Kaidan-cho is? ...Or Orochi Tower? Or anything about them?" She leaned forward in her seat, hands clasping anxiously in front of her. Even Cap'n Cuttlefish leaned in curiously to hear his response.
Iso Padre thought for a long moment. And when he finally spoke, his tone was apologetic. "...I'm sorry, Essie. I don't. ...But please don't take this as having much meaning," he quickly added. "After all, I've forgotten far more than I've ever remembered."
This didn't keep the Octoling girl from dropping her head with a disappointed sigh. Loud enough to be heard over the radio, apparently, because it flashed teal once more. "Don't worry, I'll keep doing all the research I can, too," Marina soothed quickly. "We'll figure out what it is and what it means!"
Essie frowned, looking as if she was about to say something more, before her CQ-80 chirped. There was a gentle forward tug on all of them as the subway car slowed to a stop. The conductor's voice followed, tinny over the loudspeakers. "We have arrived at the next testing station, Agent Eight."
"I guess that's my stop," she said, standing up with a sigh. "I'll be back soon, Iso Padre. And the rest of you, well…"
"We're still getting video and audio feeds," Marina confirmed cheerfully.
Cap'n Cuttlefish beamed at her. "With you every step of the way, kiddo!"
This, at least, made her smile a little. The subway speakers played a pleasant chime, and the doors slid open. The entrance was as bland as usual, though perhaps grungier than the other stops - and by the time she made her way out, C.Q. Cumber was already there, waiting patiently.
Essie stepped onto the pad, and the chosen weapon for the test - a rather plain splattershot - materialized in her hands as the coffin-like round glass wall slid down again. Behind her, she could barely hear the conversation continuing - Pearl, apparently, coaching Cap'n about learning how to rap, given the cadence of her voice, tossing out a few tips before their attention turned to the test. "So," Essie said, rolling her shoulders and feeling the weight of the weapon in her hands, "What's this one like, C.Q.?"
For a long moment, the sea cucumber didn't reply. "My… sincerest apologies," he finally said, sounding genuinely flustered. "This testing area has been under renovations for quite awhile and has just now reopened, according to my notes, so I do not know it as well as I should. Again, my sincere apologies. I truly have let you down with this disgraceful behavior."
"It's fine, really!" She said quickly. "I'm sure I can figure it out -"
"I can at least confirm your objective - to reach the goal. There is no time limit. You may have to use your ink to find hidden entrances and walls. The fee for this test is 100 CQ points; the potential reward is 1000. ...I am afraid my monitoring equipment is faulty, so I will not be able to offer any guidance, or levy any penalties, once you begin the test. As this is the case, I suppose there technically is a time limit, that being how long we can wait before the train needs to resume moving."
"Oh? How long is that?" She raised her splattershot experimentally, checking its balance in her grip.
"Two hours and forty-five minutes." He paused. "...Forty-three, actually, now."
"That's not bad at all," Essie said cheerfully. "Thanks, Conductor Cumber! I'll see you in fifteen or less, I'm sure!" She smiled and waved as she stepped through the turnstile, swiping her CQ card, and then being launched forward. Apparently the weight of a weapon in her hand was enough comfort to make her forget the angst of the previous moments. The machinery of the test whirred, and soon the station platform was quiet.
"Take care," C.Q. Cumber said softly, far too late for her to hear.
Somewhere in the distance, the wind picked up, just enough to rattle ancient metal siding. C.Q. reached up to adjust his hat. Behind him, the subway doors slid open, and Iso Padre stepped out.
"Don't worry, I know, I don't have the ability to take the test. Just a moment of fresh air," he explained quickly. "Maybe to stretch my legs for a bit. ...Feels a bit strange, without things moving past in the windows."
The sea cucumber stared resolutely at the turnstile, not answering.
"Pretty nice view. Not that I can see anything of the test area, but at least there's some lights overhead where you could pretend it's sky if you like."
He continued to say nothing.
Iso Padre gave a low, worried hum. "Did I do something and forget it, C.Q.?"
C.Q. Cumber's voice was the closest it had been to truly emotional in years. A thin veneer of threadbare professionalism veiled something near tears, suffused with some type of anguish. "I thought you had promised to stop making friends with them, Iso."
Iso Padre crossed a pair of his arms over his chest. "Ah, a touch jealous, old friend?" It was a weak attempt at humor, and it clearly missed its mark.
"I… suppose I must have forgotten that. I'm awfully good at forgetting these days, after all."
Another uncomfortable stretch of silence. "You know how it's going to end, Iso," the sea cucumber finally said. His voice was stretched taut with almost-anger, caught up in sadness. "They're going to leave, someday, and never come back."
He waved a hand. "Ah, I'm sure they'll write occasionally from Inkopolis."
"You know they won't. That's not how this ends, Iso. It's never how this ends." If sea cucumbers had hands, his would have been trembling; as it was, there was a steady ripple running down his body. "They'll leave, and they'll take another part of you with them. We'll never see them again. We'll never see that bit of you again, either."
Iso Padre reached up to adjust his glasses, looking out into the horizon of murky light. "I know." He pitched his voice softer, more tender this time. "I'm sorry, C.Q." After a moment, he crouched down, still looking into the distance but getting closer on the sea cucumber's level. "...If it makes any difference, I wish I could stay."
"You could. You just have to stop talking to them, stop showing an interest -"
"We both know that it's just a matter of time, though. I've been losing parts of myself for as long as you've known me. ...I've got a good ride out of it, C.Q. Better I lose all these parts in using them, instead of having them tumble out on accident."
"It could be a longer journey if you just - if you just didn't associate."
"But what sort of journey would that end up being, my friend? After all, it's the journey that matters, not the destination." He uncrossed his arms, reaching out to delicately reach out and adjust the conductor's hat on C.Q.'s head. "You'll be alright, I'm sure, whenever I end up finally leaving."
"And what will I do, exactly?"
"Maybe then it will be time to let someone else manage the Metro, C.Q."
"Impossible. ...And the very idea of suggesting it is well and truly hurtful, Iso."
"Suppose I'll just have to take you with me, then. Perhaps when we make it to the surface, I'll go through with my plan of becoming a writer. Maybe when I'm putting together my 'zines, you can contribute a guest column?" He looked over to the sea cucumber - despite the earlier harsh tone, something that apparently only Iso Padre could see was softening. "Restaurant correspondent, maybe?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Iso." C.Q. huffed before continuing, tone breaking out of the dire seriousness, led into better spirits the way only a friend can manage. "My column is obviously going to be about municipal planning and improvements, with a speciality in reporting the efficiency of public transport…"
And Iso Padre relaxed into a broad smile.
((oh dang chapter number two now things are really getting serious huh aw jeez
Apologies to the Beastie Boys for this chapter. I can't rap, my attempts at poetry are best left dead and buried, so, uh, sorry about that Misters Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D - and may the memories of MCA and John Berry burn eternal.
Don't worry, next chapter we'll get back to creepy weirdness instead of just "angst? In MY sea cucumber? It's more likely than you think"))