Valentin's Voyage - A Shitbox Rally Story

Pre-release author’s notes and such:

This thread will contain some stories written in the same style as the shitbox-rally roleplay scenes have been written by @Madrias and myself ( @Elizipeazie ).
This storyline shall cover the events between the end of Shitbox Rally 2022 (late March 2022) and the start of a potential Shitbox Rally 2023 (April 2023). Note that it is as of yet not guaranteed that SR2023 will take place. Plans are being made, but life is life and may sideswipe them.

With that done, here we go with the first part :smiley:


April 30, 2022, 11:30 AM, Twin Suns Towing and Garage, Main Office, Nevada.

Malavera stared at the network access logs, pacing back and forth in front of his laptop, which was currently remote-accessing the server rack’s administration console up on Forsaken Sky. “Something isn’t right here,” Malavera grumbled to himself. He checked the logs again, trying to match the known-good IP address to his failed authentication list, in case his friend had lost his password. “Not there. Kayden’s done it again, though.”

Malavera sighed, then called out, “Hunter! Get me a digital copy of all of the phone books in Sweden.”

A few minutes later, he got back a response in a calm tone of voice, “Data compiled.”

11:30 AM, Twin Suns Towing and Garage, Working Area

Kaylie carefully stepped around her tripod and camera as she spoke, “Welcome back to Kaylie’s Garage! Today, we’re continuing Project 6x6. In the last episode, we removed the damaged bed and explained exactly what caused it while discussing where we’ve been the last few weeks, and in this episode, we’re going to start planning out the actual changes.”

While Kaylie was busy putting on a show for the camera with a whiteboard, several markers, and an explanation about how the rear axle of the Bricksley Highwayman was going to move a few inches forward to make room for another rear axle a few inches backward from it, the custom hardware needed, and the difficulties expected in a project like that, Kayden was busy doing a bit of mundane customer car work. “Customer states,” he quipped, “that the car has no power.” Kayden opened the air filter box and removed what looked like it may have been an air filter a long, long time ago, but now it was a mouse nest. “Well, there’s your problem.”

Likewise, Jayde was helping out with a customer’s car alongside Rukari, both of them working to fit a new catalytic converter after the previous one had been stolen. More specifically, Jayde was responsible for installing it (and having been told that if he uses magic, he needs to make it look like someone actually did some welding under there), while Rukari was busy repairing the damage done by a thief with a reciprocating saw and no regard for other people’s property.

“I still think you should put curse on it, so next who takes without asking goes blind,” Rukari said.

“And how do I prevent that from going off on someone who has a reason to remove it, Rukari? Just because I know how to do curses doesn’t mean I will. Especially not around people who don’t know about magic,” Jayde replied.

Their discussion was shattered by a loud crash, followed by a half hollered “Fuck you!” as Takaraya took one of the doors off the hinges leading into the work floor. Kivenaal followed him with a grin, holding what Jayde recognized was one hell of a realistic looking fake snake.

“Come on, guys, I’m trying to film over here and not one of you can keep it down?” Kaylie grumbled. “Kivenaal, stop scaring Takaraya with snakes. Jayde, Rukari, no curses on the catalyst, even if I’d personally love to see a couple of those thieves lose hands. Kayden, must you do a “customer states” quote every time we get a car in with problems?”

“Guys,” Malavera said, walking through the now-open doorway into the work floor, “we might have a bit of a problem.”

“Oh great,” Kaylie said. “What is it this time? Wilma being upset because we won’t just put brake pads onto a car with rotors starting to show the cooling vents? Jackson schedule an appointment with the truck that smells of beer and piss? Or is it Old Lady Gibson and her rattle-trap of an old truck that “Just needs one tire” when the rest of the truck belongs in her junkyard?”

“No, it’s Valentin. He hasn’t logged in on my server in a few days, and I’m starting to get concerned that something might have happened,” Malavera replied. “I’ve looked up a phone number that might get us in contact with his parents, but… I don’t speak Swedish.”

“I can,” Nova piped up, materializing in her full holographic form in the middle of the room. “I can’t say I’m fluent in it, but I have a database full of words and meanings, and enough processing power that I should be able to translate on the fly. I just need the phone number.”

Malavera turned his laptop screen to show the highlighted number, and Nova’s immediate response was to reach into her virtual pocket, pull out a virtual 1980’s vintage cell phone, pulled up the antenna, dialed the number, and waited for a response.

08:34 PM CET, some single family home in rural Sweden, living room

The house was peaceful and quiet as Rita was the only person currently in it doing typical stay-at-home wife stuff. Her hot-headed, loving husband was out with some bar acquaintances drinking while the only son of the three that still lived with the couple was away for some environmental protesting and cleanups. The other two had long moved out for university studies and military careers respectively. In the process of sweeping some dust off of the top of their cozy, tile-clad fireplace, the landline went off, prompting her to head over to investigate. Despite the rather archaic nature of their furnishings and the inherent distrust of her husband Ruediger towards modern technology, their landline phone still displays the phone number calling her.

She picks up the phone, not recognizing the number displayed, hesitating a moment before accepting the call:

OOC: the following dialogue is spoken entirely in Swedish :sweden:

“Schrant?”, she spoke into the phone, uneasy about some random number suddenly calling them again.
“Hello, Mrs. Schrant. I am Ivanova Grayson, a friend of Valentin, calling on behalf of his other friends, Kaylie and Mal.”, Nova replied.
Rita pauses for a bit in trying to remember where she had heard these names before.
“Oh you must be from that vacation trip Valentin told me about! How can i help you?”, she delightfully said while taking a seat in a chair directly next to the fireplace.
Nova replied, “Well… We were trying to get in touch with him, but we’ve not heard back from him in a couple of days. Now, we do understand time differences, but usually we hear back from him, even an email, by the next day. Honestly, we’re a little bit worried.” Nova looked toward Malavera as she said that, knowing it took a lot to worry him.
Another moment of silence followed as Rita faced the harsh reality of being reminded again:
“Uhm… all i know is that he is in hospital after being ran into by some military-registered van… could very well be under for surgery right now… I hope he’s alright…”, she mumbled, just about loud enough for the microphone to pick up.
“Oh. I am sorry to hear that, Mrs. Schrant. We… didn’t know. Obviously, all of us are hoping for the best, then,” Nova replied.
“Thank you very much…”, Rita continues, trying hard to not bust out in tears at the thought of what might be.
Nova paused for a brief moment, subtly checking on Valentin in her own way, before realizing that while she might know how Valentin was doing, she couldn’t say what she knew out loud. Instead, she settled for what she hoped would be the right thing to say in the moment. “I’m sure the doctors and surgeons are doing the absolute best that they can, and, well, I know Valentin is strong in his own way. He’ll pull through, I’m sure of it.”
“Oh he will… he will.”, she replies, still surprisingly coherent and not crying her heart out.
Nova stood there for a moment, trying to figure out what more to say or to ask, when Kivenaal stepped closer as quietly as he could manage in his polished shoes. When he spoke, it was clear he didn’t really speak very much Swedish at all, but was at least trying. “Mrs. Schrant, would be any way to contact him, or friend of his? Sorry, I not speak Swedish good, I know,” Kivenaal said with a slight grimace.
The sudden appearance of a different voice startled Rita as the collected her thoughts.
“Give me a minute, please… i’m sure i left the numbers here somewhere…”, she says before brisk pacing can be heard through the line, followed by what sounds to be shuffling around some loose bits in a drawer.
“Right. I found a number of a close friend of his… Nor… Jord… Najordal Eikeland? People call him Norse, apparently. As far as i am aware, he is the one who saved my boy’s life… He surely knows more.” Rita explained, before reciting the number as soon as the other end of the line was ready to write it down or otherwise keep it stored.
Kivenaal pulled a pen and small notepad out of his pocket, then wrote down the number. “Thank you,” Kivenaal replied. He recited the number back to make sure he had it right, and after it was confirmed, he gave a light nod.
Nova then responded with, “Thank you for your time, Mrs. Schrant. We’ll let you get back to your day.”
“You too, then.” Rita muttered before hanging up and returning to her chores to get her mind elsewhere.

Nova looked over at Malavera, then asked, “What would you like to do?”

“I’m thinking, if it’s not too late, we call this “Norse” and ask about Valentin,” Malavera said.

Kaylie piped up with, “Well… Val might have told his parents about this adventure, but would he have told his friends?”

“Could go either way, to be honest,” Kivenaal said. “On one hand, he’s, from what little I know, a very private person. On the other hand, he does have friends and some of them might be in his inner circle. On the third hand,” he added, ducking under Kayden’s attempt to smack him over the head, “we’ve seen that even those of us with an inner circle keep secrets. He may have loosely mentioned “I went on a road rally, it wasn’t exactly a great experience,” and then left it at that.”

“Nova, please, just call him?” Malavera asked.

“What would you like me to say?” Nova replied.

“That we’re friends of Valentin, from a road rally he participated in. We’ve heard about his accident and we’re worried about him,” Malavera said.

Kaylie smiled lightly. “It’s good to see that underneath that shell you put up to keep the world away, Mal, that inside, you do care.”

Malavera lightly glared at her for teasing him, though said nothing as Nova dialed Norse’s number.

08:48 PM CET, random pub in downtown Gothenburg (Sweden)

A group of young 20-something year olds was sat in a bar, round a table, having a good time with some drinks and generally enjoying some social time away from work. Among that group was Njordal Eikeland, or “Norse”, as most people he knows call him. The evening was still rather young to them, as none of them had really drank much beyond a beer or maybe two. Still, in the middle of a highly captivating story told by one of the mates present as Norse’s phone went off.

:sweden: Aww come on you ruined it!”, one of them calls out in visible anger as Norse fumbles for his phone, reading the distinctly US-based number on his cracked screen.

:sweden: Excuse me for a minute… some Americans are trying to be funny, i guess…”, Norse said, getting up and hastily leaving the establishment to find himself on a sidewalk next to an arterial road, which was rather empty given the lack of rush hour.

He pressed the green “accept call” button and spoke:
:sweden: Eikeland speaking? Who is this?”

Nova spoke up, “:sweden: Hello, Mr. Eikeland. I’m Ivanova Grayson, one of several friends Valentin met while at an event recently. We’ve just spoken to his mother and, well, we heard about his accident. We heard from her that you were there and that you saved his life. Also, forgive me, but I have to ask for the rest of the group of friends, do you speak English at all? I’m the only one of the group who can speak Swedish well, and the only other who can is… In his own words, not very good at it.”

Norse took a moment to process the slew of information and request he was getting.
:sweden: English, sure. Not perfect, but it’ll do, i think.” he mumbled, still me tally sorting out the other requests. “:flag_gb: Uhm so what was it that you wanted again?”

Malavera, after hearing Norse speaking English, asked, “We were hoping to learn more about what happened, but mostly to know if Val’s okay.”

Kaylie spoke up and said, “Mal here’s been missing his friend, so, he’s worried.”

“I’m… Not exactly sure that we’re following proper etiquette for using the telephone,” Jayde remarked. “Are we not supposed to give our names first?”

“Am i on loudspeakers or something? Why is there suddenly four people talking?” Norse asked in confusion, even with his educated guess saying that he was talking to hosts of the even Valentin was part of.

Nova looked around at the noisy bunch around her, then explained, “Sorry. I’m stuck on speaker-phone.” She looked around again, then added, “I should mention that we have the full Shift Happens crew here, plus at least one that isn’t yet known to Valentin. They have been rather worried.”

“You have, well… had every right to be. We were out cycling as a group of like 40 people when some absolute dickhead blasted past us in a military personnel van thing. Guy ran head first into a combine at speed and scored a strike as he spun his way across the road. Needless to say, seeing the leaning tower of Val being leveled by a van in less than a second was… Disturbing to watch. Everyone had first row seats. There was splintered Carbon Fibre, bent Titanium, torn-up bits of lycra and whatever everywhere. Blood, broken bones, dislocated what have you copious amounts of road rash. Shoutout to EMS here, still in the process of piecing them together…”, Norse rambled as he leant against the bar’s dense brick wall, letting out a disheartened sigh.

Takaraya let out an audible wince in the background, giving a light grimace as he heard what happened. Kaylie, on the other hand, muttered a quiet, “Twin Suns, that’s bad.” Kayden grabbed Takaraya’s hand, knowing better than to rub his back because the big guy still occasionally had sore days, but wanting him to know he had support if it was needed.

“People who drive like that,” Jayde said in a somewhat darker tone of voice, “need to be drowned. There is no excuse.”

“Cannot say much about the court-case at the moment. Confidential info and such… Guy has baaad cards, though, having about 25 healthy and another 20 more or less injured witnesses all against him. As far as i am aware, Val is fine given the circumstances. Three surgeries done already, at least two more pending. They’re digging deep below Val’s skin…” Norse added, shaking his head as he mentally replayed the accident.

“Understandable,” Kaylie said, regarding the court case.

Kayden, on the other hand, likewise shook his head, then said, “That’s a lot of surgeries and an awful lot of pain.”

Malavera asked, “He will keep his natural limbs, yes? Here, we have three members of the “Missing Parts Club,” so he’d have support if that did happen, but well, the three of them could probably agree that natural is preferred.”

“My new limbs might be better,” Takaraya said, his deep voice hiding a bit of sorrow felt for a friend he’d yet to meet who he knew was in pain, “but I’d still rather have my arms and legs back.”

“Given the choices, we all would,” Jayde admitted.

Nova spoke up with, “I think he would have mentioned something that serious if it were the case. That said, we aren’t helping with wild speculation.”

“He still had them all when he was flown off to hospital…”, Norse muttered, the thought of meeting Valentin missing appendages bothering him.
“If you need anything else. I’ll send you a message with the number of the hospital, their office hours as well as my usual availability. Gotta go for now, though. Goodbye.” he added, waiting for a confirmation from the other end before hanging up.

“No problem. Talk to you later!” Nova said, before registering that Norse had disconnected the phone. There was a moment of quiet in the shop before a resounding smack and a yelp was heard, courtesy of Kaylie smacking Malavera over the back of one of his heads.

“What the hell was that for!?” Malavera demanded.

“Rule number one of someone being in hospital is you don’t ask if they’ve made it out with all their limbs intact. Especially before they’ve gotten through all of their surgeries,” Kaylie snapped.

Norse pocketed the phone and went back in to join the others.
:sweden: Got hit by a bus?”, one of them asked.
:sweden: No. Being bombarded with questions from semi-random Americans about how a close friend got steamrolled by a full-size van isn’t what any of you pinheads would call pleasant chit-chat…”, Norse countered, both disheartened and angry.
The atmosphere remained awkward and quiet for another hour or so before the group disbanded one by one and headed home.


May 17th, 2022, 07:45 PM GMT+2, Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Gothenburg, Sweden

After having spent close to three weeks in intensive care unit, having undergone five separate surgeries for a slew of issues in the aftermath of the collision, Valentin was finally transferred back to a “regular” hospital bed, which, despite being an oversize bed specifically meant for tall folk like him, still ended up three inches short. Still, three inches is far better than a foot of missing space on any other standard bed.

Very quickly, boredom was getting to him, though. Local TV never really amazed him to begin with, he couldn’t walk places and the three calls a day he was getting from various people
Norse had brought him his covertible laptop a couple of days prior, which at least granted him some entertainment qualities. Norse told him that Shift Happens really wanted to hear from him. A request which he happily obliged to in an attempt to free his mind a little bit.
He opened a desktop-based gaming-oriented (voice-) chat service and messaged Malavera:

Hello there. Finally out of ICU and am able to do something beyond watching mundane TV shows and memorizing the pattern of the ingrain wallpaper… Figured i’d message you (and by extension the others) to say that i am indeed still here. Not 100% sure how much intel you have from Norse, though, so some catching up prolly is in order on both sides. Maybe we can arrange some talks. Typing with one hand immobilized and the other fucked is not comfortable…
– Val

May 17, 2022, 10:45 AM, “The Lair”, Nevada

Malavera was helping out in the office when a quiet “ping” sounded from the computer. He opened the program and read Valentin’s message, smiling as he realized that Val was alive and at least well enough to send a message.

Hello, Valentin! Yeah, we can talk. I’ll let the others know that you’re here.
– Malavera

He keyed the intercom, then said, “Got a bit of good news. Valentin just contacted me, wants to talk.”

It didn’t take too long for everyone to finish what they were doing, and one after another, they packed into the office. Malavera started the call, though before anyone could say anything to Valentin, there was a somewhat harsh, “Ai! You step on my foot!” from Rukari.

“Sorry,” Kivenaal replied. “Not exactly a lot of space in here.”

Malavera grimaced. “Really? Seven people in an office barely big enough for four of us? I was going to take this to the projection room downstairs but there’s no point in that now.”

“Sorry, Mal,” Kaylie said. “Just… I guess all of us were excited to see him.”

“It is always good to meet a new potential friend,” Takaraya said, before visibly picking up the color laser printer, moving it 9 inches over to the right, and sitting on the same rather sturdy table.

“That’s not a seat,” Malavera scolded.

“Let him do it,” Jayde shot back. “Poor guy’s been through hell enough losing his arms and legs. Let him rest.”

“Don’t mind Jayde, Val. He’s grumpy today,” Kayden said, being the first to address Val in the call.

“You’d be grumpy, too, if you had an itch on your foot that you can’t scratch, and it’s been bothering me for the last three hours,” Jayde replied.

It did not take too long for Malavera’s written reply to come back on his device. What Valentin did not expect is that Malavera was calling him now. As such, he somewhat scrambles in trying to get the call accepted, eventually managing to pull it off.

“Erm… i don’t know if that’s intentional, but i can only see half of you in-frame.”, Valentin remarked as he was already able to see and hear the chaos unfold in Nevada.
“You might want to move elsewhere. Shit looks cramped there.”

After that, he fiddles around with the settings a bit, enabling his camera for the others to see him. Courtesy of the unexpected response time, Valentin looks rather messy in his slightly-too-small hospital bed. Other than his pale face, shoulders, the right one being wrapped in copious amounts of immobilizing bandaging and excessively long hair being strewn across his pollow, not much can be seen for the time being. A few stray cables can also be seen running across the frame from one side to the other, loosely draped on top of Valentin.

“There we go… hello there.”, he repeated, waving his healthy (in comparison) hand in front of the camera.

“Yeah, if some of these guys would get out of the office, I’d bring this whole thing downstairs into our break-room,” Malavera said in a pointed tone of voice, “where I planned to do this to start with.”

Kivenaal chimed in with, “Mal, if you’ve got to step on a few feet to get your point across, do it.”

Kaylie, on the other hand, decided to get things rolling. “Alright everybody!” she called out, like a far-less-intense drill sergeant, “Get your asses moving to the break room. Now!”

One by one, the group disappeared downstairs, leaving Malavera still at the desk.

“One moment, Val. I’m cutting the video feed so I don’t make you motion sick when I carry my laptop downstairs,” Malavera said, a moment before the video disappeared, leaving just his profile picture. He scooped up his 20 pound “server in a suitcase” laptop and carried it downstairs like anyone else would do with an ultrabook, setting it on the table and hooking it up to the main screen before turning the video back on.

This time, Val was able to see Kaylie, Jayde, and Kayden on one rather worn down looking couch, Kivenaal sprawled out on another couch in only marginally-better condition, Rukari sitting in a rather battle-scarred recliner, Malavera in another recliner in much better shape, and the new guy, Takaraya, laying down on a pile of pillows on a third couch.

“Don’t mind Takaraya or Jayde, both of them are having bad days today,” Kayden admitted. “Jayde’s got a phantom itch on his left foot, and Takaraya, well…”

“Snapped the bow I was practicing with. The wood hit my shoulder, which could take it, but the sudden loss of tension tweaked my back,” Takaraya admitted.

“I’ve been trying to get him to do archery because it’ll be good for his healing and recovery, but… We’re having to wait until he gets his new compound bow in,” Kayden said. “Out of curiosity, what are all the cables for, if you know?”

“Sure”, Valentin replied as the video went to the empty gray slab with a small round profile picture in the middle.
What they did not account for is the noises made in the process of moving that suitcase server to the break-room, which were less than pleasant at times.
Eventually, he spots the entire group and a new ‘person’ strewn across various kinds of upholstery.

“That’s more like it. Everyone has a bad day sometimes. I can safely say that those have been bulk-ordered for me it seems.”, Valentin explained as he took in the view into a very opposing room filled with humanoid animals.

“As for the cables, well…”, he starts, before rolling his bedside table away a bit, showing the other end of a myriad of cables and lines monitoring his vital signs.
“They hooked me up for documentation of medical edge-cases. Probably because of my height. There’s no medical need as far as i’ve been told, so they’re curious, basically. If you want, i can show ‘my’ end of those cables as well. Some of that might work differently to wherever you are from, after all.”, he added, smiling a little since he finally had some actual visual contact with people other than Norse and some nurses running in and out of his room periodically.

Takaraya looked over and gave a light smile, though didn’t add anything much to the conversation. Kaylie, on the other hand, said, “Well, that’s how I know he’s in a lot of pain. Takaraya not having a motivational comment is rare.”

“Having been in a similar place once,” Takaraya said, “I know that sometimes the cheerful, “it all gets better eventually” comments can be counterproductive. Sometimes it’s okay to live in the here-and-now.”

Kayden chuckled. “Yeah, no, Takaraya’s not broken, Kaylie.”

“Bruised and sore, maybe, but far from broken,” Takaraya replied.

Jayde squirmed slightly on the couch and cursed under his breath with a grimace. Kaylie, in response, lightly rubbed his back. “I know. It sucks, but it will go away,” Kaylie said reassuringly.

When Val showed them the equipment he was hooked up to, however, it showed that both Kayden and Takaraya were studying it. For Takaraya, it was more watching four differently-shaded gray lines tracking across the screen in a semi-rhythmic pattern, not much of the information making a lot of sense to him, though he’d seen similar lines on the screens he’d once been connected to. For Kayden, on the other hand, he seemed to be taking a few notes.

“What are you doing?” Kaylie inquired.

“Writing down an injured, but at-rest base-line for Valentin. I know because of those injuries, it’s not completely valid later on, but at least I know some viable information,” Kayden replied.

Kivenaal also studied the display, grabbing out his phone and comparing to his own. “It’s amazing the kind of endurance humans regularly have considering the differences in baseline statistics. For having one heart, they do remarkably well in athletic abilities. Not so for my kind when we’re dropped to a level playing field.”

Kayden glanced over at Kivenaal’s phone and gave a half-grimaced smirk. “Yeah, and getting that more-up-to-date baseline of yours was a real bitch, Kiva. Reading one heart from under your armpit and the other at the center of your chest, and feeding the signals through a computer to isolate them from each other was not easy.”

“The road to recovery is a long one. How long for you? Dunno, to be honest. For me, at least half a year from now, according to the more qualified people here.”, Valentin replied as Takaraya commented about his cheefulness.

As Kayden started writing down the readings from Valentin’s monitoring equipment, he also took a quick look over there.
“I don’t see it being useful anytime soon, but take all the notes you want, i guess. It’s not like anyone could do much harm with the knowledge of my resting heart rate…”, he noted, patiently watching Kayden finish the notes he was taking.
Learning that at least some of his fur-covered friends have two hearts visibly confused Valentin, now having returned the camera to show just him, albeit in a wider half-body shot.
“Not sure how the measurement works with you lot. For us, they place a buttload of sticky sensors all over your chest, which then measure what the heart does in electrical terms. Some more at the extremities and they get some very detailed info far beyond just heart rate.”, Valentin explained, folding down his blanket and revealing aforementioned sticky pads all over his decidedly bone-y ribcage.
“I think just shaving the areas flat isn’t exactly popular with your kind.”

Takaraya thought about it, then said, “It’s been about 7 of your months since I was shot down. A month in a medically-induced coma while they dealt with frostbite and infections and limb replacements. Six months recovering… And still technically counting.”

Kayden chuckled as Val mentioned the information wasn’t likely to be useful, then said, “In my line of work as a field medic, you’d be surprised at the mission-critical bit of detail you might need some day. Knowing your resting heart rate when injured could be the difference between a simple and relatively non-invasive treatment, and a more complex one.”

Kivenaal grimaced as Valentin mentioned the adhesive padded sensors. “Yeah, same basic treatment. Shaved in those spots down to the skin, stick the sensors on, get the needed information. There’s a reason I had it done in the winter, and that’s so my fur had time to grow back. And regrowing fur itches like hell.”

“We can get information,” Kaylie said, “without needing the pads for a lot of things, but… If we put Kivenaal or Rukari on standard equipment, we set off alarms almost instantly. If the whole lot of us with one heart are considered as sports cars, those two are Top Fuel dragsters.”

“Not quite,” Rukari replied. “Dragster goes fast in straight line, needs maintenance every run. Not so for us.”

“Says the guy with two hearts and a resting blood pressure that can kill a human,” Malavera quipped back. “Seriously, how is yours so much higher than Kivenaal’s?”

“Because Rukari eats a lot of junk,” Jayde said. “This morning, he started his day with a twelve-cup “mug” of coffee, drank straight from the pot, chased that with salmon and eggs for breakfast, and then started snacking on beef jerky.”

“Yeah, and you think Kivenaal doesn’t do that?” Kayden inquired.

“Last I checked, Kivenaal has a habit of making his own snacks. Plus, he doesn’t go crazy with the coffee. Sure, he had a big stack of pancakes with maple syrup this morning, and half a plate of bacon, but then his snacks have been, well, I don’t know exactly,” Jayde replied.

“A fucking cookie-sheet covered in spiders,” Kaylie said with a grimace.

“I told you not to look in the oven, Kaylie. And I’ve even been nice, not snacking on them in view of anyone else. I get it, not everyone is interested in honey-glazed oven roasted tarantulas,” Kivenaal replied.

Having provided the human example of taking those vital signs, he snuggled himself up in the blanket again.
“It’s cold in here… energy crisis means they refuse to heat past 18 degrees…”, Valentin grumbled, trying to tuck the sheets below himself as best he could with one arm.

“You win the bad day contest.”, Valentin said after Takaraya ran through his timeline of recovery, “for me it was a week and a half of coma for piecing me back together, another week in ICU for control and now i’m here for what they think is about two months? Then half a year or more of therapy to get back onto my feet. Literally. And i’m not stopping you from taking those notes. If we happen to meet again at some point, you can gather all the data you want. Just don’t cut me up, please.”

After that, the group went on about how Rukari and Kivenaal would not do well with standard hospital equipment, which was rather a lot for Valentin to grasp in full.

“I did catch the staff talking that my blood pressure is rather low, especially in relation to my height, which should ask for more pressure if my basic physics understanding adds up…
Though i wonder, if you lot’s hearts are sports cars, Rukari and Kivenaal being Dragsters, or some Le-Mans 24h racers or something, what would i be in your mind?”, Valentin inquired, raising one of his perpetually-worried-looks eyebrows.

“Wasn’t trying to win any contests,” Takaraya said with a light smile. “Just a grim reality of military service. Not everyone makes it out in one piece. To be fair, my new limbs are better than my natural ones, but if I had the choice… I’d still prefer to be flesh and blood, not augmented.”

When Valentin mentioned to Kayden not to cut him up, Kayden chuckled. “My older brother is the surgeon, not me. I’m a field medic. My job is to try to get you stable enough to visit a hospital in the event of an injury. But, getting information in the future could be worth it for a more neutral baseline, and we have scanners that can get some of that information without any distress. For the rest, well, we have more primitive equipment, some of which,” Kayden said, motioning to the monitor, “you’re already rather familiar with.”

When Valentin asked what they would consider Val to be if they were sports cars and the two Valraadii were race cars, Kaylie thought on it for a moment before responding, “I’m thinking a hot hatch. Small, punchy engine making a lot of power in a body that doesn’t weigh a lot. Something like a turbocharged 1.6 liter inline 4.”

Kivenaal also thought on it, then made his observations in a different way. “Rukari and I are a bit like racing cars. Kaylie, Kayden, and Jayde, they’re like high-end sports cars. The stuff with V10s and turbo V8’s. I’d say you, Val, are like a punchy twin-turbo V6, because you’re athletic. To continue the scale, Malavera is a bit like a normal V6 in a family sedan, because he’s very much not athletic.”

“Hey!” Malavera said, throwing a pillow at Kivenaal, who caught it and threw it back. Kivenaal just smirked as Malavera failed to catch the pillow and instead got broadsided in both faces by it.

“As for Takaraya over there… He’s a bit like a semi. Different class entirely. Same framework as Malavera, but, damn, these two couldn’t be more different if you tried,” Kivenaal said.

“I got lucky and wasn’t drafted… I’d probably do more harm than good just by virtue of being me.”, Valentin commented, having learned that Takaraya was or still is military.

Kayden’s clarification was rather inconclusive to Valentin, as a field medic may very well need to cut people up in an emergency situation.
“Well some situation might call for a cut or two… Anyway. As said, I’m cool with testing and data gathering and such. If you really need it, even situational testing like exercise stuff or what have you. Speaking of which, i think i have a ton of data from my weekly rides stored somewhere… I can send that over to you, if you want. Also, by what metric am i a hot hatch of all things!?”, he said, both to address Kayden’s answer about being a field medic and their take on what engine Valentin’s heart could be represented by.

Kivenaal chuckled as Kaylie got called out by Valentin. Kaylie grimaced, then said, “Perhaps it was a poor choice of words, but I was thinking of engines in that class. I suppose to keep with a sportscar theme, I could have said Mazda Miata, though you might know it as a Mazda MX-5, or perhaps a Honda S2000. Not a super powerful engine, but certainly enough to do the job.”

Kayden smirked, but then added in, “Yeah, when you find it convenient, I’d appreciate a copy of that information. I’ve been trying to get a general log going for everyone in the group, just in case something were to happen. Let’s just say that finding out about you having an accident pushed me to be a little more proactive. Some of these guys, I had their information, such as Kivenaal and Kaylie, even myself. Had to get Rukari, Malavera, and Jayde recently. Takaraya dropped about thirteen-hundred pages worth of digital documents into my inbox when I asked about him.”

“You said you wanted to know everything. That’s all of my medical history, minus the classified things,” Takaraya said.

Jayde grimaced. “It’s embarrassing to be shaved just for testing,” he admitted.

“You’d think with what they had to do to your leg that a little lost fur would be no big deal,” Kayden replied.

“Just a minute.”, Valentin replied as he pulled the bedside table closer again, limiting the view angle to a wildly off-center face portrait. Valentin then went into his browser of choice and simply sent a link to Malavera’s chat.
“There you go. Malavera now has a link in chat leading to a spreadsheet. I’ve been collecting and storing all that data in case it becomes useful for training or something. You have basically every ride i did up to and including the accident, complete with ride data such as date, length, duration and elevation change as well as some biological data, them being heart rate and some power-related values. The link at the end of each row leads to more intricate variants of the rundown in the spreadsheet, with fancy graphs for every useful metric.”, he said as he readjusted the camera position again, followed by him repeating (and largely failing) the procedure of tucking back into his sheets.

The size Takarays’s medical history very much surprised Valentin, to the point of him nodding respectfully at the size of that lad.
“My medical history is not 1300 pages, though still sizeable, i’d imagine. Haven’t requested access in… well… ever, though, cuz why would i? At least being shaven for an ECG isn’t a problem for me. There’s nothing to shave.”, Valentin chuckled, which backfired hard into him wincing in pain due to the injuries sustained during the accident.

Malavera clicked on the link, then downloaded the spreadsheet and sent it to Kayden, who pulled out Nova and checked some of it out. “I’m surprised. This is quite detailed information,” Kayden admitted.

When Valentin mentioned his history wasn’t 1300 pages, Takaraya smiled. “I’ve been documented since before my birth. Then there’s my upbringing, my military physical examination, injuries sustained while in the military, the day of my accident, an account of all the surgeries it took to save my life, records for my augmentations, surgeries for reinforcements, sockets, sensor-to-nerve translation chips, my various forms of physical and mental therapy. All of that to tell me that I’m no longer allowed to fly fighters, which was my passion,” Takaraya said, his tone a little bit more sorrowful by the end.

“Figured if i’m gonna start collecting data i might as well do it right from the get-go. Took a while to get the the data-transfer to work from the source to this sheet, but i have like a year and a half worth of data in there. I should start a new sheet to document my recovery, once i am allowed to clip into some pedals again…”, he explained, taking a look to the left and out of the window, the view only showing a singular high-rise building off to the corner and a bright blue sky broken up by the occasional cloud everywhere else. As Takaraya explained that he wouldn’t be able to do what he loved anymore, Valentin also got a bit bummed out.

“Sorry to hear that… Really, i’m very obviously speaking from experience here. The difference between my accident and yours is known…”, Valentin commented quietly, keeping his wording cryptic to avoid putting salt into Takaraya’s wounds.

Takaraya smiled. “You’ll be able to ride again one day, yes. Me, I ended up 15 kilograms too heavy after this,” he said, raising a titanium hand, “so fighters are no longer for me. I’m sure I’ll have other options if I choose to return after my recovery.”

Kayden smirked. “Well, Val, you just discovered one of Takaraya’s little quirks. He doesn’t let much ruin his mood.”

“You can either choose to live life in misery, or live life enjoying it. You only get the one chance,” Takaraya said.

“Hope you find that other option. And enjoying life isn’t exactly easy when you are glued to a hospital bed… You probably know that. In any case, i’ll have to sign off for now. Has been great talking to someone again for the first time in weeks.”. Valentin replies, patiently waiting for the other end to say their goodbyes as well before ALT-F4-ing the program, thus ending the call.

“We’ll see you all around, Valentin,” Malavera said.

“With any luck, we’ll figure out how to get some of these guys to use that app on their devices so they can get in touch with you if they want,” Kayden added.

“We’ll start with some of the ones less likely to screw it up,” Kaylie added.

“See ya, Valentin!” Kivenaal added.

Vuri ada ahd nevuri marin, viathien nevikhal,” Rukari said.

Malavera sighed. “Rukari just said, “Strong wind and calm seas, my brother not-of-my-blood.” Sorry, he hasn’t learned how few people speak Valraad.”

“Until we next speak, friend,” Takaraya added.

“I’ll see you around, Valentin. Maybe if Kaylie teaches me how to use this magic, I can talk with you about some bicycle upgrades,” Jayde said.

When Valentin ended the call, Malavera chuckled. “It was good to talk to him,” he said.

to be continued


May 18th, 2022, 09:40 AM GMT+2, Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Gothenburg, Sweden

After the first friend contact in weeks, Valentin woke up the next morning in a good mood. Breakfast consisted of little more than a few slices of bread with various toppings, followed by an attempt at completing a bathroom routine. Even with extensive help from hospital staff, he had to cut it short due to his lack of mobility, followed by a good 10 minutes of hooking him back up to the monitoring for research purposes.
Now stuck to his bed again, boredom was settling in quickly.

Good morning. Or good night for you all, i guess… We forgot to arrange as to when we could talk again. On my end, there’s little to do, so unless you manage to strike the mealtimes or the middle of the night, i can work around whenever you are available. I’d just like to have some headway before the actual video call to avoid me looking like i just woke up from a three week coma.
In either case, i hope we can talk sometime again.
– Val

May 18th, 2022, 12:40 AM, “The Lair,” Nevada

Malavera heard the ping and checked his gaming-oriented messaging program, seeing a new message from Valentin.

Quickly, he typed up a message in return.

Well, for me, it’s my evening, but fair enough. I’ll have to ask the others what day works best for them, but according to our schedules, well… May 21 or 22 would be good. It’s a weekend, and while we lose some business closing early on Saturday and being closed on Sunday, it does keep everyone feeling better in the long run. That said, what I’ll do for you is to give you a list of alternative contact information. This will let you get in contact with any of the others. Some of them come with light warnings because they’re not used to this technology, or might keep weird hours, but it’ll keep you from getting bored.
– Malavera

Attachment: Contact_Info.txt

Upon receiving the message, Valentin checked his calendar, mostly to see which day of the week May 21st and 22nd would fall into. After that he went back to typing up a response.

That weekend actually is a good call. Maybe i can get Norse on board as well, if you are okay with that. Are we talking at (roughly) the same time as yesterday? I don’t want to force you to get up stupid early because of this, nor can i goo deep into the evening. You know how well i can stretch my sleep cycle. :sweat_smile:
– Val

Malavera smiled as he heard another ping, quickly reading over Val’s message.

Yeah, we saw that first-hand, and how deeply you sleep when you crash. Yesterday’s time was good. It was a bit before lunch, but as long as you can put up with some of us eating, should be a good time again. As for Norse, sure. I’ll let the others know.

Alright, then. Talk to you all in a few days! :+1:
– Val

Now that he had a date to work with, he contacted Norse, also via this gaming-focused instant messenger. A bit of back and forth later, it became known that Norse had nothing much to do that weekend, allowing him to take part in the upcoming video call as well.

The remaining week cane and went, albeit rather slowly and with little contact to the outside world. Most of the time was used being as productive as he could be in turning his university project into reality.

May 21st, 2022, 07:00 PM GMT+2, Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Gothenburg, Sweden

With half an hour left and having just finished a tasty, albeit sparse, dinner he attempted to freshen himself up again, which very quickly devolved into two nurses entering the room to help him do it. An arduous trip to the bathroom and extensive effort has Valentin look neat for once, even if he still needed some corrective shaving and haircut. Back in bed, he waited for the other end to join the call.

“I’m expecting a video-chat call from US-based friends soon. Mind if i turn the camera on already?”, Valentin asked, while the two nurses wheeled the monitoring equipment around the foot end to the other side.
“I’m okay with that.”, one of them said, followed by the other nodding.
Valentin then turned the camera on as announced and waited for the crew over in Nevada and Norse to join.

May 21st, 2022, 10:21 AM, “The Lair”, Nevada, The Breakroom

Malavera was standing on a ladder, holding a high-resolution camera in one hand and a bunch of hardware in his other hand. He’d already routed the cable across the ceiling, attached it to the arm that would allow the camera to be easily raised and lowered out of the way, making this a vast improvement over the overgrown security camera they used last time.

A few minutes into his fight with the camera mount, he heard the sound of someone joining a video call. Knowing there was only one person who had permission to do that, Malavera smiled. “Thought I’d have a little bit more time to finish this, Val,” Malavera said, before continuing to tighten up the bolts holding the camera to the support rig. “One moment while I finish this up, then I’ll have to get the screen turned on and warmed up, and let the others know you’re here.”

It didn’t take Malavera real long to finish securing the new camera, or to warm up the monitor, but, sure enough, it was long enough to make it 10:27 AM.

With a few minutes to go before their scheduled 10:30 AM video call, Kaylie and Kayden wandered downstairs, not quite having a full argument, but certainly carrying a mild disagreement into the room.

“I said I was sorry,” Kayden said.

“Yeah, and I don’t think you’re sorry enough yet,” Kaylie quipped back. “Seriously, you ate all of the ice cream in the freezer.”

“I did not! I had the caramel one and half of the vanilla.”

“Right. Who else would have eaten all of it, then? We know it sure as shit wasn’t Takaraya. Last time he tried ice cream, he had brain freeze for five minutes and decided it wasn’t worth it.”

“Could have been Kivenaal. Could have been Jayde.”

“Don’t you blame Jayde for what you did, Kayden,” Kaylie said.

Malavera chuckled. “Kaylie, I’ve seen Jayde demolish entire cartons of strawberry ice cream before. It’s not unreasonable that it might have been him.”

Right around 10:30, Kivenaal announced himself with the heavy thud of his work boots coming down the stairs, dressed in jeans and his work boots, and one well-worn sleeveless t-shirt that looked like it had gone through hell. What had once been blue was bleach-stained white in places, and it was clear he’d just “modified” a t-shirt by hacking the sleeves off of it and opening up the arm holes to fit both sets of arms through it. A few seconds later, Jayde arrived with a clink on every left step, and once he’d gotten into the room and in view of the camera, it was obvious he was barefoot and wearing shorts.

Takaraya was a little late at 10:32, clearly in a hurry as they could hear him running across the floor above, followed by the heavy thuds of his feet going down the stairs three at a time. “Sorry for being late. Took advantage of the cooler-than-usual weather here and went for a longer run than usual,” Takaraya said apologetically.

Then the waiting game started before Rukari finally showed up at 10:40 AM.

“Hey, you do know “fashionably late” only applies to fancy formal events, right?” Kaylie quipped. Rukari groaned.

“Ran with Takaraya, not able to keep up. Not doing another 15 mile run,” Rukari said, slumping onto a couch, still breathing heavily.

“Seems like some of them are already there…”, Valentin said as he joined the call, only hearing some vague rumbling from their end.
Not much happened until 10:27, when the two nurses present finished setting up the monitoring equipment. A number of beeps can be heard through the microphone as they started the respective devices.
“Alright, that’s working. Have a good evening, then.”, an almost child-like voice spoke as the two headed for the door.
“Thank you. You too.”, Valentin replied, just as Malavera enabled the camera.

On Valentin’s end, the waiting game was a little more intense, as he had very little in the way of keeping himself occupied in the meantime.

By 19:30 local time, Kaylie and Kayden were present arguing about who ate the ice cream from the fridge.
“You lucky lot with ice cream… This place has rather strict policies for diet, i’ve noticed.”, Valentin grumbled. Although the meals were generally of good quality, they failed to account for the added metabolism due to Valentin’s height, which wasn’t exactly helping matters in terms of recovering.
Kivenaal also entered the frame, followed a couple minutes after by Takaraya.

“I’m honestly amazed at how any of you can take up running and note completely obliterate your joints in the process. That said, cycling ain’t much better, it seems.”, Valentin chuckled.

Some time later, Rukari joined as well, the excuse being mighty impressive to Valentin:
“15 miles to boot? Damn you really are getting your cardio in. My knees start to go to shits after walking for an hour. And that’s like 5 miles, tops.”, he commented, obviously not angry at any of the late arrivals, seeing as Norse was still missing as well.

“We set aside a small budget for ice cream,” Malavera explained, “but Kaylie and Kayden tend to burn through it in a hurry. Jayde only gets a little at a time, but it’s usually gone in half an hour when he goes for it.”

Jayde shrugged. “I like strawberry ice cream. That said, the chocolate ice cream up there was really good.”

“Jayde! That was mine!” Kaylie said. “I just blamed Kayden for that!”

“Oops. Sorry,” Jayde said.

Kivenaal chuckled as Valentin pointed out some of them took up running. “Some of us don’t fit on bicycles, Val. I could manage… If I got a frame like Jayde’s. Rukari doesn’t have much of an interest, sadly. Takaraya has an interest, but I doubt there’s a manufacturer in the world who would think we’re serious if we sent his measurements in.”

Takaraya shrugged. “I ran in the Army, I ran in the Air Force. Makes sense to run during my mornings here, too.”

When Rukari joined in and Val mentioned they were getting their cardio in with that 15 mile run, Rukari added, “There is reason we call tuning shop “Twin Hearts Racing.” Not just because of myself and Kivenaal. Thrill of go-fast makes hearts race.”

Kivenaal looked over at Rukari, then said, “You need to learn to slow down again and speak more clearly. Your English is certainly decent, but you sound like you just learned it three months ago, not several years ago.”

Malavera chuckled, then said to Val, “Welcome to the usual chaos we have here. I’m just glad the new camera mount held up to Takaraya’s unintentional stress test when he ran across the floor above.”

“If you really are that keen on keeping your stuff yours, you gotta secure it well enough to deter the others.”, Valentin suggested, unsure on how well that would work given the situation over there.

Rukari mentioning the thrill of going fast had Valentin smile in response.
“I have no idea how fast you lot are running, though barreling down a hill on a bicycle doing speeds illegal for motorists on that stretch of road does get the adrenaline going. People just underestimate how fast a feeble bike can go most of the time…”, he said, using the healthy hand and arm as a means of visualizing the hill he was referencing.
“As for the English, it will do.”, he added in protection of Rukari from Kivenaal.

at that time, another account joined the chat, though without a camera.
“Hello? Norse here. Can you hear me?”, he asked.
“Yep. All good. Tin-can quality as usual.”, Valentin replied, in reference to the shitty microphone Norse was forced to use.
“Yeah you too… For the others in here. My laptop camera went bust and my internet can only support one feed at a time, so i won’t be able to see you 'Muricanskis. Also, sorry i’m late. Fucking piece-of-shit tire went flat again…”, Norse spoke in annoyance.
“You really need a new set… you’ve been having flats very frequently… Maybe the local bike co-op has some decent ones…”, Valentin commented.
“Yeah probably. Though it really is a lottery on how well those last.”, Norse replied, somewhat disheartened at how difficult it was to source new, quality tires.

“Last time I stole Jayde’s ice cream,” Kayden said, “my tongue itched for hours.”

“You deserved that,” Jayde replied. “I told you there’d be consequences for stealing my ice cream.”

“We’ve not tracked any of our speeds on foot, to be fair. Takaraya’s got the longest stride at a full run, but we’ve only seen him do that once. I think Kaylie’s the fastest outright, unless Takaraya’s slightly faster, but otherwise, we really don’t have any benchmarks on who’s faster than who,” Malavera said.

“My run was about 90 minutes long, almost 15 miles,” Takaraya replied. “But I wasn’t pushing myself.”

When Valentin came to his aid in speech, Rukari gave a polite nod. “I try to do better, but good to know is good enough for now.”

When Norse connected to the chat and introduced himself, Kaylie chuckled at Valentin’s response.

“No problem on the camera situation,” Malavera said.

“And no problem being late. You’re not the only one,” Kayden added.

Jayde grimaced at hearing that Norse was having a lot of flats. “Flat tires are not fun,” Jayde admitted. “Had to change one the other day and, well, while I’m glad the tools I have work well enough to do the job, and definitely glad Valentin showed me exactly how to do it, changing a tube on the side of a somewhat-busy highway was not an enjoyable experience. My legs did not thank me for all of that crouching and kneeling in the dirt I had to do.”

Kaylie nodded. “To be fair, you did change the tire like you’ve done it dozens of times, Jayde. Granted, I didn’t think about your limitations when I tried to make up the lost time afterward.”

“We’ll figure something out,” Jayde replied.

Kivenaal mentioned, “Might have to go to your hometown, Jayde, and get myself one of those bikes. I’ve done some basic research, I think I know what to look for, but… Yeah, can’t get what I need here easily.”

“For the record,” Kaylie said, “Jayde’s home-town has a cycling shop that caters to some… Rather tall folk.”

“Having a roadside flat is annoying for everyone involved. And they are basically guaranteed when you have 40-odd people bunched up with their bikes in all kinds of states.”, Valentin replied as Jayde told the story of his first true flat.
“At minimum, all the other wait for the stranded one to fix it, some people help as best they can. Though we generally cut the ride short instead of going faster. Otherwise the back end simply cannot keep up and ‘blows up’ on us, losing more speed.”, he added as if the accident never happened and he still was going on the local group rides.

“Can confirm. Just last week we had three flats, one of which was my rear tire… At some point it becomes a routine of sorts… Had a guy do it in four and a half minutes some time ago.”, Norse said.

“Yep. That guy really knew it. Best i managed was about nine. Though he also had a Co2 Cartridge to his advantage.”, Valentin replied, smiling as he mentally recalled the situation with all the participants in awe at how quickly he was ready.

“Huh. So Jayde’s 15-and-a-half minutes to fix a flat actually isn’t bad,” Kaylie said, now having a bit of context.

However, as Valentin mentioned “40-odd people bunched up,” Takaraya gave a grimacing wince. Realizing others may have heard that, he spoke up, “Sorry, just… I remember when we were on the phone that you guys were riding in a 40 person group, give or take a few, when the accident happened. I…” Takaraya sighed, then admitted it, “I flinched and that sent a twinge through some of my own scars that was less than pleasant.”

“If… Well…” Kaylie said, not quite sure of how to proceed considering she knew the subject could be considered painful for the others involved.

“Could we hear an account of the events?” Malavera asked.

“Mal, must you be so blunt about everything?” Kayden quipped.

“He’s trying,” Kivenaal replied. “You try 36 years isolated from people and see what that does to your social skills.”

“Okay that is blunt…”, Valentin admitted, thinking a bit on what he does remember about the accident and how it unfolded.

“I don’t remember much obviously, but here goes…
Usual riding with 40-odd people in double file. Basically a NASCAR grid but with bicycles. Going down some buttery-smooth, but narrow rural road out of town. I’m basically smack-dab in the middle of the road, laterally, that is, another guy next to me and the remaining group behind. Thing goes mildly downhill, so there’s a good nick of speed going and the people out back start shouting “CAAAAR”. Before that signal came all the way up front to me and the other leader, some large van-type-thing appears out of nowhere.
Next thing i know, it’s about a week later and i’m in hospital.”, Valentin explained without sounding too concerned about it.

“Sorry, Val. That’s Mal in a nutshell. You’d think Takaraya or Rukari would be the blunt ones considering their military service, but… Nope, it’s Mal,” Kayden said.

As Val recounted his side of events, the group listened, and Takaraya nodded.

“Lines up with what I expected,” Takaraya said. “You remember some of it, but not all of it. For you, a van. For me, an alarm. Then it’s just silence and pain, and you wake up in the hospital later on, after what seems like seconds but it’s been far, far longer than that.”

“They told me afterwards that i was under until May 4th because they had to do quite the number of surgeries to piece me back together… Took me a while to get to grips with where i was and all that…”, Valentin noted before it was Norse’s turn to recall his side of things.

"Imma just start where Val stopped and skip the prelude. So, i was halfway down the pack, with line of sight to Val as if he was directly ahead of me. Tall ass makes for a great beacon. Anyway, half the pack ahead, the other half behind. Same signal, which made it’s way up front about as quickly as that lunatic passed us. Fucker must’ve been doing triple-digit speeds or something. So, that downhill road was somewhat fenced in. To the left some bushes, hedges and such, to the right is a drainage ditch, then some trees. So, guy goes past us, already half of his rig off the road and trimming the bushes when some farm driveway comes up. Turns out, that driveway had a combine in it.

Suffice to say, the van ran head-first into into the combine coming out of that driveway, turns into a three ton Beyblade and… yeah… Collects the first few cyclists. I knew that Val was part of that row, because he had the navigational data and thus was meant to be up front anyways and it’s stupid hard to miss that lighthouse of a guy, especially when it suddenly is a pipeline instead.
Now i don’t know exactly how it unfolded afterwards, cuz i had to mash the brakes to not run into this mess myself, dodging into a bush instead. Though i do vaguely remember seeing bikes and people being flung about and at least six other people running into that pileup…

What started quickly ended quickly and turned into a big pile of people either unconscious or absolutely screaming in agony. Road wasn’t black anymore, millions of tiny carbon fiber shards strewn across the road, bent metals everywhere, broken bones, fucked joints, torn-up clothes, you name it…

Gotta say, providing first aid to like 20 injured people is impossible alone. Tried to get others to help, with mixed success… At least EMS arrived remarkably quickly, given that we were in bum-fuck-nowhere at the time… Shoutout to the farm workers. They did good.

So yeah there’s that. The accident report probably has the full rundown, once they finish that and reconstruct everything and all that."
Norse finally finished his narration, followed by an audible deep breath.

“Yep. Everything i had is now busted. Phone, jersey, bibs, the bike, all of it. Hopes are that i can get at least some of that stuff back for educational purposes…”, Valentin commented, also struggling somewhat to keep it together.

Takaraya gave a loud groan as he sat up on the couch he’d been laying sprawled across, one of his pant legs riding up a bit in the motion and showing a brief flash of titanium before gravity took over. “We apologize if speaking about this… accident… was particularly difficult. Even though my own was a bit over 7 months ago now, it’s still recent enough that… Reliving the experience would be difficult.”

Kaylie nodded softly. “That is one of the big reasons I don’t let Jayde ride without at least a camera on his bars. I know it won’t prevent an accident, but… At least we’d be able to find out who did it.”

“People who drive like that should be drowned,” Jayde said in a surprisingly ferocious tone of voice.

“Jayde, remember, we’re trying to be peaceful here,” Kayden replied. He looked to Val and added, “Jayde had a close call where a driver passed him, then immediately made a right turn in front of him. I don’t know how he stopped in time, but we had Mal look at the camera footage, he got a plate number, and I have no clue what he’s doing with it now.”

“There’s a good reason for that,” Malavera said. “It’s called “plausible deniability.” I just need a few more days and then karma might happen.”

“Mal, we’ve talked about this,” Kivenaal said. “You’re not going to, you know?”

“Kiva! No! He’ll live. Just might wish he was dead,” Malavera said.

Kaylie smirked and said to Val, “Last person who got on Malavera’s bad side ended up with so much junk-mail that it was actually somewhat funny.”

“I keep a catalog of the most difficult-to-unsubscribe-from junk-mail senders in the United States for a reason. Most of them just want a name and an address to prove interest, and then,” Malavera said with a grim smirk, “it’s just helping the economy. Post Office always needs jobs, after all, and delivering someone 40 pieces of mail daily is certainly a job.”

“If that guy stays behind the wheel then i don’t know is this world is worth saving, really…”, Norse remarked.

“Well the guilt question is rather obvious and has been settled already. I know that most of us are collectively suing the guy. We’ve got about 20 witnesses in favor, so i see some good chances of winning the case. We’ll have to wait until the investigation is concluded and the court ruling is published.
I genuinely hope that it actually takes a while, since i cannot exactly attend the hearing when i’m stuck here… And doing some vigilante-type karma-bullshit is just unnecessary asshattery…”, Valentin said, as someone is heard knocking on the door to his hospital room.

“Just a second. Yup!”, Valentin confirmed to whoever was at the door.
Said door opens and in comes one of the nurses from earlier.
:sweden: Hello Mr. Schrant. I’m just popping in to make sure everything is okay in here.”, she speaks, walking through the room to the windows.
:sweden: I’m fine. Well as fine as can be, given what happened…”, Valentin responded, following her around the room with his gaze.
:sweden: Oh! Then i’m sorry to bother you, have a good evening, then.”, she spoke, before hastily heading back out of the room again.

“Sorry about that… they really want that data and all that, it seems…”, Valentin said, now addressing the others in the call while taking a quick glance at the bedside monitor, showing what seemed like ordinary values.

“The lighthouse is now a giant lab rat, hehe”, Norse chuckled in response, which also had Valentin smile a little.

“To be fair, we only do the “karma-bullshit” because we’re surrounded by bad drivers,” Malavera replied. “If they didn’t cause an accident, then it’s claimed as them not breaking any laws, so nothing gets done about it. That said, when you nearly side-swipe the guy who’s lost a leg and then cut him off because you’re in a hurry to get your eight-dollar cup of coffee, a little misery makes sense. Especially because putting someone on a few dozen mailing lists is tame compared to some of the options we have.”

Jayde looked a bit sheepish for a moment, then said, “I warned everyone to leave that bowl of chili alone.”

Kaylie sighed. “Long story short, Val, Jayde put so many spices in that bowl of chili that Malavera here felt like he was breathing fire,” she said, slightly altering the truth because mentioning it wasn’t spices, but a curse, and that Malavera spent an hour actually breathing fire, would not go over well.

Takaraya chuckled. “That’s a Kivenaal-grade prank, Jayde. You’re better than that.”

“Excuse me?” Kivenaal said, looking at Takaraya before taking a swing at him with a pillow. Takaraya grabbed it and twisted his wrist, trying to get it out of Kiva’s two-handed grip, only for there to be a loud tearing sound.

“Hey! Can we go one week without destroying the pillows, please?” Kayden asked.

“Haven’t destroyed pillow in months,” Rukari said, laying his head back on the couch.

“Anyone want a soda?” Kaylie inquired.

Several people looked in her direction, and Kaylie smiled, both because she was going to be helpful… And because Rukari had spiked a pillow with his horns and now had one stuck to the back of his head.

“Looks like I’ll be grabbing seven of them, then,” Kaylie said, walking upstairs and opening the fridge.

Kayden pointed to Rukari, then said, “Well, you can reset your pillow tally.”

“What?” Rukari asked, before grabbing the pillow. “Skadu! Netevhisri su vo shka!” he swore, throwing the now trashed pillow over into the corner.

Malavera gave him a disapproving glare. “Right. I’m setting up a swear jar after that little outburst.”

Takaraya smiled as Norse quipped that Valentin, the “lighthouse” was a giant lab rat. “The same was true for me,” Takaraya said.

“He’s not joking,” Malavera added. “Thirteen-hundred pages of documentation on him alone. About 300 of which came from around his accident.”

The prank stories between Malavera and Jayde did not go over well with Valentin, which was patently obvious even without him actively saying anything on that matter.
Though the pillow-swing by Kivenaal had Valentin burst out in a single laugh, which ended as expected:
Valentin was now wincing in pain trying to catch his breath.

“Sounds like someone took a hit to the ribs.”, Norse remarked, somewhat jokingly.

The answer took it’s time to be materialized as Valentin had to recover from the stabbing pain on either side.
“Three broken on the right, almost every other more or less bruised…”, Valentin eventually sputtered out inbetween shallow breaths.

“In either case, has been pleasant, despite the lack of video and all. I’ll bounce for now and meet ya again some time!”, Norse said, logging off immediately afterwards, leaving the chat in relative silence, save for Valentin’s lungs drawing in air through clenched teeth.


Kaylie came back downstairs with bottles in her hands, only to see Val’s pained grimaces. “Oh, come on, guys! I’ve been gone for two minutes and you guys manage to get Val to look like someone hit him with a baseball bat!”

“I didn’t think my swing of a pillow could hit someone through the screen on the other side of the world,” Kivenaal quipped. “Also, sorry Val.”

Takaraya sighed. “Could we all please quit cracking jokes? Val is in a lot of pain, and I know some of what that’s like.”

Kaylie handed the bottles around, and soon after, it was obvious that everyone had their own way to remove the caps.

Kivenaal stuck a thumb claw up against the bottom of the cap and pushed it up, the cap flying up for a moment before he caught it with one of his other hands.

Jayde used the sturdy metal of his left knee joint to pop the cap free, then took a sip of the sweet, fizzy liquid.

Kaylie used the claws of her left hand to pry the cap loose.

Takaraya twisted the non-twist-off cap off of his bottle, which almost looked comically small in his hands.

Rukari fumbled around in his pockets for a few seconds before removing a multi-tool and taking the cap off almost properly in comparison to the others.

Kayden got a disapproving look from Kaylie as he used the oak top of the coffee table to knock the cap free.

Malavera grabbed a proper bottle opener out of his pocket instead, popping the top free with ease.

With all of their bottles opened, it became a bit more obvious as to who had more experience with soda, as Jayde took a long, deep swig of it, looked uncomfortable, and a split second later, unleashed a window-rattling belch that, thankfully, Malavera had seen coming and had muted. As the microphone came back on, Kivenaal was the first to make his displeasure heard.

“Damn it, Jayde, my ears are ringing!” Kivenaal half-shouted, shaking his head.

With everyone present in the process of cracking open a cold one, Valentin also wanted in on that. With the healthy arm, he reached out of frame, procuring a cycling specific sports bottle filled with tap water.
Being one of the few items that wasn’t totaled in the accident, said bottle is missing most of the branding due to abrasion, making it look like a generic transparent bottle instead.
Still, Valentin took a good chug out of it, with a drop or two being spilled on release.

“Goddamnit… the cap seal on these is bullshit!”, he bellowed out in anger as the bottle went out of frame again, his upper chest and blanket now not 100% dry anymore.

Despite the microphone being muted by Malavera, the belch was very obviously seen, gathering an impressed, but disapproving shaking of his head from Valentin.
“Not necessary, but oh well…”, he mumbles while rolling his eyes.

“Sorry! I’ve never had something with bubbles in it before,” Jayde said.

Kayden grimaced. “Yeah, we had a learning experience with fizzy drinks a while back, Jayde. Drink them slowly or you’ll deafen everyone in the room.”

When Valentin mentioned the cap seal on the cycling bottle was bullshit, Kaylie chuckled. “I’ve never seen one that is good, to be honest. Every single one ends up making a mess.”

“Seriously,” Kayden added, “some of our rides look like a family edition of a wet t-shirt contest. Kaylie and I have a bit of difficulty with our water bottles at the best of times. I have no idea how Jayde manages not to spill with his damn canteen.”

After a moment, Jayde asked, “Is there much of anything I can do to make my bicycle a bit faster? Sometimes, I have a difficult time keeping up with Kaylie on our trips.”

“What are you doing to those bottles if you have 50% or more leaking!?”, Valentin inquired, as the problem was way less prominent for him while still being incredibly annoying.

“In terms of speed, you either need more power or less resistance. Which means, training in case of the former or cutting down on drag for the latter. Running a wardrobe head-first into the wind hardly is aerodynamically efficient. Speaking from experience here.”, Valentin explained once Jayde inquired about getting faster on the bike.

“Not exactly sure,” Kayden said. “I know Kaylie’s squished one once.”

Kaylie chuckled. “Maybe we’re overtightening the caps.”

When the topic switched to going faster, Jayde nodded. “I’ve been trying to train, and tried to cut some drag with tighter clothing, but…”

“Honestly, I think Jayde’s run out of gearing. Low gear is good enough for him to maintain on hills, but he’s topping out at 15 miles per hour pedaling about as fast as he can. I rigged his bike up with an old bit of kit from my supplies, found out he’s pretty much at his limit with a 90 RPM cadence,” Kaylie said.

“Frontal area also is a component, which is not really fixable unless you get a new bike… Though running out of gears is a new one… Well the quick and easy method would be to get a new rear sprocket with fewer teeth. This will lengthen all the gears he has, similar to the diff in a car, so you’re giving up some torque at the low end.”, Valentin explained after having given it some thought.

“The nuclear option would be a new drivetrain altogether, though it will be substantially more pricey. Also, i know that your bike may not follow established standards here, so sourcing suitable parts to begin with might be hard…”, he admitted soon after, knowing that even on earth, careful consideration has to be made to ensure compatibility of parts between each other and the frame itself.

Jayde nodded, somewhat understanding. “There’s one hill that could be difficult with a gearing change, but we could try that,” Jayde admitted.

“Providing we can find the right gear to make that ancient three-speed hub actually functional. We could be doing a lot of part swapping to find the right gear, and it’s possible you might need to carry a couple of spare sprockets to switch between riding hills or riding flats,” Kaylie mentioned.

“What would be this “nuclear option” you’ve mentioned?” Jayde inquired. “Just in case the gears don’t work out.”

“As said, the nuclear option is what in automotive terms would be a full drivetrain swap. You’d be getting an entirely new gearbox hub, shifter and all the stuff that comes with it. The problem is, we don’t know if a commercially available hub will fit that frame of yours… After all, there’s a whole host of international standards to adhere to, else have proprietary components which customers generally don’t like.
Also, unless you mount a chain tensioner, going further than about two teeth will mess with your chain tension, creating more issues than it solves. Though it wouldn’t be entirely impossible to just train for torque and adapt to the longer gearing either. People have wildly varying preferences in terms of cadence and some of them like grinding it up hills at like 45RPM.”, Valentin replied, freeing his eyes from a stray bit of hair that has wandered into his field of view.

“So, basically, we try a few different sprockets first, if that doesn’t provide the results needed, we’ll have to try something more radical,” Kaylie said.

“Ah, the troubles of a non-standard setup,” Kayden added. “Custom frames are fun.”

Jayde, however was thinking over how best to resolve the issue. “How difficult would it be to make modifications to the frame to fit new parts?” he asked.

“The troubles of a non-earthen setup. The bike i had until three weeks ago only had non-standard lengths for all the tubes that make up the frame. Everything else was made to various ISO standards, making it really trivial to change things if needed.”, Valentin corrected when Kayden spoke about the non-standard setup.
Jayde’s inquiry about how difficult the frame modifications would be had Valentin worried.
“Truth be told, that thing is going to a professional frame builder if that’s the case. And at that point you miiiight want to N+1 the thing and get a second, speed-focused bike.”, he explained.

Kaylie and Kayden winced as they heard the comment that they might want to get a different bike for Jayde. “That’s… I suppose it’s possible but it was almost impossible to find a frame-builder who could make one for Kayden,” Kaylie admitted.

“I’ve been looking into custom frames for some of the others here, most seem to see the measurements and tell us to quit screwing around,” Malavera said. “I’ve been tempted to have the lot of us turn up at one of their shops sometime, but I’m not sure that’s exactly worth it.”

Valentin did a “quick” google search confirming his thought, which still took a few minutes, courtesy of only having one useable hand.

“The tallest human currently alive is 8 foot 3 inches. And there’s no chance in hell he’s gonna hop onto a bike with how limited his walking already is, so no wonder that frame builders there aren’t taking those values as-is. Even at my height, it was so hard to find a bike that i had it imported from your half of the sea, simply because there’s so few companies making series-production bikes for 7 footers.”, Valentin commented.

“And considering Jayde’s 8 foot, 5 inches, Kivenaal is 8 foot 6, and Malavera is 7 foot 11 inches-”

“8 feet!” Malavera said, interrupting Kaylie.

“To the top of your ears. We don’t measure that way,” Kaylie shot back. She turned to face Val again, then continued with, “there’s three people who need specialized frames that, well… No one is willing to make here on Earth.”

Jayde raised an eyebrow, then put a thought out there. “Who says we’d have to make it here on Earth?”

“You’ve got one problematic bike from Crugandr with no upgrade path, now you want to get a few more?” Kayden asked.

“No, Jayde does have a point,” Kivenaal said. “There are ways to get our hands on a better quality bicycle. Just… Takes a bit of extra effort is all.”

Jayde read between the lines, nodding. “That is true. A trip back through the Rift wouldn’t be that difficult, we’ve done it before.”

“And how do you two plan to get those to be Earth-compatible?” Malavera asked.

“Get a list of the most common standards, get frames built there to those standards,” Kivenaal replied.

“Would that even work?” Kaylie asked. “I’m starting to think showing up in person to a reputable frame shop would do the job better.”

“I can tell you that i had to work around what the steamworks people were capable of making when i had Robert the first converted to steam… It wasn’t pleasant and ended in a by todays standards very crude construction of everything. Apart from that, i cannot help you with procuring those frames and all that. Local parts and components i can help you with, but frames are your problem to solve.”, Valentin mentioned.

“That said, the biggest hurdle to speed is and always will be aerodynamics and rider efficiency.”, he added, raising a finger to mark the importance of that point.

“Well, improving Jayde’s aerodynamics means a new frame, because trying to get him into skin-tight riding gear isn’t easy, and gets very expensive fast,” Kaylie admitted. “Getting into skin-tight gear is difficult, getting out of it is way worse,” she added.

“How could I improve my efficiency?” Jayde inquired.

Val thought a bit, then let out a mild sigh.
“Probably poor wording on my part. One option is to train for higher cadences by trying to get your pedaling as smooth as possible. Smooth is fast, after all… The other is to get the bike adjusted as accurately as possible, which is free power if done right. In absolute terms, you want more power going through your legs if you cannot cut down on drag, otherwise you won’t be going any faster, obviously.”, he then corrected himself.

Jayde nodded. “So part of it is trying to figure out how to pedal faster, then. We’ve already gotten the bike adjusted as much as we can,” he said.

Kayden looked over at Valentin, then asked, “Probably seems like a stupid question right now, but… Considering you’re the first human with them, how are you handling the nanites? Not making you too hungry or wearing you out?”

“The nanites? I completely forgot about them, to be honest. It’s not like they do anything immediately noticeable at times…”, Valentin said, smiling sheepishly.
“Though that’s also about the extent of what i can say. It seems like they aren’t doing all that much in the grand scheme of things. I don’t feel any difference to before, as far as i can tell…”, he added, insecure about the effectiveness of them, even though it was proven already a month prior.

Kayden gave it a thought, then checked over his notes. “Well, you are in Normal mode, and you’re the first human with them, so we don’t know how effective they can be. This is a hell of a stress test for them, to be honest.”

Kaylie chuckled. “To be fair, from my experiences, Normal mode doesn’t do a whole lot. They’re meant to be relatively non-intrusive, not causing trouble in someone’s day-to-day life. But they’re not particularly great for rapid healing.”

Nova materialized into the room, then said, “In theory, we could give you some control over them. We’d have to, obviously, figure out a way to disguise an AI unit for you, but… There are options for that. My Class 3 chassis looks like a smartphone. I know a Class 1 is powerful enough to control nanites with some overhead to spare. If we keep things simple enough, just wireless radios and an emulation layer, it’s possible we could fit all of that into a chassis the size of a smart watch. The emulation layer is there for the purpose of looking and functioning like a smart watch.”

“Sure sounds interesting.”, Valentin commented, followed by a wave of silence as he thought about it a little more.
“Though the last time my body did the great restructuring i grew seven inches in a year. For three years straight. It was painful… Since then i’ve been the ‘massive lighthouse’ everyone sees me as.”, he added, complete with one-handed finger quotes.

“Also. What would that ‘control’ even look like? Except it being visually based on a watch of sorts…”, Valentin then inquired.

“As in the interface?” Nova asked. She looked over at Kayden, who pulled the handheld device out of his pocket and unlocked it with his code, then turned it to face the camera.

“You won’t be able to read it yet, but… There, now you should be able to,” Nova said, running translations on all of the icons.

There, in front of the camera for Val to see, was both the small, watch-sized interface area that allowed him to select modes, as well as the main interface currently showing some of Kayden’s live-tracked vitals for heartbeat and rhythm, blood pressure, oxygen concentration, and current blood toxicity.

“The part that looks…” Nova said, pausing for the briefest of moments to come up with a decent answer Val would know, “like a directional pad on a game controller, with the four icons, that would be a sub-menu in your watch. Kayden has Normal, Adaptive, Combat, and Emergency modes. You would have access to… Normal, Enhanced, and Adaptive. Enhanced is like Normal mode, plus about 10 to 25% depending on how far you ramp things up. That could be configured by you on the go. The more assistance, the more fuel you need. Adaptive mode is… As you’re using your body, the nanites try to help out more. Delivering oxygenated blood to the muscles that need it, carrying waste products away faster to be processed, that sort of thing. Combined with a minor boost to heart rate and breathing rate, it’d give you a little more performance in the moment, but you’d actually need to pay attention and eat more when in that mode. No getting away with light meals in Adaptive.”

Kaylie grabbed her wrist watch and turned it on, then flipped over to the screen, showing Val pretty much what Nova had described, though she only had one mode available, and as a result, had a pair of numbers displaying heart rate and oxygen saturation. “I don’t have further unlocked modes in mine. Basically, Kayden gave you a civilian kit, so… You have access to all the modes a civilian would get. I got my nanites courtesy of a blood transfusion from him after my accident. I’m not supposed to have soldier-grade nanites, so I don’t get access to the other modes.”

Valentin listened to Nova explaining it all and intently looked at Kayden’s variant of the interface, though had obvious difficulties understanding it all.

“Uhm… maybe we should postpone this until i am out of hospital. I feel like i am already being underfed and shoveling more coal into the firebox ain’t gonna fix that…”, Valentin muttered, nervously looking at the group in Nevada through the video feed.
“Like i think i get what these modes would so. Sorta, at least. But i don’t fancy testing that while still in hospital…”, he added.

“Not a problem. We were just letting you know it is an option in the future,” Nova said, vanishing into thin air.

Kaylie chuckled. “Yeah, I remember waking up with nanites, and not being as lucky as you. Kayden was running in Adaptive when he saved my life, so I woke up in that mode, downright starving and with a left arm I could barely control. Had to get paired up with an AI to turn that shit off so I could get some rest,” she admitted.

“To be fair,” Malavera said, “Adaptive mode is not that bad. Just not great when you’ve had a lot of blood loss and no food for several days.”

“We’ll go over it with you at some point later on, when you’re not stuck in a bed eating hospital food,” Kayden said. “However, we could prototype something for you if you’d like. Basically, if you’ve got any specific requests, we could see if that would be possible.”

“I’ll keep that in mind and tell you if i can come up with anything useful, though i gotta stay in the present for now, with that lawsuit, getting out of bed eventually and all that… And the hospital food over here isn’t half-bad, actually. Just that they tend to serve too little of it for anyone taller or heavier than average…”, Valentin replied, half-jokingly.

“If there isn’t anything else to discuss, i would probably jump ship soon for the time being. Don’t wanna hold you up at whatever work it is you’re doing right now.”, he added, reaching over for his bottle to take a sip, only to realize it being empty.

“Other than Rukari’s 6x6 Highwayman project and stopping someone from using a perfectly good police cruiser as a target,” Kaylie said, “we don’t have much to do here.”

“Hey, it’s been sitting there for what, two years, and hasn’t been driven, tuned up, or raced in all that time. So I take six shots at it and you yell at me for it,” Kivenaal grumbled. “I didn’t even know if it ran.”

“To be fair, Val probably needs some rest,” Takaraya said. “I know when I was in a bed like that, all I wanted to do was either eat, sleep, or talk to someone, and usually, I wanted sleep more than the rest.”

“Sleep is hard if both ankles are FUBAR’d and dangling off the foot end of your bed because you don’t fit even with extensions on either end… Anyway, talk to you sometime, have a nice weekend!”, Valentin said before turning the camera off and leaving the voice-chat.

With Val having signed off, the rest of the group wandered upstairs, going back to working on the 6x6 Highwayman, followed by a bit of browsing around for ideas on what to do with their Grand Warden.

1 Like

July 2nd, 2022, 07:20 PM GMT+2, a small studio apartment; Gothenburg; Sweden

It was a very special meetup with the crew over in Nevada this time around. Gone was the latent smell of “dentist”, gone was the endless sea of blindingly white everything, from floors to walls to ceiling. Gone was the needlessly strict daily routine imposed by third parties. Gone was the undersized bed and lackluster portion sizes. Now back home in very humble accommodation, Valentin eagerly awaited the arrival of the furballs of chaos.
Having enabled the camera already, a very unusual picture presented itself. Instead of being half-laid down in a hospital bed, Valentin now was sitting fully upright in an office chair in front of his beefy desktop rig. Behind him, not much could be seen, except for a black-and-white silhouette painting of a train and the chair he was sat in. Still, it was obvious that Valentin was in a good mood and eager to talk.

July 2nd, 2022, 10:20 AM, “The Lair”, Nevada, the Breakroom

Malavera heard the notification and made his way downstairs in a hurry. “Hunter, screen on,” he called out.

“I cannot do that. I have no connection,” A flat, monotone voice called out.

Malavera sighed, striding over to the projector and hitting the power button to start it up. He turned on the video feed as well, just as the rest of the crew started making their way downstairs.

This time, Jayde was the first to walk in front of the camera, holding a bowl of furiously-pink ice cream in his hand as he sat down in one of the recliners.

It took a few more minutes before Kaylie, Kayden, and Kivenaal found their ways downstairs as well. “Rukari and Takaraya might be a bit late. They’re finishing up their run,” Kayden said.

“I don’t know how the two of them can do that in this heat,” Kaylie said in a miserable tone of voice.

Rukari’s boots could be heard crossing the floor upstairs before he filled a tall glass of water and carried it downstairs. “Sorry I’m late,” Rukari said, grimacing. “Is very hot. Not good with fur out there.”

“How far behind is Takaraya?” Kayden asked.

“I run five miles. Not know different path Takaraya take,” Rukari replied.

Kaylie sighed and called Takaraya’s phone. When he answered right away, she was less worried. “Hey, Val’s on screen, big guy. Where are you?” Kaylie asked.

“About 5 miles out. Stopped to get an ice cream,” Takaraya replied.

“Wait… That’s 10 miles away from here,” Jayde said. “I know because I ride to that place on occasion.”

“Malavera, can you track his position?” Kayden asked.

“He’s moving toward us at… Quite a rate of speed,” Malavera replied. “Only one I’ve seen faster is Kaylie, and only at a full sprint.”

Valentin simply watched the various members find their way to the break room as usual, not wanting to barge into their talks as it wasn’t half past the hour yet. Well, that it until it was half past the hour and two people were missing.

“Late arrivals once again, huh?”, Valentin commented as Kayden announced Rukari and Takaraya being late due to them finishing up their run.
“Cannot blame them. Gotta stay in shape, after all…”

Not long after, Rukari entered.
“Well hello there.”, Valentin said, waving his left hand into the camera to greet him.
“Got your daily miles in, i see?”, he added, trying to get some casual conversation going.

The following conversation was noted, though largely ignored as it seemed to be none of Valentin’s business.

“Is good to run at least five miles per day,” Rukari said.

Kayden chuckled. “Yeah, a month ago you were doing 10 miles.”

“A month ago, was not triple digit outside.”

“Fair enough,” Kayden replied.

Jayde smirked, picking up a large scoop of ice cream from his bowl and proceeding to lick it off of the spoon. “Only good thing about this heat is that it’s not unreasonable to eat this much ice cream.”

“He’s on his second bowl today,” Malavera said. “Our monthly bill for strawberry ice cream is… Not a laughing matter.”

“Oh, Mal, mind sending Val the video from my camera?” Jayde asked. “I dropped it into the shared-files folder earlier.”

Malavera checked, then grimaced. “Which video? You dropped the entire contents of the camera’s memory into here.”

“Oh. There was more than one video in that?”

Malavera sighed. “Right. Sending Val the most recent one. Not the five others you’ve still got stored in there.”

Valentin did a quick search converting ‘triple digit’ temperatures to metric, which yielded eye-watering results.
“Yikes! 38 degrees is far from what i’d call comfortable… Temperatures are more modest here in Sweden. At least i can heat past a frigid 18 degrees now if the nights are that cold.”, Valentin replied, just before the ice cream topic came up.

“Two bowls?”, Valentin blurted out, staring at the camera in front of him trying to comprehend the massive consumption they were having. He remained in this state until Malavera said something about sending him a recording of something.

“Wait. You’re sending me something? What are you sending me? Do i need to look at it now?”, he inquired in confusion as his mind played catch-up to with the current situation.

“Jayde did a ride recently where he recorded his usual route,” Kaylie said to Val. “You don’t have to open it right away.”

“Believe me,” Kayden said, “Jayde would eat more than that if we let him. He’s been put on a limit of two per day, no more. Otherwise he’ll make himself sick again.”

“Yeah, and we discovered Kayden’s allergic to strawberries, too,” Kaylie replied.

Malavera chuckled. “This weather’s hell. Ice cream has helped for some of us. Pool helped for a few others, but… One of us can’t swim. Takaraya knows how but he just can’t do it.”

The thunder of boots from upstairs announced the arrival of someone heavy, right around the time that Kivenaal spotted something.

“Did they change your hospital room?” Kivenaal asked.

“Looks like an office. Or a small apartment,” Malavera replied.

Takaraya’s heavy footsteps rang out on his way down the stairs, showing up shirtless with shorts and sandals on, carrying a tank top that he pulled on before crossing the path of the camera. “Hate wearing this much in the heat,” Takaraya said, sitting down on the couch with a slight crunch as the wooden frame protested at his weight. He looked up at the screen, then said, “I like the locomotive, by the way, Valentin. It’s a nice picture.”

“Chugging through both of them before noon probably warrants the limitation. Though allergies must suck big time…”, Valentin chuckled, now having far less of a problem with laughing, although it was evident that the pain wasn’t totally gone yet.

He wanted to say something about the room he was in, but was prevented by Takaraya entering the room, complaining about the heat and complimenting the picture behind Valentin.

“I mean you chose to do that run outside of the climate-controlled everything you seem to have over there in the US. As for the picture, thanks, i guess. And yes, they kind of did change my ‘hospital room’… by sending me home. Got released two days prior to now, but this is where the true ‘fun’ starts…”, Valentin said, his facial expression turning from reasonably energetic to annoyed halfway through.

“This guy broke the treadmill,” Kayden said when Val mentioned Takaraya chose to do that run out in the heat.

Takaraya shook his head and sighed. “I didn’t know I was too heavy for it,” he admitted. “I do a daily run, minimum of 10 miles, to maintain what is left of my natural body. Even despite legs and arms being mechanical, I still have muscles that need to move and be worked.”

Kivenaal smiled as he realized that Val was actually home. “Well, if you ever need help with anything, let us know. Or if you just need to vent. I’m a good listener,” Kivenaal said, giving a light smile.

“Well i cannot stop you, so have fun, i guess…”, Valentin muttered as Takaraya explained his reasoning for being out and about in that kind of weather.
Kivenaal’s offer and subsequent smile made Valentin smile as well.

“If you spend two months occasionally being dragged from bed to bathroom and back to bed again, you lose a lot of the strength and conditioning you had before being de-facto bedridden. Now that i am out and at least able to safely get myself places, i am probably gonna be bouncing between in-practice therapy, at home therapy, various rehab programs and all that jazz to rebuild what i lost.”, Valentin then explained, still somewhat bummed out but also hopeful that one time he’d be out riding with Norse and the other buddies again.

“That, I do understand,” Takaraya said. “Kayden’s trying to find ways to continue my progress in recovery, even if some of the things I have to do are less than pleasant.”

Kayden sighed. “I told you, Takaraya, the rowing machine works all the muscles you have left.”

Takaraya grimaced. “Yes, and it leaves me sore for the rest of the day.”

Kivenaal chuckled. “Either you’re over-doing it, or you’re actually building muscle. A little sore, or “Someone tried to rip me in half” sore?”

“In between the two,” Takaraya admitted.

Kayden nodded. “We’ll back off just a little for now, let your body recover a bit, then. You have to speak up when you’re sore, otherwise I’m just going to tell you to keep going.”

Before Valentin could reply, an absolutely obnoxious door bell sound could be heard.

“Excuse me for a minute, gotta get the door.”, Valentin said, before slowly getting up and leaving the frame. He went over to the door and returned a couple of minutes later, armed with a carpet cutter knife.

“Neighbor apparently got postage for me. Don’t remember ordering anything, but let me check what’s in there real quick.”, Valentin then mumbled before going at it with the knife. The contents of that box evidently surprised him as he pulled out a small stack of paper, which he took a rather intense look at.
Soon after, he sets the paper aside and starts digging further into the box, rummaging through it and eventually pulling out what one must have been a phone.
Said ‘phone’ is then held up into the camera’s view for the others to see.

“Well… that’s my phone… was, rather…”, he said before placing the phone onto the desk in front of him.

“That looks about as bad as the one I drove over a week ago,” Kaylie admitted. “Forgot my phone on the trunk lid, backed one of our project cars up, had to stop because I almost drove into Kivenaal, and then backed over the phone. Screen’s shattered, frame’s bent.”

“To be fair, though, Kaylie manages to trash about a phone every other year,” Kayden admitted. “She breaks screens like no one else. It’s why Takaraya’s not allowed to use most of our devices, because he’s got the same kind of high-strength mechanical limbs, and Kaylie already trashes equipment.”

“In his defense,” Malavera said, “he hasn’t broken anything yet. Well, unless you count ripping the whole faceplate off of the microwave because no one told him how to open the door on it.”

“I mean i probably slid across it for a good 30 meters, with it having been in my Jersey pocket like always… anyway i’m not gonna bother you with all of my torn-up and broken belongings unless you want to see the remains of it for some reason. At least i can use that as educational material in the future.”, Valentin said, before returning to the stack of paper. Taking another flip through, a discovery is made.

“Huh. They thought putting the preliminary accident record into that box was a good idea instead of just mailing it to me… Which is ironic since the actual report got to me faster.”, Valentin remarked before leaning out of frame to procure another small stack of paper, neatly tucked into a small, green folder.

“Well, chances are they figured you’d receive the remains of your crash and the preliminary report early, or at least someone who knew you would, but weren’t accounting for several months of hospital time,” Malavera said.

“Is typical bureaucracy. Put report with shipment, then wonder where report is when shipment is late,” Rukari added.

Kivenaal smiled. “About the only thing I’m curious about is the carbon fiber bit sticking out of the box there. Do be careful, I know it’s potentially sharp. What was it?”

“I specifically requested for the stuff to be returned, mostly in hopes of saving the data on the phone. Did not expect them to ship everything that could be pinpointed to me.”, Valentin explained, placing the paper onto his desk once more. Then, he carefully pulls out the carbon fiber as mentioned by Kivenaal, revealing that the piece in question once was the forks of his now-derelict bicycle. As previously done with the phone, the fork is held up into the camera by the steerer tube, the two legs to which the front wheel mounts being mostly missing.

“You know the bit that connects the front wheel to the rest of the bike? This is part of it. Hold on, the other bits probably are still in there…”, Valentin spoke, temporarily placing the steerer tube onto his lap and digging into the box again, pulling out the axle threads soon after, one of which still had the brake caliper attached to it.
“Yup. Here’s the other half, complete with brake caliper, apparently.”, he blurts out.

Once they had seen the three pieces of his forks, he nonchalantly tosses them back into the box, toppling it over in the process.


“Oh,” Kivenaal said, his purple eyes quickly studying the part as Valentin held it up. “What benefit does carbon fiber give in that situation? I know it’s a hideously expensive material to work with, even more so than titanium, and that stuff gets outrageous fast.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Takaraya grumbled, crossing his arms as he leaned back against the couch.

“I know it’s light,” Kaylie said. “Also fairly strong.”

When Val tossed the parts back into the box, tipping the container over as a result, Kayden smirked. “I’ve done that so many times. Toss one broken part, tip the parts bin in the process, have to do a big cleanup afterward.”

“Less mess than when Jayde tip chair over,” Rukari said as a counterpoint.

Jayde grimaced. “Yeah, learned the hard way to not tip my chair back. Hit my head, made a mess of my mane in the process.”

“Earned himself four stitches as a prize for playing that game, too,” Kayden added.

“It may be expensive, but it’s light, strong and can be made to behave exactly how you want it. Stiff in one direction and reasonably pliable in another, perfectly possible. They make entire bicycles out of Carbon Fiber. Any shape you can imagine without implications to stiffness or flexibility. Problem is… it’s not exactly impact resistant as you can see.”, Valentin explained, once again disappearing out of frame for a moment to both right the box again and also show the remainder of the bike frame, which looks largely intact at a glance.

“Neat, most of it stayed in the box.”

“Here’s the rest of the frame, made from Titanium. Still is a writeoff, as it very probably is not straight anymore. Also, Titatium is actually more expensive for bike frames here, since it very few people actually build titanium bikes to begin with.”, he continued, the frame resting on his thighs similarly to the fork a couple of minutes prior.

Kaylie smiled, then said, “That frame looks oddly familiar to me. I’d go bring my bike down here, but I’d never make the corner at the base of the stairs with it.”

Kayden nodded as Val mentioned that titanium was an unusual and expensive frame material. “Yeah, we know. I’ve had a custom-frame bike for a while now, steel frame because it was what the guy was comfortable working with. Got a few more coming for some of these guys, but we…”

“Kaylie made us show up in person,” Malavera said with a grimace.

“Got the point across, though,” Kaylie said. “When we left them our measurements and weights, they mentioned they’d try to source parts that would be compatible for our needs.”

“That was not an easy trip,” Jayde admitted. “Granted, I feel better knowing I’ll have a proper bike for both speed and distance, and it’ll be nice to not need to worry about whether the two-teeth smaller rear sprocket is the right fix or not for my bike.”

“Jayde raised a few eyebrows in the shop,” Kaylie said with a smirk.

“That’s because he spent half of his time asking what parts could be made in brass,” Kivenaal replied. “So he’s getting a good brass plating on his handlebars to satisfy his “I like brass” situation. I mean, I specifically requested on mine to use as little steel as possible, but I also admitted that “If you need to use steel, then use it.” I’m just… Concerned about structural integrity.”

“Steel has been used for more than a century and still is used today because it’s a good material. Yes, there’s better ones in some specific areas, but for small scale manufacturing on almost every scale, you cannot go that wrong with a steel bike.”, Valentin mentions once Kayden mentioned that his bicycle was made from steel. He places his own frame back on the ground away from view.

“Brass is useless as a structural material because it is too soft. There’s a reason why Neanderthals went from bronze to iron and then steel. And chances are that steel will make up the vast majority of your bike. Few frame builders know how to work Titanium or even Carbon Fiber and Aluminum is impractical to hand-fabricate. Also, most non-frame components are also steel.”, Valentin added, not really understanding the argument about structural integrity, despite being aware of their size and weight.

“Kivenaal does have a minor valid concern regarding steel, but considering we’re getting the frame powder-coated, it shouldn’t matter. As for Jayde, brass plating will give the right look while being steel underneath,” Kayden mentioned. “We had a discussion with the frame builder regarding some of our crew’s preferences and needs.”

“Wait, powder coating would solve the rust issue?” Kivenaal asked.

“Yeah, you get in a wreck bad enough to crack the coating and bleed on the frame, it’s a write-off anyway, Kiva,” Kaylie said. “And as for the rest, wear leather gloves if you’re concerned about getting your fingers pinched handling chains.”

“I think the most hilarious part,” Malavera added, “was the guy’s response to Kivenaal’s four arms and asking us what he needed for handlebars.”

“I cannot force you into anything here. Just drop some somewhat educated knowledge where i can. If you hit the deck hard enough, any frame is a write off. Just that the threshold for it becoming a write-off is lower for carbon fibre and aluminum than it is for steel. Not sure on titanium.” Valentin commented.

“Anyways, as previously established, i have both the preliminary and the final accident report here. Could also dig further in that box if you want.”, he added, looking around his flat a bit.

“Oh, we’ve got confirmations on materials already,” Malavera said. “Steel frames for all of us. Jayde gets some fancy brass plating here and there in decorative areas. Kivenaal gets a nice heavy black powder coat to protect the metal. Mine ends up with a nice white powder coat. The guy was swearing up a storm when he realized Takaraya was interested as well, mentioned it could be up to a year before he could get all the pieces together for him.”

“The frame is the easy part, apparently,” Kayden said. “He needs cargo-rated tubes, rims, and tires, a heavy-duty chain, sprockets, and derailleurs, seriously up-rated brakes, and some seriously sturdy pedals. Apparently, some of those parts are going to take some serious time to find.”

“Yeah, Malavera and I got “lucky” in that we fit under some limitations, even though we need the same wheels as Takaraya. We can use more conventional parts on the way. Though I did have the guy worried that I’d need custom handlebars to deal with multiple hands. I might get a custom set made in the future, but for now, as a typical flat-bar style, I’ll just have extra grips added on so I have a place to rest all of my hands,” Kivenaal added.

“Jayde really got the luckiest. Other than the “I’d like some parts to look like brass” request, his is really easy to work with. Everything is off-the-shelf,” Kaylie said.

Jayde, in that moment, was busy finishing his bowl of strawberry ice cream, looking amusingly cat-like as he licked his bowl clean. Kaylie giggled as she spotted a bit of alarmingly-pink ice cream on the top of Jayde’s nose, though didn’t say anything, watching instead as Jayde realized it was there, grabbed a paper towel out of his pocket, and cleaned it off.

Takaraya smiled as Val offered to dig into the box a bit more. “Only if you want to,” he said. “I know looking over the evidence after an accident can be an… unpleasant experience. Full of painful memories,” he added, reaching into his pocket and removing his wallet. He opened it up and slid a small, bent piece of jagged metal out of one of the credit card pockets. “A bit of my fighter. I’ve been told,” he said, showing the small piece of black metal with a hint of red paint on it, “that it was a piece of the cockpit. It’s one of the smaller pieces they were able to recover, but I carry it with me to remind me, going forward in life, of where I came from. I’ve been told this has a bit of red paint on it, from where my name and rank once were.”

“That makes sense. A frame can be uprated to take any weight you want. At some point you are effectively pedaling a motorcycle, but it works on a manufacturing level. The surrounding componentry is when you are at the mercy of whoever made them. For the handlebars, you could mount a second stem and handlebars on top or below the first one, assuming your steerer tube is long enough. I’ve seen people use the extra space to mount pressurized air horns and that kinda stuff.”, Valentin commented as Kayden ranted about needing heavy-duty and/ or custom everything on some of the bikes ordered.

Jayde’s ice-cream nose had Valentin chuckle a little, before his face turned serious again as Takaraya explained how he was carrying a bit of his fighter around as a trinket of sorts.
“Unpleasant it may be, but without facing the unpleasant, how can it become pleasant at some point? In other words, a fear not faced will stay a fear.”, Valentin said, somewhat blindly reaching back into the box and pulling out the first thing his large hands get to grasp.

Said thing turns out to be a paper bag at the bottom of the box, containing every single article of clothing he wore at the time of the accident. Surprisingly, an effort was made to neaten up the bundle of loose textiles before sending it to Valentin. He simply reaches in, pulling out two as-of-yet undetermined pieces of Lycra, one of which is immediately dropped back into the bag.
The other is then unfolded.

“It’s like anti-christmas, in a way. I consider it oddly interesting to see what remains of my stuff after the accident, though rummaging through a box full of objects that could very well have been the last things you ever have worn is unnerving to say the least…”, Valentin says, holding up the now-unfolded cycling jersey for the others. While the front was largely intact, apart from a broken zipper and the extensive blood-stains, the back revealed most of the garment to be missing, only being held together by the pocket seam and thin segments of fabric going across the back like a sea of bubbles. The shoulders and sleeves have seen similar, though slightly less extensive damage.
“Holy hell… I must have slid further than a curling piece goes in an entire game…”, he adds, awestruck at how much of a beating it took while still technically being wearable.

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“Fair enough,” Takaraya said, “and also wise words. A fear never faced can never be overcome. This,” he added, holding up the small piece of fighter before putting it away again, “is not the only thing I have from the aftermath of my accident, but it’s one of two things I keep with me. The other is a picture of me mere hours after my first surgery, where they dealt with my frostbite. It’s there to remind me that, no matter how much I dislike the extent that I was augmented, I would have had augmentations regardless. Hands and feet at the minimum. Was still… A bit of a mess at that time, though.”

“He’s not joking about that, by the way,” Kayden mentioned. “They got most of the blood out of his fur, but it was clear the focus was on trying to save his life. That, and in that picture of his, he was still wearing a purple headband.”

Malavera gave a deep wince. “I hadn’t realized he was that badly injured,” he said. “Medics on my home-world use a sequence of colors to indicate injury severity. White is “patch at the scene, no further treatment necessary.” Scratches, small cuts not requiring any medical treatment to close them. Green is “Minor intervention required.” Cuts that need stitches, some broken bones, most dislocations, mild concussions, things that require hospital attention but are not immediately life threatening. Yellow is “Immediate intervention required.” Most broken bones, deep cuts, any situation where without hospitalization, a life would be at risk. Red is “Without intervention, they will die.” Heavy blood loss, any open fractures, any situation where someone is unconscious. Purple is… Well. “Beyond Saving, but try if no one else is left.” Usually… They’re given medication for the pain so they can pass on in peace. But, in his case, he’s the last survivor in that situation, and so they focused on him. Once classified, your color doesn’t change, even after your situation improves, at least…”

“The color on the board changes,” Takaraya said, “but you wear your original color as a badge of honor. I’ve said it often, “I was at Death’s door, but without my hands, I couldn’t knock to be welcomed to the other side.” I still have that purple head-band, but… I don’t wear it unless I have a good reason.”

“Damn… i have no idea how they do it here in Sweden, but by your metric i must’ve been a red at some point at least.”, Valentin remarked, the latent discomfort of facing the immediate aftermath of the accident being noticeable.
“Hold on, maybe they tacked the initial medical writeup onto the report here…”, he added, before putting the jersey back into the bag and returning to the stack of paper in front of him.

Some flipping through it reveals it actually being present, albeit condensed onto a double-sided sheet of paper.
“Lo and behold, they did.”, Valentin said, skimming through it while his face read ‘what the fuck’ in increasingly larger font size.
“I may not have lost any limbs… but that van got me real good…”, he muttered soon afterwards.

“I lost limbs in the hospital, to be fair,” Takaraya admitted as Valentin mentioned that the van had gotten him quite severely. “I was still in one piece after the accident.”

“If Earth’s prosthetics were better, I’d have said you might have been better off without the mangled mess that was your knee,” Kayden said, “but while what is available is certainly better than a wooden peg for a leg, it does leave much to be desired.”

“Well, from what I’ve overheard, if my knowledge of the language doesn’t fail me here, Val now owns almost as much titanium as Kaylie has,” Kivenaal said. Kaylie’s response was to smack Kivenaal over the back of his head, followed by her giving a pained yowl.

“Fuck! Forgot that your horns curve down a bit more than Rukari’s do!” Kaylie yelled.

Kayden grabbed his sister’s arm and sighed. “Well, you’re going to look rather fashionable with a gauze bandage wrapped around that hand until you heal, Kaylie,” he said, grabbing the small med-kit he kept strapped to his hip and opening it up. He wrapped Kaylie’s right hand with it, sticking the loose end of the gauze down to the rest of it with a bit of medical tape, then let her go. “How about we try not slapping the shit out of the two Valraadii next time?”

Malavera chuckled, though pulled his reading glasses out of his pocket. “When you have time, Val, if you could scan that in and send it to me, I’ll have it translated and added to Kayden’s files. That way we know in the future about any potential issues as a result of this incident.”

Jayde looked over at Rukari, then asked, “I’m surprised you’re not wearing your glasses.”

“Not needed for this,” Rukari said.

Kayden looked over at Rukari and responded, “Yes, they are. You are far-sighted, and those glasses correct for that. And you’re not the only one here who wears glasses, Rukari.”

“Am only one needs for full time,” Rukari replied.

“No, I’m fairly sure others here,” Takaraya said, “wear glasses as a routine thing. Malavera and Jayde have reading glasses, yes, but I can see Val also is wearing glasses. There’s nothing wrong with wearing them.”

Rukari scowled, then pulled his purple-anodized aluminum-framed glasses out of their case and put them on. “Feels not right,” Rukari grumbled.

“Because you don’t wear them often enough to feel comfortable with them,” Kaylie said.

“I’d rather keep my actual knees. Yes, they cut up one to fix the other, but it beats, being the human equivalent of a Reliant Robin… or a Morgan Three-Wheeler, i guess… And I’m not sure about the titanium contents.”, Valentin said, skimming the report again.

“My right arm is full of bolts, plates and rods, but most of it is still actual skin, bone and… not much else. My left thigh also has some in it.”, he added, smiling at the far-fetched comparison to Kaylie’s fully mechanical arm.

Malavera’s request was met by a counterpoint:
“Is this sheet of paper enough for you or do you want the complete deal? EU law allows me to access any and all data they have tied to me. Also, i’m damn lucky to have the ordinary set of glasses here. The prescription cycling ones went into a million pieces on impact…”, Valentin explained, grimacing at the pending expenses to get it all replaced even if it wouldn’t strain him too hard financially.

When Valentin mentioned that his smashed knee certainly beat being the human equivalent of a three-wheeled car, Jayde crossed his arms and shook his head, while Takaraya simply shrugged. Kaylie, on the other hand, raised an eyebrow and said, “Given what your options were, natural is better,” giving the comment a light dismissive wave left-handed.

When Valentin tallied up his titanium content, Kaylie smirked. “You’d be surprised how little titanium is actually in this. Platings, the parts where it meets my body, but otherwise, there’s a lot of steel, fiber-optic cables, linear motors, the works. Granted, I probably still have more than you, but you’ve definitely got more than Jayde does.”

“Only because Jayde’s leg has a lot of steel for support and decorative brass for looks, and some walnut pieces in wear spots,” Kayden said.

Malavera was surprised by the counterpoint, then replied, “For my curiosity, the sheet of paper will be enough. But I know Kayden would much prefer the full batch of information.”

“See, Rukari, Valentin has glasses, even had a set for cycling,” Kivenaal said. “You are not the only one in this world who has to wear them.”

“Why am I only one in group needs glasses all time?” Rukari inquired.

“Well… Takaraya’s eyes are so sharp he can read the fine print on a legal document at 100 paces, Malavera’s preserving his eyes with reading glasses in his old age,” Kayden said, grinning as Malavera’s response was a light-hearted flash of bared teeth, “Jayde uses reading glasses because he’s done a lot of reading in his life and knows his eyes are going a bit bad. Then there’s Kaylie and me, who have nanites. Yes, Malavera does as well, but-”

“I’m minimizing the amount of damage they have to correct over time,” Malavera replied.

“And what about Kivenaal?” Rukari added.

“Kivenaal’s vision is excellent, Rukari,” Kayden replied. “We’re not entirely sure why.”

“So why my eyes are bad, his are good?”

“Could be your environment, or what you spent your life doing. Could be your diet. Could just be genetics. There’s a few thousand years between the two of you,” Kayden said, dancing around a bit of information he knew that, knowing what he knew about Kivenaal, would not be good to air right now.

“You actually have full-size spare wheels, so to speak. My choice is at best a space-saver tire, at worst a log tied to the axle which is the dragged along the road…”, Valentin called out in defense of his reasoning.

As the discussion about glasses continued, Valentin decided to try his hand at persuasion as well:
“I got mine during my mid teens as they discovered my wonky eyes and all that only then. Being a rebellious teen, for my standards at least, i had my hard times adjusting to them. Now they are a part of me like the titanium rod holding my left thigh together. For me, the cause turned out to be genetic. Something called Albinism, which also is the reason why i look like the abominable snowman most of the time…”, Valentin explained, looking somewhat insecure as he rarely was in a position to be doing pep-talking.

“So you get used to them?” Rukari asked.

“Eventually, yes,” Malavera said. “Some days I forget I’m wearing my reading glasses until someone points out that it’s odd that I’m wearing glasses on one head and not the other. Yours have lightweight aluminum frames, if you wear them often enough, they’ll become your new normal.”

“Val’s right,” Jayde said. “I’ve been wearing reading glasses since I was 17. These ones,” he pulled his set of thin, gold-wire-framed glasses out of a shirt pocket and put them on, “are a lot lighter than the ones I used to have. A lot more clear, too.”

“Plus, give it another year, and Jayde’s likely to need actual glasses, considering his last vision test,” Kayden admitted. “So it’s likely that both you, Rukari, and Jayde were affected by something in the environment.”

“As long as I can get another pair as nice as these,” Jayde said, motioning to his glasses, “I don’t mind that possibility.”

Rukari looked over at Jayde, slightly surprised. “They don’t bite your nose?”

Kayden chuckled. “If the issue has been that your glasses are pinching the bridge of your nose, that is something we can adjust.”

When Rukari handed his glasses over, Kayden made a few careful tweaks to the nose pieces of Rukari’s glasses, then handed them back.

“We may need to make a few small corrections over time, but those will become comfortable soon,” Kayden said.

When Valentin mentioned Albinism, Kivenaal looked over and inquired, “Is that the one that makes people and creatures quite pale?”

“It can,” Malavera replied. “I’ve been told I have a very, very light case of it. Not enough to really cause any issues, but more than enough to wipe out all of my natural markings. Otherwise, I’d look a bit more like Takaraya over there.”

“Finding a pair that both fit my head visually and in terms of comfort was an annoying process… The visual part is mostly a matter of taste, the other part was… a lotta trial and error to say the least. Adjusting to a new situation is hard as people are naturally resistant to change. Once you are there, whatever changes you did are the new status quo that you don’t want to leave.”, Valentin remarked, somewhat running out of useful advice he could provide in this context.

“I’m by no means a medical professional, but as far as i am aware, albinism refers to a genetically induced lack of pigmentation. In humans, the result is a blue pair of eyes, skin paler than others in your immediate family and blonde-to-white hair. At least that’s the visible part of it, if the condition is pronounced enough.” Also part of why i miss those cycling shades already. Glare from sunlight or headlights becomes an issue when your iris is little more than a pupil extension, letting light in like an opened curtain…, Valentin explains, before temporarily taking his glasses of, seemingly looking for some sort of imprint on the lenses.

Soon after, the glasses are put back on.
“Maybe i can get a set of photochromatic lenses for these at some point… Self-dimming shades are awesome if done right”, he added, having learned that the current glasses had ordinary lenses installed.

Kaylie smiled. “Self-tinting lenses are always a good idea.”

Malavera nodded. “Yeah, bright lights are hell. I’ve threatened twice to smash Takaraya’s camera, both times courtesy of him having the flash unit attached. As for a tint… My reading glasses have a strong anti-glare coating on them to make screens much nicer to deal with on a daily basis.”

Takaraya stood up, then mentioned, “I’m just going upstairs to get a sandwich. A little hungry after my run earlier.” He walked out of the room, his heavy footsteps being heard all over the room above the break room.

“So, any bets on what he comes back with?” Kayden asked.

“Knowing I baked a fresh loaf of bread,” Kivenaal said, “and there’s plenty left on the counter, I’ll be disappointed if he hasn’t used it.”

“I saw a very large grilled steak in the fridge with his name on the bag,” Kaylie added.

When Takaraya returned, it was with a sandwich that fit the rules only by the most loose definitions. The slices of bread were the size of salad plates, and there was a two-pound slab of grilled sirloin steak slapped in between them. He took a bite, then sat down on the couch again, setting his sandwich on the dinner plate he’d brought with him.

“Twin Suns, that’s a big sandwich,” Kayden said.

“He’s a big guy. I’ve eaten sandwiches that size,” Kivenaal replied.

“You lot must spend more on food than i ever could without going to a restaurant every day… Like i could feast off of that ‘sandwich’ for two days and probably still have leftovers…”, Valentin said, almost staring at the sandwich. Or at least as close to that as he could, given the camera barrier.

“On that note, i wish you all a nice weekend. I’ll go make some food as well”, he added, before waiting for the others to properly say their goodbyes. Then he simply left the channel, turning the camera off in the process.

After that, he went about cooking up as large a pot of pasta that he could fit into his half-size stove, planning to do exactly what he could’ve done with Takaraya’s sandwich.

“Oh, our food budget is crazy,” Malavera said. “Most of us need a surprising amount of meat in our diet.”

When Valentin mentioned he was going to make some food as well, Kaylie smiled. “Not a problem. We’ll talk to you some other time, Val.”

Takaraya finished chewing the bite of steak sandwich, then said, “See ya, Val. At least you won’t have to watch me eat all of this.”

“Yeah, but don’t think just because the camera is off that you can eat that like a ravenous wolf, either,” Kayden said. “Later, Valentin!”

“I’m not going to make a mess!” Takaraya argued, while Jayde and Rukari waved goodbye.

“Maybe some other day we can discuss interesting cycling equipment quirks,” Kivenaal said with a grin. “After all, I know some of my needed gear could be a bit different.”

Once Valentin turned off his camera, the crew headed upstairs, where Kayden fired up the grill, making a big batch of burgers as he realized Takaraya’s “sandwich” was vanishing fast.


July 4th, 2022, 10:30 PM, Nevada, “The Lair.”

Kayden groaned as yet another deafening explosion shook the walls and rattled the windows of their sleeping area above Twin Suns Towing and Garage. “Fucking Fourth of July,” Kayden grumbled, hearing the screech of another firework and another explosion, followed by crackling. “We live in the middle of fucking nowhere and we still have to hear this shit.”

He knew it had only been a couple days since they’d talked to Val, and knew that the time zones weren’t in their favor much for trying to contact him personally. However, he also knew that sending an email would get his attention, once he woke up and wasn’t busy.

“Nova, can you please draft an email for me?”

“Certainly. I’m assuming you’re sending this to Valentin Schrant?” Nova replied.



Kayden thought for a moment, then spoke out what he wanted to send. After he was done, he had Nova send it for him, then laid back down, only to be startled again by an even louder firework.

Hey, Val, got a bit of an idea rolling right now. See, I don’t know exactly if you’ve heard of it, I’m assuming you probably have because you’re in the area, but then again, I’m not sure if racing clunkers is your kind of thing. We signed up for the 24 Hours of Clunkers, held by Trafikjournalen over there. If you’ve followed Kaylie’s Garage at all, you’ve seen the Grand Warden we plan to run in it.

What I’m trying to say is, we’re going to be in the general area when that event kicks off, so, we could come visit you, if you’d like. Or you could visit us at the track. Or, if you’re feeling particularly up to it, we could possibly alter our entry forms and get you track-side seats in our pit area. Wouldn’t have to do anything, just gets you closer to the action.

If you do show up, a word of warning: Our car is very loud. Kaylie removed the whole exhaust system and straight-piped it.


July 5th, 2022, 05:00 PM GMT+2, a small studio apartment; Gothenburg; Sweden

A rather substantial keychain opens the door to the humble dwellings of Valentin, who steps in through the door. A stack of useless advertising leaflets is dumped straight into the trash bin. Having just arrived homes from a full day’s worth of therapy sessions, Valentin was both sore and exhausted. Still, he sat down in front of his PC, spotting a curious little text in the sea of phishing attempts and spam that was his inbox.

His reply was easily typed up:

Hello Kayden,

I definitely have heard of that clunker run, even wanted to take part in it. That is, until i got into an impromptu Demo-Derby on my bicycle against a Van. Of course you can visit, though my place may be a little crammed, so we may need to meet elsewhere. Regarding trackside seats, i’d need to see if it conflicts with my therapy appointments and/ or if i can make room for the race happenings.

For the car:
Yes, i know it. Yes, it is loud. But no, albinism doesn’t make me sensitive to hearing. As long as the thing isn’t blasting an array of rally lights into both eyeballs, you’re good.

Best regards,
Valentin Schrant

July 5th, 2022, 8:00 AM, Nevada

Kayden heard the quiet ping of an arriving email and fished Nova out of his pocket, immediately reading Valentin’s email and giving a light smile.

Good to know, Valentin.

No pressure on showing up, just letting you know that we were going to be there. Of course, it’ll be the full crew, so, yeah, probably for the best if we find areas to meet that aren’t in your place. I suspect at least one of us might have issues with the ceilings. Possibly more than one.

See you around,
Kayden Grayson

Kayden sent the email and sat down at the desk, giving one hell of a yawn. The fireworks had gone on until almost 4 in the morning, and judging by the look of the rest of the crew, well… Not a single person had gotten any decent sleep last night.

Owing to a lack of immediate notification and Valentin having turned the PC off again, he failed to notice the reply immediately. As such, it was only read in the next morning, though a reply was not made due to it not really being necessary given the contents of the E-Mail.

The remaining week passed without much of an issue and Saturday evening came rather quickly.
As he had been doing the past few months, both in the hospital bed and now out of it, he parked his massive body in front of the camera, waiting for the others to join in.

This time, the first two in the room were Malavera and Jayde, with Jayde walking on a new oak cane that he leaned up against the chair he sat down into, and Malavera taking a few extra minutes to get everything set up well.

This time, the great thunder of boots above them was interrupted by a sharp screech of rubber against the floor, followed by a room-shaking crash. Almost immediately after, Kayden’s voice could be heard yelling, “Rukari! I told you not to grease the floor! Takaraya just slid in that shit!”

“Told him “No more run inside,” he still do it. Now he know not to run inside,” Rukari replied. Unfortunately for him, Takaraya was nearby enough to catch him with a surprisingly nasty punch to the gut, knocking Rukari to the floor as he got up in grease-covered shorts and a now ruined shirt.

“Well, Rukari, you had that one coming. Takaraya, you got any other clothes in your work locker?” Kayden asked.

“Another pair of pants, but no other shirts,” Takaraya said.

“Well, change out of those shorts, we’ll figure something out for your shirt,” Kayden said.

Kaylie and Kayden were the next two arriving downstairs, followed by Kivenaal, then one very sore-looking Rukari, and lastly, Takaraya, who showed up with a pair of arctic-camouflage cargo pants and a distinct lack of a shirt.

“Sorry, Valentin. If you want me to leave, just say so,” Takaraya said, standing behind the chair until Valentin let him know if his lack of clothing would be a problem.

“Well hello there.” Valentin said, casually waving at Malavera and Jayde as they wandered into the room. Valentin was curious about the new cane Jayde had, hut could not manage to ask due to the commotion going on above.

“Whats going on up there?”, Valentin inquired. A question that would very soon answer itself.
“Nevermind, then…”

A bit later, the others joined as well, getting their greeting from Valentin, too.
“Good evening, or morning…”, he commented as Takaraya practically hid his body behind a chair.
“Given the weather over there, i’d be tempted to go shirtless too… I just don’t have the beach-body underneath to show for it.”, Valentin said, motioning for Takaraya to take a seat. Or at least that was Valentin’s intention, not knowing how well it would translate through the camera.

Takaraya gave a polite nod, then settled into the chair he’d been standing behind, wincing sharply as his upper body was sore.

“It’s not quite by choice. This one,” Takaraya said, pointing to Rukari, “decided to spread butter on the floor.”

“You not supposed run through building,” Rukari grumbled.

“Yeah, and what if Jayde stepped in that, Rukari? Did you think about that? No. You just figured instead of talking about it, you’d grease the floor and wait for him to wreck the place,” Kaylie snapped.

“If I’d slipped in that, there wouldn’t be a safe place in any of the worlds for you to hide, Rukari. By your own people’s law, I’d have had the right to declare Khal Zahi against you,” Jayde said.

Kivenaal grimaced. “Isn’t a blood war a little bit overkill for that?”

“It would teach him not to grease floors if he knew every waking moment, he has to worry about me catching him with the intent that only one of us survives,” Jayde admitted.

Kayden, on the other hand, was busy checking over Takaraya as he sat there, checking his eyes with a flashlight until he was satisfied that Takaraya was not in any danger from hitting his head on the wall on the way down.

“Great. Now I can barely see, and my head still hurts,” Takaraya grumbled.

“Uhm… lesson of the day. Don’t place traps that third parties could trigger.”, Valentin muttered, having little idea on how to deal with the situation.

A little later, he remembered what he was initially curious about:
“Is that a new walking stick? Or staff… or cane… Whatever it is, i’ve never seen it, as far as i can remember.”, Valentin said, trying to get a somewhat decent look at it while simultaneously not being too obvious about it.

Jayde smiled, getting up and showing Val his new oak cane. “Yeah, got a new cane. Apparently, it’s not normal to walk in cities with a staff around here, so, I’ve got a new walking aid to get used to. It’s fairly simple, but I think it suits me well enough,” Jayde said.

“We got him this after someone mistook him for some game character outside of a convention of some sort,” Kaylie said. “Told him to throw a fireball, and, well… Jayde’s a bit literal. He tried.”

“To be fair, he did tell me to do it,” Jayde said.

Kayden surreptitiously kicked Jayde’s ankle to let him know not to bring up the subject of actual magic, then said, “Yeah, turns out that powdered non-dairy coffee creamer and a lighter can make one hell of a stream of fire… And in the process, set fire to a can full of cigarette butts.”

Kivenaal chuckled, then said, “Hey, at least I put it out.”

“To be fair, that wouldn’t have taken much, Kiva,” Kaylie said. “Dumping a liter of water into the fire was unnecessary.”

“Well for what it’s worth you can use whatever walking aid you want. Just that a staff is a less-than-common choice for most people here. At least nobody can legally ban you from using a staff instead.”, Valentin mentioned somewhat confidently, despite not knowing if such law existed in the US. He also tried to ignore the fireball comment as hard as he could.

“Anyway i heard you were headed to Sweden for the Trafikjournalen 24 Hour Clunker Run?”, he then asked, still at the fireball statement with his mind.

“Oh, yeah,” Kaylie said. “We’re not sure how well the Grand Warden will hold up, but it’ll at least be more comfortable than last year’s midsize Sinistra Traville. If we designed the custom seat rails correctly, we’ll be able to adjust it so I can drive, or Kayden, or Rukari. Might be able to move the seat back far enough to fit Jayde or Kivenaal in there, but neither would be comfortable.”

“When in doubt, it’s kinda hard to go wrong with an old police car for a clunker run,” Kivenaal added. “Usually cheap, relatively powerful, occasionally good-handling. Ours just happens to be one of the classics here in the US.”

“Helmets,” Kayden mentioned, “are going to be a bigger issue. Kaylie’s got a custom-made open-face motorcycle helmet. I can use my combat helmet, and so can Rukari. But neither Jayde nor Kivenaal have helmets that fit them properly. Well… They have cycling helmets, but those aren’t built to the rigors of track racing.”

“Hold on a moment…”, Valentin said, getting up and leaving the camera’s frame. Some faint rummaging can be heard before he returns to his chair. Once there, some he can be seen looking about the room, followed by him shuffling through some paperwork. Eventually, he holds up the remains of his cycling helmet.

"That thing saved my head when going straight into the rear door of that van at 50-odd kmh. I doubt that the race officials are gonna let you run that, but cycling helmets can tank more damage than you might think. Though they’ll only tank it once. Valentin then explained as he set the helmet back aside.
“In terms of car, you’re probably good. From what i know, those US police cruisers are almost as unkillable as Anhultz is. Wonder what would happen if they made a police cruiser for US use…”

“Yeah, ours has some structural issues thanks to several years in the line of duty, but the 400 cubic inch V8 is still in good shape,” Kaylie said.

“As for helmets, well… Yeah. They’re meant to keep your brain inside your head during an accident. It’s why I hate seeing people riding without helmets on, or who wreck with a helmet on and keep riding using that damaged helmet,” Kayden added.

“Those people,” Kivenaal said, “have nothing worth protecting if they’re refusing to wear a helmet. The ones who ride with busted helmets may be doing so without realizing that they’re a one-time-use item, so they should be politely informed that they have to replace it.”

Malavera chuckled. “Helmets seem expensive at first, until you realize they protect your head. Even I have helmets for riding, because while there’s a chance I might have a backup, I’m not taking that chance.”

Kayden mentioned, “First time I’ve heard him being positive about my suggestion that he needs to spend time actually outside around here.”

Takaraya shrugged. “He rarely looks to the bright side of anything,” Takaraya said. “Then again, he has a reason for that.”

“There’s a reason why we mandate helmets in our group rides despite our Government allowing cyclists to not use one if they so desire. Speeds going past 50kmh are common on our rides. Not having one is suicidal at that point… And them being required for the Trafikjournalen run definitely has it’s reasons, too,” Valentin spoke, now starting to periodically lean over to the right, reaching out of frame over to his printer.

“Speaking of which. Do you still have the spare seats? I obviously cannot drive or anything, but i’d try and help in exchange for being there.”, Valentin asked afterwards, having flipped another page on his printer.

“Yeah, we’ve still got spare seats. We’d be glad to have you on the team if you’d like to be there. And we’ll make sure you don’t end up with any tasks you can’t handle,” Kayden said.

Kaylie smiled. “You’re going to join us? Oh, this is awesome!” Kaylie said, punching the air above her head left-handed and, thanks to the amount of energy expended in the punch, unbalancing herself and falling on the floor. “Ow!”

“You really should let someone adjust a few settings,” Takaraya said, looking over at Kaylie. “It’d improve your quality of life.”

“I’ll get used to it,” Kaylie said, getting up off of the floor. “Just every so often, I forget and do things like that.”

“Oh, we’ll have to order some chairs,” Malavera said.

“I’ll take care of that,” Kaylie said. “Can’t be that hard to do, right? Just placing a few orders for chairs that can handle our weight.”

Kivenaal rolled his eyes, then said, “The chairs aren’t that important right now. The important thing is that Val is joining us at the track. Means we’ll have to be more careful, and also means Val’s going to meet the big guy in person. Considering what happened in the Rally, we have to make sure that both of them will be okay in the same area together.”

While excitement was voiced over in Nevada, Valentin continued his work on the printer on the side, eventually finishing the last sheet of paper.

“First off, thank you for having that spare seat. Second, mind if i bring Norse along, assuming he has time and interest in going? Third, i just finished scanning in the accident report, so you’ll get a partially censored variant shortly. Mostly names and place names and such.”, he then spoke, aforementioned printer doing it’s little shut-down chime in the background.

“Please, do bring him along if he can,” Kaylie said, settling back into her chair. “We’re always willing to meet new people.”

Malavera grimaced, then stoutly kicked the back of Kaylie’s chair. “I don’t mind meeting new people, but in person is a bit rougher for me. I’ll try, but… Well, we all know that while I’m okay like this, I’m more likely to say something stupid in person,” Malavera said.

Kayden chuckled at the chaos, then said, “No rush on the accident report, but it’s good to know I’ll have a copy.”

Takaraya looked over at Kaylie and Jayde, then asked, “Is there much I can do to not frighten Valentin in person?”

“Well… You’re quite tall and you definitely look like a wolf. He’s likely to be scared no matter what,” Jayde admitted.

“Could pull a Kivenaal,” Malavera said. “The gunslinger get-up seemed to be an ice-breaker between the two of them. Not sure what we could do for Takaraya, though.”

“Did my camera die or something?” Valentin mumbles while trying to troubleshoot a non-existant issue. In doing so, the camera actually goes blank for a while as Valentin is fiddling around with the settings. Soon after, it goes online again, just for Valentin to do the old ‘turn it off and on again’ by reconnecting to the channel.

“Hello?”, he blurts out in an attempt to figure out if/ what was broken on his end.

“Your screen went black there for a moment,” Jayde said, looking at Valentin as he reappeared on the display.

Takaraya looked back over to the screen and smiled. “Good to see you’re back.”

Kaylie scowled. “See, Mal, you probably caused all sorts of chaos when you kicked my chair.”

“I don’t see how my kick affected his end,” Malavera grumbled.

Kivenaal shrugged. “Computers are stupid sometimes,” Kivenaal said. “Anyway, Val, we’ve got to figure out a solution for a potential minor issue regarding meeting the team. See… We know that there was that whole unpleasant situation regarding Shitbox Rally and the midnight stage, and specifically what caused it. Takaraya’s not the same, but he does look similar.”

“Technically,” Jayde said, “from what Malavera and Kivenaal have said, it’s possible he has some Dyre in his lineage.”

Kaylie reached over and smacked Jayde on top of the head. “Seriously? Just because I’ve gotten over it, doesn’t mean everyone else has.”

Kivenaal looked over at Jayde, then quipped, “Technically, you were bitten by a Dyre. You’re more of a concern than the small amount that might be in either Malavera or Takaraya.”

Kaylie chuckled. “Seriously, you guys? We’re going to fight over who has more Dyre in their bloodline?”

“My father was bit by Dyre. It carries in blood, so I also have it,” Rukari admitted. “Is not problem, unless you make it problem.”

Malavera sighed. “Valentin, let me ask you a question in my usual way. If, hypothetically, we brought a 2.7 meter tall mechanically-enhanced werewolf with us,” he asked, ignoring Takaraya’s raised eyebrow in the moment, “how would you react?”

“Huh okay then…”, Valentin said once everything was seemingly back to normal.

Malavera’s question regarding Takaraya was met with ample confusion.

“What do i know!? I haven’t seen a 2.7 meter, half-mechanical werewolf in person before…”, Valentin answered, visibly bothered by how specific the question was.

“Have you seen a 7 foot, 3 inch human before meeting me? If yes, how did you react to that?”, he countered, crossing his arms in annoyance. After all, they all knew how he reacted to first meeting the entirety of Shift Happens and Takaraya was likely going to meet a similar reaction.

Kivenaal chuckled. “Valentin has a point, Mal. We found him curious, he found us to be a bit frightening,” Kivenaal said.

Takaraya, on the other hand, got a good laugh as Valentin snapped out a “What do I know!?” in response to Malavera’s question.

“If it’s any consolation, Valentin,” Takaraya said, “you’d be the first human I’ll have met who stands over 6 feet, let alone over 7.”

“Didn’t you learn with Norse that the blunt-force-question strategy doesn’t work?” Kaylie asked to Malavera.

“You try being isolated for-”

“Yeah, we get it, Mal,” Kayden said, cutting him off. “You were an outcast, then exiled, so most of your life you haven’t had social skills. Try learning some.”

“Not really… Since literally everyone else i’ve met said the exact same thing…” Valentin grumbled as he let himself fall into the backrest of his chair.

“I’d go on a ride now to blow off some steam, but yeah Pb8 happened…”, he added, still visibly annoyed.

Takaraya nodded. “I can understand that frustration. When I’m having a bad day, I’d love nothing more than to climb into the cockpit, start the engine, and just fly,” he said. “Kayden showed me an alternative, but… It is not the same. There’s no sense of speed, no sense of danger. No feel of the aircraft shuddering beneath you as you bring it and yourself to the ragged edge of control. Even though there is combat… The knowledge that the rules of war do not apply is a problem.”

“He’s still upset that the only way someone took him out in a Spitfire is because they rammed him,” Kayden quipped. “I told you, that shit happens in arcade battles. That you’re consistently mid-place on the scoreboard while flying with throttle and stick is impressive enough.”

“At least you have the workable alternative. It’s kinda hard to come up with a non-physical alternative to cycling when the entire point is to get places under your own power, then be proud and absolutely exhausted once you made the trip and improved some number by a wee bit… There is no alternative to exercise, as far as i am aware…”, Valentin said, completely oblivious to the game Takaraya has been referencing.

“A fair point,” Takaraya said, trying his best to hide that it really wasn’t a working alternative. “And, yes, I understand the desire to make a trip under your own means, your own strength, and return thoroughly exhausted in the end, proud because you improved in some way. I’ve lost a lot of that satisfaction. I can lift more now than I ever could have before, but I haven’t earned it. I can run for miles and not tire out other than the muscles in my core and my back. I’m always looking for ways to improve, to build back up the muscle I once had before my accident, but these,” Takaraya said, motioning to his arms and legs, “have made that almost impossible.”

He leaned back against the couch with a sigh. “Anyway, not my place to burden you with my problems when you have problems of your own. It’s… I am sorry, Valentin,” Takaraya said.

Kivenaal grimaced. “I wouldn’t know what to do if I weren’t allowed to exercise,” he admitted. “Keeping myself in this condition isn’t easy, to be honest, and I’m proud to be doing this the hard way, the natural way.”

Kayden and Kaylie shared a glance, though Kivenaal caught it this time.

“What? Okay, clearly the two of you know something, so spill it,” Kivenaal said.

“Well…” Kaylie said, pausing to gather her thoughts.

Kayden, likewise, stalled with, “Not to say your efforts aren’t natural, they are, but…”

Nova spoke up with, “You are nanite enhanced. Locked in Adaptive mode.”

Kivenaal scowled. “Then turn them off,” he said.

“We… Can’t,” Kayden replied.

“Yours require a specific code to change their settings, which I have, at this point, been unable to crack. I will continue trying, but this could take a few dozen years, and that’s providing that your code was input using one of the languages in my database,” Nova replied.

Kivenaal got up with a groan, storming off upstairs. There was an additional loud screech of boots going sideways on the previously-greased floor, followed by a tremendous crash. “Rukari!” Kivenaal yelled, “You have officially earned yourself an ass-kicking!”

Kayden looked to Kaylie, then said, “He took that better than I thought.”

There was the sound of something heavy being thrown, and glass breaking as a result.

“Care to say that again?” Kaylie quipped.

“It’s still true. He hates AI,” Kayden added. “And if I had to hazard a guess, that was a 30 pound weight being thrown at a mirror.”

“Hate to do this to you, Valentin, but… I’m going to have to go,” Malavera said, as it became obvious that one of the other sounds he could hear was Kivenaal crying. “I need to calm him down before he does something stupid.”

Valentin simply watched the situation unfold all the way up to Malavera signing off to calm Kivenaal down.

“I shall get going too. We both have shit going on right now that needs attention, it seems. See you all next week, maybe.”. he said, knowing that they might not talk for a while given the internal volcano that just erupted into massive turmoil.

He then left the channel and closed the program, before phoning up Norse in hopes to get something useful done there.


Monday, July 18, 2022, 9:00 AM, Nevada, Kivenaal’s House

Kivenaal sighed as he set his phone down on his desk, having just called off of work. He had no motivation, no real desire to push himself to be there today. The last week had been complete and utter hell since his nanites had been revealed, with Malavera and Kayden trying to tell him it wasn’t so bad, and that he’d get used to them. Worse than that was Kaylie and her constant cheerfulness, constantly mentioning to Kivenaal that he’d gone this long with them and never knew he had them, so she couldn’t understand why it was a problem now.

The problem, in his eyes, was that he couldn’t tell whether his gains in strength were due to his efforts, or just that he had billions of tiny machines swarming through his blood. He’d lost the enthusiasm for going to the gym, he’d thrown a weight plate through a mirror and buried it in the wall at work, and now, well, he was still struggling with the concept that everything he’d done to that point was based on machines he never asked for, with an AI he didn’t have on hand to turn the damn things off.

Worse, as he sat at his desk, was the constant gnawing hunger. What he’d simply assumed to be “I get hungry when I’m tired” turned out to be the nanites trying to keep him going. And now, after a four day fast, the damn things were still there, and he felt like shit. He got up with a sigh, not bothering to go for a healthy breakfast today and instead going for fast and easy, eating the last of the leftover cake and then chasing it with a donut. He then decided to bring the rest of the donuts back with him, slamming the fridge door as he left the kitchen.

Back at his desk, he started up his desktop, settling in for a long day of gaming, because if he couldn’t de-stress with exercise, he’d damn well settle for blowing shit up in a multiplayer shooter.

Halfway through his second donut, Kivenaal saw Valentin’s status change from offline to online, and decided that Val might be more understanding than the others, that he’d be more likely to get an unbiased point of view and not end up just being told, “It’s not so bad,” when, for Kivenaal, it felt like his whole world had been turned upside down.

Deciding that if he sat there any longer, he’d talk himself out of talking to Val, he hit the video call button, making sure his camera was set up correctly so that he was in shot. While he waited for Val to connect at the other end, he glanced around his surroundings, the gloomy gray walls, worn off-white drapes, and light sky-blue bed covers visible in the shot, as was the fact that Kivenaal hadn’t even bothered to get fully dressed. He was in a pair of worn, somewhat ragged shorts that vaguely gave the impression that, in a pinch, they could be worn by a horror-movie werewolf after their change, considering how ripped up they were, with no shirt on, his red stripes showing through his black fur in the right light.

While he waited, he grabbed another donut, taking a bite of the maple-syrup-iced circle and leaning back in his chair, his fur and mane an untamed mess.

On Valentin’s end, the day in general has been less gloomy, with most of it being filled by the usual chores regarding recovery, followed by a few hours of work for his father’s transportation company, where he is in charge with shuffling the various trucks around and assigning scheduled and due-dates to them. With him being forced to do that kind of work from home due to the lack of an office to visit, he also didn’t bother too much about getting into “blue collar” attire, instead having chosen a more casual approach with a long-sleeve shirt and a pair of generic-looking jeans, the right leg once again rolled up to just below the knee out of habit, despite currently having zero need to do that.

He was just about to settle into the evening when Kivenaal called. In mild panic, Valentin initially denied the call, followed by a hastily typed chat-message:

Hello there. Gimme a minute. I’ll call back shortly.
– Val

He then went over to his bathroom, spending a few minutes in there to make himself as presentable as reasonably possible, mostly boiling down to containing and de-tangling his hairdo.
After that, he went back to his own desktop rig and re-called Kivenaal.

“Hello th… well you look like you’ve seen shit…” Valentin muttered as he saw Kivenaal munching down donuts while obviously being mentally strained.

As Val initially denied the call, Kivenaal sighed. This is what he’d been concerned about. However, before he could sink into a pit of despair, Val informed him he’d call back shortly. Mentally, he realized there was a very real possibility that he’d called literally just as Val got home from work, and despite his rising fears and worries, he waited patiently. Or, at least as patiently as he could, given the situation.

When Valentin called him back, Kivenaal accepted, and as Valentin greeted him, Kivenaal gave a half-hearted shrug. “I look like shit and feel like shit today,” he grumbled, finishing the maple-topped donut and giving a light sigh. “Bet the whole group’s in an uproar that I walked out on Saturday. Called off this morning, too. What do they expect when they turned my whole damn world upside down, then gave it a shake for a week, like a fucking snowglobe,” he added, reaching into the box and grabbing the last donut.

He glanced at the sprinkle covered sugar-bomb that was the vanilla frosted donut, taking a huge bite and barely bothering to chew it properly, gulping it down and saying, “This nanite shit is driving me up the fucking wall. Hungry all the damn time, and now I can’t even enjoy a good workout because I can’t even tell if I’m the reason I’m getting stronger, or if it’s because some piece of shit computer dosed me before I was put into cryogenic stasis.”

Valentin initially was confused as Kivenaal, to him, cried his heard out about the nanites, though quickly realized that he was obviously bothered by them being in his system.

“So that’s why you’ve been missing for the past two weeks.”, Valentin blurted out as he tried to cobble up a more meaningful response using what little experience he had with the nanites.
“Uhm… do i look like Arnold Schwarzenegger to you?” he added, very obviously holding both arms up into the camera, both having lost a bit of muscle mass since the accident, making them look even slimmer than they already have been.

“Did you take a class in speech from Mal in that time?” Kivenaal quipped, raising an eyebrow as he heard Val’s mild outburst about him being missing for a couple weeks.

“Arnold who?” Kivenaal asked, shaking his head before setting the other two-thirds of the last donut back in the box, pulling his keyboard toward him, and, thanks to the incredibly loud mechanical key-switches in it, loudly clicking out a search.

“Oh, right, that guy. Made a few movies I’ve probably only seen on TV once or twice,” Kivenaal said. “No, you’re very obviously a good bit more pale,” he added, giving a cheeky, friendly smirk, followed by, “and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to grow a mane like yours.”

“No. But i also wasn’t asking any questions.”, Valentin protested in regards to the accusations about Malavera’s supposed speech classes.

“I’m also a full foot taller than him, but that is besides the point… What i’m saying. Do i look jacked in any way, shape or form?”, he asked somewhat sternly, once again holding up both arms and also going the extra mile of pulling back both sleeves in an attempt to exemplify the point of him being the lankiest person in either person’s friend circle.

“Fair point,” Kivenaal replied as Val slid up both sleeves in a counter-argument. He picked up and finished the donut, then tried to think things through more rationally, as Val had a good point regarding his own physical strength, and that compared to what he had looked like, there was a surprising loss of muscle mass.

He cleaned a bit of icing off of one of his claws, then looked back to Val. After a long moment, he asked, “So, they haven’t been making you stronger? I’m just confirming this suspicion before continuing, because trying to get this information straight from Kayden, Nova, Kaylie, or Malavera is fucking impossible. They’re all trying to say it’s okay, that I should be used to it, that it’s nothing to worry about, without acknowledging the core problem I had with them. I’ve put a lot of effort into building and maintaining my form. I exercise regularly, try to eat well, avoid putting junk into my body with the exception of the occasional caffeinated drink, a bit of alcohol, or the very infrequent cigar, and it seemed to be working. If I could have had the same results eating cake and playing video games, then I’m going to feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time. Sure, I will live a long time, and considering I’ve got nanites in my blood, that’ll be a very long time for me, but… My friends may not last as long, and if I’ve been choosing the gym over going with friends, and could have had the same result either way…” Kivenaal trailed off at the end, clearly showing where his issues had come from.

It wasn’t just the nanites, but the fact that he’d been spending time on a workout routine that often meant he ended up too busy for parties, random nights out for drinks, or just hanging out with friends, and not knowing whether or not all of that was even necessary in the first place.

“I’ve spent close to two months in hospital, almost perpetually strapped to an undersized hospital bed having done jackshit in both cardio and strength work. My arms always have been… less than bulky, but i’ve lost a lot of lower body muscle since the accident and have regained basically none of it since. I’d probably be way down on power and endurance if i were to hop on a bike now, if we disregard the inherently fucked everything for a moment.
Granted, i don’t know how exactly they operate within you, nor do i know what precisely you even are… Not that it matters… Anyway, for me, they didn’t do much other than fix my ankle during that rally of yours. At least nothing immediately noticeable up until now…”, Valentin explained once Kivenaal paused for a moment aver having lost his train of thought into some tangential topic.

After that, he went about and started to do something on his keyboard while awaiting Kivenaal’s response.

Kivenaal nodded lightly, thinking things over as Val explained that he’d lost muscle and not gained any of it in the last couple of months. “Then, at the most, they allow me to maintain what I do have. I still have to put in the effort to make it work,” he said, more as a thought spoken out loud and less a direct reply.

He looked around at his desk area and sighed. “The last few days have been rough,” he admitted, gathering up the empty box of donuts, an empty pizza box, two plastic bags that were the remains of some candy he’d eaten after breaking his fast the previous night. “I’ll be back in a moment, better get this stuff into a garbage can before I get ants. Or worse,” he said, before getting up and walking out to the kitchen, his bare feet barely making a sound as he walked.

When he returned and sat back down, he looked back at Valentin to see if he had anything new to add.

“As far as i understood it when they got explained to me, they don’t do much without a reason to do it. They won’t build muscle if the existing ones see no use, they won’t fix stuff if nothing is broken, that kinda thing. Just like NOS won’t add any meaningful power to the engine if you have it sit idle.”, he added, discarding the initial idea he had in supporting the notion of them being inert unless prompted.

Kivenaal nodded. “Thank you, Val. Why the others couldn’t just explain that is beyond me. Instead, they focused on “you’ll get used to it” instead of understanding that there might be a reason I was upset. Beyond, obviously, that this happened without my permission. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks unfortunately rather idle, but I did take the day off today to try to get things straightened out. I’m still not exactly happy about it, but at least I know now that what they do is fix things, so unless I go out and start lifting weights, they have no reason to do anything.”

“Sometimes you need to vent steam elsewhere… i get that.”, Valentin said.
“If you still need talking now or at some point later, i don’t have that much to do in the evenings. Going out is not easy with that little movement range…”

After that, he simply waited for Kivenaal to either keep ranting or simply say his goodbyes.

“I’ll see you around, then. I’ll keep in mind that if I need someone to talk to, you’re available around this time. Until our next chat, viathien nevikhal ,” Kivenaal replied.
“Meet you again sometime, whatever you said,” Valentin then answered before disconnecting from the call, thus returning to usual routine.


Author’s note:
Here, the events of the Trafikjournalen 24 Hour Clunker run 2022 take place.

They can be accessed here:
The 2022 Trafikjournalen 24h clunker challenge (FINAL RESULTS)
Please refer to the posts made by @Madrias and @Elizipeazie for a seamless experience.


October 13th, 2022, 11 AM, Twin Suns Towing and Garage, Nevada

Things were pretty much going as usual in the garage today. It wasn’t busy, which suited Kaylie quite well as she wasn’t worrying about how to clear out all of the customer cars before the end of the day. Of course, the usual weirdness was going on, as Takaraya had a car up on one of the four post lifts to do a battery change, and Jayde was working on a customer’s car where they’d been requested to keep costs down because the old lady was on a budget, so he was frequently running parts into the back room to “look for a decent used one” and use the time to reverse the wear and tear on it with magic.

Kayden was busy rattling off a “Customer States” video, camera aimed under the hood. “The customer states, “car makes weird noises when I step on or off the gas pedal.” This is a performance air filter. That is a turbo. You combine the two, you hear turbo noises. What did you expect?” Kayden quipped, shaking his head.

Kaylie looked in on Malavera, who was in the office filling out spreadsheets for everything, occasionally picking up a phone and dispatching a tow truck, and when someone’s car was done, printing out a bill and setting it in his out-box. She chuckled and grabbed the two bills that were ready, then headed out to the waiting room to let two people know their cars were ready.

Rukari was in the second building just across the street, in Twin Hearts Racing, working on tuning up someone’s car to run on E85 and making more power as a result. Kaylie grabbed a cup of tea and made the brief trip over there to hand it to him, in the process seeing a flatbed full of trouble arriving.

“Damn, Kivenaal, what happened?” she asked, seeing the car on the flatbed tow truck.

“From what the driver said, something in the steering snapped, passenger side steering tire went full lock, dragged the car into a ditch. Looks like it could be a simple fix, but could also show lots of signs of neglect. Either way, it’s an insurance car,” Kivenaal replied.

Kaylie grinned. “Insurance car” was their term for any vehicle where the damage was being covered by an insurance company. This meant they’d fight tooth-and-claw to keep costs down for a single car accident like this, which usually meant a good challenge. Or good documentation. “We’ll get it up on a lift and give Takaraya the camera. Either they’ll give us a decent budget, or they’ll have to write it off. I’m not doing shoddy, unsafe work just because they want to save a few dollars,” Kaylie said. “You get that inside, I’ve got to get this tea to Rukari before it gets cold. You know how he is.”

“Yeah, that gets cold, he’ll take a few sips and add another mug to the garage in some weird place that he’ll forget about, until we start wondering what the smell is and find another mug behind the computer screen,” Kivenaal said.

“I’m still trying to figure out how he got the one on top of the garage door track,” Kaylie said.

“That was him messing with us when we called him out on it,” Kivenaal admitted.

Rukari sighed as he finished yet another boring E85 tune up. This time, it really was a boring one, as he didn’t even have to replace the fuel lines to be ethanol-safe, he just had to tune the car to run on it. Sure, it made easy money, but he was looking back to the glory days where he was installing turbos on cars, upsizing intercoolers, making custom intake manifolds, not this programming shit.

“Can’t wait for actually interesting car to show,” Rukari grumbled.

Kaylie laughed. “If we’re lucky, we’ll get a few weird ones soon enough,” she said, walking over to Rukari and handing him the still-somewhat-hot mug of tea. “I know, doing these E85 tunes isn’t exactly fun or particularly rewarding work.”

“No, is not. Nothing to do on this car. Just push buttons and make car go faster,” Rukari said, accepting the tea and taking a rather large drink from it. “At least last car was interesting.”

“Yeah, not often we get someone wanting their old 70’s muscle car to run E85,” Kaylie said with a smirk. “That was probably a lot of work.”

“Re-jet carbs, replace fuel lines, upgrade fuel pump, car makes more power and does burnout on rollers,” Rukari said proudly.

It was at this moment when a vehicle in a familiar shade of orange turned off the adjacent highway and onto the Twin Suns Towing lot.
Slowly, the car rolls from one end to the other, eventually coming to a stop near the garage door entrances to the various workshop bays.
There, the driver shut off the car and got out of it, revealing the unmistakable stature of Valentin Schrant now stood next to it.

He took a look around the place, only spotting a tow-truck, driven by Kivenaal, in the process of backing up to one of the bays.
Being mostly unfamiliar with the area and the US as a whole, he simply takes in his surroundings for the time being.

Kivenaal parked the truck, getting out and lowering the car off of the flatbed into the bay, having gotten Takaraya to help with making sure the car backed up straight by nudging the broken steering wheel straight.

Kaylie wandered outside and saw the bright orange car sitting there in the parking lot, moments later spotting Valentin looking around. “Hello, Valentin!” Kaylie called out, walking over to him. “Sorry, bit of a busy day here today. Two car crashes - Kivenaal’s unloading the second one - and a lot of maintenance. But, I’ve got a little time if you want a quick tour.”

Kivenaal looked up and gave a light wave to Val before returning to his task, setting the car down. A few moments after he’d released the car from the winch, the radio in the truck squawked with Malavera’s voice, “Got another one, about a mile south of Vegas. Rental car just shut off on someone.”

Kivenaal climbed up into the cab, clicked the radio with, “Got it, location’s on the computer. Heading out,” then took off just as quickly as he’d arrived.

Kaylie smirked. “As stated, a little busy,” she said to Valentin.

Valentin turned to face Kaylie as she called out for him.
“Hello!”, he spoke across the concrete lot.
“Looks like it. If there’s too much going on i can come around again in an hour or so. Just figured i’d stop on the way to the lot i rented for the month. After all, it’s fairly hard to miss the giant TwinSuns Towing and Garage signage either side of the highway…” he added, vaguely pointing down the road to a billboard erected next to it.

Kaylie laughed, then said, “The sign was Kayden’s idea. We had one slow month and he does that, so now we’re almost-always busy. In about an hour, it’ll be our lunch break, so yeah, if you want to chat then, that’s likely a better time. It’s not like we can’t chat now, but, well…” Kaylie waved her left hand in the general direction of the garage, where Takaraya was busy installing a battery, Jayde came wandering back through the building with a pair of “pre-owned but in good shape” brake rotors to put on a scratch-and-dent special, Kayden was clearly on the phone with a customer explaining that, “No, in fact, the funny noises you were hearing are from the aftermarket performance intake someone installed on your turbocharged economy car,” and Malavera came wandering downstairs from the office to see what was going on.

Malavera spotted Val as he walked toward the garage doors, a two-way radio hanging from his belt, and gave a polite wave before returning to the office.

“As you can tell, most of us are a little busy,” Kaylie said. “Mal’s running dispatch and Kiva’s in the truck. Jayde’s working on a little old lady’s car, trying to keep the budget in check with good used parts where possible. Kayden is trying to solve a customer complaint that their turbo car is making turbo noises. Takaraya’s helping out where he can, and that’s the third car he’s done today, for a total of two oil changes, one serpentine belt, and a battery. I’ve been lending a hand where possible, and, well, Rukari’s holding down the fort at Twin Hearts Racing doing E85 tunes.”

She looked to Val, then added, “As stated, about an hour or so from now, we’re doing lunch, and I can give you the quick tour then.”

“See you all in an hour then…”, Valentin said, getting back into the car and driving off the lot shortly thereafter.

Almost exactly one hour later, he returns after having settled some formalities at check-in and dropping off his luggage, neatly lining up the rented 2019 Anhultz Dione in a parking spot.
After unfurling himself from the vehicle, he heads into the shop through one of the garage doors, quickly spotting Kaylie and Kayden working on an SUV.
He lightly knocks on the garage door paneling, which startles the hell out of him as it makes substantially more noise than anticipated.

“Sorry… I’m back…”, he sheepishly says once the garage-door-echo has died down.

Kaylie looked up as someone knocked on the garage door paneling, then chuckled. “Believe me, no need to apologize. People need that sort of noise to make themselves known around here if we’ve got three bays full of cars and tools running. Seriously, you ought to hear the racket having three cars in for a wheel rotation causes,” she replied.

Kayden twisted the key, and the engine on the SUV cranked, sputtered to life, ran for about 10 seconds, and immediately stalled.

“Well, that’s an improvement,” Kayden mentioned, “but it’s still refusing to run.”

Kaylie looked to Val, then back to Kayden. “Let’s get cleaned up and try again after lunch,” she said, before turning to Val and explaining, “It’s a rental car. Ishu Trail-Hunter crossover. Kivenaal said it was a bitch recovering this thing because someone took it down an old dirt road and it stalled. Now it won’t start.”

She set a bunch of tools down on a nearby cart, then turned to Jayde and mentioned, “Hey, Jayde, time for lunch. I think Mrs. Garcia would be upset with us if we forgot to eat.”

Jayde chuckled. “Yeah, and last time it took all seven of us the better part of a week to eat all the turkey she made when she heard we skipped lunch to finish her car,” Jayde replied.

Kayden chuckled, then looked to Val. “Follow Kaylie, she’ll lead you to the break room. Fridge is stocked with various lunch meats and I think Takaraya baked the bread this time, so we’ve got these huge loaves of bread available. Take what you need if you haven’t eaten yet,” Kayden said. “I’ll be along in a minute, once I manage to unfold myself from inside this stupid thing.”

Valentin simply watched as the SUV sprang to life before stalling shortly afterwards.
“Seems like it doesn’t get one of the three things it needs after a while. Possibly fuel filter? Might prime the lines with the ignition on but suck it dry again once you start it.”, Valentin commented before being led into the familiar area that was the break room.

Once there, he took a good look around the place, now being able to see every nook and cranny (and tops of vending machines) before raiding the fridge for some bread, butter and ham. With the ingredients in hand, he takes another look before spotting a drawer labeled ‘utensils’, from which he retrieves a butter knife and a stainless steel cutting board.

Soon after, he is seen sat in whichever seating spot seemed easiest to clean, making himself a few slices of bread.
“Anyone else want some while i’m at it?”, he inquires in the process of spreading some butter onto the first slice.

“Fuel filter, or fuel pump, could be possible. The Grand Warden acted a bit like this when the pump died,” Kaylie admitted. “You might be onto something, Val.”

When Val laid out his sandwich supplies, Kaylie smiled. “Sure, if you’re offering,” she said.

Jayde shrugged. “I planned on having turkey, but I’m far from picky,” he admitted.

Kayden, on the other hand, shook his head. “I brought the last two slices of pizza from home.”

Takaraya finished the last bite of his sandwich and got up to use the sink, cursing quietly under his breath as he banged his head into the already-rather-elevated cabinets while crouching slightly to wash off the crumbs.

“Takaraya, how many times do we have to say it? Just leave your plate on the counter and we’ll wash it later,” Kaylie said.

“You know I try not to make more work for everyone else, Kaylie,” Takaraya said. He then walked over to one of the vending machines, put a handful of coins into it, and retrieved a bottle of cold lemonade in return.

With two approvals having been made, Valentin got to work preparing a slice for each of them plus two for himself.
While still not speedy by any metric, it did not take long for both Kaylie and Jayde to be holding a slice each, followed soon after by the other two for himself. His pair was stored on the cutting board for the time being as he got up to return the ingredients to the fridge. Halfway there, he hears a quiet ‘thunk’ courtesy of Takaraya’s head impacting the overhead storage.

“You okay?”, Valentin inquires while playing a game of Tetris with what was in the fridge and the things that were going in. Upon realizing that all seemed good as Takaraya went to buy a lemonade out of their own vending machine, Valentin returned to his spot, now digging into his “lunch”.

“So… i’m not 100% sure when Robert arrives. I have a vague statement of ‘a little more than a week’, so i have quite the time to kill for a while…”, Valentin said inbetween bites.

“Going to be sore for an hour or so, but I’ll be okay. Thank you for asking,” Takaraya said, before opening the bottle and taking a drink.

“Hmm… So you have a week before Robert gets here, as a minimum,” Kayden replied. “Have you had any thoughts on what to do in that week?”

Rukari wandered in, making a beeline to the fridge, before calling out, “Ai! Who eat my pizza?”

“I swear, it wasn’t me,” Kayden said. “I’ve got pepperoni and extra cheese here. Not your Canadian Bacon with Anchovies.”

“Rukari, try checking behind the bottle of orange juice,” Kaylie said.

Rukari looked again, this time retrieving his slice of pizza.

Jayde grimaced. “For the sake of everyone here with a sense of smell, do not microwave that,” he said. “Microwaving anything with fish on it should be a war crime if it’s done in the break room.”

Rukari shrugged and wandered out of the break room to eat his pizza, causing a collective sigh of relief from Kaylie, Kayden, and Jayde.

“I swear, the only thing worse than his obsession with fish on everything is when Kiva decides to go catch his own food,” Kayden muttered.

Takaraya, on the other hand, just shook his head. “From someone with a very sensitive nose, microwaved fish is not that bad. And, for the record, the last time Kivenaal grilled a rattlesnake, it wasn’t bad. I wouldn’t want to have it again, I spent most of my time picking bones out of the meat, but it wasn’t bad.”

Kaylie chuckled, then looked to Valentin. “So, any major plans this week while waiting for Robert?”

“Not real… Oh hi there.” Valentin said, not really getting a response as Rukari was dead-set on getting his pizza. He left just about as quickly as he came, leaving Valentin in confusion.

“Uhm… that happened. Regarding fish, you haven’t faced the Surströmming yet. That is a smell you actively need to fight. In any case, i don’t have any specific plans. Though i am gonna ask if it’s cool with you if i have some things shipped here. Finally got clearance for actual cycling and Clydesdale has been pestering me for weeks, months even, about shipment data, which is annoying since we agreed that they’d hold the frameset until i actually needed it.”, Valentin explained, having finished off the first slice.

“Oh, completely cool to have things shipped here, Val,” Kaylie replied. “We’ve got people here all the time during business hours, so whatever you have sent here, we’ll just make sure it’s safe for you.”

Kayden chuckled. “If Clydesdale wants you to have it shipped that badly, we could make arrangements to pick it up in person,” he said. “I know Rukari there, he’s been wanting to long-range-test the 6x6 Highwayman for a while now. Alternatively, if Rukari doesn’t want to take on a long drive, well, there’s Kivenaal’s truck. It’s about the size of the damn flatbed, but a double-cab pickup.”

After a couple of minutes, Rukari wandered back in to put his plate in the sink, before studying one of the vending machines. He rummaged in his pockets for change, found none, then looked to Takaraya. “Could you perhaps?” he asked, mocking an elbow to the glass.

“You know better, Rukari. I’m not breaking the glass for you,” Takaraya said. “I’m sure you have a few dollars in your wallet, use them and it’ll give you your change back.”

“We could, but i doubt that 25 bucks in fuel are enough to get us to Louisville and back.
I won’t stop you if you wanna go, but i don’t think it’s a hood idea from a purely financial point of view.” Valentin explained, looking at Rukari as he entered the room.
As he asked Takaraya for a quarter, Valentin instinctively fished around in his pocket, procuring a 20 Euro-cent coin in the process.

“Damn… i forgot to exchange Euros for US-Dollars… Anyway, if you do head there, the other parts and some tools are also there for collecting.” he added, returning the coin to where it came from.

“Well, we’re already somewhat heading in that direction already,” Kaylie admitted. “I’ve got a lead on a project car. 1974 AMCW Ranger. It’s a big 4 door liftback from the US Malaise Era. Not exactly rare, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen one, been wanting to fix one up and see if anything decent can come from it.”

“Would need to bring trailer, but could do,” Rukari said. As he put a couple dollar bills into the machine, then picked an oatmeal raisin cookie as his choice, the machine proceeded to jam said cookie between the screw and the glass. Rukari scowled, glaring at the machine and lowering his head slightly.

“Rukari, you break the glass on that one, you’re paying for it,” Kayden warned.

Takaraya smirked, watching as Rukari head-butted the machine with a resounding thud, dislodging his cookie and then promptly ending up on the floor with a groan.

“I might have replaced the glass with polycarbonate after the last time he did that,” Takaraya said. “If it can stop or slow down bullets, it’ll hold up to a Valraadi headbutt just fine.”

“Never heard of that one…” Valentin muttered as Kaylie was rambling about picking up a AMCW Ranger.

As Rukari went to war with the vending machine over a cookie, ending in a comment about polycarbonate, Valentin could not stop himself from wondering…
“Wonder why the manufacturers of those things aren’t using them from the factory. Wouldn’t be surprised if people smash them windows in for the loot or at a minimum out of sheer anger.”, he said half aloud while watching Rukari slide down to the floor.

“Some do,” Kaylie said in regard to the vending machine comment. “Ours are just older models. But a lot of the newer machines use plastics to prevent window-smashing, whether deliberate or accidental.”

“Granted, ours kept getting broken,” Kayden admitted. “I think all of us broke it once, at least. Takaraya didn’t understand the keypad and tried to make his selection on the glass, and, well, it was probably already close to breaking when he poked it. Kaylie’s hit it with her elbow twice by accident. I startled Kivenaal and he walloped the glass with his tails when turning to face me. I banged on the glass once while wearing my armor, which resulted in a mess. Rukari’s smashed the glass four times. When it stole Jayde’s money, he hit it with his cane. I’m not sure if Malavera’s broken the glass ever, but that’s the second keypad we’re on after he broke the circuit board pressing the buttons.”

Kaylie, meanwhile, was scrolling through her phone looking for a picture. She slid her phone over to Val and said, “One of these. Sorry for the picture quality, the guy’s camera must be terrible.”

“It’s classic “American Emissions Crap,” but from a company that somewhat tried. AMCW knew their market, so this has a V8 measured in cubic inches. 200 cubic inches, admittedly, but it counts. To make up for the small engine and the power-robbing catalytic converter, they put a turbo on it. Supposedly they were good for about 200 horsepower and about 16 MPG average. In a full-size car,” Kaylie said. “I’ve wanted to get one just to see how bad they really are, and if anything can improve it.”

“Another case of there being eight heads… well… nine and an AI, yet none of you thought of replacing it the first seven times? Reminds me of Tim’s ‘genious’ idea of labeling full jerry cans instead of individual containers.”, Valentin said jokingly as he collected the cutting board and went over to at least rinse it off.
As soon as he was done, Kaylie’s phone slid over, displaying the car she was looking for.

“Yeah. Never heard of it. Probably not even a thing in Europe.” he commented, sliding the phone back over to Kaylie.
“I don’t do imperial, but it sounds about as shitty as any other American car of the era…”

“Hmm… Not sure where you’re getting the extra head from. Malavera has two, Kayden and I make four, Takaraya there is five, Kivenaal is six, Rukari’s seven, and Jayde makes eight,” Kaylie said, chuckling. “But I get the point. Truth be told, I think Malavera just needed to see the cost losses between shattered glass being replaced and that, admittedly rather expensive, sheet of high-durability plastic.”

From Kayden’s pocket, Nova added, “There is a theory going around that the more specialized someone’s intelligence is, the more likely they are to miss a simple solution to a problem. It’s why doctors call mechanics because their car won’t start, and find out the solution would have cost $50 the day before… To put fuel in the tank.”

When Val looked at the phone, then mentioned he didn’t do imperial measurements and the car sounded about as shitty as most other American cars, Kaylie laughed. “200 cubic inches is roughly…” Kaylie paused for a moment before continuing, “3.3 liters. A bit short of 3.3, technically.”

“It would be 3,277 cubic centimeters,” Nova responded.

“The 200 horsepower, on the other hand, that’s right around a lot of manufacturers’ ratings at the time. With at least another 1600 to 2500cc of displacement, at the small end,” Kayden added. “Two-way cats killed power.”

“Might as well throw some shade at myself, too… after all, i’ve been present once a week for the past 6 months or so.”, Valentin admitted, remembering that he and Shift Happens have been talking every Saturday via video chat.
“The fact that you actually acknowledged emissions earlier than us in Europe is good, i guess. But the only thing that created this is the fact that literally every car before then used close to if not more than 20 liters per 100 kilometers because fuel over here is stupid-cheap.”

With the cutting board rinsed off, Valentin went back to his seat, awaiting further progress or instructions.

“Supposedly, on a good day, one of these old Rangers could get 15 MPG. Um…” Kaylie stalled for a few seconds on the conversion, where Nova mercifully spoke up.

“15.6 liters per 100 kilometers,” Nova announced. “It’s still terrible fuel efficiency by modern standards, but for a full size car, with emissions equipment, it wasn’t bad back then.”

As Val returned to his seat, Kaylie gave a pointed look to Kayden, who was the last one still eating. Kayden recognized the glare and stuffed the last bite in his mouth, then got up and washed his hands. “Well, I’ll check on the Ishu’s fuel system while Kaylie gives you a quick tour of the place,” Kayden said. “After all, you’re probably right with it being a rental. People will buy the shittiest gasoline available and I’d guess it clogged up the fuel filter. Or the pump’s still kinda pumping, but not enough to keep it going.”

Takaraya shrugged. “I finished my couple of cars for the day. If you two don’t mind, I’ll just head down to the weight room,” he said, looking to Kaylie and Val.

Rukari picked himself up off of the floor and retrieved his cookie from the vending machine. “Have one more car need E85 fune. Then done for day,” he said, ripping the package open and clearing half the cookie in a single bite.

Kivenaal and Malavera wandered into the lunch room, both looking more than a bit worn out. “I really, really hope that nobody crashes their car for the next 30 minutes,” Kivenaal grumbled, collapsing onto one of the lunch-table benches.

“If they do, I’m not sending you out,” Malavera replied. “Takaraya, mind taking over for Kivenaal?”

“Had hoped to get some weight training in today, but, sure, I’ll get the other truck going,” Takaraya said.

“Seems like business is running well if there’s staffing issues.” Valentin commented, having seen Kivenaal and Malavera wander in, completely exhausted and the former now being substituted by Takaraya.
A glance at Kaylie told her everything and the two went through one of the two doors leading onto the break room, ending up in what amounts to a scaled down cubicle-grid with all of two cubicles in it.

One of them had it’s walls covered in what seemed like the aftermath of a paintbrush war. A simple, white desk with a pair of monitors on top, both of which in portrait mode, provide the necessary screen area. A basic office PC underneath was powering it all.

The other cubicle was less daring in wall decoration, featuring a single monitor, various radio equipment and a couple of landline-style telephones.

The remainder of the room was the typical communal office affair, with printers, copying machines, cabinets and the likes. The only curious things were a small aloe vera plant on the window sill with a post-it stuck to it’s pot and the roof paneling being missing, revealing HVAC ductwork, cables and fire sprinkler equipment underneath.

Upon entering, Valentin took a quick, glancing look around the room.
“It’s… an office.”, he said nonchalantly, noticing the post-it stuck to the plant and heading over to read it.
“Hehe… complete with office shenanigans.”, he added upon having read it, not questioning the fact that Rukari ate her plants at least once.

“We had to make some alterations,” Kaylie said, motioning up toward the ceiling, “but it works. And, yes, plenty of office shenanigans if you know where to look. The plant, for one. Malavera’s got a coffee pot around here somewhere with warnings written on it to not put decaf in it ever again, and the other coffee pot has dire warnings on it as well to not put regular coffee in it, it’s decaf only. Kayden borrowed one of my three monitors for something and hasn’t given it back yet, so I’ve just got the pair,” Kaylie said, wandering over to Malavera’s cubicle, opening one of the drawers, and removing the foam darts from the dart blaster he had hidden in there. “That won’t stop me getting pelted with these, but it will slow him down,” she added, hiding the darts in the bottom of Malavera’s cup of pens.

“At this point, i’d tell one of my office stories, but i don’t have any since i do my weekly hours remotely 99% of the time. And very few people dare to pull pranks on other people’s bikes for very obvious reasons…” Valentin remarked, taking another look around before being led through another door into what initially was a staircase leading down into a basement of sorts.

It quickly revealed itself to be the gym that Takaraya mentioned earlier. It was rather basic, with a pair of multi-functional machines, one of which was full of black and yellow caution-stripes, some treadmills and a sizeable assortment of free weights such as dumbbells, bars and numerous plates of various weights. A sliding door made from wood was splitting another area off from the gym.

“So that’s what your… uhm… colleague was referring to earlier.” Valentin said, failing to remember Takaraya by name, though his appearance was very easy to recognize.

He took a few steps toward the plate rack, where he checks which weight plates are present.
“No wonder you lot seem to be able to move the earth and then some…”, he remarked, still in the process of checking weight ratings.

“Yeah, Takaraya comes down here fairly often to work on what’s left of his core,” Kaylie mentioned.

When Val remarked about their strength, thanks to the weight plates, Kaylie chuckled. “Yeah, most of us are strong. The machine that’s striped up like a wasp is Malavera’s. He’s made it heavier because, well… He’s quite a bit stronger than the rest of us, with exception to Takaraya. As for these,” Kaylie said, motioning to the weights, “we all use them. Gym rules have been kept as basic as possible because too many rules means people forget. Basically, wear clothing while down here, put your weights back when you’re done, and clean off the equipment when you’re finished with it.”

“At least there is no lunk-alarm.” Valentin chuckled while heading back to Kaylie. “Mind if i spend some time down here on occasion? After all, i need to rebuild a bit more than just thighs and calves and i might as well work towards a physique that is a little less… T-Rex. All coordinated with medical personnel and such, of course.”

At this point, Valentin pulls out his phone and pulls up another one of his extensive data-tables, this time containing a basic training plan optimized around a two-week cycle.
“I won’t be touching your machines, just the free weights. It was made knowing that i have no chance in hell of fitting onto or into anything beyond a basic bench-press table. And even that is sketchy at best.”, he added, pocketing his phone again.

“Oh, certainly. We all use the space, there’s enough equipment for everyone as long as we’re not all crammed in down here at once. The free-weights are… I’d like to say the second most used item down here, but we’ve got enough bars that everyone on site could have one in their hands, and have weight-plates to put on them. And Kivenaal doesn’t work on all four of his at once, he alternates between uppers and lowers, so we’ve got more than enough for you to share. Space will be the bigger issue, and even then, only mildly. We’ve got the benches along the walls for people to sit, obviously the two machines, the treadmill, and if someone’s picked up a new bag, there’s a chain there to hang it from,” Kaylie replied. “But, we’re all on varying different schedules, some have some equipment at home, others get their exercise in over the course of a day, so you’ll never really have a hard time finding weights down here. Or a partner to work with. Basically, if you’re lifting with the long bar, you need a partner. They don’t have to be strong enough to lift the bar and the weights the other is using, they just need to be able to yell for someone to come help out.”

Kaylie gave a grunt as someone bumped into her on the way into the gym, though before she could complain, Jayde apologized with, “Sorry, Kaylie. Bad step.” Kaylie smiled and shook her head.

“Not a problem. We both know it happens, it’s my fault for crowding the stairs,” Kaylie said. She looked over to Val, then admitted, “Jayde’s been trying to find time to go here each day. He had… A bad experience a while ago.”

“Kayden handed me a cylinder head for a V8. Ended up straining the muscles in both arms badly enough that I spent three days on a 20 pound restriction. So, well… I’m trying to avoid that situation again,” Jayde admitted. He grabbed a couple of short-bars and assembled a pair of 10 pound hand-weights, then said, “I’m starting small and trying to make sure I get the form perfect before I move up in weight.”

“He must be feeling a bit shy,” Kaylie mentioned to Valentin. “Usually, when he does this, Jayde takes his shirt off for more freedom of movement.”

“I’ve got scars and Val’s got history with the kind of creature that gave those scars to me. It’s more out of respect,” Jayde admitted.


“No need to bend over backwards for me. I’ve got my fair share of scarring as well now, too. My previous bicycle was somewhere around 14 kilos, and getting that to the third floor without a lift was already annoying to deal with, hence me working on my upper body. Well… about to work. I haven’t gotten the first session in yet with all the paperwork to slog through”, Valentin grumbled, glancing at the sliding door. “Anyway, there’s no need to crowd up the gym without actually working, right?”

Kaylie chuckled. “Fair enough, Val, fair enough. This last room, you’re actually somewhat familiar with,” Kaylie said.

Jayde smiled, then added to the conversation, “At least I know, then, that the next time I’m in here, I can take off my shirt. Basically, the only rule for the equipment is “do not be naked,” because we understand everyone has certain limitations. After all, some of the crew has to deal with their winter pelt in weather that doesn’t call for it.”

Valentin and Kaylie went through the sliding door into a room Valentin was indeed very familiar with. It was the very room he saw numerous times during his once-weekly talks with the team, which especially during his hospital stay proved very helpful.

“Yep. I know this room.”, Valentin quipped while taking a quick look through the room, not scanning it as intently as the other areas due to how familiar he already was with this one. As such, he fairly quickly turns around, motioning for the two to head back upstairs.

Once there, Valentin takes a seat again:
“Well at least i know most of the areas here now. I won’t hold you up any more and probably head back ‘home’ to settle in there. One thing, though: When do you plan on getting that car? If anyone’s picking up frame and parts and tools and such, it has to be me because of billing address shenanigans and such.”

Kaylie settled into the seat across from Val, then said, “Well… We could really go at just about any time. I’ve called the seller and he’s given us a two week hold at his requested $600 sales price. We’d just have to put together a drive team, because that’s a long trip and it helps to swap drivers around.” She then motioned out of the window at the building across the street and mentioned, “By the way, there’s Twin Hearts Racing, where most of the tuning on your steam wagon will be done. I’d show you around the place, but Rukari’s tuning a car over there, and he’s also not used to visitors on the work floor.”

“For the drive team, maybe i can help. That is, assuming that the truck or trailer each is lighter than 3.5 metric tons gross. Yes, i don’t drive often, but it would be wasteful to fill a seat with a wee bit of dead weight. Other than that, i just need a departure date.” Valentin replied, looking across the road to where Kaylie was pointing at, “We’ll get around to it at some point, i guess. Car’s still a week away, after all,” he added, hoping that the jet-lag from crossing 9 time zones subsides quickly instead of dragging on for days or even weeks.

“Ah. I’m not exactly sure of the weight of the truck, but it’s Rukari’s old Highwayman. You’ve been in it. It’s a bit heavier now after the modifications, but we don’t have 18 jugs of water on the roof, either. As for the trailer… Yeah, it’d be lighter than 3.5 metric tons on the drive up. Loaded with the car, not so certain. I don’t know exactly how much the Highwayman weighs, but, I’m pretty sure it’s not over 7700 pounds. Even Kivenaal’s big-ass truck isn’t quite that heavy, and it’s a bit of a chunky bastard at 6300 pounds.” She thought for a few seconds, then added, “A little over 2.85 metric tons.”

She then grabbed her phone and looked up the calendar. “How about this Sunday, the 16th? Gives you the rest of today and all of tomorrow to recover from the jet lag, then we start off on our trip.”

“What matters is the weight when fully laden to whatever tha manufacturer allows. If both the car and the trailer are lighter than 3.5 metric tons each, i can drive it legally. I wouldn’t be surprised for a full-size truck to crack 5 tons fully laden, even without the sometimes ridiculously large trailers some people are towing with these.” Valentin corrected, as the curb weight was largely irrelevant to Valentin.

“Sunday is fine, i guess. I rarely fly intercontinental, or ever… so it’s a lottery for what it’s worth…” he added, already uncomfortable at the thought of not being able to safely drove due to tiredness.

“Hey, it’s okay if you can’t do it. We won’t make you take the wheel if you’re not comfortable doing it. I’m thinking our road crew’s going to be Rukari, because it’s his truck, myself, because I’m picking up a project car, and Jayde, because while he’s got some limitations, he’s an adventurous sort of guy and would hate to miss out on this trip. Plus, Sundays are kinda slow days, as you’ve noticed in the past. Kayden, Kivenaal, Malavera, and Takaraya should be able to hold down the fort,” Kaylie said.

“Well, if you find you don’t fit under the shower head,” Kaylie said with a light smile, “let one of us know and we’ll make some arrangements. I know Kivenaal’s got his own place, he did make some customizations to his place for his needs, and if you’re going to the city I think you’re heading to, well, you’re damn near enough to being neighbors at that point. Other option is about three miles from here, toward the mountains, probably not the ideal choice because finding the dirt road can be hell at times. Takaraya’s renovated an old fallout shelter into his living quarters. I have no idea how someone his size can feel comfortable in such a small space by comparison, but I know Kiva’s been there once and said he’s got the “mother of all bathtubs” down there.”

She looked up through the break room windows as Takaraya returned with a comically-small hatchback being carried on their largest flatbed truck. “Well, I’ll see you around, Val. Looks like my break is over,” Kaylie said, hearing the reverse beeper as Takaraya prepared to unload the car.


October 16, 2022, Kivenaal’s Home, Pahrump, Nevada.

Kivenaal groaned as the alarm clock went off, not wanting to get out of bed right now, but knowing he had to go to work. Fumbling around blindly with one hand, he eventually found the bloody beeping bastard and shut it off, getting up and stretching before taking a quick shower, then fighting with his shirt to try getting it on the right way.

After a few long minutes of frustration, Kivenaal had his long-sleeved shirt on without adding any new holes to it. He looked over at the clock and sighed. “Really?” he grumbled to himself, seeing it was 7:45 AM. He sat on the edge of his bed and grimaced his way through putting his compression socks on, followed by his jeans, then pulled on his heavy boots. In the kitchen, he grabbed a couple slices of bread, stuffed them in the toaster, and prepared some bacon, scrambled eggs, and cheese. Luckily, the sandwich didn’t take long to make, nor did it take much time to eat.

Walking out to the garage, he grabbed his keys and unlocked his truck, the old 2014 Bricksley Industrial Warcat that he’d bought not because he really needed a truck, but because he needed a vehicle he could drive. The super-heavy-duty work truck just happened to be the right size, and in Bricksley’s “Battleship Gray Metallic,” it happened to be a fairly neutral color. He climbed up into the cab, turned the key in the ignition, and woke up 485 cubic inches of all aluminum, SOHC V8, hit the garage door opener on the sun-visor, and then grabbed first gear.

8:30 AM, Twin Suns Towing, Nevada

When Kivenaal arrived in the parking lot, he spotted the bright orange 2019 Anhultz Dione there and smirked. “I bet I know who drove that here,” he said, pulling around to a parking spot behind the building and shutting off the truck. He got out, clipped his keys to a belt loop, then wandered over to the car.

“Good morning, Val,” Kivenaal said. “Looks like I’m pretty much the last one to arrive today.”

Not more than 15 seconds after Kivenaal had said that, Jayde and Kaylie arrived in their “old” work van.

“Okay, guess I’m not the only one who had a late start,” Kivenaal added, watching as Jayde and Kaylie parked the van and got out, followed by Rukari across the street finishing his “Pre-flight checklist” on the 6x6 Highwayman by cranking over the engine, backing up to a trailer and hitching it up, and connecting the harness.

“Ai!” Rukari yelled. “Could use help check lights on trailer!”

Valentin’s morning routine was nothing special, except his choice of clothing, which came about due to limitations on luggage space. As a result, he was wearing an assortment of thinly-woven clothes consisting of a vaguely jeans-looking synthetic pair of pants, his usual sneaker-styled cycling shoes and a very thin figure-hugging shirt meant to make life at around 30°C as bearable as possible.
The drive was far less exciting than his fashion sense, though, as he rolled up to and into one of the customer parking spots, with nobody else seemingly present. He then pulled out and dabbled on his phone for a while, noticing Rukari milling about on the other side of the road. Though Valentin quickly returned to his phone, not wanting to bother him in whatever it was that he was doing.

Eventually, a gunmetal grey truck entered the lot, going round the back to the employee parking. Soon after, Kivenaal came back walking, greeting Valentin as he approached.
“Mornin’…”, Valentin greeted back while pocketing his phone and getting out of the car.

Immediately afterwards, Jayde and Kaylie joined them with their work van as Rukari sent his V8 alive across the road, calling for assistance on checking the trailer.
“Be right there!”, Valentin shouted across the road before addressing the others on this side. “Might as well make myself useful where i can.”, he said, walking over to Rukari.

“Trailer lights, right? Want me to do the switches or the looking?”, Valentin inquired, not even before having arrived fully and inspecting the 6-wheeled truck from afar.

Rukari nodded when Val asked about the trailer lights, then said, “You look, I use controls.”

Jayde and Kaylie wandered over to the truck as well, with Jayde in his light-brown shirt and dark-brown slacks, a look which was almost business-like until his bright green tennis shoes ruined it, carrying a thin, light-gray wind-proof jacket, while Kaylie was in an almost-obnoxiously-bright pastel yellow long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans, paired up with white running shoes. In contrast, Rukari was in a light gray shirt and dark blue jeans, with his usual heavy black boots on.

Rukari climbed up into the cab and went through the controls with Valentin letting him know if the lights were working.

Rukari and Valentin went through the process of checking the trailer lights, which after about two minutes was concluded with all of them working as they should. As the others piled into the Bricksley, Valentin waited for them to do so, claiming whichever seat remains as a result of that.

After the lighting check, Kaylie and Jayde climbed into the back seat of the Highwayman, giving Val the front passenger seat with Rukari behind the wheel.

“Right, just so everyone knows,” Kaylie said, “we’re doing roughly 4 hour segments behind the wheel to minimize road fatigue. It’s okay to stop early, it’s equally okay to skip your segment or ask to go again early. Basically, every four hours, we’ll be stopping for fuel and food and to use the toilet, but if you have to go, let us know and we’ll find a gas station or fast food place.”

“For driving truck,” Rukari said, “remember clutch is heavy, and while gearbox has ten speed, drive it like five speed. No need to switch odd and even, we not towing that much weight.”

“Also, remember when you’re in cities, this thing is not short and we have a trailer on the back. I know we’ve all practiced trailer driving, but if anyone isn’t confident in it, say something so we know,” Kaylie added.

“I mean, I can do it, but… I hate reversing trailers,” Jayde mentioned.

“Fair enough,” Kaylie said. “Anyone else have trailer issues?” she asked.

“Other than maybe the scale of US motoring and visibility, nothing i can immediately think of. Hope that i can poodle around a parking lot a bit before going out. The trailer might be vaguely what i am used to size-wise, but the truck very much isn’t.” Valentin remarked as Kaylie asked about trailer issues.
“Other than that, i’m good. And we have more than enough manpower to direct from the outside if need be.” he added while looking about the cabin in an attempt to gather some up-front information about where each corner of the truck was and how much one could see out of it.

Kaylie nodded. “Makes sense,” she said.

When Val mentioned that he wanted to drive around a parking lot a little before heading out, however, Rukari chuckled. “Nekasi. Not a problem,” he said. “We switch seat, you drive first segment?”

Kaylie, meanwhile, finished plugging the route data into the GPS and handed it forward. “Just stick that on top of the turntable’s lid. It’s what we usually do.”

“Uhm… sure.”, Valentin replied before switching seats with Rukari up front.
At first, he simply took a look around as he makes himself familiar with with the more minor controls regarding the lights, wipers and other minor features. After that, he adjusted the mirrors, followed by him rowing about the gearbox to see where each gear was with the clutch to the floorpan.

“Yep. Clutch is heavy.”, Valentin quipped as the pedal went down.
Soon after, the car rolls about the northern half of the Twin Suns Towing and Garage plot, doing slow circles around the Twin-Hearts racing building. After three or four laps, the latter two being done quickly enough to use second gear without stalling, Valentin comes to a stop again on the access road to the highway connecting Pahrump to Las Vegas. The Sat-Nav unit is stuck to the turntable lid as instructed and adjusted for visibility, after which the actual road-trip begins, heading east.

When Valentin confirmed the clutch was heavy, Kaylie chuckled. “That’s what a factory Bricksley Industrial clutch is supposed to be like. You’ve got almost 8 liters of V8 up front, if it had the factory clutch for the Highwayman, it’d do a great job of turning it into a red-hot mess.”

As Val pulled out onto the main road, following the sat-nav’s instructions, the Bricksley’s new industrial engine growled as the truck was hauled up to speed, the trailer making a bit of racket behind the truck as small bumps were hit. The other noticed sound was the quiet, but certainly notable hum from the all-terrain tires on the road, nowhere near as obnoxious as a proper off-road tire would be, but certainly louder than more conventional all-weather tires.

The first hour or so went on without any issues, but soon after that hour passed, traffic got dense very quickly.

“Yep. Traffic. Huzzah…” Valentin remarked, the 55mph cruise turning into a slog a little faster than walking pace.
Annoyingly, the speed had Valentin shuffle back and forth between first and second, eventually settling on remaining in first, the engine running rather high up in the RPM range for non-spirited driving.

“Valentin, use second gear, but with thumb switch in down position. Is between gear, better for engine.”, Rukari requested, thus reverting on the earlier instruction to not use the splitter on the Bricksley’s gearbox.
Valentin did as instructed, shifting from 1st to 2nd (2nd to 4th effectively) in the shift gates, but flipping the switch with his thumb (4th to 3rd), thereby not dropping the engine RPM as far.

Eventually, Las Vegas was behind them, as was the dense traffic. The remaining time of his stint was very mundane due to the inherent lack of variety in US interstate planning and him not talking much.
After just shy of 4 hours, the truck and trailer rolled up onto a small service stop, shutting the car down next to one of the gas pumps.

“Can someone else do the fuel? I have no idea what this thing takes.”, Valentin inquired, exiting the car regardless as his first stint was done with.

“Will not be problem,” Rukari said, opening his door and walking over to the fuel pump. He pulled out a card, swiped it, then selected regular gasoline and opened the fuel filler door, dropping the nozzle in and starting to fill the tank.

Kaylie chuckled as they all got out of the car, then mentioned to Val, “Knowing Rukari, this thing would quite happily run on just about anything. We’ve been throwing the idea around of it making a return to the Shitbox Rally under the “once a shitbox, always a shitbox” rule. Not 100% sold on that, which is why we’re collecting the Ranger as a possible option.”

Jayde took the time to stretch, then retrieved his cane from inside the truck. “Not sure about you guys, but I could use some food,” he said.

Kaylie grimaced. “Food sounds good, but I’d rather get something at a fast food place instead of raiding the gas station convenience store. It’d cost us a hell of a lot less money.”

“Food sounds good.” Valentin agreed, though not without some doubt as he made his way around the front of the car and back into the front passenger seat.
“Have fun trying to park this thing between the lines at McDonalds or Burger King or what have you, because the chances of this thing fitting through the drive-in lane are just about zero.”

“Could be done,” Rukari said, and immediately, Kaylie grimaced.

“We’re not taking the trailer through the drive-through lane, Rukari,” Kaylie said. “I don’t care if you know how to do it, that’s obnoxious to everyone else who has the bad luck of being behind us.”

Jayde shrugged. “Just find two spots in a line and pull through them. It’s more sensible to eat inside anyway. We’re less likely to spill something in the car if we’re all at a table.”

“On other hand, if we eat in car, could still keep driving,” Rukari said.

“You know that’s not safe,” Jayde grumbled. “Seriously, even your brother doesn’t eat and drive at the same time.”

“Does anyone here have a preference between Burger King or McDonalds?” Kaylie asked.

“Not really. There’s merit to either. Plus i don’t know the national chains,” Valentin mentioned.

“That depends on whether I’m the one ordering the fries,” Jayde mentioned.

Kaylie smirked, then mentioned to Val, “Jayde figured out that if you ask for “fries, but without salt,” they’ll drop a fresh batch of fries. Kayden’s got him on a mild salt restriction, so he found out naturally.”

Rukari shrugged. “No real preference. Would prefer place with fish, but will eat anywhere.”

Kaylie chuckled. “Well, that basically makes it two votes for McDonalds, one vote abstaining, so by majority, we’re going to McDonalds.”

The fuel pump gave a clunk and Rukari removed the nozzle, hanging it back up and putting the fuel cap back on the truck. “Who wants drive?” Rukari asked.

“I’ll do it,” Kaylie said. “Otherwise Rukari’s going to try to fit the trailer through the drive through.”

As they all returned to the truck, Kaylie started the engine and pulled out onto the road, spotting the tell-tale sign in the distance. She drove to the McDonalds with no real incidents, other than hearing someone’s tires screech as they realized if they didn’t stop, they would rear-end the trailer. Kaylie sighed. “Get off your phone,” she grumbled, shaking her head.

In the parking lot, Kaylie found a few spaces that looked like they’d fit, then lined the Bricksley up and parked it. A quick glance revealed that all ten wheels were inside their lines, though she grimaced. “I really hope that little hatchback is just carrying one person,” she said. “Otherwise, we’re likely to have children climbing over our trailer to get into the back seat.”

Jayde looked, then said, “I don’t think the gap is that close. Plus, that guy’s parked crooked anyway.”

The crew got out of the truck and walked up to the main doors.

“Everyone know what they want?” Kaylie asked.

“Not really,” Jayde admitted.

“Yi, I know already. Two filet-o-fish, large fry, ahd Coca-Cola,” Rukari said.

Kaylie chuckled. “Well, that makes one of us who knows already what they want,” she said, studying the board.

Jayde grimaced and grabbed his reading glasses, putting the thin wire-framed glasses on and trying to read the menus posted up on the wall. He shook his head and sighed. “Going to have to see Kayden about this,” he muttered to himself, taking the glasses off, cleaning the lenses, and putting them back on.

As they went toward the establishment and Kaylie asked about what they wanted, Valentin did not think long about that at all.
“Yup,” he quickly responded. “20 piece nuggets, some fries and a Fanta.”

Once in there, the ordering process went along and they soon found themselves sat at a table with their food in front of them.
Valentin dug in briskly, knowing that even freshly served, most of it barely qualified as being ‘warm’.

Much like with Valentin, the others didn’t take very long to start eating. Jayde wasted no time starting off with his still-quite-hot fries, occasionally cooling his mouth down with a sip of Sprite. Rukari, likewise, was trying to get through his fries as fast as possible, knowing that once they got cold, they weren’t worth eating. Kaylie bit into an onion ring with a smile, though wasted little time in eating them either.

Then it was a brief matter of Jayde and Rukari devouring two sandwiches each, with Jayde having double burgers and Rukari having fish, while Kaylie worked her way through a box of nuggets.

In the moment, it was somewhat clear that they had a certain efficiency to dealing with fast food. As Kaylie wiped a bit of ketchup off of her fingers, then collected up empty fry boxes, wrappers, and Jayde’s now-empty cup of Sprite for the trash, she smiled. “Sorry. We’re so used to trying to beat the lunch rush back home that, well, whenever we sit down to eat in one of these places, it’s hard to slow down,” Kaylie admitted.

“Force of habit sure is strong, i guess…” Valentin remarked, being by far the slowest to eat since he still had about half the box of nuggets to go through. In fear of holding up the others, he picked up the pace somewhat, eventually finishing his meal as well.
“I’m finally done as well,” he said as he got up to return the tray and leftovers to the little cart.

With the garbage thrown away and their trays put where they belonged, the group returned to the truck, where Kaylie got back behind the wheel.

“Right, everyone ready?” she asked.

With no one suddenly calling for a last minute toilet stop, Kaylie started the engine and maneuvered their truck and trailer through the parking lot, then got back out of town and on the highway once again.

With nothing really exciting happening, other than some idiot in a high-powered sportscar flying past them at triple digit speeds, Kaylie repeated the steps of the previous stop, first getting fuel, and then parking in a fast food parking lot. “Sorry, Rukari, but if we’re dealing with almost-cold fries, I want fries that are still tolerable when cold.”

At the second stop, Valentin elected to skip food entirely, only ordering a drink instead.
With Rukari and especially Jayde towering over the already giant Val even when seated, he could not stop himself from wondering.
“Not meaning to be rude or anything, but how the hell do you deal with anything here? Like… i already don’t fit into any ‘commoner’s’ place and such, but you lot sure do make me look up for once. Most of you, anyway… sorry Kaylie…” Valentin spoke, clearly curious about how Shift happens deals with their size issues.

Jayde chuckled. “In a way, it’s not that different from being back home. There, I have the annoyance of being between sizes. Most sfuff made for normal people, even people of my own kind, is made for someone around Rukari’s size. Most stuff made for the Wyld ones, who are…” Jayde paused for a second, then shrugged and rolled with it, “a bit taller than Takaraya in their true form, and a lot more rare to see for obvious reasons, is too big for me. Here, I just have to get used to everything being made for a much smaller standard, which… Isn’t too difficult. Ducking through doorways and walking in a crouch at times is hell, but I manage. Chairs and benches are a bit annoying, but if I sit with my feet out more, I at least avoid overturning tables with my legs.”

Rukari smirked, then added, “Is easier for me, but not much. When having hard time, I remember that viathien Kivenaal has much worse. He same size as Jayde, almost.”

Jayde sighed, then lightly flicked Rukari’s ear. "Sorry, Val. This guy sometimes forgets that his language is far from common. “Viathien literally translates out to “My brother,” in this case. At least he’s not swearing in his language today.”

“Not worth to put five dollar in swear jar later,” Rukari said.

Kaylie chuckled and added, “Not exactly easy for me, either. Most people don’t make clothing sized for a 6 foot female, let alone one with five added inches. I mean, I can make it work, but it’s not easy. Summertime, not a problem, ignore the height and just get the shirt and shorts sized right to fit the rest of me. A little bare fur at the midsection isn’t an issue. In cooler weather, well…” Kaylie shook her head slightly, then continued, “I’ve been learning from Jayde how to make my own clothing.”

“Truth be told, i expected more… creative ways of dealing with things,” Valentin admitted. “Though nobody forces anyone to wear gender-specific clothing, especially nowadays.”

One last sip on the straw of his cup had Valentin finish his beverage.

“For me, it’s annoying. Nothing fits you, made worse by being both tall and weighing next to nothing… Stuff that does fit you is either worse in quality or stupid expensive. Some things are outright impossible, such as anything in theme parks. You all know how expensive bicycles get once you grow past about 1.90 meters…”, Valentin then continued in his mild rant concerning his very non-standard height.

“Oh, I wear plenty of men’s clothing,” Kaylie admitted, “just have to alter it a bit to fit properly. The real bitch is dealing with my left arm.”

Jayde chuckled. “She hates that it’s designed for a male of her kind, so at her size, it’s two inches longer and more suited for a masculine frame. But it fit so it works.”

“That five centimeters of asymmetry makes fitting clothing absolutely a nightmare. Either I have two inches of wrist showing on a long sleeve shirt, or I’m covering half of my hand on the other side,” Kaylie replied.

“Either way, we do end up making a lot of our own clothes,” Jayde admitted. “It gets… Expensive otherwise. Takaraya’s a bit stubborn, but he still has connections through the military to get things like replacement uniform shirts.”

“Yeah, we ran a calculation of how much one of his shirts goes for, and in US dollars, he’s spending $500 a shirt. But, their currency is a gold-backed standard, so… Yeah,” Kaylie mentioned. “Our stuff gets expensive fast unless we’re making or modifying our own. And, well, most of us drive large vehicles to fit in them, which means we pay more for gas, too.”

Jayde grinned. “Yeah, our bicycles weren’t exactly cheap, either. Kaylie was lucky. Kayden, Kivenaal, Malavera, and myself, not so much. Ours are all custom frames, and all of us are on utility rims, tubes, and tires. And Takaraya’s one is being built, though it’s damned expensive.”

“Was cost of small new car,” Rukari added after swallowing the last bite of his second burger.

“Or a nice motorcycle,” Kaylie mentioned. “Granted, they’re having to build the frame to that standard, find rims, tubes, and tires rated to exceed his weight, make all the components that don’t come in sizes for a 2.7 meter tall augmented werewolf, it’s a lot of work.”

“As soon as you are away from the common sizes, it doesn’t matter how far you are off. The work is the same and it doesn’t matter if you are as big as Yoda or the Hulk.”, Valentin countered, getting up and rounding up whatever trash he could from those either already done eating or could rid themselves of some of the packaging.
Upon returning, he retook his seat: “I get the asymmetry issue. Another layer of evil in the curse of not being average…”

“I never thought I’d say it, but, yeah, Takaraya’s the lucky one. He might be huge, but at least his limbs match,” Jayde admitted. “It’s damned annoying having to replace shoes all the time because I’ve worn a hole through my left shoe while my right is still fine.”

“And way more annoying to find shoes to start with,” Kaylie added. “I mean, we make do with what’s available, but… Yeah, the others have an easier time of it. Kivenaal and Rukari here have a preference toward heeled boots, but both come from a riding and sailing culture, so they manage, and their feet are more human. Same for Malavera and Takaraya. They might need specialty sizes, but they walk with their whole foot on the ground. Kayden, Jayde and me? We’re a bundle of weird when shoe shopping.”

Rukari said, “They toe-walk. Heels never touch ground.”

“It’s gotten bad enough that I’ve been reading up on how to make shoes,” Jayde admitted.

Kaylie looked around to see that everyone was finished, with the exception of Jayde still holding a good half of his third burger. “Bought more than you could eat?” she asked.

“No, I’ve been trying not to shower Val with half-chewed meat bits and butcher my words in the process,” Jayde replied.

“Aaaalright…” Valentin muttered once the others were done explaining their tow-walk induced shoe-buying problems, being either unable or unwilling to mentally process the information presented.
“I’ll be right back from the bathroom and then i’m ready,” he added, heading off and through a door into the bathroom.

Once the rest of the group had used the restroom as needed, the crew got back into the truck, this time with Jayde behind the wheel.

“Okay, been a while since I’ve sat in this seat,” Jayde admitted, taking a moment to review where all the controls were. He pulled on his seatbelt, stepped on both the brake and the clutch, and then turned the key. Instantly, the huge V8 started, and Jayde shook his head. “I have no idea why they thought it needed a bigger engine,” he muttered. “It’s like having a bigger dragon, it eats more and it makes more noise.”

He put the truck in first gear and slowly left the parking lot, heading back out to the highway to continue their journey. There, things went smoothly for a while, with the usual expected stupidity. People tailgating the trailer, getting passed by everything that had wheels, including the occasional semi, people visibly on their phone. Jayde’s response was to simply set the cruise at 55 miles per hour and let the truck mostly handle itself, other than needing to steer it.

Kaylie, on the other hand, was a little more vocal about it when someone on a motorcycle split the lane of highway traffic with no helmet on and a phone in their hand. “Well, there’s a future organ donor. Might as well part them out now, they clearly don’t value their brain enough to put a helmet over it,” she grumbled.

“Yeah, I’m already giving him space,” Jayde said, pulling slightly toward the shoulder to make sure he didn’t hit the idiot. When the idiot instead drifted lazily into the Bricksley’s lane without continuing to make forward progress, however, Jayde gave the horn a quick toot, which startled the motorcyclist enough that he dropped his phone. The man, in response, gave them the finger, tried (and failed) to slap the truck’s mirror thanks to Jayde’s well-timed defensive swerve, and drove off in anger, flipping them the bird the whole time.

“Thanks for confirming your IQ, asshole,” Kaylie quipped.

“Muricanism, i guess. People here seems to like their big Vee 8 Motor,” Valentin replied half-jokingly as they went back out onto the road.
Not much happened for a while after, with Valentin killing most of the time by watching the landscape go by until he is startled by Kaylie mentioning something about motorcycles. A quick look out the other window reveals the idiot in question to Valentin.

“Guy’s probably gonna get his scull cracked like a coconut sometime soon… Dressed like that, not much will remain once he’s come to a stop after the mile of sliding.”, Valentin added in obvious annoyance.
Watching the rider drift towards them, he somewhat expected the horn to be used, but the sudden noise still came as a surprise.

“Karma.”, Valentin noted as the motorcyclist sped off ahead of them.

“Hell, seeing what had happened to you,” Kaylie said to Valentin, “was enough to convince me to sell my motorcycle. If that could happen at a reasonable speed, what happens when you’re going double that? I’m already a lifetime member of the Missing Parts Club, I don’t need to lose more by getting thrown halfway across the highway, sliding and tumbling the whole damn time. I don’t need to be airlifted to a hospital - if I’m lucky - only to be told that after all was said and done, I won’t ever walk again. Or to lay there in some field, in pain and dying, alone because some texting twit ran into me.”

Jayde added in, “It wasn’t a decision she made lightly, either. She spent two weeks debating on whether to keep it but ride less, or just sell it.”

Valentin gave a slightly awkward smile and a light nod, and Kaylie smiled in response.

About an hour later, Jayde started looking for a rest stop, just wanting a place to change drivers. “Rukari, keep an eye out for a rest stop or an exit with a gas station, please. My leg is starting to hurt,” he said, grimacing and trying to move the little bit he could while still driving.

Rukari spotted an exit sign and pointed out, “One on right in half mile.”

As something flashed in the mirror, followed by a loud, blaring horn, Kaylie glanced behind them and sighed. “Really? You’re going to tailgate our trailer, blind us with your highbeams, and flip us off because we’re doing the speed limit? Go around us, idiot,” Kaylie snapped.

A few seconds later, the driver of the crossover behind them suddenly floored it, passing the truck and trailer while showing them the finger the whole time, then cut across the front of the truck and brake checked it.

“You…” Jayde bit back a growl and stomped on the clutch and brake pedals, trying to take care not to lock up the wheels, swerving toward the passing lane to avoid a potential collision.

As the crossover disappeared up the exit, Jayde pulled over and shut the truck off. “May your radio stop working, your phone end up in your toilet, and your steering wheel be forever sticky,” Jayde snapped, stomping on the parking brake.

Kaylie sighed. “Rukari, looks like it’s an early switch in for you. I… Doubt that Jayde’s driving any more until he calms down.”

“This is why i usually don’t drive… In the cities it’s already bad with the amount of cars and such, but at least the speeds are low in comparison . The motorway is on a whole different level due to the same number of cars being present while doing twice the speed, if not more.”, Valentin remarked as the Crossover went past the Bricksley, it’s engine screaming for mercy in the process.

Soon after, the truck came to a stop on the hard shoulder, making Valentin rather nervous.
“Can we at least get off the interstate for a driver sw… JEEZ!”, Valentin said, being interrupted by a 40 000 lbs semi-truck blasting past them closer than what Valentin is comfortable with.

When Valentin asked if they could get off the interstate for a driver swap, Kaylie pulled up a map on her phone. “Jayde, there’s an exit in about two miles with a gas station. Think you can make it there?” she asked.

“I’d rather fight a Dyre, but yes, I can,” Jayde grumbled, starting the engine and setting off again.

Kaylie sighed. “Jayde’s not fond of highway driving. Combining all the assholes who drive in the city with all the added risks of 70+ miles per hour, it’s the worst for him,” she mentioned to Valentin as Jayde ended up taking the second exit and winding his way through town to find the gas station.

Rukari got out and helped fuel up the truck while Jayde got out of the driver’s seat, ending up in the rear bench next to Valentin, courtesy of Kaylie vacating that seat in order to run into the gas station convenience store for some snacks. She returned with a couple of bags of baked salted chips and a couple of packs of beef jerky, climbed into the front passenger seat, and passed half of the snacks to the back row.

“Just in case either of you needed it,” Kaylie said. At that point, Rukari had finished topping up the tank, then climbed up into the driver’s seat of his truck, started the engine, and weaved back through town to return to the highway.

“I get that you want to change, but doing that on the shoulder is just asking for something to literally blow our doors off.”, Valentin commented once they were back in motion.

At the gas station, Valentin simply waited it out until they were ready, taking the snacks out of Kaylie’s hands and passing some of them over to Jayde.
“Thank you.”, he said as he tears open a package of beef jerky almost immediately once he has both hands available.

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Jayde gave a thankful nod to Valentin, opening a bag of chips and trying to stop his hands from shaking. “Every fucking time I get on the highway, shit like that happens,” he said, shaking his head.

Rukari chuckled. “You are magnet for trouble, it seems. Not your fault.”

Once they were back on the highway, Rukari set the cruise control and finished off Jayde’s shift behind the wheel, before starting his own. Kaylie gave him a disapproving look as he reset the four hour timer, only for Rukari to say, “Will be safe. Only four hours because Jayde hides pain. Would do eight with Malavera.”

“Just because Malavera can stay up for 36 hours doesn’t mean you should use that to your advantage,” Kaylie grumbled.

Jayde chuckled. “Kaylie, in a contest for who could stay awake the longest, I think Rukari might win, even against Malavera. Takaraya, on the other hand, no, Rukari’s not staying awake longer than him.”

Valentin just had a faint, but nervious grin on his face, knowing that he would not win any contest regarding staying awake.

About two hours later, the expected result of such a hypothetical contest revealed itself.
Instead of watching the varying Landscape go by, Valentin’s face was now pressed against the window, very much asleep.

Jayde glanced over at Val and chuckled. “Well, guess we found out who needed sleep the most,” he said to the others.

Rukari shrugged and kept driving until his timer went off again. He pulled into another gas station, topped up the tank again, and switched seats with Kaylie, who was glad that the hard part was almost over.

As Kaylie reached Louisville, Colorado, she followed Rukari’s directions to a hotel. There, the engine was shut off, the lights switched off, and the parking brake was applied before three of the four exited the vehicle.

“So, what’s the plan for getting Valentin inside?” Kaylie asked.

“We could try to wake him up,” Jayde said.

Kaylie laughed. “Maybe you don’t remember, but this is the guy who slept through the screaming tea-kettle of a shunting engine in Crugandr when he dozed off in the steamworks.”

“Oh,” Jayde said, giving a grimace. “Forgot about that.”

“Not remember that. Remember Mal run into Kayden, I trip over Mal and go slide, nearly end up in pit of coal dust,” Rukari mentioned.

Kaylie chuckled. “Sounds like we’re going to have to carry him, then. I’ll go get us two rooms, you two figure out how we’re getting him inside.”

Jayde and Rukari shared a look of concern as Kaylie wandered off. “I know I can do it, and of the two of us, he knows me a little better, but my leg is already quite sore today,” Jayde admitted.

“Then I carry him,” Rukari replied. “At least won’t have bruise from bony shoulder,” he added, playfully punching Jayde’s right arm.

“My shoulders are not bony!” Jayde replied. “Anyway, be careful with him, he’s already been through hell.”

Kaylie returned with two separate room keys. “Right, you guys have a plan?” she asked.

“Rukari volunteered,” Jayde said.

Rukari opened the rear passenger door carefully, making sure not to dump Val out of the truck, moving to pick him up into a fireman’s carry. He moved out of the way so Jayde could close the truck door, then followed the two toward the hotel.

A few steps in, Val mumbled in his sleep and moved slightly, and Rukari’s tail lashed fiercely as he tried to regain his balance. “Skadu vi!” he muttered under his breath. “Was not prepared for that.”

“That’s five for the jar,” Kaylie said.

“I nearly drop Val when he move,” Rukari replied.

“Not a good reason for profanity in Valraad,” Jayde added. “Seriously, the English version is two syllables instead of three. Try using it sometime.”

Rukari ducked through a couple of doorways, then settled Val down on top of the bed and, in an inspired moment, pulled the other half of the cover over him loosely, like a hotel bed-cover sleeping bag before leaving him the room key on the bedside table. He then joined Kaylie and Jayde in the other room, laying back on the couch to rest while Kaylie and Jayde slept on the floor next to the bed, after they’d dragged all the covers off of it.


October 17th, 2022, Some Hotel, Louisville, Colorado

The next morning, Valentin woke up in a hotel bed, even though he distinctly remembers having fallen asleep in the car.
First, he took is phone to check the time: 07:08
“Huh… Are we in Louisville already?”, he thought, before enabling GPS and opening his navigation app to see where he actually was.
Soon after, a blue dot marked his location at the western outskirts of Louisville, though it apparently thought that Valentin was across the road in a best-buy.
The phone is pocketed again and Valentin goes about his morning routine, eventually ending up in the hotel’s lobby where he took a seat to have breakfast.

Rukari got off of the couch with a groan and stretched, having at least gotten a bit of rest after their arrival in the hotel. He looked over and saw Jayde and Kaylie also waking up, then decided to give them some privacy by heading out to the lobby to have breakfast.

Once he got there, he saw Valentin had already found the place, gave a light smile and poured himself some coffee, then said to Valentin, “Good morning. Jayde and Kaylie will be here soon. Hope you had good sleep?”

“Cannot say i slept poorly. Though i also don’t remember the last time i slept poorly enough to complain about it,” Valentin replies as Rukari entered the lobby.
“Though i did spend a good thirty minutes un-FUBAR-ing my hair after i was hauled inside by one or some of you.”, he added, instinctively tucking some of his hairdo behind his ears.

Soon after, he returns to breakfast, waiting for Kaylie and Jayde to arrive so they could discuss when they were heading where.

Rukari and Valentin were only waiting at the table for about 10 minutes when Kaylie arrived, with Jayde only about a minute behind.

“Sorry for being the last one to the table,” Jayde admitted. “Had a bit of fun getting ready.”

“Partly my fault. I told him when we got to the hotel to just take his leg off and get the pressure off of it, but then we just went to sleep and he didn’t do any of his usual “after hours” maintenance,” Kaylie admitted.

“End result, two jammed buckles and an ankle in desperate need of some oil,” Jayde said. “And the better part of 5 minutes trying to sort out the situation in the morning so I could walk to the toilet.”

“No problem. We didn’t agree on a time to meet anyways. Nor did we have the opportunity to…”, Valentin remarked calmly while also being basically done with his breakfast, courtesy of having been there first by quite a margin.

“Anyway. I don’t know when or where that car can be collected, but Zinn Cycles doesn’t open shop until 11AM, so it might make sense to head to your place first.”, Valentin suggested.

Kaylie checked her smart watch, then shrugged. “I’ll let the guy know we’re coming, then,” she said. “Hopefully it won’t take us too long to figure out if the engine turns over, and if that is working fine, to pull the car up onto the trailer.”

Jayde chuckled, though was studying the breakfast options and seeming more than just a little confused. “Why would someone make cakes in a pan, and why would anyone eat “pan cakes” for breakfast?” he inquired.

“They close at 5, so we have time.”, Valentin countered, smiling a little.
He then mostly sat there, dabbling on his phone a bit while waiting for the others to catch up on eating.

“Oh, I don’t expect we’ll spend more than two hours out there, and that’s providing the engine starts. If it won’t start, we’ll haul it up on the trailer and be moving in an hour or less,” Kaylie admitted.

After the team finished their breakfast, Kaylie led the crew outside to the truck, climbing up into the cab and getting it started. As the others joined her, she gave a light smile, then said, “Sorry, but it’s going to be a while before we have heat in here.”

On the way out, the harsh reality of how big the US was hit him. It turns out, an October in Colorado was substantially colder than an October in Nevada, despite both being part of the same country.
The frigid morning air immediately drained Valentin of any sensation that was warmth.

“Cold… Cold… Coold…” he repeatedly mutters as he practically power-walks to the truck, his mesh-like shirt providing zero thermal insulation whatsoever.

Kaylie’s apology about heater effectiveness was only met with a blank stare and mild nod by Valentin, who was mentally occupied with trying to not freeze.

Jayde reached under the seat and grabbed a folded bundle of cloth. “It’s not much for insulation, but it is wind resistant and a second layer,” he mentioned, handing his jacket to Valentin. “It’ll be a bit big for you, but at least it will trap some warmth.”

Rukari settled himself into the front passenger seat next to Kaylie, getting his seatbelt on as Kaylie slowly backed out of the parking spot.

It only took a few minutes for the crew to arrive at the location of the car, where it could be seen in all of its rusted, dented, malaise-era glory.

“Oh, good, I was worried it’d be further from the road than that,” Kaylie said. “It’ll be less of a rescue and more just getting some old junk out of the woods.” She parked the truck, leaving the engine running, and got out to meet the guy who was selling the car. The two of them talked for a bit, and 5 minutes and $600 later, Kaylie had the keys and the title in her hands.

“Willing to bet she won’t start, even if we do give it some help,” she said.

“$30 says that thing runs once you jump-start it,” Jayde replied.

“Deal,” Kaylie responded. She wandered over to the car and opened it up. “Good news, the interior doesn’t stink!” she called out. She pulled the hood release, lifted the hood, and carefully started removing all of the spark plugs, checking each one as she did so. Then, with all of the cylinders open to the air, she tried turning the key.

“Yep, that was predictable,” she said, walking back to the truck and opening the hood. “Sorry, Val, but I need the box of jumper cables that is currently stored under your side of the rear bench. If you can pull that out and pass them up to me, I won’t have to open your door.”

After Val handed Kaylie the box of cables, then pulled the jacket on, still shivering, Kaylie quickly left the truck, clamping the cables onto the AMCW Ranger’s dead battery and the other end onto the truck’s second battery. Even though she knew there was a chance it’d turn over just fine like this, she wanted to make sure she wasn’t burdening the Bricksley’s charging system unfairly and returned to the truck.

“Right, parking brake is on, we’re *definitely in neutral,” she muttered to herself, looking at the dashboard until she spotted the switch. She flipped it from “Run” to “Jump Start” and was immediately rewarded with the Bricksley’s huge V8 surging up to 2000 RPM and holding there. “There we go,” she said, closing the cab door and returning to the AMCW.

There, she checked to make sure there was oil in the engine, and after confirming there was enough to risk cranking it, she settled into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition, a little amused to find it in the center console instead of on the column. The engine spun over with no issues thanks to the lack of compression caused by the missing plugs, and Kaylie saw the oil pressure gauge almost immediately jump upward. “Good. We have oil pressure. Now, to put the plugs back in, the wires back on, and see if I’m earning $30 from Jayde today,” she said to herself.

It didn’t take much time to put the spark plugs back, or to get the plug wires back on the plugs. Kaylie again settled into the seat, turning the key to the on position and looking at the gauges. “It says we have fuel. Can’t guarantee the quality, but we’re not driving it home, and we can clean the system once we’re actually there,” she muttered, before putting her foot on the brake pedal and turning the key.

The AMCW cranked for a surprisingly long time before there was a muffled pop in the exhaust, a couple of coughing sputters from the engine, and finally a shudder to life. Unfortunately, it sounded a lot like it was running on about 5 of the 8 cylinders, and Kaylie immediately smelled the stench of unburned fuel coming from the engine. “Really? I get a turbo car with a fuel problem?” she grumbled. As if in response, there was a muffled bang, followed by the turbo spooling for a good second or two, and the engine, despite being down three cylinders, sounded like it had almost cleared up. “Wow. Filthy rich, because when you came up on boost, you ran better,” she said. “Lets see if you can drive out of your own grave.”

Kaylie pulled the gear selector down into drive, and the tired automatic gave a valiant effort to drag the car out as Kaylie put her foot on the throttle. At first, she nearly killed the engine thanks to the extra fuel, but it soon got enough air to make an attempt at driving out of it. The car lurched forward a few inches before proceeding to toss dirt all over the side of the car.

She shut the engine down and chuckled, returning to the truck. “Fair play, Jayde,” she said, handing him his well-earned $30. “We’re going to have to haul it out of there. Front-wheel-drive, open differential, and two flat rear tires. Not to mention running on five-of-eight and stinking rich.” She flipped the switch back to “Run” and the truck’s engine settled back down as Kaylie went out to collect up the jumper cables, closed the AMCW’s and Bricksley’s hood, and made sure the AMCW was in neutral. She tossed the box of jumper cables into the back seat of the AMCW, then returned to the Bricksley and began the process of turning it around.

“Oh, good, we’re finally starting to get a bit of heat,” Kaylie mentioned, before looking out of the rear window and reversing the trailer toward the car. She stopped, again set the parking brake, then added, “Time to see if the trailer’s winch works, or if I’m going to regret not having Malavera here to pull on shit.”

Again, Kaylie hopped out of the cab, this time to unspool the winch cable, hook it up to the AMCW’s tow hook, put the trailer ramps in place, and then hit the button to retract the winch. It was immediately obvious that the trailer’s battery was not in great shape, but it was still powerful enough to drag the rusty pile of Malaise-Era “luxury” up onto the trailer. She took a bit of extra time in strapping it down to be certain it wouldn’t go anywhere, put the ramps away, and returned to the truck.

“Okay, we have ourselves a car. That’ll be a fun project to figure out later on, but my guess, it needs new fuel injectors. I’m sure one of them is leaking. As for three dead cylinders, well… That’ll take more troubleshooting,” Kaylie said, sitting down behind the wheel and closing the cab door.

“Would’ve liked to help where i can, but i don’t fancy turning into a glorified popsicle stick…” Valentin commented once the AMCW was on the trailer, having watched it all unfold from within the Bricksley.
The heat was definitely felt, but not substantial enough to change Valentin’s behavior all that much yet.
“Who would’ve thought that the same country turns from Sahara to Siberia in a day?”, he inquired, though not expecting any meaningful answer.

“Anyway… Food, Bike and return trip or Bike, Food and return trip?”, he added, this time actually directed at the others in the truck.

“You think this is wild,” Kaylie said with a smile, “try northern Nebraska or Maine. And that’s without leaving the Continental 48. If it helps, think of the United States this way: It’s 50 different countries who all agreed to let one government rule over all of them.”

When Valentin asked about which order they were getting the bike and food in, Kaylie shrugged. “What do you three think?” she asked. “Food first, or bike first?”

Jayde thought for a second, then admitted, “Food sounds good. Plus, right now, the bed’s pretty empty. Nothing there to steal.”

“Jayde make good point,” Rukari followed up. “People here are assholes. Not here, but in country. Not need Val angry because thief steal from him. Also not need confrontation with thief. Last time not end well.”

Kaylie grimaced. “Yeah, I don’t think Val needs to deal with that,” she said in response to Rukari. She then turned to Val and brought him up to speed. “Last time a thief broke into Twin Hearts Racing, Rukari caught him. It’s not well-known that Rukari’s “apartment” is just upstairs from the work floor, so, the jerk assumed he could break the lock and walk in, steal a couple of laptops and some tools, and leave. He wasn’t expecting to be confronted by Rukari, who was… Let’s just say, less-than-enthusiastic, to having “midnight visitors.” I’ve seen the security footage, and even I’m surprised at how fast Rukari can move. Also surprised at how damn tough he is.”

Jayde smirked. “Rukari’s first kick missed and broke his oak desk in the process. His second one didn’t miss and the little creep ended up in the hospital.”

“He is lucky. Would be dead if I had seen knife he had first,” Rukari replied.

“You make a very solid point. Food first.”, Valentin confirmed.
“So it’s like the EU but nobody wants to admit it because patriotism. Should’ve brought some layers along…” he added after a brief moment of thought.

As such the crew headed off to whichever fast-food joint was deemed most practical to visit.
The 100 feet or so from the car to the restaurant door had Valentin lose most of the collected heat from the trip there, only marginally saved by the lack of windchill courtesy of Jayde’s jacket.

Once in there, Valentin ordered a (by his standards) substantial meal together with several hot beverages in hopes that the Nanites would be of help in the current situation.

Kaylie smirked as she realized Valentin and Jayde had nearly matched each other in meals. “That’s certainly unexpected,” Kaylie admitted.

Jayde took a sip of his decaf coffee with several packets of coffee creamer in it, then admitted, “I’m not built for this climate.” He unwrapped one of his burgers and took a huge bite, clearly showing he was also hungry.

Rukari, on the other hand, wandered over with a tray full of food that made Kaylie sigh. “Really, Rukari?” she asked.

“What I do?” Rukari inquired.

“Four boxes of onion rings, four burgers, a box of chicken nuggets, and two strawberry milkshakes?”

“Big boys need big meals, i guess…”, Valentin quipped before digging in himself, not really talking at all for the entirety of his meal.
Though once he was done, he patiently waited for the others to finish, followed by him collecting everything on Rukari’s tray for disposal or return.
The restaurant did have AC, after all.
Still, the crew eventually returned to the truck, heading off to the shop where Valentin is to pick up his bike.

As they pulled up near the shop, Kaylie looked behind her and groaned. “That’s one hell of a reverse with that mess hanging out back there,” she said.

Nekasi. Will not be problem. Should not be harder than reverse with little trailer,” Rukari said.

As Kaylie and Rukari swapped seats, then prepared to back the trailer through the gap, Rukari slid his hand down from the top of the steering wheel to the bottom and grabbed it down low. After double-checking that the truck was, in fact, in reverse, he eased it backward, steering the truck and trailer like an expert through the gap and neatly into the parking lot, even cheekily lining the trailer up between the lines of their chosen parking space.

Kaylie stared at him, then asked, “Okay, how in the name of the Twin Suns did you do that?”

“Before I was Vyrzadoburi, or special-forces in English, I drive truck for Grundzahiri, for Army. This… Like reverse with great-thunder-cannon and big truck.”

Jayde chuckled. “I think they call that “Towed Artillery” around here, Rukari.”

“Good job! I’ll be right back.”, Valentin complimented once Rukari was finished expertly positioning both truck and trailer within the lines.
Valentin got out of the truck and disappeared into the small store catering to tall human cyclists and Kaylie.
About 10 minutes later, he came back out, finaggling his way through the glass doorway with a box the size of a large TV in his arms. An actual TV was printed on said box, with CLYDESDALE written across the screen. With it, he walks past the driver side of the Bricksley and on towards the bed, where he carefully - as carefully as a partially haircut-blinded, freezing giant can lift a big box, anyway… - loads it into the bed, next to the bed cover that was already in there.
On the way back to the shop, he stopped by the driver door:
“There’s gonna be a few more trips… settlement sum was generous, so i… invested.”, Valentin said, heading back into the shop.

“Will not be problem,” Rukari replied.

Kaylie grinned as she saw the box, then said, “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised, after all, but that is good to see.”

“What do you mean?” Jayde asked.

“They’re one of the few brands that make bicycles for big people,” Kaylie replied. “Admittedly, at my size, there’s a few more options, but not a huge selection. That amount drops sharply at Valentin’s height.”

It took less than two minutes for Valentin to reappear with another box, which, while still large, was a fair bit smaller than the first one, which also found it’s way into the bed.
Rukari’s offer to help was accepted and they settled on Valentin doing the runs from the counter to the door, where the package was handed to Rukari for him to load into the truck.
This dramatically sped up the process and after about 10 more minutes, all the boxes were in the truck for Rukari to secure. After all, it was his truck and he had responsibility of what was on it, in it or attached to it.
Valentin meanwhile fled back into the truck to gather some warmth.

“Rukari is gonna secure the load and then we can head off.” Valentin said to the others once in the car, the satisfaction of soon being able to be sat atop a titanium steed very much visible.

Rukari worked quickly to secure the cargo with ratchet straps first, and then followed it up with the heavy canvas bed cover, pulling it tight across the top of the cargo so that nothing could move. With the cargo secured and the bed now covered, Rukari climbed back into the driver’s seat and started the long drive home.


October 18th, 2022, Nevada, Twin Suns Towing and Garage, 5:00 AM.

Jayde had to admit, he was exhausted, but at least they were home. Or at least, close enough to home. The truck had made it without any issues, the crew had survived, and their cargo hadn’t seemed to have moved at all since Rukari had secured it.

He pulled into the space in front of Twin Hearts Racing and shut the truck off, putting the parking brake on and taking a look around. Kaylie and Rukari had both joined Val in having a nap on the drive home, with Rukari having at least had the common sense to take his shirt off and use it to protect the window from his horns, and Kaylie’s face mashed up against the rear driver’s side window glass, almost mimicking Val on the opposite side. He groaned as he stretched as much as he could while still in the cab, feeling mighty damn sore after taking a double-shift of driving to just get home.

Kaylie woke up as she heard the truck door open, seeing Jayde climbing out of the cab. “I guess,” she said, taking a moment to yawn, “it’s my turn to drive now?”

“No, I made it home,” Jayde replied.

“Jayde, you know better. You know you’re going to spend the rest of today limping like hell.”

“You fell asleep 30 minutes before it was my turn to switch. I don’t know how to wake up Rukari, and if you were falling asleep, it’s not safe for you to drive,” Jayde said.

Rukari slowly woke up and got out of the truck, heading over to Twin Hearts Racing to use the bathroom and get at least somewhat freshened up from the long trip.

It was a little less than an hour later when most of the crew began to arrive, starting with Malavera, who noticed the car on the trailer and the canvas-covered cargo, but was focused on parking his truck in the parking lot first and on his curiosities second. Kivenaal was the second one to arrive, his “battleship gray” pickup truck quietly rumbling around the side of the building. Kayden made a close third, complete with a screech of tires as he narrowly avoided driving into Malavera, who had wandered across the parking lot without bothering to look.

“Hey! With twice as many heads as the rest of us, would it kill you to spare 10 seconds to look before you cross the road!?” Kayden yelled.

Malavera shook his head, then said, “Don’t do 30 in the fucking parking lot, you idiot. Also, if you like that truck, stay out of the last eight spots over there.” Malavera pointed to the far corner of the parking lot.

“Why? What are you going to do?”

I will do nothing. I did a favor for someone and, well, they’re going to need that space.”

Kivenaal walked over to Kayden and Malavera, then asked, “Hey, where’s Takaraya? It’s not like him to be late.”

“Like I said, I did a favor for someone. He should be here in,” Malavera checked his watch, “about 45 minutes. Maybe 30.”

Valentin was still very much asleep when the truck rolled onto the northern lot with the Twin Hearts Racing building on top.
Completely oblivious to their arrival, he remained asleep for another hour or so, only being awoken by Kayden and his rather aggressive parking job.

A little stretch was done within the truck before exiting into (for Valentin) somewhat chilly, but not freezing conditions where he finished up his stretches.

After that, he took a look around, realizing that the trip was over with.
He turned to Kaylie, who was still in the truck:
“Mind if i head home to get neatened up a bit? I’d be back in… uhm… about two hours.” he inquired while vaguely motioning towards his rental across the road.

“Yeah, that’s not a problem,” Kaylie said, before moving to check and make sure everything in the truck was turned off. As she got to the radio stack, she turned all of them first on, then back off to make sure they weren’t on but sitting at zero volume.

Before Valentin could make his way across the road, however, Takaraya made a bit of an entrance, a sleek, highly-aerodynamic fighter-jet-styled aircraft flying low over the shops before transitioning smoothly into vertical landing configuration and touching down in the employee parking lot, shutting the craft down before sliding his canopy back and climbing out.

Kaylie sighed. “Well, at least I know how Malavera spent his two days. He spent them preparing that so that Takaraya could at least fly again. I’m just not looking forward to sonic booms at all hours of the day just because someone has a personal fighter jet. Well… I mean technically it’s more of a combat-ready spaceplane, but, let’s face it, it looks like a jet.”

While walking toward his rental, Takaraya announced himself with a thundering roar as he approached with what to Val was a very styled-up fighter jet.
In the process of landing, the turbojet engines sent a barrage of strong winds, dust particles and small pebbles everywhere, absolutely ruining Valentin’s hairdo.

The following attempt at clearing his line of sight turned out unsuccessful, as the strong winds had Valentin’s hair very much tangled within itself and his glasses and such.

In defeat, he was just stood there, vaguely “looking” at where Takaraya had landed and not exactly seeing a lot due to obvious reasons.

As the jet-blast kicked up a whirlwind around Valentin, making an angry tangle out of his hair and glasses, Kaylie groaned and got out of the truck, making her way across the road.

“Hey, Val,” Kaylie called out once she was nearby, “if you hand me your keys and let me know where you’re staying, I’ll drive you there. I’m so sorry that this happened, and I know that once Takaraya finds out, he’s going to be very upset with himself that he caused this.”

“Uhm… i cannot see a whole lot…”, Valentin replied, getting his keys out very graciously, as he had a habit of clipping them to a belt loop on his pants, which made it very easy for him to retrieve them via muscle memory alone.

He vaguely held them up towards Kaylie, who took them out of his hands. Then they went towards the car, which proved circuitous due to the inherent limitations Valentin faced while looking through a semi-transparent curtain made of human hair.

Once in the car, he reached for the car’s infotaiment system and set it to navigate him and Kaylie back to his rented house, using one hand for the touchscreen and the other to pull “the curtain™” aside.
“That should do it.”, Valentin said while fastening his seatbelt. “Why the fuck do you have a goddamn fighter jet?”

“My guess would be, Malavera remembered he had that and decided to brighten Takaraya’s day with it,” Kaylie replied. “As for where he got it, I’m sure he found it in some abandoned hangar in his damn space station,” she added.

As she drove back toward Val’s place, she continued with, “I mean, I get it that Takaraya’s a pilot, and that giving him the chance to fly again is nice, but, seriously, for someone with two heads, Malavera can be damned scatterbrained at times. He knows you’re here, and knows that Takaraya gets upset with himself if he ruins someone’s day. He knew we’d be back here sometime today, and yet decided “Hey, let’s give the big guy a fucking jet and tell him to land at the shop.” And I’m going to have to be the one to break the bad news to Takaraya, too, because I’m fairly sure no one else saw that.”

“Hope you have some patience. This will take a while to unfurl…”, Valentin said in annoyance, otherwise just waiting for arrival.
Once there, Valentin sat there for a while, initially not even realizing that they have arrived already.
“Uh… right. You can come in if you want, but i will be busy for a while and there’s not a whole lot to do. Might be worthwhile to call for a ride or something as well.”, he spoke while reclaiming the car keys from Kaylie and heading for the door to his place.

“Ah, not a problem. I already had plans to make a call and get a ride back,” Kaylie said. “I’ll see you around!”

Kaylie called up the Twin Suns Towing office and gave her current location to Malavera, mentioning that she just needed someone to bring her back to the building.

Roughly 20 minutes later, Kivenaal showed up in one of the tow trucks. Kaylie thanked him and climbed up into the cab for her ride back to the shop. “Was already being sent out this way,” Kivenaal explained, “to tow in a cranks-but-won’t-start from Pahrump. I’ll just go hook that up and we’ll both get back to the garage soon.”

Within the house, Valentin spent a good 30 minutes unfurling the mess made earlier, doing the rough work by hand and intensively brushing the remainder straight. With restored eyesight and a semi-presentable haircut, he hopped straight into the shower.

By that time, Kivenaal and Kaylie were already on the way back and approaching the shop, the stricken customer car in tow.

Eventually, the shower was followed up with another extensive brushing session with help from a powerful hairdryer, eventually resulting in a majestic mane full of bright blonde waves that wasn’t a series of involuntary knots for once.
Having slipped into a new set of clothes, largely similar to the previous one barring a rather race-y and colorful “livery” on his shirt instead of a uniform navy blue, he headed back for the car, effortlessly reversing it out of the driveway.

A little less than half an hour later, for a total trip time of more than two hours, Valentin pulled back into the parking lot of Twin Suns Towing, making sure to look for any pedestrians roaming around.

Kaylie grimaced as she watched the chaos unfolding in the work bay. She’d mentioned to Takaraya when she’d gotten back that he’d made a royal mess of Val’s hair, and Takaraya had gotten upset with himself. Then Kivenaal had informed him that he really shouldn’t be flying around in unregistered foreign military equipment, especially this close to military bases, and definitely not without a proper pilot’s license for the United States.

She’d never seen Takaraya get angry before, but now, she was a witness to nearly a third-of-a-ton of fury unleashed and aimed in someone’s direction.

Malavera, as the target of Takaraya’s admittedly-justified rage, was completely unprepared for it and kept trying to apologize by claiming that “he didn’t know it wasn’t legal.”

Takaraya bared his teeth, shoving Malavera hard enough to knock him off of his feet and send him down to the floor with a crash. “I have been shot down once already and barely survived it. How dare you set me up to get shot down again,” Takaraya said in a cold, calm, but angry tone of voice.

Malavera grimaced and stood up slowly, quite aware that he’d earned this, technically earned far worse than what he’d already gotten, and looking defeated already.

Takaraya reached out and ripped the left sleeve off of Malavera’s shirt, exposing the Exile’s Brand on his left shoulder. “Now I know why you were exiled,” Takaraya snapped, tossing the scrap of fabric to the floor. “It’s because you don’t follow rules. You make up whatever rules you want to believe.”

Malavera winced. “I know I screwed up, but there’s no need to go for the throat, Takaraya,” Malavera said.

“If you can’t see how wrong that statement is, then there really is no help for you,” Takaraya replied, storming out of the work floor and leaving Mal there, looking concerned.

Kaylie sighed, then went out to greet Val. “Sorry that you had to witness that. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen Takaraya genuinely angry. I mean, he’s upset with himself because he’s sure you won’t forgive him, but… When Kivenaal mentioned that he could have gotten shot down for flying in like that… He was furious. Apparently, Mal told him that Takaraya’s pilot’s license was valid here, and that people around here are allowed to own ex-military aircraft. That second part is true, but they have to be registered first. Twin Suns, this has just been such a mess.”

“I may not have seen it unfold, but i think the guy is running head-first into bigger problems than having ruined someone’s hair. Had no way of knowing, or seeing… that i was there, after all. This wasn’t even the first time, actually. Apparently, the med-evac helicopter did exactly the same and the paramedics were this close to just balding me.” Valentin said, though he was visibly concerned and felt that his hairdo accident was part of the cause for the commotion in the work area.

“Also, you probably will have a field day trying to get that jet back off the lot once the time comes. I mean… it landed here, presumably illegally, and it has to go somewhere at some point…”, he added in an attempt to be helpful while trying to avoid fueling the fire that was raging between some of the colleagues at Twin Suns Towing.

“Knowing Takaraya,” Kaylie said, “he’s going to make Malavera get that jet off of the lot.”

Takaraya, as if summoned by Kaylie mentioning his name, opened up the door to the passenger entrance and stepped outside, sitting down on the curb with a groan. “Of all the stupid, idiotic things he could have done,” Takaraya grumbled. “He knows my history, and still took that risk.” He looked up and saw Val there, then sighed. “I know, probably matters little at this point, but I really am sorry for making a mess of your hair. I apologize both for that and my current mood. Some two-headed moron decided to lie and told me flying in was legal, and now I’m stuck with a jet I can’t fly out of here. And I don’t have any contact information for the right people to retrieve the damn thing.”

Kaylie grimaced, then said, “We might have an option, but… It’s not legal.”

“There’s nothing legal about that plane, apparently, either, so what else is new?” Takaraya said. “Owning it isn’t the problem. That much is legal. But it’s not proven airworthy, has no tail number, I’m not a registered pilot here, and-”

“Takaraya,” Kaylie interrupted, “I was thinking of having Nova fly it out for you. That thing has an autopilot, right?”

“It does.”

“And it’s space capable, so it has AI assisted docking, right?”

“Yes. But I’m not seeing the connection.”

“Because you’re blinded by emotion,” Kaylie replied. “Sorry, but… If you flip the switches and get it ready for take-off, Nova can command it from way up there,” she said, pointing to the sky, “and if it gets shot down, no one dies.”

Takaraya shook his head. “If it gets shot down, the avionics are powered by an RTG. They’ll cover a quarter mile in radioactive shit.”

Kivenaal gave Valentin a two handed wave as he stepped outside, then said, “I might have an idea for how to get that jet off the lot. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing unlawful about dismantling an aircraft and storing it somewhere. Malavera can pay to store that somewhere, we just need to take it apart first.”

“I’m fairly certain that UAV’s also need some form of registration or other approval. Barring hobby-grade drones and such, maybe…”, Valentin commented, his gaze going back and forth between a distraught Takaraya and Kaylie.

“On the other hand, the landing itself might have been illegal, but it being here isn’t, unless you don’t actually own the plot this thing is now sat on.”, he added.

At this point, Valentin pulled out his phone in an attempt to research local legislation regarding storage of property on privately owned land.

“We do own the place,” Kaylie admitted, “so as you said, technically it’s legal to leave it here. I mean, if we really wanted to get creative, we could drain the fuel, remove the engines, and prop the damn thing up on the roof to attract attention, it’d still be legal. We just can’t fly it out of here.”

Takaraya sighed. “Leave it to Malavera to ruin a good thing. I was so excited to fly again, and now… Now I want nothing to do with that damn plane.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out what looked like it could pass as being a smartphone, if one ignored the generalized size increase to where it looked normal in Takaraya’s hands. “I’ve been so tempted to call back home and tell them that I’ve given up on the dream, that I no longer wish to fly. That I no longer wish to be military. But my heart is still set on being in the military,” he added. He reached up to his black flight suit and removed his pilot’s wings, holding them in his other hand and looking to the horizon.

Kaylie had seen this kind of look on her brother’s face before and reacted almost on instinct, grabbing the small golden medal from Takaraya’s hand. “No, you’re not going to do that. You’ll regret it for weeks if you throw those and can’t find them again.”

Takaraya gave a grim chuckle, then said, “I’m a pilot who had his wings clipped, Kaylie. I already know I won’t fly again.”

Valentin did not comment on the distraught ranting form Takaraya, not only because he was already busy researching, but also due to a distinct lack of an idea on what he would have said.
Eventually, the phone is pocketed again, having yielded very little in terms of information.

“Either i am too dumb to google stuff or the local documentation is that poor. I cannot find anything useful…”, Valentin admitted, looking at Takaraya and trying hard to come up with a way of helping.

“It’s okay, Valentin,” Takaraya said. “You tried. In the end, that is the only thing that really matters.”

Kaylie gave a light smile, then handed back Takaraya’s pilot’s wings. “Don’t throw them away. Even if you choose to change branches in the service, those have sentimental value to you. We’ll figure out something to do with that war-bird of yours, just might take some time to come up with an option.”

Takaraya nodded and pinned his wings back onto his flight suit, then said, “I do appreciate the help, even if that help was just listening or being there for me. I’d give you a hug, Val, but… I’ve been told you were as huggable as a cactus before your accident, and, well, I know what an accident can do to the body,” he added, before offering a hand for a handshake instead.

Kayden’s curiosity got the better of him, leading to him wandering out of the building and over to the Bricksley 6x6, still sitting just across the street taking up half of the Twin Hearts Racing parking spots. He fumbled his way through undoing Rukari’s knots, grumbling about the old sailor’s handiwork the whole time, then lifted the canvas cover. Confused, he turned towards Val and asked, “Hey, Valentin? Why did you order a giant TV?”

“Haven’t gotten the chance to work myself into a ‘huggable’ physique, yet,” Valentin chuckled, accepting the offered handshake and being mildly surprised as a result of it, though he was not sure if it was him not being used to a firm handshake or the relative softness of it considering Takaraya’s nature.

As Kayden made himself heard across both parking lots in addition to the road itself, Valentin turned around and headed across the road.
“A TV? I never brought a TV. Why asking?”, Valentin inquired as he approached the truck, taking a look in thereafter next to Kayden.
“Oh that ‘TV’! That’s my frameset for the bike. Some companies ship them in TV-looking boxes to coax the shipping companies into actually handling it carefully,” Valentin then explained with a smile on his face. After having spent half a year away from cycling and without a bike, today was the day that this would change. He finally had clearance to ride out on the open roads, finally had a new bike, even if it was still in pieces, finally, the stars had aligned in a way that allowed him to get back to his passion.

Takaraya and Kaylie followed Val over to the truck, where Takaraya got a decent chuckle out of seeing the box that had caused Kayden so much confusion. When Valentin explained why the box was labeled in that way, Takaraya nodded. “There is a certain logic to that. Shouldn’t need to happen, but because there are careless package carriers out there, this helps,” he said.

“Well, if you need any help, Val, you’ve got the three of us. Even if that help is limited to gathering up the right tools. Hopefully you don’t mind if we take the work bay next to you and work on the Ranger,” Kaylie added.

Takaraya studied the car on the trailer, then mentioned, “I’ll help where I can, but… I won’t fit inside that.”

“I did order the specialty tools needed to get it up and running since i have no idea on what you have and such. Also i can simply donate to the bike-coop once back home, so they’ll be of use there. Though i will need a way of mounting the frame to one of your lifts since i don’t have four arms.”, Valentin said, looking back across the road and into the work area through the open entry gates. Not long after, a solution came to mind:

“Uhm… do you have those wood-clamp things you use when gluing two bits of wood together? Would use one or two of those to clamp the frame to the lift arms with some padding to protect the finish. Also, we are here… and the work area is over there…”, he said while pointing to the ground in front of him and work area respectively, thereby hinting at the fact that all the boxes need hauling across the road in some way.

“Yeah, we have clamps. As for padding… We have a spare roll of rubberized toolbox liners,” Kaylie said. “I don’t know if your specialty tools include one, but I’ll get out my good metric torque wrench for you as well,” she added.

Kayden smirked as Valentin mentioned he didn’t have four arms. “Kivenaal does have four arms, and even he used the car lift to assemble his bike.”

When Val added the fact that the boxes needed to be moved, Takaraya shrugged. “Knowing it’s a bicycle, I can’t imagine the components would weigh that much. The box sizes make carrying all of it at once an awkward task, but, I’ll take what I can.”

Kaylie smiled. “Considering we have a car on the back of the trailer, it’d probably be a smarter idea for me to just reverse this across the street. It’d make unloading both sets of cargo easier. I’ve just got to get the key from Rukari, and-”

“Good luck with that,” Kayden said. “He’s sleeping right now.”

Kaylie groaned. “Okay, plan B. Val, point out the most fragile cargo and we’ll have Kayden carry that. I’ll carry the big box. Takaraya, can you handle what’s left if Val helps you stack the boxes for carrying?”

“I should be able to,” Takaraya said.

Valentin started digging about in the heap of boxes, eventually procuring one with prominent branding of a reputable bicycle wheelset manufacturer.
“Those are the carbon wheels i ordered separately. I am light enough to not void the warranty on those immediately and the settlement was generous as i told you already.”, Valentin said, handing the box to Kayden.
“The frame one has the carbon forks in it, though they are made with weight in mind, so they should be fine.”

Valentin then went about loading up Takaraya with a few additional boxes, taking a couple for himself to carry as well.
With loads of boxes in hand, the group made their way over to the other side, where the stack of boxes was placed down on top of and surrounding the work bench.

“Well thanks for the haulage job. Time to have premature christmas… or a very late birthday… and get everything ready by opening all of those.”, Valentin said in a surprisingly calm voice, though it was still rather obvious that he could not wait to get going.

Takaraya gave a polite nod after having set the packages where Valentin had requested, then mentioned, “It’s what friends do, they help each other.”

“Not a problem,” Kaylie said with a smile. She wandered over to the toolboxes against the back wall, gathering up a handful of clamps, a roll of rubberized toolbox liner, one of her good metric torque wrenches, and almost as an afterthought, a utility knife with a decently-sharp blade in it. She grabbed one of the small tool-tray carts and set all of the supplies down on it, then wheeled it over to Val. “A selection of bar clamps, our spare roll of toolbox liner which you can cut to size as desired, the smaller of my metric torque wrenches, and a box-cutter with a new, or at least, almost-new blade in it.”

Meanwhile, Kayden was mentioning to Kivenaal that they needed a bit of help getting the car off of the trailer and into the shop. Kivenaal, in response, got in the roll-back flatbed and drove across the street, carefully transferring the car from the trailer onto the flatbed, then reversing across the road and depositing it into the second work bay. He then parked the truck and grabbed a few large, obnoxiously-orange traffic cones, and placed them in the entranceway to Val’s stall, making it far less likely that anyone would try to put a car there.

Valentin got to work unboxing almost everything that was hauled over there, wventually ending with a slew of bicycle components scattered across the bay.
Not even 15 seconds after having started the actual build process, Murphy’s Law came to kick some ass.

“Uhm… How do i adjust the height of these lifts?” Valentin inquired while staring at the control panel, having a vague idea based on intuition. Though he absolutely did kot want to touch anything without permission or instruction in fear of breaking something via improper use.

Takaraya smiled, then mentioned, “Going up will be easy. This button here,” Takaraya said, pointing to a button that had an upward-facing arrow on it, “will send the lift upward. The other one sends it down. The big one that looks like a mushroom is the emergency stop,” he continued, pointing to the big red button that clearly said “STOP” on it. “Otherwise, just turn the operating key and then push the up button. If you go a bit too high, let me know and I’ll help you get the lift back down. They can be a little slow letting gravity do it alone, especially with no car up there.”

Kaylie, meanwhile, had the hood open on the AMCW and was already pulling parts out to get access to one of the known problems, the bad fuel injectors in the throttle body.

“Alright thanks,” Valentin replied once the explaining was done.
Soon after, the lift whirred it’s way up so that it’s arm were about to Valentin’s chin.

Work on the bike began, though not yet on the lift as Valentin wanted to prepare other things first.
As such, he spent the better part of half an hour or so building up his aero-optimized, deep-section wheelset by mounting the brake rotors and tires to both wheels and the cassette to the rear one.
Most of that time therefore has been spent at the workbench, leaving the frame itself on the lift for any curious onlookers to see.

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In the same span of time, Kaylie had managed to dismantle most of the after-the-intercooler intake plumbing, pulled the snout off the top of the throttle body, and removed the two fuel injectors from it. Then she started pulling spark plug wires, followed by spark plugs, and tested the engine for compression.

“Well, good news and bad news,” she said to everyone around her. “The good news: Our new project car has six cylinders with good compression. The bad news: Two cylinders basically have no compression at all. Now, they share the same bank, so it could just be a head gasket, or could go away with a simple machining job, but it is a turbo car, someone could have absolutely fried the piston rings.”

Takaraya looked at the spark plug wires, then pointed out, “Several of these have very fine cracks in their insulation. This one’s missing a chunk.”

Kaylie looked at it, then spotted the third “dead cylinder” on the block, courtesy of a small burn spot on the valve cover where their high-voltage spark plug wire had clearly been arcing to it. “Yeah, that’d do it. Explains how that piston had the highest fucking compression of the bunch and yet wasn’t contributing at all.”

“Sounds like hell if it is the rings,” Valentin commented before returning to his work.

Next up was more preparation away from the bike, with brakes being the upcoming item on his mental list of things to do. Contrary to the wheel setup, assembling hydraulic brakes was a substantially more involved process, especially with the tightly-packed STI levers used on almost every road bike.
As such, it took almost an hour to have the brake lines cut to proper length, the levers and calipers hooked up to either end and mineral oil brake fluid added. Afterwards, the brakes needed bleeding, which required additional manpower:
“Anyone free to help for a bit?” Valentin asked as he took a look through the work area, “Need to bleed a pair of brakes and would like to have someone pump the brakes.”

“If it’s the rings, that’s an entire engine dismantled to fix it,” Kaylie admitted. “I’m going to try a dirty backyard hack and see if the compression comes up, but honestly, I’m hoping it’s a gasket or a head job,” she added, before grabbing a bottle of automatic transmission fluid and putting a little bit in the two low cylinders. “There’s detergents in this stuff, so, if it’s just carbon build-up, this should fix it.”

When Val asked if anyone was free to help bleed brakes, Takaraya admitted, “I can try.”

Jayde also looked up and said, “I can do that.”

“Whoever of you has smaller hands, i’d guess… makes it easier to not palm the lever as a whole,” Valentin replied, thus passively choosing Jayde over Takaraya.
As Jayde came over, Valentin explained that the procedure was literally the same as with any car, complete with repeatedly opening and closing the bleed screw while pumping the lever.

Despite none of Shift Happens having seen or even used a brake lever of this construction before, Jayde stayed remarkably calm, instead being curious about why Valentin chose drop handlebars to begin with.

“For the most part, speed. The wide stance of Mountainbike bars ruins aerodynamics. Also, if done right and if you are flexible enough, there is very little penalty to comfort with drop handlebars. Some people prefer the hand positioning, though i cannot testify on that since i never rode flat bars to begin with,” Valentin explained.
With Valentin at the caliper and Jayde above at the lever, the bleeding process began, which took an unusual amount of pumping and two funnel top-ups to accomplish. While odd to Valentin, both levers eventually returned the nice and direct action that is to be expected from a properly bled and air-free hydraulic brake system.

“Thank you for helping,” Valentin confirmed while testing both levers once again for feel and actuation.

“Thank you for explaining the choice,” Jayde said in response, giving a light smile.

Kaylie, on the other hand, was busy making an absolute mess by turning the AMCW’s engine over by hand to squeeze out all of the automatic transmission fluid she’d dumped into the cylinders. “Normally,” she admitted, repositioning her socket and breaker bar, “I’d just crank the bastard, but,” she repositioned the bar again, pausing in the moment, “I really don’t want to clean up the resulting triple-homicide halfway up the shop wall.”

Jayde laughed. “Yeah, you found that one out the last time you did that trick on all 8 cylinders on a car in the garage.”

“I didn’t think it could make such a huge mess!” Kaylie responded.

Takaraya shook his head and chuckled, going back to watching what Valentin was doing. “It’s interesting to see how thin or small some of the pieces are on your bike, Val. I’ve got a frame currently being worked on, but… They’ve mentioned it’ll be done sometime in May. Early April if I’m exceptionally lucky.”

Kaylie looked over, then admitted, “It’s because half of your bike, Takaraya, has to be made with heavier steel components to handle the weight. Seriously, you’re just over 645 pounds, and according to Kayden-”

Kayden spoke up from across the shop, “You’re significantly underweight for your size. Seriously, Malavera’s damn near a foot shorter than you and is only 145 pounds lighter than you.”

Takaraya sighed. “I’m too heavy as it is,” he said.

“Only if your goal is to fly fighters. And you shouldn’t be keeping such an unhealthy low weight just to go back to that. Seriously, there’s health risks that will get the better of you for starving yourself,” Kayden responded.

“Can confirm the weight things. By every normal metric i am somehow overweight. But those metrics fall apart very quickly once you pass 195cm or so in height, so there’s that. I’ve been clinically underweight according to my doctor in Sweden even before the accident, which has effects both good and bad. Now, the weight discrepancy is more extreme, but these Nanites seem to be keeping everything in line, mostly,” Valentin said as he left the brakes to sit for a while and turned to the frame to install the fork and stem on.

“But damn… six-forty-something? Doesn’t that convert to like 300 Kilos? I’m a third of your weight, give or take!”, he added, somewhat amazed. Yes, Takaraya was a foot and a half taller than him, but that would not cover a threefold increase in weight in his mind.

Takaraya chuckled. “292 and a half kilograms, yes. Maximum pilot weight is 275 kilograms,” he mentioned.

Kaylie smirked. “Between differences in local gravity and the bitch that is the square-cube law, yeah, he’s heavy. If you just scaled yourself up to his size, you wouldn’t increase that much in mass. But… You’d also lose a significant amount of strength proportionally. Takaraya and Malavera are just built differently inside to support that.”

Kayden added in, “He’s a heavy-worlder in space-faring lingo. Any race that comes from a world with a gravity more than 1.5 times Earth Gravity ends up termed that way. Takaraya and Malavera are built to survive and thrive at 3.5 times Earth gravity. So… They have a few issues while here.”

Jayde piped up with, “For example, Malavera can’t ride roller coasters. Not because of his height, but because he has no negative G-force tolerance. A few G’s the wrong way for a second and he’s going to hurl. Takaraya’s had training, but even he can get bit by that.”

Takaraya gave a light shrug. “We manage. If humans can spend months at a time in zero-gravity up in your International Space Station, I can deal with reduced gravity.”

“Last time i was weighed i came in a 100.8… in full clothing plus shoes…”, Valentin conceded, exemplifying how little meat was on his bones relative to his height.

The explanation behind why they were as heavy as they are was not totally new to him. After all, the invitational E-Mail regarding the Shitbox Rally 2022 event did state that it would be going through their home world or at the very least home star system. And it not being the solar system was also patently obvious, courtesy of the Rift traveling to and from Crugandr as well as the twin-moons shining down upon them from the sky.

As such, Valentin simply nodded while returning to work on his bike, now grabbing the handlebars and brakes from it’s clamp on the bench vise and installing them to the stem on the bike.
Soon after, the calipers were installed as well and the brake lines secured to the frame with a few specially made plastic clips, which took about 15 minutes or so to do.

Kaylie, after having drained all of the transmission fluid out of the cylinders, did another quick compression test. She scribbled down the numbers, then compared them to the previous set.

“Huh. Well, seems like that didn’t free up the piston rings. Exactly the same results as the last set of numbers. Good news, then, because that means the problem’s either the head gasket or a mildly-warped head. One’s a $30 pair of parts, the other’s a bit of semi-expensive machining, but both are easy fixes,” Kaylie admitted.

Kivenaal wandered in from the truck to take a break and saw Val putting the handlebars, brakes, and lines in their place. “That was not fun to do on mine,” Kivenaal admitted. “In fact, it was the very polar opposite of fun.”

“Brakes are bad, but my field day times will come soon…” Valentin replied as he went back to the workbench, digging around in one of the boxes and pulling out one blue and/or grey Shimano-OEM package after another. A small mountain of boxes piled up on the bench.

“…with getting the electronic drivetrain hooked up and working…”, he mumbled as he started to extract the components. Once all the remaining components related to shifting were unboxed and neatly arranged on the table, Valentin made a discovery:
“Dagnabbit. Left my PC at home. Hopes that i can do the setup via the App once it’s together.”, he grumbled, not really wanting to waste another hour going back and forth.

“Oh, yeah, that looks like it’ll be a mess. Mechanical was already not-fun to get going. Bad enough I had to make my choice on which bar-set to put my shifters on. At least I didn’t have that issue with my brakes,” Kivenaal admitted. “Granted, getting the brakes bled… That was hell.”

When Valentin mentioned he’d left his PC at home, Takaraya got up and walked to the back wall, unplugging an older Panasonic Toughbook and bringing it over. “We use these for diagnostics, but… Maybe it can help here.”

Kaylie chuckled. “Setup, diagnostics, reprogramming, it’s all realistically the same. Anyway, you have USB and you have Serial on that thing, so it should be able to interface with anything that way. BlueTooth for wireless. Should also be connected to the shop wi-fi, but if it’s not already, let me know and I’ll put the password in.”

“Needs USB, but also a specific program to run the connection with. I’ll try with my phone and see if that works. If not, hope you are okay with me getting that program on your laptop. Also, i cannot really dial it in without having it on the bike and the chain installed.”, Valentin replied.

He then went about getting all the components installed, the semi-internal routing for the signal cables proving a challenge. The battery was hidden within the seatpost, which also found it’s way onto the proper place. “Soon” enough, most of the shifting bits were on, with only the bottom bracket, crankset and chain missing.

“Wouldn’t be the first time the diagnostic laptops got a bit of single-purpose software,” Kaylie admitted. “I mean, Rukari’s network folder of tuning applications is incredible, we’ve got three different types of automotive diagnostic software because each of them deals with certain eras of cars better, one of the four laptops around here has some software to decode check-engine-light flashes for cars that are pre-OBD-II compliant, and one has a very specific bit of software for tuning old Sinistra electric-power-steering systems.”

Kivenaal studied the assembly of Val’s bike, then commented, “I’m so glad that all of my brake lines and shift cables are external. Fishing wires through the frame just… That just looks like several hours of pain for me.”

“Yep. Can confirm. The brakes are external on this one as well, but the shifting has to enter the frame somewhere to get to the battery. At least it won’t piss mineral oil into frame.”, Valentin chuckled as he cranked down hard on the right side bottom bracket shell.

“Some manufacturers go the extra mile and implement small routing tubes into the frame, through which you just shove the brake line and be done with it. But that still requires you to split the line somewhere in case you need to take it off. Here, i can remove the entire assembly while only needing to unplug the shifters.”, he added while installing the other bottom bracket shell.
“Regarding the software, that may be true, but this still is a commercially used device. And this also isn’t a bike shop.”

Kaylie chuckled. “There’s six bikes that will need service eventually, and a seventh on a bit of a delay. In the rare event that we find ourselves getting a similar drivetrain for someone’s bike, well, having the software already installed won’t upset anyone. And in the event that we never end up getting a similar drivetrain, well, it’s not the first piece of single-purpose software that’s on these things,” Kaylie said. She picked up a spark plug and took it over to a parts box, then came back with two boxes of plugs and the original one, setting the old one down, and then installing the new plugs into the AMCW.

Kivenaal shrugged. “I mean, I understand that running things internally makes the design more aerodynamic, and as you said, battery has to go somewhere, cables have to run to the battery. But I also understand that this is a better setup overall than the mess that is my bike.”

Jayde laughed. “The real mess is my new bike. Sure, most of the components are from the same manufacturer, but… I’ve had to learn pretty much everything all over again. No more lever on the frame to shift, now it’s small levers on the bars. My rear brake is a lever instead of kicking back on the pedals. And the front brake…” Jayde shook his head.

“He nearly went over the handlebars,” Kaylie admitted. “Thankfully, he figured out real fast how to use less than every fucking millimeter of lever throw.”

“To be fair, my old bike pretty much needed that just to stop,” Jayde said.

“The groupsets start at like 1600 bucks new, or in the realm of 900 used, so they are NOT cheap to get and maintain.”, Valentin commented, test-spinning the freshly installed crankset, which unsurprisingly only spun for a turn and a half due to the bottom bracket bearings not being broken in yet.

As Jayde remembered his experiences with upgrading his bike, Valentin could not stop himself from smiling a little.
“Yep. You want the brakes to be able to overpower your tires. Have a guy that somewhat frequently rode in our group with a 1970s retro-racer. He did have aluminum rims, which helped, but the slot ahead of him still was to be kept empty for safety reasons.
Made for some funny arrangements at times,” Valentin recalled from past times.

He pulled the mildly oily chain out of it’s plastic packaging and carefully routed it through the various cogs and gears, making sure to use the biggest sprocket on both ends as he figured out how many links he needed to remove for a proper length of chain.

“Yeah, that’s a bit expensive,” Kaylie admitted. “Granted, not much of our bikes can be said to be cheap. Most of us have custom frames, and even though most of our choices for the rest of the components ended up falling closer to the “good budget” options, some of us put a bit of money into parts as needed. I know Kivenaal’s got some serious money tied up in his braking system, Kayden’s running more gears than he knows what to do with, Malavera had to pretty much get everything cargo-rated, and so did Kivenaal, Jayde pretty much went with “middle of the road” options for everything. Then there’s Takaraya, who pretty much didn’t bother sparing any expenses other than preferring non-electronic everything where possible. But then again, they’re having to retrofit some… Unusual parts onto his bike.”

Kivenaal chuckled. “I think the guys there flat up said he would basically be pedaling a motorcycle. None of us are exactly sure what he’ll have as a result, other than that there was a serious discussion about how to fit a bicycle with motorcycle brakes.”

“True. The frames probably were costly, though very few people need top-tier components. Of course i am not stopping anyone from getting them if that makes them happy. I mean… Look at this. I could’ve specced it way more economically if i really wanted,” Valentin remarked as he locked the chain’s quick link into place with a good whack against the crank arm by hand.

“Ow… Should’ve used a rubber mallet…”, he then mumbled, somewhat regretting the hand-operation.
Then it was discovered that there was no way of charging the bike due to Valentin having ordered an EU style plug. In hopes of it being pre-charged, Valentin decides to power up the system regardless, checking the available charge on each of the three sub-systems thereafter.
The rechargable battery reported a level somewhere between 25 and 50% through the charge level indicator LED, with both shifters effectively saying “we’re not empty yet”.

Then, Valentin pulled out his phone, which promptly was made busy as he needed to install the set-up app first.

Takaraya grimaced as Valentin locked the chain together by hand.

Kaylie, on the other hand, spoke up with, “You know, you could have asked for a rubber mallet instead of hurting yourself. Or had the big guy put that link in place.”

Jayde shook his head. “I can understand why he didn’t ask Takaraya. I mean, Takaraya’s not exactly… Small.”

Takaraya stuck his tongue out at Jayde, then looked over at Kaylie, who now had all the spark plugs in and was fighting with a new pack of generic plug wires.

As the phone was busy downloading the app at an almost agonizingly slow pace, Valentin kept going by installing the pedals to his bike, followed shortly after by the saddle.
He returns to the phone and went about the process of adjusting the shifting to be as accurate as possible, which thanks to the intuitive layout within the app proved easier than anticipated, considering it being Valentin’s first ever foray into electronic shifting.

“That was smoother than i thought it would be. Sweet.” he mumbled as he set his tools aside to take a lunch break.
“How does lunch work over here. Do you all head out to eat or is the meal brought here?”

“Some people head out to eat, some order food to be delivered here, some pack their own lunches,” Kaylie said. “There’s really no wrong options.”

Takaraya chuckled. “I was just going to order a pizza, but if anyone’s got better ideas in mind, I’m open to hear them.”

Kivenaal laughed. “Leave it to Takaraya to prove Kaylie’s point. But, seriously, lunch around here is somewhat, shall we say, “organized chaos.” Everyone’s either going out or ordering food, or grabbing things from the fridge.”

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“Mind if i jump onto the Pizza bandwagon? I’ll just default to a tried-and-true ham-topped pizza, if they have one. Not sure what the menu is like at whichever place you order from.”, Valentin inquired, returning to the bike to continue working on it while food was on it’s way. As such, he went about figuring out where he wanted the extra shifter buttons to be and how he wanted to use those buttons.
A slew of different configurations were tried, though Valentin absolutely was not convinced of locking any one of them in with the handlebar tape, especially considering that any one of those buttons could be configured to do any of the four available shifting operations and other, somewhat related functions.

Eventually, he gave up on button placements for the time being and installed the front wheel followed by the intent of adjusting the position as agreed on with his bike-fitter about a week or so prior.

“Where do i find measuring tape and a spirit level? Ideally eve something to measure angle,” Valentin inquired into the open work area again in hopes of someone showing him where to locate the required items.

“Not a problem,” Takaraya replied. “I’m assuming a medium pizza, about 30 centimeters in diameter, though I do have to ask if you prefer thick or thin crust,” he added, pulling his phone out of his pocket and making a note to add a ham-topped pizza to the order.

Kivenaal smiled. “Should be in this toolbox,” he said, pointing to the small green one sitting on the work table. “We’ve been using a lot of tools like that in some RV renovations.”

Kaylie chuckled. “If you’re ordering pizza, Takaraya, mind adding a medium sausage with extra cheese?”

“I can do that,” Takaraya said, adding Kaylie’s pizza as well.

“Thanks, thin crust, and i’ll go up a notch in size. Skipped breakfast due to… time constraints,” Valentin corrected as he wandered over to the specified toolbox, digging around in it for a while before pulling out a spirit level and a a measuring tape.
“Imperial-only? Time to convert it all to inches, then…” Valentin commented.
He went back to inches and spent a good ten minutes on his phone, converting every variable measurement from millimeters to inches.
After that, he went back to his bike and started adjusting it to the match his fit, using the borrowed measuring tape for distances and the gyroscope on his phone for angles.
A lot of minimal adjustments were made one at a time to make sure it was as good as possible from the start, followed by him taking the bike off the lift for the first time in a good while as he tested the positioning while stationary in the work bay.

Takaraya nodded, then stepped outside to place the order, more to get away from the noise so that he didn’t have to repeat himself two or three times. Afterward, he walked back in, putting his phone away.

Kaylie held one of the two AMCW fuel injectors in her hand and looked through the shelf of parts, muttering to herself, “If I were a fuel injector, where would I be?”

Kivenaal, on the other hand, looked to Takaraya and asked, “Hey, mind if I use your RV to make up a burger or two?”

“Go ahead, as long as you clean up after yourself,” Takaraya replied.

Having test-sat the bike, bracing himself against the lift tower with the unused arms, he got back off the bike looking rather content.
“Feels about as expected,” he mumbled, folding the other half of the lift back up.
The remaining time until the pizza arrived was largely spent installing peripherals such as the cycling computer, speed sensor, lights and other legally required bits and pieces.
Basic setup for all of that was done, but the headlight adjustment had to wait until it was dark, else risk glaring oncoming traffic.

Kaylie grinned as she saw the pizza delivery car pulling into the lot, with someone stepping out a few moments later to walk the pizzas up to their customer service door. Kaylie made her way over there to pick them up and pay the bill, then walked over to where Val and Takaraya were currently at with three boxes of pizza.

“Right, so, I know this one’s mine,” Kaylie said, setting the smaller box off to the side. “So, pepperoni, sausage and ham?” she asked. As Takaraya claimed that box, then found a large enough patch of empty floor to sit on, Kaylie then handed Val his box. “Large, thin crust, ham pizza,” she mentioned. “Either pull up a seat to a workbench, park on the floor, or, you could sit in the car. It’s not going anywhere.”

Valentin was similarly eager to recieve his pizza, handing Kaylie a $20 bill in exchange.
“I’m no employee here. I’m paying for my food. Still, thank you.”, Valentin said with some authority.

With the box in hand, he parked himself atop the large workbench next to the stack of bicycle components and their respective boxes, which to him was fairly common practice in the bicycle workshop he frequented.
He dug into his pizza, immediately making it apparent that the pizza place was indeed a good pizza place.

The pizza was done with surprisingly quickly and Valentin neatly folded up the box to take up as little space as possible in the dumpster, followed by him discarding said box in the nearest available bin and “cleaning off” his hands with some paper towels. Only then he realized that he failed to do so before eating, which ended up being less annoying than one might think as the parts Valentin was working with were brand-new and thus not covered in grease, grime and road grit.

Likewise, it took very little time for Takaraya and Kaylie to finish their pizzas, where it was immediately obvious that they had three different ways to deal with the cardboard box. Takaraya, similar to Valentin, folded his box up, though the difference there was the sheer amount of force Takaraya could apply to compress the cardboard into a much smaller space. Kaylie, on the other hand, carefully tore her box into strips that neatly fit into the can.

Kivenaal, having finished making and eating his burgers, took a look at the can and brought it out to empty it into the dumpster, returning it with a new bag inside. “Hey, Valentin,” he asked, “when you unpack these boxes, mind stacking the cardboard up against the wall for recycling, please? We can’t do that with food boxes, but, we at least try to recycle packaging when possible.”

“Sure, i can do that,” Valentin replied, spending the next 15 minutes executing the request by neatly unfurling the cardboard packaging into the pre-folded sheets, even going as far as stripping the ceran-wrap component wrappings from the box, only leaving a little residue and and some staples in there.
What was a mountain of boxes thus turned into a rather loosely stacked tower of individual cardboard sheets as Valentin returned to the bike.

There, he connected the electronic groupset to the head unit to allow for things such as displaying the chosen gear or the mode of assisted shifting currently enabled.
This allowed Valentin to tinker with control layouts a bit more, eventually settling on using the left hand for anything related to the head unit and the right hand for shifting.
As such, two additional buttons went onto the left side to be accessed from the hoods with his thumb, with the third button mirroring the arrangement on the right side.

With the controls locked in, Valentin went about wrapping the bars in handlebar tape, which was rather finnicky work. This was made apparent by Valentin being veery focused for the 20-or-so minutes it took to wrap them, pausing every time something major happened elsewhere to avoid having to re-do the job.

While Val figured out his controls and started wrapping the bars in handlebar tape, Kaylie went back to trying to find fuel injectors for a mid 70’s AMCW throttle body. She sighed. “Hey, Takaraya, mind giving me a lift up to those boxes up there? I know I should just go get a ladder, but-”

“It’s not a problem,” Takaraya said. He crouched down, then carefully lifted Kaylie up to the top rack of small part boxes.

Kaylie gasped as Takaraya lifted her effortlessly, then admitted, “Yeah, I keep forgetting just how strong you are.”

“Kayden was in the same situation when he needed to change some of the light bulbs above the work floor. Apparently, no one’s ever lifted him off the ground before, because it took him a solid ten minutes to relax his death-grip on my ears, even though I told him four times I wouldn’t drop him and that he was safe,” Takaraya said.

Jayde looked out over the work floor and chuckled as he saw Kaylie sitting just behind Takaraya’s neck, his hands holding her legs so she wouldn’t fall. “Having fun all the way up there?” he asked, lightly teasing Kaylie.

“Looking for parts. Just he’s more convenient than a ladder,” Kaylie replied. After a couple more seconds of looking, she saw the box and grinned. “Found you! Okay, Takaraya, got the parts, just need to get back down to earth.”

Takaraya carefully set Kaylie back down, watching as she quickly started fitting the new parts to the car. “If there’s a problem with the cylinder head, why are you fixing the fuel system first?” he asked.

“So it doesn’t get forgotten about,” Kaylie admitted. “I don’t like feeling stupid because I forgot a part here or there and that’s why the car won’t start.”

As Valentin pressed the bar-end plugs into place, the excitement was starting to mount up again, courtesy of the bike nearing completion. Still, near-completion does not equal done and Valentin tried his best to stay focused in order to work efficiently and reliably.

Up next, he went back to the peripherals, connecting the heart rate chest strap to the head-unit as well as customizing it, adjusting a slew of data-fields, what they display and how the navigation map looks and behaves like.
With the process nearing completion, Valentin made a realization:
“Awww noooo… I’m gonna have to jump straight into interval training, am i…”, he moaned, pacing about the work area in annoyance and trying to figure out a way of doing it.

Kaylie looked over from under the hood, then asked, “What do you need done? We might be able to help… Or figure out a cheeky alternate solution.”

Jayde, Kivenaal, and Takaraya looked at each other, trying to figure out what Val was concerned about. Kayden, on the other hand, was blissfully unaware thanks to his earbuds playing music and the rather simple task of replacing a car’s air filter.

“I need to bed in the brakes. Basically, accelerate to 30-ish kilometers an hour and brake back to an almost-stop. And do that ten to fifteen times. Per brake.”, Valentin explained as he leant against the edge.
He took a few more of the smaller boxes he unpacked since the first set was folded up and broke them down as well in an attempt to vent some of the stress he was facing.
After all, the thought of jumping in the deep end regarding the return to cycling was not exactly what he had in mind.

“Oh,” Jayde said. “Um… We can just go to the other building and do that. Rukari can spin the dyno up to about 20 miles per hour, then cut the power and you stop the roller with the brakes. It’s what I did. All you have to do is keep things steady and, well, don’t step on the roller.”

“Yeah, Jayde mentioned it to me and, well… It was a bit warm for my tastes when I had to do my brakes, so I used Jayde’s trick,” Kivenaal admitted.

Kaylie sighed. “Am I seriously the only one who did mine the old-fashioned way?” she asked. “I mean, I understand why Jayde did that, but, come on, Kivenaal. You have two good legs.”

“And fur that’ll keep me warm at 40 below zero, naked, curled up in the snow. And that’s before considering my winter pelt,” Kivenaal replied.

“I’m both impressed and also shocked shocked that you pulled that off. Twice, even.”, Valentin commented with a tone of voice that very much was not fond of the idea.
“Looks like i’ll be doing it the traditional way, then… At least i can test all the other bits and bobs on the descent to town.”

He then went into the boxes once again, procuring a new helmet from it, which he adjusted to be as safe as possible.

“I’ll just head to the bathroom really quick to get this on and i’m on my way.”, he said as he held up the chest strap, heading off to the bathroom and appearing a minute or two later looking exactly the same, but now wearing a helmet and the measuring device of the strap producing a visible bump on his shirt.

“To be fair, we both had Takaraya help keep us upright,” Jayde admitted. “Granted, I can understand that it’s a bit risky.”

When Val got ready for riding, Jayde also prepared himself for the journey. By the time Val came out of the bathroom, Jayde had his custom riding helmet on, lightly-tinted safety glasses to keep the wind, bugs, and dust out of his eyes, and had retrieved his new bicycle. The vivid, bright orange frame and black fenders were not-so-subtly accented here and there with brass-plated components, mostly to hold up his cargo rack and secure the fenders in place, as well as his handlebars. One clearly not-from-the-factory addition was a padded U-shaped hoop on the back of the cargo rack, the purpose of which became immediately obvious as Jayde put up the kickstand and mounted up, his tail resting in the hoop, clearly out of the way of any moving components.

As Jayde joined Valentin just outside the work bay door, Valentin looked over at the bicycle he was sat on, inspecting it rather closely for a while.
“So you’re joining me, huh? Sure. I’ll need to stomp the brakes from time to time. To avoid you running into the back of me like i did into the van, i’ll count down from three and throw out the anchor at zero. Or you can just go ahead, but i’ll still count, since i am assuming that you want to stay at least vaguely close.”, Valentin commented in a muted, neutral voice as the bike-build wasn’t formally finished yet.

“No problem. I’ll keep my ears open for your countdown, probably start slowing down in advance as well. My brakes are bedded in, but I am stopping a bit more weight than you are. Steel frame, after all, plus I’m a bit heavier than you are,” Jayde said. He made sure everything was ready, first by making a last minute adjustment to his bright-orange helmet, nearly matching his frame in color, then reaching down to the box installed over the top tube of his frame and flipping the switch to turn on his lights, and without even stopping to consider it, pushed the “record” button on the frame-mounted camera sitting in front of the head tube.

“Sorry, Kaylie’s request has been that I need to be recording in case accidents happen,” Jayde admitted.

Valentin elected to have his lights remain off, as visibility was unobstructed and they were still hours away from dusk.
Another curious look across to Jayde and his hike followed, but soon after, Valentin set off and turned left out of the driveway onto the open road.
As expected, the road led slightly downhill for a good while, which Valentin made use of in slowly gaining speed.
Once the speed field on his head-unit indicated about 30 kph, Valentin started counting:
“THREE! TWO! ONE! ANCHORS OUT!”, he blared, applying just the front brake as much as he felt was safe.
The first time produced a relaxed stop in terms of distance, with the next few subsequent ones getting shorter and shorter.
Then, braking distances leveled off for the remaining sets for the front brake due to the tire only having so much grip on top of Valentin still being relatively unfamiliar with the new bicycle.
This process was then repeated for the rear brake, though stopping distances were considerably and consistently longer.

After that, Valentin signaled to stop by raising one hand upwards, the back of which facing rearwards.
Having pulled over to the very edge of the shoulder, he informed Jayde of the progress:
“Both brakes are done now. Time to head back, but i’ll say that i’ll be taking it cautiously since i have very little idea on how much of the past cardio is still there.”

“Understandable,” Jayde said, giving a light smile. “Would you like me to lead, or to follow?” he asked, looking over to Valentin. “I know we won’t be going fast, admittedly, so using me to punch a hole in the wall of wind isn’t as critical, which is why I’m asking.”

“I’m fine with either. Me leading allows me to set a pace that i am definitely comfortable with, but you leading makes my life easier due drafting. As soon as you are faster than a man would jog, aero matters.”, Valentin said, starting to make his way back slowly to allow Jayde to find whichever position he was most comfortable in.

Not pong after, the pair settled into the rhythm of the ride, with Jayde following Valentin at a fairly cautiously chosen distance.

About forty minutes of largely uneventful riding later, the two pulled back onto the parking lot of Twin Suns Towing.
Valentin gracefully rolled into the bay he had been working in for the past few hours, were he dismounted his bike with a pair of resounding metallic clicks as the mechanical interlock between shoe and pedal was disconnected.

“I’m back, now with usable brakes,” Valentin announced, practically grinning fro. ear to ear as that meant that his bike was actually fully functional and finished.

Jayde rode around the back and parked up in the shop’s bike-rack, reattaching his heavy bike lock and then heading inside.

Kaylie, on the other hand, looked over as Val dismounted with a couple of loud clicks, then smiled as he announced his brakes were usable now. “Good to hear!” she said, gathering up the last of her tools from the workbench and putting them away, having already labeled the section of workbench in front of the AMCW as being “Reserved for Engine Service.”

Kivenaal, by this time, had already gathered up the empty cardboard boxes and put them in the shop’s recycling area, having only grabbed from where Val had been placing them and not touching any other boxes out of respect for Valentin.

Takaraya, on the other hand, was sitting on one of the heavily-reinforced shop stools, looking like he was hoping the day would be over soon. Kayden was nearby him, having just finished making sure Takaraya hadn’t actually hurt himself. “Yeah,” Kayden said, “you’re okay. Take things a little easy for the next couple of days though.” Kayden looked over to Val and smiled. “Good to hear that you’re back to riding, Val.”

“Formally, i am still in the process of building it, but it feels soooo good to be in the saddle again.” he cheerfully replied.

Valentin went over to the workbench and ended the ride on his head-unit, which immediately sent it’s data over to his phone with a noticeable “bleep”.

He leant the hike against the workbench edge and cleaned up after himself, sorting what remained of the boxes into those that he wanted to keep for storing whatever small replacement pieces were left of the respective component and those that can be discarded. He also went ahead and broke down the large boxes that were used to contain the slew of smaller ones for the return trip, walking all of that out back to where Kivenaal had been taking the others.

Eventually, the workbench was as spotless as a car-repair-shop workbench could be, with all the borrowed tools and things returned to wherever Valentin had gotten them from.
The tools he brought were contained in one of the component boxes for safe keeping, as Valentin planned to take those tools home with him as part of his personal workshop toolbox.

Valentin then dabbled on his phone for a bit, eventually looking up in search for Kayden.

“I bwt you’re interested in some info from my brake-bedding ride. I just sent you a link to the actual online spreadsheet with read-only permissions. Every future ride will pop up there. Today’s one should be added in…” Valentin said, pausing for a hit to mentally account for the shift in time, “about 4 hours.”

“Thank you,” Kayden said. “Sometimes, just seeing someone else improving over time can be important. I’m already tracking Jayde’s and Takaraya’s progress because, well, both of them are trying to make improvements to their lives in their own way.”

He pulled out Nova’s handheld unit and saved the spreadsheet link, then looked back to Val. “So, now that you’re here, I believe one of our conversations involved setting up a bit more control over the nanites. I’m not entirely sure what method you’d be most comfortable with, but we can fit the required essentials into something the size of a smart-watch if needed.”

“We did talk about that. Though i would like to figure that out tomorrow, if that’s okay with you. I have some plans regarding mane containment for which i would like to drop by the local hairdresser.”, Valentin replied as he started to collect the few remaining boxes, with which he went over to his Dione.
A moment later, he returned to get his bike, having left the trunk open to make loading a little easier.

“Yeah, not a problem,” Kayden replied. “Was more to let you know that, whenever you want to start on that, I’m ready to work on it.”

“That will almost certainly be tomorrow. Anyway, see you all then!”; he said as he went back outside to his car with the freshly-built bicycle in tow.
Loading it into the back proved easier than expected and soon after it drove off the lot and down the hill towards town.


October 19th, 2022, Nevada, Twin Suns Towing and Garage, 8:30 AM.

The next morning came around and Valentin once again made his way to Twin Suns towing, the only notable change being the distinct lack of hair brushing as his ‘hair containment plan’ did not require this anymore. He rolled up to the parking lot and reversed into his usual spot, getting out thereafter and heading to the trunk.

From within, he procured the very same boxes that he packed into the car yesterday, bicycle included.
With everything in tow, two trips were made into the work area, one for the bike and the other for the boxes.

“Morning.” Valentin said to whoever happened to be in the vicinity.

“Morning!” Kaylie called out. There, scattered across the top of her section of the workbench, were the two AMCW cylinder heads, the intake manifold, the valve covers, the timing cover, and both timing chains. On the floor in front of the workbench, there were the two exhaust manifolds, the crossover pipe, and the turbocharger. “Sorry, stayed a little late yesterday and came in a bit early today to get this going. Bad driver’s side head-gasket, as expected. Looks like the heads are fine, but I’ll have to get them checked regardless.”

“Hello, Valentin,” Jayde said, looking over from under the hood of an early-2000’s Anhultz Dione, holding the top cover of the air filter box as he finished the air filter change. “Give me a couple of minutes to get these clips in and I’ll be right over to help if you need it.”

Kaylie gave a light chuckle. “Jayde found out how annoying those spring clips could be earlier.”

“One of them almost went up my nose,” Jayde grumbled.

A few minutes after Val arrived, Kayden pulled into the parking lot, followed by Takaraya in what could best be described as a cab-over semi-truck converted into an overgrown pickup. Then Malavera turned up in his truck.

Ten minutes after that, Kivenaal arrived on a sleek, black-powder-coated bicycle, swooping past the shop and parking his bike next to Jayde’s in the rack.

Valentin chuckled a little at the minor retaining clip accident and then got to work in building up the other wheelset in very much the same manner as the first one. Contrary to the aero-wheelset, which featured relatively narrow slick tires, this one had substantially wider tires with some degree of a tread pattern. He didn’t pay much attention to any of the others arriving soon after, leading to him missing both the modified cabover truck of Takaraya as well as Kivenaal’s bicycle rolling onto the lot.

With the second wheelset built, he spent another 5 minutes swapping the second, stock wheels with the aerodynamic ones of yesterday.
“Time to bed the other rotors, i guess…”, he mumbled as he prepared his devices for the second ride since the accident way back in April.

Kayden, Malavera, and Takaraya walked inside, all three of them giving Val a polite “hello” before heading off to where they were needed. Which mostly meant that Takaraya grabbed the keys to one of the tow trucks, Kayden walked outside to bring in a customer car that needed brakes done, and Malavera disappeared into the office to handle the towing business side of things.

Kivenaal walked in, still wearing his riding helmet when he noticed something was different about Valentin. “The braid’s a good look for you, Val,” Kivenaal said, though watched as Val prepared to gear up for another ride.

Jayde finished getting the clips in place and shut the hood carefully on the bright orange car. Kaylie looked over, then quipped, “I wonder, does Anhultz make cars in any color except tangerine? I swear, every one I’ve seen is that color.”

Kayden quipped, “Only the ones that last a million miles.”

Jayde, on the other hand, noticed Val was gearing back up as well, then asked Val, “Anyone you want with you on this ride, or, going solo?”

Having greeted the others as they came and went, Kivenaal complimented Valentin on his new haircut, which instead of flowing waves of near-white blonde hair was now a condensed, single braided ponytail about equal in length.

“Thank you. I’m not getting it cut, so i figured i’d explore other possibilities.”, Valentin replied as he put his helmet on, which required threading the braids through the space between the adjustment dial and the actual helmet shell.

“If anyone wants to join, i won’t stop you, but i’m once again bedding brakes, so i’ll be throwing out anchors, so to speak.”, Valentin said as he focused on his head unit again to set up the data-logging.

Kaylie chuckled. “Give me a couple of minutes to get cleaned up, and I’ll go along with you.”

Likewise, Kivenaal just tapped on his helmet and mentioned, “I’m already prepared. Just need to unlock my bike and I’ll join you.”

Jayde grinned, “Well, at least I’ll have my usual drafting partner for the ride back,” he admitted.

Kayden groaned, then said, “Now I know why Kaylie prompted me with “Forgetting something” this morning. Wasn’t my keys, though those were a pain to find. Brought my bike… Forgot my helmet.”

“In the break room, cabinets above the fridge, your spare is behind the coffee, Kayden,” Kaylie replied, walking back in and drying her hands on a shop towel before heading out to the van. She returned leading a surprisingly-familiar-looking bike into the shop while wearing a bright pink cycling helmet.

“You four go on ahead, I’ll ride with you guys some other time,” Kayden said, watching as Jayde pulled on his helmet and followed Kivenaal outside.

With Kivenaal and Jayde side-by-side, it was obvious how similar, and yet how different the two bikes were. Kivenaal had a stacked set of handlebars, each with a brake lever on it. The top bar had his shifting controls, his lower bar had switches and buttons attached to easily control his lights and electric horn, and attached over the top frame tube was a large, aerodynamically-shaped pod containing batteries to power everything. While Jayde had brass accents, Kivenaal’s bike was black wherever possible. Both bikes had the same fenders and cargo rack, but Kivenaal had two tail holders compared to Jayde’s singular one.

Kaylie, by comparison, was running nearly-stock with the exception of her own custom-altered headlight assembly, taken straight off of a junked motorcycle and adapted to work on the bicycle, complete with lithium battery pack, and a camera mounted above the bars, courtesy of the low-mount for her light.

Valentin took a good look at the other bicycles, wondering, but not daring to ask, about what drove them to some of the choices that have been made. Instead, Valentin wondered about other things:
“Uhm… how does communication work for you over here? Like this is the US and i’ve never ridden with you. And, not to be rude or anything, but i doubt that you have out-of-state or even international guests joining your rides.” Valentin said as he kept eying the bicycles of the others, with Kivenaal’s bike being of particular interest with the lighting arrangement and the shroud covering some of it.

Kaylie smiled, then explained for Valentin, “Well, we’re usually a close-knit group, and we had to learn our own means of communication, so it’s bound to be different from what you use. We use the US standard of hand signaling, which means,” Kaylie moved to make sure she had plenty of clearance around her left arm for demonstration purposes, “that a left turn is the left arm straight out from the shoulder, a right turn is straight out from the shoulder, hand up, and to slow down or stop, it’s left arm straight out, hand down toward the ground. It’s a little informal, but if I’m slowing down, I try to keep my fingers together, if I’m stopping, I have them spread more.”

Kivenaal then added, “For those of us trailing the group, you basically need to know three additional commands. If you need to request that we slow down, call out “Slow up!” and we’ll pass that forward. If you need to stop, call out “Stop stop stop!” and we’ll pass that forward as well. If you’re not the tail of the group, and you’ve heard someone call out a command from behind you, raise your right hand after you pass the command forward to acknowledge that you’ve heard and passed it on.”

Kaylie then smiled and said, “We’ll mostly follow you at a safe distance while you bed in the brakes. On the ride back, either you lead or I lead. Only thing that I ask is that if you’re someone who drafts, please, don’t overlap wheels. I know you can get a huge aerodynamic benefit, but… None of us really feel comfortable doing that. Malavera learned that the hard way once. Drafting close is fine, just be careful.”

“I think i can work with that,” Valentin noted once the explanation was done with,
“Is there any established means of pointing out road hazards? Back home, you aren’t wrong if you simply point at whatever you think the trailing end needs to be aware of, but we do have some variants to detail the nature of the hazard. Granted, the road is dead-straight for 15 kilometers and we’re in the middle of nowhere, but still…”

“Pointing generally works,” Kaylie said. “It’s not perfect, but… Generally the only things we’re worrying about are potholes or unfortunate animals that found out what a car was the hard way. Normally, Malavera rides as our tail, so to speak, and he’ll call out the rolling road-hazards for us, but we don’t rely on him checking for cars. Mostly because there’s days like today where he’s not coming with us.”

“I’d rather follow, to be honest. Not being familiar with group ride customs can spread nervousness and disorder amongst the riders. Having the unfamiliar person head the train is asking for more trouble. That way, i can also do the braking cycles without killing your inertia ad well, hoping that you won’t bomb it down the hill at full tilt. And even if, a single command is easy to keep track of. The others are simply copy-paste from whoever is in front.”, Valentin argued as he retrieved his prescription cycling glasses from their spot in the helmet vents and putting them on. Compared to his everyday glasses, those had much larger lenses to block wind and debris more effectively as well as a mirror-finish tint with red-to-purple shading to it.

“No problem. I can understand the reasons, I just had to give the option,” Kaylie admitted.

It didn’t take long for Kaylie, Jayde, or Kivenaal to also get their eyewear on, and the group left the building in a neat single-file line with Kaylie leading, Kivenaal following her, Jayde following Kivenaal, and then Val trailing Jayde.

As the others started rolling onto the road, Valentin clipped his feet into the pedals and joined them, gaining speed down the hill. Valentin had no issues keeping pace initially, though was not sure if there was a deliberate effort being made to accommodate him. Due to the descent on the way to Pahrump, gaining speed was not hard and Valentin initially just waited to see where Kaylie would level off in terms of speed. Coincidentally, she chose to stay at vaguely 20MPH, despite gravity and road conditions allowing for plenty more.
This was good news for Valentin, as he could go about the bedding process by just stomping the brakes without forcing anyone up front to slow down.

The brake-bedding process went about with little issue, save for the occasional small skid of the rear wheel.
Once he caught back up, the group was about halfway down the hill.

“STOP STOP STOP”, Valentin shouted, thereby requesting the group to pull over when safe.

Sure enough, Jayde (and to an extent, Kivenaal and Kaylie as well) heard Valentin’s request, each raising their right hand in acknowledgement while coming to a safe stop at the roadside edge.

“You okay, Valentin?” Kaylie asked. While waiting for an answer, she grabbed her water bottle and took a drink before clipping it back into the holder on the frame. Jayde, likewise, unscrewed the cap on his old canteen and took a very long drink of water, capped it back up, and let it hang at his side again.

Kivenaal grimaced. “Damn it. Forgot to fill mine,” he grumbled, putting the empty bottle back on the frame.

“Hope i didn’t trigger false alarms now…” Valentin sheepishly said as he wasn’t aware of any more casual way of bringing the group to a stop, “i was gonna tell you that the brakes are done now. And, while i do have some water, some of us very much don’t and i did not bring any solids to fuel with. After all, this is just a quick-ish run to bed the brakes.”

He then also took a good swig of his bottle, which was returned to it’s cage almost halfway drained.

“Mind if we head back up then?”, he inquired, already instinctively looking for any traffic that might be approaching, of which there was none.

“No, wasn’t a false alarm. Had to ask because even I heard that one,” Kaylie said with a smile, “and the last time that happened was when Malavera snapped his chain, and he called out mayday instead.” She chuckled, then mentioned, “Yeah, we can go back. As you said, mostly meant to bed in your brakes. I’ll have to take the return a lot slower though, Jayde struggles on long hills like this. Granted, Malavera is worse , but we’ll be lucky to maintain 10 MPH on the return trip. About 16 kilometers per hour.”

“Was i THAT loud?” Valentin asked, somewhat in shock, “back home, back-to-front communication is a problem that is still being worked on…”

A small pause followed as Valentin’s head unit emitted a noticeable “bleep” sound, notifying him that the current ride is paused and won’t gather any additional data.
“Slowest rider is either me or Jayde. I’d say that either one of us goes behind whoever is up front for the return trip. Good draft on the leader and quick response times to slow down if needed. Alternatively, everyone just goes back up at whatever speed they are comfortable with and we meet again at the top. Also i need to set my Head Unit to keep rolling when stationary… it fucks with the dataset…”, he explained, once again looking for traffic.

“Small group, and most of us have good ears,” Kaylie said with a smile. “So, probably less that you were that loud, and more that we’re not used to someone trying to make themselves heard more than a space or two away.”

As Val outlined his plan for the return trip, Kaylie nodded. “Makes sense. You follow me, Kivenaal follows you, Jayde tails the group. I’d put Jayde ahead normally, but… I know he does better when drafting Kivenaal.”

Kivenaal chuckled. “That’s because I’m the equivalent of shoving a barn sideways through the air,” he quipped, “so Jayde tucks in behind me and, well, might as well be attached to my bike for the amount of effort he has to put in.”

“Well, it’s either that or we crawl the hill at 5 miles per hour for the last hour,” Jayde admitted. “Most of us are built for short sprints, not endurance. Kivenaal and his brother, Rukari, are the physical exceptions to that rule, even with their feline looks, because they’re just completely different.”

“Sounds like a plan, then…” Valentin noted, before briskly heading across the road to the other side and waiting for the others to reform.

The way back up took much longer, due to the descent now being a climb and also because the pace being set ended up a little too brisk for Valentin as he didn’t want to overdo it on the first miles of riding.
Still, the group eventually reached the top, which for their purposes was the driveway into the Twin Suns Towing parking lot, where they came back to a stop.

Now the bike is done building. Finally.” Valentin commented with a sigh of relief, immediately following it up with emptying the other half of his bottle.

“Glad to have been able to help,” Kaylie said, grinning.

“Was a good ride,” Kivenaal admitted. “I really need to get back into doing more of them,” he added, before going over to a water fountain and refilling his cycling bottle before also getting a good drink of water himself.

Jayde smiled. “You ever want to ride with others, just find one of the group and ask. Rukari and Takaraya don’t ride, and Malavera’s not probably the best option, but the rest of us do ride.”

Kaylie looked over to Kayden, then asked, “Where’s Takaraya?”

“In the office having a discussion with Malavera,” Kayden replied.

“Twin Suns,” Kaylie said, making a surprisingly fast sprint across the workshop and to the office door, only to discover that, as Kayden had actually said, Takaraya and Malavera were just having a discussion.

“See, sis, not a big deal. They started about 5 minutes after you left, and I’ve heard loud voices only once between them,” Kayden replied.

“Bike is actually done now,” Valentin repeated as Kayden joined after their arrival, “is there a place other than the bike rack behind the shop where i could store it? I don’t have a lock for it here and i don’t fancy taking chances on a bicycle worth more than most cars on this lot. Also…”
Another pause followed as Valentin made the change to his head-unit for data-logging purposes while also saving the data associated with the ride he just did.
now we can work on… uhm… exploring the Nanite things?”

“Couple places it could be stored, actually. If you don’t mind stairs, you could store it across the street in Rukari’s place. Probably also the safest place to put it, ironically enough. I know I wouldn’t want to be the one foolish enough to break in over there. If you don’t want to deal with stairs, well… There is some room in the Twin Hearts Racing main floor area where it would be out of the way. Alternatively, I know Jayde has a spare bike lock you could borrow, if you’d prefer that,” Kayden admitted. “Or you could keep it here in the shop bay and we’ll keep an eye on it until you’re ready to leave.”

Valentin gave the available options a good thought, eventually coming up with a suitable idea of his own. He wheeled the bike over to his car, where he opened the trunk. The bicycle was then stored within, both wheels removed and placed on top.

“If anyone smashes the car’s window out here, at least some of us will notice. Also, the contents of it are insured, even if i’d lose the man-hours in building it.” Valentin said as he returned to Kayden.

“Where were we? …Right, Nanites… Right?”


It’s fiction all right, albeit of the kind that’s not tied into a forum or Discord challenge, but still entertaining fiction nonetheless.