It seemed like there was never a shortage of tasks to be done around the Wyldcard compound. Head Kreature Keeper Dennis Alvarez often felt like his life had turned into an endless game of Wack-a-Mole. Every time he resolved some problem – a burnt out forcefield generator here, a leaky water pipe there – another popped up to give him grief. He wished it would let up so he could spend some more time with his Kreatures, but over the past few months or so the Wyldcard team had hit a rough patch. An unfortunate losing streak had led to flagging ticket sales and a few of their former teammates leaving for greener pastures. This in turn required the team to lay off their support staff, so they were short on both money and labour. Dennis did the best he could on his meagre budget but the Wyldcard compound had never looked more run-down.

He and the rest of his teammates yearned for their glory days when they sat comfortably in the mid-tier. The Wyldcard team’s standing had sunk like a stone all the way to the bottom-tier and there was an impression among the Kreature Combat community that they were washed up. It wasn’t uncommon for teams to fall apart like this; there was an idiom among Tamers that winners could only stand tall upon the backs of the losers. Indeed, Wade Romano, the team’s founder, had bought the compound off a previous team that’d gone bankrupt.

‘Maybe this place is just cursed,’ Dennis wondered.

He opened the door to the greenhouse and pushed in a large bag of substrate on a cart. The label read “Grade B Semi-Premium Cypress Mulch: it’s Good Enough!” He was greeted by one of his Kreatures, a Geksaur he named Henry. A pattern of orange spots decorated his scaly blue hide, and he clung upside-down with his sticky toe-pads to his habitat’s observation window. Dennis couldn’t help but chuckle at the upturned corners of Henry’s mouth and bulging yellow eyes. They gave the reptilian Kreature a comical bug-eyed perma-smile he couldn’t help but find endearing.

“Hey there Henry! How are the ol’ eyeballs tasting today?”

Henry licked a speck of dust off his eye.

Dennis inspected the habitat, sweeping up soiled bedding wherever he found it and replacing it with a fresh layer. Ordinarily he’d just use one of the Wyldcard team’s maintenance bots to perform menial tasks like this, but even they were in rough shape, so he tried to use them as little as possible to save money on repairs.

The habitat provided Henry the essentials; a feeding trough, a stock tank filled with fresh water, and a basking platform where he could soak up additional warmth under a ceramic heat emitter. Dennis placed a strong emphasis on behavioural enrichment in his Kreature husbandry. He’d hung up camouflage netting in various parts of the enclosure to simulate foliage and provide the Geksaur with privacy. LED lights on a timer simulated a day/night cycle. There were wooden beams for Henry to climb on, and a rubbing pad to scratch himself against whenever he was shedding his skin. The remains of a pumpkin Dennis threw inside for Henry to knock around were rotting in the corner. Dennis cleaned that up as well.

It was a decent habitat, but he saw room for improvement. He wanted to replace the mulch entirely with a bio-active substrate blend of his own design, seeded with beneficial bacteria, spring-tails and isopods to control the spread of mold; but first he would need to add a base to the floor of the enclosure to separate the substrate from the foundation. He also wanted to install a fountain to provide Henry a constant source of running water and maintain the humidity. Some more vertical space would also be beneficial. And even if Henry was nocturnal, some full spectrum UVB lighting couldn’t hurt. If only the team had an additional source of income…

Out of the corner of his eye, Dennis spotted a scuttling movement.

“Oh! Another baby Arachnachute!”

The infant spider-like Kreature was barely the side of a grape, though adults could eventually become the size of a soccer ball. They carried little parachutes made of silk on their back to catch the wind and drift to new places. Arachnachutes were wild Kreatures that had evolved naturally in Dimentiara, not genetically engineered monsters like Henry or other Battle Kreatures. They typically preferred hollowed-out trees or other shaded areas, but they were attracted to dilapidated buildings as well. True Wild Kreatures were increasingly rare these days. Most most been extirpated by Feral Kreatures that’d escaped from captivity, especially in areas close to civilization. Dennis carefully scooped it up so as not to alarm it.

“Hey there little guy!…Or girl, I’m not quite sure…” It felt the vibrations of his voice through the sensory hairs on its body and squeaked at him. “Relax, I’m not gonna eat you. Let’s get you back outside…”

Dennis exited the greenhouse and set the little spooder free on a gentle breeze.

“Found another one, eh?”

Approaching him was his girlfriend, Kristy Winters – a voluptuous 35 year old woman who wore her black hair in a bob cut and a sardonic expression behind wire frame glasses. She held many vocations: Kreature Tamer; corporate executive; bioengineer; small business investor. She was dressed sharply in her favourite outfit; a red blazer with matching red high-heeled pumps, and a black undershirt and pencil skirt. She was followed by a one of Dennis’ Kreatures: a Platrox named Wally, who looked like a squat, chubby cartoon dinosaur covered in large, flat, green armoured scales arranged in a grid-like pattern.

“You’re so sentimental,” Kristy said. “It’s just going to build another web somewhere else on the compound. Maybe you should have fed it to Henry instead.”

“Ever the pragmatist, aren’t you? Not all of us are so heartless.”

“You have more than enough heart for the two of us. I’d rather have the brains.”

“If only you’d use yours for something other than thinking up sassy remarks.”

“You know damn well I’ve got to let the sass out or my head would explode. It’s like a pressure release valve.”

Dennis and Kristy’s repartee was all in good fun. Their verbal sparring was tongue-in-cheek and source of catharsis. It kept them in good spirits through thick and thin over the five years they’d been together. It was one of the cornerstones of their relationship.

“Anyway, thanks for taking Wally to the vet for me.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble at all. It’s not like I have a million better things I could be doing.”

Dennis squatted to address the Kreature that accompanied her.

“So Wally, how was your trip to Dr. Beauford? Were you a good boy?”

“Don’t patronize me!” Wally shot back. “I’m in perfect physical condition. You imbecilic mammals didn’t need to drag me all the way to the vet just to be reminded that I’m flawless! When I conquer the universe I shall ban all superfluous medical examinations!”

All Platroxes had the ability to mimic human speech, but Wally’s degree of sapience was unique among his kind. Kristy’s inner scientist would have loved to take a look at the bio-software he was running on, but of course she would draw the line at experimenting on an intelligent being. She rarely thought about it, though; she and everybody else within Dennis’ friend circle was used to it by now. More than anything else, his ego made him irresistible to tease.

“Well then, I promise not to mention your pinworms to your adoring subjects.”

“You’d better not, or you’ll be first on the chopping block!”

“So Dennis, how are the repairs coming along?” Kristy inquired.

“This place sure has seen better days,” Dennis sighed. “I hope I can make it look at least semi-presentable for our new apprentices.”

“Bold of you to imply the compound hasn’t always been a dump. You get what you pay for, and Wade got it for cheap. On that note, I wish the vet had found something seriously wrong with Wally. Wade isn’t going to be happy when he sees the bill.”

Almost as if on cue, Dennis and Kristy heard an expletive shouted from Wade’s office in the administration building. He pinged them on their amulets.

“Kristy, I don’t care how highly accredited this Dr. Beauford guy is. 350 Zai just to treat some lousy pinworms? This is highway robbery!”

“Would you rather trust our Kreatures to a quack?”

“I still haven’t been able to book us a match. Our reputation is in the toilet, we don’t have the marquee value to sell tickets! We’re running on fumes here!”

“Knowing our luck, by the time someone accepts our battle challenge one of our Kreatures actually will come down with something serious.”

“DON’T JINX IT!!!”

“Oh, quit being so paranoid.”

“Easy for you to say! You’re not the one who sunk all of your savings into this team! You’re not the one who took out the huge loan for this shitty compound! If the team folds, you’ve still got that cushy executive title at K-TEK to fall back on. I’m not going back to customer service! This team was supposed to be my ticket out of that dead-end job!”

“Wade, this isn’t a contest! We all have something to lose. That “cushy job” of mine hinges partially on my expertise as a Tamer. If the team folds, there goes my credibility with it.”

“I’m a college dropout,” Dennis said. “Kreature Taming’s pretty much the only thing I’m good at and the job market’s flooded with former tamers looking for work. How am I supposed to compete?”

“Fine, you make valid points,” Wade conceded. “I’m sorry for being condescending, but I objectively have the most at stake here!”

“I grow weary of you mammals and your bickering and your catastrophizing!” Wally interjected. “Take things one step at a time and concentrate on the here and now instead of fretting impotently over some worst-case scenario!”

“As much as it pains me to admit, Wally actually kind of has a point,” Kristy said. “Let’s just focus on the new apprentices for now.”

“Maybe having some fresh faces will drum up some interest in our team,” Dennis added.

“Perhaps…” Wade considered, finally beginning to relax. Then, his phone buzzed. “…Speak of the devil, they’re here!”

****

Ben sat in the waiting room of the Wyldcard Compound’s lobby. His application for the Wyldcard team’s apprenticeship program had been approved, and he was feeling cautiously optimistic about his future prospects. He vacantly scrolled through his social media feed on his phone, trying not to stare at the other applicant sitting on the sofa next to him.

She was a Domonid; a member of the species of sapient flightless avian people originally native to the world of Dimentiara. Her kind were diminutive, with a spindly, gibbon-like build, and her glossy black hind-talons didn’t even reach the floor. Ben had never seen a Domonid up close before. Though humans were originally refugees to Dimentiara, since their arrival their population had swelled and they were now the planet’s largest demographic, outnumbering its native races by a wide margin. The closest Domonid settlement was Kaadkya City, about an hour and a half’s drive by hoverpod north of Zaito City; Ben’s home town of Billaine was tiny and didn’t have any sapient non-humans at all.

He caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye and noticed she was observing him. Her large blue eyes were narrowed slightly, and her arms were crossed, talons drumming. It was though she’d seen him someplace before and was trying to place it…

“…NOW I recognize you!” she said. “You’re that guy from the tamer fail compilation!” She laughed a Domonid laugh, shrill and musical.

“Y-yeah, that’s me,” Ben replied, his face burning.

“I guess if anybody could use some pointers on Kreature Combat it would be you!” She reached into her bag and pulled out her phone. “Can I take a selfie with you? Nobody would ever believe me if I told them.”

“Sure…”

The domonid girl scooted up next to Ben and struck a little pose before taking a picture, then shuffled back over to her side of the sofa. Then she immediately uploaded her prize to her profile on T-Net.

“My name’s Sattsae-Riidya, by the way. I’m a Rookie-Grade Tamer. Seven wins, three losses, two ties.”

“Ben Weiss. I’m still Novice-Grade. Zero wins, five losses, zero ties.”

In the official KCF hierarchy here were seven grades of Kreature Tamer, sorted based on their experience level and overall combat record: Novice, Rookie, Ace, Expert, Master, Elite and Supreme. The majority of Kreature Tamers were Rookies, Aces or Experts. Novices who couldn’t raise their grade to Rookie within their first year of competition usually quit Kreature Taming altogether, and once a Tamer became well-rounded and experienced enough to qualify as an Expert, it got progressively harder to raise one’s grade. Tamers highly dedicated to their vocation might eventually become Masters, and there were only a handful of Elites, who were all super celebrities by virtue of their status.

Only those who won the illustrious Diamond Cup could ascend to the peak of the hierarchy: Supreme-Grade. It was the greatest honour a Tamer could receive, one that every Novice privately held until they grew jaded by the high level of competition in their field and set more realistic goals. Once they rose to Expert-Grade, most Tamers were content to maintain their status and find a comfortable spot on a mid to upper-tier team. It was still a respectable achievement.

“Wow, not even a single win?” Riidya said. “That’s rough. I hope you get your money back from whoever taught you!”

“I only just started,” Ben replied. “And I haven’t had any formal training.”

“So you’re just a n00b! I’ve got a year at the Tamer Academy under my wing. I was one of the top ten Tamers in my class.”

“Lucky you,” Ben said. “Not everybody can afford tuition for some fancy school.”

“Luck has nothing to do with it. My father is a computer science professional who owns a small software company and my mother is a bioengineer for Synthogen. I’ve learned a lot from them so I’ve got a very versatile skill set. I’m sure to be hired on by this team long-term.”

“My mom is a baker. I help her deliver bread.”

“How quaint. Well, chin-up, bread boy! Perhaps you’ll win a battle someday.”

Ben and Riidya were approached by a thin, haggard looking man with glasses. He was followed by a small, pink, furry Kreature with big, black, dewy eyes, a bushy tail and a forked tongue.

“You two must be the new apprentices. I’m Wade Romano, founder and chief manager of the Wyldcard team.”

“I’m Ben Weiss! I signed up for your apprenticeship program!” Ben stammered. He blushed, suddenly realizing how redundant that sounded.

Sattsae-Riidya, reporting for duty, sir!” Riidya bowed. “That is a very fetching Kreature you have there; a Synthogen special edition pink Eteep, if I’m not mistaken? Very rare.”

Wade scoffed.

“My ex pawned him off on me when she moved away. You can call him Mr. Tickles.”

“Hey there cutie!” Ben cooed as he knelt down to scratch Mr. Tickles’ back. The little furball leaned into his scritches and gave a contented “teep”, tongue flickering reflexively. “Aw, you like that, don’t you?”

“Of course he likes it, you’re jerking him off,” Riidya snarked.

“Wait, WHAT?!” Ben recoiled in disgust, and Mr. Tickles “teeped” for more.

“That’s Eteep mating behaviour! Wow, you really are a n00b, aren’t you?”

“UGH, GROSS!!! Nasty little furball…”

“Hey, you’re the one who molested him.”

Ben fumed. He’d made a fool of himself twice in thirty seconds, and in front of his new boss no less! He fully expected Mr. Romano to fire him on the spot. But instead, he sighed.

“That’s a common misconception,” Wade said. “They are sensitive in that area but scratching them doesn’t trigger the same neuroendocrine background as a mating behaviour. Your application stated that you studied at the Solar Storm Tamer Academy? I’d have thought they would’ve taught you something so basic.”

Now it was Riidya’s turn to feel flustered. She flared her feathers, but then promptly regained her composure.

“Kreature Breeding was not on my course list. I thank you for imparting me with your wisdom, Mr. Romano.”

Ben smiled slightly. Riidya had been flaunting her experience over him since the moment they met, but seeing her taken down a notch made him feel more comfortable around her.

“Now, if you two will follow me, I’ll introduce you to your new co-workers…”