Not the final version. Book version may vary.
The last few days Alden, Top, and Ropak had with their friends at The Place for the Placeless passed all too quickly, and they soon left to the Zhopian Guard headquarters. It was a sprawling compound big enough to be its own district with empty fields and buildings tall as a skyscraper and wide as a sports field. Alden and his friends entered a building several stories high and a whole city block around, arriving at a cement-floored, stone-walled room with fifty or sixty other recruits—scalagos, rackyes, cappipotos, kudesos, nervists, arkents, and sharls.
Alden wore a light shirt that hugged close to avoid it billowing or dragging. Most of the recruits wore no clothes—fellow scalagos were the only species clothed without exception. It never occurred to Alden that for most Zhop species nudity was the norm, though they were cloaked in fur or feathers or a shell.
A snowble slid up to the group, wearing sunglasses with the tips lodged in their head and a round, wide-brimmed hat. This was the first snowble Alden had ever seen up-close, and yes, they really were made of snow. They stood three slim segments high, a full head taller than Alden. The snowble’s mouth was a crevice with no esophagus, while their nose looked like a sharp black stone.
“Listen up, new recruits! I am Drill Sergeant Bir. Today we will be testing your reflexes, your stamina, and your physical strength.” Drill Sergeant Bir punched a rackye in the snout, flooring her. Alden stumbled in shock.
“Shape up those reflexes!” Bir shouted. “Regardless, thank you for the demonstration, recruit. I have superiority over all of you. If you pass, I will still have superiority. If I have to establish this more than once, I will remove you. Is that clear?”
“Loud and clear like a high school cheer,” Top shouted with a smile.
Bir glared at Top—presumably, under their shades. “And what is your name, recruit?”
“That’s Top, sir!”
Top saluted. “This is the domestic peacekeeping organization and not the military, Bir!”
Bir stared at Top. The snowble threw a punch at them, and Top bit off Bir’s gloved fist and part of their snow arm.
Alden swayed. Bir would surely kick Top out.
Instead the snowble smiled. “Fine reflexes, recruit. Hope to see that out in the obstacle course.” They pointed to a cappipoto in uniform near an exit. “Loren! Get me a mug of water. I can’t go around with half an arm.” They looked at Top. “And give me back my glove.” Top spat out Bir’s glove. “Now then, report to training room A for the first obstacle course. The last recruit to reach it will be kicked out.”
Alden raised his hand. “Wait, really?”
“Do you want to be the one to find out?” Bir asked.
Alden ran with the other recruits to the first obstacle course.
It turned out Bir lied, but it was motivational lying, so they said it was okay.
The obstacle course was inside a cold gymnasium, the ceiling so high that Alden doubted Ropak could kick Top to the top. There were tires, rope swings, a wall to climb—it looked like a fairly standard obstacle course.
“All right, recruits. This is your first test,” Bir shouted. They sipped from a mug and their arm started to grow back. “You will all run this course at the same time. The first clerpson to pass this course will not have to run the second course. Now get to the starting line, and when I blow this air horn, run for your respect.”
The recruits marched to the start of the obstacle course, a length of track to run along. Many recruits jabbed and shoved each other to be in the front, and Bir yelled at the kudesos who flapped past the starting line. Alden could hardly focus from all the shouting. He stood near the back to avoid being in anyone’s way, but Ropak pulled him to the front.
Bir blew the air horn and the group jogged forward; a few rackyes shoved past everyone. Alden’s shoes squeaked on the hardwood. The start was easy enough to run along, but it kept them from starting fresh at the first real obstacle.
Alden dove to the cold, smooth wood and crawled under a series of crisscrossing wires. Ropak rolled to his hands and knees, while Top ran under the wire laughing like a gleeful schoolgirl. The sharls kept up with Top, running on their hands and feet. The cappipotos had to flatten themselves and even then hardly fit under the wire.
It occurred to Alden that the course wasn’t built to accommodate all the body shapes of different species.
Alden stopped to rub his sore hands and knees but only once, as he fell behind. One scalago rolled sideways under the wire until they veered into a wooden pole holding the wires up. Most kudesos flailed their wings, kicking their legs to move forward. Many griped about being barred from flying over. The nervists meanwhile practically glided under the wire.
After the wire were several lines of tires to march through. Top bounced from tire to tire and zoomed to the next section, another track to run across but while carrying a heavy pack. Top ate a pack from the pile and ran on.
Ropak reached the end of the wire and flipped to his feet. He cursed as his round foot stuck in the first tire. Alden crawled out from under the wire as Ropak pulled his foot out.
“These tires suck,” Ropak said.
Sharls were stuck in another line of tires. Alden pushed Ropak to that line.
“Go through that one!”
As Alden marched through the tires, Ropak hopped across the sharls’ shells, apologizing to each. Alden fell but pushed himself up and kept running. He was determined to not fall behind.
After the tires Alden strapped a heavy leather pack over his shoulders and ran. The weight dragged him down and he stumbled. Ropak carried the weight just fine—he walked all the way to New Zhopolis carrying twice as much as Alden had, after all. This was where the cappipotos would catch up, the weight nothing compared to their natural weight. The sharls ran quite fast carrying a pack as big as them. The kudesos hopped along, flapping their wings with just a few seconds of flight, but the nervists stayed airborne under the heavy pack.
Alden ran up a ramp to the next section, a rope swing across a gap. Mucus trickled down his skin, cold from the chilly air. He discarded the heavy pack with the others, mucus sticking to the leather. The weight lifted from his shoulders felt freeing, but he wondered if that would be enough for him to sail over the gap. It certainly seemed to for the kudesos—they and the nervists flew over without use of the rope. The arkents swung as if the ropes were an extension of their tentacles, while most of the cappipotos dropped like barrels.
Alden wiped his hands on his shirt—which didn’t reduce the mucus at all—and then leapt and grabbed the rope. He felt his hand slip. He jumped before he lost his grip and landed on the pit’s edge, but his weight shifted back. Gravity pulled him down. He flailed forward.
Ropak grabbed Alden’s wet hand and pulled him onto solid footing.
“I’m not gonna let you fall behind,” the wrallot said. “Come on!”
They ran on, Alden panting as his legs burned despite the cold air. He reached a stone climbing wall, which blurred into a gray mass from the mucus over his glasses. He wiped his glasses on his shirt—though that smeared them further—and saw Top staring at the wall.
“I thought you were far ahead,” the scalago gasped out.
“I’ve been staring down this wall,” Top said. “It’s taking a lot longer than I thought.”
“You’re supposed to climb it,” Ropak said.
“I don’t know if I can get up there,” Alden said. “I’m already worn out.”
“Here, I’ll help.” Ropak grabbed Alden and threw him over the wall. Alden screamed until he splatted onto a mat on the other side.
“Wait, if you can do that, why don’t you just go around it?” Top asked.
“He still went over it,” said Ropak.
“What about going through it?” Top asked.
“I think this wall’s too sturdy for that,” Ropak said.
Alden saw Ropak appear atop the wall, but it shuddered as Top chomped out a hole near the base and jumped through.
“Okay, never mind.” Ropak dropped to the mat.
Alden mentally shrugged. The kudesos and nervists just fly over the wall anyway, right? He pulled himself up and ran to the finish line. Then the scalago’s insides split and the world tumbled into a tailspin. A boxing glove walloped him—the final stretch was a floor filled with hidden boxing gloves on springs.
Top screamed, running into the minefield of boxing gloves. One of the gloves thumped them into the air and the ball screamed over the entire obstacle course until they crashed back at the beginning.
The kudesos tried to fly past the field of punches but the gloves smacked them first. The nervists’ wide wings were prime targets, and many cappipotos were hit by two boxing gloves at once, though few fell from the hits. A few rackyes punched back at the boxing gloves, but they were clocked by the springed punches.
Ropak jumped onto an emerging glove and bounced off, leaping over the entire field. He landed on the goal in first place.
As the wrallot cheered, Alden ducked and dodged through the springing gloves. They floored him a few more times, but he was past the initial surprise—he stood back up and ran to the end, not second or third or even twentieth.
“Woo!” Ropak pumped his arms up. “Now that was extreme, wasn’t it?”
“I ache.” Alden felt as if the world squeezed him. “I definitely ache.” He rubbed his head and sides and the rest of his body.
“You two.” Bir slid up to Ropak and Alden. “I saw what you did. You threw them over the climbing wall.”
“Thank you,” Ropak said.
“I am not congratulating you,” Bir shouted, looming over them. “That is a flagrant disregard for the rule of the obstacle course.”
“How come?” Ropak asked. “When the time comes, it’s good to have friends to rely on.”
“Well, they will not have any friends to rely on for the second course,” said Bir. “In fact, they will be running it with those two stars.” The snowble pointed to a kudeso and a rackye, the two runner-ups after Ropak. “And if you come in last place after these two, greenhorn, I will kick you out. Do you understand?”
Alden stammered. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Then get yourself prepared, because you’re running that course at oh-five hundred hours. If you’re up for it.” Bir left them with that.
“Okay, I’m done!” Top reached the finish line. “Did I miss the celebratory cake?”
In a locker room, Ropak tried to convince Alden that he could run the second obstacle course. Alden responded by saying he was already sure that he could run it.
“Wait, really?” Ropak asked. “But you haven’t even seen it yet.”
“Weren’t you supposed to be convincing me?” Alden asked.
“Oh yeah. You can definitely do it.”
“I don’t know,” Alden said, looking away. “I mean, I’ll have to beat the two who came behind only you, and you already helped me out on the first one.”
“Wait, I thought you said you were already convinced,” Ropak said.
Alden looked at Ropak sidelong. “I feel that we’re devolving into a comedy routine.”
“Anyway, the point is that you can do it, and you will do it.” Ropak pumped up a fist. “Come on, let me hear a cheer!” He looked at Top, who sat on a bench biting into a slice of cake.
Top looked at Ropak. “What?”
Alden, Ropak, Top, and the other recruits entered a gymnasium where the second obstacle course was. A cappipoto approached the group, the same one Bir had referred to as Loren, her uniform packed with blinking metal devices. Alden tried not to think how her short, scraggly fur looked like a bathroom rug.
“Okay, no surprises, I’m gonna walk you through this course of my own design,” Loren said.
“Right from the get-go, no running; instead, we’ll test how well you can hang on. Literally!” At the start of the course was a long pit. Five poles were suspended above, a white block as tall as a cappipoto skewered into each. “You’ll hang onto the block, which will spin around as it travels along the poles. You’ve got to stay on it to the end or else you’ll have to run back to the start.” She motioned to a set of stairs at the beginning, the only way out of the pit.
I would bet money—if I were a gambling man—which I’m not—that she had gotten this idea from a video game.
I could definitely see that.
“This next part is obvious. It’s stairs.” Sets of plastic stairs going up and down at different intervals composed the next part of the course. At the end a set of rising stairs led to a series of ropes hung above a sheer drop.
“Yep, it’s the rope swinging part,” said Loren. “There are a lot more ropes than in the first obstacle course. You’ve got to swing from rope to rope with no break. You’ll climb up the last rope to another set of steps to run down. Then you reach the best part.”
Loren motioned to a walled enclosure filled with wooden wall panels in front of metal contraptions. She pressed a button on the outside and every few seconds the panels shifted forward, creating a moving maze.
“It’s less of a moving maze than just a bunch of walls that will slap into you if you’re not quick enough,” she said.
“And remember, greenhorn,” Bir shouted at Alden, “get in last and you’re out of here. Now get to the start, you three.”
Alden, the kudeso, and the rackye climbed onto a block each. Alden ran his hands over the block—it felt like a plastic countertop. The center of each side was transparent, showing the inside had a sphere which the pole was connected to. Each side of the block was split at the center into four squares.
“Break a leg!” shouted Ropak.
“Preferably not yours!” Top added.
Loren threw a switch, and the blocks shuddered and moved along the poles. Alden’s block rotated, the pole moving through where the block was split, and he stumbled. He jumped forward and ran to stay on top of the block. The rackye did the same, while the kudeso hopped and flapped her wings to stay on top.
“Oh, come on,” Alden said. “She doesn’t even have to try and stay balanced.”
“I told you we should make different courses for different species,” Loren said.
“Shut up!” Bir said.
The block stopped and spun in the other direction. Alden overshot his run and scrambled to stay on top, grabbing the new top just before the old top became the side. The rackye dug his claws into the block to hang on.
The blocks reached the end of the poles. As Alden climbed off his, the rackye stuck out a leg—Alden tripped and the world tumbled; he fell onto his back on a dusty mat at the bottom of the pit. The dim lights flashed through the dust as he heard laughter and voices far away.
“Hey! That rackye cheated,” Ropak shouted.
“I never said that was against the rules,” Bir said.
“You never said helping someone was against the rules, either,” said Ropak.
Alden stood and coughed through the dust. He rubbed his dizzy head as he ran back to the beginning. As he hurried up the stairs, the rackye ran along the steps past the pit. The kudeso flew over the stairs, quite literally. She turned back to the rackye to make faces at him.
“See you at the finish line, groundy.” She yelped as she crashed into the stairs, and the rackye pulled ahead.
Alden looked at the shifting block. I need to speed up. This block’s going to move too slowly. He hopped over the block and crawled across the pole like the branches of trees back home.
“Yeah! Go, Alden!” Ropak shouted. “Break a convention.”
“Preferably one filled with lame cleeple,” Top added.
As Alden reached the stairs, the rackye and kudeso arrived at the ropes. The kudeso flew past them but the rackye swung into her and the two kicked and clawed until they crashed to the mats below. The crowd shouted, the kudeso and rackye recruits shouting for their representative to beat the other.
Bir shook their head. “I should’ve gotten someone who wasn’t an idiot to run this.”
“You did,” said Ropak. “His name is Alden.”
Alden ran along the steps. The kudeso and rackye would have to return to the start of the stairs, so Alden pulled ahead. Well, the kudeso flew straight up to the ropes and continued on, but the rackye would have to go back. At least Alden wasn’t in last place anymore.
At the top of the stairs the scalago stopped to catch his breath. He pulled a rag out of his shirt pocket and wiped the mucus off his hands. Swinging across the ropes would be the hardest part. The rackye grew near, though; he had to move on. Alden jumped and swung across the ropes, not daring to look down. He let his momentum carry him—if he stopped, his muscles would have time to scream. He reached the last rope and climbed, ignoring his muscles shouting that he couldn’t make it.
“I’m coming for you,” the rackye said. “I’m not about to come in last.”
Alden looked down; the rackye climbed after him on the same rope.
“Wait, what the fig?” The rackye slipped down, the rope slick from Alden’s mucus. He jumped off the rope to another.
Alden gritted his teeth and climbed to reach the top before the rackye caught him. He jumped onto the stairway, but something snagged his tail—the rackye grabbed him.
“Think this is dangerous?” the rackye said. “It’ll be even more so out there.”
Alden pulled back and his tail slipped free. His feet slipped from under him and he tumbled down the hard plastic stairs.
And there were a lot of stairs.
As Alden fell, the rackye ran ahead, but the scalago grabbed him. They rolled down the stairs, shouting at each other, until they crashed at the bottom. The rackye ran on. Alden chased him to the final challenge: the moving walls. He watched the wood panels shift. The rackye had already charged inside; the panels shoved him about but he pushed forward. The kudeso appeared for a second before a wall obscured her.
Alden knew he couldn’t take much of a beating. He examined the wood panels. They shifted at regular intervals. Each moved in a programmed way.
There’s a pattern.
Alden sprinted into the maze of moving walls, jumping away as the panels pushed towards him. A wall smacked the kudeso, and she fell to the floor. Alden ran past her and jumped back as a wall shot out. As soon as the panels receded he sprinted through the cleared path.
“Whoa, dude,” said the kudeso. “Look at him go.”
The rackye shouted and lunged at Alden, but a wall smacked him away.
Alden neared the end of the shifting walls. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been able to examine the end; he didn’t know how to get out without getting smacked. The best way would be to avoid it altogether, like Ropak in the first course.
He looked at a panel behind him. He jumped at it and the panel pushed forward. Alden leapt off it and soared over the shifting walls. Off to the side the crowd of recruits gasped.
“Hey! He went over them,” shouted the kudeso. “I tried to play fair and go through it normally.”
“Did you really?” the rackye asked, as if the kudeso had said she’d flown to the sun and back.
The kudeso muttered. “No, not really. I undershot it and got hit by a wall.”
The air rushed past Alden as he sailed towards the final stretch. The other recruits cheered, especially the other scalagos.
Ropak shouted, “You’re gonna pass with flying colors, Alden!”
Alden flipped in the air and landed feet-first with a wet, gloppy smack. He sank into the mushy floor.
“I lied!” Loren shouted. “There is a surprise. Quicksand!”
Alden stared at the wet muck.
What the fig? Why quicksand? Where are we going to encounter quicksand in the city? Okay, calm down. I know I’ve read about this stuff. How do you get out?
A breeze brought Alden’s gaze up; the kudeso flew over him to the finish line. The rackye leapt over the quicksand, but Alden grabbed his legs and yanked him into the muck face-first.
The rackye growled and swung at Alden but just sunk further into the muck. Alden lay on his back and floated atop the quicksand, pushing himself to the edge until he pulled himself out.
“Okay, bye,” Alden said, waving to the flailing rackye, and he trotted over to the finish line.
“Yeah!” Ropak shouted, drumming on Top’s grinning head. He clasped Alden’s hand. “You did it. You passed the course. You’re covered in grime. It’s kind of gross.”
Alden smiled. “What do you think now, Bir?”
“Drill Sergeant Bir, greenhorn,” said the snowble. “And I think . . .” They smirked. “Not bad. You do have what it takes to join. Congratulations, new guard.”
“Thank you, sir,” Alden said.
The rest of the recruits ran the obstacle course in groups of three or five. Top almost failed when they stopped and ate the quicksand, but Alden and Ropak shouted at them to finish the course.
“That pancake mix was delicious,” Top remarked afterwards.
At the end of the day, Drill Sergeant Bir congratulated the recruits who had passed the tests.
“You will have tomorrow to get your things in order and are to report back to the headquarters the next day at oh-one hundred hours. If you plan to move into the barracks here you will have time to place your things in your new quarters and then be given the tour.
“Then specialized training will begin. If you have never used a gun, we will teach you. If you have never handled an explosive, we will teach you. You will be–”
Bir turned around and nodded. “Ah! Captain Javier.”
A kudeso wearing a sleeveless flight suit strolled to the group. “Heya, Bir. These the new recruits? Congrats, everyone. The name’s Captain Javier.”
“Ooh, are you the captain of the gravy train?” Top asked.
“I’m a captain of the Zhopian Guard,” said Javier. “A pilot, in fact. Maybe some of you will get pilot training. We might see each other quite often. Ooh, like you, brilladie.” Javier strode to a young lady kudeso and lifted her wing with his. She blushed and laughed as he stroked his beak over her feathers.
It occurred to Alden that Javier wasn’t there to congratulate the recruits as a whole. He probably wouldn’t see him much.
The next morning, Alden, Top, and Ropak packed their bags. They shook hands, said goodbye, and wished well the other members of The Place for the Placeless. Arami hoped they would be okay. Ivan and Iam were sure they would do good. Accordiono made cryptic remarks about stories. Pyr said some predictable nonsense. They even got Teen Angst off her phone.
They even got Sneen out of his room.
“I see not to say bye to those I never said hello,” Sneen said with a thick fiscet accent, arms crossed and glaring at everyone through his slim eyes.
“You said hello just now,” Top said. “But you said bye first. Man, you’re all messed up. Your culture is weird.”
Sneen returned to his room. Alden and Ropak said goodbye, and he but waved a flick of his hand.
Finally there was Walter. They looked at each other in silence.
“So you’re really going to do it, then?” Walter asked, mouth tentacles limp.
“We are,” Alden said. “We’re too far to go back on it now. Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.”
“I hope so,” said Walter, his voice strained. “Keep your heads clear. Just try to do good things. Follow orders. Try to do both.” He shook their hands. “Spranna. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
Alden nodded. “Thank you. I hope your futures all go well, and I hope to see you all again.”
Alden, Ropak, and Top left, looking one last time on Walter and the others before they turned a street corner.
It was the last time they ever saw Walter.
Really? How sad.
I almost wish I could say that for the others.
Almost . . .
But what do you mean?
You’ll see. Soon.