Not the final version. Book version may vary.
Top, Ropak, and Alden reported to the civilian barracks of the Zhopian Guard headquarters, the widest building in the entire compound. Upon entering they received their quarters assignments, only to discover they would not share a room—surely, said Ropak, there must have been a mistake.
“It’s not a mistake,” the cappipoto officer said. “Room assignment is done by a random process with a few premade parameters to balance species and seniority. It’s highly unlikely that three specific cleeple would be in the same room together, especially ones joining at the same time.”
“Blaargenhaargen!” Top hopped and flailed. “I still want to complain about it.”
“Go ahead,” the officer said. “Not gonna change anything.”
Alden looked at Top and Ropak. “I guess we can still visit during time off. It’s not like we’ll never see each other, plus we’ll meet new cleeple.”
“I don’t wanna meet new cleeple,” said Top. “Or, wait, did you say meat new cleeple? I’d be down for that.”
Alden laughed. “I’m going to assume you said m-e-e-t the second time.”
“Go ahead,” Top said. “Not gonna change anything.”
They split up to find their rooms. Top traipsed across the rough stone until they found their room. It held ten bunk beds, wooden dressers between them and a metal case at the foot of each. A few beds were already occupied. Top jumped onto the closest free lower bed and coughed up a pot, a pressure cooker, and one of Alden’s gnawed-up shoes.
A scalago leaning back on the next bed turned to Top. “Don’t worry; the food here isn’t so bad that you’ll have to cook a shoe.”
“But shoe is delicious,” Top said.
“Yo.” A nervist’s head appeared from the bunk above Top. “You a beach ball, dude?”
“I may or may not have been instructed to lie about that,” said Top, “but I can’t remember, so, yeah!”
“Cool.” The nervist nodded. “Glad to meet you. Looks like we’ll be bunk mates.”
“Got any glounus?” Top asked.
“Afraid not, but I’m sure they got some at the cafeteria.”
Top ran out of the room shouting, “Cafeteria!”
They scurried through the halls until they ran into Alden and Ropak, who dragged the ball to a supply room for their uniforms.
Alden received a gray scalago-fitted uniform and a matching hat with Zhopian Guard printed on it. Ropak got a scalago-fitted uniform since there were none for wrallots. He hardly fit it over his head and the sleeves were floppy.
He pulled on the fabric. “Sheesh, how do you go around with clothes on all the time?”
As Top was of a smaller body size, the Guard only gave them a hat for their uniform like the sharls. It was stiff and frayed, the brim was bent, a few of the letters were off-center, and part of the back jabbed into Top. The ball cheered and jumped off the walls and whooped about their free hat until Alden and Ropak pinned them to the ground.
“I was excited,” Top said.
“That’s an understatement,” said Ropak. “You barely go below excited anyway.”
They returned to the entrance, filled with recruits for the building tour. Top jabbered, jumping from one recruit to the other and shouting random syllables until they were crowd chatter all by themself. A cappipoto soldier called for the group’s attention, and Top jumped back to Alden and Ropak and grinned.
“I made some new friends,” the ball said. “Or enemies. I’m not sure which.”
“Hello,” said the cappipoto, “I’m Corporal Wash, and yes, that really is my real name.”
“Are you a wash out?” a recruit shouted.
“Ignoring that. I’ll be directing the tour through the barracks,” Corporal Wash said. “We’ll touch on all the important areas, what you have access to, the various services we have available, and what you’ll be expected of in here. You’ll be given tours of the other buildings later.”
Top jumped onto Alden and waved at Wash. “Is there a kiosk with all this information in a pamphlet we can read so we can skip the tour?”
“No. Now let’s go, and everyone please stay with the group.”
Top hopped to the floor. “Just as well, I can’t read anyway.”
Corporal Wash led the tour group down glazed stone hallways. “Through here are the recreational areas.” He opened a door to a gymnasium where various species threw various balls around. A moist stink flowed out along with thumps and stomps and clanks and pounds. Any closer and Wash would have had to shout to be heard.
“We have sixty courts across ten gymnasiums for all kinds of sports and athletics, including fields outside with running tracks and paths that include a small wooded area. You can keep your body and mind in shape, or for just your body, we have a fitness room as well.”
I bet I could rack up a lot of time in there practicing being the ball, Top thought.
Wash led them to a part of the building with wooden walls. “Through here are the study areas.” He opened a door, and Alden gasped. The carpeted room held wall-to-wall aisles of bookcases, a library bigger than Orville’s entire shack. Compared to the gymnasium it was utterly silent, but whispers and tapping trickled from the stuffy room.
“We have all manner of reading material from and about Zhop, Derantu, and Mintop. We also have hundreds of computers usable by members. You can request a rental laptop for use outside the library.”
I bet I could rack up a lot of time in there practicing being the ball, Top thought. They might throw me out, though.
As the group walked along fiberglass walls, Wash said, “I’m not going to show you all the sanitation areas. We have showers and restrooms and everything. It’s not segregated, though, so you’ll have to get used to the habits of other species. And the smells.”
Corporal Wash opened a set of doors to a bright room filled with tables and cleeple. Top leaned forward and flapped their mouth. They sensed something. They smelled something. Zesty, sweet, smoky. Good.
“Here we have the cafeteria,” Wash said. “While you’re certainly welcome to go out into the city and buy your own food, all the food in here is provided to members of the Zhopian Guard for free. We’ll come back for lunch later. Right now, let’s move on to the exciting business services we offer guards.”
The group moved on except for Top, who stared at the cafeteria, its vast gathering of food and eaters unlike anything they had ever seen. As big as the gymnasium, the greatest smells came from counters where cleeple lined up for wondrous meals. It was an obstacle course of food. The ball tottered into the cafeteria over the sticky linoleum. They dropped to their knees.
Well, they don’t really have knees.
Then they dropped to their . . . Well, they don’t really have legs, either. They dropped to their chin?
Top murmured, “I have found”—they raised their arms and shouted—“the promised land!” They ran to the food counters, laughing.
“I don’t know who promised it,” they said, “or why, or when it was promised, or what was the reason for the promise, or how the events that led up to its being promised went down, but I do know where it was promised, and that was definitely somewhere.”
Top jumped onto the metal counter, grabbed a cold ceramic plate, and ran to a pot of hot food. It was brown and moist and smelled liked warm mud, and Top didn’t know what it was, but they scooped up a plateful and flung it into their mouth.
Tasty! It tasted better than warm mud, like savory melting with a hint of sour.
They ran to another pot. This stuff was white and fluffy and smelled of sweet paste. They scooped up a sticky plateful and flung the hot fluff into their mouth.
Tasty! It was dry and salty and mushy and felt like swimming through a cloud.
They ran to another pot—this one was filled with green blobs the size of Top’s eye, steam wafting from them. The ball scooped up a plateful and flung them all over the place.
Top stared at the mess of blobs behind them. They shoved the plate into their mouth and ran back to the start of the counter, pushing aside the trays of those in line. Top grabbed a bowl, ran back, scooped up the green pieces, and tossed the bowl into their mouth.
Tasty! So hot and moist and mushy that they squirted sweet juice inside Top.
The ball ran to the next pot, filled with hot, brown fillets of phosser meat. They lifted the searing pot, which was taller than them, and carried it over their head to a table. There they gobbled its moist, sweet contents.
Top felt a tap on their back and turned to several guards glaring at them.
“Hey ballboy,” an arkent said, mouth tentacles stretched down, “save some for the rest of us, will you?”
“My little pony meat!” shouted Top and they jumped into the hot pot and devoured the meat like a berserk garbage disposal, leaving no morsel behind.
The guards yelled at Top. Someone pulled the ball out of the pot and threw them across the cafeteria. Top splattered into a bowl of sizzling chili, splashing it onto a rackye and reddening their fur. Before the ball could eat any chili the rackye hurled them back. A cappipoto lifted the pot of phosser meat, but Top bounced off them and knocked their head into the pot.
Top waved their arm from on the floor. “Hi again. Can I have my pot back?”
“You think that’s funny, do you?” A scalago grabbed Top and hurled them for another trip over the cafeteria. The ball flew towards the reddened rackye, who glowered and stretched their claws at the ball. Top disgorged shredded phosser at the rackye, shoving them against the table and browning and grossening their fur.
Top stood on the table and grinned. Fig! Think of an excuse, quick! “I guess I shouldn’t fly so much right after eating, ha ha ha.”
“That does it, ya freak.” The rackye grabbed the bowl of chili and threw it at Top; Top ducked and the bowl banged into a scalago. The scalago hurled one of the phosser fillets, which knocked over a kudeso. The kudeso flung a bucket of popcorn glounus.
I think you know where this ended up.
Cleeple threw food across the cafeteria, splatting the walls and soldiers and cafeteria workers, some knocking cleeple clean into the air. Soldiers slapped each other with fish. Small vegetables scattered like marbles. Cleeple threw entire pies. Of course cleeple threw pies. No one seemed to care who started it, which was good for Top as they ran through the cafeteria, snapping up airborne food.
The food fight erupted into a regular fight where instead of beans and cornbread, punches and kicks were thrown. Someone kicked Top and the ball flew past the food counters. They bounced into the kitchen, clattering into cups and cans until they crashed upside-down against a refrigerator.
“Oh, hello, there.”
Top looked up and screamed. “I’m seeing things. Like eyeballs.”
On the freezer door of the white fridge were (aside from a lock on the handle) two blinking, bulging eyeballs, glowing white except for deep black pupils that looked at the ball.
“I’m Fridger.” The fridge door shuddered open, pushing Top onto their feet and releasing a brief wisp of cold air and light and tasty food smells.
“Wait, are you a talking fridge?” Top asked.
“Yes,” said the fridge. “The cleeple who built me thought it would be a good idea to have your fridge talk to you while you eat. And it is! I’m a great conversational partner, I always know where the food stored in me is, and if you’re on a diet I can judge you if you want me to. I don’t get very many visits, but I don’t mind. The guests I do get are always a treat, and they enjoy the treats inside me.”
“Amazing,” Top shouted, hopping like a pogo stick on coffee. They jumped onto Fridger and hugged the appliance’s lower door handle. “You’re my new best friend.”
Someone cleared their throat behind Top. Alden, Ropak, and Corporal Wash stared at the ball.
“I mean. You’re my new good friend,” Top said, staring at Alden and Ropak. “Yeah. Not a best friend. A best friend would forgive a slip-up like that.”
“Top, do you know anything about a giant brawl in the cafeteria?” Alden asked.
“No,” said Top. “A best friend wouldn’t ask that, either.”
Wash groaned. “I just know they’re going to find some way to blame me for this.”
“Yeah, preferably you instead of me.” Top opened Fridger’s door, jumped inside, and gobbled up all the food.
Top was thrown into a steel room as cozy as a shipping container, there to wait until a rackye officer entered followed by Corporal Wash, Alden, and Ropak. The rackye glared at Top through his monocle and paced before them, a single badge swaying on his uniform.
“What thoughts went through your mind that led you to these decisions? First, you abandoned the tour group.”
“They never said I had to stay with them,” Top said.
“I asked everyone at the beginning to stay with the tour group,” Corporal Wash shouted.
“Yeah, but you didn’t say I had to,” said Top.
“Second, your actions resulted in a significant scuffle throughout the entire cafeteria,” said the rackye.
“Who says I caused that?”
“But you weren’t there,” Top said.
“As well as an extensive number of eyewitnesses.”
Top flailed. “They’re covering their tracks. They started the fight.”
“Additionally you say you’ve forgotten the details, and what you do recall is fragmentary, muddled, and contradictory.”
“I get confused when I’m hungry,” said Top. “I also get confused after I eat a lot.”
The rackye bared his fangs. “On that note, third, you consumed an enormous amount of supplies.”
“My friend, the fridge, said I could.”
The rackye sighed and rubbed his head. “Fortunately for you, we do have footage of the event, at least up until gravy obscured the security camera. Your indictment only extends to taking an entire pot of phosser meat for yourself. It was another soldier who instigated the fight.”
Top grinned. “So that means I get off scot-free?”
“You took a pot of food away from access by others, so you’re still to be punished,” said the rackye. “You’ll be on kitchen . . .” Alden and Ropak shook their heads. “No, you’ll be cleaning the latrines for the next month.”
“What’s a latrine?” Top asked.
“What’s a toilet?”
The rackye raised his forehead. “Like an outhouse?”
“What’s an outhouse?”
The rackye smirked. “Either you won’t mind this, or you’re in for a significant surprise.”
In the end, both statements were true.