Not the final version. Book version may vary.
So, because the previous chapter ended on such a depressing note, this chapter will instead be about Top’s day of gobbling food in Fridger.
Top poured bowls of food and rolls into their open maw. They snarfed cold meats, they snarfed old sweets, and anything else they saw. Leftover ham, leftover hash, leftover jam from times long past. They opened a pot, saw what they got, regardless of contents ate in one shot! Whether spicy or sweet or bitter or sour, down it goes down the hatch. Leftover pie and a bag of flour, munching cookies, the entire batch!
. . . Whaaaaaat?
I don’t mean to interrupt your fun food fest thing, but can we return to Alden? I’d kind of like to see what happened next with him. Our future readers probably would, too.
Alden marched to the Zhopian Guard headquarters. He’d fallen asleep at the Place for the Placeless in his thick Guard uniform, but his sleep had been filled with nightmares about razing the old place and he felt like he’d crawled through a stampede all night.
He stared at the photo where he smiled, something he didn’t think he could do anymore. He held Top in his arms, Ropak and Xavier each with an arm on his shoulder. Everyone smiled. Alden sniveled.
He’d wondered if he should call Top and Ropak for backup. He wasn’t sure what he would get himself into. He didn’t even know what he would do. He only knew that he would find someone to explain why they attacked the Place for the Placeless.
No, I won’t call Top and Ropak. I can’t tell them what happened. I don’t even know what I’d say. I have to do this alone.
Despite his weary mind and stiff body, he trudged to the top floor of the building. Well, he stood in the elevator, but he felt like he trudged, despite the fuzzy elevator’s light music.
Once he reached the top he shuffled over the soft carpet of a warm, bright hallway. He’d only been on this floor a few times. He ignored the fragrant scent and paintings and photos on the walls. He didn’t know who he would complain to, but he would see someone. He would get some answers. He marched to the first pair of double doors he saw. Double doors: that meant the room was important.
He stopped. Two carbine-armed snowbles guarded the door, each as tall as a cappipoto and wider together than the doorway. They glared at Alden. They looked like they meant mean business.
Alden marched to the smooth wooden doors but the snowbles blocked his way, and he turned back around the corner.
Okay. It’s guarded. I won’t get in easily. I need a distraction.
Eat some sausages, eat them raw! Shove the food all down your maw!
I thought we– Oh, wait.
“Top!” Alden entered the cold kitchen behind the cafeteria. Top screamed, munching on food in Fridger, and shut themself inside the fridge.
“Hello,” Fridger said, opening their door.
“Oh, Alden,” Top said, jittering. “I wasn’t, that is, I was just hungry. Fridger’s only a good friend. You’re still my best friend, totally, yeah. Unless Ropak asks.”
“That’s not why I’m here,” Alden said. “I need your help. I need you to be a distraction.”
“Oh. Sorry, I can only be a Top.” Top shoved a ham into their mouth.
Alden looked down and rubbed his chin. “Well, we’ve gotta be at least halfway there with that. I think the only thing we need to get all the way there is an extension cord.”
He found an extension cord, and then another, and then ten more, and they plugged them together from the bottom floor to the top floor. With that in place they rode the elevator back to the top.
The elevator opened, and Top screamed, “Yeeehaaaw! Yippee kee-yi hey he-yay kayo!” Fridger charged out of the elevator on their wheels, an extension cord whipping behind them. Atop the fridge sat Top, waving a buckaroo hat around. “Hoo yeah! Woohee! Yarhar! Hiyah! Wahoo! Woogle!”
“Wow!” Fridger laughed. “This place is much bigger than I thought.”
Top climbed down inside the fridge and ate a slice of pie. “Eggs! Milk! Cheese!” They threw food at cleeple as they passed by, screaming in delight like a child having the time of their life.
Top and Fridger neared the two big snowble guards. “Hot tamale, hot tamale!” Top dumped a pot of chili onto the guards as they drove by.
The soggy guards shouted. “What the hex was that all about?”
“Get back here, ya runaway appliance.” The two snowbles stormed after Top and Fridger.
Alden peered out from behind the corner. The way was clear. He charged into the doors and shoved them open. As his shoes clacked against marble he ran across the office lobby to an even bigger set of doors with swirling carvings. The lobby screamed important office more than the large doors did; at the corners, marble snowbles rose to the ceiling.
“Wait,” shouted a Help Block secretary, “Mr. Chillone is not to be disturbed at the moment!”
Alden threw open the doors and shouted, “I demand an explanation—!”
He stared at the office. He suddenly felt out of place, a little silly, and a more than a little alarmed. Mucus trickled down his head.
A snowble stood inside the office—half Alden’s height with two segments, a fedora, pointed shades, and gray gloves and tie. With them stood three snowbles in similar attire standing from Alden’s height to a cappipoto’s, along with a kudeso and cappipoto decked out in military uniform with enough brass for an orchestra. The six of them stared at Alden; the cappipoto held a pale pink scalago with dark purple bruises and torn clothing upside-down, head encased in a block of ice. Against a tall wooden desk behind them sat another cappipoto, hair missing and bumpy gray burn marks on their black skin.
Alden’s eyes swiveled to a pile of weapons against the wall, enough metal to build a bus. Most of them looked illegal. One gun looked so modified it was probably legally a cannon. Another looked like a chemical grenade launcher. His eyes turned to the other side of the room to a table on which sat a painting. Nothing concerning at first glance, but Alden recognized the picture—a unique painting that had been stolen about a month ago. Why were there stacks of them on the desk?
Alden looked back at the snowbles. Yeah, they were torturing that scalago and cappipoto. The scalago’s head looked like an ice cube. Alden wondered if it was iceboarding or something, if that was even classified as a torture technique, let alone made sense.
“Yeah, okay, so,” Alden said, backing up and grinning until his face hurt, “I can see that this is a bad time, so, you know, I’m just going to come back–”
“Get that lizard!” the short snowble shouted.
Alden cried and ran back across the lobby. The kudeso tackled him to the hard marble. Alden rolled away and yanked open the exit. He screamed. A soggy snowble guard pointed a carbine through the doorway against his nose.
“Don’t say a word. Move and your brains‘re toast.”
Alden stood still with nary a squeak. A throbbing pain shot through his head as the other guard punched him, and he crumpled to the floor. A snowble guard picked him up and turned him to face the short snowble.
“Looks like we—” The short snowble looked at the guard. “Lower ‘em so’s I can see ‘em, ya oversized triple-scooper.”
“Sorry, Ind. Chillone.” The snowble lowered Alden closer to Chillone’s level.
“Looks like we got us a spy here, huh?”
“I–I’m not a spy,” Alden slurred, head and heart pounding. “R–Really, I was just– I don’t know anything. I was just–”
“Shut it,” said Chillone. “I don’t gots time to deal with ya.” They removed a gold cell phone from their body and examined it. “I got a play to go see.”
“You want they should ‘ave an accident out the window, boss?” asked a guard. Alden’s heart skipped a beat, more mucus sliding down his skin. Not enough for him to hope the guard would lose his grip, or, say, any bullets they shot would slide off him.
“I gotta scope this palooka first,” said Chillone. “Just throw’m behind bars. I’ll deal with’m later.”
They threw Alden into a dank, dusty, dim prison void of life in a basement he hadn’t even known existed. Skulls and bones lay around the cells, and Alden hoped they just existed for dramatic effect. The dirty floor was covered in debris and dead bugs and live bugs and Alden’s shoes crunched with every step. He couldn’t even see the ceiling, though whether due to its height or the darkness he couldn’t tell.
He sat on a grimy steel bench. Torture? Counterfeiting? Trafficking? Weren’t they the leaders of the Zhopian Guard? Okay, so I can understand . . . well, not understand, but reasonably assume that torture is not out of place in a military, but why would they counterfeit paintings and . . . Well, okay, I can also see trafficking of weapons in a military as well. So that was it, then. The Zhopian Guard is just a military with terrible practices. Practices that could lead to trouble with the Planet Peacekeeping Power. The interplanetary organization that regulated the planets Zhop, Derantu, and Mintop. If the PPP learned Zhop’s military was engaging in illegal activity there’d be trouble. Even someone as small as Alden would have to be prevented from spreading the word, apparently.
But that didn’t answer his real question about the Place for the Placeless.
They’d taken everything on him—phone, wallet and cards, money, and of course his Zhopian Guard-issued gun. He couldn’t contact anyone until someone came to him. How long did he sit on that bench? Hours? He dozed off a few times. During one of those fitful naps, a clang echoed through the prison.
“Where the hex are we going?”
“I hope it’s the land of large breakfasts.”
“Doesn’t look like any land of—Wait, is this a jail?”
Ropak and Top walked to Alden’s cell, escorted by three snowbles, all taller than Alden and wide as a truck. “Top! Ropak!” Alden ran to the bars. He hated to think what they may have had been told.
“Alden? Why are you in jail?” Ropak yelled. “What’s going on?”
“You don’t want to hear it,” Alden said, looking down. How would they take the news of The Place for the Placeless?
“I’m the one who gets up to shenaginags, Alden!” Top said.
A snowble opened the cell door. Alden moved towards it, but the snowble shoved Top and Ropak in and shut the door.
“Hey! What was that all about?” Ropak grabbed the cell bars. “I think I do want to hear it. I want an explanation.”
“And I want a giant pancake!” Top said.
A big snowble removed from inside their body a cube monitor screen about the size of their head. They switched it on, and Chillone appeared.
“We on? Good.” Chillone looked at the three prisoners. “I’ll bet you knows why you’re here, right?”
“No, I don’t know,” Ropak said. “I just said that. Get with the program.”
“You’re here ‘cause you know too much,” said Chillone. “At least he does. You two’re associated with’m, so I’m betting you know, too.”
“I don’t know anything,” Ropak said, stomping his foot. “I’ve hardly seen Alden lately.”
Alden peered at Chillone. Their pebble-sized nose sparkled like a diamond. “Why was the Place for the Placeless raided?”
“Why was the what what?” Ropak shouted.
Top frowned and said, “Gasp!”
“The place for the what?” asked Chillone.
Alden glared at the snowble. “It was a place for homeless cleeple to stay, ran by an arkent named Walter.”
“Oh, that traitor?” Chillone asked.
Alden clenched his fists. “How was he a traitor?”
“They were a rebel,” Chillone said. “They were part of a rebel group years ago, working against us from within. We’d been tracking the mollusk for years and only just found ‘em. Planning anything or not, we can’t let someone like that run around free.”
“But why—” Alden had so many questions but couldn’t figure out where to start. He wanted to ask why Walter would have been a rebel but remembered the guns, the torture. It was obvious why. Chillone would give a biased answer anyway.
“Why was he a rebel? I figure just some dope out to make friction in my world. I got no patience for spies or rebels like you.”
Yep. Biased answer. “But I’m not a—” Alden shook his head. “I don’t even know anymore. I mean, I didn’t know about—that was torture I saw, wasn’t it? Arms trafficking. Counterfeiting. That stuff is illegal!”
“What stuff?” asked Ropak. He shook his fists. “What are you talking about? Why won’t somebody tell us?”
“Are we that unimportant?” Top asked.
“Yes,” said Chillone.
“But how does the government not know about this?” Alden asked.
“We are the government,” said Chillone. “We are the law. We say what’s illegal.”
“But doesn’t—” No, Chillone already answered. Either the government leaders were in on it or were under the thumb of the Guard. Alden wasn’t sure he wanted to know which. “But still, the Planet Peacekeeping Power declared it illegal.”
“Ya know.” Chillone leaned back. “Maybe you ain’t a spy. Nobody could play that dumb. Doesn’t matter, then. Still, you’re a dope who don’t know your place. Regardless of all that, most of that stuff’d been done by the Guard years before I came in.” They crossed their arms and their face rose in what might have been a smirk. “You should be thanking me; the Guard used to be a mess. Who else could actually keep an organization this size in order?”
Top raised an arm. “Ooh, I know! The mafia?”
Chillone leaned into the camera. “Oh? What was that, a slip-up? Maybe you are spies.”
“What do you mean?” Alden asked. They stared at each other. Alden’s jaw dropped. “You’re the mafia?”
“What?” Ropak asked. “Isn’t the mafia the types the Guard roots out? I know I’ve arrested mafia organizations before.”
“Only if they don’t pay the dues they owe,” Chillone said. “But yeah, I killed some folks, blackmailed some folks, allied with some chumps, put them in line, now I’m in with the Guard. You in the Guard? You work for me.”
“I thought the Guard worked for the cleeple,” Alden said, tasting the words as if spitting poison. “I guess not. It’s not for honor now, it’s for power. The Zhopian Guard has been corrupted by the mafia.”
Chillone scoffed. “The Guard’s been corrupt longer than I’ve been around. I’m just here to keep it organized. Anyway, that Walter arkent found out about the mafia connections. We can’t have that knowledge going around, so we whacked him.”
“You mean you slapped him around?” Ropak asked. “You just, what, whacked him with a shoe or something?”
“We killed the guy, you twit.”
“You killed him?” Ropak shouted and flailed his arms at the monitor through the bars, but the snowble guards pointed carbines at him.
Quietly Alden added, “And I was there when it happened.”
Ropak looked at Alden. “You were there when Walter got killed?”
“Sort of.” Alden sighed. “I was elsewhere in the place. I think I fought an illusion by Accordiono.” He groaned. “How could I have been so stupid?”
“What was stupid was walking in my office without an appointment,” said Chillone. “You could’ve asked to see me, we’d make an appointment, we’d tell you some phosser-shit answer, you’d accept that, you’d go back keeping pipsqueak order like before. Three of you know too much now.”
“Gaddfern it,” said Ropak. “You’re going to kill us now, aren’t you?”
“I don’t think you’re spies, so I got nothing I need from ya.”
“I’m too young to be killed!” Top said, flailing their arms. “Also, too weirdorable!”
“Anyone gonna cause friction in my world better get out, whether someone who gets some stupid moral ideas in their head or someone who removes themselves from the market and idles like those losers that arkent holed up. Got it? You’re in my world. Play by my rules. First rule: don’t learn the real rules.”
“Wow, you’re a jerk,” Top said. “I curse the Zhopian Guard!” They threw their guard hat to the ground and stomped it. “I’d rather eat a decayed donut than work for you.”
“You won’t have to,” said Chillone. “Tomorrow, you’re dead. You got one night to pray to whatever sorta cosmological deity or otherwise you might worship.”
Ropak crossed his arms. “That’s a ridiculous concept.”
“Then you got one night to contemplate your bleak, pointless lives.” The television set shut off, and the snowbles left, discussing going out for drinks.
“Well, this has been a depressingly fun day,” Top said.
The three friends hugged in the dank darkness of the jail. Their fortune had taken a decidedly nasty turn for the nosedive.
“Guys,” Alden said. “No matter what happens, I’m just glad I have you.”
“You’re glad we’re going to die with you?” Ropak asked.
“No! I mean . . .” He looked down and held his head. “I don’t even know what to say. I failed us, I dragged us into death. And with the Place for the Placeless, and my part in its . . . I just . . .” Yes, he remembered, there were some things he was better off not learning.
Top climbed onto Alden’s shoulders and hugged him. “Aw, it’s okay. We’re here for you.”
“Even if these are our final hours,” Ropak said, “we’ll stick by you. You were tricked. There was nothing you could do. We all three got in this together.”
“But if it weren’t for me we would be free,” Alden said, “we’d have our status, we wouldn’t be prisoners–”
“We’d still be blindly working for a nasty rotten no-good organization.” Ropak flinched as if something shattered and cursed under his breath.
“–we wouldn’t about to be put to death,” Alden said.
“Okay, he’s got us there,” Top said, “he really did blow it.”
Ropak kicked Top against the wall. “Quiet.” He sat down and held the ends of his head. “Fig, if anyone’s to blame, I’m the one who inspired us to head up here in the first place. And I should have been more diligent in watching out for the Guard.”
“But none of us saw this coming,” Alden said.
“Yeah, but I promised to watch out for it.” Ropak sighed. “Now the Place for the Placeless really is gone and . . .” He rubbed his face. “We have ourselves to worry about, and I’m getting off track. My point is, let’s not play the blame game. We’re in a bad enough spot without turning this into a pity party.”
Alden nodded. “Yeah. You’re right, thanks guys. I just wish there was something we could do now.”
And so they died and it was very depressing the end!
For a less depressing ending, turn to page . . . Wait, what page are we on now? You know what, just keep reading.