Not the final version. Book version may vary.
That night—maybe? It felt to Alden as if time didn’t exist in that prison. He, Top, and Ropak sat on the stone bench, cold and hard like a coffin. It would be their last hours together. Also, their last hours alive. They discussed the last several months, trying to recall moments they might have noticed something off, but the mafia hid themselves in the Zhopian Guard well—nothing ever came up. Eventually they lapsed into silence.
After the prison was still for a while, Top said, “I’m hungry.”
“Well, that never changes,” Ropak said, leaning back.
“No, I mean really hungry,” Top said. “Don’t we get a last meal?”
“I doubt it.”
“I’m hungry!” Top jumped throughout the cramped cell. “Blaargenhaargen! I want to eat! Where’s our prison food?” They clung to the cell bars. “I’m hungry! Do you hear me? Hungry! H-U-NGRY! Food, food, food!” Top screamed and wailed as they bounced throughout the cell. Alden and Ropak dove to the floor as Top’s bouncing grew erratic. The ball gnashed their teeth, bit the air, chewed the bench, chased after bugs, and chomped through the cell bars with their teeth.
“Top!” Alden stood up. In the ball’s hungry rage they ate through the cell bars. They could escape.
“Freeze!” A snowble guard about Ropak’s height emerged from the shadows, a carbine pointed at Top. The ball dropped to the floor and stared at the snowble, an iron bar sticking out of their mouth. Silence filled the jail.
“We’re going to be put to death, Ropak,” Alden whispered. “What do we have to lose?”
The snowble told them to be quiet, but Ropak shouted, “Gaping mouth!” and kicked Top at the guard. The snowble opened fire but the shots whizzed into Top’s wide bottomless maw. Top chomped the gun in half then snarfed a hole through the snowble. The guard swung the half-carbine at Top, but they ate the guard’s arm then gobbled the rest until only the head remained. Top leapt to eat the head, but Alden grabbed them.
“I’m sorry,” Alden sputtered, “but, you know, this is a matter of life and death.”
Top flailed in Alden’s grasp. “It’s a matter of hunger or not to hunger!”
“I was talking to the snowble,” Alden said. “But you apply, too.”
“You’re not getting out of here alive.” The guard shouted for backup, but Ropak kicked the head into the jail cell.
“Now what do we do?” Alden asked.
“We escape, of course,” Ropak said.
“But how do we–” Alden put a hand over his mouth. He didn’t want anyone hearing them. “–escape?” he whispered.
“By running.” Ropak pulled Alden down the hallway. Alden pulled back.
“Wait.” He peered along the walls until he found the room the guard had emerged from. It wasn’t much bigger than the jail cell, especially with the desk and chair and fridge, at which sight Top lamented missing Fridger. Alden grabbed a key ring from the wall.
“Who else is imprisoned here?” Ropak asked.
“I don’t know,” Alden said. “We’ve heard nothing, so probably no one, but just in case we need these.”
Alden’s shoes clacked against the concrete as he ran, each step jangling his nerves. Still, most of the dead bugs and debris were cleared from this area. The hallway ended with winding stairs that ascended into darkness, not even a guard rail alongside. Ropak and Top jumped often two steps at a time, while Alden stepped up one at a time. He wanted to crawl as it became too dark to even see the floor below. After what seemed like an entire building of stairs, dim light shone from a candle next to a steel door. Ropak pushed and pulled, but the door wouldn’t budge.
“Those stupid snowbles probably froze this door shut,” Ropak said. “Now what?”
Alden unlocked the door with the key ring.
“Oh.” Ropak rubbed his head. “Right.”
They pushed the creaky door open and peered into the dark hallway. Alden recognized it as a hall he’d passed through many times. At least the lack of lights meant there’d be few people around. They just had to escape and disappear into the city.
Alden, Ropak, and Top hurried down the hallway. Alden ran on tiptoe, but he stumbled when an alarm blared in the building like a panicked death knell.
“Think that’s for us?” Ropak asked.
“I don’t want to find out.” Alden ran, no longer concerned about what noise his steps made. A gunshot cracked behind; a snowble brandishing a handgun chased them.
“Gaddfern it,” Ropak shouted. “What do we do?”
“This way.” Alden threw open the doors to the cafeteria and they jumped inside. Ropak flipped over a table and shoved it against the doors. They ran across the cafeteria, but Top slowed and looked towards the kitchen.
“Hey, can we stop for a quick snack–”
“No!” Alden and Ropak grabbed Top and carried them to the other side of the cafeteria. They burst through the doors and crashed into someone feathery.
“Ouch! Watch where you’re going, will you?” the glossy orange kudeso said.
Alden jumped back; a group of snowbles wearing shades and black suits stood at the end of the hallway. They shouted and turned to the escaping trio.
“You don’t know what that alarm is about, do you?” asked the kudeso. Alden and Ropak ran away from the snowbles. “A little rude, aren’t we?”
Top jumped onto the kudeso’s shoulders and grinned. “Stay back, you snow cones. We have a hostage!”
“Now that’s really rude.”
“I have teeth,” Top shouted, “and I’m not afraid to–”
“Top, come on.” Ropak grabbed Top and pulled them along. Top held onto the kudeso and dragged them along, too.
“We need to find a way out,” Alden shouted.
“Are those alarms for you three?” asked the kudeso. “Just what did you do to get the alarms to go off about you?”
“Top, let go of them,” Ropak shouted. They turned a corner and Ropak stumbled back.
“No!” Top said. “They’re our hostage.”
Alden started to yell at Top but the rackye Ropak ran into shouted the wrallot’s name.
“Oh, hey Siro,” Ropak said, “sorry I can’t stay and chat, but it’s a bit of a running-for-our-lives situation.” He grabbed Top again.
“What are you—” The rackye shouted as they fled. “Ropak, wait! Where have you been? What’s going on?” He reached forward and ran after them, asking if they needed help. Ropak looked behind once then turned back as Alden and Top shouted at each other.
“We don’t want a hostage!” Alden said.
“It’s leverage!” said Top. “They won’t shoot us with a captain in the way.”
“Top, this is the figgin mafia,” Alden shouted. “They won’t care. They’ll just say they were in cahoots with us or something.”
“You pissed off the mafia?” the kudeso asked, feathers ruffled. “What’s the mafia doing in the Guard HQ?”
“The Guard is the mafia,” Alden shouted.
“What the hex are you talking about?” the kudeso asked.
“The mafia took root in the guard years ago,” said Alden. “They were torturing and trafficking illegal guns.”
“Why were they torturing illegal guns?” the kudeso asked.
“They were torturing people!” Alden yelled. “We accidentally found out, now they’re trying to kill us.” He skidded as more guards appeared around a corner ahead. “Gaddfern it.”
“In here!” Ropak yanked open a door, and they jumped a few steps up a rusty skeletal stairway that crossed back and forth deep into darkness, a dim light illuminating each landing.
The snowbles surrounded the door and shouted for them to freeze, firearms aimed at the ready. Alden fell and turned around, tears streaming from his eyes. This was it for them. The darkness covered the stairway like the cloak that shrouded the metal skeletal harbinger of death.
“Don’t even think about it,” Top said. “We have a hostage!” The mafia guards pointed their weapons at the kudeso.
“No, wait, I’m not with them. It’s me! Captain Duval! I’m a pilot! This is all a mistake.”
“A mistake, my foot.” Alden gasped. “They’re after us because we know too much.” He opened his mouth silently a few times. “And—I guess I kind of just told you too much.”
“Okay, never mind,” Top said, “they’re not a hostage, they’re with us.” The ball jumped between Duval and the snowbles.
“No, I’m not.” Duval pushed Top aside with a foot. They stepped towards the guards. “This is just . . . I’m not sure what happened, but surely this can be worked out.”
A towering snowble knocked Duval aside with their carbine. “Hey you big-mouthed punk.” They pointed the gun directly at Top. “I still remember that figgin chili you splashed on us today.”
“I’m gonna enjoy mowing you punks down,” the snowble next to them said.
“Just try it, cronies,” Top said. “Snow conies. I’m the Guardian, and you’re not getting my—” They snapped their teeth. “Ooh, what’s that smell? Do one of you have a cheese sandwich?”
“You ain’t getting a last meal.” The lead snowble held up an arm but flinched from a sudden clang.
Ropak jumped and stomped the metal stairway. A creak turned into a screech as the rusty stairway fractured and crumpled and Alden, Ropak, Top, and Duval dropped after it. The stairs shattered the lights and slammed into lower stairways until the metal avalanched. Over their screams Alden heard the clanks and clatters of the collapsing stairway, gunshots ringing over it. Sparks flashed above and showed a few metal beams falling after them. Below Alden only saw the pit of their new fate. A great force smacked him and shattered the lights in his head.
* * *
Alden groaned. He felt slimy as a swamp. He opened his eyes but saw only darkness, the sound of dripping, flowing liquid around him. He didn’t think the afterlife would stink as bad as wherever he was. Once his eyes adjusted he saw a stone or brick or concrete tunnel as wide as a street lane and not more than twice his height. He floated on slimy running water against shrapnel from the stairway. He rose and found the water waist-deep.
A familiar rubber ball jumped on his face. “Alden!” Top said. “You’re awake! I’m so glad! This is no time for a nap.”
The sewer was lined with comparatively dry concrete walkways above the stream. Alden climbed onto one and looked up. A shaft stretched above, steel beams and chunks of concrete dangling. Light flickered too far away to make out.
“This place is gross,” Ropak muttered. He sat against the wall.
“Better gross than dead,” said Alden. They’d have to escape quickly. The Zhopian Guard probably sent guards after them. Schalindras lived in the sewers. Meeting either one could be death.
Alden’s hair and shirt and shoes were soaked. He stumbled through his squishy shoes and pulled them off. He shivered. He’d catch a cold so wet—it was the middle of winter. Nothing to do about his dirty Guard uniform besides wish he could wear anything else. Unless . . . He looked at Top, who’d moved behind his head.
“Top, you don’t happen to have a change of clothes you’ve eaten some time ago, do you?”
“What do I look like, your personal luggage?” Top asked.
“No, but I seem to recall storing a number of items in you when we left for the city, some of which I haven’t seen since.”
Top coughed out a sweater. “It was yucky anyway. I can see why they banned polyester.”
“What about shoes?” Top coughed out a pair of shredded, chewed-up shoes. “Never mind.”
Alden peeled off the soaked Guard uniform and chucked it in the water. As he pulled on the sweater a scream made him jump, and Captain Duval flailed out of the water onto the walkway, their mussy feathers now slimy instead of shiny. They groaned.
“Gaddfern it, I was hoping that was all just a dream.” They looked up. “How did we even survive that drop?”
Top bounced about, shouting, “Boingy!” with each bounce.
“We need to get out of here,” Alden said. “This sewer probably empties outside the city somewhere. We’ll just need to–” He remembered the Guard had taken his stuff. “No cell phone, no compass. Ropak?”
“They took my stuff before dragging me to that jail,” Ropak said.
Top coughed out a compass. “You can’t search me, I’m the Topperbread Flan.”
Alden picked up the compass. “You don’t happen to still have your cell phone, do you?”
“Oh, it stopped working, so I threw it away.”
Alden sighed. “It wouldn’t have happened to just be that the battery ran out, was it?”
“What? No.” Top pouted “We got those things like months ago. The battery wouldn’t have lasted that long. No, I just chewed on it too much.”
Alden shook his head and looked at the compass. He pointed ahead. “We’ll head this way. South.”
Duval’s beak rubbed together. “What’s this ‘we’ business?”
“Well, he, me, and Top would constitute a ‘we’,” said Ropak, “but besides that, you should probably try to get out of here too since now you know information worth being killed over.”
“No, it’s ridiculous.” Duval waved a wing. “How could a mafia be running the Zhopian Guard?”
“Did you know about it?” Alden asked.
Duval scratched a leg with his foot. “Of course not.”
“That’s how they ran it,” Alden said. “In secrecy.”
“I guess in retrospect, one might say the government never seemed all too fair,” said Duval. “I’ve heard people say they’ve seen mafia members get off scot-free. But still, to imagine the city being ran by them?”
“I can imagine it,” Ropak muttered.
“But how did you learn about it?” Duval asked.
“Come on,” said Alden. “We’ll explain on the way.”
* * *
They trekked through the sewer below New Zhopolis, crawling down side pipes almost too narrow for Top. Alden told Duval of the raid on The Place for the Placeless and his subsequent walking-in on Chillone. He’d never intended to uncover such a hotbed—or coldbed—of corruption inside the Zhopian Guard, but one thing led to another and now the Zhopian Guard wanted them dead.
“Alas, poor me,” said Duval, stopping to raise a foot as if they held an object aloft. “Branded as a deserter; an outlaw; a rebel. I’ll surely lose my rank and title. I’ve lost everything because of you. I was an innocent bystander in all this.”
Alden glared at them. “Were you not listening? I was an innocent bystander, too. But I got thrown into this without realizing it. Besides, there’s no honor in working for an organization controlled by the mafia.”
“Honor?” Duval’s feathers drooped. “I suppose. To be honest, I only joined to impress people.”
“And for the girls,” Ropak said.
“Yeah, the girls and guys.” Their beak scraped together. “Gaddfern it. Any other organization I could rebrand myself as a wild rebellious type, but the Zhopian Guard is so widespread on Zhop that they’d find me.”
“So let’s focus on escaping,” Alden said.
Duval looked up. “You know, my family lives in New Zhopolis. If the mafia does run the Zhopian Guard, they’ll be on them in a matter of hours.”
Thoughts of his own family silenced Alden. He hadn’t considered what the mafia might do to those close to him and about Duval’s family living where the Zhopian Guard was based. He whispered to the kudeso, “I’m so sorry.”
Duval waved a wing. “Then again, I haven’t talked to the folks in years. Never saw eye to eye. For all I know they’re dead nayway. For all I really know they’ll cooperate with the Zhopian Guard entirely—even relish it.” They shook their head.
They turned a corner and gray light greeted them. The wide sewer opened into a creek, iron bars blocking the exit.
“I can do this, I did it before.” Top chomped through the bars.
They emerged into a cloudy dawn. Blank white snow covered the ground, mushier and darker where it melted into the creek, and sharp, frosted trees stood ahead, their fiery coloring visible under the snow. Ratty bushes and pale, rusty-colored ferns hid the creek from above. New Zhopolis stood in the foggy distance; they escaped the city. But as Duval said, the Zhopian Guard was all over Zhop. Where could they go?
“We’ll have to leave the planet,” Duval said.
Ropak’s mouth dropped. “Leave Zhop? Isn’t that a little extreme?”
“Of course not,” said Duval. “It happens all the time. Crossing planets, I mean.”
Alden thought about his family. Would he have to leave them behind? Could he leave them behind?
“We could go to Derantu if we had a ship,” Duval said.
“Derantu.” Alden had read about the planet. The weird thing was it also had scalagos. One species from two different planets. Not only that, but scalagos primarily populated several prominent countries.
“Well, we don’t have a ship,” Ropak said.
“I’m aware of that,” Duval said. “We get to a place with a ship, though, and I could pilot us off Zhop. Otherwise, we’ll just be on the run forever. Of course, the closest shipyard would be New Zhopolis, but it may be safer to go east where some real countries are.”
“If I’m leaving Zhop,” Alden said, “I’d like to see my family one more time. At least Orville and Xavier—I know for sure where they are. I wish we had a phone to call and tell them what happened.”
“I should probably see my village one more time, too,” Ropak said, looking at the ground. “Just once more.”
“And the Micagox . . .” Top shrugged. “Ah, they’ll be fine without me. They’re lame anyway.”
“Yeah, fine, you do that,” Duval said, walking into the forest. “I’m heading east to find a ship.”
“But we need a pilot,” Ropak said.
“Then you can follow me east, but I’m not going to–”
Top wrapped their arms around Duval’s shoulders. The kudeso looked at the ball’s wide, toothy grin. “Hostage!”
“Or, maybe, I’ll be going with you.”