Chapter 20: To the Ends of Zhop

Not the final version. Book version may vary.

Alden, Top, Ropak, and Duval rushed through the forest. They had no time to stop, to think, to consider a real plan. Alden had sworn he’d heard a helicopter moments ago.

“Would they go to that much trouble just to catch us?” Ropak asked.

“Wouldn’t be surprised!” Duval said, flying alongside. “Just one helicopter? Probably wouldn’t even be that much trouble.”

Alden needed to get home. He wasn’t sure what he would tell his uncle and brother, but he didn’t know if he’d be able to tell them anything. If they’d be able to listen. If they were still there.

When he saw the clearing ahead his heart took a breather. The house still stood—still intact. The sagging shack held up by force of habit with its displaced floorboards, chipping walls, and slacking roof. It looked just like the day he’d left. He burst through the front door and into the rickety den, the tattered rug and worn couch and chairs at their usual places. The musky wooden smell of his old home flooded Alden’s senses.

“Orville! Xavier! It’s Alden, I’m back! Please tell me you’re here.”

Orville’s leathery pale bronze head and sparse gray hair popped through the kitchen door. “A-Alden?” he asked, his voice quiet and shaking. “Oh, dear Gourd, is it really you?” He approached Alden and removed his thick glasses, revealing watery, pink eyes.

“Uncle, are you okay?” Alden asked.

Orville wept and hugged Alden, wrinkling both their already crumpled sweaters. “It is you, nephew! Oh, that’s the question I should be asking you.” He laughed, gasped, and hiccupped at once. “You’re alive, you’re still alive.”

“Alive?” He felt that was what he should be saying.

“Alden!” Alden’s thin blue brother stumbled down the stairs and embraced him, both their glasses disheveling. Xavier cried, “You’re back!” and “You’re alive!” about twenty times, sobbing. He hugged Alden tighter. “I—I thought I would n-never see you again.” He looked at Alden and murmured, “They’d told us you died.”

“Who—the Zhopian Guard,” Alden realized.

Orville laughed as he wiped his tears. “I see they were mistaken, you merely have a black eye.”

“We’ve thought you were dead the last few days,” Xavier said, hugging him close again. “I’m—I’m just so happy you’re alive.”

Duval stepped forward. “Don’t count your glounuses before they hatch, y’olks.”

“Hello there,” Orville said, “and you are?”

“Right, I’m Captain Duval, Zho—former Zhopian Guard.”

Alden pulled away from Xavier. “I was also worried you—” He wanted to catch up, wanted to sit and chat, he’d not seen them in so long. “Sorry, look, there’s no time–”

Xavier stepped back. “Why is Ropak covered in . . .” He covered his mouth with his sweater sleeve, eyes wide. “Is that blood?”

“I wasn’t going to mention that,” Orville whispered to Duval.

“We’re in trouble,” Alden said. “Lots of trouble. Xavier.” He looked straight into his brother’s eyes. “The Zhopian Guard wants to kill us.” Xavier flinched, mouth agape.

“Oh dear,” Orville said. “That’s quite a far-reaching enemy to have.”

“We discovered who’s really running it, and now they want to silence us,” Alden said. “That’s probably why they told you we’d died.” He inhaled heavily. “Now they’ll want to kill you, too.” His family’s eyes widened. Orville removed his glasses and blinked.

“Kill– What?” Xavier shook his head. “I mean, then, what do we do?”

Duval stepped to the center. “We’ve gotta leave Zhop.”

Orville put an arm around Duval. “That sounds like quite the plan, young kudeso. See the stars. Where shall we go?”

Xavier rubbed his head. “I’m sorry, this is too fast. Why do they want to kill you? How would we even leave Zhop? What about Spenk and Jamal?”

“We’ll have to explain when we’re safe,” Alden said. “Spenk and Jamal . . . We need to call them. We can’t get to them now, but if we let them know what’s happened, maybe they can go into hiding.”

Xavier grasped Alden’s arm. “Of course we can get to them. We have to get to them.”

“We don’t even have a ship yet,” Duval said. “We won’t have time to find them.”

“Ooh, I know what to do for a ship,” said Orville. “A discount army surplus store set up shop in Thole recently. I imagine they’d have a craft we could use—er, that is, if we had the funds.”

“I can get us in,” said Duval, “just leave that to me.”

“We’ll call Spenk and Jamal and then go,” Alden said.

“Wait,” Xavier said, waving his hands, “what about our home? We’ve lived here all our lives.”

“Until now,” said Duval. “There’s nothing for it. We need to pack supplies and go.”

“Right,” Alden said. “Orville, Ropak, start packing. Only the essentials. A change of clothes. Equipment we may need. Duval, Xavier, get to the kitchen. Gather some food–”

“I’m hungry,” Top said.

“–and whatever other supplies we can use.” Alden shook his hands at Ropak as they left. “Wait, wait; Ropak, get to the bathroom. Wash the blood off. We don’t want to arouse any suspicion in the town.” He pointed at everyone. “Five minutes. Then we’re going.”

They rushed about the house to start packing while Top ran in circles.

Alden picked up the phone next to the sofa and called Spenk. She was in a big city, possibly one with more Zhopian Guard influence.

“Spenk,” Alden said. Spenk screamed on the other end.

“Alden? Is that you? You’re alive? You’re–”

“Spenk, listen,” Alden said, “I have to be quick, I have to be as quick as you.”

“Bro, what’s going on?” Spenk asked. “I thought you were dead.”

“The Zhopian Guard is after us.” Alden heard Spenk cry out. She spoke but he talked over her. “No, don’t ask. Listen, just run. They’ll know where you are. Get somewhere safe. Get as far from the Zhopian Guard as possible. Just get somewhere you won’t be found, somewhere sparse. Be careful, stay safe. I’ll see you again before long.”

Before Alden hung up Spenk screamed, “What about you?”

Alden stared at the wall. “I’ll be fine. Top and Ropak and I, and Orville and Xavier. We’ll be fine.” His voice cracked. “We’ll see you again when we can, but right now, don’t ask any questions. Just run. Just do what you do best and run.”

“Oh, Alden,” said Spenk, “I love you, tell everyone I love them, and I’ll be safe.”

“I love you, too. Goodbye.”

Alden hung up and cried. He wiped his face with a tissue and took a deep breath. He had another call to make.

“Alden, you’re alive?” Jamal shouted over the phone. “What–?”

“Jamal, I need you to listen carefully, don’t talk, just listen. The Zhopian Guard is after us. They’re probably after you, too. I’ve spoken with Spenk, I’m with Xavier and Orville. We need you to get somewhere safe. Get somewhere the Zhopian Guard won’t find you.”

“Fig, Alden, this sounds bad,” Jamal said. “What happened?”

“I can’t tell you,” Alden said. “The more you know, the more danger you’re in. Just go into hiding, stay safe.”

“Come on, just hide? We can take–”

“Jamal!” Alden shouted. “This is an entire planet’s military!”

“Oh yeah. Good point. Okay, yeah, wait, you know what, I–”

“Whatever you’re planning, if it will keep you safe, then do it, but don’t tell me. For all we know the Zhopian Guard is listening to this call. We’ll be safe, so keep yourself safe.”

“You’d figgin better!” Jamal said. Alden heard his stifled grin. “I thought you were dead once, so I better not hear that again!”

Alden smiled. “I love you, Jamal, and we’ll all be thinking of you and Spenk.”

“Gaddfern it, Alden, you know I’m no good with this mushy stuff. I love you, too, and I’ll get going right now.”

Alden hung up and fell to the sofa weeping. That might have been the last time he’d ever hear his siblings. He wasn’t sure he could keep going. Ropak, the blood washed off, picked him up and hugged him.

“Thank you,” Alden said. I have to keep going, for everybody’s sake. “At least I still have hope. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

“There’s always hope,” Ropak said.

Top squeezed between them. “Hugs!”

Alden inhaled and pulled away. “Okay, let’s get packing.” They found Xavier hunched over in Jamal’s bedroom.

“I’m worried,” Xavier said. “There’s so much stuff in Spenk’s and Jamal’s rooms—if this place was searched the Zhopian Guard could easily conclude where they are.”

Alden sighed. “I can’t imagine they don’t already know, but I have an idea on how to make it harder to trace us. I don’t want to do it as much as I don’t want to leave, though.”

“What is it?”

“How many matches do we have?” Alden asked.

Burn the house down?” Xavier asked, stumbling back. “But we . . . This house is–”

“If we can do anything to keep the Guard off everyone’s trail, we have to do it,” Alden said. “It would be best to remove our presence. We need to burn our bridges on Zhop.”

“I’ll ask Orville,” Xavier said. “It’s his house, after all.”

They checked Orville’s bedroom but found it empty. He was in the den, dumping rancid chemicals from his attic lab to the floor.

“You mean burning the place down wasn’t a given?” Orville asked. Top splashed in the chemicals, humming tunelessly.

“Okay, great, fine, that’s taken care of,” Alden said. They tossed everything of Spenk’s and Jamal’s that they wouldn’t take into the chemicals, along with any information on themselves. Before anyone would notice the fire all information about its occupants would be burned.

Alden swapped his week-old sweater for a fresh one and put on a pair of shoes. “Are we all packed? Five minutes are up. We are going.”

They sprinted out of the house, leaving a trail of matches to burn it down. Alden never looked back. He would have wept and wailed if he had. He almost did anyway.

* * *

They marched through the fresh snow into Thole, passing the sparse wooden homes on the outside. They stayed in the shadows; Alden hadn’t been there for half a year and his return might bring attention. It would be best to avoid notice.

A new steel building towered over the wooden stalls of the market and stuck out like a metal thumb. Rivets lined the bare steel plates; it looked more like a shipping container than a building.

“How long did it take to build it?” Alden asked.

“About a week, according to the residents,” said Orville. “They don’t like talking about it much.”

“You sure about this place, then?” Duval asked. “Been inside?”

“Not exactly, or rather”—Orville smiled—“not at all.”

“Ooh, maybe it’s haunted,” Top said. “Come on, gang, let’s solve a mystery.”

“We have more important business,” Alden said.

“Oh yeah. Fleeing for life and such.”

“So how are we going to actually get inside, let alone on a ship?” Ropak asked.

“I still have my Zhopian Guard identification,” Duval said, pulling out a card from under his wing. “I’ll tell the employees I’m there for an inspection, making sure their wares ain’t faulty.”

“What if they really are faulty?” Top asked. “Then how will we escape?”

“More importantly, what about us?” Alden asked. “You have your ID, but we don’t.”

“You’ll be my inspection crew,” Duval said.

“Not that we look the part at all,” said Ropak.

“Don’t worry about it,” Duval said. “I’ll get us on a ship and pilot us off Zhop.”

They entered the building and squeezed into the receptionist area. Steel plates walled off the back, a grated window next to an iron door with a padlock nearly as big as Top. Through the window Alden saw rocket ships with patches of metal welded on them.



Maybe Top brought up a real point about them being faulty.


Hey, it couldn’t be too easy.


No, it never can, can it?


Left of the window opened a wide slit in the wall too narrow to see through. Someone mumbled from within.

“Can I . . . Uh—Oh, help you? Can I help you?”

“Captain Duval of the Zhopian Guard,” Duval said, sliding his ID under the window. “We’re here to inspect your wares and make sure they’re up to code.”

“Okay, let me . . . Sorry, your ID seems to have been deactivated.”

“Wait, what?” Duval flinched and his feathers ruffled. The ID slid back out.

“It’s no longer valid. I’m afraid—I’m sorry, but you . . . I can’t let you in. Well, I mean, you could ask to buy something, but . . . Well, you see—”

As the voice muttered Ropak groaned. “Now what are we supposed to do?” He trudged out the door but dashed back in. With a note of concern rising with the pitch he shouted, “Guyyyys!” Outside the door Alden saw a Zhopian Guard helicopter land. Snowbles and other species in uniform spoke with Thole scalagos.

“What do we do now?” Xavier asked.

“First, away from the window,” Alden said. They shuffled to the far wall. If someone entered the building they would see them immediately. Alden pointed at the door to the back. “Top, bite it open.”

Rawr!” Top chomped the lock and bit a hole clean through the door.

“Go!” Alden shouted. They charged into the back.

“Oh. You’re just . . . gonna go on in, huh?” muttered the voice through the slit. “I guess that’s, I mean, not really normal, but I don’t . . .”

The back appeared to encompass the rest of the building, the walls rising to a top open to the cloudy afternoon sky. They rushed to a rocket ship that looked designed to go straight from point A to point B and never turn or return. Patched with dented metal in pale rusty colors, the thrusters looked glued-on.

A glance across the floor suggested this was the most intact ship there.

Ropak pushed Duval ahead. “You’re our pilot. You go first.”

They scrambled into the compact rocket ship, the thick walls dirty chrome, the ceiling too low for Alden to stand up straight. Duval climbed to the cockpit and hit buttons and levers with his feet. Screens on the control panel blinked to life showing graphs and numbers and camera feeds of the ship, some jittery and skipping.

“Well, we’re in luck on one account,” Duval said, “this is a kudeso-designed ship—everything’s made for a pilot like me.”

“That’s one lucky account and several cramped ones,” said Ropak. Everyone else squeezed into five of the six back seats with less room than an attic. The seats were plush but had about enough stuffing among them to make one chair comfortable—it felt like sitting on a soft rock.

Alden and Xavier held each other’s hands. Xavier leaned close, reassuring Alden and making sure he was okay. Alden smiled. That was Xavier—always looking out for his siblings.

“All right, everyone strap in,” Duval said. “Once we’re going, we’re not stopping until we’ve reached Derantu. It’ll be a three-month journey.”

“Three months?” Ropak shouted.

“At least.”

Ropak threw up his hands. “Why did we think this was a good idea?”

“Is there enough fuel in the ship for us to reach it?” Alden asked as he locked the seat strap across his waist.

“Oh yeah,” Ropak shouted, flailing his arms, “that’s a little detail we completely forgot to think about.”

“Yeah, they left some fuel in here,” Duval said. “Once we’re out of Zhop we’ll cruise for the most part.”

“Have you flown into space before?” Alden asked.


Ropak crossed his arms. “This idea is getting better all the time.”

“I learned,” Duval said, scowling at Ropak as his beak rubbed together. “Would have liked my first real-world spaceflight to be less of a life-or-death situation, I admit.”

“Your final test,” Orville said. He clapped. “We all believe in you!”

“I barely believe in this ship,” Ropak said.

Duval shook his head. “Nah, the ship’s actually in good condition. Hull diagnostics shows it durable despite the looks. UPS seems to be on the fritz, though.”

Top bounced in their seat with the strap in their mouth. “Then however will we have ourselves delivered?”

“The Universal Positioning System,” Duval said. “Not really universal, but the PPP thinks big. We may just have to hope I don’t fly off into the sun.”

“The Zhopian Guard would never find us there,” Top said.

“The ‘service engine’ light is on,” Duval said, “but we don’t have to worry about that—it’s nothing.”

“Whoops, system check ends now,” Ropak shouted, “we got company!” Through the front window Alden saw Zhopian Guard officers burst through the door from the receptionist room.

“Then hold on,” Duval said, “ ‘cause this is gonna be a bumpy ride.”

“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” Top said.

Duval kicked the ignition, and the ship rumbled like a dying car in a tremor. Alden squashed against his seat and watched the building drop as they blasted into the pale sky. The ship swerved and clanged through the puffy clouds.

“What was that?” Alden asked.

“A bit of turbulence,” Duval said, holding the controls below him steady with his feet. “The ship is flying fine.”

The sky darkened to night, but the sun still shone like a lighthouse as stars filled the sky. The ride smoothed out—a little. Alden thought he was falling until he realized it was the low gravity. His loose sweater billowed.

“There it is,” Duval said, waving to a dot bigger than the others. “Derantu, way out there.”

Top floated out of their seat. “Ooh, do you think we’d be able to see Mintop now, Alden?”

“Top! Get back down,” Alden said. “It’s dangerous.”

Top swam through the air. “Wheee . . .”

The ship lurched, and Top fell onto Duval. “Get off me, ya loon!” He threw Top off him and stabilized the ship.

“What’s going on?” Alden asked.

“Gaddfern it,” Duval said. “We’ve got a couple Zhopian Guard ships on our tail. Might as well just turn around and crash into Zhop’s ocean with this scrap heap.”

“Don’t say that, you’re a great former Zhopian Guard pilot,” Alden said, his mucus soaking his seat. “You can shake them.” Duval swerved the ship, spinning it through loops. Top bounced about the walls until Alden grabbed them. Light flashed past the ship.

“Ooh, this is so exciting,” Orville said.

“Let’s go again!” Top chanted. “Let’s go again!”

“Let’s make it out alive!” Ropak chanted. “Let’s make it out alive!”

“It’s not gonna work,” Duval shouted. “I can’t dodge them all the way to Derantu! That’s three months, with a good ship, using enough fuel to–” The ship shuddered, and Duval cried out. “They hit an engine! At this rate, we’d be lucky to get there in thirty months, let alone three!”

“Oh, good, so this entire excursion was insane and we’re all going to die,” Ropak said.

I wish I could help somehow, Alden thought, but wishing isn’t going to do anything.



Yeah, for wishing to help you’d need, like, some kind of magic wish-granting sword or something.


That’s oddly specific.


Yeah. Let me just take Chekhov’s Wish Sword off the wall right now and say that no such thing appears in this story.


I can’t tell if you’re lying.


No! Don’t make things vague! I don’t want to set the readers up for this, I shouldn’t have even mentioned it, it doesn’t appear!


But you’re talking about it as if it’s a real object.


Wally continue narrating right now or you’re fired.




“There has to be some way to escape,” Xavier said. “Can you get out of their range?”

Duval pulled the controls and spun the ship into a loop. The round Zhopian Guard ships appeared in front of them, the sunlight gleaming off their smooth, solid hulls.

Top pointed forward. “All right, open fire!”

“We don’t got any weapons on this ship,” Duval said.

“We really should have picked a better ship,” said Top.

“If we can’t even fire back, there’s nothing we can do to get out of this,” Ropak said.

“You’re very upbeat today,” Top said.

“My village was destroyed and now I’m going to die,” said Ropak. “Just let me end with snark, okay?”

The four slim cannons on the Zhopian Guard ships swiveled and fired glowing streaks at them.

“I don’t think this ship can handle more of those sharp moves anyway,” Duval said. “All we can do is pray to Gourd for a–” The ship shuddered again. “Gaddfern it! We can’t take another hit like that.”

Alden and Xavier clasped each other across their seats. “At least we’re together,” Xavier said.

“I’m sorry about this, bro,” Alden said. “I never should have left home.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Xavier said. “You’ve grown since you left. Things just, well, didn’t work out. It happens.”

“Maybe this’ll work out.” Top sprang out of Alden’s slippery mucous grasp and sailed to the control panel. They bashed their head into a big red button and an alarm blared like a full marching band.

“What the hex did you just press?” Duval shouted. “Wait, where did those engines come from?” On one of the control panel screens a diagram of two engines appeared, a bar rising next to them. Duval switched the ship’s camera source to show two shiny engine thrusters on the ship’s sides, each practically as big as the ship itself. “What are those? Where were those?”

“Looks like some extra features to me,” Orville said. “Did this ship come with a deus ex machina feature?” White light bright as the sun shimmered from the new engines and the ship rattled. The engines exploded from plasma fire and the ship lurched as if it hit a wall.

“Well, whatever that was, it’s no help now,” Duval said, pushing himself back upright. “They blew out those engines.”









That’s what I asked.


That was not supposed to happen!


It wasn’t?


No! It was the figgin velocitas ex māchinā ex deō or whatever! Velocity from the machine from god! They’d hit that button and those engines zoomed them to safety in that bucket I’d let them have and—I don’t—the stupid Zhopian Guard wasn’t supposed to blast my cool trick! This doesn’t make any sense!


That you let them have?


Aaaagggghhh mhy8hyjnu7


Are you okay?


Sigh. I don’t know. Did Darmenzi do something? Had I miscalculated? Is this the wrong universe? Did we do half a story and we’re in the WRONG FIGGIN UNIVERSE?

No, that couldn’t be it. Top was a weird focal point. This has to be the right one. But if the ship didn’t work . . . They had to have gotten to Derantu somehow. So much would have unraveled otherwise. But how?


Maybe if we keep going we’ll find out.


No, no, that would never work. But maybe if we keep going we can find out!


I just said that.


I know, I just like that joke. It makes me feel better in case we’re about to see some good fellows die and have waste half a story.


I hope we don’t.


“I hate hope!” Ropak shouted. “First we hope we’ll prove ourselves, then we die. We get a ship to escape on, then we die. We get extra engines, and we still die.”

“That’s quite a lot of dying,” Orville said.

“Yeah, well, get ready for more,” said Duval.

Alden looked at Top. The ball rubbed their head and grimaced.

“Top? You okay?”

Ropak crossed his arms and sulked. “None of us are, we’re–”

“I remember something!” Top screamed. They wailed and air-swam to Xavier. “I’m sorry, Xavier, please forgive me, I lied!”

“You lied? About what?” Xavier asked.

“That staff I gave you wasn’t made for me,” Top cried. “I stole it from one of the Micagox jerks and gave it to you so you’d like me. I’m sorry!”

Alden and Xavier looked at each other. Alden wondered if Top understood the gravity of the situation.

“Er.” Xavier patted Top on the head. “It’s all right, Top.”

“Well,” Ropak said, “as long as we’re admitting things before we die, Xavier, I was the one who broke your–”

Top hugged Xavier and smiled. “The staff is magic and can warp space, maybe we can use it to teleport away. Did we bring it?”

Everyone shouted at once—why hadn’t Top mentioned it before?

“I said I forgot. I knocked myself out to forget so I wouldn’t feel guilty.”

Alden jumped out of his seat and searched through their bags, gripping the chairs in the low gravity. Shortly he found the staff, striped white and black like a candy cane. The tip was carved like a spiral galaxy, the center dark as the emptiness of space and white spots scattered throughout like stars. He handed it to Xavier.

The blue scalago stared at the staff and muttered. “How do I use it?”

“I dunno,” Top said, “the Micagox usually just waved their staffs around.”

Alden stared at the staff. His eyes watered and he blinked—the spiral ends and glittering spots seemed to move. He grabbed the staff above Xavier’s hand—he felt an emptiness but shook it off. All we can do is try. Nothing will be death; something might be life. He pointed to the twinkling Derantu.

“Everyone, focus on Derantu. Stare at it, get that direction in your mind. We can only try to get the staff to send us in that direction.” Ropak and Orville grabbed the staff, and Top hugged it over everyone’s hands. “Now, wave!” They swung the staff forward, it struck the floor, and the color drained from the world.

The musty smell drained away.

The spaceship creaking drained away.

Alden tried to speak but he couldn’t move.

Then the universe moved around them. A haze of light and dark clouded Alden’s vision as he felt like he stood in still circles under high pressure. In a moment the universe returned to normal, and Alden flipped through the air. Xavier grabbed him and pulled him to the floor.

Duval gasped. “Holy Granoly. What was that?”

Alden looked at Top, who grinned. “Er. Magic?”

The kudeso leaned back. “Well come take a look at this beautiful sight.”

Alden looked up and gasped. Derantu lay before them, as close as Zhop had been seconds ago. The three continents among Derantu’s bright blue oceans were made of as many colors as he could count. Alden had never seen anything so vibrant. Tears came to his eyes.

“We moved in ten seconds what should have taken more than three months,” Duval said. “We went faster than physics should allow.” He looked at them. “How is that possible?”

Alden looked at Xavier and smiled. “You’ve just got to believe.”

“It wasn’t believing, it was doing,” Ropak said. “It was making it happen. We made the staff do that by making it reality, because honestly, I did not believe that would work.”



He was right, you know!


I have some questions, Duth, but I’ll wait for this finish.


Alden laughed. “I don’t think it matters how. We made it. We’re alive. We’re going to be okay.” Alden sat back in his seat, and Duval said they would be in Derantu airspace in half an hour.

“What if Derantu comes after us as Zhop outlaws?” Ropak asked.

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Duval said. “For you guys, just keep a low profile and things will be fine from here on out. You’ll have a much easier time where I’m taking you.”

Alden hoped so, but even if they had an easier time, he could never forget what he’d been through. His actions against The Place for the Placeless, even if he hadn’t known it, were still his. Would it really have been any better had I not attacked a place I knew and loved?

His near-death. The mafia and its brutality against Ropak’s village. He looked at the wrallot. He could tell Ropak would never forgive the Zhopian Guard and neither should he. But he could do nothing about it now.

He could do nothing for Spenk or Jamal, either. He still worried for them. He knew Xavier and Orville worried for them. Well, Xavier does. Orville . . . maybe he’s more confident in them. Maybe he’s senile. Maybe a little of both? But Alden certainly worried for his siblings. Would they be okay? Would he ever see them again? He hoped the answers were yes.

And Top . . . Top seemed the only one not worried or incensed. Perhaps they were angry, but they rarely showed it. Did Top ever show true anger when they faced Chillone in that jail? When was the last time Top got angry? Did their food tantrum in the jail count? Or was it in the Micagox village when that Micagox attacked me?

Alden watched Top swim in the low gravity and smiled. Some things never change. Maybe that’s the only thing you can count on enough to keep your sanity in the world.

* * *


I gotta say, I also totally forgot about that staff. So they never actually got to use my velocitas ex māchinā ex deō. Oh well.


Duth, I said I have some questions. May I ask them?




Why did you give them that ship?


I didn’t give them any ship. I’ve been sitting here in The Cloud watching you type about them.


Not right now, but in the past. Your past. They flew out of that building and careened off something in the clouds. You know, like The Cloud. I know you’ve altered events before, but just how much?




That’s just one robot’s opinion.


Besides, that “army surplus supply” story or whatever—that was just a front for putting a ship there. You hadn’t even made it look like a real store.


Geeze, Wally, I thought you were a court stenographer, but you’re getting the sleuthing skills of a prosecutor.


Oh, you really think so?


No. Anyway, maybe I’d just had some leftover stuff I wanted to sell, and a near-empty town that would never have any such need for it was the perfect place to prove my business sense.


Your bad business sense.




Sometimes you seem to play rather fast and loose with these timelines. What would have happened if you’d not interfered?


Well, at this point, if I’d not interfered, none of this would have happened. A lot of stuff has happened, Wally. Top wouldn’t even be there. It’s questionable if scalagos would be.


Top seemed to rather be something of an instigator of a lot of this mess.


More like the end result. There’s a storied history here, so let’s take it one step at a time.


Okay. What did you mean that Ropak was right by doing, not believing?


It’s how imagication works. You can believe all you want, but it takes will and mind and a powerful imagination to change the world that way.


Just what is imagication?


The power of magic. It runs off imagination, you know.


Sounds like a children’s show. You can do anything you imagine. It’s a nice thought, though.


Well, what else would magic run off? It’s all about imagination. Of course, so is technology, but that uses reality to bring imagination to life. Magic uses imagination to bring reality to life, and it’s a lot harder unless you’re gifted. The Cloud kind of combines them, which is even harder.


So if the Micagox are magic, they use imagination?


Right, but they were creatures of magic, so they easily used existing imagication without having to exert as much imagination themselves. Maybe that was why their Guardian hadn’t been much in their control. Top on the other hand was an existing object flooded with imagication, so they didn’t really control it, even if they were magic.


Sheesh, it’s all confusing to me. Doesn’t even seem all that magical.


But does it seem imaginative?


I don’t know, I guess.


Bah, Wally. Anyway, was there anything else you wanted infodumped?


Well, I was wondering when I was going to get paid.


Sorry, Wally, no time for that now, we’ve got our second act coming up.

Intermission | Table of Contents