Not the final version. Book version may vary.
Alden gazed at the scenery below, mouth agape. Their spaceship flew over the capital city of the Salenth Kingdom, Salenthia. It wasn’t that Alden had never seen a city from the sky before, though he only had in video footage. It wasn’t that he had never seen Salenthia—he’d seen it in books. But seeing it above, in a ship, in person . . . That was something else.
Salenthia was bright and colorful compared to the drab darkness of Zhop’s capital city. Rainbow fields covered it, trees like cotton candy dotted the landscape, and a bright, sparkling river flowed through the center. It looked like a land of magic compared to Zhop, which typically looked like a land drained of magic. No monopoly on the landscape was held by skyscrapers like in New Zhopolis, and buildings had vibrant colors that melded into the rainbow of nature as opposed to New Zhopolis’ giant film noir tombstones that crammed as many people as possible inside. The tallest building stood round and expansive in the center, with rising spires and fields of flowers around it. This was Salenth Castle, home of the Salenth Kingdom rulers.
Soft meadows surrounded the city instead of crusty tundra like New Zhopolis, color patches of farmland to the south. West was the ocean, bright blue and unbroken unlike New Zhopolis’ dark icy ocean, with Salenthia at the end of a bay. To the east stood a forest, thicker and brighter and filled with more color than any Alden had seen back home. The only area that didn’t look welcoming was the dull swampland north. It was further away from the city, though.
Duval piloted the ship to a tarmac east of the castle. Other flying machines both for sky and space were parked there.
“Get ready,” said Duval, looking back at the passengers. “We’ll probably be greeted by immigration officers and escorted to the customs office for paperwork.” Alden saw a bus driving to them as they landed. “You all got passports?”
“I do,” Orville said.
“Passports?” Ropak asked.
“None of you have passports, do you?” said Duval.
“I do,” Orville said.
“Well, you three will probably be fine, being scalagos,” Duval said. “This place is big on scalagos.”
“Ruled and populated by scalagos,” Alden said. “I believe the Salenth Kingdom actually has a policy of allowing scalagos from Zhop coming to live here.”
So why are there scalagos from two different planets?
That’s . . . it? Just, aliens? Which aliens?
Aliens can mean a lot of different species.
And you’re not going to be any more specific, are you?
“We might run into more trouble with you two.” Duval waved to Ropak and Top. “Just play it cool and don’t let on that you were on the run. Never let on that you were on the run. As far as you should be concerned you came here only because you wanted to live on Derantu.”
They exited the ship, and Alden panted from the smothering heat as soggy mucus covered his skin. They’d left Zhop during winter, but it was summer at the Salenth Kingdom. Alden rolled up the sleeves of his sweater; he’d need a change of clothing.
“Hooray for nudity,” Top said.
“Agreed,” said Ropak. He looked at the bright blue sky and squinted. “Although a wide hat would be nice.”
Top frowned. “Any hat would be nice.”
The bus arrived, an elderly dull-green scalago driving while a younger amber one checked them in on a computer tablet. They rode to the customs and immigration office.
“Quite a few of you together,” the amber scalago said. “What brought y’olks to our fair Kingdom?”
“We’re not on the run!” Top screamed.
“Don’t mind them, they’re an idiot,” Ropak said. “We just got sick of Zhop.”
“A change of pace is always good,” said Orville.
“Yeah, sure,” Ropak said. “I changed my pace and look where it got me.”
“Gotcha,” said the amber scalago. “Most come from Zhop looking for a change of life.” He waved the tablet to Ropak. “What kind of species are you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Wrallot. We don’t get out much.” Ropak crossed his arms. “I think I see why now.”
“Oh yeah, I imagine you’re not used to this heat on Zhop.”
“Yeah,” Ropak said, “that’s definitely what I was talking about, let’s go with that.”
Alden pulled Ropak to the back of the bus. “Your flippancy is going to make us seem suspicious.”
“Oh. Good point. Sorry.”
They arrived at the building and entered, the cold air inside refreshing. A bustle of activity greeted them as hundreds of colorful chatting scalagos rushed about, shoes clacking along the tiled floor. Scalagos lined up to a front desk where clerks assisted them—but not just scalagos, as Alden saw a few other Zhop species, Derantu species, and he thought he espied a couple Mintop ones as well. Passages at the sides led further into the building.
“There’s so many people here,” Xavier said, head waving back and forth as he stared at everything.
“You should have seen it at New Zhopolis,” Alden said. “Double this and add a bunch of species you’ve never seen before. This is light compared to that place.”
“Let’s get in line to get authorized and processed,” Duval said.
“But I’m not a food,” said Top.
They waited in line for some ten minutes before reaching a desk, at which point Alden flinched.
“Hiii. My name’s Terri; what can I do for you today?”
Behind the desk stood—well, some type of bird, neither as small as a kudeso nor as big as a nervist. Her smoky feathers weren’t as shaggy, either—they looked slicked down. The smiling cheese-looking beak on her chubby round head wasn’t as sharp, and her wings looked more like flippers. She worse a loose shirt, a name tag on the chest.
The species name came to Alden—well, names. “Okay, sorry, I know there are two birds on Derantu, but—” He couldn’t tell which she was.
Terri laughed. “Yup, people say we look similar. I’ve never seen it. I’m an ophede, not an ephode. It’s okay, though, I’m used to people not even recognizing most Derantu species.” Terri waved to the others. “Hi, Mx Kudeso. Hi, Mx . . .” She looked at Ropak.
“Guess you’re eating your words,” Ropak said and he smiled. “I’m a wrallot. We don’t travel much.”
“Righty-o,” Terri said. “And hello, Mx . . . Beach Ball?”
Top jumped in place. “That’s me, that’s me!”
Duval and Orville gave Terri their passports. She typed into her computer with the flat fingers at the end of her flipper-wings. “All right, things check out. You can come in Mx Achassay, and you three can come on in: all scalagos are welcome.”
“I don’t actually have a passport,” Ropak said.
“Well, if you hang tight, I’ll run a background check and see if you can come in.” Terri gestured to Top. “I’ll have to run a check on them, too.”
“No, wait,” Alden said, picking up the ball, “it’s just some of our luggage.”
“Luggage, luggage!” Top said. “I’m the luggage! I’m half beach ball, half suitcase, half homicidal maniac. I can also sprout hundreds of little legs. Want to see them?”
Alden covered his arms over Top’s mouth. “Th– No, there’s no reason to do that.”
Terri stared at Top. “Are you sure they’re just luggage?”
“They’re magical,” Orville said.
“Mechanical!” said Alden. “They’re mechanical. You know, like a Help Block. Only chompier.”
“Ah, okay,” said Terri, “we’ll have to register them. Let me run the check on your wrallot friend, first. Your name?”
“Ropak. I lived in a village. It didn’t really have a name.”
Ropak pulled Alden to the side. “Alden? I don’t know about this. Wouldn’t the Zhopian Guard have sent out an alert about us? I mean, if they find out who we are, we could get arrested and sent back.”
“I wouldn’t worry,” Duval whispered. “There’s a reason I brought us here: The Salenth Kingdom doesn’t like Zhop leadership very much. I doubt the Zhopian Guard wants us to be public knowledge anyway. If they let any old officer know we’re wanted and to be apprehended, we could make a fuss about the corruption in the Guard. It wouldn’t look good for them.”
“Then let’s go to the streets,” Ropak whispered. “Tell the world—tell all three worlds—that Zhop is corrupt and should be rooted out.”
“That won’t work, either,” said Duval. “I’m sure Zhop has enough clout—one third of the PPP, after all—and arguments to refute something some random people are saying, and then they’ll know exactly where you are.
“No, the only way to go forward is to remain in stalemate—a shaky balance between our lives and their reputation. I’d be wary of spies in the kingdom though—they let any scalago come live here, after all—and institutions that may be tipped off about us like the military.”
Alden nodded. The safest thing to do at this point would be to keep as low a profile as possible and just live our lives.
“Psst,” Terri whispered, smiling and squinting as if in on a secret, “if you’re done whispering mysteriously over there, I have the results of the background check.”
Everyone turned back to Terri and Ropak cleared his throat. “Sorry about that. So can we move on?”
“Absolutely,” Terri said, throwing her flippers up as if tossing confetti. “We just need to enter some registration information for your mechanical friend there.”
“What mechanical friend?” Top asked. “Did you guys bring Fridger along and not tell me? I miss them.”
“She means you,” said Alden.
“But I’m not–” Alden shut Top’s mouth.
Ropak leaned an elbow atop the ball. “We’ve been trying to fix their mouth, but it just keeps running.”
Terri laughed. “All right, so, do they have a registration number we can port from Zhop?”
“I’m afraid not, no,” Alden said.
“Not a problem, let’s just generate one real quick.” Terri typed into the computer. “Okay, their registration is 3h4g-3942-0000-0000. Weird, that’s a lot of zeros.”
“Well, that’s Top,” Ropak said.
Top pushed Ropak off them and shouted, “Rawr!” several times.
Terri entered Top’s name and asked for function. “Guardian,” said the ball.
“Guardian machine, all right, and who built them?” Terri asked.
“Micagox,” Top said before Alden could stop them.
“Micagox, okay.” Terri peered at the computer screen. “I don’t see any matches, are they a small organization on Zhop?”
“Very small,” Alden said. He supposed no one knew about them on Derantu—no one seemed to have known about them in New Zhopolis either.
“Okay, I’ll enter them in here. Does Top have a server address?”
“What’s that?” Alden asked.
“That would be no,” said Orville. “Top here isn’t connected to any of the Help Block networks, or really any networks. No capabilities there.”
“Okay, and who’s the licensed owner?” Terri asked.
“I am,” said Top.
“Just put me down, name Alden Monsos.”
“That works too,” Top said.
“Last thing,” said Terri, “do they have any weapons installed?” Top grinned. Terri stared and laughed nervously. “Okay, I’ll just put down ‘teeth’. That’s everything for Top. All we have to do is get you three passports and everyone identification cards, and you’re good to go.”
“So many shenaginags to go through,” Top said.
“Oh, and would you like a parking number for the ship you arrived in?” Terri asked.
“Yes, please,” said Duval. “How long can it remain?”
“A week,” Terri said. “If you don’t pick it up by then it’ll become Salenth Kingdom property, and we can’t guarantee you’ll get it back. Okay, let’s get you ready.”
* * *
After they registered and got their passports, the six of them left the building into the Salenth Kingdom proper for the first time.
There were far more scalagos outside, but in the expansive space it wasn’t as crowded. The sidewalks were wide enough for several scalagos to walk side-by-side and cars didn’t overcrowd the streets like in New Zhopolis. There were even bike lanes. Trees and flowers grew alongside the streets, and the very air smelled sweeter than Zhop’s. Everything from the scenery to the scalagos to the sky looked bright.
Alden yearned to change out of his sweater so he could enjoy the warm air instead of suffer from it. He looked at Ropak, who stretched. The wrallot audibly inhaled and then hacked.
“Guess I need to get used to this place’s air,” Ropak muttered.
“Where’s all the carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide we know and love?” Top asked.
“Actually, New Zhopolis didn’t produce a lot of that,” Alden said. “I mean, for all its faults, environmentally unconscious wasn’t one of them.”
“The snowbles, of course,” Orville said. “They survive best in cold weather.”
“All right, y’olks,” Duval said, “well, it’s been fun—except it hasn’t. You should probably work on finding yourselves a place to stay. Good luck on that, and I am out of here.” He strolled away.
Alden stared at Duval. “Wait a minute. You’re going to just leave us?”
“That I am,” Duval said.
Alden strode after him. “After all we went through, after showing you the corruption in the Zhopian Guard and finding a ship and you piloting us here–”
“After all the threats and subsequent dragging you along into this madness,” Top said, hopping along.
“–you’re just going to leave us?” Alden asked.
Duval nodded. “Already said so. Look, it’s been a wild ride, I guess it’s cool that you showed me what was a corrupt institution, but, quite frankly, you’re all nuts, and I’m getting out of here.”
Alden stopped and looked at the others. He felt he should stop Duval, but he couldn’t keep the kudeso with them against his will. It was his decision. They’d be fine, and he knew Duval would be fine.
Top waved and shouted, “Goodbyyyye, Captain Duval!”
Duval flapped his wing to them in a casual salute. The others joined Top in the goodbye.
Alden smiled. “We’ll see you again someday,” he called after the kudeso.
“No, you won’t,” Duval said, and he disappeared among the crowd.
* * *
The five of them returned to the customs office—with only a little money on-hand, and it being Zhop currency, they had Orville’s bank account opened to transition to a Salenth Kingdom account. They hoped enough remained to keep them afloat until they found jobs.
“The account name is O-M-G,” Orville said.
The receptionist smiled. “No, really, what’s the name?”
“It’s under Orville Melendez Gray,” said Xavier.
The gleaming scalago typed into her computer. Alden was surprised when he’d seen her, but he knew he shouldn’t have been—he’d read about the skin colors of Derantu scalagos. Her green skin looked as bright as his own, a departure from the dark tones that female scalagos from Zhop had.
“All right, Mr. Gray,” said the rep, “based on the current exchange rate, we’re looking at about twenty thousand Salenth dollars.”
Orville looked at Alden and Xavier then back at the receptionist. “Is that a lot?”
“What?” The rep stared at him then blinked. “Sorry, yes. It’s very good.”
“Enough to rent an apartment?” Xavier asked.
The rep smiled. “Oh, yes, certainly. Rent is a little high around the castle area and near the bay, but rent is usually cheaper on the east and north side.”
“Cool,” Ropak said. “Let’s head east. Find a place to stay. Get set up and start finding our fortune, or whatever it is we’ve been trying to do.”