Not the final version. Book version may vary.
The month passed from Darane to Athine. Top, Alden, and Ropak adjusted to their new surroundings. Job hunting went as slow as it once had on New Zhopolis, though Top had some ideas. Elsewhere, slugs struggled against an evil magic jerk.
But that’s a story for a previous day!
Oh, right, Darmenzi. Guess that happened around this time. So Top had some ideas, huh?
Yep. Guess that imagication started seeping out.
I wonder what those ideas will be.
* * *
Top skipped along a sidewalk in Salenthia, humming tunelessly. They skipped past droves of scalagos, but also the birds and the other birds, as well as tanked snout blubbers, dome fossils, and long-eared galoots. Most of them stared after Top as the ball hummed loud enough to be heard at the other end of a street block.
Top had finally gotten their affairs in order enough to make the next move. It was time to get their schemes laid out. They were gonna make it after all in Salenthia, and they had business downtown.
But wait! They had to put that business aside because a fair maiden had too much to carry.
Leaving Top Land for the moment, Top saw a long-eared galoot–er, a kanhase emerge from a shop carrying five big crinkling paper bags. The kanhase stood at twice Top’s height not counting the ears, though hers flopped forward more than most kanhases. She had light brown fur like a fuzzy sofa and gripped the bags with white hands, tufts of snowy fur around the wrists. A bag slipped from her grasp and in trying to keep her grip she tripped on the puffy ball at the end of her rope-like tail.
She placed the bags at her long sneakers and glared at them over her pebble of a nose. Top hopped over, noting her slight pine scent. Her shirt read If I’m dealing with you, you’re History.
“Hello, hello,” said Top. “You’ve got a lot of bags there.”
“You think?” the kanhase said, arms akimbo. “I don’t know how I’m going to carry them all.”
“Perhaps I could lighten your load,” Top said.
“Are you sure? I live pretty far out of the way. I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you, you know?”
“It’s not a problem at all,” Top said, lifting a bag over their head. “I wouldn’t want you to have to carry five bags such a long way.”
“Well, thank you,” the kanhase said, and Top dropped the bag into their gaping mouth, following this with a beaming smile. The kanhase stared at Top. “You do realize that you just ate a bag full of medical supplies, right? Needles. Syringes. Scalpels. I think that bag might have had some electrical wires, too.”
“That I do, that it did,” said Top.
The kanhase grabbed Top. “So you think you’re just gonna eat my stuff, do you? You’re coming with me.” She stuffed Top in a bag and carried them away.
* * *
Well, since Top is now stuck in a bag, let’s check up on Alden and Ropak.
* * *
Alden and Ropak strolled through the forest in the eastern Salenth Kingdom. Unlike the gray forests of their home, this forest looked like a painting by an artist who only saw the brightness of life. One tree blue as the sky surprised them when gapples flew out, having blended in. A sunshiny yellow tree appeared to have black spots until some chubby birds flew away. They sat under a tree red as a sunset, listening to the chirps and rustling.
“These last months have been brutal, haven’t they?” Alden said.
“It’s hard,” said Ropak. “As familiar as having trees all around me is, it just reminds me of home, and that reminds me of . . .” He looked down. “Well, you know.”
Alden placed a hand on Ropak’s shoulder. “I know. It’s never going to go away. We’ll always remember it, there in the back of our minds.”
“You’re a good friend, Alden,” Ropak said.
“You are, too, Ropak.”
“And Top . . .” Ropak shrugged. “Well, they’re Top. What else can we say about them?”
Alden laughed. “Yeah. That’s about all we can say.”
Ropak sighed. “As great as this place has been, I wish I wasn’t the only wrallot here. I haven’t seen another one in a year, it’s getting to me. You have no idea how lonely it is when no one else is like you.”
“I can only imagine,” Alden said.
Ropak stood and shook a fist at the sky. “Chillone! I will pay you and your whole operation back. I will return to Zhop, free it from your criminal control, and reunite with my people.”
“Chillone can’t hear you,” said Alden.
“I will also yell this to your face!” Ropak lowered his fist and groaned. “I don’t know why. I’ve been away too long, I’ve changed too much. I’ll never be able to reconnect with my fellow wrallots. I’m not sure I deserve to. I’ll never see my fellow wrallots again, since my fellow wrallots would have been—those from my village.”
“I’m sure you’ll find some way to . . .” Alden pointed among the trees. “What’s that?”
“What’s what?” Ropak asked. “Oh. What is that?”
Through the trees ahead stood a steel pillar wider than the thickest tree, atop which sprouted a shaggy rainbow of branches and leaves. It looked disguised as a tree, but its reflective silver walls gave it away, as did the door and windows.
“Did we stumble upon a robot tree?” Ropak asked. “I mean, that makes about as much sense as a robot fridge.”
“Actually . . .” Alden shrugged. “Okay, you’re probably right. But no, I think this is a building. It might be a house.”
“Someone lives out here?” Ropak asked.
“I lived out in a forest,” said Alden.
“Someone lives out here in a metal building?” Ropak asked. “Your place fit in. This is trying to fit in and failing.”
“It might if you looked at it from above,” Alden said. “Maybe they don’t want to be spotted from the sky.”
“Okay, now I’m curious,” said Ropak. “I’m going to see who lives here.” He opened the front door.
“Wait, let’s knock first. We shouldn’t be breaking and entering like this.”
“Breaking and entering? Who’s breaking? I didn’t break anything. Did you break anything?”
“Then we’re good. There’s nothing against entering, right?”
“Without permission, maybe,” Alden said.
“Who needs permission?” Ropak asked. “Besides, who’s to say we didn’t just think this was a tree?”
“Because,” said a voice inside the tree, “trees don’t have doors to enter through.”
Ropak spun around. From inside marched a light brown kanhase taller than Alden—though without the ears some head shorter than Ropak. Ropak stumbled backwards into Alden, who pushed him forward but lost his footing and the two collapsed in the doorway.
“Ouch. That was a mess.” The kanhase adjusted his square glasses, which curled up to hang from his ears. His floppy pants and t-shirt with a cartoon robot on the front gave no impression of someone disguising their house from worries of an aerial bombardment.
“I’m sorry,” Alden said, standing up, “we just noticed how–”
“Your place stands out,” Ropak said. “It’s like a silver thumb. Or maybe a silver tongue.”
“Well, it is in a forest,” said the kanhase. “Most buildings would stand out in a forest.”
“Unless they’re made of wood,” Ropak said.
“I guess that’s true.”
“If I may,” the kanhase said, holding out a hand to shake. “Thaddeus, though you can call me Thad.”
Alden and Ropak introduced themselves. “I hope we didn’t disturb you,” Alden said.
“Not at all,” said Thad. “Come in, if you’d like. I don’t get a whole lot of visitors out here.”
“That’s because you live in a forest,” Ropak said, following the kanhase inside.
Thad smiled. “I’m aware of that. Usually it’s a good thing. My line of work requires a lot of concentration and hours, so for the most part I only see my roommate.”
“Is your roommate around?” Alden asked. He got a better look at the house interior. Smooth wooden walls, thick carpeting, and a fireplace surrounded by a sofa and armchairs gave it a cozy look that belied the metal exterior. Though only a cramped front den and kitchen were on the first floor, a winding staircase at a central pillar led up and down. Pictures of other kanhases hung on the walls.
“My roommate’s in the city getting supplies right now,” Thad said. “She should be back pretty soon, though.”
“Well, according to the laws of serendipity,” Ropak said, “now that you’ve said that she’s going to walk right through that door.” He pointed to the front door. It decidedly did not open.
Thad shrugged. “Maybe something waylaid her. Would you care for a drink?”
“Sure, whatever you have is fine,” Alden said.
Ropak raised a hand. “I’m a species from a different planet, so I don’t know what you have that is edible for me.”
“You’ve been here over a month and everything’s been edible,” Alden said.
“No, most things have been edibled by Top,” said Ropak.
“I could get you some water,” said Thad.
“Water? That’s boring.”
“Nah, I’m kidding,” Ropak said, waving a hand. “I just like to complain about things. Go ‘head.”
As Thad brought them each a glass of water, the front door swung open.
“Thad!” shouted the kanhase arrival. “Some idiot ate the supplies.” She marched into the house carrying four big paper bags. She dumped the contents of one onto a table, and those contents included a grinning beach ball. The pine scent was stronger there—Top wondered if they were in a forest. They saw their friends.
“Oh, hey guys!” Top said. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Oh no.” Alden facepalmed.
Ropak grinned. “I knew the laws of serendipity wouldn’t let us down.”
That was quite the coincidence.
It wasn’t a coincidence, it was destiny!
Was it really?
Nah, it was just a coincidence.
It was probably your shifting the timeline.
I did not!
I’m just going to go with coincidence.
The new kanhase looked at Alden and Ropak. “Hey, who’re these guys?”
“This is Alden and Ropak,” Thad said. “Alden, Ropak, this is Evelyn, my roommate. Er, what did you mean by someone eating the . . .” Thad looked at Top, who smiled and waved. He looked between Evelyn and Top. “What is this?”
“I’m sorry,” Alden said. “This is a friend of ours, Top. As you apparently noticed, they have a bit of an appetite.”
Top lifted out from their mouth the bag they’d eaten. “See? You only had to carry four bags. Ooh, and thanks for the ride.”
Evelyn stared at Top, mouth agape. She grabbed the bag and looked through it.
“They also seem to function as a walking container,” Alden said. “Don’t ask me how it works.”
“I’d love to find out.” Thad wrenched Top’s mouth open but shut it immediately. “It has teeth.”
Rude! Top thought.
“Yes, they do,” Alden said.
Top grinned, showing all their teeth to Thad. The kanhase’s left ear bent forward. “I see. Never mind about my finding out.”
“So where did you two come from?” Evelyn asked as she emptied her pants pockets of phone and receipts. “And don’t say ‘Zhop’, because I know you’re a wrallot.”
“Congratulations,” said Ropak. “You’re the only person I’ve met here who knew that.”
“Well, yeah,” Evelyn said, “you’re not exactly a travelsome creature, even regarding your own planet. I just know what I’ve already said; the only people who know more probably studied wrallots specifically.”
Top wandered around the house poking stuff. Nice digs! And since we’re in a forest, I wonder if they’re literal digs. Top could certainly smell dirt, though it was fresh, not the stale sort of dirt gotten from not bathing.
Thad watched Top then turned to Alden and Ropak. “What do you say? Stay for lunch?”
“Yes!” Top jumped onto Thad’s head. “I’m always up for food.” Give Top food, they’d forgive and love forever.
* * *
They swapped stories during lunch, Alden and Ropak omitting dangerous details. Thad worked as a mechanic—he had planned for a medical degree in college but found he enjoyed building machines more. He also had a minor in physics. Evelyn had studied history, hence her knowledge of the wrallot—she’d researched history in Derantu, Zhop, and Mintop, though she focused on the Salenth Kingdom.
About this time Top got bored and left. They walked around the house, looking at the kanhases’ stuff. They saw lots of books but no machines to indicate Thad’s mechanical background.
Top fell down the spiral stairs into a dark steel room. Okay, this looks mechanical. Smelled mechanical, too—a sharp steel scent permeated the room. Machines three times Top’s height stood, pipes connecting them, and tools filled shelves against the walls. Probably. Top couldn’t see in the darkness.
“Where’s the light in this place?” Top shouted, prompting a scream from in the darkness, prompting a response scream from Top. Top smelled the faint odor of unfamiliar flesh, but the metal muffled it.
“Hello!” Top said with a smile. “Were you kidnapped by the kanhases, and they’re secretly crazy murderer kidnappers, and I should call the police?”
“What? No, nothing like that,” said a voice in the darkness.
“Okay, good, because I don’t actually know the number for the police,” Top said.
“Look, just go away. I don’t want any visitors.”
Top saw a small glimmering light. “Oh, you’re a firefly. Hello, firefly!”
“No, I’m . . . Look, can you just leave? I don’t want anyone seeing me.”
“Is that why it’s so dark in here?” Top asked. “I’m gonna find the light switch.”
“Don’t! Listen, you don’t want to see me either.”
“You don’t know what I want,” Top shouted. “I want . . .” What do I want? “Food, really. Wow, big surprise there. Real original, me.”
“There’s no food down here.”
“Okay, I’m leaving.” Top walked to the exit but turned back. “No, wait, I changed my mind, I’m back.” This mysterious voice seemed lonely. Top wanted to give them a friend. “Why do you wish to be a mystery?”
“If you really want to know, I’m a freak. I’m a hideous freak. No one should have to look at me, and I shouldn’t be seen by anyone.”
“Big deal,” Top said. “I’m a hideous freak, too. Well, actually, I’m a weirdorable freak, but besides that, we’re both outcasts.”
After a silence the voice said, “What are you?”
“Exactamundus,” Top said. “You’re as exact as a universal toilet decorated with a lady’s dress.” The ball wondered what that meant.
After a longer silence the voice said, “I’m Steven.”
“You’re a steven?” Top asked.
“No, I mean my name is Steven, but that’s not really true either.”
“You sound confused,” Top said. “You’re just like me.”
“No, I’m not. Look, if I let you see what I look like, will you leave?”
Top looked away. “Maaaaybe.”
The light neared. Rising over Top stood what looked like a ghostly-white lizard, nude, probably not a scalago unless deformed. He was bald, though two crests sagged atop his head, and a green stripe traced down his left side. His eyes looked, as Top would describe them, totally crazy, extended cone eyelids around inner eyes that shifted about. Steven had a thicker build than most scalagos and three fingers in a claw formation. His tail also looked stiffer than a scalago’s, only drooping slightly, and it ended in a spiral curl.
Oh yes, and the right half of his body and both legs were mechanical, as if someone had welded half a knight’s armor to his body. His right eye glowed with a white light.
“Are you happy now?” Steven asked. He held his arms close, looking down and frowning.
“Not until you’re happy,” Top said. “You don’t look too bad. A little shiny, a little pale, and maybe a little stiff, but still.”
“That’s nice of you to say, but I don’t think I can be happy,” Steven said.
“Balderdash,” said Top. They pushed Steven towards the stairs. “We’re going to make you happy.”
“No!” Steven’s eyes spun in his head. “I’m not going upstairs!” He ran away and disappeared.
“Wow, that’s a real balderdash,” Top said. “Get it? Because you dashed away, and you’re bald. Come on! That’s funny. I’m not mocking your baldness. I mean, I’m bald too.”
Top ran after Steven but couldn’t see him, and his metal smell blended with the room. “Come on, it’s okay. There’s just friends upstairs. Come on, Steven, come out!” Top pulled out a cane and a top hat from their mouth and danced.
“Come on, Steven, come on out.
“Don’t you sulk and don’t you pout.
“Face the day for happy times.
“It’s not like you carried out war crimes.”
Top stared blankly. “Right? You didn’t do war crimes, did you?” Top grimaced—the idea that Steven worked for Zhop unnerved them. On the other hand, maybe Steven had also been on the run from the Guard.
The cyborg appeared from thin air like rippling water. Top jumped back.
“No, I didn’t—” Steven shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything I did. I have amnesia. I don’t really have a past life.”
Top stared at Steven. They seemed like a fine chap—just in need of cheering up. “Then let’s get you a future life.” They grabbed Steven’s hand and pulled him to the stairway. This time Steven followed, though haltingly.
On the way up Top hummed the tune they’d sung. “I should come out with a soundtrack.”
* * *
Upstairs everyone searched the house for Top. “Any idea where they would have gone?” Thad asked.
“We already checked the fridge,” Alden said.
“And the pantry,” said Ropak.
“And the oven,” Alden added. “Let me think . . . Do you have a hat closet?”
“Can anything they eat be taken out?” Evelyn asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Alden. “I think an investigation into how their insides work would be difficult.”
“They’d just better not damage anything,” Evelyn said, “or I’ll turn them inside out.”
Ropak grinned. “And risk destroying reality as we know it?”
Thad’s eyes widened. “Where did they even come from?”
“Uh.” Alden coughed. “Well, about that . . .”
Ropak held up his palms. “Hey, I was joking anyway. Top–”
“Is back!” Top jumped up the stairway. “Did you miss me?”
“Oh no,” said Thad. “You were down there. Look, did you–”
“Hey, Thad?” Steven emerged from below. “Could you introduce me?”
Thad stared as if he’d never heard such a request. “What? I mean, yeah, sure. Alden, Ropak, this is Steven.”
Alden and Ropak stared at Steven, who stood a head taller than anyone else there. Alden shook his head. “Sorry, yeah, hello. Steven, you said?”
“Well, not really,” said Steven.
“Yes, it’s Steven,” Evelyn said, arms crossed. “As far back as we know, anyway.”
Steven held out his right hand to Alden, mechanical, but jerked it back and held out his left, flesh. He did the same for Ropak, but Ropak grabbed his right hand to shake. Steven wrenched away.
“I’m sorry,” Steven said. “I’m self-conscious about my metal parts.”
“I can see how that would be the case,” Ropak said. He leaned close sideways. “So how’d it happen?” Evelyn glared at him.
“Well, I told you that I was a mechanic but originally studied medicine, right?” Thad said. “One day we found him in the forest badly injured. I used what I could to keep him alive, and some university friends and I built him a mechanical exoskeleton. His memory was lost, though, so we don’t know what happened.”
“Obviously he couldn’t remember his name,” Evelyn said, “so we picked one at random. Steven.”
“Is he a scalago?” Alden asked, staring at the parts that weren’t scalago.
“A verk’lon,” said Evelyn. “They’re from Mintop. He has no memory of it, though, so we don’t even know if he used to live there.”
“Wow,” Alden said. “It’s almost like you were reincarnated, with no memories of your previous life, only you were born with a fully developed mind, leaving you confused and unable to gradually learn about the world.”
Top smiled. “We’re more alike than I thought.”
“The thing is he’s stayed holed up in the basement ever since,” Evelyn said. “This is the first time anyone but us has seen him since he was fixed up.”
“Really? How long have you been like this?” Alden asked.
Steven looked down. Thad answered for him: “Over two years at this point.”
“What? Okay, that’s inexcusable.” Ropak pulled Steven towards him. “We’re sending you outside to meet people right now.” He pushed Steven to the door, but the cyborg pushed back.
“No, no, I can’t do it, not yet.” Steven ran past Ropak, eyes swiveling, but the wrallot grabbed Steven by the tail.
“Nope, you’re not going anywhere.” Ropak glared at him but smiled. “It’s time to walk in the light. You’ve got to do it sometime. You’re going out if we have to employ shenaginags.” He pulled as Steven ran. Alden held Ropak’s arm.
“Ropak, don’t. If he doesn’t–”
“Come on, Steven, come on out,” Top sang, jumping onto Steven’s head. The verk’lon stumbled into Ropak and Alden and they collapsed to the floor.
“Okay, come on, don’t fight,” said Thad.
“Stop being stupid,” said Evelyn. The kanhases helped them up but Steven scrambled away as Ropak held on.
“Come on, Top, tie his tail around him,” Ropak said.
“I got it,” said Top.
“That’s my tail,” Alden said.
“Sorry, okay, now I got it,” said Top.
“Those are my ears, you ball of nut,” Evelyn yelled.
“I don’t want to go out there like this,” Steven wailed.
“What, and waste all the time and effort Thad put into giving you a second chance at having a life?” Ropak asked.
“Okay!” Steven screamed, and everyone froze. His head dropped. “You’re right. I really have been squandering what I’ve been given.” He looked from Ropak to Thad. “I don’t know what I did to deserve my near death, but I also don’t know what I did to deserve a second chance.”
“Maybe it’s whatever you did to deserve friends who would tackle you to the ground in an attempt to convince you to take that second chance,” Ropak said.
Steven chuckled. “Maybe. All I know is I can try and do something with what I’ve been given. To make it so I know I deserve what I’ve been given.” He looked at Top. “I think it’s time to stop worrying about my past life and start working on my future life.”
“And to stop worrying about half your body being metal,” said Top.
Steven looked down. “That’s what’s worried me the most.”
“Your body shape isn’t that different from a scalago,” Ropak said, holding his palms forward and peering at Steven. “I’m sure we can find clothes to fit you. Let’s get you a hoodie, cover you up, and no one will even notice. And if they do”—Ropak put an arm around Steven—“just tell ‘em it’s the latest fashion.”
“What do you know about fashion?” Top asked. “You’re naked.”
“So are you.”
“I subscribe to Hats Monthly, thank you very much.”