Not the final version. Book version may vary.
The soldiers led Alden, Top, Xavier, and Orville into a campsite in the forest, the grape and orange flag of the Salenth Kingdom flapping overhead. Surrounding the outskirts were metal pods with open doorways all around, each big enough to hold a platoon. Alden couldn’t count how many rushing, shouting soldiers he could see in the crowded campsite. The air felt charged like a shaken soda. Around the pods soldiers wore chalky-muddy uniforms with floppy hats and thin scarves. Most soldiers wearing Salenth Kingdom colors delivered equipment or messages across the campsite, often to and from tents.
“In there.” A soldier pushed the four of them into the biggest tent. Four scalagos examined a map spread on a folding table, most wearing Salenth Kingdom colors with shining stars and tassels and badges. The officers looked up.
“Oh, now what?” This scalago’s thick shoulder-length hair made the others look like they were topped with fog. Unlike them she wore the chalky uniform of the soldiers in the pods, though over this she wore a jacket in the kingdom’s colors.
“Why, hello, again,” Orville said. Alden and Xavier looked at him.
“Again?” The sky blue scalago pointed a closed hand fan at Orville. “Who are you? What are you doing out here?”
“You don’t remember us?” Orville asked. “I suppose that’s—er, we met briefly outside the Salenth castle. How long has it been?”
Xavier clapped a hand to his chin. “That’s right! That was months ago, uncle. Good memory. What was your name again?”
“General Herbitan.” She tapped the fan in her palm. “Now I recall. You were out loitering near the castle that day. And now I know why: you were spies.”
“We aren’t spies,” Xavier said.
“Honest,” Alden said. “We were out–”
“Quiet.” Herbitan looked at the soldier who’d brought them in. “What were they doing out there?”
“They were at the border, ma’am.” The soldier nodded to Alden. “This one was about to enter the kingdom when we found them.”
“I see.” Herbitan rolled up the map with a flick of her wrist. “Spy activities would be a logical conclusion, then.”
“We were looking for our friend,” Alden said. “Remember the wrallot?”
“He was with us that day; light gray, head kind of drooped on the sides?”
“The guy from Zhop, right.” Herbitan grumbled and shook her head, tapping the fan against the table. “Wouldn’t be much of a spy. He’d stand right out here.”
“Right. We think he went into the Thraundlus Kingdom,” Alden said. “He was—there was a fight, and–”
“Have you seen anyone cross the border?” Herbitan asked, looking at the soldier.
“Ask the rest of the patrol.” The soldier left into the raucous crowd of soldiers, just as audible in the tent as outside. Herbitan looked at Alden. “It would be best to not take any chances. For now you will remain in this camp.”
Alden looked behind him. “But we need to find–”
“We need to keep security tight right now,” Herbitan said.
Top scoffed. “Paranoid, much?”
Herbitan opened her fan and slammed Top across the room with it. Alden cringed—that fan looked stiff as steel.
“We cannot be careless at the moment,” Herbitan said. “There is too much at stake.”
“Wait, what’s going on?” Alden asked. “Did something happen?”
“That is classified,” said Herbitan. “I’m certainly not going to tell potential spies.”
“Hey, Herbi– General Herbitan, I’m not sure– Top? Alden, Orville, Xavier?”
Alden spun around at the voice of a friend. “Thad?” The kanhase stood at the tent entrance, mouth agape. “What are you doing here?”
Thad stammered. “I should really be asking you guys that question.”
“Mr. Marsh, you know these four?” Herbitan asked.
“Yeah, they’re my friends,” Thad said, glancing between them and the general. “What are they doing here?”
“They were found attempting to cross the border to the Thraundlus Kingdom,” said Herbitan. “They are here on suspicion of spying.”
“Why were you trying to go there?” Thad asked.
“It’s a long story,” Alden said. “I messed up at the party. Ropak went there out of anger and we’ve been trying to get him back.”
“Herbitan, it’s cool, they’re not spies,” Thad said.
“And how can I take you at your word, Mr. Marsh?” The general pointed her fan at him. “Perhaps you are a spy.”
Thad’s ears perked straight up. “No, no, I can’t be a spy, I mean, I’m helping you with the mission, and—” He stammered and adjusted his glasses. “You don’t actually think that, do you?”
Herbitan lowered the fan. “No, I do not actually believe you are a spy, but how can you be certain they are not?”
“They didn’t even know about the party at the castle last night until I mentioned it–please don’t say I’m a spy again,” Thad quickly added—“so they have no idea what’s going on.”
“I never do,” Top said, hopping up to grab a tin can from a shelf. “Besides, if we were spies, I’d accidentally have blurted it out at least three times by now, because I was made by the Micagox and we’re on the run from the Zhopian Guard.”
Alden and Xavier facepalmed. Herbitan glared at them like they were mad.
“Yeah,” Thad said, pulling on his wrist fur, “quite frankly, if they were spies, they would be doing a very lousy job at keeping a low profile.”
Herbitan stood. “Very well. I will trust your word, Mr. Marsh. We still cannot allow you to enter the Thraundlus Kingdom at this time.”
“Why not?” Alden asked. “And Thad, why are you here?”
“The military asked for my help,” Thad said. “They’ve contracted me before and they needed someone to–”
“That’s quite enough, Mr. Marsh,” said Herbitan. “The information on this operation is not to be shared with anyone. They may return to their homes, and when this is over, maybe–”
“Guys, guys, guys!” Top ran to Alden, the tin can stuck in a tooth. “The food here is so tasty. Can I hang out here and eat all the food? It’s great!”
“No, Top, we have to go,” Alden said.
“Are you sure?” Top coughed out a folder. “I also found this thing that said Serani was kidnapped by the Thraundlus Kingdom.”
Alden flinched. “Wait, what?”
Herbitan smacked Top with her fan. “You puny little . . .” She groaned.
“All right. Yes. Princess Serani was captured by Thraundlus Kingdom operatives last night. We’re keeping this a secret from the general populace. It is not something we need to worry everyone about.” She planted her palms on the table and shouted, “So do not go telling anyone about this.”
Alden shook his head. “I won’t. I won’t tell anyone, because I’m going with you.”
“Alden!” Xavier held his brother’s arm. “No, don’t.”
“How else am I going to find Ropak?” Alden asked.
Herbitan banged her fan against the folding table. One of the legs buckled and another scalago scrambled to straighten it again. Even then the cacophony of voices outside continued unbroken.
“You think you can just waltz in and join this mission?” Herbitan asked. “This is the military. We have a job to do, and that is not finding your stupid friend.”
“I’m not going just to find him,” Alden said. “I’m going to help you rescue Serani.”
“You are not going to do anything of the sort,” Herbitan said. “You have no prior training, no experience–”
“I was in the Zhopian Guard,” Alden said.
Herbitan threw a handgun at Alden and he caught it as if he’d seen it coming a mile away. They stared at each other.
“Alden,” said Xavier. “Don’t do it. You know how much trouble you’ve had with the military.”
“That won’t happen this time,” Alden said. “That was the Zhopian Guard. This time we’re on the good side.”
“How can you be sure?” Xavier asked.
“We’re saving the princess,” Top said. “Of course this is the good side.”
Someone threw an arm around Alden and grabbed the handgun. The world shrank to one moment and the voices outside faded as Alden wrestled with the scalago soldier. He shoved her against a shelf and paper and cans scattered. Never releasing his grip on the gun, Alden smacked her in the wrist with a can. She let go and Alden hurled the gun out of reach. The soldier kicked him to the ground and stamped a foot on his torso but something tackled her off.
Top stood on the fallen soldier, mouth wide open over her face. They leaned closer.
“Top, stop.” Alden pulled Top off the soldier. He wasn’t sure if he passed what he assumed was a test, but Top eating the soldier wouldn’t count as extra credit.
“But they attacked you,” Top said. “I attack them. Blah, blah, blah!”
“Just what in the name of Gourd is that, anyway?” Herbitan asked.
“Top?” said Alden. “Top is, well, a beach ball.”
“Beach balls do not talk and have teeth,” said Herbitan.
Alden looked at Top. “Well, they’re a Guardian, I guess. Top was created to fight but kind of fell into my hands.” He looked Herbitan straight in the eye. “They would be a valuable asset in the mission.”
“I don’t see that,” Herbitan said. “They would just be hyperactive and chaotic.”
“And imagine all that chaos and hyperactivity directed right at the Thraundlus Kingdom,” said Alden.
“That would still give me no reason to take you,” Herbitan said.
“I only go if he goes,” Top said. “I fight for my food. I mean friends.”
Herbitan sighed and pinched her snout. She looked at Alden. “You want to join this mission? Fine. But don’t expect us to save you if you slow us down, and don’t expect to have time to find your friend.”
“I’m here,” Top said.
Xavier groaned. “I guess if you really want to do this, I can’t stop you. You know what you need to do best. I need to bring Orville home.” He hugged Alden. “Good luck.”
“Thank you,” Alden said. “I’ll be home before you know it.” He hugged Orville.
“Show ‘em what you’re made of,” said Orville.
“As for you, get going,” Herbitan said, pushing Alden to the exit. “Get your uniform, get your weapons, and get ready. We leave in three hours. Slip up, and we’re leaving you behind, got it?”
“Yes, got it, ma’am,” Alden said, giving a salute. Herbitan nodded.
“And there will be no time to find your friend, understand?”
“I got it,” Alden said. “I’ll find him after Serani’s safe.” He turned to leave, but Herbitan pulled him back.
“Why are you so willing to go into this?” Herbitan’s face softened for the first time, but still she scowled. “You’re not even a native of our kingdom.”
Alden looked at Herbitan and sighed. “I was there. Last night, I was at the party. I wanted to meet Princess Serani and, I don’t know, impress her, maybe? Maybe I’m in love with her, and I wanted her to fall in love with me, but everything went wrong, and now the only way I can see anything working out is if I do something incredible like, I don’t know, rescuing her?”
Herbitan glared at Alden as if he were a buffoon endangering everyone around him. She swung her fan at his head but he ducked and nabbed it from her.
“And maybe after being turned down by every job in New Zhopolis, joining a corrupt police force, helping cause a destruction I’ll forever regret, being sentenced to death, and finally fleeing my home planet to live out my life as low profile as possible only to fall in love with a figgin princess, I’ve learned that if you don’t take charge of your life, if you don’t follow your heart, if you don’t take a crazy risk, and if you don’t take every chance you get, even if all that means diving headfirst into the mouth of a colossal aklonar with your only chance out at the bottom, you’re going to regret it the rest of your life.”
Herbitan snatched the fan back. “Fine. You want to impress the princess? You’re in the rescue team. You’re going furthest into Thraundlus castle to get Princess Serani out safely.” She jabbed Alden in the chest with the sharp fan. “And know this, squirt: if you mess anything up, you’ll have another planet to flee from. Got it?”
She marched out of the tent. The other scalagos at the table followed; one shook his head at Alden, another just stared, and the third grinned at him. Alden was surprised to find it an encouraging grin.
He sighed and dropped into one of the chairs. He could hardly believe he’d just done any of that.
Thad stared at him. “I’ve never seen anyone stand up to Herbitan like that.”
Alden gave a faint smile. “Love makes people do crazy things. I guess I’m about to do something else crazy, too.”
“I thought that was my job,” Top said.
“Well, you won’t be alone in this,” Thad said. “You’ll be going with Steven.”
The cyborg verk’lon appeared out of thin air and Alden jumped.
“Hey, Alden,” Steven said. He stood straight like a soldier at attention.
“Oh, hi. I hadn’t even thought about how helpful you’d be,” Alden said. “Able to turn invisible and all.”
“Hello Mr. Robot Parts,” Top said.
Steven slumped and rubbed his head. “Yeah, hi, Top.”
“That’s why they brought me in, really,” said Thad. “I’m making sure Steven is working at best performance.”
“I guess we’ll be saving Serani together, then,” Alden said.
“What about Top?” Thad asked.
Top chomped their teeth. “Top is ready and raring to go. Throw me in the middle. I’ll take ‘em all.”
“Tough talk for a shorty.” A sea foam-colored scalago crouched into the tent, his chalky uniform and hat creased tight, though his scarf hung slack. “You the guy who just asked to come with?” Alden stood and nodded. “I’m Brigadier Frenell, I’ll be leading the team to liberate Princess Serani.” He looked Alden up and down. “Do you have any military experience?”
“I was part of the Zhopian Guard for half a year,” Alden said.
“Well, I guess it can’t be helped,” Frenell said. “You just better be sure you’re ready, because we’re moving out in three hours. Let’s get you a uniform and supplies.” He pushed Alden outside and looked at Thad then Steven. “Are all your systems or whatever ready?”
“I’ve checked them all,” Thad said. “It might be a good idea to do a few tests before we go.”
“In a minute, then,” said Frenell. “Once we get—what’s your name? Alden. Once we get Alden his uniform.”
* * *
The gray-brown uniform consisted of what Alden had seen the other soldiers wear, a close-fitting shirt with leggings down to his ankles, boots, hat, and scarf. Even in the fresh spring morning the outfit smothered him like too many blankets.
Alden held the scarf up. “Why do I need this?”
“The Thraundlus Kingdom is pretty much all dust,” said Frenell. “Depending on the situation, you might need it to breathe. Otherwise the whole uniform aids in camouflage there, though probably not so much in the castle.”
Alden rolled the sleeves up. “Then why do I need it?”
“Because you’re on this mission,” Frenell said. “You wear the uniform. The only reason Steven doesn’t is it would ruin his ability to turn invisible.”
“And the only reason I don’t,” Top said, “is because I’m way too adorable–can I have a hat?” They jumped onto Frenell’s shoulders.
“Aww.” Top slid to the ground.
Alden received a handgun and a dagger, which he took reluctantly—he’d have refused but then the military would surely have barred him from coming. He also got a locked cell phone limited to communicating with other military phones. The only applications were those designed by the military—Universal Positioning System tracker, message board, calculator, and other basic tools.
“Why can’t I play Super Application Game 2002 ½ on here?” Top asked, tapping their cell phone.
Oh, Wally, have you ever played Super Application Game 2002 ½?
What? Er, no.
Oh, you totally should play Super Application Game 2002 ½ sometime. I definitely have the world-record high score. I’m also definitely not getting paid for product placement of Super Application Game 2002 ½. Especially since I think it was made by one guy working out of a cardboard box.
They lived in a cardboard box?
No, their computer was a cardboard box.
Sounds like an interesting game. Anyway, where was I?
Top ate their military cell phone.
“Don’t eat it, you lunatic,” Frenell yelled, holding Top’s mouth open.
“No, it’s okay, sir,” Alden said. “They eat things but can cough them up later. They’re like an endless bag or something.”
Top coughed up a plate. “Hey, I remember this. I wonder how Fridger is doing?”
“Okay, whatever. You’re paying for it if we don’t get it back.” Frenell turned to Thad. “Let’s get that testing done.” He looked at a nearby soldier. “Get some targets set up on those trees over there.”
“Wait, what exactly are you testing?” Alden asked.
“Steven’s weapon systems,” said Thad.
Alden shook his head. “Weapon systems? What do you mean by that? You installed weapons on him?”
“I didn’t want to,” Thad said, scratching his ear. “But, well . . .” He looked at Steven. “We wouldn’t have been able to save him without funding. The military agreed to help but only if Steven could assist them in some way.”
Alden slumped. “So he’s a weapon.”
“A weapon has no free will,” Steven said. “I’m at least doing something with my life now.”
Thad rubbed his mouth. “You wouldn’t believe how furious they got when Steven just straight-up refused to leave the house.”
“I mean, I’m not really a part of the military,” Steven said. “Aren’t you basically doing the same thing I am?”
“But you’re also a gun,” Alden said. Steven looked at the handgun Alden holstered. The scalago shook his head. “That part’s not in me.”
Steven looked down. “I don’t know. It’s all I can do to join the world again. I think I just want to do what I’m told and figure it out as I go.”
Alden watched Steven shoot bullets from his fingertips. He turned to Thad.
“What if everyone had guns in their hands?”
Thad exhaled and looked up. “Oh, Gourd, that would be terrifying.”
“What if Steven had turned out to have been a criminal?” Alden asked, quiet enough that he hoped Steven wouldn’t hear. “Or even insane after you made him a cyborg?”
“I was worried about the same things after the military asked for the weapons,” Thad said. “But they agreed to making sure Steven was mentally stable first.”
Alden stared at Steven. “I may have shot and killed someone once.”
“That can happen in the military,” Thad said.
Alden mulled over if his next words shared too much. “I may have shot and killed one of my friends without realizing it.”
Thad looked at Alden. “You sound like you hated your time in the Zhopian Guard.” He looked around. “Did you really have to flee them after being sentenced to death?”
Alden froze. He definitely said too much earlier. He’d been running on automatic then.
“We learned something we weren’t supposed to know.” He held his hands together. “Please don’t tell anyone, we’re trying to stay hidden.”
That nodded. “Don’t worry. But to return to the military after that . . . You really must love Serani to risk your safety. You really must think you have a chance, too.”
“If I don’t take an opportunity when it comes, I’ll never get another later,” Alden said.
“I suppose.” Thad put a hand to his chin. “Do you want my honest opinion?”
“Nobody who ever asks that has an opinion the other person will want to hear,” Alden said.
Thad smirked. “You’re probably right there. I guess right now you should just focus on getting ready for the mission.”
“Yeah, this is gonna take a lot from us,” Top said. “Hex, this is probably gonna take multiple chapters.”
“Chapters?” Alden asked.
“Did I say chapters? I meant hamburgers.”
“That makes even less sense.”
“So it makes more sense that I would say it.”
Alden stared at Top. “Fair point.”