Note that this is not the final version and may change when the book comes out
Alden, Top, and Ropak entered an employment agency through an automatic sliding glass door, Alden’s shoes tapping along the floor tiles as the sounds of the city were muffled. White walls greeted them under harsh, pale light. Alden saw the first plants he’d seen since arriving in the city, with vibrant red leaves almost half as big as Top.
“I was starting to think we’d never find any plants here,” Ropak said, rubbing a leaf. “Weird. It feels kind of rubbery.”
Alden peered at the plants. “I think we’ll have to wait a while longer. These are plastic.”
“What kind of plant is a plastic?” Ropak asked.
“No, I mean, they’re not real. They’re just manufactured to look like real plants.”
Ropak glared at the plant and then threw his hands up. “This city just keeps trying to yell ‘I’m fake,’ doesn’t it?”
“At least it’s warm in here,” Alden said. “Warmest place we’ve been since Nolan’s house.”
“I guess.” Ropak rubbed his arms.
They walked to the front desk, square and painted a pale purple, but Ropak stopped halfway and pointed at it.
“What is that?” he asked.
Top jumped onto the desk. “Hooray! I’m not the only inanimate object anymore.”
“Please keep your feet off the desk,” said a voice like a violin. “Do you have an appointment?”
A white block about Top’s height sat on the desk, two black dots on the front like eyes with a hole below them that remained closed in a flat expression when not speaking. The block’s smooth corners looked cut off at the tips, and it appeared to be made of a soft plastic flexible enough to be squished.
Alden looked at Ropak and lifted a hand to the block. “You’ve probably never heard of these, have you? They’re called Help Blocks. They were built on the planet Derantu and eventually imported here. They’re used in a lot of informational and receptionist positions.”
Ropak pulled on his head tip. “So they’re a machine?”
“Are you going to just waste my time?” the Help Block asked.
“Oh, sorry.” Alden placed a hand on the desk. “No, we don’t have an appointment. We just wanted to see someone about finding jobs.”
“I can set up an appointment for you,” the Help Block said. “Can you make it in next Piday at twelve o’clock?”
Alden looked at his friends. They couldn’t go an entire week without a job. He looked back at the Help Block. “We were hoping for something a little sooner, like today?”
“I can attempt to squeeze you in,” the Help Block said. “How does three minutes ago sound?”
“That–” Alden shook his head. “Three minutes ago?”
“I may be able to squeeze you all in, but only if one of you takes a slot that began three minutes ago.”
“Then why are we standing around talking?” Ropak asked, arms out wide, and he strode up to the desk. “I’m three minutes late for my meeting. Where is it?”
“Room zero-zero-four, down the left hall,” the Help Block said. Ropak ran through the doors, flashing Top and Alden a thumbs-up.
“The next slot is in two minutes. Down the right hall, room zero-one-seven.”
“Wish me luck, Top.” Alden said and hurried down the hall.
“If I’m going to wish you something why not something practical like a million dollars or a pizza car?” Top asked.
“The third slot is in ten minutes,” the Help Block said. “You may wait in the waiting area until then.”
“Aw,” Top said with a half-grin, “it couldn’t be just quite convenient enough for all of them to start immediately, huh?” Top strolled over to the waiting area, sat down on a chair, and picked out a magazine to chew on—literally.
Duth_Olec: As if that needed clarification.
Wally_Plotch: Yeah, that’s a good point. I don’t know why I bothered to note that.
Duth_Olec: Also, can we take a second to acknowledge how amazing a pizza car would be?
Wally_Plotch: Would that even run?
Duth_Olec: Would that even be the point?
Wally_Plotch: Guess not.
Alden creaked open the door to room seventeen and poked his head into a dim office that seemed to shut out light, unlike the harsh brightness of the hallways.
“Yes, yes, get in here.” Behind a cluttered desk and a computer bigger than Alden’s head sat a rackye, rather chubbier than most Alden had seen, wearing a wrinkled suit and tie. He leaned over his desk. “I don’t have all day. You’re the chump who just showed up, right?”
Alden cringed. That didn’t inspire much confidence in him.
“Yeah? Yes, I am.” He entered the room, which had paper scattered everywhere—some appeared to be stapled to the drywall. “I need to find a job.”
“Oh, shoot, I thought you were the delivery guy,” the rackye said, throwing his hands up. He pointed at Alden. “Of course you do, that’s why you’re here. Take a seat and we’ll see if we can match you to an available job.”
Alden sat on a hard stool half the height of the rackye’s plush (though torn) office chair, though with Alden’s short scalago legs the stool was comfortable enough. The rackye typed into the computer Alden’s information: name, species, age…
Alden wasn’t sure how to answer. He looked to the side. “I don’t have a permanent one right now. I did live in a house in the woods south of here, near a town called Thole, but I just arrived to the city today.”
“Any P.O. Box?” “Phone number?” “Email?”
Alden answered in the negative for all of these.
I never realized! There’s no way for anyone to even contact me right now.
“I’ll get a PO Box right after this,” Alden said. “Can I return later to add that?”
The rackye waved a hand. “Yeah, sure. Okay, what’s your last employer?”
“I haven’t had an employer before,” Alden said. He thought he could see a small grin on the rackye.
“That makes it easier,” he muttered, leaning back. “What kind of job are you looking for?”
“Maybe something with books,” Alden said.
“What, like a bookie?”
“No! No, no,” Alden said, shaking his hands, “I mean like books—you know, paper, printing, that type of book. Or writing. Some sort of office job, maybe.”
“Ah.” The rackye rubbed his mouth. “‘Cause bookies can make quite a racket around here. Anyway, gonna ask some questions to see what would fit you. What do cleeple usually criticize about you?”
Alden pulled at the thick sleeve of his sweater. “Maybe that I spend more time reading than being active.”
“So you ignore duties and shirk work?”
“No, I didn’t mean it like that,” Alden said. “I can just get kind of lost in a book, you know?”
“So you space out easily?” the rackye asked.
Alden shrugged. “Well, only with a really good book, but, I mean–”
“What motivates you?”
“I guess my friends and family.”
“So you’re not motivated by actual work?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Alden said, leaning forward; “I’m motivated by work for my friends and family. I do want to make a name for myself, though, do something important.”
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
Alden stammered. “I need to think about this.”
The rackye threw up a hand. “What, too many to choose just one?”
“What? No! I can’t even think of one.”
“Can’t criticize yourself, then?”
“Well, I can, but I can’t think of a worst thing.”
“All right, let’s move on,” the rackye said, typing. Alden leaned forward to see what he typed on the computer monitor, but the rackye glared at him, and he shifted back. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
“I’m not sure,” Alden said. “That’s why I came here—to find out where my path may lead.”
“I think I have enough information,” the rackye said, tapping a few more keys with one hand. “At the moment, there are no jobs that seem suitable to your skills.”
“What? Really? Are you sure?” Alden asked.
“Nope. Nothing,” the rackye said. He leaned back. “We’ll call you if anything comes up.”
“But I don’t have a phone,” Alden said.
“Maybe you should fix that,” the rackye said. “Buy a phone, and then we can call you. For now, there is nothing. Goodbye.”
It didn’t feel like a very good bye.
Alden shuffled down the hallway.
We won’t get anywhere in this city without a job, he thought. Without a job, we won’t be able to keep a P.O. box for more than a month anyway, let alone phone service. More importantly, we won’t be able to get food or shelter. I just hope Top or Ropak has better luck than I did.
He leapt aside as someone screamed from the room he passed. The door swung open and Top hurtled out into Alden, who caught the ball and fell against the wall.
“You don’t get a job!” A murky teal scalago poked her head out the door, her glasses crooked and hair a tangled mess. “You’re completely crazy! We can’t give a job to you.” She stammered, shaking. “You’re a beach ball anyway. Beach balls can’t hold down steady jobs. Go away!” She slammed the door, and the hall became quiet.
Alden stared at Top.
Top smiled but then frowned. “She didn’t get me. Also, I may have eaten her computer.”
Alden sighed. Well, I can still hope that Ropak had better luck.
When they returned to the lobby, Ropak waved to them from outside.
What’s he doing out there? Alden dropped Top and they left the building.
“I’m not allowed in the building anymore,” Ropak said. “I broke the guy’s computer after I flipped the table.” He winced. “I also may have broken his wing.”
Alden grimaced. “Why did you do that?”
“I gave the guy my name and species, and he immediately dismissed me,” Ropak said. “Didn’t even give me a chance. If that’s not biased, I don’t know what is.”
“So you broke his wing?” Alden asked.
“Oh, no, that was an accident,” Ropak said. “Because I flipped the table.”
Alden sighed. “So much for that. If we want to find jobs, we’ll have to find them on our own.”
Ropak looked up. “So much for our first day in the city.”
Alden looked up. “I wonder if we’ll ever find anyone accepting of us in this place.”
Top looked up. “Hey, what are you guys looking at?”
Alden pounded a fist into his palm and looked at his friends. “No, wait, before we get gloomy, there’s something we need to do.”
“Find a place to stay?” Ropak asked.
Alden scratched his head. “Okay, two things. First, though, we need to get a post office box.”
“Are we going to live in the box?” Top asked.
Alden looked at Top and then held them up. The ball grinned and wiggled their arms. “Actually,” the scalago said, “you might just be small enough to fit in one. But no, it’s so we can be contacted.”
“If they need to contact us,” Ropak said, “can’t they just…” He looked around. “Right. Giant city. They’d never find us. Well, let’s go, wherever this is. You have the map.”
“Right.” Alden pulled out the map from an inner pocket of his sweater. “Let’s see…”
Alden and his friends walked down a few blocks to a brick building half the length of a block. On the front hung a sign that read “Legilian Post Office”.
A big snowble—as big as a cappipoto, even—stood outside the building, three segments tall wearing a wide hat and over their middle segment a thick vest. They looked more like a bouncer than a postal worker.
Alden looked at his friends and then approached the snowble. “Excuse me; is this the New Zhopolis post office?”
“Yeah, you got it,” the snowble said. “We’re the Legilian Post Office, the best post office in New Zhopolis. We’ll deliver faster than any of those other posts, you can count on it. They never know what hits ‘em.”
“Er, thanks,” Alden said. “And you have post boxes available?”
“We got ‘em, all right,” the snowble said. “The safest P.O. boxes. Ain’t no one going to get into your stuff here.”
Alden scratched his head. “Do you mean no one is going to get–”
Ropak grabbed Alden’s hand and pulled him into the building. “Yeah, yeah, grammar’s great and all, but let’s get going, we don’t have all day.”
“Right, sorry.” Alden thanked the snowble as Ropak pulled him in.
The front room was a fraction of the whole building’s size, but cleeple were crammed into it, several lines zigzagging through the room leading to grated windows, behind them front desks where postal workers took incoming mail. The windows were even smaller than Top and made it hard to get a good look into the back.
All species of New Zhopolis stood in the lines, even dankoms. Alden shivered as he saw a few arguments break out.
“Well, this looks fun,” Ropak said.
“Let’s stay close together,” Alden said, “try not to bother anyone.”
“Both of those things might be impossible,” Ropak said. “Where’d Top go?”
Alden looked around. Top had disappeared.
A crash and a clatter and a series of flaps came from beyond the front windows, followed by shouts. Alden heard, “Stop!” “Get back here with that!” and “Someone grab that figgin ball!”
“That must be Top.” Alden rushed to a door he hoped led to the back room, but Ropak grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the building.
“Wrong way, Alden!”
“We need to get Top,” Alden said.
“Top’ll be fine,” Ropak said. “They’ll catch up. We just need to get to plausible deniability distance!”
After running down a block and turning a corner, they stopped to catch their breath.
“But what about Top?” Alden asked. “They could be in trouble.”
“Hah,” Ropak said. “Top’s the one who’ll give them trouble. I just don’t want trouble for us.”
“So I guess that means we won’t head back there,” Alden said. “From what that snowble said though it sounds like there are other post offices in the city.”
Ropak crossed his arms. “And this time one of us will hold Top.”
“Right. What was Top even thinking?”
A weight fell on Alden’s shoulders. He looked behind him to see Top on his back with a mouth full of paper, eyes wide.
“Run, guys! I got the mail!” Top mumbled.
Alden stared at Top. “What?”
Several snowbles, tall or thin or short or fat, turned the corner and charged at them. Alden and Ropak screamed and ran away along the street.
“Wait, why are we running?” Alden asked.
“Because Top’s insane,” Ropak shouted, “and leaving a trail!”
The paper in Top’s mouth fluttered out behind them. Alden grabbed Top and shook them face-down, dumping all the mail out of Top along with a shower of pebbles, a rubber wheel, and a couple rakes over twice as long as Top. Alden didn’t spend any time wondering how the rakes even fit in the ball. They kept running and turning corners until the snowbles were out of sight for a full block.
By this point the skies had begun to darken. It was too late to do much else that day.
“Well, now we’re kind of lost.” Alden sighed, bent over. “Top, why did you do that?”
“They had a help wanted sign,” Top said. “I was going to help them deliver mail and get a job.”
Alden looked at Top. “Wait, really?”
“No. Actually I was just hungry. I’ve hardly eaten all day.”
Alden stood up. His stomach rumbled. It felt empty. He’d hardly eaten all day, either.
“Dang, that’s a good point,” Ropak said, holding his belly. “Does that map show any good places to eat?”
“Let me see if I can even find where we are.” Alden unfolded the map. “I guess we can get a P.O. box tomorrow.”
Alden led them to a cafe that they discovered was actually an electronics store. The next one was a gun store. They tried three more places on the map before finding a restaurant that still existed, though its only customers were a couple yellow-shelled sharls and a sleeping rackye.
It had no chairs or stools, only a line of six booths along one wall. The cold tile floor was clean, but some parts of the walls were discolored and were bare as if either not yet set up or already abandoned. The city looked blurry through the front wall windows, but whether because the windows were smudged or the city itself was smudged Alden wasn’t sure.
There also only seemed to be one worker, a scalago who gave her name as Emily. She wore a smooth dress cut below her knees, and her hair was up in a bun, thin enough to suggest to Alden that she was at least twenty years his senior, but her smooth face made her look younger—possibly from makeup. She took their order, cooked the food, and brought it out to them.
“Are you a bit low on workers?” Alden asked, poking his salad with a fork. Next to him on the hard plastic booth seat, Top snarfed in one bite a hamburger doubled in height from toppings, while across the table Ropak crunched on a fried fish. “You know, we’ve been looking for a job. Are you hiring?”
“Honey, are you kidding?” Emily swept an arm at the near-empty booths. “Does this place look like it needs workers? Fact is I’m closing down in a week.”
“Oh,” Alden said, “that’s too–”
Top jumped onto Alden’s head. “Are you having a clearance sale?”
Emily glared at Top.
“So what, you’re just giving up?” Ropak asked.
“Look at this place,” Emily said. “Wouldn’t you?”
Ropak looked out the window.
“We noticed apparently a lot of places like this have closed down,” Alden said. “At least, this map we have seems to be outdated in that regard.”
“Yeah, yeah, the big chains get all the best locations,” Emily said. “Even if you do get a decent spot, the rent to those stiff, lousy, crooked, violent, icy, bastard… Ah, but you don’t want to hear about my problems, I’m sure you got enough of your own.”
“No, it’s fine,” Alden said. “Maybe we could help each other–”
“No way, okay?” Emily swept her hands out in front of her. “I’m not sticking around here. As soon as this place is closed I’m out of here. Probably head to one of the other planets, even. I’ve heard a couple places on Derantu ran by scalagos. Seems a better place than this.”
“Oh,” Alden said. “Well, all right. Good luck, then.”
“Yeah. You too, honey.”
After she left, Ropak pushed his plate away. “Blech. This fish tastes slimy. And not the good kind of slimy you get with raw fish.”
Top jumped onto the table and stared at Ropak and the fried fish. Ropak looked at Top and then slid the plate over to them. Top ate it—the fish and the plate.
Ropak propped his head over the table with an arm. “At least it’s nice to see we’re not the only ones having a rough time here.”
“Not really,” Alden said. “If cleeple who already live here have a hard time, how do we expect to do any better?”
Ropak shrugged. “I dunno. You gonna eat all that salad?”
They shared the salad of dry, scratchy vegetables and watery, rubbery ice-grown ones while Top stared at it. Once they’d eaten Top ate the bowl. Emily shouted at them when she saw this, so they made Top cough up the dishes. That at least mollified her, and they paid for the meal, which came to nearly one-fifth of their funds. Then Emily kicked them out. With their stomachs satisfied—or at least satisfied enough—they searched for a place to spend the evening.