Note that this is not the final version and may change when the book comes out
Blink, blink. The world existed again.
The slube Numer stared at the dark red ceiling. He lay in his bed, the literal tail end of his long, round body sticking out from his grass bed sheet. He rubbed his soft, round, toothless snout with his thin, wobbly arms.
Numer looked around his dark bedroom. His first instinct to look at a clock faded as his brain caught up with his life—he hadn’t lived in a town that used clocks for years. The blue sky outside the hole in the wall showed morning. No sunlight shone in since his window faced east. That way the sunlight would not wake him until midday. He shouldn’t be awake yet.
Numer slapped his face. Now he remembered. He had become used to waking up by now due to the awakenings by…
Oh, he wanted to return to sleep. He knew his personal wake-up call would come any moment. He covered his head under his bed sheet. Any second would come the loud noise. He clenched his eyes shut. Any second she would…
Numer peered over his bed sheets. Where was she?
“Come on, Numer, time to wake up!” This shout, accompanied by a repeated clang, burst through Numer’s window. He could do without the banging, but even her voice felt like sandpaper on his nerves this early. Any other time she sounded melodious, but not so loudly first thing in the morning.
Numer sat up in his bed and looked out his window. There she stood: Cherry, wearing her red skesh, the loose slube clothing that reached just above the tail. Her skin looked vivid and smooth, as if it had never known a blemish. Her eyes looked bright and sparkling, as if they could outshine the sun. Her mouth looked round and supple, as if formed from a soft pudding. Numer thought her beautiful every day, even when she was banging a stick on a metal sheet to wake him up.
“Hello, Cherry,” Numer said. He tried to smile, but his mouth felt more like a grimace.
“Wake up, sleepy-tail,” Cherry said. “You don’t want to be late.”
“How many times have you woken me up like this now?” Numer asked.
“Three hundred ninety-two times,” Cherry said.
“That’s a lot,” Numer said.
“It’s how many days are in a year,” Cherry said.
Numer’s big eyes widened. “A year? Wait, wait a minute, this isn’t…” Cherry smirked as Numer stammered. “It’s the big day, isn’t it?”
“I said you don’t want to be late,” Cherry said.
“Right, I’ll be out in a moment,” Numer said. He shuffled about on his bed. “I just have a few things to do, I just need to-” Numer yelped as he fell to the grass carpet floor, his bed sheet twisted around him. He pulled himself up to the windowsill. “I’m coming,” he said. “Don’t worry about me… I’m fine.”
Cherry smiled, and she left the window. Numer fell back to the floor. His heart fluttered, and his arms jumped up to his chest. His heart wasn’t failing from lack of sleep, was it? No, the fluttering was normal. It always happened when Cherry smiled to him.
Numer jumped onto his tail and wogged to his closet. He threw on a skesh, but then he pulled it off. He carefully put on his best skesh, though he only had two, both blue.
He pushed aside the slube-sized hanging leaves that covered his bedroom exit and entered another room, this one lit by a roof window. A wide bucket of water sat on a table. He splashed the lukewarm water onto his face and washed the night-accumulated gunk from his eyes. He swished some water through his mouth and spat it into a bucket on the floor. He prodded the spit bucket with his tail. It was nearly full; he would have to toss it out soon. He’d do it… tomorrow.
Numer hurried to his front door. How could he have forgotten? Today was the big celebration. Today was one year after they had defeated Conrad the Conqueror and saved their planet, Mintop.
Numer opened his front door to Nottle and breathed in the warm ocean air. Today was the day he would finally tell Cherry he loved her.
Nottle was a small village on the western peninsula of the island Hackney. A thick, ticklish cushion of soft, wavy grass covered the ground. When the wind blew it about, it looked like from a dream.
Hard to imagine that just one year ago devastation had rained on the village.
From the front of his house, Numer could see all of Nottle over its flat land. To his right, a row of clay houses lined the east and north edges of town. These houses had been built and rebuilt over thousands of years; by now the only original structures were underground.
On all sides but east swayed a pale magenta ocean. To the east swayed instead leaves and fruits atop goldenrod trees in the orchard farm. These fruits were stored in six clay storehouses at the southwest side of Nottle, rebuilt from the destruction that had fallen a year ago. The town stored all supplies in these structures—fruit, water, clay, leaves, grass, air… although air was also stored outside the storehouses and pretty much everywhere on the planet.
On a small isle to the south stood a home twice the size of the other houses. There lived the merag, the town’s leader, whose ornately-designed house stood as a reminder that simple was better.
In the center of town, a dark crystal stood as tall as a slube. A symbol of… well, really, a symbol of nobody really knowing how things worked. It had stood in Nottle longer than anyone remembered. It held powerful energy that had left Nottle as a prime target one year ago.
Numer saw the slubes of Nottle wog about, some carrying fruits and wooden planks. Most of them clustered around a new structure in the town, a wooden stage at least half as wide as a house. Wood had been imported from Gelago City in the east, and the stage built for the celebration. One year ago on that day, Numer, Cherry, and Professor Zeth had risked their lives to rebuild the crystal, save Nottle and the world, and defeat Conrad the Conqueror.
Conrad the Conqueror. There was someone Numer would be glad not to see again. He had been an invader from beyond the stars. He had been a ruler of many worlds who was vanquished by three small slubes. Numer put him out of his mind. Today was a day for happy thoughts, and that left no room for Conrad.
Numer headed to the stage. Along the way, Numer’s fellow slubes greeted him with tidings of the morning. Some joked that it was the earliest he’d ever been up; others congratulated him for being honored. Numer saw Cherry on the stage and hurried to meet with her.
“Hi, Numer!” A short slube girl jumped in front of Numer, and he yelped and stumbled back. “Isn’t it a wonderful morning?” the girl asked, her arms up in the air.
“Oh, good morning, Gern,” Numer said, catching his breath. That crazy friend of Cherry’s always jumped out and startled him.
With a bright smile, Gern said, “The sky’s bright and beautiful, the ocean sparkles like candy, and Paige wants to complain to you.”
“I do not,” said a taller slube girl, her arms crossed. “I just want to congratulate him on going an entire year without saying anything.”
Numer tilted his head. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, nothing,” Paige said, smirking. “It’s been a whole year since that big mess. Since then you’ve hung out with Cherry more than you’ve probably ever dreamed. One would almost get the feeling that you two were in love.”
“Oh, well, that’s—you mean, you might think—I mean, that is,” Numer stammered, wiggling his fingers together, “actually, I’ve got to—that is… Yes, good morning, Paige, but I really must be going.” Numer sleeged to the stage before he blurted out anything else.
He wogged up a ramp to the stage, a thick grass carpet spread over the wood. A species that moved by wogging, the tail sliding along the floor and rising up and down like ocean waves, could get a lot of splinters on uncovered wood. Still, the wood was useful for its temporary status. A clay stage would be heavy and hard to remove. What would they do, just push it into the ocean? At least they could disassemble this stage and reuse the wood.
Numer tipped to the side as a slube half his size sleeged past him onto the stage. “Hey, be careful, Jake,” Numer said.
The young slube laughed. “Hiya, Numer. Today’s the party, huh?”
“Yeah. Today’s the big day,” Numer said.
Jake sleeged around the stage and into Cherry’s open arms. She lifted him up and spun a few times, laughing with him. “Hello, Jake,” she said. “How are you today?”
“I’m doing great,” Jake said. “Today’s the party for you and Numer, right?”
“Yep. Me and Numer, Numer and me,” Cherry said, looking at Numer.
“A-And Zeth, and Zeth, too,” Numer said. “Zeth, Zeth was there, too.” He cleared his throat and looked down, rocking back and forth on his tail.
“Hey, do you think I could be up on stage with you?” Jake asked.
“I don’t see why not,” Cherry said. “After all, you’re part of the family. You were also on the adventure for a bit.”
“All right, cool!” Jake said as Cherry put him down. “I’ll be back when it all starts.” He sleeged off the stage to a group of slube children.
“He’s so brave,” Cherry said. Numer looked up and watched Jake sleeg around with the other kids. “I can tell he tries so hard not to show his sadness.”
“Even if it is a celebration, it also marks the day those tragedies…” Numer trailed off. He had almost locked up that day, but Cherry kept him going. Slubes had died, but Jake had been the only kid to lose both parents in the attack.
“He’s adapted so well to living with me and dad,” Cherry said. “And I feel like you’ve rubbed off on him, Numer.”
“Gee, I hope not,” Numer said.
Numer saw a shadow over him and heard from behind, “I think you’ve rubbed off on my daughter, too, my boy.” Numer flinched but stopped himself from cowering. The voice of Cherry’s father often had that effect. It sounded as strong and sturdy as a mountain.
“Really?” Numer asked. “I mean… I’m not sure what you mean.”
The merag of Nottle, Caleco, wogged between Numer and Cherry. His suit and face looked creaseless today, though a closer look showed a cream covered his wrinkles. “I mean my daughter seems to have relaxed,” Merag Caleco said. “I don’t mean to sound like my old, overbearing self, but I haven’t worried about her once in the past year.”
“Dad, c’mon,” Cherry said, rolling her eyes. “I think Numer actually rubbed off on you.”
“Wait a minute,” Numer said, “if I keep rubbing off on cleeple, my skin’s going to get sore.” The three of them laughed. “But really,” Numer continued, “I think Cherry has rubbed off on me. I mean, I have been more active, what with all that training she’s had me do.”
“Please don’t phrase it as training,” Caleco said, squeezing his hands together. “It makes it sound like you’re preparing for something like another disaster. Just call it, I don’t know, physical activities.”
From off the side of the stage Paige shouted, “If you knew what cleeple were using that phrase for nowadays, you wouldn’t call it that.”
Gern broke out laughing like a lunatic. She held onto the stage and gasped out, “That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said…”
A short time later, Numer pulled the stem off a shepa, a hard, red fruit from Hackney. He drank the juice inside as Caleco announced to the townscleeple that the celebration would soon begin. Slubes sat on the grass around the stage. Some carried fruit from a pile to others. Once everyone quieted down, Caleco wogged to the front of the stage.
“My friends, I have been your merag for twenty-four years now. In those twenty-four years, we never had such a major crisis as what happened one year ago. It was a crisis that could have engulfed our entire world, but while we pulled through here in our town, three heroes went out to put a stop to it.”
He put an arm out to four thatch chairs behind him. “The heroes that put an end to an invasion: my daughter, Cherry; Numer; and…” Caleco trailed off.
Numer and Cherry (and Jake) sat in seats on the stage, but one chair remained empty.
Where was Professor Zeth?
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Cherry said. She shut her eyes and slapped her palm on the top of her snout. The audience murmured and laughed.
“Maybe I wasn’t the only one to sleep in today?” Numer said. “I’m surprised we didn’t notice he wasn’t around. I guess I can go get Zeth.” Numer got out of his seat and wogged to the west side of Nottle.
Off the west edge of Nottle, a grassy bump stuck out of the water. That was it. It couldn’t even be called a hill, just a bump of green a few tail lengths from the edge.
On this bump, though, stood a wooden door, and through that door, an elevator led down to the laboratory of Professor Zeth. Before the stage was set, before the cleeple awoke, and before the sun rose, something was afoot in Zeth’s lab.
Duth_Olec: Whoa! Something can’t be afoot in Zeth’s lab.
Wally_Plotch: What do you mean?
Duth_Olec: Slubes don’t have feet. Something can’t be afoot. Maybe atail?
Wally_Plotch: Oh. Um. Well… How about we move on?
Zeth’s lab was a mess. It was always a mess. Inside a cave located below Nottle, it was a wonder that the ocean didn’t leak in. Blueprints and scrap metal were scattered everywhere, and spilled chemicals stained the brown rock floor and wall.
In the middle of this mess sat a round, metal machine. It was fitted with four wheels and contained two seats, a single in front and a bench in the back. Above the seats opened a hole that exposed them to the outside. A slube lay sprawled on the padded front seat; a blueprint hung over his head, and a splotched, patchy coat hung over his teal skesh.
As Professor Zeth slept, his lab began to vibrate. What started as a tiny rumble grew into a quake that knocked books and containers to the floor. Singed boxes fell out of a closet, spilling paper, tools, and equipment onto the floor.
Zeth shouted and sat up. “What is going on?” He pulled the blueprint off his head and adjusted his thick goggle-glasses. His lab was shaking, he noted. That’s what was going on. He pulled himself out of his machine, but with all the vibration, he fell to the floor.
A low grinding sound like a blender trying to chop rocks echoed through the floor. Zeth placed his head against the stone floor and listened to the sound down through the rock. It sounded like a drill. Perhaps someone was digging deep underground below his lab.
Zeth threw off his coat and gathered up tools. The vibration and sound were fading. He’d have to be quick if he were to follow it. He tossed a handheld digging drill and some scanners into his vehicle and then pulled aside a thick curtain at the back of his lab. Behind it, a tunnel led deeper into the cave system that his lab sat on top of.
“What do you say, Transpide?” Zeth said, hopping into his vehicle. “Let’s go for a ride before the big celebration.” He paused. He’d made a habit of talking to his vehicle lately and needed to stop. “Right, whatever. Let’s go. Uh, I mean, I’m not talking to an inanimate object.”
Zeth pulled the safety straps over himself, pressed a button to power on the Transpide, and closed the glass bubble roof over the top. He placed his hands on the steering globe and tapped the accelerator panel under his tail; the Transpide drove out of the lab and into the larger cave system.
Though the sound echoed off the walls, the loudest drilling sounded directly below. Zeth traveled through the cavernous tunnels, switching on the Transpide’s lights to see his way through the shady stone corridors of crag. He made notes at junctions he hadn’t explored; the cave sprawled down further than he had originally thought. He would come back later. For now he followed the drill sound. Eventually he arrived at a rocky dead end.
Zeth grabbed his handheld drill and jumped out of the Transpide. The mystery drill had surely made its own tunnel somewhere near. He turned his drill on and drilled through the rock wall. The wall immediately crumbled to reveal a smooth vertical shaft. Zeth heard the echoes of drilling below. He peered down, but darkness shrouded the bottom.
Zeth considered going back. He had been down there for… how long? He cursed himself for forgetting to bring a timepiece, as well as forgetting to set the clock in the Transpide that he had never managed to make work anyway.
He stared down the shaft for a bit. Eventually he got back in the Transpide and started it up. He drove into the shaft.
The Transpide crashed at the bottom, the jolt throwing Zeth out of his seat. He lay on the floor a minute, shaking, and looked up the long shaft. He couldn’t see the hole he had come down from.
Perhaps he should have gone back.
Zeth pulled himself upright. He yelped and ducked back behind the dashboard. He switched off the Transpide’s lights and peered out into the tunnel ahead. There stood a machine about the same size as the Transpide, though longer. A large drill attached to its front dug through a rock wall. Two smaller drills were attached to its arms, and eight thin legs gripped the stone floor. A dim light from the machine illuminated the tunnel.
The drilling stopped. A flat voice from the machine said, “It’s open. It’s freed.” The machine’s tail, arced above it like the tail of a desert scripori, thrust into the stone. The rock cracked open, and black smoke seeped out. “It’s coming.”
“Okay, cool, cool. Now what?” asked a lighter voice that sounded like it wanted to ask, “Why did I agree to come down here?”
A figure appeared from the machine. Zeth gasped. He recognized the blue headband and ribbons on the big head that shrank downward. She was a shiffle, identifiably female from the lack of hair. Zeth remembered her from last year. They had clashed against each other in a race. Chee was her name, and she was vicious.
“This,” Chee said. She picked up the compact crustacean that was half her size and tossed it into the smoke. The crawber screamed as it floated in the air; the smoke swirled around and flowed into it. Its scream changed, shifting from the scream of one punctured by thousands of hot needles to the scream of one shooting thousands of hot needles at its enemies. The force of the scream pushed Zeth back.
The crawber fell to the ground. The black, beady eyes on its fused head-torso blinked. Its red exoskeleton gleamed, though its shape suggested the phrase “tiny mountain”. Its pointy cave of a mouth shuddered, and its claws scrabbled against the floor. In short, the crawber’s appearance looked unchanged.
“You are fr-”
“Where is it?” the crawber shouted, interrupting Chee. If its voice was a shallow pool before, it was now the ocean floor splitting apart. “I need… to know where it is…” Its voice became strained, as though it hadn’t eaten in ages.
“Where what is?” Chee asked.
“The crystal?” Zeth shouted. Questions poked Zeth: What could it want with such a powerful object? What was Chee doing here? What was that smoke? What happened to the crawber?
A light shone in Zeth’s face. “You.”
“Oh, carp,” Zeth said. Chee had turned around towards him.
“You’ve been following me, haven’t you?” Chee said. “You’re not getting in my way this time.” The tip of her machine’s tail shot a rocket at Zeth.
Zeth hit a button, and springs shot out the Transpide’s bottom and bounced it over the explosions. He drove out from the shaft and bounced over Chee and the crawber.
Zeth screamed as the cavern dropped below him. The Transpide shuddered as it crashed through the roof of the cavern. A cloud of dust surrounded it, and Zeth could not see anything. His instruments showed him elevating, though. He was about to hit the surface.