Chapter 12: Unbalancing Act

Not the final version. Book version may vary.


The next day, Alden, Top, and Ropak rode the subway to the northern Zhopian Guard headquarters, a building that spanned an entire city block. The foyer was carpeted and warm, and the fresh smell and quiet atmosphere contrasted with outside. It was a little cramped, though. Alden and his friends approached the front desk, on which sat a Help Block.

“Excuse me,” Alden said.

“May I help you?” the Help Block asked.

“We would like to sign up to join the Zhopian Guard,” Alden said.

“Fighting force or civilian force?” asked the Help Block.

“Which is which?”

“The fighting force engages in full combat. If a war took place, you would be shipped off there to fight. You may also be shipped to bases in other lands for upkeep. Civilian forces remain in New Zhopolis to patrol the city and keep the peace.”

“We’re all here to join the civilian force,” Ropak said.

“Here’s the paperwork to fill out.” A claw arm from the Help Block’s side grabbed a stack of papers and held it forward in an action as smooth as an organic arm.

“No one told me there would be paperwork,” Top said. “They just told me I’d get to shoot things.”

“No one told you that, either,” Alden said. He took the paperwork. “Don’t worry, we’ll help you fill it out.”

Ropak grabbed an application and grinned. “You mean you’ll help them fill it out.”

They sat in the waiting area and examined the paperwork. Alden wrote in his name, species, date of birth, address—no P.O. Box or not applicable, but The Place for the Placeless now that he had a home.

“Am I of age?” Top asked. “This says date of birth. How old am I in beach ball years?”

“Okay wait.” Alden marked out where Top wrote beach ball for species. “Just put not sure.”

Top smiled. “But I’m very sure.”

“And if you put beach ball they’ll think you’re joking.”

“When am I not joking?” Top asked.

That was a good point. “We don’t want them to know that. You want to at least appear serious. I mean, you are serious about joining.”

“As far as we know.”

“Put not applicable for country of origin,” Alden said. “The Micagox village is technically outside any normal country, so that’s fine.”

“Right, I’m from nowhere,” Top said. “Do I have any close relatives?”

Alden wondered if the Micagox counted. “Just leave that blank.”

“Ooh, previous jobs. I was The Guardian.”

“That’s good,” Alden said. “No, don’t put the Micagox, just say it was a village in the woods.”

Ropak leaned over to Alden and pointed a pen at him. “Hey, who are you putting as your three references?”

“I’m already trying to help Top with their questions, I can’t help you, too,” Alden said.

“I just don’t want us to all have the same cleeple,” Ropak said. “I’ll put Walter, sure. Maybe Ivan?”

“My three references,” Top said, “are ‘To be or not to be, that is the question,’ ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds,’ and ‘Thank you, but our princess is in another castle.’”

Alden stared at Top.  “What?”

“Huh?”

“Just put Accordiono, Walter, and—actually, put in Orville. He’s not a family member, so he’ll count.”

“No, put Xavier, or maybe Jamal,” Ropak said. “I’ll put Orville and Spenk and, yeah, Walter works for all three of us. This’ll make it look like we know more cleeple than we really do.”

“Well, not really, but it spreads it out a bit,” Alden said.

A few minutes later, Ropak sighed. “This is a painful question.”

Alden leaned over. Ropak was at the section for parents’ names.

“Yeah.” Alden placed a hand on Ropak’s shoulder. “I know, buddy. Did someone in your village adopt you?”

Ropak rubbed his head. “I guess Shena and Leann.” He looked up. “They oversaw the daycare. I’d stay with them at night more often than others.” He pointed his pen at Alden. “What about you, do you know your parents’ names?”

“Yeah, Orville told me my mom’s name was Glenna and my dad’s was Antoine.”

“Guys!” Top shouted. Alden turned to see Top and their application splattered with ink. “I think I put in a wrong answer somewhere! These essay questions are too hard and my handwriting looks like drizzled caramel.”

Alden facepalmed.

After getting a new application for Top and somehow filling out all three without another disaster, the Help Block said a background check would be done and they would have an interview for a head examination.

“I hope my horn doesn’t get me in trouble, then,” Ropak said, tapping his head. They returned to the waiting area.

“No, it means they’ll ask us questions to determine our mental state,” Alden said. “To see if we’re mentally prepared, fit for service . . .” They looked at Top sitting between them, who chewed on a foot. “Aren’t crazy . . .”

Ropak said, “Won’t eat the other guards . . .”

“Oh, gourd,” Alden said, holding his forehead. “How are we going to get Top to pass a head examination?”

“Not to worry, y’olks,” said Top, “I have the utmost confidence in you.”

Alden turned his head to Top. “It’s you we’re worried about.”

“Oh. In that case, we are in trouble.”

Alden stared at the floor. If only there was a way to take Top’s interview for them.

“Top may go for their interview now,” the Help Block said.

“Hey, that’s me.” Top jumped out of the chair, but Alden and Ropak pulled the ball back.

“Wait,” Alden said. “Top, listen. Run to the restroom and act like you have to go. Hide in there until we come and get you. We’ll figure out a way to help you pass the interview, okay?”

“Yay, teamwork.” Top took a few steps towards the front desk and stated, “Oh no I have to go.” They ran out the front door, Alden staring at them. They then ran back inside. “Sorry, wrong go.” They entered the restroom.

And that’s why we need to help Top.

“Excuse me.” Alden approached the front desk. “My friend Top had to go to the restroom. I think they might be a while. Could I take their interview spot, and they’ll take the next one?” Or the one after that.

“That’s fine,” said the Help Block. “I’ll send a note to the interviewer. Go ahead, third office to the left.”

“Thanks.”

He walked down the carpeted hallway. Even the walls were fuzzy. Posts covered a bulletin board ranging from a comedy night at a club to a complaint about missing food. A few paintings hung on the walls, such as a famous one of the Archussip prophet Dr. Jesus converting water into blood to make a transfusion for a sick patient, as well as a less famous painting of a hamburger.

Alden entered the office. A scalago sat behind a desk cluttered with paper, several figurines and a computer as paperweights. Her hair tumbled down to her tail, and she couldn’t have been much older than Alden.

“Hiya,” she said. “You’re . . .” She lifted her round glasses and looked at the computer screen. “Alden, correct?”

“That’s right,” Alden said. He shook her hand. Her wrinkled, unbuttoned suit looked baggy even though the sleeves were too short, as if it was the most unnatural thing for her to wear.

“I’m Eileen, and I’ll be taking a look inside your head. Just let me get out my scalpel, and we can get started.”

“Wait, what?” Alden asked, taking a step back.

Eileen laughed. “I’m just kidding. Go ahead, take a seat and we can start the interview.”

Alden sighed as he sat on a cushioned chair. “Do you say that to everyone you interview?”

“Yep. I find it puts them in the right mood.”

Alden sat up. “What mood is that?”

Eileen grinned, her voice gravely. “Blind terror to prepare them for the horrible travesties a member of the Guard has to–” She laughed as Alden’s eyes widened. “Gourd, I probably shouldn’t be psyching you out like this, I’m just joking again. Why don’t we get started?”

Alden cleared his throat. “Y-Yeah, good idea.” Now his nerves were rustled and the interview hadn’t even started.

“First question, why do you want to join the Zhopian Guard?”

“Well, I came to the city with my friends to find our fortune,” Alden said. “We’re trying to find a purpose, you know? I think helping the cleeple of the city through the Zhopian Guard is the best thing for us.”

“Got it. So what would you say is the most important thing to you?”

“My family and my friends. That doesn’t count as two things, does it?”

“Nah, ‘course not.” Eileen leaned forward. “So then who would be the most important clerpson to you?” she asked, tapping a pen on her desk to punctuate the who and the clerpson.

“I would say . . .” A year ago he would have said Orville or one of his siblings. But he had traveled to New Zhopolis with Top and Ropak. Top was crazy, but he’d known them longer. Ropak could be irritating, but both were dedicated friends.

“I don’t know. I love them all. I don’t think I could choose just one.”

“So you don’t have a certain special someone in your life?” Eileen asked.

“What do you . . .?” She winked at Alden. His head felt stuffy. Oh, gourd, is she flirting with me?

Eileen burst out laughing. “Oh, I’m just messing with you, Alden. Don’t worry about it. I’m actually married, myself.”

“Oh, I see,” Alden said, forcing a laugh. Is she trying to psyche me out? Like if I can’t handle her teasing then how could I handle a dire situation in the city?

“Of course, if you did become famous,” Eileen said, leaning forward sideways as if imparting a secret, “you’d probably get attention like that from lots of fine ladies.”

Alden rubbed his head. “I would?”

Eileen gave a short laugh. “Well, I meant that as a joke, but I won’t say it’s completely impossible.”

“Right, right,” Alden said.

Quite frankly he’d never considered the prospect. He always had his face in a book or was helping his family. No one in Thole had caught his eye.

“So what would you say your biggest weakness is?” Eileen asked.

Alden thought for a moment. I’m not sure I should say this, going into a police guard and all . . .

“Probably my physical strength.  I always read a lot instead of being active, so I’m not the strongest around. I’ve spent a lot of time walking around this city, though, so I’m building up the leg muscles.”

“Not skipping out on leg day, then,” said Eileen.

“Not around here, anyway,” Alden said.

“Let’s flip the question. Your greatest strength?”

“Research,” Alden said. “Like I said, I read a lot, and I’ve gotten good at discovering things. I’d say I’m knowledgeable, and now I’m here in the city turning this research into experience.”

“Ah, how about this question?” Eileen said. “What kind of cleeple do you find it hard to get along with?”

Alden looked up. “Er.” He looked at Eileen. “Schalindra.”

“Now, now,” said Eileen, “schalindra put their pants on one leg at a time just like us.”

Alden stared at her. “We don’t wear pants.”

Eileen leaned towards him and whispered, “Quiet! Do you want everyone to notice?” She leaned back and laughed, and this time Alden laughed with her.

“But seriously, yeah,” Eileen said. “That’s probably the most common response. Can you guess the second-most-common response?”

Alden started to say “dankoms” but he wondered if it was a test. “Maybe one that doesn’t really answer the question but pretends to while making the interviewee look good?”

Eileen grinned. “Good answer. Are you brave?”

“Yes,” Alden said. “Yesterday I entered the Schalindra District when a friend of mine got stuck down there.”

Eileen gave a single laugh. “Wow, brave and foolhardy.”

“I had another friend with me,” Alden said. “We tried to do it quickly without being noticed. We didn’t go in shouting or anything.”

Eileen dusted her hands. “Okey-dokey. I think you’re good. A little nervous, maybe, but who wouldn’t be around me?” She sat up straight and twisted in what Alden assumed was supposed to be an alluring pose but mostly just made her look stiff from sitting too long.

He slowly asked, “Should I be laughing?”

Eileen laughed. “Nah, you’re fine. I should warn you, though, there will be physical testing and training after the background check goes through. You might want to be in the right mindset for it.”

“Right,” Alden said. “It’s all about your state of mind.”

“And having the strength for it, but mindset is half the battle,” Eileen said. “Well, a third. Definitely at least a quarter.”

“I think I’ll stop you there,” Alden said. He shook her hand and thanked her.

“G’luck finding your fortune,” Eileen said.

***

Alden returned to the lobby as Ropak returned from another hallway. “Did you pass?” Alden asked. “Did you not break the interviewer’s computer?”

“I passed, and they didn’t suck,” Ropak said with a smile. “I’m getting a better feeling from this with every clerpson I meet.”

“Right. Now we just need to get Top to pass.”

They entered the restroom, a clean smell of flowery overcompensation permeating the blindingly white tiled room. Top was inside with a toilet seat on their head.

“Look at this neat hat I found,” the ball said.

Alden silently opened his mouth a few times at Top’s absurdity.

He and Ropak made Top remove the toilet seat and washed Top in the sink since the ball smelled like a toilet.

“Okay, I have an idea,” Alden said. “Top will go into the office for their interview. We’ll hide outside and whisper answers for them to say.”

Ropak rolled his eyes. “I’m sure this won’t turn out badly.”

“Would you rather Top answer for themself?” Alden asked.

Agonopterix ferocella. Nineteen-seventy-three. Power metal,” Top shouted.

“You’d think we’d at least stick a phone in Top or something so we wouldn’t risk the interviewer hearing,” Ropak said.

Top coughed out a handheld transceiver and handed it to Alden. “Here you go.”

Alden stared at Top. “Where did you get that?”

“I don’t keep inventory records,” Top said.

Alden took the transceiver. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” Top said. “I mean, I’m standing right next to you.”

After Top left the restroom, Alden confirmed Top could hear him through the transceiver.

Wait, that means Top can basically hear sounds from inside themself. Alden imagined all the sounds that might go on inside Top. Maybe that explained their craziness.

Alden instructed Top to head to their interview. After a minute Alden heard a lady’s voice through the transceiver say, “Hello there . . . a ball?”

“I’m not a ball, I’m Top.”

“Okay, hello, Top,” said the interviewer. “My name is Kimberly.” Alden heard a clank and a shout. “Did you just try to bite me?”

“No! No, Top. Don’t bite her,” Alden said.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Top. “I’m hungry, and I thought you was kukurez.”

“Use proper grammar, Top,” Alden said.

“And sit up straight, and wipe your feet, and blah-blah,” Ropak said, waving his hands.

“Quiet.”

In the transceiver Kimberly asked, “So why are you interested in joining the Zhopian Guard?”

“Okay, just let me consult my stomach for the answer,” Top said.

Ropak shoved against Alden close to the transceiver. “That’s sure a good thing to say.”

“Why, thank you,” said Top.

“Just tell her you want to help cleeple,” Alden said.

“I want to help protect cleeple,” Top said. “I’m the Guardian, so I can Zhopian Guard things.”

“All right, enthusiastic,” Kimberly said. “What would you say is the most important thing to you?”

“Food!” said Top.

“No, Top,” Alden said. “Say friends.”

“No, wait,” Top said. “Hats. No, wait! Friends. No, I mean, food. Hats. Friends. Friendly food! Food as hats! Hat friends!”

Alden facepalmed.

“You sure are hungry for such a small dude,” Kimberly said.

“Let’s go with friends,” Top said. “That sounds good on a résumé, right?”

“Right. So what is your greatest strength?”

Alden heard a clank. Top was biting again. At least it was appropriate this time.

“Ah. Bite strength,” Kimberly said.

“I can bite through steel! I can bite through ham!”

“Then I’m certainly glad you didn’t bite me. So I see on your application you don’t know your parents?”

“That can’t be right,” Top said. “I had twelve parents, they’re magic–”

“Wait, Top, stop!” Alden yelled. Telling cleeple about the Micagox was the last thing they wanted to do—that would scare off any potential employer.

“Wait, hold on, I’m getting a message from the aliens in my stomach,” Top said as Alden and Ropak yelled at him to shut up. “Yes, yes. What’s that? Little Timmy is stuck in a bank vault?”

“Did Eileen send you in here?” Kimberly asked. “She’s always playing jokes like this.”

“Nope, it’s all me. And the voices in my head.”

“Well, you should meet her. She’d probably want to take you to one of her comedy shows or whatever. Although you’d probably upstage her.”

“Have I passed yet?” Top asked.

“No. Who are these voices in your head?”

Alden thumped his head against the restroom wall. Top wouldn’t make it.

“My friends,” Top said. “They tell me to do things and then I do it because I know they’re right. I’m loyal, and if my commanding officer wants to be a voice in my head, I’ll follow them.”

Alden looked up. That was actually a good answer.

“Good. So what would you say your biggest weakness is?” Kimberly asked.

Alden lifted the transceiver up but before he said anything Top said, “I’m just so darn adorable. I’m so weirdorable that cleeple can’t handle it.”

Alden felt his heart beat. Then Kimberly started laughing.

“Okay, you really are messing with me, aren’t you?”

“Only if that means I pass,” said Top.

“All right, you can go on ahead. Just don’t bite anyone unless they deserve it, okay?”

“I will keep my teeth in check,” Top said. “To the dentist!”

Alden looked at Ropak. “Well, that could have gone better.”

“Actually,” Ropak said, leaning against a wall, “considering it’s Top, I’m not sure it could have gone better.”

“Okay, good point,” Alden said. “Let’s get Top and see what we do now.”

The Help Block informed them that the background check did not pull up anything alarming, although they found little information on Top. They also found little information on Ropak, but the Help Block did not find that surprising and neither did Ropak.

Their next task would be to go to the main headquarters at the center of New Zhopolis for a series of physical tests to make sure they were worth training. They were scheduled for the first of Muranle in a few days at zero three hundred hours.

“Sheesh, in three hundred hours?” Top said. “That’s like two weeks from now.”

***

Alden, Top, and Ropak returned to The Place for the Placeless. As always, Teen Angst sat on the couch in the den, chatting into her cell phone.

“Hey,” Alden said. “Is anyone here?”

“Certainly not Teen Angst.” Accordiono appeared from a flash of light. “She is never here; she is always there, in her cell phone, and even then she is not all quite there.”

“Hey, I, like, totally heard that, you insectoid illusionist.”

Alden looked at Teen Angst. She had stopped talking on her cell phone.

“Like, who are these guys?” the help block asked.

“Wow, we’ve been here for weeks,” Ropak said, “and you never even noticed us.”

“Like, I was totally busy,” said Teen Angst. “So much to, like, talk about, y’know?”

“Anyway,” Alden said, “we finally found a possible job.”

“Ah, the plot moves forward,” Accordiono said.

“We’ll be joining the Zhopian Guard,” Ropak said. “In the civilian guard. We’re going to clean up this town.”

“Quite a heavy workload ahead of you, then,” said Accordiono. “Shall you be given mops and buckets, or will you just shoot the grime away?”

“Are you making fun of us?” Ropak asked.

“Is anyone else around?” asked Alden.

“The fiscet loner is as holed up in his room as ever,” said Accordiono. “Pyr is holed up in his games and has requested not to be disturbed for eight hours. Our lady Arami and our resident investigators are in the kitchen.”

They called Arami, Ivan, and Iam into the living room and told them the news.

“So you’ll be out protecting cleeple from bad guys?” Arami asked.

“That’s the idea,” Alden said.

“Defending the weak and the innocent,” Ropak said.

“That’s great,” said Arami. She gave a rare smile—and it stayed, an even rarer event.

“An excellent choice,” said Ivan. “Rooting out thieves once their location is detected.”

“Ivan used to do detective work for the Guard,” Iam said.

“A little bit, yes,” Ivan said. “I stopped to dedicate my time hunting down the notorious thief Des Guise.”

“A thief so tricky,” Accordiono said, “no one has ever seen or heard of them.”

“Indeed, he’s a dastardly one,” said Ivan, hand in a fist. “It’s taking out criminals like him that lets the Zhopian Guard bring light to this city.”

“I can do that,” Top said. “I have a lantern.” They pulled out from their mouth a smooth-skinned animal half their size with membranous wings. “Wait, that’s a gaub.” The gaub screeched and flapped its wings at Top, who flailed as it attacked them.

“Our brave warrior,” Accordiono said.

 

Duth_Olec

See Wally? You’re not the only one who gets attacked by small mammals.

Wally_Plotch

Where does Top even get this stuff from?

Duth_Olec

There’s an entire adventure Top goes on earlier I cut for time called “Top Eats Everything in the Universe”. I’ll show you it sometime.

Wally_Plotch

No thanks.

 

“Hey, what’s going on?” Walter walked in through the front door. “Teen Angst is off her phone, so it must be something big.”

“Like, I don’t spend that much time on the phone–” Her cell phone rang. “Oh, hey, like, it’s Wendy! Like, hi, Wendy! How’s it hanging? Totally, yeah.” And so on.

“We have good news,” Alden said. “Ropak, Top, and I got a job.”

“Ooh, that’s great,” Walter said. “A little perseverance goes a long way.”

“In a few days,” Ropak said, “we’ll be going through physical testing and training, and once we pass, we’ll become part of the Zhopian Guard.”

“Assisting the needy,” Ivan said.

“Fighting criminals,” Iam added.

“Deepening the plot,” Accordiono said.

Walter looked at everyone. He approached the trio and put a tentacle each on Alden’s and Ropak’s shoulder. He stared as if looking into their minds.

“Listen to me carefully. I am asking you, as a friend. Please do not join the Zhopian Guard.”

Everyone turned silent. Alden felt a chill, as if a gulf opened into an icy canyon.

“What?” Alden asked. “Why not?”

“I cannot say why,” said Walter, his mouth tentacles limp. “Please. Just don’t. It can’t end well.”

Blaargenhaargen,” Ropak said. “This is the only job we’ve been able to get in this city. If we don’t take this, we’ve got nothing.”

“I’m the Guardian,” Top said. “I was born for a different job, but this job is close enough.”

“I don’t want to stop you from doing what you want,” Walter said, eyes sagging. “I can’t tell you what you should do, only what you shouldn’t.”

“I know it may be dangerous,” Alden said, “but we can do it.”

Walter shook his head. “Then you’re still set on joining?” They answered in the affirmative. “In that case, I am asking as your landlord of sorts. Please do not join the Zhopian Guard, or I’m afraid I can’t let you stay here.”

The silence grew chillier. Then it shattered:

“Th–That doesn’t seem fair!” Iam shouted, eyes shut. He turned between Ivan and Walter. “I’m sorry if I’m speaking out of line, sir, I appreciate your hospitality, sir, but–but, sir, they’ll be doing good, they–they won’t even have a home.”

“They will,” Walter said. “The Zhopian Guard will provide them with quarters. But I can’t have the Zhopian Guard affiliated with this house.”

Iam looked down. “Oh.” He looked at Ivan.

“It’s not a response I expected, I must say,” Ivan said. “It’s a mystery, and it’s a mystery worth solving.” He pointed up. “I’ll take the case!”

“There is no case,” Walter said. “It would be for the best if you didn’t try to look into this.”

“Well.” Ivan rubbed his chin. “I suppose there’s no crime anyway.”

Ropak threw out his hands. “Are you all just going to stand aside like that?”

Accordiono shrugged.

“I have known Walter all my life,” Arami said, arms and head sagging. “I trust his judgment in whatever he deems right.”

“I’m sorry,” Walter said. “I won’t let you come by here if you join the Zhopian Guard.” He cleared his throat. “That is . . .” He ran a tentacle through his mouth feelers. “I guess I would be unable to stop you physically. At least, I would be unwilling. But I simply hope you will keep your distance for the sake of The Place for the Placeless.”

Why doesn’t he want the Zhopian Guard around? Alden wondered. Is there something wrong with the Guard, or something up with him?

It doesn’t matter. We’ll join the Zhopian Guard, but we’ll abide by his wishes.

Well, try to, anyway. I can never tell what Top will do.

“I’m sorry,” Alden said. “Whatever the problem is, I’m sorry. But . . .” He looked at Ropak and Top. “We’re still going for it, right?”

Ropak nodded, arms crossed. “We’ll go, Mr. Grumpy Shell. Maybe we’ll see you out on the street.”

“Perhaps,” Walter said. “I have no qualms there. I’m sorry it has to be this way, but it must. As long as you haven’t joined you may stay here, but if you do we won’t see each other too often.”

“Perhaps we will all find out why someday,” Accordiono said. “Or maybe only a few of us will. Who’s to say other than time and, of course, our narrators?”

 

Duth_Olec

Hey, that’s us.

Wally_Plotch

That always feels weird.


Chapter 13: Testy Wills | Table of Contents

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