One of the most burdensome things about going anywhere, whether it’s down the street or into another universe, is trying to figure out what to wear. It can be frustrating to balance fashion with comfort, practicality with cost, weather with time, all while secretly wishing you could run out into the street in your underwear without being judged or, worse, arrested.
For Smith, this was easy. All that he had to wear was the prison uniform he had been issued- an orange jumpsuit with an undershirt and briefs. His cheap, government-issue shoes were already wearing down from all the walking he’d been doing, but he really had no choice.
Mel had the most options, although they weren’t much better. After wearing his guard uniform for a few days, stopping to wash them in the fountain at Ste. Decius’ Cathedral after the kerfuffle there, he had switched into the pair of clothes packed into his emergency kit. However, these clothes weren’t the best for travel either. The ill-fitting jeans and tacky long-sleeved tee were chosen to be worn if Mel spilled orange soda on his clothes, not if he found himself staying in some unknown wilderness for- had it been a week? A day’s journey to the cathedral, with all the unpleasantness with Hammerstein, then the day when all hell broke loose, then they stayed that night at the cathedral, recouping and hoping Pritha Prithvi would show up again. The next two days were spent hiking in the woods. So overall, Mel and Carla had only been in Papyrus for four days. It felt like an eternity already.
Dressing was easy for Carla, since she didn’t have any clothing. All of her clothes were back on her old body, perhaps buried somewhere, or eaten by the demonic plunger or some other monster. One of the first things Smith had to do as Uncle Mel was washing his clothes and making sure Carla was adjusting okay to her awful existence as a naked hamburger hat was to try and find the body, but he never had any luck. Carla didn’t quite feel naked, since she now lacked any private parts, but it was still disconcerting to think about.
The man who had welcomed them, on the contrary, was decked out in a well-worn, tailor-fit miner’s outfit, complete with the kind of flashlight-helmet worn by moles in cartoons. His brown jacket and slacks made a slish-slish sound as he walked, leading the trio- Carla once again sitting on her uncle’s head- through the underground city.
“We haven’t had visitors here in a good while,” the man said, peering over his shoulder at them. For the most part he looked like a handsome Italian man, except for the fact that where his nose should be there was a flower bud instead. “Where’d you say you came from again? Some Elf village up north?”
“We didn’t come from anywhere,” Mel answered, his voice reverberating up into Carla’s head from beneath. “I mean, not from around here. See, there was this portal, and we-“
“He’s not an elf, Cooper Barry.” Out of the literal woodwork of connecting barrels came another flower-nosed man, this one wearing a shiny green pinstripe suit. He was pointing an accusatory finger at Smith. “Could be a human, I suppose, but look at his ridiculous nose!”
Smith covered his nose (which was, admittedly, ridiculously long, but it was still rude to point this out) and sneered at the shiny green guy. “There’s nothing wrong with my nose, plant-guy. As if you could talk.”
Cooper Barry, the man in the helmet, responded with the same level of abject rudeness. “There’s nothing wrong with our noses, you jerk. Hain’t you ever seen a plantkin before?”
“I’ve only ever met one,” Mel chimed in, “but she didn’t quite look like you guys.”
“Some elf you are, thinking we’d all look alike,” the suited plantkin said. “Plantkin women and men actually have some differences in appearance, unlike you lot.”
“Now, now, there’s no reason to be rude to elves.” This voice was feminine, as was the person who it belonged to. The plantkin woman climbed a ladder out of a passage further below. True to the male plantkin’s words, she was noticeably taller and narrower than the men, with a more angular face. Her nose, unlike the closed buds of the male, was an open flower not unlike a daisy, settled on a long stem growing out of the middle of her face. Like Barry, she wore a brown miner’s outfit, although she carried her helmet under her arm.
“No, you guys, he’s not an elf,” Smith stepped between the woman and Mel with his hands raised, as if stopping an argument. “He’s just Asian.”
“What?” Mel and Carla both voiced their semi-offended confusion at once.
Smith turned to his two captors. “Come on, you guys. Elves all have those whatcha-called slanty eyes like-“
“Excuse me?” Mel narrowed said eyes at his prisoner.
“Whatever. Epi-something folds. And in this light, all of us look sort of like we’ve got green skin, plus I doubt they get many humans, so they all thought you were an elf.”
Cooper Barry cleared his throat. “If you all are finished talking as if we weren’t here, would you be so kind as to tell us why you are here in the first place?”
Carla spoke slowly, making sure her tongue didn’t get in the way of her words. “It started raining keys outside. We’re just tired travelers, sir. We didn’t mean to offend.”
The female plantkin stared at Carla as she spoke, her mouth clenched into a tight line.
The man in the green suit nodded at his fellow plantkin. They all seemed satisfied, so the suited man led the guests through a series of round wooden hallways. “This is Cooper Barry, but I’m sure you’ve already been acquainted. I’m the Cooper Ivo and this is Cooper Olivia. We coopers are the architects of the city, you see, so we must pay special attention to any damages caused by the key rain. Fortunately, this was a light sprinkling, but you can never be too sure.”
Ivo suddenly turned to one of the hundreds of indistinguishable circular doors. “These will serve as your temporary quarters. If you need anything, simply ask.”
“You guys,” Mel gave a dirty look to Smith and reached up to bonk his niece on the side of her head. He bowed slightly to the three Barrelton hosts. “We’ll be fine for now, thank you.”
The room was large enough to fit two twin beds, each of which was bolted to the curved barrel floor. At the end of the cylinder was a large glass window.
“This particular room has a grand view of our underground river,” Barry spoke from the hallway as Smith, Carla and Mel piled in to the cozy space. “Beyond the river is our smelting station, the only place in Barrelton where we allow fire. I’m sorry, Mister-?”
“Yes, you. I’m afraid cannot allow smoking of any kind in this city. We have limited oxygen and a lot of wooden infrastructure, you understand.”
“But that’s beside the point,” Ivo reached for the edge of the door, cutting off Barry’s exposition. “With the rumors of war in the south, you’re lucky to have come to Barrelton. We have always been accepting of strangers.”
“I think we should allow our visitors to rest.” Olivia was still stealing the occasional glance at Carla, but her focus was now on her kinsmen. “I’m sure they’ve been through enough today already.”
The door closed tightly with a latching sound. Mel (and, due to her spot on his head, Carla) turned to see Smith already sitting on one of the beds.
“It’s nice to see a real city for once,” said Carla. “Even if it is a little claustrophobic.”
“We can’t get too comfortable, though.” Mel sat on the unoccupied bed. “I’d like to make our way back to Earth as soon as we can.”
Smith pulled his makeshift map from a pocket. “I’m not as eager, especially with what those plant people were saying. There’s apparently trouble stirring down south, and I’d bet anything it’s going to be here.”
He moved the map so that Mel and Carla could see it. Below the key desert was a large swirly mark, and below that mark was written a single word: portus.
“That’s gotta be where we’re-“
But Carla never got to finish her thought. From the doorway came several loud clacks, as if several important latches were being undone. The room tilted sharply downward so that the circular glass window was facing straight into the wide underground river, and before anybody was even able to stand up, the whole barrel was falling.
The three pounded on the walls, but the coopers of Barrelton are the best in either world. There was nothing they could do as they went careening hundreds of feet through the air.