What Am I?: Part One
Author’s Note: While the two stories are not closely connected, the location of this opening chapter is alluded to at the end of the series Behind the Forbidden Door.
“And this, class, is the room in which Sloth’s slaves slept...” The teacher’s voice droned on as the group of young Neopets wandered through the building, their eyes wide with fascination. Soon after Sloth’s latest attempt to take over Neopia had been thwarted, an underground hideout had been discovered in the base of Terror Mountain. Its security devices had all been disabled, and it was now merely the object of many field trips, such as the one that several of the Neoschool science classes were currently undertaking, and much tourist curiosity; although those who allowed their imaginations to run wild could still take pleasure in the tingling haunted-house chill that ran up and down their spines when they contemplated all the things the Defenders of Neopia might have accidentally left intact.
For Kelenria, the fact that this place had once belonged to Sloth was enough. The small green Xweetok wove her way among her larger peers on silent, tentative paws, her eyes even rounder than usual as she stared in awe at the towering gray walls that reared up on every side of her. The looming black, green and silver machines that lined those walls left a lot to the imagination, and Kelenria wondered what they were for.
“Hey, watch it!”
Reminded rather abruptly of the value of watching where she was going, Kelenria leapt to the side as a huge red Skeith staggered to avoid stepping on her, which resulted in the Skeith losing his balance and landing on a mutant Hissi’s tailtip. “Do you mind?” one of the Hissi’s heads snapped, while the other growled,
“Ow! Clumsy idiot.”
Instantly the first head rounded on the second, snarling, “I’m talking. Don’t interrupt me!”
“Who says you weren’t interrupting me?!”
As the argument continued, the Skeith didn’t seem to be certain whether to laugh or be angry. Kelenria hoped it would be the former; she hated it when people were angry with her. She got that enough from her older sister at home. Best, perhaps, to leave while his attention was focused on the Hissi’s self-debate- The same one he has at least thrice a week, Kelenria noted. Poor Merrin- he liked to talk, but he never could get away from himself long enough to get a word in edgewise, which meant an unhealthy portion of his dialogue ended up being directed at his better half.
“We agreed over breakfast that today I could do the talking!”
“I never agreed to that.”
“Yes, you did- you said that you’d keep quiet today if I ate the peas at lunch and let you eat the dessert.”
“I seem to recall never having gotten that dessert.”
A scaly paw jammed itself into Merrin’s backpack and emerged with a chocolate bar, which was then crammed into one of the Hissi’s mouths. “Then eat it now and shut up!”
Well, that had been resolved quickly. A lot more quickly than it had been that one time when each of Merrin’s heads had gotten a short-lived crush on a different girl- at the same time.
OK, maybe it wasn’t resolved.
Slinking away from the squabbling serpent, Kelenria tried to home back in on the teacher’s voice. She hoped she hadn’t missed anything important or exciting; although of course, with the teacher she had, the chances of anything that came out of his mouth falling into the latter category were about as good as the chances of getting Sloth to do the hula. Horrible mental picture, that.
Kelenria picked up on her teacher’s voice, but it was difficult to hear him clearly over the muttered conversations that hung scattered among the other students around her. Hoping to get closer so that she could hear more easily, Kelenria listened intently, but the room’s echoing acoustics made it hard to tell where the voice was coming from. Too short on all fours to see over the heads of her classmates, the young Xweetok reared up on her hindlegs, only to lose her balance as a wandering Lenny bumped into her. Looking around for a slightly more open place in which to try again, Kelenria noticed a tall, thick pillar, fairly out-of-the-way but within easy reach. It was shaped a little oddly near the top, but Kelenria saw no reason to worry about that; and so, padding over to it, she straightened up again, bracing her forelegs against the column in case she was bumped again as she scanned the room. Ah, there he was, apparently yammering away about the console he was pointing at. Kelenria set her forelegs against the pillar a little more firmly in preparation to push off, intending to slip into easier hearing range.
And then the material beneath her paws began to move. A small cry sprang from Kelenria’s mouth as the part of the pillar she was leaning on suddenly slid aside with a small, obedient beep, sending the Xweetok tumbling forward into a small compartment. The door through which she had fallen glided closed, and a ring of green lights flashed to life around the top of the small space, revealing an oblong chamber four feet wide and seven feet high, dominated by a single large slime-green chair tucked against the wall opposite the door.
There was no visible means of escape.
“Help!” Kelenria screamed, attacking the place where the door had been. “Somebody help me! I’m stuck! Hello? Can anybody hear me? Texra!” The moment her sister’s name passed her lips Kelenria realized just how thoroughly she had panicked. Aloof, stuck-up and disdainful, the Striped Zafara was the last person Kelenria would normally call to for help.
But right now, she was desperate.
A red glow suddenly mingled with the green, and it seemed to be coming from a patch of wall above the door. Fearing that she might have set something off, Kelenria stood up on the chair in order to see what the crimson light signified, and was not surprised to see the glow shape itself into words. Fasten seatbelt, she read silently, her fur standing on end. The last thing she wanted was to be bound even more securely to this prison in which she’d found herself than she already was, and she had no guarantee that the seatbelt would not refuse to let go once it had her. On the other hand, if there was one thing everybody knew about seatbelts, it was that bad things happened when you were told to fasten them and you didn’t.
A faint tremor ran through the chamber, and Kelenria decided that being strapped to the chair would probably prove less painful than getting flung around like a rag doll if the chamber started moving and did not remain upright. Come to think of it, the pillar had seemed to curve sideways to dive into the wall when she’d seen it from the outside. Leaping into the seat, she grabbed the seatbelt, then froze with a scream. Sure enough, the pod was springing into motion, shooting upward with a force that pinned her to her seat. Urgency caused her quivering paws to trade accuracy for speed, and although she broke the world record for Number Of Attempts To Fasten A Seatbelt In Ten Seconds, it was only when she felt herself tilting sideways that she finally managed to actually strap herself in.
The ride was over within seconds. Kelenria screamed again as the chamber turned upside-down and made a dive for the floor, and she could almost hear an echo of her heartbeat returning to her from the walls as the pod slowed, turned sideways, then curved upright and came to a halt. The green lights faded, the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign turned off, and the door slid open. Kelenria hastily tried the seatbelt, and to her immeasurable relief it let her go without a fight. The Xweetok staggered out of the pod, afraid to stay inside it but dreading to see who might be waiting for her when she emerged. Wide eyes scanned the floor, searching for feet, afraid to look higher lest hostile eyes be staring back at her. The Defenders had warned no one about the transport pod, so they must have been unaware of it- what else might they have failed to find?
Nothing. Or at least, so she thought for the brief, relieved moment in which her eyes remained on the floor. Then, as she allowed her gaze to drift upward, she found herself shrinking back, her eyes widening and her breath sharpening into a gasp.
* * * * *
Directly in front of her was a console, covered in screens, buttons, levers and switches. It looked about as typically Sloth as anything she had ever seen, but her gaze barely glanced upon it. Her attention was fixed on the thing behind the console.
It was a tank. A huge glass tank, filled with some sort of translucent pale-green cryogenic fluid. And suspended in the midst of it was a huge Shadow Zafara, its limbs spread, its eyes closed and its chest sporting a wide V-shaped scar. Its form was slightly distorted by the flowing, shimmering fluid, but Kelenria could see that it was lean and muscular, not a pet to be trifled with. Tubes ran from its nose and mouth to some point on the side of the tank opposite Kelenria, vanishing into the wall against which the glass was pressed.
But what was it doing here? Had it been placed in this tank to recover from some injury? Or was this some sort of punishment? Or perhaps it was an experiment not yet complete, and this was Sloth’s way of storing a live Neopet. Kelenria shuddered at the thought of such callousness, and suddenly she felt sorry for the Zafara. I wonder if I could let it out? The thought popped into her mind like a Symol poking its head out of its hole, and for a brief instant Kelenria considered it.
Then she shook her head, stunned that she could be so foolish. This was a minion of Sloth. The Defenders of Neopia must have left it in its tank for a reason. Maybe they didn’t know about it. Or maybe there was no safe way to get it out. Or maybe its recovery cycle, if such it was, wasn’t complete, and it would die if removed from its silent liquid home.
Or maybe it was simply too dangerous to set loose.
Kelenria turned and began to walk away. She would tell somebody about it, and let someone with more expertise handle the situation. It wasn’t her problem.
Some would call it bad luck. Others would attribute it to destiny. A few might blame it on coincidence. And a fair number would simply say that Kelenria’s timing stank. Whatever the reason, it was in that very hour, when the room was empty except for a young green Xweetok who wanted nothing more than to find a way out, that the Zafara’s stasis cycle ended, and a cold, emotionless computer’s voice announced, “Cycle over. Draining holding tank.”
Kelenria froze. The fur on her back stood on end as the sound of flowing liquid filled her ears, and seized with sudden alarm she whirled around. There was the Zafara, right where she had left it. But now it was only neck-deep in fluid, and the tubes that had snaked from its nose and mouth had fallen away.
And its eyes were open. Before Kelenria could flee or even turn away its head swiveled to face her, and its deep, black eyes penetrated hers. The small Xweetok froze, unable to move or protest against the gaze that pinned her in place.
The fluid continued to drain away, vanishing into pipes beneath the tank. The tubes that had been attached to the Zafara’s mouth and nose vanished fully into the wall, and within seconds the huge Neopet was standing tall and erect on a slick glass floor, its soggy ebony fur glistening in the dim light. Never for a moment had it taken its gaze from Kelenria’s.
Keeping its eyes fixed upon the petrified Xweetok, it strode up to the wall of the tank. For a moment it hesitated; and Kelenria, her pity banished by terror, had a brief moment of hope that the thick glass barrier would foil it.
Then, curling its long-fingered hand into a fist, the Zafara lashed out with its right arm, blasting the wall outward in a shower of sparkling glass fragments. A few of these nearly reached Kelenria, and out of the corner of her eyes the young Xweetok saw that the glass had been no less than four inches thick. A whimper escaped from her quivering body as the Zafara calmly and deliberately strode toward her, its steady, quiet tread not hesitating until it was only three feet away. As it stood towering over her, Kelenria saw that the Zafara was male, his dark solemn eyes betraying no hint of thought or feeling. Tall, silent and ramrod straight, he was the picture of emotionless coldness, and Kelenria had no doubt that he could tear her apart without so much as a twinge of guilt to trouble his veiled heart.
Then suddenly a frown and the vaguest hint of uncertainty touched his strong, blank features. To the young Xweetok’s surprise he spoke, and Kelenria guessed from the sound of his voice that he was somewhere in his twenties. “There has been a malfunction,” he said slowly, as if trying to analyze the source of his uneasiness even as he spoke, talking as much to himself as to Kelenria. “The information download was interrupted.”
Confusion spilled over Kelenria’s face. This was all going too fast for her. One moment, she had been leaning against a pillar. The next, she had been trapped in a moving pod, wondering where she was going. Then she had discovered a big, scarred Neopet sealed in a cryogenic tank, and no sooner had her whirling head selected a course of action to deal with him than he had calmly proceeded to escape and approach her, turning everything upside-down. And now he was telling her- or musing to himself- that something was wrong with him.
But even that paled in comparison with the Zafara’s next words. Coming abruptly out of his distracted state, he looked her squarely in the eye and informed her, his deep voice resonating through the room as he spoke: “I am Kitron of Virtupets. You will tell me my function.”
To be continued...