“Interesting,” said the plushie Bori, “very interesting.” He straightened his glasses and tapped the back of his pen across his notebook, where a slew of notes about Grundo smugglers, Neocola, asteroids, and surveillance missions crowded the page with black ink.
“However,” he said as he clasped his hands together and propped himself upon his elbows, “My extensive research has shown me a vastly different scenario.” He turned to each of his companions in turn as he continued. “Indeed, Commander Valka did send Parlax on the mission that gave him his scar, and yes, he did go off on his own. A laboratory was involved, and as you said,” he nodded to the green Xweetok to his right, “it happened in the Station’s lowest levels.
“But you’re all wrong.”
* * *
“You look stupid with that on your face,” Gorix said.
Parlax laughed at him--“At least I’m not a senior agent stuck in low-level yellow like you.”--and checked the load on his blaster: fully-charged and ready to go. He holstered it under his black duster and looked up.
Gorix scowled, plucking at the skin-tight suit he wore. “Not my fault the washroom’s circuit breaker overloaded with all my clothes in it.” He shrugged. “Anyways, this is a one-time thing, but you’ve always got that foolish X on your face, don’t you?”
Parlax narrowed his eyes. “It’s war paint, Gorix. You know, intimidate the enemy, get in their head. That sort of thing.”
Now it was the blue Grundo’s turn to laugh. “As if anyone’s ever gonna see it.”
Parlax grinned and motioned to his purple and orange face. “That’s the point: they see this and it’s lights out. X marks the spot: You’re dead.”
A whistle blew and both Grundos turned to full attention. A green Ixi was at the front of the room, giving them a final briefing before the mission began. Three minutes later, they were in the box-like corridors of Virtupets’s lowest floors. They found the alleged laboratory in no time and used a computer override to open the door without breaking a sweat.
Inside, the silence was deafening, the darkness equally as blinding. They raised their blasters, flipping on flashlights attached to them, and four circles of white light split the shadows before them. Gorix slipped in first, followed by a Bori and another Grundo, and then Parlax took up the rear.
Things were uneventful at first, the laboratory massive and more like a maze than any lab Parlax had ever seen, and the only computer terminals they found were Station standards. After an hour of endless searching, they’d yet to come upon anything of interest.
“I think we had a bad tip,” Gorix said, lowering his weapon as they all came to a stop. “There’s nothing here. Ten more minutes and I say we drop the search.”
The Bori behind him blinked wearily and went to speak, but Parlax raised a hand and shushed her. He perked his ears around wildly, turning to face the small hall they stood beside. “I think I heard something,” Parlax said and started toward the corridor.
Gorix nodded. “Take Zadix,” he said and the green Grundo at his side raised his blaster.
Parlax just waved them off. “I’ll be back in a sec. Go on without me.” He breached the hall and didn’t slow his pace. “Ten minutes, remember?”
Three minutes later, Parlax came to a halt in front of a closed doorway, the first he’d seen in this place; to its side, a small entry panel clung to the wall, shedding a soft red glow. He glanced behind him, but couldn’t see the other hall anymore and just grabbed a small black chip from inside his duster: the computer override. He stuck it beneath the red light, his blaster in his free hand, and struck the activation key. A second later, the red light turned green.
The second after that, the doors opened and he fell backwards, his hands flying to his neck. Go figure, he thought. A tranquilizer dart.
Parlax woke to blinding light all around him. He knew instantly that he was strapped down, but it wasn’t till his vision cleared that he realized he was on a flat inclined table, the likes you might find in the office of an evil dentist for unruly villains. Parlax almost chuckled at the thought, but just as he had it, two figures stepped into his eyesight and his thoughts stopped.
“Wakey, wakey,” said the first, a green Krawk with bug-eyes and purple goggles. He rubbed his claws together, white fangs reflecting unnatural light. “Five minutes never feel so long as when you’re waiting for your next patient to come to.”
The second grunted. “Let’s get this over with, Zidia.” The husky Grundo, twice Parlax’s size, grabbed a syringe from nearby and lifted it. He squirted a short stream of liquid out, and as it arced through the air, it shimmered gold. It definitely wasn’t standard saline.
“Wait,” Zidia said, raising his hand and stepping forward. “I haven’t finished the calculations yet. We can’t proceed without them.”
The Grundo grunted again, tapping a tank at his side upon which stood a line of vials, one of them opened and empty. Parlax strained his neck to look closer, but what he saw only baffled him further: floating inside the tank, tethered to a golden chain, was a round orb covered in stylized, golden S’s. The orb itself was what caught his intrigue: its blue surface was like looking into the abyss of a black hole.
The split Grundo looked up when the bulky scientist took another step toward him.
“I’m warning you, Xander,” said the Krawk. “We have to wait for the calculations. Master would be very displeased if we wasted another body.”
Xander shrugged. “We don’t need ‘em, moron. The formula reacts when it reaches their core. No numbers needed.”
Zidia snorted. “But what if it’s time activated? We’ve not experimented with any Grundos yet; we shouldn’t risk this one needlessly.” He snickered. “Besides, he’s still useful to us alive.” Tapping his claws together, he bent down over Parlax. “How’d you find us, boy?”
Parlax laughed, almost forgetting where he was. Boy? Ha! He was a man.
“I said,” repeated the Krawk, “How did you find us?”
“Doctor Zidia,” said a feminine voice, though Parlax couldn’t see the speaker, “I’ve finished examining his equipment”--Parlax swore when he realized the weight of his blaster was gone from its holster--“and they’re indeed Resistance-issued.”
Xander snorted, but Zidia only sneered. “So we’ve got a spy, have we? Well, they never work alone. Tell me, boy: Who is here with you?”
Parlax cleared his throat, then spat in Zidia’s face.
The Krawk wiped the spittle away with a steady hand. “Come now, play peacefully and maybe we’ll find someone else to inject.” Xander waved the syringe around, making certain Parlax saw him. “So, what do you say?” Zidia continued. “Who’d you come with?”
Parlax steeled his face. He was saying nothing.
Zidia huffed angrily and took a step back. “Inject him.”
Parlax’s eyes widened and his mouth twitched, but he was helpless as Xander towered over him, grabbing his arm and forcing back his sleeve. The split Grundo cringed as the needle pierced his flesh and the icy liquid was pumped into him. He refused to look down when Xander ripped the syringe out and stepped away.
“You have about ten seconds,” Zidia said calmly, “before the aqueous concentration of Faerie magic that we’ve injected into you reaches your core and implants itself. About three minutes after that, if you’re anything like the others”--he waved to a row of gurneys, and Parlax noted that each of them were empty--“you’ll end up with the rest. However, if you cooperate, we’ll inject the antitoxin and spare you, for now.”
Parlax set his jaw and shook his head. Already, he could feel the iciness clawing its way up his arm, and in a moment it would reach his heart, then his core. He shut his eyes tightly and waited for it to come.
But after the first ten seconds, he was still alive.
“Holy F’ora,” Xander shouted. “It is time activated!”
Zidia swore loudly. “Last chance, kid, speak now--or suffer terribly.”
Parlax said nothing, not that he’d had much choice otherwise: The frigidness inside him swept through his heart--his chest felt heavy and suddenly it was hard to breathe--and a second later, searing pain began to tear through his skull. The second after that, Parlax’s body shook as he screamed, a pinprick of white light shining from the center of his forehead.
“By Andromeda, no,” Zidia whispered. “It’s seeded in his skull. We’ve got to administer the antitoxin immediately.”
“Leave him,” Xander grunted. “He’s no use to us anyways.”
Zidia waved his arms as the light grew brighter, Parlax still struggling. “Xander, you can’t be serious! Soon as the seed takes root, his head’ll explode. We can’t do that!”
Xander scoffed. “What of the others? You didn’t object then.”
Zidia snorted. “The magic seeded right in them, square in the chest like in true Faeries!” He breathed in heavily. “They proved unable to carry the power. The fault was theirs, not ours.” He swung his hand at the strapped-down Grundo, shaking more violently now as the light grew to the brightness of a supernova, threatening to tear his face apart as they argued. “To let anyone die like this--friend or foe--is simply wrong. I won’t allow it!”
The Krawk stepped past Xander and swept up another loaded syringe, but before he could get any closer, the Grundo pulled him back. “He deserves it.”
The Krawk blanched. “For Sloth’s sake,” he screeched then, “say something! You’ll die, kid--say anything, just say it!”
Parlax forced his head back, the pain unbearable but his body almost too numb to feel it. He’d lost all sensation in his lower half, but his face still felt on fire. He didn’t want to die. Not like this. Not strapped down and poisoned by magic. Not alone. Not without Gorix at his side.
He forced his mind away from the pain. Two words. All he had to say. He screamed again, but took another breath. His mouth was dry and his throat sore, but somehow he managed to say, “Blue Grundo.”
“Blue Grundo?” Zidia asked. “Where? Who? Speak, kid--there isn’t much time!”
“Here,” Parlax mustered, the pain growing greater. The whole world seemed to vibrate around him. “Mission. Shut down.”
Zidia shook his head, then exclaimed as he put it all together. “Your superior! He let you get caught.” His eyes narrowed. “You want us to get him then, that it? Revenge, right?”
No! Parlax shook his head. Teammate, he wanted to say, brother, but he knew it was beyond him. Instead, he spit up something and then swallowed it to speak. “Spare him.”
Suddenly, the Grundo screamed the loudest yet and the light finally erupted. Parlax swore he was going to pass out if he didn’t die first, but just then, something pricked his skin and he was knocked out instead.
When he woke next, the room was darker, his arms unlatched, and his only company was Zidia, standing in the shadows with his arms crossed. Parlax looked around, confused, his last memory of his head exploding like a red giant going nova. His hand flew instinctively to his forehead and he flinched when his fingers hit a tear in his face. He traced the mark, his pain almost too surreal to feel it, and knew at once it was shaped like the war paint he’d put on earlier that day. When he pulled his hand down, he noted without understanding that he wasn’t bleeding.
The Grundo looked up for answers. Zidia seemed more than willing to give them.
“Your tip saved the lab,” he said, his eyes darting to an empty spot where the tank used to be before returning to Parlax. “Our research would’ve been shut down for good if they’d found us. But thanks to you, we found them first.”
Parlax felt a hole open up in his stomach.
“Don’t worry, though,” Zidia said quickly. “We let the blue one go, just like you asked.”
Parlax felt the hole open wider, consuming whatever warmth was left inside him after the iciness before. He looked toward the Krawk again, wrapping his arms around himself and shivering. “You letting me go then?”
Zidia laughed. “Funny, kid, real cute. Think you’re smart, eh?” He shook his head, chuckling. “You’re Sloth’s now, kid, just like the rest of us, whether you like it or not.”
* * *
The plushie Bori put down his pen and looked around the table at his friends, who by now were all silent and responseless. A quick glance at their drinks--from Galaxy Energy to hot chocolate on the other side--informed him that they were all on empty, and just as the green Xweetok leaned forward as if to say something, a Grundo with a mop walked up beside them and began mopping the floor, his movements long and deliberate as if to guarantee they all noticed them.
“Such rudeness!” the green Eyrie roared, his beret trembling. “To come up to us and just--”
“Hey,” the pink Alien Aisha said, “let him do his job! It’s not his fault all of you are so long-winded, especially when you’re all equally as wrong. I’ve done my research--I can show you it, too--and there’s no doubt in my mind that Parlax got his scar stopping the Protectorate.”
The Eyrie snorted. “Blasphemous! His addiction to Neocola is the sole and single reason he bears such a mark!”
The Aisha jumped up, her chair falling backwards as her fists slammed the table. “Why you--”
“Such insolence!” the Eyrie bellowed, following suit, and in seconds, the two were bickering so loudly, everyone in the café would’ve turned to stare at them if they weren’t the last ones there.
“I must say,” the green Xweetok began as if the other two weren’t there any longer, “despite our differences, we’ve all arrived at similar conclusions.” She looked across the table at the orange Kougra, who frowned at the bickering dolts she was stuck sitting between.
Beside them, the janitor grunted loudly.
The plushie Bori nodded with resignation and, popping his last capsule of green tea into his mouth, began putting away his things. When he pushed his chair back and stood up, he swung his bag over his shoulder and looked down at the others. “Shall we go? I know a small hole in the wall where we can get some ice cream and maybe compare our notes. Perhaps we can figure out what really happened to Parlax there.”
The green Xweetok nodded, “I’m up for that,” and got up while the orange Kougra on the other side quickly, and carefully, did the same.
“Should we invite them?” she asked, looking at the other two.
The Bori and Xweetok exchanged glances and then said, together, “Let’s not.” The three writers began to laugh as they left the café, and even in the hallway, they could still hear the reporter and the storyteller arguing vehemently about the origins of Parlax’s scar. Perhaps they’d figure it out someday, but perhaps they would never truly know.