Hearts of Fire: Part One
Carmen snuck out of her dormitory one last time, slipping between the close-crammed metal bunks as the others tried to catch what little sleep they were allowed between dismissal and roll call.
On her back was a bag packed with her meager possessions. The black case – as well as the spacesuit she wore – was emblazoned with DRAIK 231. She grimaced at it, resolving to cover it up as soon as she had a spare moment.
She crept into one of the narrow corridors of the Virtupets Space Station. The only light came from the intermittent blinks of the status buttons on the atmosphere and gravity generators. But she was a mutant – and Sloth had wanted his soldiers to be able to see in the dark. So she scanned the pipes on the ceiling, looking for the person she knew would be there.
She saw the label on his sleeve first. The white TECHO 4067 practically glowed against the dark surroundings. She whispered, “Pinkerton!”
His spiked tail stuck down below the maze of pipes and gestured to her. “Up! The scanner beam will be coming back in a few seconds!”
Carmen could see the dim red light at the end of the hallway – she spread her wings and lifted herself up onto one of the gravity generator hubs. Moments later, a thick red line passed along the floor. If the sensor caught anyone on the floor – or the vibrations of anyone moving too close to it – the alarm would sound and the night guards would come. Garoo or Gormos might come with them, too – that would be a painful way to go.
The mutant Techo stuck his head out as soon as the scanner had passed. “Susanna’s already down by the escape pods. Niklausse is with her. We’re supposed to wait for Musetta here – she’s getting food.”
Carmen nodded. She knew – she had made the plans herself. But Pinkerton liked doing the bossing around – he needed to get it out of his system with his friends, after pretending to be brainwashed into the “Yessir. Nosir.” routines of the other soldiers of Sloth during the day.
Her best friend whispered, “Look!”
A figure was approaching rapidly down the hallway. Closer inspection showed that it was a skinny mutant Zafara, bounding along without touching the ground by swinging off pipes and jumping along the machinery on the walls. She came almost silently, even with the two bags slung over her shoulders.
Musetta beamed. “I have food for the five of us for two weeks. I broke into an officer storeroom, so the travel fare actually has some flavor.” She showed off the nutrition bar in her hand – the mutant Draik realized that she was eating part of it.
Pinkerton climbed down onto the floor. “Let’s go, then – I’m certain we don’t have much time before the night watchmen realize we’re gone.”
Musetta looked to Carmen. “Should we?”
Carmen nodded. “I want this Fyora-forsaken place behind us as soon as possible.”
And the three of them set off along the corridor, Pinkerton and Carmen almost as agile as Musetta at sneaking along the sides of the corridors to avoid the red beams that came along intermittently and threatened to give away their escape. They’d done this many times before.
They all knew the way to the escape pods – they had discovered them in a previous nighttime wandering, when the idea of escape had first come to them.
The mutant Draik remembered the day when they’d decided that they had to get away... the day Sloth had discovered that IXI 3870 had been imperfectly mutated. Like Carmen and her four friends, his mind was still his own. But unlike them, he hadn’t found other people to help him, to give him the strength to endure the charade, to give him a new name to replace the one forgotten during mutation and remind him that he was still a Neopian with a heart of his own. He’d broken down in tears in front of everyone in the middle of a drill.
He’d been ushered out of the room and never seen again.
“Carmen! Come back to us!”
Carmen had been moving automatically, lost in thought – now she looked up at her two friends. Musetta asked, “What is it?”
Carmen sighed. “IXI 3870.”
Pinkerton winced. Musetta sighed as well. “Poor guy...”
Carmen shook her head to clear out the thoughts of the unfortunate Ixi. “Well, it’s our job to escape... it probably would have made him happy to see someone else get out of Sloth’s clutches. We need to keep going.”
The little mutant Techo nodded. “Keep moving!”
They entered the bay where the escape pods were located. Two Sloth soldiers were lying on the floor unconscious. Between them was a gigantic mutant with SKEITH 4815 plastered across the back of his jumpsuit. Pinkerton hissed, “Niklausse! Little guy!”
Niklausse turned around and scooped Pinkerton up, supply bag and all, to set him on his shoulders. “Ready to go, big guy?”
A mutant Gelert sat at the hatch to one of the escape pods. Pinkerton told her, “Let’s go, Susanna!”
Susanna looked to Carmen. “I have everything configured – are we ready to leave?”
At that moment, the alarms started blaring across the halls of the Space Station. Carmen said, “It doesn’t matter if we’re ready or not – we need to leave now!”
Pinkerton shouted, “GO! GO! GO!” as they all scurried into their escape pod.
Carmen took the controls of the little shuttle as Susanna ran to the interface and Pinkerton jumped into the laser turret. Musetta threw the supplies into the bulkheads and strapped down the loose ends as Niklausse stood at the portal with the blasters he had taken from the guards, ready to hold off any guards who came.
Susanna called, “Hatch closing!” The big Skeith stepped back as the door shut. Just in time, too – they heard the high whine of blaster-fire screeching against the metal doors.
The Gelert then said, “The primary rockets are ready to go – take us out, Carmen!”
The Draik pressed down the pedals and jammed the shift forward as hard as she could, and they were all thrown backward against their seats as the stolen escape pod blasted away from the Space Station and into the darkness of Neopia’s upper atmosphere.
The five mutants cheered as the station receded behind them. Musetta danced around as normal gravity took control. “We’re free! We’re out! We’re freeeeeeeee!”
Then Pinkerton shouted from his perch, “Sweet Fyora!”
“What is it?”
“Three destroyer-ships, leaving the space station! Coming toward us!”
The radio crackled. Susanna tuned it until the voice came in clearly. “This is Commander Garoo aboard Destroyer 102, radioing the rogue escape pod. Surrender immediately and change course to connect with Destroyer 102, or we will be forced to open fire.”
Musetta’s eyes widened. She squeaked, “Commander Garoo himself is after us?”
Pinkerton took the microphone. “Commander Garoo, this is Pinkerton, formerly known as TECHO 4067. Our message for you, Gormos, Sophix, and Sloth is this – you can all go and boil your ugly heads!”
Niklausse laughed heartily as he punctuated Pinkerton’s insult with a beam of laser-fire from the side cannons. Susanna disconnected the radio and chuckled along with him.
Carmen reminded her friends as she focused on their flight path, “It was fun, but now they’re going to be angry – Musetta, take the lookout and watch for enemy fire!”
Pinkerton quickly added, “Niklausse – help me man the lasers! Susanna, keep an eye on vital systems and look out for a place to land!”
Susanna asked, “Should I, Carmen?”
Carmen dived and swung up again to avoid lasers from the destroyer-ships. “Yes! If we’re going to make it out of this alive, we need to get to the surface of Neopia as quickly as possible!”
That was when the ship rattled. Pinkerton cried, “It was a direct hit to the starboard wing!”
Carmen thrust the controllers down as hard as she could – they had to get into the lower atmosphere! It was the only way to escape.
Another crash. Musetta screamed as Pinkerton screeched, “It was the port wing!”
Susanna asked, terrified, “How are we going to steer?”
Carmen thought quickly. “Get me into landing mode! These things float, right?”
“Right...” Susanna’s voice trembled.
“I’ll land us on whatever is there! Get our supplies ready!”
Niklausse interrupted as he retaliated against the destroyers as best he could, “But – none of us know how to swim! Even if we did before, we all forgot when we were mutated!”
Pinkerton shouted, “We won’t need to swim! The pod floats! They were made to be used in water if necessary! We’ll be safe inside our nice, floating, escape pod as Carmen and Susanna take us toward land! Okay?”
Carmen affirmed, “Okay.” Then she leaned forward. “Hold on tight – it’s going to be a bumpy ride!”
And the stolen escape pod plummeted toward the surface of the planet.
When they cleared the cloud layer, they realized that there was indeed an ocean beneath them. As she focused on making the landing as smooth as possible, Pinkerton shouted final instructions. “Everyone, strap in! Hold onto loose items! Susanna – protect that copy of the Neopedia! We’re going to need it!”
Susanna held onto the precious book as tightly as she could as they shot ever closer to the dark sea – it was night on this side of Neopia. They were ready only an instant before the ship crashed into the water.
They would all have been knocked from their seats if they hadn’t strapped themselves in. The floor of the pod buckled and the windshield shook, but both held. They bobbed to the surface and sat there waiting, barely breathing, as Susanna ran a systems check. Musetta held on to the inflatable raft she had found just in case.
Finally, Susanna grinned. “Beside the damage to the wings, all systems are operational. Carmen, you should be able to use the water steering to take us wherever the nearest land is.”
Carmen yawned. “First I’ll need to go flying and try to figure out where we are as soon as it’s light.”
Niklausse took the raft out of Musetta’s hands and used it to wrap himself up as he reclined his chair. “I’ll help you scout... we’ve never gotten to stretch our wings in the open air before. This’ll be fun.”
Musetta started making herself comfortable in her own chair – it was clear to everyone that there would be nothing more done tonight. Susanna turned all systems down, and the whirring and buzzing around them became almost unnoticeable as they drifted on the wide open water, rocked gently by the waves. Sleep was irresistible. The only thing that kept Carmen awake for the few minutes it took to put the controls in safety mode was the beautiful vista in front of her, with the sea lit by Kreludor and the stars beyond. I’ve never seen it like this before – but, then, none of us have ever been to the surface before. I’ve only been to Kreludor once with a force led by Gormos, and the commander wasn’t about to give us time to sightsee.
Well, I’m sure I was here before – I’m sure we were all here before. But those memories are gone... lost with our old names and our old lives.
Those thoughts made her melancholy on other nights, but here, at the helm of her own little ship, with her true friends sleeping behind her, she found it hard to be too sad. The past was dead. The future was in front of them – and the future shone even brighter than Kreludor at its fullest.
If we’re all together, we can make a new life. Together, I know we can do anything.
Now, if only we knew where we were and what to do next...
To be continued...
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