Come dance with the Wanderers... Circulation: 182,995,662 Issue: 470 | 19th day of Storing, Y12
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Occupational Hazard: Part One

by antiaircraft


Somewhere in the bowels of a sinister space station, flung far out into the most distant reaches of the Neopian star system, a Wocky was running for her life.

     This wasn't particularly unusual for her. As a matter of fact, running for her life was a major part of her job description.

     Unsurprisingly, this didn't bring the Orange Wocky much comfort.

     Dashing down a polished steel hallway as fast as her reflexes would allow, alarms blaring in her ears and red emergency lights flashing across her vision, she could hardly have been less comfortable. Like a deranged, lightning-fast ball of clothing and orange fur, she rocketed through empty maintenance tunnels, bounced around corners and leapt through closing blast doors. She picked up more than a few bruises and scrapes along the way, but that didn't even register to her adrenaline-fuelled brain, let alone slow her down. She had to get this information back to Neopia. She had to get it to the resistance before it was too late.

     But she wasn't going to be able to do that by running around in circles while Sloth's minions closed in, she told herself firmly as an oddly familiar intersection swung into view. She skidded to a halt, slamming into a painfully solid metal bulkhead. Breathing hard, she sucked in rapid gasps of air as she tried to get her bearings. She was pretty sure the left pathway was the one that led to the secondary hangar bay, but she needed to be certain. Besides, it might help to catch her breath.

     A blaster bolt ricocheted off the floor centimetres from her foot, instantly heating the surface to the point where it began to melt the rubber soles of her maintenance boots. Maybe not.

     Picking up speed again, the Wocky managed to catch a glimpse of her pursuers. They were a pair of blocky, android-like robots, racing along on supercharged caterpillar tracks with frightening speed. Each of them cradled a high-powered repeating blaster in its clawed arms. They were Slash class hunter-killer units, just a small part of Sloth's new manufacturing operation in this remote sector of space. And they were closing in.

     The Wocky was in a pinch, and she knew it. She couldn't outrun them, but she was no match for them in combat either. The Virtublaster 3000 was a solid, reliable weapon, but against these armoured battle robots she might as well be wielding a celery stick. She'd be metaphorically cut to pieces. More literally, she'd be vaporised on the spot. She reached for her trusty sidearm all the same. It wasn't like she had much choice in the matter.

     Not one to ignore the few advantages she had, the Wocky lurched abruptly around a corner, kicking a loaded trash can into the corridor behind her. Adhering strictly to protocol, the hunter-killers wasted several precious seconds scanning the trash can and its contents, even as they hurtled around right into the Wocky's sights. She squeezed the Virtublaster's trigger for all it was worth, scoring a series of hits on one of the robots as it skidded past, its shots going wild. She must have managed to hit something important, as the robot's chassis buckled and sparked, collapsing into a heap against a nearby bulkhead.

     Her fleeting victory met an untimely end as she dived out of the way of a barrage of searing blasts. What looked like an entire squad of hunter-killers had joined the chase, rapidly taking up firing positions and moving around to flank her. Time to run again.

     The Wocky sprinted for cover, ducking through a narrow access hatch and, cursing her luck, into a wide open storage area. The only cover here, apart from the main door on the far side of the room, was provided by a scant scattering of discarded storage crates. Their thin aluminium frames might as well have been no cover at all.

     There was no time to turn back however. The first robot was already rolling through the hatch. By the time she was halfway across the room, the Wocky was jumping over trails of molten metal left behind by the relentless torrent of ever-more-accurate plasma blasts. The second half was hardly any better. The Wocky felt the hair on the back of her head crisp as it was subjected to the heat from a very, very near miss.

     It's not as bad as it looks, she thought to herself as she vaulted over a dumpster, You're wearing a heavy duty maintenance suit, built to last. Even if they get a direct hit between your shoulder blades, it'll probably hold. Probably.

     Wishful thinking. At that very instant, her left arm suddenly refused to bear the weight of her landing. It folded without warning, sending her blaster flying out of reach. The Wocky stumbled and rolled, fortunately, into the momentary shelter of a loading crane downed by the crossfire. Less fortunately, a burning pain gripped her left shoulder, from which her arm now dangled uselessly.

     Shoving the pain aside, she gathered all the strength she could muster and dashed the final few metres to the main entrance. It wasn't the safe haven she had hoped for. The bulkhead offered barely twenty centimetres of protection on either side, and the door's control panel was guarded by a fingerprint scanner. She flattened herself against the wall as best she could and slammed the controls repeatedly with her good arm, praying that it would do something to help her predicament.

     Some deity must have been in a generous mood. A wisp of smoke rose from the crackling panel and the blast doors rumbled shut, putting half a metre of reinforced Skaridian-6 alloy between the Wocky and certain death. The terrifying sizzle of white-hot plasma was reduced to a distant hiss. Grabbing a conveniently placed crowbar, she gave the control panel a few more solid whacks for good measure, then turned, ran, grazed her head on yet another inconsiderately low hatch, and emerged into...

     ...a cold, dimly lit, and blissfully evil robot-free hangar bay. Nearly fifty spacecraft were suspended by docking clamps above the vast emptiness of space, separated from the vacuum by an invisible atmospheric containment field. It was, despite the situation, eerily awe-inspiring, but the Wocky didn't waste any time admiring the view. The ships were of all shapes and sizes, in various states of readiness. She padded quickly and quietly past them, expert eyes analysing every relevant detail. Here was one that was far too slow. This one was fast, but it wasn't agile enough to avoid being blasted into oblivion by the station's cannons. That one would have been perfect, if it hadn't been stripped of its life-support systems.

     The Wocky had already spotted her ride of choice - a sleek, stealthy shuttle that could probably have outrun a supernova with ease - but it was located all the way across the hangar, at the end that happened to be guarded by automated security towers. She didn't have a chance in eleven trillion of reaching it, so she would have to make do with something else.

     And there it was, idling in its dock like a hungry Kougra ready to pounce. Its swept-back wings cast an elegant shadow on the hangar walls, and the auxiliary feeds to its wing-mounted plasma cannons glowed a menacing green. It was a red and gold Virtupets-era fighter, not as subtle as the Wocky would have liked, but fast, manoeuvrable, and armed. It would do.

     She crept cautiously up the access ladder to the ship, making sure she was outside the line of sight of any security towers. In seconds, she was slipping into the pilot's seat and sliding the cockpit closed. It sealed shut with a muted hiss, and the Wocky busied herself flipping power switches and toggling the flight controls to manual. The navigation computer soon hummed to life, filling the cockpit's HUD with a myriad of systems information and diagnostics reports, not to mention the all-important crosshairs.

     While the fighter ran through its self-tests, she reached down with her right hand and began feeling her way across the bottom edge of the control panel, where she knew the ship's remote override module would be located. Sure enough, there was a tiny seam running across its surface - invisible to the naked eye, but easily distinguishable if you knew how to feel the difference between vacuum formed and compression moulded plastic. A few more seconds of exploration and she had located the two magnetic screws holding the module's cover in place.

     Working with speed derived from confidence and practice, she quickly extracted a small magnet from one of her maintenance suit's numerous baggy pockets and began working the screws loose, using two fingers to twirl the magnet around and another to provide some extra traction on the screws. It was a difficult task with only one hand, but it wasn't long before she was able to slide the cover off, revealing the override module inside.

     The module itself was fairly innocuous, consisting of a small black box barely bigger than her fist, with a thick black antenna protruding upwards from its left side and three data ports set into its right. The top data port was  connected to a larger, red and white box (the fighter's base control module) by a thin, flat cable.

     Wasting no time, the Wocky deftly disconnected the cable from the ship's computer and plugged it into one of the override module's backup ports. The only thing Sloth's little machine would be overriding was itself.

     The Wocky flipped one last switch, opening the fuel valves, and grinned as the fighter's engine sprung to life, spinning up with a quiet whine that mingled with the ambient sounds of the hangar. In just forty-five seconds she would be home free, a little fancy flying aside.

     A lot can happen in forty-five seconds.

     For example, a hangar can go from dimly lit to dazzlingly bright in well under five.

     Briefly disoriented, the Wocky ducked instinctively, despite being out of view of anyone on the hangar floor. She reached out and switched on one of the ship's external hull cameras. What she saw made her heart skip a beat, then race like a turbulent gale.

     Filing methodically into the hangar bay were at least a hundred alert hunter-killers, weapons at the ready. That was bad enough, but what really sent a chill down the Wocky's spine was a new arrival, a glossy black android standing stiffly in their midst. This new robot towered over the Slash class models, easily double the height of a fully grown Skeith. Its gleaming exterior hid a matchless arsenal of state-of-the-art weaponry, in addition to numerous integrated targeting systems, a self-sustaining fusion reactor, a network of artificial muscles based on the very best nanotechnology available, and one of the most intelligent computer brains ever devised. The robot had a name. It was a Shadow Reaper class battle platform, one of Sloth's new elite bodyguards. And it most definitely was not more for show.

     But worst of all, standing beside the Reaper with his hands clasped behind his back like any decent evil mastermind overseeing his troops, was Doctor Frank Sloth himself.

     "You might as well give up and show yourself," the villain's nightmarish voice thundered from the speakers, "we'll find you soon enough. Do you really think you can escape from the greatest genius this universe will ever see? Accept the facts and surrender, and I might even spare you the usual fate of intruders."

     And come up with something far worse, added the Wocky silently. Right, like I'm falling for that.

     The fighter's engines were almost good to go, and all of its navigation systems had checked out green. A few more seconds and, if she timed it right, she'd be able to open the docking clamps and drop out of the hangar before Sloth could even figure out what was going on. She wrapped her fingers around the control stick comfortably, resting one tense thumb on the release button.

     A loud, unmistakably evil sigh rattled over the speakers. "How pitiful. She actually thinks that continuing in her futile escape attempt will help her." Sloth snapped his fingers and a Grundo scurried up to him, bowing incessantly, bearing a blocky device that vaguely resembled a speaker box. Ever the evil tyrant, he grabbed the device and sent the unfortunate Grundo scurrying away in terror.

     "I'm giving you one last chance," Sloth boomed, weighing the device thoughtfully in one hand. "Fail to comply, and I might just lose my temper."

     "Dream on," muttered the Wocky, leaning back into her padded acceleration seat. One by one, indicator lights on the launch checklist were turning green. Pump rate. Internal pressure. Fuel compression. Turbine speed.

     "Very well. We'll do this your way, since you're such a stubborn creature." Sloth flipped a switch on the mysterious device, holding it like an oversized microphone. "Power down your ship, and surrender yourself immediately!" he demanded, speaking into the device.

     The last light winked green. Not a chance! thought the Wocky, and pressed the release button. Or at least, she tried to press the release button. To her horror, what happened instead was that her hand moved off the control stick, found the master switch, and flipped it to OFF.

     What?! How did that happen? The Wocky's mind was racing, and an unusual buzzing sensation filled her head as the fighter obediently powered all its systems back down. Numbly, she felt herself reaching up to open the cockpit. A spike of fear drove itself into her mind as she realised that her last chance of escape was slipping away, and she fought with all her strength not to give herself up.

     It was useless. As if she was in the grip of some demonic puppeteer, she pushed the cockpit open and stood, in clear view of the hostile army of deadly robots, with her hands laced behind her head. She couldn't even react to the agonising pain the pose inflicted in her injured shoulder.

     In less than a second, every hunter-killer in the room had its blaster trained on the helpless Wocky.

     As if I wasn't in enough trouble already, she groaned, trying to block out the screaming spasms running through her left arm. I have to figure out what that contraption does, fast.

     Like all confident evil masterminds, Doctor Sloth was all too happy to explain.

     "Your sadly under-equipped little mind is probably racing along by now, trying to figure out what's going on. Allow me to put it at ease. Your water supply was laced with a handy piece of technology known as Xzidylene serum. Once freed from their stasis solution by your body's digestive enzymes, the serum's microscopic Xzidylene particles were absorbed into your bloodstream, and eventually started latching onto your brain. Once in position, the particles resonate in tune with specific signals broadcast from the transmitter I'm holding, and feed them directly to your nervous system. To dumb it down for you: when I issue a command through this device, say, come here, you have to obey whether you like it or not. Isn't nanotechnology marvellous?"

     The Wocky was too strained to be impressed, making ever more frantic attempts to stop her descent down the ladder. The buzzing was stronger now, pushing its oppressive presence into her already overloaded mind. It didn't help that she was jolting her arm with every step.

     After what seemed like an eternity of futile struggling, she reached the hangar floor, and turned around to find herself staring into the glare of Doctor Sloth's sinister red eyes. Even at a range of several metres, it was extremely unsettling.

     "Well then, to business. I would be most appreciative if you would tell me who you really are, and which organisation you work for." Doctor Sloth's tone and devilish grin made it clear that this was in no way a request.

     Maintenance engineer 69774, Virtupets Engineering Division, the Wocky's conscious mind told her mouth, burying her real name and occupation as deep as they would go.

     "Second Lieutenant Elaine Nevergreen of the Resistance Intelligence Corps," her mouth said, much to her surprise and dismay. When Doctor Sloth caught the look on her face, his grin almost doubled in size.

     "My poor, unsuspecting, misguided Neopet, you still don't understand just how badly you've underestimated my genius, do you? The Xzidylene serum provides me with complete access to your entire subconscious brain. Your thought processes are now entirely under my control, even if your will isn't just yet. Resistance really is futile now."

     Sloth paused for a classic, booming evil laugh that echoed spookily around the hangar bay, raising goosebumps all over Elaine's neck.

     "So," he continued, "it's exactly as I expected. That pathetic little rag-tag band of fools still seeks to oppose my conquest! Hah! They have yet to realise just how insignificant their naive efforts are. I would be insulted, but really, a little pointless rebellion here and there makes things so much more interesting.

     "And it seems we have quite a catch here too. Lieutenant- oh, my apologies, Second Lieutenant Nevergreen herself. One of the finest agents ever to join the ranks of the 'Resistance', although that's hardly saying much. I must admit, I'm almost impressed. Few spies even make it past my initial screening process, let alone get anywhere close to escaping with useful information. And I do have you to thank for revealing a number of weak points in my security. I'll see to it that none of your friends manage to exploit the same weaknesses in the future."

     "You can thank me by stopping your mad quest for power and letting the inhabitants of Neopia live in peace!" snarled Elaine angrily, clenching her fists.

     Sloth stroked his chin ponderously, pretending to consider the matter.

     "Hmm... I think not. You see, Agent Nevergreen, I may be fair enough to give some credit to lesser minds, however undeserved, but that doesn't mean I have to go around showing mercy. Weaklings are meant to be crushed, nothing more. Honestly, devotion to duty? Loyalty to your friends? Selfless sacrifices in the name of the greater good?" Sloth stifled a yawn. "I've seen it all a thousand times before. Your kind, you're all too wrapped up in your own foolish little rose-tinted world to realise the truth. In the real world, only the strongest survive, and even then they live only to serve those precious few individuals gifted with true genius. Namely, me, me, and me."

     "Wrapped up in your own world? You're one to talk," Elaine retorted.

     Doctor Sloth let out a short spine-chilling chuckle.

     "My, my, Agent Nevergreen. Witty, spirited, and uncompromisingly idealistic - the quintessential Neopian action hero. You're an even closer match for your profile than I had anticipated."

     Elaine knew Sloth was baiting her, but she had to ask. "My... profile?"

     "Oh yes," continued Sloth, eyes twinkling with what might just have been a little demented mirth, "your profile, constructed from the numerous files I managed to gather from my minions in the Resistance and a number of... other organisations. I've been watching you in particular for some time, Agent Nevergreen, and I must say it was a pleasant surprise to find you on board my very own command station. Your performance so far has been entirely in line with my deductions. Subtle, creative, and delightfully elusive. A most enjoyable challenge."

     "You predicted my unpredictability. Pure genius," interjected Elaine, rolling her eyes.

     Sloth's sarcasm detectors failed spectacularly. "Indeed. But enough of the flattery. We're not here to talk about me, however deserving I may be of your accolades. Oh no, after observing today's incidents, I'm far more interested in you.

     "It's a pity, really. Such a brilliant, skilful, driven young lady like you forced to waste your talent on a fleeting, silly cause. I've learned a lot about you in these past few weeks, Agent Nevergreen. I know, for instance, about your almost perfect record."

     A small ball of fury exploded inside Elaine, sending blood rushing to the more violently inclined parts of her brain. She knew where this was going. That mass murderer had no right to pry into her life. But Sloth wasn't about to let something as trivial as another person's feelings interrupt his speech.

     "Oh come on. It's barely been three months. You can't expect me to believe that it's not still there, churning at the back of your mind. Doesn't it still haunt you in those quiet moments, when you run through the scenarios over and over again in your head, wondering what you could have done differently?" Sloth's words stung, and not least because they were dead right. "Of course, since there's no doubt as to the perfection of my plans, I've never had such an experience myself, but I'm told that's what you Neopets do in times of uncertainty. Do you want to know what I think of the whole thing?"

     No, thought Elaine pointedly, but you'll keep going anyway.

     True to form, Sloth continued, "I, for one, really don't see what all the fuss is about. While it's true that my minions get punished for their mistakes, in the end I've always judged them based on overall merit. I certainly wouldn't have bothered with something as insignificant as an accidental explosion that ended up killing... how do you Neopians say it... 'innocent bystanders'."

     Doctor Sloth made a great show of rolling his eyes. Elaine just glared.

     "Well, Agent Nevergreen? Doesn't it rankle you that after all your years of unfailing effort, easily surpassing that of your incompetent colleagues, the people you worked so hard to defend had you benched, court-martialed, and even demoted for one puny slip-up? You dedicated your life to them, and they betrayed you for what was nothing more than a trivial perceived mistake. Think about it. Think about what you could achieve if you weren't limited by all that useless whining they call 'morality'. I can assure you, you'll find those thoughts most promising," Sloth finished, spreading his arms wide in what he probably thought was a suitably welcoming complement for his long-winded recruitment speech. The demonic bear hug of doom, death and destruction would have been a good name for the pose. One look at it would have sent the Monoceraptor running for its mummy.

     Elaine's glare didn't falter for a single second. She breathed deep, relaxing breaths, straightening up to stand tall in the face of her darkest nightmare. The easy way out had never been an option for her. Not three months ago, and certainly not now. When she spoke, her voice was calm and level.

     "Unlike some people, Doctor Sloth, I take responsibility for my mistakes and the damage they've inflicted on others, however irreparable that may be. And if you know so much about me, then you'll know that I will never join forces with a criminal like you; not of my own will, and definitely not without a fight."

     Sloth reverted to a slightly less disturbing pose, folding his arms and grinning his devilishly evil grin.

     "Oh, I think you will, if I order you to," he began, reaching for the transmitter, "but that would make the rest of this day so excruciatingly boring."

     Sloth switched off the transmitter. The click echoed eerily around the quiet hangar, and Elaine felt the buzzing sensation in her head subside abruptly. She was suddenly free to move as she pleased. At least, as free as a Wocky could be with an armoury and a half of assault weaponry pointed in her direction. Caught slightly off guard, she immediately began scanning her surroundings for anything that might be of use.

     "Do go ahead," urged Doctor Sloth. "Put up your fight. I'm curious as to what you'll come up with."

     Elaine's instincts were telling her to go for her backup blaster, tucked into the back of her waistband and concealed underneath her bulky jacket. But Sloth would be expecting that, and if Sloth was expecting it, so were the one hundred or so extremely lethal robots standing around him.

     It didn't take Elaine long to figure out an alternative solution. Sitting on the ground next to her, just within reach of her right arm, was a bright blue one-litre canister of flash freeze foam. Designed for bringing even the most dangerous out-of-control fires to an instant halt, the foam was extremely hazardous to electronics, and would take any circuitry it came in contact with permanently out of commission. Elaine allowed her knees to buckle, moving to grab the canister and hurl it at Doctor Sloth in one fluid motion. It would sail through the air and shatter next to the villainous scientist, releasing its contents directly into his face. Sloth would be forced to retreat or risk losing his precious mind control transmitter. Either way, Elaine could take advantage of the confusion and, with an insane amount of luck, make her escape.

     It was a good plan, Elaine decided, and it might even have worked - if the canister wasn't bolted to the floor, that is. As it was, she was left tugging inconsequentially at the stubborn canister.

     Sloth doubled over with (slightly) regular, non-evil laughter.

     And it was in that precise moment, while Sloth was distracted and the hunter-killers were busy calculating the threat level of the foam canister with respect to their master's new posture, that Elaine, crouched in the perfect firing position, with the resigned determination of someone who knows that they have mere seconds to live, whipped out her blaster and emptied a full clip at the evil mastermind.

     That is to say, she got off the first two shots of a full clip.

     Moving faster than the eye could see, the Shadow Reaper, which up until now had been standing impassively beside Doctor Sloth, was suddenly in front of him, blocking the two blasts with one massive forearm. Before any of the hunter-killers had even processed the new development, the Reaper had Elaine pinned to the floor and was effortlessly relieving her of her weapon.

     And of course, it just had to be programmed to drag her unceremoniously across the hangar by her left arm and force her to her knees before its master.

     Gasping with pain and shock, Elaine managed to steady herself and lifted her gaze upwards. She found herself staring directly into the cold eyes of one amused Doctor Frank Sloth. It was not a comforting position to be in.

     "Mmm... not bad. Not bad at all. Very few in your line of work could have done better. Still, as you can see, you're no match for my more refined creations," Sloth remarked dismissively.

     "Now," he added, switching smoothly to one of the more imposing stances in his arsenal, "I'm afraid the time for polite chit chat is over."

     "You only just noticed?" grumbled Elaine, still clutching her arm. She was beginning to realise that the retorts were a defensive response of hers, thrown up in an attempt to deal with the suffocating fear that was spreading rapidly through her. They weren't helping a whole lot.

     Sloth bent down, bringing his head as close as possible to the kneeling Wocky. Reaching out with one hand, he pinched the orange fur of Elaine's chin between his thumb and forefinger, locking his piercing eyes with her own. It was a clammy, vice-like grip that made Elaine want to squirm away in disgust, but she forced herself to hold still. She needed to conserve her strength, and avoid doing any more damage to her arm.

     "Agent Nevergreen," Sloth began, his voice increasingly low and foreboding, "inside this pretty little head of yours is a wealth of information. Information about the Resistance: its plans, procedures, personnel, allies... Normally I wouldn't bother with such unimportant details, but I have certain associates to whom this information would be very valuable indeed.

     "So, here is your situation in summary: agree to share everything that you know about the Resistance with me, and I might just consider allowing you a quick, dignified death. If you refuse to be open with me, then the remainder of your short life will be filled with humiliation and unbearable pain. Of course, I could always just ask you for the information I want through this transmitter, but that wouldn't be any fun at all, would it?

     "Whatever your choice, the only way you will be leaving this station is through the waste disposal system, which will crush and grind your remains into fine dust and vent them into the cold vacuum of space."

     Elaine didn't even give it a second thought. "Well, sounds like you should save yourself the trouble and jump straight to the last part," she replied, never once averting her gaze. Her voice was cool and defiant, in stark contrast to the acidic fear eating away at her resolve.

     Sloth straightened up, releasing Elaine and folding his arms across his chest. For a moment, he looked more like a spoilt child sulking over the loss of his favourite toy than a candidate for galactic domination.

     "Bah! You aren't willing to take up my extremely generous offer of a position on my staff, you continue your pathetic attempts to defy me even while you are completely at my mercy, and even the thought of being subjected to my most ingenious torture devices doesn't seem to perturb you. There really isn't anything else for it, is there?"

     "No, there isn't," answered Elaine pointedly, although in truth the thought of Sloth's torture devices perturbed her very much indeed. "Knock yourself out. Go ahead and torment me for your amusement in whatever cruel ways your twisted mind can come up with, since that's the only thing it seems to be good for. You want information from me? You'll have to drag it out yourself."

     "Hah!" snorted Sloth, his irritation vanishing to be replaced by a ponderous, dreamy stare. "Brave words for a Neopet who doesn't even have the strength to stand."

     For some reason, those words irked Elaine more than they should have. Without so much as a grunt of effort, she corralled her aching muscles and fired them into action, staggering to her feet and stretching her eighty-four centimetres for all they were worth. Sloth still towered over her, but she might as well display what boldness she had now. She knew it would evaporate faster than a slushie in Sakhmet at noon when she saw what Sloth had in store for her.

     "Have it your way then," chuckled Sloth, smiling in delightful anticipation, "I'll see that you're fitted into my schedule. But before we begin today's... entertainment, I'm sure you'll want to get settled into your new accommodation. After all, sending a guest into my torture chambers without allowing her to recuperate first - that would be just plain despicable, wouldn't it?"

     "Charming," Elaine muttered loudly.

     "Why thank you," Sloth replied, once again missing the sarcasm. "Well then, Elaine, it really has- Oh, I'm sorry, where are my manners? Can I call you Elaine?" Sloth's brow furrowed with mock concern.

     "Elaine's fine," growled the Wocky through gritted teeth.

     "How very understanding of you." Sloth paused briefly to snap his fingers and beckon to a squad of six hunter-killers standing nearby. The robots responded immediately, surrounding Elaine and taking up firing positions. "Formalities aside, Elaine, it really has been a most intriguing experience getting to know you. Despite your pitiful efforts to oppose my ingenious plans for Neopia, I hope your cooperation will somewhat improve relations between us. Do take some time before our next meeting to consider what relevant information you'd like to discuss. It will help you to avoid wasting time, and I hate to see my time go to waste. Oh, and one more thing: if you get yourself killed, I won't be able to extract any information from you at all, so don't try to escape," he continued, adding the last four words through the transmitter box.

     Elaine pointedly ignored Sloth's parting speech (quite a feat considering that he was standing only twenty centimetres from her face) and instead fixed her attention on her freshly assembled escort. The good doctor was making a big mistake if he thought six of his robots would be enough to keep her contained. Sure, they could probably turn her into instant barbecued Wocky if she so much as twitched in the wrong direction, but they were, in a word, stupid. It wouldn't be impossible to find some way of outsmarting them. Of course, that meant somehow foxing Sloth's mind control...

     "Doctor Sloth, if I may?" inquired a new voice, interrupting her thoughts.

     Elaine risked a glance towards the source of the sound. What she saw made her heart sink.

     Not many Neopians are familiar with the Resistance wanted list. It's a four hundred page document detailing the identities of fifty of the most dangerous criminals ever to be associated with Doctor Sloth. Having met the majority of its occupants in person, Elaine knew the list better than most, but she didn't need that knowledge to identify the Blue Acara that was now standing confidently amidst the sea of blasters aimed in the Wocky's direction. The Acara's signature blaster and distinctive, practical armour (not to mention her face) were etched prominently into the memories of every Neopet who had been involved with foiling Sloth's most recent plan to take over Neopia.

     "Ah, Skyfire, never one to miss the excitement, I see," Sloth boomed.

     "I mean no disrespect, but I have some experience with this particular agent," the Acara explained, her fingers drumming impatiently on the grip of her holstered blaster. "Six HKs isn't going to cut it. If I go with them, I can make sure she doesn't pull any of her tricks."

     Sloth sniffed disdainfully. It sounded vaguely like a Grarrl choking. "Working overtime? Humph. I may have to reconsider that bonus a little sooner than I planned."

     Ylana shrugged. "As long as my employer doesn't make a habit out of vanishing without paying me, I make sure to get the job done."

     Adopting the selective deafness that so often afflicts masterminds of his stature, Sloth missed the jibe completely. "Very well, Skyfire, while I doubt Elaine here would be so foolish as to disobey my orders, I suppose I can allow you to accompany her as some extra insurance." He paused for a moment of consideration, then proceeded to crush Elaine's chances of escape completely. "Take Reaper Eight with you as well. It might be useful for one of my guards to spend some time outside my quarters."

     "I'll make sure the situation's handled well, Doctor."

     "Of course you will," he said dismissively. "Well, Elaine, I'm sure you're eager to get rested up for your first interview. I have other business to attend to, so I won't take up any more time here. Skyfire will see to it that you're settled in properly."

     Sloth turned to leave, his coat swirling impressively with him like a smooth silk shadow. Several squads of hunter-killers scrambled (in an efficient, orderly sort of scramble) into formation around him. As he strode towards the exit, he raised a finger and added, almost as an afterthought, "By the way, Elaine, if you ever find yourself willing to reconsider my employment offer... I'm sure you know how to contact me. And I'll definitely be watching."

     Elaine shuddered as she watched the villain and his entourage leave through the main hangar doors. She didn't find Sloth's afterthought reassuring at all.

     The moment Sloth was clear of the hangar bay, Ylana started firing off orders like only a true veteran bounty hunter could. "All right, enough of the talking. You," she gestured to the hunter-killers guarding Elaine, "tighten up that escort formation! I don't want the prisoner stepping an inch out of line. Reaper Eight, stay right on her flank. The rest of you, get back to your stations. Move it!"

     She raised a hand and snapped her fingers twice for emphasis. The other hand never left her blaster. The hangar was filled with affirmative beeps and whirrs as the robots rolled back to their assigned tasks.

     "Okay, let's go," announced Ylana, stepping in beside Elaine. "We're heading to the luxury guest suite, a.k.a. cell block 22F. Take the long way so we don't have to dodge cargo haulers every five steps."

     The hunter-killers acknowledged the directive with a beep and began to roll slowly forward. Ylana moved to follow them, pulling Elaine along with her. "You know the drill, Nevergreen. Don't try anything stupid. Getting shot twice in one day is bad for your health."

To be continued...

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