The Old Switcheroo: Part Five
Dawn was barely rising, yet Professor Lambert was already awake and fully dressed. Even though all the factions knew that it was in their interest to start the day as early as possible, the Seekers were usually the earliest risers. The Gnorbu walked from his cabin to the dining-room of the airship, where most of the scholars were having a healthy breakfast. The inside of the Seekers' ship was decorated plainly, but with all the elegance that could be put together with very light materials. Professor Lambert spotted his niece and went to her table.
"Good morning, Katie," he said, sitting down and helping himself to freshly squeezed orange juice. "This is an unusual publication to be reading."
The tiny Kacheek emerged from behind a copy of the Ugga Ugg Times. "Good morning, Uncle. I wanted to practice reading Tyrannian, but this paper is terrible. It's full of rubbish about how Hanso turned into a zombie and joined the Awakened, causing Kanrik to lose his sanity and impersonate other faction leaders. I must say he did a good job of replicating your outfit, though."
"A little variety can do you some good. There could be a few pieces of solid information hidden somewhere amid the nonsense. That is how most newspapers function, at least."
Katie tossed the Tyrannian paper aside. "Maybe you have more interesting news for me. Do you know how Sandro is doing this morning? He seemed in poor condition after his encounter with the Brutes last night. Is he still unconscious?"
"Gladstone and I checked on him earlier and we found nothing amiss. The Brutes did nothing to him, Katie. Eyewitnesses reported absolutely no contact. There was only one warrior standing next to him and she also fell unconscious, although she recovered quickly and was able to walk back to their camp when her comrades came to fetch her. No, Sandro sustained no injuries, but he was still shaken when I visited him."
"Maybe a bit of company and reading will improve his state. I'll return his copy of Something Pretentious and see if I can cheer him up."
Katie went to knock on the door to Sandro's cabin, carrying the borrowed book. "Sandro?" she called, not too loud in case he was asleep. "It's Katie. May I come in?"
She heard a few items tumbling down and a muffled "Yes". She entered the cabin and found Sandro getting to his feet after tripping over a pile of his own books. That was not surprising, as his cabin was stuffed full of them.
"Thank you for lending me this," she said, setting the borrowed book down on his writing desk. "Now I understand why so few people have read it."
"Oh, good," was the only reply she got, instead of the usual lecture about the merits and shortcomings of the book. Sandro was clearing piles of papers from his bed. Katie noticed that he wasn't taking the time to sort the papers according to their classification. He was in his shirtsleeves and looked distinctively rumpled. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"Sure, sure. Just tidying up. I'll be ready in a minute." He stopped in front of the mirror to readjust his collar, searched for something on the dresser, knocked a few items down and cursed under his breath. "Katie... do you have a spare hair tie I could borrow?"
Katie was astonished by this completely unexpected request, but she obligingly handed him a hair tie. "Yes, I always keep one, just in case I lose mine on the battlefield."
Sandro had finally laid his hands on a comb, and he was attempting to pull back the hair that covered his eyes. Katie couldn't tear her eyes from the spectacle. It took a long struggle, but he managed to pull all of his hair back into a short, tight ponytail. "Finally!" He looked upon the world around him with new eyes. "Now I'm ready."
Katie's jaw had dropped upon seeing his new face. Sandro's face with eyes was simply unheard of. She cleared her throat. "Have you forgotten that you're in your shirtsleeves?"
Sandro grabbed the nearest waistcoat and slipped into it hastily. They both walked to the dining room, Katie now looking as confused as Sandro.
"Oh, good, you're up." Professor Lambert raised his eyebrows but did not comment on the new hairstyle. "Sandro, we're about to get going. I will understand if you choose to take a day off."
The Gelert thanked him and began to help himself to breakfast, taking large portions of everything.
"I have to get going too, Uncle. A shipment of spare parts has arrived and I need to see that it is properly delivered."
"They've already arrived? I'm afraid you'll need to wait, Katie. Nobody is available to escort you today."
The Kacheek was indignant. "I can manage it, I know how everything works! And I need to repair Tiny before I get back to the battlefield!"
"Absolutely not," said Professor Lambert firmly. "You've already made quite a name for yourself while fighting with Tiny. I don't even know how you convinced me to let you fight in the first place. The point is that after the damage you've dealt, many of our opponents would be delighted to find you on your own."
"I could escort her," said Sandro. Katie looked at him hopefully.
"You could, Sandro? Well, in that case..." Professor Lambert tried to think of a convincing argument, then he sighed. "All right, let the two of you go to the harbour. Katie, you will follow Sandro at all times!"
Alhana had been dismayed when she had woken up and seen nothing but a mass of silvery hair, but she had quickly adapted to her new situation and done her best to stay unnoticed. She couldn't afford to be discovered in enemy territory, as she had no idea how the Seekers treated prisoners, but a loyal warrior like her could only take advantage of such a convenient position for spying.
She felt horribly weak and frail without her muscles. She had been appalled by the mess in Sandro's room, she hadn't found any proper weapons, the healthy breakfast of fruit and oatmeal had left her unimpressed and she missed her morning bowl of Brute Loops. From what she had seen in various files, the Seekers' plans were barely comprehensible, and the information that wasn't encoded was written in an impossible technical jargon. So far, escorting Katie had been her best opportunity. She hoped to collect valuable information on the Seekers' supply route.
Alhana and Katie were riding in a carriage drawn by two friendly Unis, after descending from the Tyrannian Plateau in a hot air balloon. They wouldn't go all the way to the sea, they would stop at a port located on the river that flowed into the Tyrannian Jungle, right before it became too narrow for most ships. Alhana realised that Katie had been talking to her for some time. Didn't those Seekers ever stop ranting? She listened more closely. The Kacheek was expressing her frustration towards the other factions fighting for the Obelisk.
"I understand that they need to show off their strength, but they could at least do so at a safe distance from the priceless historical treasure. I guess this is what bullies grow up into. Nothing is stopping them from having a nice little war somewhere else, over an actual trophy, while the Seekers study the Obelisk. Is this related to what you were saying about natural aggressivity and the need for dominance, Sandro?"
Katie looked expectant. Alhana wasn't sure she understood the whole rant, but an answer came to her naturally. "This is not a strength contest. They're more concerned with being able to stop whatever's in the Obelisk if it's dangerous."
Katie huffed. "That's no excuse to battle before we've even had a chance to learn whether or not it's dangerous! If only everyone could think before they act."
"On the other hand," Alhana suggested, "if you take all your time to study, danger could come too quickly. You wouldn't be prepared to fight, and you would be glad to have armed forces at the ready."
"I still think you should study what you need to fight before rushing into battle."
Alhana had nothing to add, and she didn't want to express her opinions too much. Katie seemed to have given up on the philosophical talk for now, understanding that Sandro wasn't in the mood. They both watched the scenery as the carriage rolled on.
At the port, they got off the carriage and let the Unis continue on the main road, taking a shorter path instead to locate the ship and save some time. That turned out to be unnecessary, as the port was nearly deserted and there was only one ship from Neopia. Alhana was about to cross the gangway when Katie stopped her and readjusted her glasses to peer at the ship.
"Hold on. Something looks weird. Why is there no flag? Do you see those skid marks on the deck? There are a few shreds of cloth, too! Could there have been a fight?"
Alhana stepped behind a large crate on the wharf and pulled Katie behind her, suddenly more aware of the silence that filled the port. "There's no fight going on right now, that's for sure."
Katie gasped. "Did you see, someone just went down into the hold! That wasn't anyone from the crew, they weren't even in uniform!"
Alhana had seen the enormous neopet. "It looks like thugs have taken over the ship. We have to find your supplies. Come on!" Wasting no time, she climbed aboard the ship. If they kept babbling, nothing would get done.
Katie scrambled to keep up with her. "Wait! Maybe we should verify your theory first, or go and get some help..."
"They'd be too happy to sail away with the cargo. We just go in and take what we need. Stay behind me and check the crates' labels."
Alhana crept across the deck, thankful for Sandro's light frame. Suddenly, she heard noise in the pilothouse behind them. She dived towards Katie to push her down, but she was too late. She heard a tiny rush of air, then something stung the back of her neck and she blacked out.
At the Lost and Found, two little Wocky heads appeared above the desk. The orange Yurble archaeologist jumped and let out a loud growl of surprise.
"Have you seen some toes?" asked Lanie - or was it Lillie.
"Olabet keeps dropping his," said Lillie - or was it Lanie.
The Yurble shook his head and walked off, muttering about incompetent gravediggers.
The Twins ignored him and inspected the items on the desk.
"Oh, look," said Lanie, "this is shiny." She was pointing at a metallic tea tray covered in runes.
In perfect unison, each twin took one handle of the tea tray and lifted it for a better look. There was a brief flash of light, but they didn't appear to notice it. After a moment's contemplation, they put the tray back on the desk and walked away.
"None of our guests' lost items ever end up here," commented one of them.
"What a shame."
After walking for a few moments, they suddenly stopped and looked at each other.
"Did we switch bodies again?" asked Lanie.
"No, we did not," replied Lillie. "I am still obviously the cuter one."
"Not from where I'm looking."
"You couldn't even tell the difference when we switched at Grandma's house."
"We didn't switch at Grandma's house. You just stole my jammies and pretended to be me."
They argued all the way back to the Awakened's party ground.
Alhana was roused by an argument between two gruff voices. She blinked, her surroundings swam in and out of focus. She was twisted in an awkward position and most of her muscles felt stiff. There was something tight constricting her body. She prepared to strain her muscles against her bindings, but then she remembered that she was still in Sandro's body, and the skinny Gelert certainly didn't have the amount of muscle required to struggle against tight ropes.
Alhana took in her surroundings: darkness, creaking planks and the sound of waves. The smell of the sea was much stronger than before. She was in the cargo ship's hold, and judging from the way it rocked slightly under her, they weren't in the port anymore. She felt something warm move against her back, and realised that she was tied to Katie.
She heard the voices again and squinted into the darkness. Two incredibly bulky neopets were arguing while a shorter, drowsy-looking Tyrannian Nimmo squatted in a corner, holding the blowpipe which he had probably used to shoot sleeping darts at Alhana and Katie. One of the thugs, a Moehog, noticed that the prisoners were awake.
"Finally! Looks like you two shouldn't have wandered onto a ship that ain't yours, eh. Care to tell us a bit more about yourselves, nerds?"
Katie spoke before Alhana could. "What have you done with the crew?"
"They won't be coming out any time soon, squirt. We're the crew. Now answer the question."
Katie tried to puff herself up with dignity, but Alhana could feel her trembling. "I'm warning you, we have very important connections and if we haven't returned home soon, they will track you down!" Alhana tried to shush her, but the girl continued: "My uncle should be out there right now actually, with some of our hardy explorers, guys who laugh in the face of blizzards."
The Moehog snorted. "That might sound like a decent bluff if we hadn't moved the ship to a more secluded harbour, little lady. At least it sounds like we can get some good ransom for you before the return trip."
He moved a little closer and Alhana got a better view of his face. "You! You were in the Brute Squad," she said.
The Moehog looked at Alhana from head to toe. "Well I sure had a better chance of getting in than you did, skinny. Turns out it wasn't all that profitable, so you didn't miss much."
Alhana was furious. She had met several warriors of this thug's kind. There were always a few among the other recruits, unfortunately, bandits looking for little more than a reason to pillage. "Deserters! Disloyalty!" she shouted, "what a revolting way to fight! Have you no honour?"
The Moehog growled and punched the wall above Alhana's head to shock her into silence. Katie was startled, but Alhana shifted as much as she could, shielding the girl from the thugs.
"I take back what I said about the factions," Katie whispered, "this is what bullies grow into."
Alhana strained against the ropes once more. They were tied in such a way that she couldn't slip out without intentionally breaking her fingers. "A true warrior fights head-on, you cowards!"
The second thug, a Scorchio, finally reacted. "Do they, now? Why don't you show us, Fancypants? Untie him," he told his colleague, "this is getting more interesting."
The Moehog grinned and complied. "It's time somebody learnt who's boss around here, eh?"
"Don't damage him too much," added the Scorchio, "he needs to be recognisable." He moved to stand on the other side of the hold, blocking the exit.
To be continued...