Worth Fighting For: Part Ten
Blynn rubbed the back of her neck. "Sheesh, I know how to walk for myself. What was with him? Talk about a sycophant..." She glanced up at Hyren, who remained stoic and silent. "You doin' okay, big guy?"
Hyren let out an irritated snort and made the slightest gesture with his chin toward the security camera in the corner.
"Oh..." Blynn folded her arms behind her back and rocked back and forth on her hind paws, clearly trying to look innocent and not like she had a rapport with her captor.
They rode up and up, slowly approaching the command deck. Occasionally the lift would stop to let in a Neopet or two, or a robot Petpet. Hyren and his companions got a few curious stares, but none of the Virtupets workers said anything, and the 'bots seemed to disregard the presence of organics entirely. None travelled more than a few floors before disembarking.
"There sure are a lotta robot Petpets here," Blynn mentioned during an interval when they were alone. Hyren remained silent, one hand on the hilt of his sword and the other on his blaster. He would have loved to give the girls a more congenial tour, but now wasn't the time.
"Well, Virtupets probably built a lot of the ones in the Space Station shop," Terra pointed out. "It doesn't surprise me that there would be even more further out in space. They seem pretty useful."
The doors opened again and a Cuttlebot floated in, warbling electronically and swerving toward the control panel beside the door. The panel's digital display changed to read "Gamma 34", five levels up. The Cuttlebot then settled its mechanical tentacles together and positioned itself in front of the three, watching them with blank blue eyes as the lift resumed its ascent.
"Ooh, neat," Terra breathed, leaning forward with interest.
"I haven't seen that one at the Robo-Petpet Shop," Blynn commented. She reached out and poked the 'bot's black casing, causing it to bob gently in midair. The Cuttlebot's eyes flashed and it curled its tentacles, letting out an annoyed whistle and drifting away from her, nearer the door.
Hyren sneered. "Pitiful Neopians," he growled. "Of course you would be curious about the highly advanced technology you keep resisting in your pathetic attempts to stave off Sloth's forces." Terra glanced up at him and he winked down at her.
She ogled the Cuttlebot as the lift reached level Gamma 34 and the 'bot slid out into a busy corridor. The doors closed again and Terra stood back, kicking at the metal-plated floor with the toe of her hiking boot. "I mean... I'd think it was cool if I wasn't a prisoner. Yep."
"We're almost there," the commander grunted out of the corner of his mouth. He hardened his features, staring straight ahead at his stony reflection in the polished doors. His mind was in turmoil as he ran over his plan again and again, trying to smooth out every wrinkle and account for every probability. This would work. He would make it work.
The lift stopped, the console display reading "Command Bridge". As the doors parted, Terra and Blynn stiffened. To Hyren, the sense of foreboding was almost palpable. This could go right, or it could go very wrong for them all.
Taking a deep breath, he ushered them out into a long, high-ceilinged hallway with windows on both sides. Mutant Grundos in full powered armour similar to his own, but painted in black, silver, and crimson, stood motionless at regular intervals, cradling blaster rifles. At the far end of the hall was a large door emblazoned with the Virtupets logo.
"Oh wow, look at that," Terra murmured as they marched along. She pointed to one side of the hallway. Visible outside was a spiral galaxy, softly gleaming like a pearlescent cosmic blossom wreathed in oil-dark, light-absorbing clouds. Several smaller satellite galaxies hovered nearby, suspended in their eons-long dance around their gravitational governor.
"Man, space is neat," Blynn sighed.
Hyren had to make do with allowing them a moment of pause to take in the ethereal scene before pressing them onward. "Don't speak unless spoken to," he muttered, directing his words mostly at Blynn.
The doors opened in anticipation of their arrival and the commander escorted his "guests" into an expansive section of the ship. Large screens covered the walls on either side of them, and situated everywhere were banks of computers and consoles, staffed by Neopets wearing uniforms and headsets, occasionally accompanied by a robot Petpet or two. The far wall's vast semicircular curve was taken up entirely by an enormous holographic map displaying numerous star systems and the movements of Virtupets troops and their enemies.
On a platform jutting out past the edge of the floor, over the abyss beyond, stood two figures. One, a hulking, dusky blue Blumaroo in bronze and black armour, had his arms folded behind his back as he conversed tersely with the other. This second entity was clothed in a long black cloak, a blot on the hologram-blue backdrop.
Both of them paused in their communications and turned to watch as the Grundo commander brought the owner and Neopet forward. Doctor Frank Sloth hadn't changed at all from the last time Hyren had seen him, although now looking upon his master's face brought Hyren agitation instead of devotion. Suddenly promises of glory felt so empty.
"Master Sloth, sir." Hyren saluted. "Forgive my tardiness."
Sloth looked up at him, one eyebrow raised. "It's been difficult to find a replacement for you, Commander." His voice was deep, steady, and quiet, the sort of quiet that suggested he did not have to speak loudly to make people listen to him.
The Blumaroo next to him snorted. "I offered to take up command of your contingent, but it seems I am to be denied even that privilege." He stared up at Hyren coldly and the Grundo glared back. That explained a lot about what had happened at Sakhmet.
Sloth glanced over at the other officer and raised an eyebrow. "Show me enough competence in directing your own troops, first." Garoo's red eyes narrowed and he let his gaze falter, signaling to his master to continue with the debriefing.
Hyren held himself rigid as Sloth inspected both him and the girls for a few moments. Inside he was roiling with anger at the other commander, but their spats could wait until they were out of their master's eye. In the side of his vision he could see Garoo watching, glaring contemptuously.
"Well," the green-skinned doctor finally announced calmly, folding his arms in an almost patronizing manner. "It seems you've picked up some baggage, haven't you."
For a split second Hyren wondered if Sloth had seen past the mask into the Grundo's own mind, but then he realised the doctor was speaking in physical sense, not emotional. "Heh," the commander snickered back. "It turns out Neopia isn't a totally worthless planet, after all."
"Of course not." The ice in Sloth's tone, minute as it was, was still enough to send a stray shiver up Hyren's back. "If it was worthless, I would not want it."
That was a bad slip. Hyren had to make up for it quickly. "I brought you test subjects." He gestured to Terra and Blynn, who were watching Sloth and Garoo with apprehension, but thankfully holding their tongues. "Have you experimented on Zafaras yet?"
"Hmmm." A malevolent gleam formed in Sloth's eyes as he leaned forward to inspect the two. "An owner... I already have plenty of those, but I suppose one more couldn't hurt... but no. No Zafaras yet." He withdrew, cracking a broad-toothed grin. "Nicely done, Commander. You certainly haven't lost your touch."
Hyren put his hand on Terra's shoulder—she was shaking. "I'll take them down to the lab for you."
"Oh, no need, I can get a 'bot to do that," Sloth replied, waving a hand dismissively. "I wanted to speak to you about your next assignment."
So soon? Hyren thought with anguish. Of course he couldn't expect a break.
"Urgh..." Terra suddenly stumbled forward, clutching her stomach.
Sloth withdrew slightly, and he and Garoo gave her a look of alarm. "What's wrong with her?" the doctor snarled, clutching his robes in disgust.
"Space... sick..." Terra moaned, putting a hand over her mouth. "Too much... Beef Rouladen..."
Hyren grabbed her by the shoulders and steered her away from Sloth. "I'd better get her down to the cell blocks," the commander urged, Blynn nodding fervently in agreement. "Wouldn't want any nasty stains on your cloak, sir."
"Please do," Sloth muttered, regarding Terra like she was a Mutant Warf who'd been digging through garbage.
"I'll come back straightaway." Hyren shooed his prisoners back through the command room and out the door, leading them swiftly down the hall.
It wasn't until they were in the lift again that Terra dropped the act. She straightened back up and gave Hyren an impish grin as she and Blynn bumped fists in a gesture of victory.
"Good thinking," Hyren murmured, and she winked at him in response.
He took them down further than the hangar levels, and as they descended, fewer and fewer Neopets and robot Petpets shared the lift with them. Glimpses outside the doors started to reveal dimly-lit corridors and worn-down machinery rather than the immaculate gleam of the upper levels. The pets and 'bots looked similarly downtrodden.
"Welcome to the underlevels of the Triumph," Hyren announced after the departure of a tired-eyed, Pirate-colored Nimmo tech who had eschewed the usual royal blue overcoat of her paint job for grease-stained coveralls and a set of bulging toolbelts and harnesses. "On a ship large enough to be its own city, even Sloth's officers can't patrol everywhere at once. It's also where his test subjects are kept. Get used to the smell—you'll be living here for a long time."
He turned toward his human companion and lowered his voice. "Kick me."
Terra blinked up at him. "What?"
"Just do it."
"O... kay..." Pulling her leg back, she aimed a swift kick at his shin.
He could barely feel the blow past his armour, but he howled dramatically and staggered back. "You little beast!" he yelled, pretending to fumble for his blaster. "How dare you?!"
Blynn caught on a lot faster. "Take us back to Neopia right now!" she screeched, launching herself at his head and beating at his helmet with her fists. Her owner clung to his leg, making him teeter off balance.
"Gerroff!" the commander growled, clutching the Zafara's pack with one hand. The fact that she had chosen to plant herself against his visor conveniently enabled him to appear as though he couldn't see where to aim his blaster. He nudged her aside just enough to get the security camera in his sights. One pull of the trigger and it was smoking, the lens shattered and the electronics fried.
The three paused in the middle of their spectacle, and then relaxed, laughing. "Man, that was awesome!" Terra chortled, letting Hyren have his leg back.
"We gotta do that more often," Blynn agreed, scrambling up Hyren's visor to perch on his head, holding onto his antennae like reins. "Where to now, chief?"
"Ow... watch the antennae, they're sensitive," Hyren requested, wincing as he holstered his blaster. Blynn loosened her grip and he showed them into a grimy hallway filled with refuse. Only half the ceiling panels were lit, and one kept blinking and flickering. Just looking at it was starting to give Hyren a headache. "There should be a bank of escape pods on this level," he explained, heading down the hall and watching his HUD for signs of life. "I'll get you into one and set the coordinates for Neopia."
"But what about you?" Terra asked. She did a double-take at a pile of scrap that turned out to be the battered chassis of a nonfunctional N-4 Info Retrieval Bot, its large ocular sensor dark and blank. "Won't you get in trouble for letting us escape?"
The Grundo shook his head. "That doesn't matter. I'll be fine, don't worry about me." He offered her a smile, although the headache was lingering. "You'll see me again. I promise."
The owner slipped her hand into his. "I sure hope so. I don't want you getting hurt because of us."
"You sure make a lotta promises," Blynn muttered from atop his helmet, giving one of his antennae a warning yank.
"Only ones I intend to—" Hyren paused as green began to show up on the edges of his bio-radar. One, then two... three... way more than three.
Blynn's upside-down face appeared on the other side of his visor, her floppy ears swaying. "Hyren?"
He didn't respond right away. The color scheme of his radar was so engrained in his mind that it took him a moment to remember that in this situation, green meant bad. A more prominent blip showed up, tagged "Commander Garoo".
"Run," Hyren muttered. "We've been discovered."
"We're not leaving you!" Terra protested, pulling on his arm.
"I'm going to throw him off your trail," Hyren hissed. "I'm a more important target than you. Now go!" He lifted Blynn off of his head and deposited her next to her owner. "The escape pods are down the hall and to the right. When you get in, set the coordinates for 3T8-0M5, got it?"
"Three-tee-eight, zero-emm-five," Terra repeated. She and the Zafara exchanged glances, and then looked back up at the Grundo. "We'll never forget you, Hyren."
"Same here," the command replied, placing a hand to his heart.
"Good luck, chief." Blynn gave him a smart salute, and then they turned and ran.
Hyren didn't wait to watch them turn the corner. He felt his eyes well with tears as he gripped the pommel of his sword and dove down an intersecting corridor heading the opposite direction. Seeing them again was a promise he didn't think he could keep.
He took as convoluted a route as possible, manoeuvring past piles of trash and buckling infrastructure and watching in his HUD as Garoo and his forces bore down on Sloth's errant commander. The mass of green split into several groups, all still converging on him. Garoo must have been getting frustrated, the Grundo thought with satisfaction. Hyren was counting on the Blumaroo's pride to make him want to focus on the glory of taking down a high-ranking traitor before worrying about some random Neopet and owner. It appeared to have worked.
Finally, Hyren stumbled through a doorway and into an abandoned room littered with empty Achyfi cans. Against one wall stood a dusty computer bank, several of its blank screens cracked or missing, frayed wires poking out of the casing. There were no other exits.
He took a deep breath and pulled out his sword, the runes catching the sickly green-white artificial lighting. "I'm gonna miss you," he sighed to it before lowering himself into a ready stance.
Moments later, Garoo and a host of his strike troops skidded into the room, blasters out. "You know, I should have expected this from a Grundo," the Blumaroo snarled, stalking toward the commander. "It was a mistake for Sloth to elevate you to such a high position."
"Are you sore about Sakhmet?" Hyren taunted, spinning the blade in his hands. "Because I heard that was your fault." Garoo let out an enraged snarl and fired. Hyren deflected the blast with the sword, sending the bolt fizzling into the wall. "Going to have to do better than that, Commander," the Grundo continued with a sneer.
"You're just one of Sloth's experiments," Garoo breathed. "You don't think he ever saw any value in you past that, did you? You're expendable."
"We're all just his experiments," Hyren growled, tightening his grip on the hilt. "I decided to make things a little more interesting for him."
The Blumaroo chuckled darkly. "Oh, he'll be interested, all right. And I'll get your troops."
"You abandoned me at Sakhmet!" Hyren barked. "You knew I was still alive, and you pulled out without me!"
Garoo scowled. "Of course I did! I was tired of waiting around for something to happen to you! And you would have done the same thing, eventually!" He leveled his blaster. "Now, will you come quietly, or do I get to use force?"
Hyren smirked. "Have I ever come quietly?"
"Open fire!" Garoo bellowed. His unit let fly a hail of blaster bolts.
The Grundo gave a savage roar, leaping forward with his sword brought back behind his head for a downward blow at the nearest strike trooper. The impact flattened the soldier, and Hyren swung the blade around to slash at the others. Trying to stay out of his range, they stumbled away like they were trying to escape a ravenous beast. Blaster fire rained down on his armour, overloading his shields as he cleaved through Garoo's forces. His HUD blinked orange and then red, his helmet screaming the alarm of imminent critical failure, but Hyren fought like a pet possessed.
His armour sparked, hissing out smoke, and his HUD went blank. Immediately the barrage of blaster fire became painful and he knew his shields had failed. And yet he fought on. Catching sight of Garoo's astonished face, Hyren gave him a crazed grin.
"What are you doing, you fool?!" Garoo sputtered. "Don't you know when to give in?"
Too exhausted and focussed to answer, Hyren grabbed a trooper with one hand and threw him to the other side of the room where he crashed into the computer bank, making the decrepit machine cough up sparks. A blaster bolt seared into the Grundo's leg and he wobbled and collapsed to his knees, still taking swings at anyone within reach of his blade.
A few more shots splintered his pauldrons and stunned his arms, forcing him to relinquish his hold on his sword. Hyren heard one last piercing cry from a blaster before he finally shuddered and fell forward, enveloped in blackness before he even hit the floor.
To be continued...