Worth Fighting For: Part Eleven
Hyren woke to the sensation that he had been dreaming but forgot what the dream was about. Honestly, he was surprised even to find himself awake, albeit sore all over. He blinked his eyes open and realised he was in a standing position, his arms stretched above his head. Trying to move them met with resistance, and he looked up to see his wrists shackled to the wall. He was still wearing his armour, although it was in terrible shape and his visor had several holes blown in it from blaster fire. Cracks spread across the clear, blank plate like Spyderwebs, making it difficult to see his surroundings.
He was in a very small room—no, a cell, he surmised. The walls were dark and bare, the sound of distant mechanical humming coming from somewhere below him. A few metres in front of him, a containment field sizzled red.
Looking down, the Grundo saw that his utility belt and blaster were missing. His sword was also gone, and he bowed his head in a moment of silence. Garoo had probably appropriated the weapon, and that close-minded idiot didn't deserve it. Not to mention it reminded Hyren of all of the adventures he'd gone through with his two best friends. Space Faerie, if you're out there, get them home safely, he thought.
Hyren stood there sagging under his own weight for what felt like hours, listening to the sound of his own slow breathing. There was no way to tell time in the cell. His HUD once had a chronometer, but his armour had sustained so much damage, it would never work again. At least Terra and Blynn were headed home, he reminded himself. It didn't matter what happened to him now.
Finally, he picked out the sound of approaching footsteps, heavy and deliberate. He lifted his head to see a black-cloaked figure pause on the other side of the containment field and lean over for a retinal scan. The field dissolved, and Dr. Sloth sauntered in, arms folded behind his back.
He stopped a metre in front of Hyren, somehow managing to look down his nose at the Mutant Grundo even though Hyren was a head taller than him. Neither of them said anything for a long time, sizing each other up.
"Well." Sloth finally broke the silence, his voice flat and quiet as the space before a supernova. "This is a surprise." Amusement danced in his crimson eyes, though his face remained neutral.
"Why did you leave me at Sakhmet?" Hyren demanded to know, pushing himself forward. "I conquered numberless worlds for you! Did you even look for me?!"
The doctor remained unflappable, even with their faces centimetres apart. "I gave you everything you needed to carry out my orders. If you fail me, it's your fault."
"But it wasn't my fault!" Hyren insisted. "Garoo doublecrossed me!"
Sloth seemed unimpressed. "So it was your fault for being naïve. I did not mourn your loss. I made you, commander. Do not insult me by insinuating I cannot mold someone else to suit my needs."
Hyren gritted his teeth. "How did you know to come after me? What tipped you off in the security feeds?"
Sloth turned and looked at him sidewise, arching an eyebrow. "I haven't looked at the security feeds. It was the light in your eyes, Hyren. The way you carried yourself, the tone in your voice. You've changed." He frowned, ever so slightly. "I don't like it."
"Eight months planetside can do a lot to a guy," Hyren growled, still glaring at the doctor. "And if you're going to ask if I want my job back, forget it. I'm through invading."
Sloth lowered his eyelids. "I wasn't going to ask. I don't tolerate these kinds of misdemeanors from my top officers. You knew better." He began pacing back and forth in front of the Grundo. "You lied to me, you aided in the attempted escape of test subjects, and you resisted capture by Garoo." Sloth stopped and looked up at him, the doctor's face still tilted downward and sunken into shadow so that his eyes glittered like hot coals in the darkness. "Did you think that would save them?"
Hyren felt his stomach twist. "They got away," he insisted. "They're probably halfway to Neopia by now."
Dr. Sloth smiled. It was a wide, oily smile, and it sent chills down Hyren's spine. The doctor reached into one of his draping sleeves and pulled out a very familiar lantern, opening it and dumping out a disoriented Fire Mote that rolled weakly around the floor. "No, they're not."
The Grundo's breath caught in his throat and he wheezed like he'd been hit in the chest. "No..." he choked, forcing air into his lungs. "No!" Clenching his fists, he struggled against his shackles and felt them strain under his strength, but they did not give. "You leave them alone, Sloth!" he roared. "They've done nothing to you!"
Sloth dropped the lantern and it clanged harshly against the floor, making Hyren's antennae flinch. "On the contrary," the doctor replied, "they deprived me of one of my elite commanders. I've been having so much fun thinking of ways to experiment on them." He grinned viciously. "Maybe I'll let you see them again, someday. I wonder if you would still recognise each other."
Hyren leaned back against the wall, his chest heaving and head spinning. "You're a monster," he gasped.
"Funny how that didn't matter to you until now," Sloth commented. "I've learned some interesting things from observing you, Hyren. You've greatly expanded my knowledge of Grundo psychology and military skill under mutation. Now, however... it's about time I used you for experiments of a different sort."
He began to retreat back toward the doorway, his cloak billowing behind him. "I do hope you enjoy your stay in the laboratory. I'm looking forward to interesting results from your testing procedures." The doctor re-activated the containment field once he was out. "You could have lied, you know. Said they escaped you or something. What stopped you from making up an alibi?"
"I'm not going to grovel at your feet for forgiveness," Hyren spat, antennae lowered in irritation. "After everything I've been through, I'm not going to betray my friends for you. They deserve better than that. You no longer have my loyalty."
Sloth widened his eyes, and then bared his teeth, his nostrils flaring. "You're an idiot," he hissed, his aloof demeanor dropping for just a moment before he calmed himself again and gave Hyren another slick smile. "I'll be back soon," he announced. "Things are about to get very interesting for you." With that, he turned and swept out of Hyren's view.
"...Blast it," Hyren grumbled, watching the Fire Mote sputter as it searched in vain for something to combust. The Mote found its way to his bare foot and nestled up against his ankle. The tiny fire sprite was pleasantly warm, especially compared to the lifeless coldness of the rest of the cell.
"Sorry you had to end up here, too, little guy," Hyren murmured to it. Actually, he thought as he observed it, maybe being cellmates with a Mote wasn't such a bad thing. Slowly, he began to piece together bits of a plan. It wasn't much, but as long as he was still going, he could still fight.
"I'm going to throw you," he whispered to the Mote. Clenching his fists, Hyren lifted his aching legs off the ground, scooping the fireball up between his feet and ignoring the strain in his wrists. "When you reach the containment field, flare up and short it out, and then return to me, all right?" He curled his knees to his chest, and then kicked forward with both of his legs, letting go of the fire elemental and propelling it across the cell.
It smacked into the field with a shower of sparks and bounced down to the floor. The energy wall fizzled more furiously for a moment, but then went back to normal. The Mote spun nearby, looking disoriented.
Hyren sighed, a gnawing feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. He was out of ideas. He slumped against the wall again, watching the Mote dizzily make its way back to him. "It's okay. At least you tried," the Grundo muttered. "I tried." His chin trembled and he ducked his head, letting the tears fall. He had tried so hard to do what felt like the right thing, and he had failed. Worse, he had failed his friends. And he still had a headache.
He stood there for another period of time that could have been minutes and could have been days. Hyren decided that this had to be Sloth's most insidious torture method, making his prisoners go mad in timeless isolation. Was this what eternity felt like? And all the while, Hyren couldn't stop thinking about Terra and Blynn. He cursed both his vivid imagination and the fact that he was too familiar with the nature of Sloth's experiments.
After the longest wait, Hyren looked up at the security camera in the corner. It was tilted at such a jaunty angle that it seemed to almost derive amusement from watching him succumb to despair. "I know you can see me, Sloth," Hyren growled. "I don't know whether you're watching this live or if it's being recorded while you're in the lab."
He shifted his weight, the shackles tight against his bracers, making them chafe his wrists. "I know it's useless to plead for my friends. You don't care. And you're probably going to look back on this and laugh. So I won't waste my words. But I will ask one last request of you: remember me as someone you gave everything to and he threw it all away and never looked back." Hyren flashed a lopsided, slightly deranged grin. "Let that keep you up at night wondering which one of us is sane."
With that, he closed his eyes and tilted back his head, listening to the sound of his own calm breathing. He had resigned himself to his fate. But try as he might, he couldn't do the same for his friends. The very thought was too sickening.
And where was Sloth, he wondered in agitation. Hyren's entire body felt like he'd gone without sleep for a week, and having to remain standing wasn't helping. His stomach churned in hunger, or was that nausea? Hyren wouldn't give Sloth the satisfaction of seeing him suffer, though, and his expression remained blank and concentrated as he stared ahead.
A tremendous burst of multicolored sparks suddenly filled the doorway, making Hyren jolt back to attention, his heart slamming in his chest and his adrenaline spiking painfully. He shut his eyes against the light. When he opened them, the field was gone, the framework dented in and the emitters blackened and smoking. "What in the galaxy..." Hyren muttered, blinking to try to clear the afterimages from his vision.
"Gotta love those fireworks shows." A familiar voice echoed in from the hall.
Hyren's antennae perked and he froze. "Blynn?!" he called, scarcely able to believe what he was hearing.
Terra was the first one to emerge through the smoke, sword in hand as she shielded her face with her sleeve. Blynn followed close behind, blowing on the tips of her slingshot like the muzzle of a blaster. Both of them looked a little grimier than when he had left them, but unharmed, and Hyren couldn't wipe the shock off of his face as he felt a planet's weight of worry fall from his shoulders.
"Hyren!" Terra ran to him and hugged him around the middle. "Are you okay?!"
"I'm fine—I was so worried about you!" he confessed. "You're not hurt, are you? How did you escape from Sloth?!"
Terra gave him another squeeze as if to reassure herself that he was really there. "Huh? What are you talking about?"
"Hey, how'd my lantern end up here?" Blynn wondered, scooping up the Mote. "It fell off my pack when we crawled into that air duct..." She looked up at the Grundo. "Man, we're always getting you out of messes, aren't we?"
"I'm happy to see you, too!" Hyren laughed, the relief making him slightly giddy. "Sloth was bluffing? That miserable oaf! What are you two doing here? I told you to get in an escape pod, you little rascals!"
"C'mon." Terra folded her arms and gave him a sly smirk that seemed too reminiscent of his own. "Did you really think we were gonna leave you like that? After we split up from you, we headed for the nearest ventilation duct and made our way through the ship."
"But how did you track me?" Hyren asked.
"The nose knows." Blynn tapped her olfactory orifice. "I followed your scent. Plus, everybody's talking about you out there!"
Hyren blinked. "They are?"
The Zafara nodded. "We kept overhearing Neopets say stuff about how the great Commander Hyren went rogue and Garoo captured him. They mentioned what level you'd been taken to. That helped a lot."
Terra eyed Hyren's shackles, far out of her reach. "Let's get you free from that wall. Do you mind if I climb up you?"
"You can slap me silly and call me a Blueberry Fish Pop," Hyren replied, "so long as you're out of Sloth's clutches!"
The girl grinned and nodded, sheathing her blade. "Fair enough." She dropped her pack, grabbed on to his chestplate, and began lifting herself up to his shoulders. "Oof..." She managed to crouch on one of his pauldrons, placing her hands on his helmet for support.
"Don't look down," he suggested. Sure it wasn't too much of a height, but the hard floor still had the potential for injury if she landed wrong. And in his position, he couldn't catch her.
"I can do this..." she whispered to herself as she slowly stood up on his shoulder, letting go of his helmet to draw her sword. Hyren grimaced as she wobbled, but managed to keep herself balanced. "Okay," she said a little louder. "On the count of three, you pull against the shackles and I'll strike. "One, two... three!"
At her command, Hyren yanked his wrists forward, and Terra brought the blade down with a yell. Sure enough, the bonds snapped against the combined forces of Mutant Grundo strength and Faerie-tempered steel, and Hyren took a half-step forward to steady himself.
Terra, however, lost her footing from the force of the strike and tumbled from his shoulder with a yelp. Hyren twisted around and caught her in his arms before she hit the floor. "Are you okay?" he asked, setting her down carefully.
"Yeah," she panted, stowing her blade with shaky hands. She smiled up at him. "Yeah. I'm okay. I got you free, that's what matters."
"You did great." He patted her head, although the moment was marred by a sudden, strange twinge of nausea. It couldn't have been the Protein on the Go bar, that was too long ago, he thought.
"All right, let's blow this joint!" Blynn announced, hooking the lantern back onto her pack.
"Gimme a sec," Hyren grunted, removing his helmet. "This armour's not much use any more." It could still protect against physical attacks adequately enough, but that was barely a fraction of its capabilities when functional. And he was tired of looking like he still worked for Sloth.
"We don't got all day, chief!" the Zafara urged, poking her slingshot out at the hallway. "Pretty sure that explosion's caught somebody's attention by now!"
"You're right," Hyren relented. "Hang on." The armour would be bearable enough, but the cracked visor was driving him crazy. Holding the helmet in front of him, he cleanly punched out the remnants of the glass, shaking out stray shards before jamming the headgear back on. "Okay, I'm good. Why have you been calling me 'chief' lately, anyway?"
"Sounds cool," Blynn replied, bounding back out into the corridor.
The hallway was long and lonely, with only a few stray doors along the walls. Cameras dotted the ceiling, but considering the little disturbance Blynn had caused earlier, stealth wasn't a priority any more. "We're in Sloth's maximum-security cell block," Hyren mentioned as he slipped out of the cell. "Which makes me wonder how you two even managed to get to me in the first place."
"We have no idea," Terra replied with a shrug. "We've been crawling through the air ducts and stuff, and avoiding guards and 'bots. Maybe we're just really sneaky."
"It's hard to be sneaky in the presence of bio-radar," Hyren murmured. "Unless..." He blinked, and then chuckled. "Of course! Back when my armour was functional, I'd tagged you two as allied units, and the tag stuck when my armour reconnected to the ship's network! No wonder no one's thought to apprehend you!"
Terra laughed. "Way to think ahead!"
"Well, I wasn't really thinking that far ahead at the time." Hyren scratched the back of his neck in embarrassment. "I hope you gals have a plan to get out of here."
"Of course we have a plan," Blynn replied. "It's called 'run as fast as you can for the escape pods'."
"Yeah, we might need a slightly better plan than that. Let's move." He shooed them down the hall.
"I hope you know where you're going," Blynn mentioned as they turned a corner into a larger corridor. The halls were empty—for now. As soon as someone realised Hyren had been sprung, security would be all over them.
"I've spent a lot of time on this ship between deployments," Hyren explained. "So I know my way around it. The closest bank of escape pods is on the next level up." The ventilation ducts were all well and good for his two small companions, but there was no way he could fit in them.
He stopped them at a small, nondescript door. "I'm pretty sure I know where this goes." Thankfully, it wasn't locked, and it opened into a large, unoccupied office space filled with tables and chairs, as well as a few exotic potted plants collected from various planets. "From here, I think there's a hallway we can take to—" Hyren's antennae perked at the sound of heavy boots and clanking machinery. He looked up to see a large set of doors on the other wall slide open.
A squadron of armoured Virtupets troopers and robot Petpets poured in. "We've sighted the hostiles," a blue Lupe soldier muttered into her comm, her tail swishing vigourously. "Neutralizing." She and her unit trained their weapons on the escapees.
"Was this part of your plan?" Blynn asked flatly, reaching for her slingshot.
The troopers answered with a rain of blaster fire.
"Terra, your sword deflects blaster bolts," Hyren said. "Time to take it for a test run."
She ducked behind him, raising her blade just in time to allow a blaster bolt to ricochet off the metal, leaving a fading spot of orange heat. The recoil jerked back her arms and made her wince, and she blinked in shock before steadying herself for another incoming shot.
Blynn curved herself around a blaster bolt, backflipped to avoid the next, and waltzed around three more. The Lupe officer snarled and unloaded a few more frustrated shots at the slippery Zafara. Blynn merely swerved past them and gave her a taunting grin.
Hyren seized the nearest table and heaved it into the crowd of troopers. A panicked shout rose for just a moment. It was cut short as the table struck, knocking four flat and throwing several others off-balance in a moment of chaos.
Blynn nocked a potsherd in her slingshot and fired. The resulting light show sent their assailants stumbling back even further, the troopers shielding their eyes and the 'bots sparking at the seams. "The pebbles don't work here," she explained to Hyren breathlessly. "I already tried it. They only work on stone, I think."
The Grundo picked up a chair in each hand and lobbed the furniture at the soldiers. One chair sent two troopers sprawling, and the other slammed into a robot Petpet. The 'bot lost its footing and stumbled into the Lupe officer, and she let out an angry yelp, the wind knocked out of her.
His Zafara companion fired off more shots, but for every trooper and 'bot knocked back, several more advanced from the hallway. "Oh, crumbs," she suddenly muttered, sifting around in her ammo pouch. "I'm out of potsherds."
"Use the pebbles anyway!" Terra directed, cringing as a blast got past her sword and singed the sleeve of her shirt.
The Zafara nocked a stone and let it fly. It simply clattered against the nearest Mutant Grundo Trooper's helmet, not making him so much as twitch as it reflected off his armour's shields. "No dice!" Blynn cried.
"Fall back!" Hyren instructed, positioning himself in front of them. They began to edge away.
"Not such a great idea, chief!" Blynn reported. "More behind us!" Heavy, hurried footsteps clanged on metal flooring.
"Wonderful," Hyren groaned. "Well, stand your ground, then!" He picked up another table and held it in front of him by one leg, feeling it jolt and shudder as blaster fire ripped into it.
A mighty yell rose up from behind their foes, and a flood of Neopets and owners crashed into the troopers and robot Petpets. Soldiers were tackled to the floor, their weapons wrested from their grip and used to disable the 'bots. The motley mob rushed toward Hyren, Blynn, and Terra, and the Grundo cringed, expecting the worst.
"Don't shoot!" a female voice yelled from the throng. "They're with us!"
To Hyren's amazement, the Neopets and owners started firing past them, not at them. The rebels veered around them to storm the forces in back of the trio. Two Neopets and a girl with long black hair remained behind. "Go! We'll catch up with you!" she said, revealing herself to be the owner of the voice.
"What's going on here?!" the Grundo asked, completely flummoxed.
She turned, and Hyren jerked back in shock to see the owner whose home he had invaded during the Sakhmet operation. Her green Techo and purple Scorchio stood nearby, eyeing him warily as though he might attack them again.
"Someone disabled the security systems for the entire cell block levels," she explained, looking him over curiously, her eyes wandering to Terra and Blynn. She seemed older than Terra, but not much taller, and carried herself with more sureness—and a blaster.
Hyren wondered if she remembered him, although he knew he looked a far cry from the day of the battle. "You're..."
"Baojia," she finished with a quick nod. "And you're the guy who broke my door."
"Yeah..." Hyren muttered, glancing aside. "Sorry about that."
The owner snorted, placing a hand on her hip as she cradled her blaster in her other arm. "Apology accepted."
"How did you know we weren't going to attack you?" Hyren asked her. "We could be working for Virtupets."
"Well, first of all, they aren't wearing uniforms," Baojia pointed out with a smirk. "And news spreads fast here, especially when it's something as big as a turncoat war hero." She paused. "And, we were asked to find you."
The Scorchio approached Hyren. "The Neopet who set us free requested we give this to you." She unlatched the belt of a very familiar claymore from off her back.
Hyren's face lit up. "My sword!" He set down the table, which had been making his muscles ache strangely, to receive the weapon.
She handed it up to him. "He told us to tell you that he knows now why you're his inspiration."
The former commander blinked. "...Was he a yellow Grundo, by any chance?"
Baojia's Techo nodded. "Yeah. He was."
Hyren fastened the scabbard around his waist, its weight comforting against his leg, and he smiled as he drew his trusty blade. "Heh. If you see him again, tell him I wish him all the luck in the galaxy."
"We will." Baojia nodded. She smiled at Terra, who waved shyly in return. "Hello, there." The owner glanced back up at Hyren. "I'm sure there's an interesting story behind this."
"Yeah." Hyren rubbed his arm. "But now's not the time for storytelling."
Glancing over her shoulder, Baojia tipped her blaster at the horde of Neopets and owners who stumbled back into the room toting more weapons and victorious grins. "We're overrunning this ship and kicking out all the Virtupets goons."
"Sloth got away, though," the Scorchio muttered. "We were hoping to capture him."
"He's a slippery one," Hyren said. "He's smarter than to go down with his ship."
"You're going to help us, aren't you?" Baojia asked him, tilting her head. "We could really use you and your family." She looked over at Blynn, who had wandered over to the stunned troopers and disabled robot Petpets. The Zafara was in the process of collecting stray bolts that had fallen from the 'bots, putting them in her belt pouch.
The Grundo grimaced. "They're not—" He sighed. "I will. I owe you all that much. And that's probably my best bet for keeping them safe." He looked down at Terra. "What do you say, are you up for it?"
She clenched her fist. "Yeah! Let's kick some tail!"
"That's the spirit!" Baojia laughed.
The group of rebels returned. "Well, they won't be bothering us for another few hours," a green Gelert panted, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. "Enough time to drag them into escape pods. So this is the guy?" He and the others crowded around Hyren and Terra curiously as Blynn hopped back to them.
"Yep," Baojia replied. "Hyren and his family are with us. What's our next plan of action?"
"We need to head for the bridge," a male owner spoke up. He moved forward with his red Tuskaninny. "Everyone else is sweeping through the ship and converging there. Once we secure the command deck, the Triumph is ours."
Hyren nodded. "Roger." He turned to his young wards. "Okay, let's..." Another wave of nausea surged through him, causing him to clutch his stomach. His eyes bulged as he doubled over, trying to catch his breath. "...Let's go," he gasped when it passed, pointing his sword to the door ahead. In spite of his pain and discomfort, it was exhilarating to be leading forces again.
"You're not okay," Terra remarked as the group made their way past stunned troopers and disabled 'bots. By now the ship's alarm system was going in full force. Red alerts flashed around them, and frenzied commands blared over the intercom.
"It's probably indigestion," Hyren replied with a comforting smile. Since when was his sword so heavy, though? Swallowing hard, he pushed the pain and fatigue to the back of his mind. "The bridge is this way!"
"Take care of yourself!" Blynn protested as they neared a large door at the end of the corridor.
The door slid open and they ran out onto one of the decks of the multi-leveled bridge. The underside of Sloth's command platform, where Hyren had initially taken the girls, stuck out high above. The many terraces beneath were filled with computer banks, control consoles, and smaller holographic displays which complemented the immense map that made up the far wall.
The area had been thrown into chaos. Escapees fought Virtupets troops and robot Petpets on the levels below, while shouts, weapons fire, and the solid clunk of armour sounded from above. Hyren stepped back from the edge as someone's blaster was sent hurtling down from an upper deck.
Baojia and her rebels began firing on the Virtupets troops on the next terrace down. "Follow me to the upper levels!" Hyren commanded them. "We have to take out the officers first!"
He staggered back to rest against the wall for a moment, trying to catch his breath. What was wrong with him? He hadn't exerted himself nearly enough to feel winded like this. Hang in there, he begged his body. I just have to make sure they take the ship.
"We're not outta the water yet, chief!" Blynn exclaimed.
The Grundo pushed himself away from the wall, clinging to his sword with both hands. Another group of Virtupets forces moved in from the hallway ahead. Mutant Grundos and Virtupets officers held their blasters at the ready, while Ultra Pincerons hovered in their ranks, claws snapping. Beside them, Scout Units with blaster attachments marched authoritatively.
And leading them was a very familiar Blumaroo. Garoo now wielded a sword of his own, a thin, curved blade. "I've been waiting for this," he growled. "Open fire!"
"Stay together!" Hyren barked. "Defensive formation, get behind me!" The rebels crowded in back of him, trying to pick off troopers with scattered blaster shots. The last thing he wanted was to engage Garoo in a swordfight right now, when Hyren was feeling ready to pass out. But that seemed to be what the commander was intent on.
Summoning the last of his strength, Hyren managed to lift his blade again. He felt Terra back against him and he glanced down to see her trembling, frowning in determination as she held her own sword out. Blynn crouched at their feet, gripping her slingshot. Weapon held at the ready, Garoo began to advance his troops.
"Terra." Hyren coughed, his vision swimming. "If... if we don't make it out of this... I just wanted to let you know... I would have loved to have had you as my owner."
Baojia let out a grunt as she was hit and collapsed, stunned. Her Techo held her while her Scorchio picked up her blaster and continued to fire. Garoo gave an enraged roar, breaking into a run.
"...You've always been a part of my family, Hyren," Terra replied shakily.
Hyren closed his eyes. He knew from the sound of her voice that she was crying. Opening his eyes, he took a deep breath. He wasn't going down a coward. "For Neopia!" he roared, raising his sword and charging.
"For Neopia!" the rebels answered in unison. They let out battle cries of their own, and Terra's blade flashed beside Hyren's.
His final thought before the two forces met was that maybe they'd call this "The Last Charge of Hyren the Indomitable".
To be continued...