Many thanks to jtco for technical consultation.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
Commander Hyren's bare feet compacted the starch-fine layer of sooty dust covering the desolate planetoid, tagged in his helmet's heads-up display only as Calixto Sigma-3204. The three thousand, two hundred and fourth planetoid in the Sigma cluster of the Calixto system.
At least, Calixto was what the Alien Aishas called it.
Most people in Sloth's army called it the Gullet.
The Mutant Grundo looked to the atmosphere-less sky and thought it was a fitting nickname. For there, hanging above him in the blackness, a pale blue supergiant star was having its plasma leached away by its treacherous companion. Once an unassuming star itself, in its death throes the other had imploded and left a puncture in the fabric of the universe. Now it was a black hole, greedily devouring any matter that got too close and perpetually snacking off of its unfortunate sibling.
Many a thrill-seeking fool in their shiny spaceship had played Peadackle with the Gullet and ended up compacted into a tidy little singularity. Or fried by radiation before they even got close, due to inadequate shielding from the energy thrown out by the black hole's accretion disc.
Which wouldn't be a problem for Hyren or the platoon he'd taken with him. Sloth made sure the Grundo troopers' shielding for void operations was always top-of-the-line, the most cutting-edge stuff his techs could develop.
Hence why Hyren was walking across a twenty-kilometre-radius planetoid in his bare feet. Because they weren't really bare, there was an atoms-thick layer of atmospheric and radiation shielding protecting him from the cold vacuum and the relentless shower of X-rays spewing forth from the Gullet. And that was besides the gravity compensator and oxygen generator. Powered armour was a useful thing, indeed.
His eyes turned back to the stark horizon line. Somewhere around here lurked an Alien Aisha base. Clusters of green on the edges of his HUD showed that his platoon had spread out, looking for the same thing. The Alien Aishas thought they were safe hiding here.
Hyren would prove them wrong.
His thick green fingers drummed at the barrel of his blaster as he cradled it in both arms, watching for any sign of anything besides rocks and rifts and ancient craters. "Come out, come out, wherever you are," he whispered, his antennae flat against his helmet. Just one bit of exposed wiring, the faintest glow of artificial lighting, or scorch marks from a recently departed ship was all he would need to call back his troops and wreak havoc. Those Aisha nuisances had been a thorn in his side for far too long.
One of the green dots in Hyren's HUD flashed an alert and a yellow dart appeared on top of it. Paydirt.
The Mutant Grundos he commanded could not think for themselves. Hyren was a special case among them, an experiment in seeing what brains and brawn in the same Neopet could do for Sloth. The others were more like big, muscular machines that could be programmed to do simple tasks aside from their prime command of "smash and shoot".
For this mission, Hyren had given their minds the directive to drop a beacon if they found anything unexpected. Mostly, that meant anything artificial. Alien Aisha tech would be pretty distinguishable from the rest of this barren rock. It seemed like a foolproof plan.
Hyren ordered them to converge on the signal, anticipating overwhelming the base with numbers. Already he could see pools of green shift to meet the flashing icon. With a smirk, he turned heel and headed away to join his platoon, circling round to take point. The Aishas were about to discover the only thing in the galaxy more terrifying than 450 kilogrammes of Mutant Grundo knocking on their front door: 450 kilogrammes of intelligent Mutant Grundo.
The gravity tuners in Hyren's armour caused his bulk to throw up showers of dust with each footfall as he loped across the desolate planetscape. Once free from the influence of his shields, the dust grains gently fell back to their mother surface like they were sinking through oil.
On the opposite side of Hyren's HUD, another icon suddenly pinged. The masses of green wavered. The commander stopped, his heavy brow furrowing. A third yellow dart lit up, and then another, and another. His troops scattered like a disturbed nest of Vernax, their limited cognition trying to get them to all of the beacons at once.
"Blast it," Hyren hissed. "What are you vapour-brains doing?!"
Through his helmet's brain-armour connection, he mentally reached out and tapped one of the green icons. It expanded to reveal the trooper's designation number, physical condition and shield integrity. Everything looked nominal—no signs of an attack, and at any rate the platoon would be moving differently in that case. Combat overrode most directives, and if any one of them was provoked, the others would swarm.
A smirk crawled up Hyren's lips at that thought. Mutant Grundo troopers were the reason Sloth's empire stretched so far.
And Hyren himself was personally responsible for a good deal of those conquests. Which lent further urgency to the situation. He had a reputation to uphold.
He stowed his blaster on the magnetic clamps on his back armour and leaped onto a nearby rock formation, scaling it and swinging his leg over the edge. On top, he surveyed the curvature of the planetoid and clenched his fists. His HUD wasn't lying—Mutant Grundos staggered around aimlessly before him, colliding and stumbling as they tried to reach a dozen different goals.
He sent out a communication calling them back, but they just jerked in response and then continued to tumble around, flailing as they smashed into each other. Hyren ground his teeth.
Sabotage? Did the Alien Aishas know they were there? The scout bots hadn't reported the presence of jammers, and at any rate those were ever only used for larger-scale things like ships' sensor arrays. Not local communications. Those usually weren't judged worth the trouble of disrupting. But if not jammers, then what?
Whatever was going on, Hyren had to think of something fast. This much chaos on the surface was sure to alert the Aishas, and his troops would injure themselves falling over each other like that.
But it was hard to come up with a solution when he couldn't even pinpoint the problem. And to make matters worse, that blasted black hole had just gorged itself on a particularly large mass of matter and was throwing out a fresh wave of radiation that made his shields crackle and caused a veil of static fuzz on his HUD—
The Gullet's radiation was scrambling communications.
"Blast it, who thinks it's a good idea to do anything within a light-year of a black hole?!" Hyren shouted to the stars. "Gah..." He kicked a stray chunk of rock off the edge of the cliff. With so much ambient radiation in the vicinity, the Alien Aishas didn't even need to set up a jammer array. Those clever Mootices. Hyren was going to throttle them.
Well, now he knew the problem. Now for the solution. He'd never received specific training in the engineering behind communications, but he knew that in the event of interference, the best thing to do was try to get a signal boost.
But how to do that.
What did he have on hand? He searched his utility belt and found nothing relevant to the situation, unless he knew how to construct an antenna out of hydration capsules and nanofibre grappling cord. Which he didn't. He would have to talk to someone about this deficiency when they got back to base.
He needed something metal and a source of electricity.
And he had both in the same item. He reached over his shoulder and grabbed his blaster. The digital display showed it still had plenty of power.
"Now I'm getting somewhere," Hyren muttered. He knelt on the dusty cliff and placed the weapon in front of him, scrounging from his memory everything he had ever learned about electronics. "Power source, check. Transmitter..."
He reached up to his shoulder and unlatched one of the pauldrons from his cuirass. When upturned, the bowl-shaped shoulder plate was the perfect shape for a makeshift receiving dish. Flipping open a maintenance panel in the blaster, Hyren lodged the rim of the pauldron into the panel so it sat firm, metal against metal.
Now came the fun part. Hyren reached up to his back again and unsheathed his ceramic sword. Any solution involving swords was a good solution. With a bit of a maniacal grin, he drove the tip of the weapon into the blaster's display panel, wrenching the electronics inside. On his HUD, the entire setup glowed with electrical energy, but the non-conducting blade protected him from the overload.
And now he had to act fast before the entire thing died on him. Leaning close to the antenna, Hyren sent out a broadcast to his platoon. Cease. Ignore beacons. Converge on me. With this much of a power boost for a short-range broadcast, the Gullet's radiation shouldn't have enough time to interfere significantly.
Then he sat back on his heels and waited.
His massive shoulders sagged with relief when the troopers' movements slowed and stopped. The faulty beacons still flared, but he could ignore them, and now his platoon did, too, as they gathered around the outcropping.
Crisis averted. Hyren gave himself a mental pat on the back as he used his blade to flip the pauldron away from the blaster and buckled it back on. He wasn't losing any of his armour if he could help it. The blaster, on the other hand, was totally fried, but it was standard-issue and easily replaceable.
Hyren was glad he hadn't had to wreck the sword, though. Sure, that was standard-issue too, but there was no sense in ruining a perfectly good blade if he could at all help it. His swords always ended up lasting longer than his blasters.
He stood back up and made his way down the cliff, to a waiting throng of mindless grunts. Their eternally empty stares were something he tried not to focus on too much. In his estimation, their non-mutated selves hadn't had much in the way of brains to begin with. He had been the only one on Doran with enough ambition to ask for a place in Sloth's forces. The doctor admired that kind of backbone and rewarded Hyren with a powerful Mutant body and a commanding position in Sloth's invasion corps—and let Hyren keep his mind, besides.
The other Grundos hadn't been so fortunate. But in the grand scheme of things, Hyren thought, it was no big loss.
The commander surveyed his HUD. Most of the beacons were undoubtedly false leads caused by data corruption from the radiation. But one of them could be legit. And now at least he had something to go on rather than a blind search.
With a sigh, he held his blade in front of him and gave his troops the directive to follow. When he found the Alien Aisha base, he'd tie their earstalks in knots for being so troublesome.
Just a day in the life.