Trouble at the Neocola Machine
"Are you sure this will work?” Brekker paced back and forth in front of the Neocola Machine, the shoes of his space suit scuffing up the thick purple-brown Kreludor dust. His four green ears bobbed and flopped over his helmet, though there was no wind up here to stir them.
His older brother, Lantsov, rolled his eyes and went to scratch his nose before remembering his own borrowed space helmet. “Have I ever steered you wrong before, little brother?”
Brekker didn’t answer, mostly because he could think of several instances when Lantsov had steered him wrong, solely for the pirate Blumaroo’s own amusement. That was how brothers – especially older brothers – operated. He looked down at the Fake Neocola Token on a String that trailed behind him as he paced through the moon dust. Maybe it wouldn’t work, and Lantsov was lying, but the thing did look real… would the vending machine really be able to tell the difference?
The thing was, the little alien Aisha was pretty desperate for a transmogrification potion. Brekker knew that there was an avatar to be gained in getting one, and he was pretty sure he could convince his owner to use one on a lab rat so he could run off to the Neoboards and display it. But he was flat broke, and all of his previous Neocola Machine attempts hadn’t paid off yet. That was when Lantsov had come to Brekker with the ingenious plan: using a fake token over and over again, instead of paying for real ones, until a potion popped out of the slot.
Brekker glanced down at the token again. Honestly, ever since Lantsov had painted himself pirate, he had turned… well, devious was a good word for it. He continued to ignore Lantsov’s previous question as he faced the machine and sighed, a breath which fogged the surface of his helmet. “All right. Is anyone looking?” he asked.
The Blumaroo cast a glance over his shoulder, and Brekker peered over him. He could see a flurry of multicolored Grundos hard at work at the Kreludan Mining Corps to his left. To his right, Neopets trickled in and out of the Kreludor shops and café, their ears and tails flopping in zero gravity. No one was giving them a second glance.
“Coast is clear,” confirmed Lantsov.
“All right.” Brekker could see a thin reflection of himself staring back at him from the surface of his space helmet, and he scowled at it. Just do this and get it over with, he told himself, but he couldn’t help feeling like it was all going to go wrong. Carefully, hesitantly, he lifted the fake token by its string, swung it back and forth for only a moment or two, and inserted the token into the slot of the Neocola Machine.
For a breath, then two breaths, nothing happened. Brekker reached out and pressed the Minion Maid button, eyeing the string of the fake token dangling from the slot, and jabbed at the red button on the machine’s front.
Suddenly, with a jarring clunk and a tremendous crash, the Neocola Machine began to shake violently. Brekker yelped and skittered backwards, falling and landing hard on his tail. Lantsov fell, too, though his thick tail caught him and held him aloft for a few moments.
“What’s it doing?!” Brekker shouted, trying to be heard over the machine. The shaking grew more violent.
“I don’t know!” cried Lantsov. The Neocola Machine started beeping, loud and obnoxious beeps that drew the attention of the Grundos at the mine a few kilometers away. Brekker wanted to hide his face, but seeing as it was trapped in a big glass bubble, it was sort of difficult.
In between the space of one blink and the next, there was a whirl of something tall and black, which pushed the two Neopets aside. Brekker fell backwards again, and he rolled over as soon as he hit the ground, shaking his head to filter Kreludor dust off his helmet.
“What…?” he started to ask, but the question froze in his suddenly dry mouth. A figure now stood before the machine, easily three times as tall as he was. As an avatar collector, he knew that sweeping black cloak and dusky olive green skin anywhere…
Brekker scrambled over and grabbed hold of his still-balancing brother. “It’s… it’s…” he stammered, the words as shaky as he was. “It’s… Doctor Sloth!”
At the sound of his name, Sloth whirled on the two pets cowering before him. He grinned, but there was no humor in the gesture. The sparking of his eyes made his fury as plain as if it was written on his face. When he opened his mouth to speak, Brekker caught a glimpse of a mouth full of yellow, crooked teeth.
“Which one of you simpering creatures put this” – he held the fake token aloft, letting it swing by its string – “in my machine?”
Brekker and Lantsov looked at each other, horrified, but an unspoken pact to keep the secret passed between them in an instant. “I said,” bellowed the villain, “who put this fake token in my machine?!”
“We didn’t,” Brekker said, swallowing against the dryness in his throat.
Sloth cackled. “You know? Somehow… I just don’t believe you.” He whirled to the machine again, his tall shoulders obscuring his movements. Brekker found that his paws were sweating inside his space boots, wondering what was coming next. Doctor Sloth beat his fists on the machine a few times in what seemed like a pattern, and then, with delicate precision, he pressed the red button.
Something clanked inside the machine, though it had stopped its violent rattling. A glass bottle filled with a thick, sludgy green liquid tumbled into the soda tray, and Sloth picked it up and held it aloft. Starlight winked against the olive green wing curled around the bottle, and Brekker gulped. Was he imagining the noxious smell than emanated from the potion?
“Do you two know what this is?”
“A transmogrification potion?” whispered Lantsov.
“Correct,” Sloth answered, grinning nastily. “I’m thinking that one of you boys needs a little bit of a change.” He made to pop the cork from the bottle, and Brekker’s stomach churned. He wanted that potion – but not for himself. Despite his craving, he rather liked being an Aisha, and he knew that his owner definitely preferred him that way, too.
But just as Sloth made to step in their direction, there was a tremendous boom from the direction of the Kreludan Mining Corps. The heads of the three figures by the machine whipped around at the sound. Distracted, Sloth cursed under his breath and raced away toward it.
Lantsov let out a huge breath, one that it sounded like he’d been holding for a while. “Man. Oh man, that was too close. Whew.” He let more air out with a hiss and sank back, once more letting his tail carry his weight. His ears drooped with nervous exhaustion.
“Way too close,” Brekker agreed. “Come on. Your idea was dumb. Let’s go play Assignment 53 or something – we’ll have to earn our Neopoints honestly.” He fixed the Blumaroo with a fierce look. “No more fake Neocola tokens, all right? Ever.”
“Agreed,” Lantsov replied gloomily.
But as Brekker turned to head back to the space station, something caught his eye. Starlight filtered off glass again, and he was pretty sure it wasn’t just from his helmet. There, sticking out of the Kreludor dust, was the bottle that Sloth had pulled out of the vending machine. He must have dropped it in his haste to get to the mining corporation. Almost reverently, Brekker approached it and picked it up – and miraculously, the transmogrification potion hadn’t broken.
“Brekker?” his brother asked. Lantsov had already started walking away. “You coming?”
Brekker picked up the bottle and showed it to Lantsov, whose mouth dropped open.
“Scratch that,” the Aisha grinned, tucking the potion safely away into a pocket of his suit. “Your idea nearly got us changed into mutants… but it looks like we’re getting an avatar today after all!”