Wars rage across the face of Neopia every day. The pirates raid the city of Maraqua, while the forces of Darigan and Meridell clash with the hollow ring of steel upon steel. High in the skies above Neopia, the armies of the Resistance and Dr. Sloth duel on a daily basis.
War weaves its way through the very fabric of Neopia. From legions of Neopets clashing on distant battlefields, to the schoolyard bully taking lunch money from his victims, war is everywhere.
One war in particular has raged for generations. Far from the scorched earth of the Meridell battlefields, combatants live and die on a daily basis.
Between the blades of grass, the Petpetpets go to war.
The two Mootix leaned closer to each other as the wind battered their faces. From the vantage point of the tiny lookout tower they could see to the horizon in every direction.
Below them, the rest of the squad were sleeping soundlessly as dawn approached. The two lookouts could already see the dull glow climbing over the forest of grass blades.
And somewhere in that forest, hiding, were the Cootys.
One Mootix sniffed back the beginnings of a cold.
“It'll be starting soon,” he muttered.
“You ever seen it happen before, Bad?” the other Mootix asked nervously.
“No…” he replied, shaking his head. “Things must really be getting bad if they're using the bombers.”
“But… the posters back home!” the nervous Mootix protested. “They all said the war will be over by the Day of Giving! They said we'd show Johnny Cooty what's what and be home for tea!”
Bad remained silent for a moment.
“They say a lot of things, Polish,” he said eventually.
Bad felt the subtle change in the wind.
“Here she comes!” he said, crouching down in the lookout tower.
A Crokabek soared overhead, flying low over the grass forest. The flimsy lookout tower rocked from the disturbance, but it was quickly over.
As the Petpet flew over the grass forest, Polish saw a Mootix move the small can on the creature's back, and watched the liquid flow out.
The green foamy liquid washed over the forest below.
Then Polish heard the noises.
Not from the camp, but from the forest. Vapour was rising in the early morning air from the grass.
Bad braced himself and wrapped his long trench coat's collar around his mouth. Polish realised why far too late. The smell washed over him like a river. It was toxic, and choking.
Below, the other troops smelt it too. Coughing and wheezing, they emerged from the barracks as the first rays of dawn snaked across the horizon. At their head was the Sergeant, a grim smile upon his face.
“I love the smell of Petpetpet-be-gone in the morning!” he declared to the world as he breathed in the vapours. “It smells like victory!”
Captain Rip Finnegan stumbled slightly as his balloon hit the ground. Like a flash, he swung himself over the edge of the basket and tethered his craft to the ground. The ground crew were with him seconds later.
“Have any problems, sir?” one of the Cootys asked him.
Finnegan nodded and flashed a brief smile.
“All in a day's work,” he replied confidently. “Make sure she's up and ready to go as soon as possible. The Mootix horde is growing stronger by the day.”
“I wouldn't worry about that, sir!” the engineer laughed. “With pilots like you on our side the war's going to be over by the Day of Giving!”
Finnegan smiled again, before turning and leaving the engineers to their work. He made his way across the airfield, towards the barracks. All around him, other pilots were returning from the day's battles or setting off on night patrols. The base was in a constant state of readiness.
The latest reports said that the Mootix force was moving further into Cooty territory. Reading reports was one thing, but Finnegan saw the battles from the air. He saw how fast the Mootix were claiming land. There was evidence of this all around, every day fewer pilots returned, their balloons being shot down over enemy territory.
The war might well be over by the Day of Giving, but Finnegan had begun to consider that it may end with them losing.
The barracks, a building made from reeds and grass and kept together by mud, was the home from home for the troops. Finnegan made his way to a door at one end, and knocked sharply.
“Enter!” a deep voice commanded from within.
Finnegan opened the door and marched in, standing to attention and saluting the Cooty General that sat behind the desk.
“At ease, Captain,” the General told him, thoughtfully chewing a blade of grass in his mouth.
Finnegan relaxed himself.
“There's significant Mootix movement in the forests of Q-sector, sir,” Finnegan reported.
“Q-sector?” the General considered. “I thought old Major Fairshanks was running the show down there?”
“He was, sir,” Finnegan replied. “It appears as though Petpetpet-be-gone was deployed recently.”
The General clicked his jaw as he thought in silence.
“Blast it!” he shouted eventually, slamming his fist on the desk. “Fairshanks was a good man, Captain… a very good man. I served with him at the Battle of Fairpoint View; he personally saved me from a Mootix twig sword. It cost him his right leg, but it saved my life. Where the blazes are they getting all this Petpetpet-be-gone from? We're supposed to be stopping their consignments from reaching the front line!”
“Special branch did say it was a priority, sir,” Finnegan agreed.
The General made a face.
“Bah, Special branch!” he spat into a nearby bin expertly. “They waltz around behind enemy lines while out here, troops suffer!”
Finnegan kept his face perfectly still. The troops were suffering of course, but the General was never closer than a hundred miles to any conflict. It was Finnegan's troops that were on the receiving end of the war, not his. The General just sat behind his desk all day barking orders and chewing reeds. He was just as bad as Special Branch in the Captain's eyes.
“You're orders, sir?” Finnegan asked eventually.
The General's eyes seemed to soften.
“You've pulled five straight shifts, Finnegan. Don't think I haven't noticed,” he told him. “I know you're as eager to fight the Mootix scum as anyone else, but I can't have the Cooty Avenger, the scourge of the Mootix Empire, working himself to the bone. You'll get sloppy, and start making mistakes. No, you'll have to take some leave. Go into town; visit the local sights, Finnegan. Relax, for a change.”
“I cannot relax while my friends are sent to their deaths, sir!” Finnegan shouted.
“That was an order, Captain,” the General said firmly.
He returned to some paperwork on his desk, leaving the Captain to let himself out.
The town was not far from the airbase. In fact, it had largely grown up around it. When the war had begun, decades ago, the airbase had been built there because it was a wide open stretch of land, but over time traders had arrived, keen to make a quick buck on the soldiers. The town, if it could be called that, had sprung up almost overnight. It was a ramshackle collection of matchstick buildings, and Finnegan made his way to the same one he always did.
There was a Veespa singing the blues on stage, sat atop a makeshift pebble piano. Her purple and yellow stripes melded into the smoky haze that permanently filled the place. She was always there, and so was everyone else. The tavern never changed, as if the war raging outside was irrelevant.
Finnegan had watched friends come and go in the unit, most dying in action, but here in the tavern it was always the same friendly faces.
“What'll it be?” the bartender Cooty asked as the Captain sat down.
“The usual,” Finnegan replied.
His drink arrived a moment later, and drop of a pink nectar served in a leaf cup. Finnegan nursed it, leaning forwards in his chair and letting the songs of the Veespa drift over him.
Gradually, he became lost in his thoughts. Memories of the friends he'd lost bubbled through his mind. He hardly noticed when the songs stopped.
“Pebble for your thoughts?” a smooth feminine voice asked.
The Veespa that had been singing sat down beside him.
“You can take them, no charge,” Finnegan replied dryly.
She half smiled.
“Give him the same again,” she said to the bartender.
“You don't need to…” Finnegan tried to protest.
She flashed a smile at him that stopped him in his tracks.
“The least I can do for someone who's fighting for our lives day in day out, wouldn't you say? What do they call you, soldier boy?” she asked.
“Finnegan, Captain Finnegan,” he replied as he took a slug of the new drink.
“Captain Rip Finnegan? The Cooty Avenger?” she asked in surprise.
“That's what they call me,” Finnegan said weakly.
“Of all the taverns in all the world… you had to walk into mine,” she smirked half to herself.
“What do they call you?” Finnegan asked.
“Me? Oh, many things…” she paused. “You can call me Tanya though.”
And that was how it all began.
“Gooooooood Morning Q-sector!” the voice echoed through the Mootix barracks via the tin can system they used to transmit base announcements.
Polish rolled over in his bunk as the voice of the Sergeant continued.
“Up and ready troops! I want you outside and ready for action by zero eight hundred hours!”
Groans rose up from the other bunks as the Mootix battalion gradually roused themselves. Polish was one of the last up.
He dressed himself in his uniform quickly, taking care with his finely polished boots. They were the reason for his nickname. He was really Brian Weatherly, son of Marta and John Weatherly, of Number 31 Ocean Drive, Streamside Nest.
But that was in his old life, a life he had left behind. He was part of the army now, a young recruit determined to do his bit for his country.
He paused to stare at the poster by his bed. That was the reason he was fighting. It was Captain Rip Finnegan, the Cooty Avenger. He stood as tall as a house and was frightfully ugly. In one hand, he was casually upending a house and empting the occupants down his gullet.
He was the enemy. Polish had joined up to stop them reaching his home.
Some had joined for other reasons. Kelly wanted to be like the fabled Mootix Clan, his childhood heroes. Shorty wanted to be just like his father… and Bad… well no one knew exactly why Bad had joined up. He was just there, much to the annoyance of the Sergeant.
Polish hurriedly finished dressing himself as he realised he had been daydreaming, and rushed out to join the rest of his unit. They stood to attention in the early morning sun, and Sergeant Perks stalked up and down the ranks inspecting them.
Normally the Captain would have been there as well, but he'd been lost a week previously. Perks had taken to command like he'd been born for it. The official orders hadn't come through from command, but to the troops he was already promoted.
“Straighten up, Private Kelly,” he barked. “Slouching is a Cooty trait! And wash that blasted cap; you're always wearing the thing!”
Kelly made the effort to stand as straight as a plank of wood, and jammed the cap he always wore further down over his antennae.
“We've had some new orders through, lads,” Sergeant Perks continued. “It seems as though we're being re-assigned to the paratrooper division.”
There was stunned silence from the unit. Beside Polish, Bad cleared his throat.
“Sarge?” he questioned. “We're not trained for that. We're here to fight on the front lines, not drop down behind them.”
The Sergeant eyeballed Bad, who seemed to slouch a little on purpose just to annoy him.
“Orders are orders, Private Spanner!” he shouted. “We're to head back to Grassbank Airbase for basic training. Command has come up with a new plan, it seems. They are going to drop legions of Mootix behind enemy lines and selectively destroy their balloon capabilities. They need new recruits for such a daring plan.”
Bad gaped at the Sergeant.
“That's stupid!” he shouted. “What are they calling it? Operation Kill-as-many-of-our-troops-as-possible!?”
Sergeant Perks fumed with rage.
“Quiet down Private Spanner!” he bellowed, before regaining composure. “They are calling it the Big Push, if you must know. We set off back to Grassbank at thirteen hundred hours, dismissed!”
The Sergeant marched off back towards his private quarters as the troops dispersed.
Polish still stood there, slightly stunned. It would be his first taste of active combat.
He would be joining the war, at last.
To be continued…