Stand behind yer sheriff Circulation: 196,314,459 Issue: 905 | 26th day of Relaxing, Y22
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Escape with a Good Book


by homsar_eggplant

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The month of hunting, 18th day, penned in fine blue ink. A ghost-coloured Techo sighs, slumped upon a creaky and well-worn wooden chair. His attire, equally as drab as his surroundings, makes him look as though he's becoming one, melding into his environment. Glossy eyes fight lids shuttering, like docking bay door blocking off the cold harshness of outer space. With a crackling stretch, the Techo attempts to write within the journal pad. "Daily Journal, another uneventful day. Why is it, I, an esteemed critic of Neopia's finest cheeses, can't find a proper vendor? Everything, mediocre, mass produced, plebian, lowly! It's disgusting. Is there no caliber or standards anymore? It's bad enough that the music scenes I left so many years ago were tarnished by mass produced pop from Neopian Central Records." His grip on the pencil tightens, as a distinct "clack" rings from his equally tightened jaws. The grey-coloured mess hunches over, planting his elbows upon a simple desk to form a makeshift pyramid of sorts. With a launching push, the haggard chair scratches upon the floor, away from the pitiful journal. The Techo reclines upon the aging chair, its creaks matching up to his tired and ornery groans. At last, a moment of peace.

      Breaking the silence, the glass pane of a nearby window rattled. Tap! Tap, tap, tap! Stumbling out of his moment of clarity, the grey Techo shambles over, woken from futile calm. Sliding open the window, there is nothing but the ambience of an average Neopian Central suburb. Upon turning around to brush it off as a branch pushed by the wind, it goes again, picking up... tap! TAP TAP TAP!!

     "WHAT?!", he quakes in fury. The window sill thrusts upward, a damaging crack as it hits the top. And not a moment later, a cute little machine crawls in like an overly curious crab. The robot beeps and whirs in delight, as the Techo's face sinks from fatigue to utter horror and disbelief. "No! Not now, that stuff is over!", as the Techo attempts to shove the robot out the window and to the ground below. The springy spider-like machine leaps from the opening and onto the Techo's face, as a tinny voice instructs "URGENT MESSAGE FOR A CHET!", latching onto its victim's face like a sci-fi film monster. A scream unfitting for a grown Neopian wretches from Chet's throat as he flails his arms wildly. His swiping arms try to get the machine bug off his face. Caterwauls of "GET IT OFF" ring throughout the building, to no avail or audience. Circling around like a maniacal dancer, Chet spirals onto his bed in dizzy rage with a loud THUNK upon an otherwise stiff mattress. An exhaust noise shutters from the robot as it hops off its grappled victim. Chet rolls to the other side of the bed, aghast at the machine's grim tellings.

      A little top unscrews as a hatch opens to reveal a projector. With a recorded fan-faire playing off-key, a hologram plays.

     "Help me, Chet, you're my only hope! I always wanted to make that reference... Ahem, if you are viewing this hologram, I have most certainly pined for the fjords! No, not really!" A bead of sweat forms upon Chet's forehead, staring eagerly at the jabbering image of the infamous "Doc" before him. Chet silently gapes, in awe and eldritch horror. The robot's hologram continues, "Anyway, actual business time! You've enjoyed your vacation long enough. Consider the Month of Eating your time off, as I've programmed this machine to take its time to get to you, four weeks in fact! Y18 shall be my year, just you wait!" Chet looks over at his calendar. While the Month of Hunting, it was Y22. The robot begins to buckle and shutter, attempting to continue its message. "No doubt you know my altercation with the Defenders of Neopia. No-good snoops, prying their eyes into the word of a humble scientist! Well, one of my experiments locked one of those interlopers in a doomed alternate dimension—it was self-defense!"

      The tiny image of doc shifts his body posture, from that of dramatic vengeance, to a more reserved and composed stance. "Needless to say, this is where you come in. What I'm about to tell you is top secret, you have been entrusted with a rescue mission of utmost secrecy, the rescue of me! My robot assistant, that I only programmed in two days, will now beam an image of the advanced prison they plan on stowing me in!" The robot spider clicks and beeps, as a small spark shoots out. The hologram of Doc collapses as a three-dimensional detail of a complex emerges; blocky, winding, massive! A narrative voice chimes in, "Marvelous, no? Too bad I didn't build it! Behold, Neopian Ultra-Maximum-Security Penitentiary, a prison for the most scheming of Neopia and beyond! Though, if it's so good, why can't they toss Sloth in here! Besides, his stolen tech allowed this little meeting to be possible! Anywho, I need you to take care of a small delivery for me. I need a book, yes a book!" The robot, wobbles feebly, as the map begins to shutter and flicker. "Give it a moment.... Also, you'll be needing one more thing to get this little read past the guards!" The weary robot opens a compartment next to its projector, shooting a pill onto a blanket. "Just add water, you'll see!" Chet examines the pill frantically, the sweat bead dripping from his head and onto the pill, before he could even give further thought.

      Like a well-filled inflatable raft, the pill unfolds and reshapes, becoming some sort of book cover. Circuitry patterns run throughout what otherwise looks like a simple thick paper cover.

     "Assuming it worked, because of course it did", doc continues, "You should see a nice book sock for the most diabolic of my schemes, 'Neopian Knitting Patterns!'" The Doc hologram lurches backward to let out a fiendish cackle. His cackle escalates in volume, until cut off by a sharp wheeze and seconds long coughing fit. Doc motions toward the direction of the camera, signaling to cut the feed for a second. Clearing his throat, the image continues, "Any second now, this chunk of scrap will send you a message. Anyway, purchase the real book, pop this cover on and watch as the magic of science disguises it as a harmless tome about knitting essentials! As it is, I have pretended to take up the hobby to avoid suspicion. Plus, solitary confinement is rather boring. No-o-ow go", the image warps and dilates. The projector droid begins to sputter, as smoke rises from its camera lens. "You're the best sidekick a mad scientist could hope for, my o-o-o-only one. You're a s-s-m-m-m-mart kid, you'll figure it ooouuuutttt". The robot slows down as the message distorts and is cut short. A violent clanking and whirring sends the spider-like thing out of control. The bouncing contraption cracks, falters and falls limp.

      Mortified, Chet stares at the broken droid that invaded his home and his face. Sidling off the bed, he slides his way towards a closet dustpan and broom. Preparing to dispose of the sad metal creature, it animates once more. An image projects right into Chet's inspecting face.

     "Don't dawdle! I know you love to procrastinate!" barks a rather authoritative Doc, before the glowing image cuts off and the machine falls silent once more. Reeling back in temporary blindness, Chet's arm jolts back with the dustpan and launches the deactivated drone out the window like a small rocket. Unable to comprehend what happened, Chet hobbles backwards and collapses on the bed. "It's all just a dream", he thought to himself.

     The next morning brightens Chet's worried face, as he launches from his bed and to the window from last night. To his amazement, no alien-looking contraption below. It couldn't have been real! Surely that was the case, he thought to himself. Doc's words echoed in his head as he dragged himself out of bed. But the feeling of terror returned immediately when Chet realized the drone had crawled back through the window during the night. An alert message was blinking through a screen on top of the drone, "YOU RECEIVED 1 NEW MESSAGE, 1:45 AM NST". Flicking the message open, Chet's optimism oozes and leaks from his face, returning to the anguish from last night. The message is composed of nonsensical and alien symbols, with a linked phrase at the bottom, "Decrypt code?" Chet, as if compelled, clicks. A box emerges asking for a pass-code. Chet strokes his chin, his eyes looking up for inspiration. Eureka, of course! He types in "SCIENCE" as a brisk POP confirms the message and a list unfurls.

      Chet sighs to himself, "is it back to this again? I thought this was over", plodding over to his desk. Inside one drawer, a lockbox. Fumbling through other compartments, Chet finds a key, unlocking the keepsake chest. Creaking it open, the container holds a variety of knick-knacks from Chet's days with Doc, including a photograph of the two of them next to the Make Some Noise Techo Super-Fan with the caption, "AREN'T WE HAVING FUN AT ALTADOR CUP?". Or rather, Doc and the fan were having fun, while Chet looked embarrassed. Digging around, more oddities; a pen saying "#1 Mad Scientist", a licensed 'anime style' art sticker of Doc, a syllabus of a University course Doc took over, a long rambling letter about Doc's definition of 'friendship' and so much more. A semblance of a smile cracked on Chet's face, before collapsing into his blasé expression he's long since taken up. "Last errand, no more, for real this time!" As he irritably left his cozy abode, Chet grumbled, "I'd rather eat awful cheese... Huh, how did I get started with that job again?"

      The first stop was the desolate and eerie burg of Neovia, a scenic detour from the Haunted Woods. As it turns out, the famed Neopian-shuttling business called "Glyph't" doesn't extend their services too far into the Woods, as of yet. However, Chet continued the dismal depths on foot. Few of the locals recalled much on a salesman by the name of "Bouncing Eyes Errol", granting only curious stares or shunning revulsion. However, an encampment surrounded by tents and vardo wagons opened up to an inviting campfire. The strumming of stringed instruments hummed, grabbing the leadless Chet. Awkwardly staggering upon the circle, the camping denizens glare in unison.

     Chet raising his hands, proclaims, "Hey, hey! I don't want trouble. I'm just looking for a buddy of an old... acquaintance of mine. He apparently has bouncing eyes." The silhouettes by the fire shudder, as one simply points in the direction of Neovia, just dead ahead. The sounds of the strings simmer down to a quiet melody. Chet tries to respectfully bow in response, but one of the fireside voices snaps back, "There's no need for that here! Now, go! If it's accursed things you seek, then seek them away from here!" Chet, crossed his arms, oblivious to their meaning. "That's not helpful. Any more cryptic directions for me?" One of the figures gets up, as all music ceases entirely. The smooth accent of the mysterious figure gives way to a guttural sound like one of many Hauntie locals. They growl, "Oi, listen here, gutter punk! Pass the wagons, circumvent the marshlands nearby, look for a stony walking path, follow it to an archway. It ain't hard! Now, get lost, box-wrattlin' addle-cove!" Sheepishly, Chet saunters off to not disturb whatever was going on behind him. Shortly after, the music starts up once more.

      A grim township arises from the countryside, built of stone and cloaked in mist. As if the residents already knew who he was, they close shops and shutter curtains at his approach. One figure who doesn't seem to recoil at the presence of the awaited outsider is a Buzz in a tacky brown vest and wide brimmed hat, beckoning with a repeating hand motion. "Oh, I love this trope", retorts Chet, as he approaches with caution. The Buzz has giggles with a drawl not common for this region. As Chet gets closer, he notices the Buzz's eyes seem to erratic twitch and swirl on their own accord. This must be the guy, whether or not that's a good thing. The overly excited "Neovian" floats and flitters through a winding alleyway, to assorted stacks of tables and knick-knacks. Minutes upon minutes later, Chet emerges in the makeshift shop space. The Buzz contorts his body and babbles madly, "Hehe, you've found Bouncing Eyes Errol, the pawning master who sees all! All sees, all pawned. All the time! He sent you, yes? What does that one require of Errol now? Hehe." Chet winces at the madman's eccentric demeanor.

     Chet raises a brow, "Now?"

     The incoherent and twisting Buzz jabbers, "Of course, now! He always needs supplies for... hehe, SCIENCE!" The buzz waves his arms in the air with frantic zeal, as if to imitate his "dear friend". The Buzz begins to set up a stack of books, one particularly black tome catching the eyes of Chet. Looking down at his message, it matches the description to a point. Chet reluctantly approaches the mad merchant, wincing from his more noticeable scent. The stench of old cabbage, bad jelly and strange medicine quickly clogs Chet's nostrils as his eyes quickly water.

      "That book, right there", Chet manages to utter as he gags from the miasma. Rummaging through deep pockets, Chet yoinks out a crude paper list of Doc's many demands, offering it to the mystery book vendor.

     The Buzz inspects the paper, twirling and twisting in joy, "Oooooh, a fantastic choice! Allow me!" A claw reaches out towards the book, giving a closer look. "Shadow Tome, Tenebranomicon! Ohoho, he knows how to choose! A masterful plan!"

     Chet's fear subsides for a moment, as his dismissive attitude returns, at least in brief. The impatient Techo rummages through his pocket for some means of coin, plopping down whatever is available to leave. "Yeah, that's great. I'll buy it and go. I just wanna get this over with."

      The gleeful Buzz points to the tome and pushes the coins back towards Chet, "No, no! I absolve debt on this one... But, I have an array of things to suit your fancy! The Buzz frantically flutters about, picking up assortments of knickknacks and rubbish. "Behold, a watch that tells you space rather than time, an inverted calendar depicting contradictory timelines, a spoon that magically bends itself!" Chet slowly reaches out for the book, clutching with both hands and retracting. The Buzz continues to drone in endless ramble, more concerned with selling strange junk over the book granted for free. As Chet begins to back away, facing the merchant, the Buzz drops his sales pitch and simply waves on at an uncanny and twitchy pace. Rounding a corner, Chet breathes, away from the strange man and his awful smell.

     "I should have tried Chesterdrawers," huffs the indignant Techo. A distant "I HEARD THAT!" shoots down from the alley, as Chet dashes away from the cursed village.

      Hours passed, as fatigue caught up with the Techo. Why was he doing this? Chet collapses to the ground, skimming the outskirts of Haunted Woods. Ever exhausted, he ponders several internal monologues, all coming to one conclusion; the futility and madness of helping his dear "friend". Further time passes, the bewildered Neopian sprawled in a star shape upon thick grass. For a brief moment, it was over, all care was lost and a moment of respite was earned. Chet's attention began to fade out, focusing on the clouds drifting by. Instead of a quest to serve a madman, he could just take a break from life and appreciate the wider world around him. A soothing breeze, the tickling of sunbathed grass, a gentle sky. However, this short vacation was interrupted by "ba-bum, ba-bum!" Chet snaps to, leaping to a sitting position. A number of figures march in the fields before Faerieland. The beating of drums is overtaken by a shrill, nasally shriek that barely constitutes a voice.

      The caterwaul exclaims, "Behold, NEOPIA! The annual marching of the viridescent UNIT-YYYYYYY!!" The unearthly howl, capable of shattering glass, causes Chet to cup his ears in involuntary reaction. From a cloaked merger of shadows, a central figure emerges in the early morning light. A green Uni in impressive priestly garb steps forward, examining the Techo lowering his arms from his head. "MMMMMM, it seems a wanderer has caught sight of our WONDROUS PARADE! Does it not.... EXCIIIIITE YOU?"

      Chet, attempting a response, simply utters, "Ow! How are you so loud?" Another eerily similar green Uni pops from the crowd in protest, "Supreme Leader, I don't think he-he-he-he understands the ways of our gr-gr-great order!" Weariness gives way to confusion, as Chet stares in disbelief. Once again, consulting notes spoken from Doc, his eyes widen on record of this group.

      In a reversal of his introduction, his body flops to a mock-triumphant pose. With an equal mix of mock-heroism and wheezing, Chet exclaims "mighty potion covenant, my associate, the goofy doctor gentleman, requires your aid! He has been seized by... Uhh, One second!" Chet goes back to combing over whatever piecemeal details he can muster, "The Defenders of Neopia Ultra-Maximum-Security Compound for Multiversal Villains!" Chet raises a finger pointing upward, as if in mighty declaration.

     The green Uni Unison tilt their heads in confusion, before looking down. "Wait, the alleged prison is not above the skies, but UNDERGROOOOO-UND! Or so say conspiracies," the leader blurts in correction. The ornate Uni begins to tap a hoof in impatience, while crossing arms and sneering. The other members attempt to imitate their leadership, with varying degrees of success. The leader stomps a hoof while turning to his subjects, who switch to standing straight and stiff. One of the minions stumbles out of line, uttering "Oooouuiieeee!" in embarrassment. The priest leader, hoof palm on face, grumbles before turning back to Chet.

     Clearing his throat, the high-pitched booming continues, "You know the mighty Doc, supreee-EEEEEEME ally of our sacred order? MMMMMM, we would be honored to liberate the incredible... SCIENTIST!" The Techo slumps a bit, somehow still in disbelief. Chet snaps his back into place and takes a brief but quick breath.

     "Okay", Chet exhales before continuing, "everyone suddenly knows and loves this guy. What's your deal with him, anyway?"

      The leader strokes his chin, in deep thought, "Mmmm, he did a gracious service upon our order! He gave us the technology to replicate our mighty potion. This allowed us... " the leader continues with his subordinates in an eerie harmony, "to make Neopians become the perfect lifeform!" Chet, steps backward in discomfort. Visibly disturbed by the Uni hivemind, his hasty notes fall from his clutches. The order's leader lurches for and grasps the notes, as Chet slowly inches in reverse. Scanning over, as if to confirm Chet's statements, the leader grumbles with interjections of "ah ha" and "mmmmm". He then points a finger towards Chet's bag. Further jumping back, the Techo plunges an arm into the bag and retrieves the tome, as if by instinct. A pleased look washes over the sinister Uni high priest, "Hmmmm, you already have the tome. Let it be KNOWN, we shall aid! However, you too can aid us!" He then proceeds in coughing and gasping, before trying to clear a slight rasp in his throat... "One of our own is a traitor! A TRAI-TOOOOOR! We have discovered he works within that prison after he abandoned our higher cause! Thwart or destroy him, we care not! We offer a temporary disguise in return. We witnessed the foul traitor in the healing springs beyond. If you believe in our friend, go forth with THIS TAAAASK! Your potion shall last for merely, mmmmm, 3 hours. Use it carefully!" Chet, nodding at the threatening group of deeply devoted clones, composes himself and gives a saluting gesture in return as one of the drones hands over a diluted light green potion. The screechy leader commands his march to continue as "So LOOOOOONG, friend of Doctor" overrides the sounds of drums.

      Staring down at the gifted potion, Chet returns to his prior question, why is he doing this? Chet begins to slowly pace towards the springs. His life has gone well; work is endurable and he's his own Neopian, his own home is a safe place of his own, his reputation has left him feared and admired in the prestigious world of cheese. All the same, such things are such a departure from the wild adventures of youth. Uninspired daily tasks, bland sub-urban housing, status quo masquerading as a hipster non-conformity. As Chet pondered these existential quandaries, the gentle sloshing and shimmering of the faerieland hot springs came into view. A faerie attendant hovers overhead, greeting the lost Chet.

      "Welcome, friend! Allow us to help wash away that which troubles you. Our serene waters will cleanse both worries and pains. And, for a nominal fee, we have additional care packages that provide a multitude of options and additional services!"

     Chet's look snaps between lost in doldrums to inquisitive. Chet strokes his chin, trying to muster any other facts he gleamed from the mad Uni cult leader. "Say, what luxury packages exist for esteemed individuals? I'll have you know I'm quite a lauded critic of Neopian culture!", boasts Chet as he puffs out his chest.

      The attendant simply blinks before resuming her retail façade, "We would like to apologize. All of our top ranked packages are currently booked for several days, all by the same party. Should you not be familiar with the guest, we can offer you alterna-"

     Chet, not wasting a moment interjects, "The green Uni involved in governance and security, a fine fellow! Surely, he wouldn't mind company with a dear friend!"

      The bubbly yet autonomous persona of the springs employee quickly deflates into a more slumped shape. From the faerie's mouth grumbles, "Pay is pay, please don't cause trouble though..." as she hands a set of locker keys and directs Chet through the layout. Up ahead, laying lazily in one of the many pools, a large green Uni vacantly gazes through his widely framed sunglasses.

     As Chet's shadow approaches and blots out much needed sunlight, he grumbles, "Sorry, Jack! No business calls! Central said I needed a week away from work, I still have time to unwind. Be useful and clean my spare shades in the locker!" He too flings a set of keys, but with far less effort than Chet's previous encounter. Skulking into a locker room, a rather brash Bruce slams the door at breaking speed, a dead-on hit on Chet's face. Avoiding too much of an outburst, he simple slides past the otherwise oblivious customer. Scoping the area, the keys to his own locker as well as the Uni's become quick finds. And as luck would have it, another open locker lies nearby. A set of fine clothing inside fits the general body shape of the obnoxious patron who crushed Chet's face. With a quick switch, Chet stuffs the Bruce clothing into the Uni's space after a quick click of a key before stealthily creeping away from vicinity. Towards the entrance, the same faerie as before stares with minimal interest, quipping, "That wasn't long at all. You're losing money if you don't have a monthly membership pass." Chet moves at a casual, yet gradually increasing pace with a final, "Maybe another day! Duty calls!" The Faerie clerk rolls her eyes dismissively. "Yeah, I'm sure," she snidely huffs.

     Will Chet find his long lost "friend"? Stay tuned for the conclusion to this bedlam!

     To be continued…

 
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