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A Corsair Among the Stars


by zennistrad

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Standing before Korzara was everything that she had ever feared.

     Doctor Sloth was a tyrant, and anyone else would be wise to fear him too. But Sloth also represented something much greater than a mere conqueror. He was the antithesis of everything that Korzara valued, the erosion of freedom, the looming threat of a life lived only in shackles.

     And now here he was, right in front of Korzara’s eye. He appeared as no more than a hologram, but he commanded a raw power in his presence that could only have come from the real thing.

     “What’s the matter?” Sloth taunted. “Have you been struck speechless by my magnificent presence?”

     “This... this isn’t happening,” Korzara stammered. “How are you still around? I thought you were defeated years ago!”

     “Merely a temporary setback. I was sealed away by that meddling Space Faerie, that much is true. However, I’d already foreseen that possibility.” Sloth steepled his fingers, a smirk crossing his lips and his holographic body flickered. “Prior to my imprisonment, I had developed an advanced technique to harness the power of Mira’s little token. I call it the Sigma Protocol, and it is perhaps my greatest accomplishment to date.”

     Fear still remained on the edge of Korzara’s voice, but now she was also morbidly curious. “Sigma Protocol?”

     “A method of shedding my corporeal body,” Sloth explained. “Using the very same magic that contained me, I converted myself into a being of pure data and escaped into the cosmos. Currently, I exist within the central supercomputer of this base, but I am by no means restricted to it. You’ve no doubt heard of my many replicate androids.”

     “...You mean the Sloth Clones?” Korzara said hesitantly. “Those robots that look like you?”

     “Correct,” said Sloth. “Apart from the occasional maverick, they have proven to be reliable minions. They now serve as a sort of backup hardware for myself. Should the system I inhabit fail, my consciousness will escape via hyperspace signal, and assume control of another body. In effect, I have become a living computer virus, one that can be uploaded into any of my machines.”

     A swath of emotions swirled in Korzara’s gut, ranging from dread to utter confusion. “So you’re like… a digital ghost. But why tell me this? Wouldn’t this information be crucial to defeating you for good?”

     “That’s impossible, I’m afraid. And I think you already know why.” Sloth grinned a nasty grin, his yellowed holographic teeth gleaming under the dim lights of the outpost. “I no longer have a body to destroy. I have surpassed all of my physical limitations, and become a being that will endure until the heat death of the universe. Simply put, little Neopet, I cannot be defeated.”

     The words that Sloth spoke struck terror into the deepest reaches of Korzara’s heart. Despite her years as a hardened pirate, she had become overwhelmed with fear, every cell in her body screaming at her to turn around and flee. Yet at the same time, she also could not move. Her feet were frozen to the floor, and as much as her emotions compelled her to run, her body would not obey.

     “But enough about my own brilliant accomplishments,” said Sloth. “Right now, you are no doubt wondering why I’ve called you here. The answer is that I have a job for you.”

     “A... a job? But why? Why hire me, of all people?”

     “Quite simple,” said Sloth. “You have a history with the Resistance. You are familiar with their security, and their operations. Yet you also have no loyalty to them. With the right motivation, you could easily be convinced to turn against them. Needless to say, that makes you uniquely valuable to me.”

     The fear in Korzara’s chest began to give way, slowly, to an entirely new emotion. It burned deep within her, and each word she spoke carried its flame.

     “Now hold on a moment! Why would I ever do anything to help you with your schemes!? Just who do you think I am!?”

     “A Neopet who doesn’t have a choice in the matter,” Sloth replied calmly. “You’ve had trouble finding work lately, I assume? The price on your head ensures any bounty hunter worth their blaster will be going after you. I imagine few other clients would risk associating with you.”

     “H-huh? Wait! H-how did you...?”

     “The point being, that those who are desperate will do anything to keep their mouths fed. And you, Korzara, are desperate. You will work for me. Or you will starve. Your choice.”

     The anger that was bubbling up within Korzara reached a boiling point. And yet, just as quickly as it threatened to burst out with explosive force, it died down and retreated into wear acceptance.

     Sloth was right. She was desperate, and if she didn’t take this job, she might not be able to afford her own survival.

     The words that came out of her mouth next made Korzara sick to her stomach. Everything she was about to say, she hated with every bone in her body.

     “Alright. Fine. What’s the job?”

     Sloth’s grin flashed once again, sending a shiver down Korzara’s spine.

     “I’m glad that you asked. I’ve received intelligence that the Resistance is developing a new defence system for the Space Station. I want you to infiltrate their headquarters, find the blueprints for this system, and relay it to me. How you accomplish this is not my concern. Finish the job, and I guarantee you will be greatly rewarded.”

     ----------------

     Korzara could not stop sweating as she returned to her ship. Everything that had happened within the past fifteen minutes had made her heart race, her fear-addled thoughts constantly twisting in on themselves to make sense of everything she had just seen, heard, and agreed to.

     As she punched her ship’s thrusters and lifted off of the asteroid, her body relaxed somewhat, finally allowing her the peace to review what had happened and what she had gotten herself into.

     “Somehow, Sloth returned,” Korzara said with a sigh. “And for some reason, the universe has decided it’s my problem.”

     It was difficult to wrap her mind around. Never in all her life did Korzara expect she would be working for Sloth. She hated being under anyone’s thrall, and under any other circumstances she would have never even considered the possibility of working for an interstellar conqueror.

     Which, now that she thought about it, raised another uncomfortable point. Somehow, Sloth knew that Korzara was struggling to make ends meet, and counted on this to force her to accept the job.

     Was Sloth the one responsible for posting such an absurdly high bounty on her in the first place? Was her desperation all part of his plan?

     There was no way she could know for sure. And maybe it was best that she didn’t find out the answer.

     ...No point dwelling on that now. She had a job to do. She didn’t like that she had to do it. But she had to do it.

     Steeling her nerves, Korzara began loading her armour’s subspace pockets with weapons. She would need more than just her blaster if she wanted to pull the job off. Once everything was prepared, she engaged her ship’s thrusters, and charted a course for her target.

     ----------------

     Ordinarily, Korzara wouldn’t dare approach the Virtupets Space Station. With so many crafts patrolling nearby, and so many scanners that could detect the Liberada even through its cloaking device, going so close with such a bounty on her head would be a death warrant.

     Still, there were ways to minimize the risks. She wouldn’t dare try to land her ship onto the main hangar, with so many prying eyes. But there were plenty of smaller docks across the Space Station’s hull, many of them abandoned ever since Sloth lost control of the facility in Year 2. She had to manoeuvre quickly in order to avoid crossing paths with any ships that might recognize her, and hope to the stars that the sensors would not alert anyone on deck who knew who she was.

     Her plan had proven fruitful when she found a neglected and disused docking station, meant for small maintenance ships. This was exactly what she needed.

     And so, carefully, she manoeuvred the Liberada onto the dock. With the ship’s airlock properly locked onto the entrance, she carefully made her way into the bowels of the Space Station.

     The inner tunnels were exactly as she had last seen them, fifteen years ago. Most of them were covered in years of accumulated grime, but the tunnels that led to her destination were kept noticeably free of dust, indicating that they were well-travelled.

     Good. That meant the Resistance base was still in the same place it had always been.

     Taking cover behind a tangled mass of nearby water pipes, Korzara kept her eye closely on the base’s entrance. Assuming they still had the same security, she would need to be clever if she wanted to get in.

     Thankfully, she found her opportunity when a red Grundo approached the doors. Before he could even suspect what was happening, Korzara pounced and swiftly delivered a chop to the back of his neck. The Grundo fell unconscious instantly, his body collapsing limply onto the floor.

     Next, Korzara carefully hoisted the Grundo’s body up, pressing his thumb against the biometric reader by the doors. She then pried his eye open and held it up to the scanner, holding him steady as a crimson light read the Grundo’s retinal pattern.

     “Retinal scan accepted,” an automated voice bleeped.

     Then, as the entrance began to unlock, Korzara reached into her armour’s pockets and pulled out the key to her plan’s first step. It was a Thick Smoke Bomb, imported from Mystery Island and smuggled across the solar system. While the technology it used was far from advanced, it was perfect for her purposes.

     The doors swung open, and Korzara manoeuvred herself behind one of the double doors to avoid being seen by those in the base. She lit the bomb’s fuse, and tossed it around the corner. With a bang and a subsequent hiss, the bomb exploded into a cloud of impenetrable smoke.

     “W-what’s going on!?” someone in the base said through an intense coughing fit.

     “We’re under attack!”

     Korzara took the panicked voices as her cue to move. She had to be quick, if she wanted to escape with her prize.

     And so she bolted as fast as she could into the base, her presence concealed by the massive cloud of fumes. And while she didn’t know exactly where the new defence system blueprints were kept, she had a hunch where she might find them.

     Acting swiftly yet silently, Korzara glided across the command room, until she was standing face-to-face with the main computer in the centre. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a thumb-sized hard drive. She stuck it into the computer’s access port, watching as the display bleeped to life through the smoke. With a few taps of the keyboard, she hacked into the systems and began copying the blueprint files onto her drive.

     “Come on, come on,” Korzara muttered under her breath while her heart raced. She couldn’t afford to be held up by a sluggish file transfer.

     As the smoke began to thin, Korzara’s eye suddenly met with a familiar face. A bipedal Cybunny with brown fur and a light orange ruff, dressed in a lightweight orange jumpsuit. No longer the teenage girl that Korzara had met so long ago, the Cybunny’s age and experience over the past fifteen years were apparent in her hardened eyes.

     For several moments, the two simply stared at each other.

     “Scout?”

     “Korzara?”

     The computer console let out a soft beep, indicating that the download was complete.

     “Ugh, finally,” Korzara groaned. She popped the thumb drive out of the computer, shoved it back into her pocket, and immediately bolted towards the exit. “Gotta go!”

     “Wait!” Scout cried over the lingering smoke. “What are you doing!? Someone stop her!”

     “Sorry, kid!” Korzara shouted back. “Nothing personal!”

     “What do you mean, kid!? I’m thirty-one years old! Get back here!”

     Korzara didn’t stick around long enough to argue the point. Just when everyone in the base was starting to catch onto her, she rushed out the door and sprinted into the Space Station’s winding system of corridors and tunnels.

     But the sound of several pairs of footsteps behind her proved she wasn’t in the clear yet. Korzara turned her head to glance behind her, and her eye caught a group of several soldiers pursuing her.

     Fortunately, she had accounted for that possibility. She reached into her pockets again, and pulled out another item imported from Neopia — this time, an ice blue bottle containing a Slippery Floor Potion.

     She then tossed the potion over her shoulder. There was the sound of shattering glass, followed by a sudden chill in the air, as the floor behind her was turned to ice. Korzara didn’t bother to look back long enough to see the results, but judging by the panicked shouts and crashes, her plan worked perfectly.

     From there, it was smooth sailing getting back to her ship. She had lost her pursuers in the chaos of the chase and the winding tunnels of the Station, and before long she was back in the flight deck of the Liberada.

     As the ship took off from the maintenance dock, Korzara breathed a sigh of relief, and charted a course back to the Asteroid Belt. As the autopilot took over, she reached into her pocket, her gaze fixed on the data drive held between her fingers.

     “Alright... just one more thing left to do.”

     She only hoped that she wouldn’t regret doing it.

To be continued…

 
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