Hyren woke up to voices outside his door.
“Hey, Blynn, isn’t tomorrow Grundo Independence Day?”
“Oh snaps, you’re right! How could I forget?!”
The diminutive blue Grundo rolled over in his bed to stare out the window of his room. An almost-full Kreludor, high in the sky, cast its silver light across undulating hills and towering cypress trees. His family had moved to Altador some years ago, from Mystery Island. His owner had been ecstatic over the rediscovery of a lost civilisation. Hyren was more excited to live in a place where it didn’t rain several times daily.
“What do you think Hyren wants to do tomorrow?” Hyren’s brother Pharazon asked from out in the hall. “Maybe we should throw him a surprise party!” The faerie Draik spoke in eager but hushed tones, as if not to wake Hyren.
“Ooh! Awesome idea!” their sister Blynn said. The disco Zafara, on the other hand, had a distinct lack of volume control.
Hyren smiled. With Blynn and Pharazon in cahoots, a party for him would be quite interesting indeed.
Not that he really made a point to celebrate Grundo Independence Day, as he didn’t care much for all the hullaballoo surrounding holidays. But if his family wanted to make a fuss over him, he had learned it was futile to try to stop them, so he would go along with it for their sake.
Hyren winced. Blynn was not known for her singing skills. Not that she cared.
“I should do some research on traditional Kreludan cuisine for dinner tomorrow!” Pharazon said as he followed her. “I wonder if there’s anything about that in our library. This will be the greatest Grundo Independence Day Hyren’s ever had!”
Hyren chuckled, flopping onto his back and closing his eyes. Memories flooded his mind. Pharazon had no idea of the irony of that statement, because Hyren’s day of independence had come somewhat later.
“Fifty seconds to deployment,” a tinny, robotic voice fizzed over the comm.
“Roger,” Commander Hyren said, clamping one large mutant Grundo hand over his helmet. He checked the straps on his armour one last time, shifting his position on one of the carrier ship’s cold metal benches. The diagnostic heads-up display on his helmet’s visor confirmed that everything checked out.
Dr. Sloth was returning to Neopia, and this time, he and his army would not fail.
Hyren received the honour of being chosen to lead the space contingent of his overlord’s elite invasion troops into battle at Sakhmet. Commander Gormos was jealous, of course, and Commander Garoo was not much happier—even though he had the prestige of being the first to the planet with Sloth’s ground forces.
But if anyone deserved the glory of this day, it was Sloth’s most valuable and productive commanding officer. Hyren had taken over a thousand worlds under Sloth’s banner since that fateful day on Doran when the Grundo had willingly pledged himself to the scientist’s quest for dominion. Sloth would make more of him than anything on that dull and unchanging homeworld.
To begin Hyren’s military career, Sloth had mutated him, but allowed him to keep his mind. “You are going to be very useful to me,” the green-skinned supergenius said on that day long ago as Hyren inspected his new form, so much larger and stronger than what he was used to. “I will give you all the power you could ever desire, Hyren,” Sloth told him. “In return, all I ask is that you never renounce your loyalty to me.The day you do will be the day you draw your last breath.”
The navigation ‘bot’s voice brought Hyren back to the present. He flexed his meaty fingers in front of him. He didn’t miss his weak blue body a bit. This new form had been made perfect for conquest.
The constant dull roar of the engines was joined by the thrumming whine of shields that protected the massive craft from the heat of atmospheric entry. The turbulence of hitting air after the cruise through the vacuum of space made the ship rattle, and Hyren reached up and grabbed one of the support straps that hung from the ceiling. A few more moments and it would be over. He’d gone through this routine countless times before.
The shaking lessened and the ship veered, sending Hyren leaning against the shoulder of the trooper next to him. The other mutant did not react.
Hyren glanced up at the row of expressionless Grundo faces in front of him. None of them remembered their home world, and had only enough cognitive ability remaining to aim a blaster and follow orders. Hyren had lucked out—or more accurately, he’d had the foresight they lacked back on Doran. He felt a bit sorry for them, but perhaps they deserved this for cowering in fear before Dr. Sloth instead of being open to opportunity. At any rate, he had more important things to concentrate on now.
“Ten seconds. Prepare for deployment.”
At the end of the bay, next to where Hyren sat, a large door swung open. Bright daylight and hot, dry, sandy air peeled into the regulated atmosphere of the ship. Hyren squinted against the light for a moment before his visor automatically darkened to ease his seeing.
The commander stood up, sending a neural signal that commanded his troops to do the same. Gripping a handhold on the inside hull, Hyren planted his two-toed feet on the floor and watched as other ships circled and dove toward a walled city of alabaster spires and gleaming golden domes. The battle going on below had been instigated by the ground division a few days previous, leaving Sakhmet already smoking. He could imagine the beleaguered inhabitants pointing up at his black fleet in confusion, not comprehending that it would be their doom, and it made him smirk in amusement.
The city wall provided an ineffectual defence against an attack from the sky, and the carriers swooped low over the ancient stone to land. The commander counted the remaining seconds in his head, then— “All troops, move out!” Hyren roared, leaping from the bay. His weight impacted the parched ground and kicked up clouds of dust.
Shouts of chaos and the unsteady rhythm of blaster fire filled Hyren’s antennae. “Two of you, flank me—the rest, fall behind!” he barked into his helmet. Amidst all the mess of battle, it was too easy to get distracted and accidentally send a faulty mental command, so issuing orders out loud made his directions clear.
He headed them toward the largest building in the city, and anyone who got in their way was disarmed, stunned, and carried back to the dropships. If Hyren’s troops could seize the palace, the rest of this backwards land would follow, and the planet soon after. And that would show Garoo who was the better commander.
“Hyren!” Garoo’s voice shouted into the Grundo’s helmet. “Took you long enough! You should get your warp drives checked!”
“The warp drives are fine,” Hyren grunted. “We got here right on schedule and you know it.” The Grundo and his troops pushed past another wave of defenders. The Neopets in this part of the city were better-trained, a mix of royal guards and warriors who likely had come from other areas of Neopia to help. But Hyren loved a good challenge.
“Are you going to the palace?” Garoo asked. “Don’t take the main road! It’s been blockaded and we can’t get past. Go through the side streets to the west!”
“Roger!” Hyren said. He saw a thick knot of fighting up ahead, so he turned down a narrow alleyway and some of his Grundos followed. On his HUD map, the rest of them swarmed like insects, turning in a massive wave away from the wide main street to trickle down side lanes.
“I got word from Sloth right before you got here,” Garoo said. “He says to capture as many test subjects as possible. He wants to make Neopia pay for ruining his last plans.”
“Can’t say I blame him,” Hyren said as he looked up at the tall, earth-toned buildings that crowded the lane. “Plenty of weird new creatures for him to experiment on here. I’ll get to that as soon as we take the palace—”
“Sloth wants you to focus on getting test subjects,” Garoo said. “My forces will handle the palace.”
Hyren paused and narrowed his eyes. “What? But we’re perfectly capable of—”
“You do your job and I’ll do mine. Or are you still too thickheaded to realise the importance of following orders?”
The mutant Grundo leaned against a wooden door and balled his fist, feeling the rage well up inside him. He didn’t bring his troops here just to run errands and do cleanup when there was a major military objective right in their sights. What if Sloth really did think him inferior to Garoo?
Hyren gritted his teeth and sent the neural signal for his helmet to call Sloth’s direct comm line. Amid the din of battle, he could barely hear the faint beeping, and he held his breath as he waited for Sloth to pick up. It seemed odd that Sloth would send Hyren and his troops all the way here if they weren’t going to help occupy Sakhmet, and Hyren wanted to hear the order from the man himself.
“Doctor Frank Sloth is unavailable,” said a prerecorded artificial intelligence. “Please leave your mess—”
Hyren hung up and let out a sharp sigh. If Sloth really did want him to focus on obtaining test subjects, Hyren would at least do the best blasted job possible. Sloth would have no reason to criticise Hyren’s performance today.
He kicked down the nearest wooden door and smashed aside a hasty barricade of crates. Behind it stood a green Techo pointing an arrow at his face. Next to the Techo, a purple Scorchio hefted a battle hammer.
“Leave us alone!” the Scorchio said, flapping her wings and swinging the hammer around to swipe at Hyren’s legs. He dove and tackled her to the ground.
The Techo let an arrow fly, but Hyren threw up his arm and it pinged off of his gauntlet. He picked up the Scorchio and shoved her toward the other Neopet, sending them both tumbling
Something struck the back of Hyren’s helmet with a dull clang. Spinning around, he lunged for his attacker, wrenching the wooden pole out of her hand.
This being was not a Neopet. She was taller than most pet species, mammalian with smooth bronze skin and long black hair. “You—you work for Sloth!” she stammered. “He came back?!”
“That’s right, owner,” Hyren said with a scowl. Dr. Sloth had a special hate reserved for owners. They had foiled his plans the first time around and freed a large portion of his Grundo army, and had fallen under the auspices of his greatest nemesis, the Space Faerie.
The Techo and the Scorchio took that opportunity to tackle Hyren. He grappled with them for a few seconds before he roared and rolled over, pinning them beneath one large hand and tearing their weapons away. The commander picked them up and handed them to one of his troopers while another grabbed the owner.
“Take them back to the ship,” Hyren said. “Sloth needs more humans for his experiements.”
“You pond scum!” the girl said, struggling to get free. “If I ever see you again—”
“Like that’ll ever happen,” Hyren said as she was carried away. He tried hard not to think too much about their fate. After all, Dr. Sloth’s experiements kept the man satisfied and kept his empire running with the latest scientific achievements. And in Hyren’s eyes, most other sentients were annoyingly weak and whiny and simply not worth caring about. They all hated him anyway, so there was no point playing nice.
The sounds of battle outside intensified as the commander climbed to the second floor alone. The air shook with regular explosions and the entire building rocked, sand and debris blowing in through the open windows.
Ripping a curtain off of its rings, Hyren stalked through the entryway at the top of the stairs and into a simple living area. Antennae low, he scanned the room with his bio-sensors. No signs of life, but perhaps that family had been hiding treasure. He knelt down on the floor and moved to check under the bed.
“We’re pulling out, Hyren,” Garoo’s voice snapped through the comm.
“Wait—what?!” Hyren said.
“They have reinforcements coming in from the north. We’re vastly outnumbered!”
“Garoo!” Hyren groaned. “I thought you said you had everything under control when I was on my way here!” He scooted out from under the bed and bumped his helmet on the underside, hissing in annoyance. “Fine, I’ll redirect the troops—“
With a deafening boom, the entire building shuddered and rippled, swaying like jelly. Dust sifted from the ceiling as Hyren staggered to stand, and he looked up and saw a swarm of black ships retreating into the sky.
“You misunderstand me, Hyren,” Garoo said, his voice taking on a sinister edge. “We’re leaving right now.”
Hyren glanced at the corner of his HUD and saw that Garoo was using a private channel. “What are you doing?!” the Grundo yelled.
“Seizing my opportunity,” Garoo said. “Did you really think Sloth would be concerned with test subjects right now? You’re still just as dumb as any other Grundo. Once you’re gone, who do you think Sloth will give your troops to?”
Hyren scowled—now he really wished Sloth would have picked up earlier. “You slimehead!” he said as he stumbled down the stairs, clinging to the wall of the swaying building. “Sloth’s going to be furious if you lose one of his other commanders!”
Garoo snickered. “For all Sloth knows, I did everything I could to save you. Nice knowing you.”
The roof cracked and buckled, and the last thing Hyren remembered was pain.
As he came back into consciousness, Hyren’s head rang as though he was trapped in a world of cacophony. He lay there for a moment, astonished that he was alive, and in too much pain and disorientation to do much else.
After a few moments, the clamor began to resolve into voices.
“How many did they take?” someone said.
“Initial reports are saying a hundred… possibly a hundred fifty,” said someone else. “And they left many more wounded.”
Hyren realised that he was trapped under something heavy and angular—the ruins of the ceiling. Thank the fates his armour had held. He opened his eyes. In the cold and the dark, the air smelled of dust, sweat, and fire. His HUD was blank and not even the hiss of static came from the comm channel. The electronics were likely scrambled.
“Yikes. Any way to track them?” asked the first voice.
“Those poor pets and owners. Do you think the Space Faerie will do something about it?”
“I sure hope so. She’s helped in the past, anyway.”
“Well, the legends do say she appears to valiant Neopets in their time of greatest need. Let’s just hope those legends are true.”
The voices came closer, and Hyren heard the grinding sound of shifting brick and the clatter of wood and pottery. In spite of the pain, he struggled to move, but the rubble had him hemmed in on all sides.
“What’s—did you hear something?” one of the voices asked.
“Yeah, over there!”
Chunks of the debris on top of Hyren slid aside, allowing flickering firelight to reach his vision. He let out a low growl, annoyed at being found like a child who was a poor sport at hide-and-seek.
“Good gracious!” said a green Quiggle holding a torch as she used her free webbed hand to try to clear more of the collapsed ceiling. “There’s someone under here! Hurry!”
A burly red Kau appeared in Hyren’s field of view, helping the Quiggle clear away pieces of brick. “Are they—“ he began to say. The two stopped cold, their eyes growing wide as they stared down at their unusual discovery.
Hyren seized that opportunity. Ignoring his wounds and his aching head, he burst out of the remaining rubble. The two other Neopets stumbled back with shouts of surprise. And then Hyren ran. His scientifically-enhanced stamina would carry him through the burst of adrenaline until he could find a more opportune time to be out of commission.
“It’s one of Sloth’s troops! Get him!” the Kau said. Out of the corners of his vision, Hyren saw other Neopets converging on him. Some of them had weapons, and none of them looked happy to see him.
Hyren knew when he was outmatched. Dodging the swing of an Aisha’s scimitar, he used the momentum to vault himself onto a Skeith’s broad back and spring from there onto a low veranda. His tough bare feet scraped away stucco as he pulled himself onto a balcony.
“Blasted city,” he muttered, swinging his leg over the ledge and dropping onto the terrace. The wall loomed nearby.
So did a trio of Eyries carrying spears. Letting out piercing cries, they swooped down on him. Hyren lifted a large urn beside him and used it as a shield to deflect the foremost Eyrie’s attack and push her off course. She screeched in annoyance as she tumbled through the air. Her two wingpets arched around for another pass.
That was all the time Hyren needed to push off the edge of the balcony and lunge for the building next door, pulling himself onto the roof. He took off at a sprint, bounding from rooftop to rooftop towards the city wall. In the moonlight, he could see the path ahead and judge how much energy to expend, when to jump and where. His body screamed for rest, but to shift to a lower gear now would mean the end.
The Eyries shrieked again as they closed in. Hyren reached for the sword that usually sat at his back—and felt nothing. It must have been left behind in the debris of the building. He groaned, but he couldn’t go back for it now. Instead he pulled his blaster from its holster – at least that was still there – and checked the power levels. It still worked.
Hyren twisted around and aimed a few shots at the Eyries, clumsy but hopefully enough to get them to back off. Hyren had never been the best marksman - he preferred close combat where he could take advantage of his brute strength - but one of the blaster bolts connected and an Eyrie crumpled to the previous rooftop, stunned.
And suddenly Hyren reached the wall. Promising his aching body it could rest soon, the commander spotted a damaged portion of the thick rampart and leaped. For one breathless moment he felt frozen in the air, glancing down at a dumbfounded mob of pets in the alley below.
Then Hyren landed, slipping on the crumbling stone and plummeting toward the sand. He tucked himself into a roll, clenching his teeth as his bruised shoulder absorbed the shock of the fall, then sprang up and took off again. It hadn’t exactly been graceful, but it had gotten him out of Sakhmet.
“Quick, let’s go after him!” one of the Eyries said to her superior as Hyren escaped into the night.
“No need,” their leader said. “He won’t last long out there. And Sloth is light-years away. This guy is on his own.”
Her last words bit into Hyren’s mind as he crested a sand dune and slid down the other side, falling to his knees at the base, his chest heaving as the pain returned in full force. On his own. He was alone. Alone on a hostile planet he was supposed to have helped conquer.
Hyren craned his neck to look at the vast night sky, full of other worlds he had subjugated for Sloth. Somewhere, out there, was a spacefleet that had left behind one of its most elite officers. Did they even bother looking for him before they retreated? Garoo would have dissuaded them, Hyren thought bitterly, clenching a handful of sand in his fist and squeezing the grains to distract himself from his rage. Garoo would be all too quick to announce his fellow commander’s demise—and then take Hyren’s troops and his share of Sloth’s favour.
With an angry shout, Hyren threw the sand down and sat back on the
dune, rubbing his thick arms to try to keep himself warm. What if Sloth never
came back for him? The commander’s fatigue finally took over and he closed his
eyes, lulled to sleep by the singing of the night wind across the desert.