Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Worth Fighting For, Chapter 4

The three ate in silence after that. Neither Terra nor Blynn made an attempt to say anything. Hyren couldn’t blame them. They were young—they probably didn’t understand the gravity of their situation. It would take a while for things to sink in. Not that that made him feel any better, but Hyren tried to swallow the emotions along with his dinner.

Once he was done with his sandwich, Hyren removed his helmet and fiddled with it, as per his evening routine. It was still nonfunctional and he decided to finally let go of the meager hope of it ever working again, but it provided protection for his head and face, at least.

Once Terra and Blynn had finished their food, Hyren said, “Well, we’re going to camp in here for the night. Despite its age, this room looks pretty stable, with no signs of decay except for that hole we fell through. In the morning, we’ll start finding our way out.”

Terra nodded morosely, wadding up her paper and stuffing it in her backpack. She glanced over at Blynn, who returned the look and took a sip from her canteen before trudging over to the piles of treasure, systematically inspecting each gold coin and string of pearls.

After a moment, Terra joined her, although the owner’s interest was more in the scrolls. Hyren watched as they made their rounds of the room, murmuring to each other, looking at everything, and, most surprisingly to him, putting things back when they were done.

“I thought you were treasure hunters,” Hyren said. “You know how rich all of this stuff could make you? Why don’t you take any of it?” Not that they stood a chance of escaping, of course, but he was so used to plundering worlds that it was odd to see treasure not being looted.

They stopped and looked back at him. “We don’t do this for the money,” Terra replied, her voice devoid of the warmth of earlier. “We’re explorers. We find things just to find them.”

“Yeah,” Blynn said. “We love going on adventures.” Her tone had all the enthusiasm of a deflated balloon.

“I wonder if the Sakhmet Museum of History might be able to decipher this writing,” Terra said as she unrolled another scroll. “I wonder what these people wrote about that was so important that they stashed it here. Maybe it’s poems, or stories.”

His wounded leg stretched out in front of him, Hyren folded his hands behind his head and reclined on the rock pile. His eyes moved from the two youngsters combing the room, to the murals overhead and the dancing magic shedding its light on them. All was quiet except for the occasional clinking of metal or clatter of wood from the contents of the treasure piles being investigated. Hyren didn’t get many quiet times like this. He was always so concentrated on his job that to sit back and rest for a while felt alien.

Terra came back to her pack and pulled out a sketchbook and a pencil, and went around the room again, balancing the sketchbook on her knees as she crouched in front of golden statuettes, engraved plates, and painted vases. Blynn, meanwhile, preoccupied herself with seeing how high she could stack coins before they toppled.

After what felt to Hyren like a long while, the pet and owner finally returned to their little bivouac and laid out their bedrolls. “Am I ever gonna get a Petpet?” Blynn asked as she pulled a yellow Fuzzle plushie out of her pack and hugged it tight, rolling back on her sleeping bag.

“Sure, I don’t see why not,” Terra said as she pulled out a book, Koi Tales. “Do you know what kind you want?”

“A cool one,” Blynn said, squinting her eyes as she stared up into the light. “Like, not a Greeble. Or a Doglefox, everybody has a Doglefox.”

Terra laughed as she took off her glasses and cracked the thick volume open to where she had placed a bookmark. “Well,” she said, “when you figure out which one you do want, let me know. We’ll go play some Meerca Chase.” Hyren noticed that her tone had a certain hidden tension to it that wasn’t there before.

“Oh, could you hit the lights?” Terra asked Blynn just as the Zafara was about to slide into her sleeping bag.

“Yeah, sure thing,” Blynn said. She got up and went to the wall, putting all of her weight into shoving the switch back upward. Thick stone obscured the magical lighting once more, and it took a few moments for Hyren’s eyes to adjust to the lantern’s dim glow. The Zafara opened a window on the other side of the lantern, allowing the fire mote’s illumination to spill out over a wider area instead of being concentrated in one direction.

As they settled down to sleep, Hyren chewed on his feelings. Why did he hate seeing them upset? He couldn’t start caring about them, not now. He had to get them to Sloth—to the person he was unfailingly loyal to. Nothing could get in the way of that. So why did he have to feel so bad about being so callous to them?

After reading for a while, Terra set the book on her stomach and looked over at him. “Are you gonna be cold tonight?” she asked.

Hyren blinked, breaking away from his thoughts and glancing over at her. “I’ll be fine,” he said hoarsely. “My metabolism is hardier than yours. I’m built for endurance.” He had to admit, Sloth’s genetic alterations had been pretty ingenious. Hyren and others of his kind were physically perfect warriors. “I thought you were angry with me,” he added.

She grimaced and picked up the book again, obviously just pretending to read. “I’m not. It’s pointless to get angry,” she said, her face hidden so Hyren could not read it.

“Let me guess,” Hyren said, “you’re hoping if you’re friendly enough, Mister Big Bad Grundo is going to have a change of heart and let you go. Well, sorry, it only happens that way in stories. What matters most at the end of the day is getting my job done. I don’t feel beholden to you or your Neopet for anything.” His red eyes hardened. “Besides, I’m not someone you want to be friends with. I’m not a very nice person.”

Terra’s face scrunched and she rolled over, pulling her sleeping bag over her head.

“Point proven,” Hyren muttered, reaching over and shutting the lantern windows, engulfing them in darkness. In his line of work, he could not afford to be a nice person.

He wasn’t sleeping. He’d spent most of the day asleep and now was the time when he would be wide awake, out scavenging the sands. But it would be dangerous to try to make these two move through unknown, ancient, and probably hazardous places if they were fatigued, so he would just have to work on their schedule.

Unfortunately, that left Hyren alone with his thoughts again. Why was all of this so emotionally difficult? He’d never really had to deal with—well, taking care of other sapient beings before. The mutant Grundo soldiers under his command had all the thinking power of automatons, and it was merely his job to direct them in battle when they weren’t in stasis storage. His fellow high-ranking officers needed no looking after, and he rarely saw them, anyway, dispersed throughout the fleet as they all were.

But these things sleeping in front of him had minds and emotions. They laughed, they cried, they played and learned, and they asked him questions and he told them stories in response. Hyren couldn’t shake his memories of the look on Terra’s face when he interpreted the murals for her. For some reason, it wasn’t something he wanted to forget.

Terra had long since become silent, but her breathing betrayed her. Far from the deep steady rhythm of sleep, it was short, erratic, and forced.

“You okay?” Hyren whispered before he could stop himself. He had to make sure no harm came to his prisoners, he told himself. Sloth needed them in good condition. That was all.

“I’m scared.” The voice that met him was shaky, on the verge of cracking.

Hyren’s stomach clenched. “If anything attacks us,” he said, “I’ll fight them off—“

“I’m claustrophobic,” Terra said.

“Oh.” The Grundo reached over and unlatched the lantern window, allowing it to hang ajar. The mote within was dormant and dim, and Hyren tapped one of the lantern’s glass panes like he had seen Blynn do earlier. The little fire entity crackled in annoyance before flaring up again. Terra sat up and hugged her knees to her chest, her cheeks streaked with tears.

The commander scrutinised her for a moment. She really was just a child, he realised, feeling lost and scared and alone in a situation beyond her control. Had he ever felt that way? If so, it was too long ago to remember. “You seemed fine earlier,” he said.

She rubbed her sleeve over her eyes and said, “I was trying to be brave for Blynn. But the truth is, we don’t go deep underground like this, and never for this long.” The girl huddled against herself like the surrounding darkness was her enemy. “I’ve never slept somewhere I can’t see the sky. I’m really scared,” she said again, her whispering growing more frantic. “What if this whole cave falls in on us? What if we run out of air down here… what if there’s no way out?”

The look she gave the commander made him flinch. He’d seen fear before, countless times, on the faces of the inhabitants of worlds he overthrew. But this was different. She seemed to be pleading to him like a child needing comfort from a parent.

He stared at her in silence for a moment. “We’ll find a way out,” he said. “I’ve been through worse situations than this. I won’t let anything happen to either of you.”

His own words echoed uncomfortably in his mind as the girl watched him. Had he said the wrong thing? He was totally at a loss as to what to do in this situation, and he wished Blynn was awake just so he’d have more of a cue.

Finally, Terra smiled a little. “I think you are a nice person,” she said.

“I’m not,” Hyren was quick to say, folding his arms over his chest as his antennae lowered in agitation. Why did she have to make his life so complicated? “Why are the two of you so insistent on making friends with me? I’m the reason you’re down here in the first place, and you know very well where you and your Neopet are going after this.”

The girl’s smile faded and she glanced aside for a moment before returning her gaze to him. “Because you actually talk to us,” she said. “Most other people think we’re weird. We’re… kinda misfits.”

One of Hyren’s antennae perked up. “Really?” he asked. “You don’t seem so weird to me—I mean, I think everyone on this blasted planet is weird, but you and Blynn are no less weird than the rest of them.” This wasn’t entirely true. They defied everything about his past interactions with people, and in a strangely good way.

Terra shrugged and said, “Nah… we don’t really fit in. Blynn doesn’t battle, we don’t try to get rich or have fancy things, we don’t enter any contests or stuff like that. We just like exploring and learning.” She paused. “Nobody really understands us.”

Hyren could relate. None of his troops had the ability to carry out a conversation. The other commanders were constantly infighting, vying for Sloth’s favor. Not even robot Petpets did more than acknowledge him. He didn’t really have anybody he felt safe voicing his thoughts and feelings to.

 Terra shot a look at the sleeping Zafara before smiling at Hyren bittersweetly. “I think we annoy most people,” she said.

The commander chuckled and said, “The day Blynn stops being annoying will be the day Sloth wears a pink tutu.”

Terra blushed, an embarrassed grin spreading up her face. “She was like that when I created her,” she said. “I can’t really control her.” A sudden look of worry fell over the girl’s expression and she added, “What about me? Am I annoying?”

The Grundo had to think about how to answer this one. At first she had aggravated him with her constant doting and refusing to think of him as an enemy. But now he couldn’t really bring himself to think of her this way, much less voice such a thing. And by this point he just wanted her to get to sleep, otherwise she’d be too tired to move in the morning.

“Not so much,” he said, trying to be diplomatic. “Thank you… for helping me with my leg. It’s feeling much better now.” He smiled, trying to show the sincerity he knew she was looking for.

“Oh… yeah, no problem,” Terra said. Her anxiety visibly faded and she offered him a small smile in return.

Now to get her to fall asleep. Once again, something he’d never had to deal with before. Hyren racked his memory trying to figure out what seemed to relax her, and once again remembered how enthralled she was with his interpreting the tale the murals told. He said, “You said you liked learning, right?”

“Uh-huh,” she said.

“Do you like stories?” he asked.

She paused, and then nodded. “Yeah… why?” she asked. “Do you have any?”

Hyren grinned. “I’ve been around this great big galaxy of ours more times than I can count, missy,” he said. “I could tell you stories every day for a thousand years and still have more to tell.” There was a reason his exploits were legendary, after all.

Terra’s eyes brightened, and she yawned. “Can I hear them?” she asked.

“Sure, why not. It’s not like I’m doing much else at the moment,” Hyren said with a sarcastic shrug. He knew he had to be careful to not act too friendly toward the two. The last thing he wanted was for them to get more attached to him than they already were beginning to be. It would just be all the more devastating when he gave them over to Sloth. And not just for them, he regretfully admitted to himself.

The commander stretched, folding his hands behind his head and staring up into the darkness as though it contained visions of his past. “Let’s see,” he said. “I’ll tell you about the time we found a world of AlienAishas who carved these magnificent sculptures from glass. They didn’t really look like much, but when the Aishas set the sculptures out in the wind, the glass would resonate and produce ethereal tones. They’d set up entire symphonies that carried for miles on the breeze…”

As he continued describing the sights he’d seen on that planet, Terra’s eyelids drooped. The girl lay back down and snuggled into her sleeping bag, closing her eyes, her breathing slowing.

He’d have to remember to tell her more some other time, Hyren decided as he shut the lantern window again and reclined on his rocky cushion. But he wouldn’t say anything about the invasions. The goal was to relax her, after all.

And yet he found himself feeling rather buoyant as well. He enjoyed telling her stories. Something inside of him didn’t want to stop. What was wrong with him? Where was that old commander who didn’t need anybody but himself?

Thoughts stormed around his head ceaselessly. It was a good thing he didn’t need to sleep that night, because he never would have been able to.

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