Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Worth Fighting For, Chapter 4

The three ate in silence after that. Neither Terra nor Blynn said anything. Hyren couldn’t blame them. He had become quite good at getting people to hate him. Not that that made him feel any better, but Hyren tried to swallow the emotions along with his dinner.

Once he finished his sandwich, Hyren removed his helmet and fiddled with it, as per his evening routine. It still didn’t respond, 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.

After Terra and Blynn had finished their food, Hyren said, “We should 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 slowly, 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 seemed more interested in the scrolls. Hyren watched as they made their rounds of the room, murmuring to each other, 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?”

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. Hyren didn’t get many quiet times like this. He had such a demanding job that not having any work to do felt alien.

Terra returned 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 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 campsite 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 thick book, obviously written for adult scholars, titled Space and Magic. “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 cracked the large volume open to where she had placed a bookmark. “Well, when you figure out which one you do want, let me know. We’ll go play some Meerca Chase.” Her smile faded and she suddenly stared a bit too seriously at the book, but when she caught Blynn looking at her, she forced a grin. “Oh, could you hit the lights?”

“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.

With nothing else to look at now, Hyren watched them settle down. Blynn turned circles in her sleeping bag several times before collapsing in a heap, her tail lolling out of the bedding. After a few short minutes her breathing slowed and deepened. Terra continued to read, turning the pages unusually quickly as though she ingested the information at a quicker rate than most, but a grave look had settled back on her expression and she seemed tense.

Hyren kept trying to convince himself that he shouldn’t feel bad about being callous toward them. Why should it matter? They were only two little beings on a remote planet in a vast universe. But somehow, trying to put them in that perspective did not seem to diminish who they were. After all, Hyren himself was absolutely miniscule compared to things like stars and planets. But he had a very important job and had greatly influenced the spread of Sloth’s empire. It didn’t feel right to simply view these creatures as insignificant specks. But he wasn’t sure how else to safely perceive them.

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

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. Anyway, why do you care? I’ve been a jerk to you.”

Terra fidgeted with the hem of her sleeping bag. “Well, I… I don’t like seeing people suffer,” she said quietly.

Hyren still wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. But he didn’t want her to think she could get attached to him. “So it really is all about you in the end,” he said. “Just looking out for yourself and your own feelings.”

“Wait, no!” Terra said. “That’s not it at all—” Her face scrunched and she rolled over, pulling her sleeping bag over her head.

Hyren reached over and shut the lantern windows, engulfing them in darkness. He couldn’t afford to be a nice person, he kept telling himself. It was better for everyone this way.

Sleep was not an option for him. He’d spent most of the day asleep and now was the time when he would be out scavenging the sands. But it would be dangerous to try to make these two youngsters 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? Because he didn’t usually have to deal with other sapient beings like this. The mutant Grundo soldiers under his command had all the thinking power of automatons, and Hyren merely directed them in battle when they weren’t in stasis storage. He couldn’t stand his fellow high-ranking officers, and he rarely saw them anyway with such a large galaxy to manage.

But these things sleeping in front of him had complex minds and emotions. Hyren couldn’t shake the look on Terra’s face when he interpreted the murals for her, or Blynn treating him like a joke in a way that, looking back, almost made him want to laugh at himself as well. He found their personalities refreshingly different and difficult to dislike.

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 they were in good condition so they could get him to a spaceport. That was all.

“I’m scared.” Her voice was shaky, on the verge of cracking.

“If anything attacks us down here,” Hyren said, “I’ll take care of them—“

“I’m scared we’re trapped and we won’t be able to get out.”

“Oh.” Hyren reached over and unlatched the lantern window, allowing it to hang ajar. The mote within lay 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 and flared up again. Terra sat up and hugged her knees to her chest, her cheeks streaked with tears. Her glasses lay nearby, and without them hiding her face, her eyes seemed larger and more expressive

The commander scrutinised her for a moment. She really was just a child, he realised. And she kept giving him a chance, no matter how many times he tried to convince her that he wasn’t worth her time. He had to admit that took a lot of courage and pluck, more than he saw in most people. He found it difficult to keep being grouchy with someone like that. “You seemed fine earlier,” he said. “When the two of you were exploring this room.”

She rubbed her sleeve over her eyes and said, “I was trying to be brave for Blynn. But this is the craziest adventure we’ve ever been on.” The girl huddled against herself like the surrounding darkness was her enemy, and her whispers grew more frantic. “What if this whole cave falls in on us? We could 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 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.”

Hyren’s own words echoed uncomfortably in his mind as the girl watched him. Had he said the wrong thing? He wished Blynn was awake just so he’d have more of a social cue. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d tried to reassure someone, and he felt completely out of his element. Countless hours of combat sims could never have trained the commander for this sort of scenario.

Finally, Terra smiled a little. “I appreciate that. I think if we work together, we can find a way out.”

“Yeah… I think you’re right,” Hyren grunted. “Hey, uh… about earlier… sorry. I shouldn’t have been so harsh.” He cleared his throat. “I mean, I’m a good guy now, so I guess I should stop being such a jerk, huh?” That offered a suitable cover for the fact that he just didn’t like that he had hurt her feelings.

Terra’s smile brightened. “Thanks. I forgive you.”

For some reason that lightened the weight in Hyren’s stomach, but not entirely. He glanced at the complicated book by her side. “You doing some reading for a class or something?” he asked.

Terra chuckled faintly. “No, just reading for fun. It relaxes me before bed.”

“How old are you?” Hyren asked.

“Fourteen,” Terra said. “Although you probably don’t know about human growth rates, so that number is meaningless to you. I’m a young adolescent.”

Hyren’s eyebrows rose. “Are you aware how intelligent you are for your age? Most young adolescent sapients are a lot more… obnoxious.” He couldn’t help but look over at a still sleeping Blynn, although he somehow doubted she was entirely asleep.

“I’m really different,” Terra said. Her smile faded. “I know I’m not like most people my age. They don’t talk to me. And they get on my nerves, too. They’re so…”

“Immature?” Hyren asked, and Terra nodded. He chuckled. “Well, that’s because you’re so blasted smart. Of course they don’t like you. And I can tell Blynn’s smart, too. She just expresses it differently.”

“She’d be pleased to hear that,” Terra said, glancing over at her Neopet. “I created her a little while ago. She just… came the way she is.”

“Yeah, you couldn’t make up a personality like hers,” Hyren said. He sighed and looked away. “You know… I’m a misfit, too. I am, uh, was the only mutant Grundo working for Sloth who hadn’t been reprogrammed. The other commanders don’t consider me their equal, even though I’ve done more for Sloth than they ever have. My mutant Grundo troops couldn’t carry out a conversation with me even if they tried. For me, it’s… kind of pointless to have friends.”

“I’m sorry,” Terra said. “I know how you feel. Blynn and I just don’t fit in anywhere. We’re not interested in being the best at the Battledome, or getting rich or famous. We like exploring and learning. And like you said, I’m not… giggly and gossipy like other girls my age.” She winced. “Nobody really understands us, and they don’t try to. They just think we’re weird.”

Hyren felt he could see now why she had said to him earlier that scary things just needed someone to care about them. She spoke from similar experiences of being rejected and shunned. “Well, that’s their loss, you know,” he said. “I think those idiots are missing out on—on two extraordinary kids.” Now that he had to put on a nice act, nothing was really stopping him from throwing out a well-deserved compliment, and even though he hadn’t quite planned on it, he smiled at her for good measure.

Terra’s own grin widened, and she wiped a few tears on her sleeve. “Wow, thanks. That’s the nicest thing anybody’s ever said to us. I’m glad we met you.”

“Really?” Hyren asked, his antennae twitching in surprise. “Even after I’m the reason we wound up down here?”

“It was an accident,” Terra said. “But I can’t help but feel like maybe it was meant to happen. So we could finally meet someone who likes us.”

Hyren swallowed hard. Now he really felt bad for lying to them, and he was struck with a sudden deep sadness at the idea of leaving for Virtupets and never seeing them again. What if nobody else ever appreciated them like he did?

He felt he was just getting way too sappy for his own good, but he couldn’t bring himself to push Terra away again, not after the conversation they just had. Changing the subject seemed like a better option. “Well, thanks,” he said. “Okay, you need some sleep now. Otherwise, you’ll be too tired to move in the morning.”

“Right,” Terra said, and she lay back down. After a moment, she let out a breath and looked back at Hyren. “I’m having a hard time falling asleep. I can’t sleep when I’m worried. It’s like my brain won’t shut off.”

Hyren chuckled. “It’s just because you’re crazy smart, is all.” An idea struck him. “Want to hear more stories?”

She glanced over at him. “Yeah—do you have any more?”

Hyren grinned. “I’ve been around this great big galaxy of ours more times than I can count, missy. I could tell you stories every day for a thousand years and still have more to tell. They don’t call my exploits legendary for nothing.”

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

“Sure, why not. It’s not like I have anywhere else I can be at the moment,” Hyren said with a smirk, motioning to his leg. 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. I’ll tell you about the time we found a world of Alien Aishas who carved these magnificent sculptures from glass. 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. Her eyes closed and her breathing slowed.

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

He found himself feeling rather buoyant as well. He enjoyed telling her stories. Something inside of him didn’t want to stop. What had happened to that crusty 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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