“What’s a starship doing in the Haunted Woods?” Terra asked. Oblivious to the tension, she continued to stare up at the forest canopy, while Blynn glared at Hyren suspiciously.
He took a breath and leaned forward, hooking an arm around the owner’s middle and pulling her back in. “I don’t have the time to explain,” he said. He sat upright and stared hard into the girls’ eyes. “Make a break to the east. Terra, use everything I taught you to defend yourself.”
Hyren hated the idea of leaving them alone in the Woods. In spite of their weapons, the past night had taught him well why they did not relish coming here, especially if they were deeper in than usual. But he hated the thought of bringing them with him, straight into the jaws of danger, even more.
“Why?” Terra asked. “Why can’t you come with us?”
He felt a fresh surge of guilt. “I have to go back to where I belong,” he said, getting up and stretching the lethargy out of his legs. “I’m sorry.”
“You—you said you weren’t going back to Sloth,” Terra said.
“I know,” Hyren said. “I lied, and I’m sorry. And now it’s come back to bite me.”
“Oh…” Terra said. She swallowed hard. “Well—then—can we come with you?” she asked as she and Blynn shouldered their packs.
Hyren paused to look at her. She was so quick to forgive. He wished he could stay here on Neopia with her and Blynn. “No,” he said. “I hate the idea of either of you having anything to do with Virtupets. I think you’re safer here.”
He tensed as he heard the roar of the engine return and then start to downshift. “Go! Get out of here!” he said, and then he heard the crunch of boots on dry leaves. Hyren’s antennae lowered in frustration and he put a hand on each of the girls’ shoulders. “Okay, change of plan,” he said. “You’re coming with me—temporarily. Play along. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
They nodded, and the three emerged from the hollow to see a pink Aisha step out of the trees—no, an Alien Aisha, Hyren realised upon seeing her extra set of ears. “Ah, there you are,” she said, looking the commander and his companions up and down.
“Sorry I missed your call,” Hyren said, raising a hand in greeting. “Been having an interesting time of things planetside.”
She tossed her long mane of white hair and said, “I was starting to wonder if I’d ever find you. Dratted foliage, it’s like looking for an Orbulon in an asteroid field. Well, it’s nice to finally make your acquaintance, Commander. I’m Sophix II. Currently employed by Sloth as a scout, and whatever other odd jobs he’ll pay me for.”
“You’re a mercenary, then?” Hyren asked. “So that’s why I haven’t heard of you.”
“All right, so I’m certainly nowhere near as notorious as Ylana Skyfire,” Sophix said as she leaned casually against a tree. “But I’m also no wide-eyed conscript. I’m guessing these are the prisoners mentioned in the report.”
“Y—yeah. Yes,” Hyren said. Gritting his teeth, he looked down at the girls, hoping they could trust him just one last time. “All right, let’s go, you little pests,” he said, picking Blynn up and pushing Terra forward.
The two looked understandably shocked, and Hyren hoped they understood what was going on. Terra remained silent, but Blynn bared her fangs and shouted, “You’re the worst, you big ol’ meanie!” Hyren had to force himself to stay frowning when he really wanted to laugh.
Sophix raised an eyebrow at the Zafara and then glanced up at Hyren. “You let them have weapons?” she asked.
“There was a cave-in and I needed their cooperation to escape,” the commander said.
“Fair enough,” Sophix said. “Shall we set off? All of this planetary atmosphere is ruining my hair.” She inspected a few locks before turning back to the woods.
“Heh, I’m glad I don’t have to worry about hair,” Hyren said as he followed the scout.
“And I’m glad I’m not a walking mass of Sloth-green muscle,” Sophix said. “I’m surprised there’s room for any brains in there.”
Her ship, a sleek transport made of gleaming black metal with red and silver accents racing down its sides, sat in a nearby clearing. “Really, I’m amazed they heard from you after so long,” Sophix said as the gangplank extended to meet them.
“Give me some credit,” Hyren replied, taking the girls up into the hold. “I didn’t become a commander for nothing.”
“Not to hear the other commanders tell it,” Sophix said as she leaned against the hull. “Word is, Gormos says you’re just another one of Sloth’s experiments, to see what would happen if he made a mutant a CO.”
“He’s jealous,” Hyren said. “Do you have a holding cell?”
“Of course, right over there,” Sophix said. “Want me to take their gear?”
“No, let me do my job,” the Grundo said. He looked down at Terra and Blynn. “Your weapons and packs. Give them to me.” He didn’t trust Sophix to not loot them.
“You stink,” Blynn said as she and Terra handed over their gear. “You oughtta go take a walk out of an airlock.”
“I know,” Hyren said with a wink.
Hyren led them to a small alcove and activated the containment field, trapping them behind a translucent orange wall of crackling energy. “Rest while you can,” he said with what he hoped looked like a convincing sneer.
The Grundo stowed their equipment in the cargo hold, hiding their weapons in their packs. He then made his way to the front of the ship and flopped down in the co-pilot’s chair. Sophix’s hands swept over her control panel and the craft eased into motion, rising past the treeline. In a matter of seconds they were above the mist that eternally wreathed the Haunted Woods, and soaring through the blue skies of Neopia. A few moments more, and that blue deepened and intensified, fading into the black of space.
The receding curvature of Neopia hovered outside the windows, and Hyren watched it with a swelling sense of elation at being out in the cosmos again. Every time he landed on a planet, he felt bound, restricted. Out here, it felt like he had room to grow.
But this particular world held the memory of an adventure shared with the best and only friends he’d ever had. He couldn’t help but feel a pang of loss leaving it.
“Interesting planet, that,” Sophix said, flicking a few switches.
“Huh?” Hyren blinked out of his thoughts and glanced over at her.
“All blue and green and alive,” Sophix said. “Must be dreadful to live in a place with so many unknown variables. I mean, they have weather, for galaxies’ sake!”
Hyren wondered if he used to sound this obnoxious. He leaned back in his chair and said, “It’s not so bad, once you get used to it.”
“Hmph. Being planetside so long seems to have addled your brain,” Sophix said.
Hyren drummed his fingers on the sides of his seat, trying to establish when would be the optimal timing to sneak away. “Got any rations I could have?” he asked.
“The warp won’t take that long,” Sophix said, resting her feet on the dashboard and pulling her retractable holopad from the pouch at her hip.
“I know, but I’m starving,” Hyren said, hoping he wasn’t sounding unrealistically whiny. “Can’t a guy have breakfast?”
“Fine, fine. I’ve got some Protein on the Go bars in the hold,” Sophix said, her eyes trained on her device.
The Grundo swung out of the chair, listening to her grumble about spoilt and bellicose officers as he made his way back through the ship. The art of making himself unlikeable was one he felt he had fine-tuned.
Well, except in the case of two particularly stubborn life forms. “He better not be lying again,” Blynn was saying to Terra. “Don’t worry, I’ll get us outta here if he turns traitor.”
“I trust him,” Terra said. “We’ve been through so much together—he rescued me—I have a good feeling about him.”
Hyren crouched down in front of the cell with a smile. “Thanks,” he said.
The two looked over at him in surprise. “You owe us an explanation,” Blynn said with a frown.
Hyren held up his hands in a halting gesture. “Don’t touch the energy field,” he said. “It’s designed to detain prisoners and that’s just what it does.” The Grundo lowered his voice and glanced around to make sure there weren’t any surveillance devices nearby. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen. I wanted to get you two somewhere safe before I had to go back.”
“Why didn’t you?” Blynn asked.
Hyren put a hand to his helmet. “This thing emits a homing signal,” he said. “Sophix could pinpoint my location. I just wasn’t expecting her to get to me so fast. I can get you back to Neopia, though.”
“How do we know we can trust you, Commander?” Blynn asked, folding her arms.
“Blynn, look at me,” Hyren said. “What’s your intuition telling you?”
He held still so the Zafara could study his face. Her deep blue eyes scanned him for a long moment, and then she sighed. “That I can trust you,” she said. “I’m… having a hard time believing that, though.”
“And I don’t blame you,” Hyren said. “I know things have been weird and confusing these past few days, but I really do care a lot about you two. I’m just sorry it took me so long to realise that.”
“I believe you,” Terra said. “I want to be your friend.” She chewed on her bottom lip. “I think people can change—and I see a lot of good in you, Hyren. I just want you to be okay, and if you say you’re sorry, then I believe you.” The owner gave him a hopeful smile. “I want to keep believing in you.”
Her Zafara thought for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “Me too. I want to believe in you.”
“Thank you,” Hyren said. One part of him was incredulous that they were so forgiving. But that was what this cynical old galaxy needed, he thought. And he would protect these lights that fought against the darkness. “Once we reach Sloth’s flagship,” he said, “I’ll get you onto an escape pod and set the coordinates for your home planet.”
“But… what about you?” Terra asked.
“I still work for Sloth,” Hyren said, his shoulders sagging. “I’m glad I met you guys. Really. And I’ll never, ever forget you.” He swallowed hard—why was this so difficult to say? “But this is my home, out here.” Antennae drooping, he hung his head. “Besides… you wouldn’t want me around, anyway. Not after everything I’ve done.”
“Of course we would,” Terra said. “You’re always welcome with us.” She looked aside, then back to him. “I meant it when I asked if I could adopt you. And I still want to.”
“It just wouldn’t work,” Hyren said.
“Don’t get all mopey on us now!” Blynn said.
“Yeah, I’m the only one allowed to do that,” Terra said with a teasing smile, wiping her eyes on her sleeve.
The commander chuckled and said, “I appreciate your friendship. I’ll… I’ll try to send you guys some communications sometime.”
“I would like that,” Terra said.
Hyren let out a breath and clapped his hands on his thighs, pushing himself to his feet. “Okay, I have to go,” he said. “I told Sophix I was getting something to eat, and if I stay any longer it’ll look suspicious. Hold out for another hour, all right?”
“You got it, chief,” Blynn said with a salute. “We await further orders.”
Hyren laughed as he turned away. “You guys are the best,” he said. Inside, the pain and fear of being separated from them ate at him, and it took everything in his power to convince himself that he was doing the right thing. He was beginning to feel like the right thing should seem more natural. He wished he had Blynn’s uncanny intuition. Instead, his emotions just made everything more complicated and he never felt like he could trust them.
Then again, the previous times he’d tried to shove away his emotions, things hadn’t worked out well. Hyren supposed he should probably learn from that.
As Hyren plopped back down in his seat, Sophix said, “Took you long enough.”
The Grundo unwrapped the Protein on the Go bar and shoved a bite in his mouth. Bland as always, but he did need the nutriment. “Would’ve helped if your hold didn’t look like a unit of Rotawheels threw a party in there,” he said.
“Can it, meteor-brains,” Sophix huffed.