Taking a deep breath, Hyren ushered them out into a long, high-ceilinged hallway with windows on both sides. Mutant Grundos in full powered armour similar to his own, but painted in black, silver, and crimson, stood motionless at regular intervals, cradling blaster rifles. At the far end of the hall was a large door emblazoned with the Virtupets logo.
“Oh wow, look at that,” Terra said as they marched along. She pointed to one side of the hallway. Visible outside was a spiral galaxy, softly gleaming like a pearlescent cosmic blossom wreathed in oil-dark, light-absorbing clouds. Several smaller satellite galaxies hovered nearby, suspended in their eons-long dance around their gravitational governor.
“Man, space is neat,” Blynn said.
Hyren had to make do with allowing them a moment of pause to take in the ethereal scene before pressing them onward. “Don’t speak unless spoken to,” he muttered, directing his words mostly at Blynn.
The doors opened in anticipation of their arrival and the commander escorted his “guests” into the expansive bridge of the ship. Large screens covered the walls on either side of them, and situated everywhere were banks of computers and consoles, staffed by Neopets wearing uniforms and headsets, occasionally accompanied by a robot Petpet or two. The far wall’s vast semicircular curve was taken up entirely by an enormous holographic map displaying numerous star systems and the movements of Virtupets troops and their enemies.
On a platform jutting out past the edge of the upper terrace, over the abyss beyond, stood two figures. One, a hulking, dusky blue Blumaroo in bronze and black armour, had his arms folded behind his back as he conversed tersely with the other. This second entity was clothed in a long black cloak, a dark hole on the hologram-blue backdrop.
Both of them paused and turned to watch as the Grundo commander brought the owner and Neopet forward. Doctor Frank Sloth hadn’t changed at all from the last time Hyren had seen him, although now looking upon his master’s face brought Hyren agitation instead of devotion. Suddenly promises of glory felt so empty.
“Master Sloth, sir,” Hyren said with a salute. “Forgive my tardiness.”
Sloth looked up at him and said, “It’s been difficult to find a replacement for you, Commander.” His voice was deep, steady, and quiet, the sort of quiet that suggested he did not have to speak loudly to make people listen to him.
“I offered to take up command of your contingent,” Garoo said, “but it seems I am to be denied even that privilege.” He stared up at Hyren coldly and the Grundo glared back.
Sloth glanced over at the other officer and said, “Show me enough competence in directing your own troops, first.” Garoo’s red eyes narrowed and he let his gaze falter.
Hyren held himself rigid as Sloth inspected both him and the girls for a few moments. Inside he roiled with anger at the other commander, but their spats could wait until they were out of their overlord’s eye. In the side of his vision he could see Garoo glaring contemptuously.
“Well,” Sloth finally said, folding his arms in an almost patronizing manner. “It seems you’ve picked up some baggage, haven’t you.”
For a split second Hyren wondered if Sloth had seen past the mask into the Grundo’s own mind, but then he realised the doctor was speaking in physical sense, not emotional. “It turns out Neopia isn’t a totally worthless planet, after all,” Hyren said.
“Of course not,” Sloth said. The ice in his tone, minute as it was, was still enough to send a stray shiver up Hyren’s back. “If it was worthless, I would not want it.”
That was a bad slip. Hyren had to make up for it quickly. “I brought you test subjects,” he said. He gestured to Terra and Blynn, who watched Sloth and Garoo with apprehension, but thankfully held their tongues. “Have you experimented on Zafaras yet?”
A malevolent gleam formed in Sloth’s eyes as he leaned forward to inspect the two. “An owner,” he muttered. “I already have plenty of those, but I suppose one more couldn’t hurt… but no. No Zafaras yet. Nicely done, Commander.”
Hyren put his hand on Terra’s shoulder. “I’ll take them down to the lab for you,” he said.
“Oh, no need, I can get a ‘bot to do that,” Sloth replied, waving a hand. “I wanted to speak to you about your next assignment.”
So soon? Hyren thought with anguish. Of course he couldn’t expect a break.
Terra suddenly clutched her stomach and made a face like she was going to be ill. “I don’t feel good,” she said shakily.
Sloth withdrew, and he and Garoo gave her a look of alarm. “What’s wrong with her?” the overlord asked, clutching his robes in disgust like he was afraid she had some contagious disease.
“She might be space-sick,” Blynn said.
Hyren steered Terra away from Sloth. “I’d better get her down to the cell blocks,” the commander said, Blynn nodding fervently in agreement. “Wouldn’t want any nasty stains on your cloak, sir.”
“Please do,” Sloth said, regarding Terra like she was a mutant Warf who’d been digging through garbage.
“I’ll come back straightaway,” Hyren said. He escorted the girls back through the command room and out the door, leading them swiftly down the hall.
When they were back in the lift, Hyren said, “Good thinking.”
“Well, I really do not feel well,” Terra said. “It’s—it’s been a long past few days.” She grinned impishly. “I just figured I could use that to my advantage.” She and Blynn fist-bumped.
Hyren took them down further than the hangar levels, and as they descended, fewer and fewer Neopets and robot Petpets shared the lift with them. Glimpses outside the doors started to reveal dimly-lit corridors and worn-down machinery rather than the immaculate gleam of the upper levels. The pets and ‘bots looked similarly downtrodden.
“Welcome to the underlevels of the Triumph,” Hyren said after the departure of a tired-eyed Nimmo tech. “On a ship large enough to be its own city, even Sloth’s officers can’t patrol everywhere at once. It’s also where his test subjects are kept. Get used to the smell—you’ll be living here for a long time.”
He turned toward his human companion and lowered his voice. “Kick me,” he said.
Terra blinked up at him. “What?” she asked.
“Just do it,” Hyren said.
“O… kay,” Terra said, although she looked like she really didn’t want to. She aimed a swift kick at his shin.
He could barely feel the blow past his armour, but he howled dramatically and staggered back. “You little beast!” he yelled, pretending to fumble for his blaster. “How dare you?!”
Blynn caught on a lot faster. “Take us back to Neopia right now!” she said, launching herself at his head and beating at his helmet with her fists. Her owner clung to his leg, making him teeter off balance.
“Gerroff!” the commander growled, clutching the Zafara’s pack with one hand. The fact that she had chosen to plant herself against his visor conveniently enabled him to appear as though he couldn’t see where to aim his blaster. He nudged her aside just enough to get the security camera in his sights. One pull of the trigger and it was smoking, the lens shattered and the electronics fried.
The three paused in the middle of their spectacle, and then relaxed, laughing. “That was awesome!” Terra said, letting Hyren have his leg back.
“We gotta do that more often,” Blynn said, scrambling up Hyren’s visor to perch on his head, holding onto his antennae like reins. “Where to now, chief?”
“Ow… watch the antennae, they’re sensitive,” Hyren said, wincing as he holstered his blaster. Blynn loosened her grip and he showed them into a grimy hallway filled with refuse. Only half the ceiling panels were lit, and one kept blinking and flickering. Just looking at it started to give Hyren a headache. “There should be a bank of escape pods on this level,” he said, heading down the hall and watching his HUD for signs of life. “I’ll get you into one and set the coordinates for Neopia.”
“But what about you?” Terra asked. She did a double-take at a pile of scrap that turned out to be the chassis of a nonfunctional N-4 Info Retrieval Bot, its large ocular sensor dark and blank. “Won’t you get in trouble for letting us escape?”
“That doesn’t matter,” Hyren said. “I’ll be fine, don’t worry about me.”
Terra gave his hand a squeeze. “I sure hope so,” she said. “I don’t want you getting hurt because of us.”
“Everything will work out— “ Hyren paused as green began to show up on the edges of his bio-radar. One, then two… three… way more than three.
Blynn’s upside-down face appeared on the other side of his visor, her floppy ears swaying. “Hyren?” she asked.
He didn’t respond right away. The color scheme of his radar was so engrained in his mind that it took him a moment to remember that in this situation, green meant bad. A more prominent blip showed up, tagged “Commander Garoo”.
“Run,” Hyren said. “We’ve been discovered.”
“We’re not leaving you!” Terra said, pulling on his arm.
“I’m going to throw him off your trail,” Hyren said. “I’m a more important target than you. Now go!” He lifted Blynn off of his head and deposited her next to her owner. “The escape pods are down the hall and to the right. When you get in, set the coordinates for 3T8-0M5, got it?”
“3T8-0M5,” Terra repeated under her breath. She and the Zafara exchanged glances, and then looked back up at the Grundo. “We’ll never forget you, Hyren,” she said.
“Same here,” the commander said, placing a hand to his heart.
“Good luck, chief,” Blynn said, and then they turned and ran.
Hyren didn’t wait to watch them turn the corner. His eyes welled with tears as he gripped the pommel of his sword and dove down an intersecting corridor heading the opposite direction.
He took as convoluted a route as possible, manoeuvring past piles of trash and buckling infrastructure and watching in his HUD as Garoo and his forces bore down on Sloth’s errant commander. The mass of green split into several groups that began to converge on him. Garoo must have been getting frustrated, Hyren thought with satisfaction. Hyren was counting on the Blumaroo’s pride to make him want to focus on the glory of taking down a high-ranking traitor before worrying about some random Neopet and owner. It appeared to have worked.
Finally, Hyren stumbled through a doorway and into an abandoned room littered with empty Achyfi cans. Against one wall stood a dusty computer bank, several of its blank screens cracked or missing, frayed wires poking out of the casing. There were no other exits.
He took a deep breath and pulled out his sword, the runes catching the sickly green-white artificial lighting. “I’m gonna miss you,” he said to it before lowering himself into a ready stance.
Moments later, Garoo and a host of his strike troops skidded into the room, blasters out. “You know, I should have expected this from a Grundo,” the Blumaroo said, stalking toward the commander. “It was a mistake for Sloth to elevate you to such a high position.”
“Are you sore about Sakhmet?” Hyren asked, spinning the blade in his hands. “Because I heard that was your fault.” Garoo let out an enraged snarl and fired. Hyren deflected the blast with the sword, sending the bolt fizzling into the wall. “Going to have to do better than that, Commander,” the Grundo said.
“You’re just one of Sloth’s experiments,” Garoo said. “You don’t think he ever saw any value in you past that, did you? You’re expendable.”
“We’re all just his experiments,” Hyren said, tightening his grip on the hilt. “I decided to make things a little more interesting for him.”
“Oh, he’ll be interested, all right,” Garoo said. “And I’ll get your troops.”
“You really think you’ll get anything after you betrayed me at Sakhmet?!” Hyren asked.
“I was tired of waiting around for something to happen to you!” Garoo said. “Besides, all Sloth cares is that you’re going rogue.” He leveled his blaster. “Now, will you come quietly, or do I get to use force?”
“Have I ever come quietly?” Hyren asked.
“Open fire!” Garoo said. His unit let fly a hail of blaster bolts.
The Grundo gave a savage roar, leaping forward for a downward blow at the nearest strike trooper and swinging the blade around to slash at the others. Trying to stay out of his range, they stumbled away like they were trying to escape a ravenous beast. Blaster fire rained down on his armour, overloading his shields as he cleaved through Garoo’s forces. His HUD blinked orange and then red, his helmet screaming the alarm of imminent critical failure, but Hyren fought like a pet possessed.
His armour sparked, hissing out smoke, and his HUD went blank. Immediately the barrage of blaster fire became painful and he knew his shields had failed. And yet he fought on. Catching sight of Garoo’s astonished face, Hyren gave him a crazed grin.
“What are you doing?!” Garoo sputtered. “Don’t you know when to give in?”
Hyren grabbed a trooper with one hand and threw him to the other side of the room where he crashed into the computer bank, making the decrepit machine cough up sparks. A blaster bolt seared into the Grundo’s leg and he wobbled and collapsed to his knees, still taking swings at anyone within reach of his blade.
A few more shots splintered his pauldrons and stunned his arms, forcing him to relinquish his hold on his sword. Hyren heard one last piercing cry from a blaster before he finally shuddered and fell forward, enveloped in blackness before he even hit the floor.