Friday, October 25, 2019

Worth Fighting For, Chapter 18

Hyren woke to the sensation that he had been dreaming but forgot what the dream was about. Honestly, he was surprised even to find himself awake, albeit sore all over. He blinked his eyes open and found himself standing up, his arms stretched above his head. Trying to move them met with resistance, and he looked up to see his wrists shackled to the wall. He still wore his armour, although it had seen much better days and his visor had several holes blown in it from blaster fire. Cracks spread across the clear, blank plate like Spyderwebs, making it difficult to see his surroundings.

He was in a very small room—no, a cell with dark, bare walls. Something mechanical hummed distantly below him. A few metres in front of him, a containment field sizzled red.

Looking down, the Grundo saw that his utility belt and blaster were missing. His sword was also gone, and he bowed his head in a moment of silence. Garoo had probably appropriated the weapon, and that close-minded idiot didn’t deserve it. Not to mention it reminded Hyren of all of the adventures he’d gone through with his two best friends. Space Faerie, if you’re out there, get them home safely, he thought.

Hyren stood there for what felt like hours, listening to the sound of his own slow breathing. He wondered how long he had actually been in there. His HUD once had a chronometer, but his armour had sustained so much damage, it would never work again. At least Terra and Blynn were headed home, he reminded himself. It didn’t matter what happened to him now.

Finally, he picked out the sound of approaching footsteps, heavy and deliberate. He lifted his head to see a black-cloaked figure pause on the other side of the containment field and lean over for a retinal scan. The field dissolved, and Dr. Sloth sauntered in, arms folded behind his back.

He stopped in front of Hyren, somehow managing to look down his nose at the mutant Grundo even though Hyren was a head taller than him. Neither of them said anything for a long time, sizing each other up.

“Well.” Sloth finally broke the silence, his voice flat and quiet as the space before a supernova. “This is a surprise.” Amusement danced in his crimson eyes, though his face remained neutral.

“Why did you leave me at Sakhmet?” Hyren asked. “I conquered numberless worlds for you! Did you even look for me?!”

“I gave you everything you needed to carry out my orders,” Sloth said. “If you fail me, it’s your fault.”

“But it wasn’t my fault!” Hyren said. “Garoo doublecrossed me!”

“So it was your fault for being naïve,” Sloth said. “I did not mourn your loss. I made you, commander. Do not insult me by insinuating I cannot mold someone else to suit my needs.”

Hyren felt like he’d been punched in the gut. Gormos was right. Hyren felt like a fool for his loyalty, now. He never wanted to carry out another order for this sociopath again. “How did you know to come after me?” he asked. “What tipped you off in the security feeds?”

Sloth turned and looked at him sidewise. “I haven’t looked at the security feeds. It was the light in your eyes, Hyren. The way you carried yourself, the tone in your voice. You’ve changed.” He frowned. “I don’t like it.”

“Eight months planetside can do a lot to a guy,” Hyren said, still glaring at the doctor. “And if you’re going to ask if I want my job back, forget it. I’m through invading.”

“I wasn’t going to ask,” he said. “I don’t tolerate these kinds of misdemeanors from my top officers. You knew better.” He began pacing back and forth in front of the Grundo. “You lied to me, you aided in the attempted escape of test subjects, and you resisted capture by Garoo.” Sloth stopped and looked up at him. The scientist’s face tilted downward, sunken into shadow so that his eyes glittered like hot coals in the darkness. “Did you think that would save them?”

Hyren’s stomach twisted. “They got away. They’re probably halfway to Neopia by now.”

Dr. Sloth smiled. It was a wide, oily smile, and it sent chills down Hyren’s spine. The doctor reached into one of his draping sleeves and pulled out a very familiar lantern, opening it and dumping out a disoriented fire mote that rolled weakly around the floor. “No, they’re not.”

The Grundo’s breath caught in his throat and he wheezed like he’d been hit in the chest. “No…” he choked, forcing air into his lungs. “No!” Clenching his fists, he struggled against his shackles and felt them strain under his strength, but they did not give. “You leave them alone, Sloth!” he roared. “They’ve done nothing to you!”

Sloth dropped the lantern and it clanged against the floor, making Hyren’s antennae flinch. “On the contrary,” the doctor replied, “they deprived me of one of my elite commanders.” He grinned viciously. “Maybe I’ll let you see them again, someday. That would be amusing, wouldn’t it?”

Hyren leaned back against the wall, his chest heaving and head spinning. “You’re a monster.”

“Funny how that didn’t matter to you until now,” Sloth said. “I’ve learned some interesting things from observing you, Hyren. You’ve greatly expanded my knowledge of Grundo psychology and military skill under mutation. Now, however… it’s about time I used you for experiments of a different sort.”

He retreated back toward the doorway, his cloak billowing behind him. “I do hope you enjoy your stay in the laboratory. I’m looking forward to interesting results from your testing procedures.” The doctor re-activated the containment field once he was out. “You could have lied, you know. Said they escaped you or something. What stopped you from making up an alibi?”

“I’m not going to grovel at your feet for forgiveness,” Hyren spat, antennae lowered in irritation. “I was stupid for allying myself with you. You no longer have my loyalty.”

Sloth widened his eyes, and then bared his teeth, his nostrils flaring. “You’re an idiot,” he hissed. Then he calmed himself again and gave Hyren another slick smile. “I’ll be back soon. Things are about to get very interesting for you.” With that, he turned and swept out of Hyren’s view.

“Blast it,” Hyren grumbled, watching the fire mote sputter as it searched in vain for something to combust. The mote found its way to his bare foot and nestled up against his ankle. The tiny fire sprite was pleasantly warm, especially compared to the lifeless coldness of the rest of the cell.

“Sorry you had to end up here, too, little guy,” Hyren said to it. As he observed it, he began to piece together bits of a plan. It wasn’t much, but he intended to fight until his last breath.

“I’m going to throw you,” he said to the mote. Clenching his fists, Hyren lifted his aching legs off the ground, scooping the fireball up between his feet and ignoring the strain in his wrists. “When you reach the containment field, flare up and short it out, and then return to me, all right?” he said. He curled his knees to his chest, and then kicked forward with both of his legs, letting go of the fire elemental and propelling it across the cell.

It smacked into the field with a shower of sparks and bounced down to the floor. The energy wall fizzled more furiously for a moment, but then went back to normal. The mote spun nearby, looking disoriented.

Hyren sighed, a gnawing feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. He was out of ideas. He slumped against the wall again, watching the mote dizzily make its way back to him. “It’s okay. At least you tried,” the Grundo said. “I tried.” His chin trembled and he ducked his head, letting the tears fall. He had tried so hard to do what felt like the right thing, and he had failed. Worse, he had failed his friends. And he still had a headache.

He stood there for another period of time that could have been minutes and could have been days. Hyren decided that this had to be Sloth’s most insidious torture method, making his prisoners go mad in timeless isolation. Was this what eternity felt like? And all the while, Hyren couldn’t stop thinking about Terra and Blynn.

After the longest wait, Hyren looked up at the security camera in the corner. “I know you can see me, Sloth,” Hyren said. “I don’t know whether you’re watching this live or if it’s being recorded while you’re in the lab.”

“I know it’s useless to plead for my friends,” Hyren said. “You don’t care. And you’re probably going to look back on this and laugh. So I won’t waste my words. But I will ask one last request of you—remember me as someone you gave everything to, and he threw it all away and never looked back.” Hyren flashed a lopsided grin. “Let that keep you up at night wondering which one of us is sane.”

With that, he closed his eyes and tilted back his head, listening to the sound of his own calm breathing. As much as he didn’t want to give up hope, he was having a hard time finding anything to cling to.

A tremendous burst of multicolored sparks filled the doorway, making Hyren jolt back to attention. His heart slammed in his chest and his adrenaline spiked painfully, and he shut his eyes tight against the light. When he opened them, the field was gone, the framework dented in and the emitters blackened and smoking. “What in the galaxy…” Hyren muttered, blinking to try to clear the afterimages from his vision.

“Gotta love those fireworks shows.” A familiar voice echoed in from the hall.

Hyren’s antennae perked and he froze. “Blynn?!”

Terra emerged through the smoke, sword in hand as she shielded her face with her sleeve. Blynn followed close behind, blowing on the tips of her slingshot like the muzzle of a blaster. Both of them looked a little grimier than when he had left them, but unharmed, and Hyren couldn’t wipe the shock off of his face as he felt a planet’s weight of worry fall from his shoulders.

“Hyren!” Terra said as she ran to him and hugged him. “Are you okay?!”

“I’m fine—I was so worried about you!” he said. “You’re not hurt, are you? How did you escape from Sloth?!”

“Huh? What are you talking about?” Terra asked.

“Hey, how’d my lantern end up here?” Blynn asked, scooping up the mote. “It fell off my pack when we crawled into that air duct…” She looked up at the Grundo. “Man, we’re always getting you out of messes, aren’t we?”

“I’m happy to see you, too!” Hyren said with a laugh, the relief making him slightly giddy. “Sloth was bluffing! That miserable oaf! What are you two doing here? I told you to get in an escape pod, you little rascals!”

“C’mon,” Terra said. “Did you really think we were gonna leave you like that? After we split up from you, we headed for the nearest ventilation duct and made our way through the ship.”

“But how did you track me?” Hyren asked.

“The nose knows,” Blynn said. “I followed your scent. Plus, everybody’s talking about you out there! We kept overhearing Neopets say stuff about how the great Commander Hyren went rogue and Commander Garoo captured him. They mentioned what level you’d been taken to. That helped a lot.”

“Let’s get you free from that wall,” Terra said. “Do you mind if I climb up you?”

“You call me a blueberry fish pop,” Hyren said, “so long as you’re out of Sloth’s clutches!”

“Fair enough,” Terra said. She sheathed her blade, dropped her pack, grabbed on to his chestplate, and began lifting herself up to his shoulders. She managed to crouch on one of his pauldrons and placed her hands on his helmet for support.

“Don’t look down,” Hyren said. Sure it wasn’t too much of a height, but the hard floor still had the potential for injury if she landed wrong. And right now, he couldn’t catch her.

“I can do this…” Terra whispered to herself as she slowly stood up on his shoulder, letting go of his helmet to draw her sword. Hyren grimaced as she wobbled, but managed to keep herself balanced. “Okay,” she said. “On the count of three, you pull against the shackles and I’ll strike. One, two… three!”

Hyren yanked his wrists forward, and Terra brought the blade down with a yell. Sure enough, the bonds snapped against the combined forces of mutant Grundo strength and faerie-tempered steel, and Hyren took a half-step forward to steady himself.

Terra, however, lost her footing from the force of the strike and tumbled from his shoulder with a yelp. Hyren twisted around and caught her. “Are you okay?” he asked, setting her down.

“Yeah,” she said, stowing her blade with shaky hands. She smiled up at him.

“You did great,” Hyren said. He patted her head, although the moment was marred by a sudden, strange twinge of nausea. It couldn’t have been the Protein on the Go bar—they were designed to be easily digestible and he would have felt the effects before even leaving Sophix’s ship. “How long did it take you to find me?”

“I’d say about an hour?” Terra said. “It takes a long time to get around this ship even when you know where you’re going.”

“This has been the longest hour of my life,” Hyren said, slumping his shoulders in relief.

“All right, let’s blow this joint!” Blynn said, hooking the lantern back onto her pack.

“Gimme a sec,” Hyren said, removing his helmet. “This armour’s not much use any more. And I’m tired of looking like I still work for Sloth. Everybody knows I don’t anymore.”

“We don’t got all day, chief!” the Zafara said, poking her slingshot out at the hallway. “Pretty sure that explosion’s caught somebody’s attention by now!”

“You’re right,” Hyren said. “Hang on.” The armour would be bearable enough, but the cracked visor was driving him crazy. Holding the helmet in front of him, he cleanly punched out the remnants of the glass, shaking out stray shards before jamming the headgear back on. “Okay, I’m good. Why have you been calling me ‘chief’ lately, anyway?”

“Sounds cool,” Blynn replied, bounding back out into the corridor.

Only a few stray doors lined the long and lonely corridor. Cameras dotted the ceiling, but considering the little disturbance Blynn had caused earlier, attempts at stealth seemed pointless. “We’re in Sloth’s maximum-security cell block,” Hyren said as he slipped out of the cell. “Which makes me wonder how you two even managed to get to me in the first place.”

“We have no idea,” Terra said. “We’ve been crawling through the air ducts and stuff, and avoiding guards and ‘bots. Maybe we’re just really sneaky.”

“It’s hard to be sneaky in the presence of bio-radar,” Hyren said. “Unless…” He blinked, and then chuckled. “Of course! Back when my armour was functional, I’d tagged you two as allied units, and the tag stuck when my armour reconnected to the ship’s network. No wonder no one’s thought to apprehend you!”

“Way to think ahead!” Terra said.

“Well, I wasn’t really thinking that far ahead at the time,” Hyren said. “I hope you kids have a plan to get out of here.”

“Of course we have a plan,” Blynn said. “It’s called ‘run as fast as you can for the escape pods’.”

“Yeah, we might need a slightly better plan than that,” Hyren said. “Let’s move.” He shooed them down the hall.

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