Hyren knew he at least couldn’t secure the station from here. Suppressing a moan, he moved for the door and it slid open to reveal a darkened, deserted hallway. If engineering wasn’t going to answer, he’d just have to go to them himself—after he collected his weapons and armour from his dormitory. Adrenaline would just have to help him ignore the nausea.
“I sure am glad I’m allergic to glowspice,” Dothan said.
Hyren froze and turned around. The ensign was trailing him like a hapless baby Nedler. “Just don’t get in my way,” Hyren said.
Their bare feet slapped on the floor as they made their way toward the lifts. They passed no one else in the silent corridors. It seemed as though everyone but Dothan had eaten the spiced apple pie. And with the station's’s network down, any nearby robot Petpets wouldn’t be of much assistance.
Hyren pushed the lift button, and in response got a red indicator light. He stared up at it, wishing it meant anything but a lift lockdown. Standing back, he contemplated prying the doors open with his bare hands and climbing up the cable. His stomach protested and he winced.
“The whole base is in lockdown, Commander,” Dothan said. The yellow Grundo bent over another communications console, watching the scrolling information on the screen.
The station lurched again and Hyren clung to a wall for support. He could endure this stomachache better when his world wasn’t moving around him. “Can you get a diagnosis on the shielding?”
“I could if the network was working, sir,” Dothan said.
“I’ll get a manual diagnosis, then,” Hyren said. That was military jargon for looking out the window. Hyren opened the nearest door into an office space and scrambled to the viewport on the outer wall.
He pressed his hands against the transparent panel and his antennae drooped. “Oh, Kiko snot.”
Outside were no enemy ships or bursts of laser fire, but a swarm of pink spores and larger, spongy lumps with tentacles. Farther away, an enormous pink mass smothered another block of the station. Tendrils of it wrapped around the hull of the base, extending to a network of smaller lumps.
Hyren pounded a fist on the wall. “Blast it, we’re supposed to have sensors for giant space fungi!”
“I’ve been seeing a lot of messages requesting fungus sensor maintenance,” Dothan said from beside him, “but they were never followed up on. I’ll bet you’d never put up with that sort of negligence, sir!”
“Blasted right I wouldn’t,” Hyren growled, grinding a fist into his palm. But what could he do about it? Stuck in this sector, he couldn’t access his weapons, or more importantly his armour which had built-in atmospheric shielding for void traversal.
Then he remembered what he was dealing with and knew he should be thinking bigger. But he couldn’t access the mutant Grundo trooper stasis archives. If only he could unleash them for an assault—
“I’ll contact engineering, sir!” Dothan said.
“I thought you couldn’t,” Hyren said. “You said the network is offline.”
“I can’t access it from any of these consoles,” Dothan said, “but if I can get to the nearest network control room, I can try some overrides. Phew, it’s a good thing I took that training course last year…”
“First, help me find an emergency station,” Hyren said, eying the doors lining the hallway. “You know protocol—this is a biohazard situation. We’re going to need breather masks.” Better safe than sorry, especially when dealing with space fungus, which had a nasty habit of infesting anything it came in contact with.
They moved back to the hallway, and Dothan leaped to a narrow door marked with the cleaning crew insignia. To Hyren’s relief, the door opened on its own. As much as the commander enjoyed throwing his weight around, his stomach was still highly displeased with him. Just the thought of spiced apple pie made him want to gag. It was too delicious for his own good, anyway.
As the ensign rustled around in the closet, Hyren moved to the control panel by the mess hall doors and initiated the emergency override. With the squealing thunk of hydraulics, the heavy doors slid shut. That was about as good of a defence against space fungus as the helpless Neopets inside were going to get, for now.
Dothan came back with two breather masks, and he and Hyren each strapped one on. The masks were made of a flexible material designed to accommodate any Neopet species type, although Hyren could feel the strain around his large head and thick neck. Still, if they could fit Grarrls and Skeiths, they would fit him.
“Go,” Hyren ordered, pointing down the hall. In the meantime he began to seriously contemplate climbing the lift shaft, nausea be blasted.
Dothan just stood there.
Hyren narrowed his eyes. “What?”
“Commander Hyren, sir,” Dothan said, “I’d feel a lot better if you went with me.”
“There’s no reason for me to go along,” Hyren said. “I’m going to go wake up my troops.”
“But sir!” Dothan said. “What if I run into trouble? And… I’ll never get to fight under your command—but how amazing would it be to say I helped Commander Hyren save Omicron Station?”
Hyren pinched the noseless bridge of bone between his eyes. “That’s a stupid reason, Reebitz. I’m not going. I have other matters to attend to.”
The yellow Grundo’s shoulders slumped. “Yes, sir,” he said as he trudged away.
Hyren turned to the lifts. At least some people around here respected his authority. He felt no emotional obligation to the communications officer. Dothan was just a product of unfortunate coincidence—or perhaps fortunate coincidence, if his plan to contact engineering worked. They were both trying to solve a problem, and that was the extent of it. Now they could go their separate ways.
The mutant Grundo reached for the lift doors, pried his fingers between them, and pulled. His stomach flopped, but he gritted his teeth and ignored it. With a shout, he dragged the doors open, listening to the satisfying sound of metal grinding against mechanisms. Sometimes he just had to smash something because it felt good.
He was just reaching out for the thick cables that hung in the middle of the shaft, when he heard a voice from the other end of the hall. “Commander?” Dothan shouted. “I could really use your help!”
Hyren sighed. Turning around, he saw the yellow Grundo standing by the large, thick blast door at the far end of the hallway.
“It’s locked,” Dothan said, “and I can’t get through. The control room is on the other side.”
Hyren looked from the lift shaft back to Dothan. If he left the ensign stranded here, the network wouldn’t come back up. But Hyren and his troops could still—
His eyes widened. No, they couldn’t. The Grundo troopers were all linked to the station network. Hyren wouldn’t even be able to get them out of stasis.
Which meant he was stuck helping this negghead a little longer than Hyren would have liked.
With a heavy sigh, he trudged back down the hallway to the diminutive communications officer. “I got it,” he said. Letting his frustration fuel him, Hyren slammed his hands into the door panels, denting them slightly, and wrenched them aside with a shower of sparks and the squeal of metal.
The sight that met his eyes made his stomach do another flop. The hallway was covered in space fungus—clumped over vents, growing in pink burbling mounds in the corners, and stretched in swaying tendrils from the ceiling to the floor. The air sparkled with faintly glowing spores.
Hyren was glad he’d thought to procure the masks. If they had taken even a breath of that air unfiltered—well, he’d have a lot more than nausea to deal with. Pulling Dothan away, he closed the doors and slumped against a wall. “Kiko snot, Kiko snot, Kiko snot,” the commander hissed. “That stuff is everywhere.”kik
“But that’s the only passage to the control room,” Dothan said, his antennae drooping.
“Then we’re going to need some defence,” Hyren said. “That fungus can get aggressive when it grows to that size.” If he wasn’t so sick, he would have relished the challenge. As the first of Sloth’s forces on each new world they occupied, Hyren was in his element when it came to being resourceful in a wide variety of environments and circumstances. Even with the nausea, he’d had too many long ages of experience to back down from this now. Not to mention, if he didn’t do anything, he doubted anyone else could.
“Well,” Dothan said, “I saw a broom in the janitor’s closet—“
“Nah, I’m gonna need something a little more heavy-duty,” Hyren said. “Stay put—I’ll be right back.” He jogged back into the office where they’d spied the fungus from the viewport. His stomach did not like jogging, but Hyren could deal with food poisoning later—after he made sure the base wasn’t overrun.
Reaching for the lone desk in the room, Hyren grabbed one of its thick metal legs and twisted. The leg snapped off, leaving Hyren with an impromptu bludgeoning weapon. He grinned and gave it a few test swings—a little shorter than he would have liked, and the leverage was a bit tricky, but he could get used to it.
That was one of the many perks of his rank, Hyren thought. He could get away with as much structural damage as he wanted and not really have to answer to anyone. Except Sloth, but Sloth would understand.
Content in that thought, he stepped back out into the hallway, where Dothan stood, holding the broom.
“I’m good, thanks,” Hyren said, hefting his club on his shoulder.
“It’s for me, sir,” Dothan said. “I’ve only had basic combat training, but I don’t want us to be caught unawares.”
It was almost cute, Hyren thought. He would let the little yellow guy feel tough for a bit. “Fine. Let’s go.” Taking point, he led Dothan back to the infested hallway.
The two Grundos squelched their way through globs of fungus that reminded Hyren nauseatingly of pie filling. Dothan accidentally brushed his broom up against a puffball and it exploded, showering them with glowing spores that stuck to their skin and clothes. Hyren glared at the officer, who didn’t seem to notice.
“Head left when we reach the intersection,” Dothan said, brushing aside a few hanging tendrils. “The control room will be at the end of that hallway.”
Said hallway turned out to be long and dark, eerily silent and lit only by the sparse emergency light and the luminescence of spores. “Stay close,” Hyren said, holding his club out in front of him as he advanced into the shadows. He felt occasional tremors as the main body of the fungus slowly took over the hull of the station. Hopefully not everyone on the base had eaten lunch yet. He got the sinking feeling he was going to need more than Grundo troopers to clean up this mess.
Something moved in the darkness and Hyren froze. Tensing, he dug his toes into the fungus-laced floor and tightened his grip on his weapon.
“Commander!” Dothan yelled from behind him.
Hyren whipped around. Two tentacles had grabbed the officer by the ankles, and he was trying to swat them away with his broom.
With a mighty swing, the commander whacked the fungus. It deflated with a sickening squeal, slackening its grip enough for Hyren to pull Dothan away. “Fall behind me—get to the door!” Hyren barked, pointing to the end of the hall.
Another set of tentacles swung down from the ceiling and Hyren swiped at them with his club, tearing them from the root-like webbing overhead. A sharper weapon would be better for this, he bemoaned, but he would make do with what he had. He always did.
As he batted away another tentacle, Hyren realised the end of the hallway they were running toward was covered in fungus. “Please tell me there’s not supposed to be a door there.”
“The control room door,” Dothan panted.
Hyren sighed and smacked his club against a puffball out of spite. “I hate space fungus.” He knew what he had to do, and it wasn’t pretty, and his stomach did not like the idea either. He told it to hold off on griping at least until they got into the control room. Which hopefully had not been overtaken by a certain fungal entity that spelled death for electronics. Gritting his teeth, he kept running.
“Commander—I think they’re ganging up on us!” Dothan said.
Hyren glanced over his shoulder and hissed. The fungus was moving—not just tentacles, but entire clumps now, oozing toward the two Grundos.
The commander reached the overgrown door and plunged his hands into the fungal growth, tearing it away until he started to see metal.
Dothan bumped against his leg. “C-Commander…”
“I’m going, I’m going!” Hyren said. He just needed to find the door seam—there. In his next breath he dropped the table leg, lunged for the crack, wedged his fingers into it, and pulled. The familiar scrape of metal was joined with the ripping of fungus and Hyren gagged, falling to his knees as his vision swam.
But it had paid off. Behind the door was an intact control room, miraculously untouched by fungus. Despite a few clumps around the edges, the computers appeared still functional.
Dothan squirmed past him into the small tunnel Hyren had dug out of the fungus, and Hyren crawled through after him. These technical maintenance areas were not meant for Neopets of Hyren’s bulk, and as Dothan jumped onto the chair at the console bank, Hyren curled up against the gap in the door without much space to do anything else.
His heart pounded and each heartbeat seemed to aggravate his stomach further. He mentally kicked himself over and over for stupidly eating dessert. Never again, spiced apple pie. Never again.
Meanwhile, Dothan typed like mad on the console. The screens lit up with myriad menus as the grave-faced ensign hunched over the keyboard, his antennae perked forward.
“Okay… there’s the network access hub, where are the admin override functions…” Dothan muttered to himself. “Ah, right... I swear, it’s impossible to find anything on this new user interface, I don’t see why they had to go and change it…”
Hyren felt a pressure on his back. At first it reminded him of a good massage and actually seemed to be alleviating his nausea.
Then he realised there was no one around to massage his back.
Dothan hunched his shoulders. “No—come on, you blasted thing,” he hissed, “I just want to restore the network and that only requires sub-admin privileges—oh wait, someone had the settings wrong, gah…”
Hyren felt around for his club. He’d left it on the other side of the door. Which jiggled like something was trying to force the panels further apart. “Reebitz—hurry it up!” he yelled, hoping his broad back could hold out as an effective wall.
“I’ve got the network back online!” Dothan said. He reached up to one of the screens and swept a hand across it, dialing on the holographic keypad. “Engineering! Engineering, do you copy?! This is an emergency!”
The doors burst open.