Grundo’s Café buzzed with conversation, but none as intense as that of a small group of pets, with papers splayed across the table, on – at least- their third round of drinks. Papers flew across the table in barely-apprehended piles, and points were made with jabbing fingers, and bared teeth, ruffled wings and spiked fur, or the too-casual shift of spectacles and the outright snorts of disdain.
The orange Kougra at the table shook her head. “Please. That’s the most ridiculous story I’ve ever heard.”
With one paw, she pushed a pile of scrawled notes into view. “I’ve done a lot of digging into Parlax and Gorix’s backgrounds, and trust me, I saw nothing on a Neocola obsession.”
The Eyrie started to protest, but the Kougra held up a paw. “Here’s where I think it started. See, heroes don’t morph into traitorous villains overnight...”
“We’ve got to start somewhere,” Gorix said, fiddling with the ship’s controls for the umpteenth time.
Parlax shook his head. “That’d be fine- if we were landing somewhere that made sense.”
“Well, it’s where we’re supposed to land, so whether it makes sense or not... deal with it.” Gorix plugged the final coordinate into the Virtupets ship computer, and headed to the back of the ship.
Parlax wasn’t happy with the situation. Two of the best resistance fighters, reduced to exploring this asteroid belt for some stupid weapon Sloth had apparently left lying around. While Parlax saw the obvious- that an asteroid with a weapon of Sloth’s would be heavily guarded- the Resistance commanders didn’t see things that way. They’d chosen a few asteroids, seemingly at random, and ordered the split Grundo and his blue partner to investigate.
The entire mission stank of crowd-pleasing; keeping the masses convinced that the resistance team was still operating by giving the members hack work when there were no skirmishes to take part in.
Ridiculous. Shaking his head, Parlax followed his partner to the back of the ship, where he strapped on his own blaster and double-checked his other equipment. Everything seemed to be functioning perfectly.
The ship touched down on the asteroid, throwing up no dust in its low-gravity atmosphere. This didn’t surprise Parlax; he had grown up with low-gravity, and found pluming dirt on Neopia an odd sight... like smoke clouds from a fire.
The two Grundos stepped out of the ship, blasters raised, red eyes darting. Typical mission procedure; you never knew who might be waiting for your arrival. There had been surprises before, anyway.
But nothing was lurking on the flat plain, awaiting their foolhardy landing. There was nowhere for anything to hide, unless it could burrow through the tough surface of the asteroid. There was no sound, either, and the two Grundos relaxed quickly. They still held their blasters at their sides rather than holstering them- through their many missions together, they had learned that a blaster nozzle should never see the inside of a holster unless they were inside the space station.
“Well,” Gorix said at last, “if you were Sloth, where would you hide a secret weapon?”
“In my Headquarters,” Parlax replied. “Someplace where two Grundos couldn’t find it lying around.”
“Maybe you’re overestimating him,” Gorix said, his words clearly chosen carefully and slowly.
Parlax bristled anyways. “This is Sloth, Gorix!” he snapped. “He’s not just some evil King Skarl! Maybe Sloth’s crazy, but not stupid crazy- if he put a weapon here, we’re in serious trouble. It won’t be a death ray or a blaster or some transmogrification potions- it’s gonna be something that’ll destroy whoever comes poking around for it!”
Gorix sighed. “Maybe we need some time off.”
“I’m serious- you’ve been in such a bad mood lately...” They had stopped walking, Gorix studying Parlax as if he could discern what was bothering his split companion.
Parlax glared at the ground. “I’m fine. We just don’t need to be here.” He kept walking.
Behind him, Gorix grumbled, “You’ve been like this for weeks.” Parlax ignored him.
They took two more steps, then the ground trembled beneath their feet. Parlax drew his blaster, turning in a slow circle as he aimed the weapon at the stones beneath him. Gorix pointed his blaster downward as well, scowling as he scanned the ground with his eyes instead of his weapon nozzle.
The ground trembled again, harder, and this time, it didn’t die. Parlax backed up until he was standing next to Gorix, and the two Grundos faced opposite directions, ready to fire at whatever creature might appear.
Another thought suddenly occurred to Parlax. “The asteroid!” he hissed. “It’s gonna explode!”
Gorix grumbled, “I hate it when you’re right...”
“Me too. We’ve gotta get back to the-“ Before Parlax could finish speaking, he was thrown into the air, along with a dozen pieces of the rocks that had been beneath his feet. He hit the ground hard enough to have the wind knocked from his lungs, but no fire rushed over the asteroid to consume him, his partner, the ship, and the entire asteroid. Not an explosion then...
Shaking his head to clear it, Parlax got to his feet. Before him was a gaping hole, so deep that he couldn’t see the bottom. Through a haze of dust, Parlax could see Gorix getting to his feet on the opposite side of the pit.
“Think Sloth’s weapon’s down there?” Gorix shouted across the gap.
Parlax snorted. “You think we should go after it?”
“Parlax, if Sloth’s got a weapon that can make this big a hole, he could turn Kreludor into a blob of swiss cheese!”
Parlax waved a hand at the colossal gap in front of them. “Exactly my point. Let’s torch this thing from space, instead of going down there and getting-”
He never got to finish the statement. The ground beneath his feet shifted, for a second like mud, then suddenly, there was only air beneath his toes, and he didn’t even have time to yelp as he plummeted down that hole. He heard Gorix shouting his name... then he hit the bottom.
Wincing, Parlax got to his feet, and realized that his blaster was no longer clenched in one hand. He’d been holding it when he’d fallen, he was positive... but it was so dark down here, he couldn’t see-
A pair of eyes appeared in the darkness. Red, but not like Parlax’s- these were a glowing scarlet, vibrant and menacing. The sound of something vibrating at a rapid, frenzied pace filled Parlax’s ears, and he realized that this creature must be a Buzz... though what variety, he couldn’t guess.
Suddenly, the eyes dropped toward the floor, and Parlax stiffened. He snarled aloud when he realized his blaster wasn’t in his hand- and almost moaned aloud when he heard claws clicking against the hard material of the weapon’s casing, and then the hum of the blaster warming up.
The buzzing sound suddenly grew louder, more frantic, and Parlax felt the point of the blaster against his back. Stifling a growl, he said, “All right, all right- what d’you want?”
The Buzz only grunted, in a harsh, guttural voice Parlax wouldn’t have expected from one of the small insects. The blaster nudged his spine, hard, and Parlax managed not to stumble forward.
A claw landed on his shoulder- it was absolutely massive, and when Parlax turned to look, he managed to make out pale yellow skin. He hadn’t seen a Buzz this color before, but suddenly had a bad idea about what might have happened to it.
Pushing on his shoulder, the Buzz guided Parlax down a tunnel the split Grundo hadn’t seen before. Just a step inside the entrance, Parlax heard Gorix call his name again, this time sounding less faint. He must be leaning over the edge of the pit now.
Parlax opened his mouth to shout that Gorix had to go, now, the Buzz raised the blaster and shot at the pit’s opening.
Parlax whirled around, uncertain exactly what he was doing, his heart hammering hard against his suddenly constricted chest. If he’d hit Gorix-
The Buzz’s claw was still on the split Grundo’s shoulder, and with surprising strength, the Buzz thrust Parlax into one of the pit walls. Rocks cascaded onto Parlax’s head, and he raised his arms to protect his skull.
But over the din, he heard Gorix shout, and fire a retaliating shot. He hadn’t been hit after all...
The Buzz fired again, and Parlax realized it would only be a matter of time before one hit the other. He didn’t admire Gorix’s chances against the Buzz; while the blue Grundo was firing into darkness, the Buzz doubtlessly had a backlit target. His only handicap with the weapon seemed to be the size of his claws compared to the size of the blaster’s handle.
“Gorix, go!” Parlax shouted. “Get backup!”
The Buzz fired two more shots, but simultaneously, a yellow-fleshed hand lunged toward Parlax, shoving him against the wall. The claws were at Parlax’s throat, a clear demand not to speak.
But Parlax had gotten his message through. There were no return shots, and the Buzz didn’t fire again. With a snarl, he shoved Parlax to the floor, waited for the split Grundo to stand, then pushed him down the tunnel, more roughly and at a faster pace than before. Maybe he was just angry with the two Grundos. Or maybe he feared being pursued.
Gradually, Parlax realized that there was a light at the end of this tunnel. Nothing elaborate, just firelight, provided by torches, or perhaps, a fireplace. He was simultaneously relieved and worried. While being able to see would be more helpful to his escape, he didn’t want to see the rest of the Buzz attached to the pale-yellow arm with its colossal claws.
And generally, in rooms at the end of tunnels, lit by dancing firelights, supreme villains waited. Maybe the Resistance leaders had been right after all. Or maybe this was just another branch of psychotics seeking world domination.
Either way, things looked bad for a blaster-deprived Grundo now feeling all of today’s bruises.
The room was quite elaborate, which surprised Parlax. Instead of the stone-furniture planning room he’d been expecting, with everything arranged for war strategies, or perhaps for army training drills, he was surprised to see something resembling a modern laboratory, with odd metal devices gleaming yellow and orange in the firelight. There was a large steel chair in the center of the room, which could apparently collapse like a recliner. The chair had leather straps bristling from every angle.
Nearly biting his tongue, Parlax turned to look at the Buzz. It was enormous, taller than he was. The pale-yellow skin covered most of its body, with the exception of dark brown chest plates, and a jutting lower jaw of the same color. Its wings were sharp-edged, its hands enormous, feet splayed wide. The Buzz displayed the awkward proportions and the sheer heft of too much muscle common to the pets Dr. Sloth transmogrified.
Some mutants were not terrible to look at. Transmogrified Lupes and Kougras were, at first, frightening, but there was still a grace to their appearances, something of the canine and feline qualities they had once possessed in more ordinary colors. Buzz were among the mutants that never seemed to belong, too colossal and too ungainly to mesh with the rest of their species. Certainly this Buzz would never join its kind in zipping, rapturous freedom-flight.
A movement caught in the corner of Parlax’s eye made him turn from the Buzz, and back to the laboratory ahead. A figure in a blue-black cloak turned away from a desk beside the strap-coated chair; a hood covered the pet’s face, but the stubby clawed digits emerging from the cloak’s tight sleeves appeared to be those of a Krawk. Parlax would have expected the wickedly curved and mottled gray-green digits of a mutant Krawk, or the black fingers of a shadow Krawk. Instead, the hands were white, with pale lavender strips across the base of each finger like a thin ring.
Somehow, that brightness made them eerier.
“Welcome to my little abode, Agent,” the Krawk said. Her voice was lilting, almost sing-song, but with a macabre quality Parlax didn’t like.
The split Grundo didn’t reply to the Krawk’s comment. There was nothing to say outside of a cliché, and though Gorix would have shouted it anyway, Parlax held himself to higher standards.
He wondered briefly what his partner was doing now, then decided it wasn’t of much importance at this moment. The results of any of Gorix’s handiwork wouldn’t be in evidence for a long while.
“Oh, you got the quiet one, Golan,” the Krawk said, clapping her bright hands together. “What a relief!”
“A relief?” Parlax repeated. “Maybe I won’t talk your scales off, but I’m no relief.”
The Krawk shrugged, the motion rippling her blue-black robe. “We’ll see. Bring him here, Golan, and Draik fangs, don’t you dare let him get close to that blaster.”
Parlax saw where this was going- the only place he could be restrained was that recliner chair, and he couldn’t see a way out of that monstrosity once strapped in. He tried to bolt, to rush down the tunnel, but the Buzz simply lifted him by the loose fabric of his shirt, and dropped him onto the chair, on his back.
The straps leapt forward on their own, and before Parlax could do more than twitch, he was trapped, no better off than a Day of Giving turkey over an open fire.
Brushing her hands together as if she had done all the work, the Krawk said, “Well, let’s not play games here. Agent Parlax- I know who you are. I know your name, your rank in the Resistance, your habits, your history, how you think...”
Parlax narrowed his eyes. “You,” he said, “are absolutely crazy.”
“Our intention isn’t to harm you, Agent Parlax- not any harm you can’t survive, anyways.”
“Tell that to the beast over there- he practically crushed my ribcage. Twice.”
“I chose to have you captured for reasons you’ll perhaps understand later.”
Parlax shook his head. “What?”
The Krawk ignored his question. “A short discussion, Agent Parlax, then we allow you to leave this place and return to Agent Gorix.”
“Yeah- with a little army of Golans following?”
“Agent Gorix is of little importance. I wouldn’t waste effort killing him. The way events should unfold, he’ll be dead without any interference on our part.”
Normally, Parlax would have dismissed these words as the ramblings of a psychotic. He’d already tried this, in fact. But it wasn’t working- there was something in the Krawk’s voice that made it clear this was no psychosis, but knowledge of the results of some carefully-formulated plan.
If this Krawk had a plan... what was the part Parlax was supposed to play?
“Are you working for Dr. Sloth?” Parlax demanded.
“I work for the pleasure of working,” the Krawk said, which didn’t answer Parlax’s question at all. “Sometimes, I work for clients. Other times, I work because I like the feel of a blade in my claws.”
“...A blade? How’d you go from Sloth to blades?” The bafflement in his voice was more genuine than he had intended it to be, all traces of bravado-inflamed sarcasm vanished from it. Talk of blades- not good. Definitely not good.
Again, the Krawk pretended not to hear him. “But enough of that, Agent Parlax. I know you didn’t want to be here at all. Those ridiculous commanders- who would hide a secret weapon on an asteroid?”
Parlax was silently apologizing for all those dubious and haughty thoughts. He hadn’t thought someone would be crazy enough to do such a thing, but if secret laboratories were being built within asteroids... weapons didn’t sound so illogical anymore.
“And Agent Gorix- insisting you land, defending those morons...”
Gorix. Parlax probably shouldn’t have been so hostile toward his partner, either. Maybe Gorix was right- he had been feeling rather frustrated the past few weeks... maybe they did need some time off. Not on vacation, exactly, but a little off-time wouldn’t hurt any-
In a flash of silver, the Krawk plucked a knife from the table behind her, and examined its blade as it hovered perhaps two inches from Parlax’s face. “You know, Agent, I don’t enjoy speaking to myself,” the Krawk said. “I prefer responses, perhaps occasional input...”
“All right,” Parlax stammered. “Okay. Fine.”
The Krawk withdrew the knife, slowly. “Well then?”
Parlax almost stared at her in silent confusion, but worried that she might let the knife hang inches from his face again, managed to say, “Well then... what?”
“Agent Gorix?” the Krawk prodded. “Landing here with no sign of danger... blindly following orders...”
“Well, that’s just how he is.”
“Hasn’t it got you into trouble before?”
“Yeah, of course.” But they had gotten into trouble because of Parlax’s rebellious streak, too, and more often than not, trouble came whether they followed orders or not.
“Wouldn’t it be easier,” the Krawk said softly, “to perhaps forgo your blindly obedient partner?”
This question actually shocked Parlax into silence. What was she saying, abandon Gorix? Why? They made a perfect team, having completed more missions and survived more battles than any other team of resistance fighters. They were always saving the other one from his own stupid mistakes or from the latest unfortunate turn in the mission. And they were friends.
The Krawk twirled the knife in her hand, but she didn’t bring it any closer to Parlax’s face.
“Wonder where he is now,” she mused. “He was awfully quick to run off on your say-so... Looking for an excuse, perhaps?”
“He couldn’t see the stupid Buzz,” Parlax snapped, but his words lacked the strength of conviction, and instead had a defensive bite.
He’d been thinking the same thing; Gorix had given up fast, fled to the ship for reinforcements, instead of taking a risk to try and save his friend.
Another part of him was arguing that this was unfair, that he had been inside the pit and knew the exact situation; all Gorix had was a black pit to work with. Surely he knew there was nothing useful he could do, and Gorix didn’t waste time with useless situations...
Well, unless they were ordered. This asteroid... if only Gorix hadn’t landed here, if they’d just scanned the place from the air and left, Parlax wouldn’t be trapped in this room of metal and firelight, joining in some danse macabre.
There was a part of him that liked the air of this place. The shifting shadows, the gleaming metal surfaces, the way flame seemed to lick the edges of the many sharp instruments lying around on tables and trays, in racks on the walls...
This attraction to the room scared him more than the Krawk’s knife, or his blaster in the claws of the Buzz.
“The entire resistance movement is ridiculous,” the Krawk said. “It’s run by inept leaders, while capable Agents such as yourselves have to follow their stupid, prattling orders- even when it’s just work to encourage the masses.”
Well, that was true- with the knowledge the commanders had of the current battlefield and the war developments, Parlax could probably call better strikes than the resistance leaders, most of whom had not seen as much combat as he had, if any.
“And you’ve seen Dr. Sloth,” the Krawk added. “None of the commanders has seen him, and none of them has been on the receiving end of his armies. Now, as a soldier, you certainly know Sloth’s tactics far better, and the subtleties of his army.”
Also true. None of the commanders seemed to understand, for instance, that Sloth liked to mix his robotic clones in with his mutant armies. Nobody quite believed that Sloth’s generals and right-hand-pets were not always mutants, that they often retained the color they had joined him as- even though they had seen Garoo, Ylana, and Sophix II many times. And they hadn’t listened to any of Parlax’s objections about this mission, that there would be no weapons, because when Sloth had weapons, he either used them, or hid them in his own fortress, where he always had access to it.
Stupid, stupid, stupid commanders- why couldn’t they just have listened to him?
“And now even your own partner doesn’t listen to you,” the Krawk said. “Perhaps it’s time to consider employment elsewhere...”
Something above him flashed silver, twice; he couldn’t quite process what it was, as he immediately, instinctively, shut his eyes. What exactly happened, he couldn’t say; all of a sudden, adrenaline was rushing through his veins, and his thoughts were scattering in bizarre directions. There was... something on his face...
Then, he heard his name- not whispered by the Krawk, accompanied by the whistle of a twirling knife, or growled by the mutant Buzz with his blaster... but by Gorix.
About time, the stupid, lollygagging-
Several shots exploded into the room, but not in a mass... one after the other. A single blaster firing? But Gorix had gone to get backup... hadn’t he?
Parlax cracked open one eye, and saw the blurry figure of the Buzz raise the stolen blaster and shoot back. A blue-black form darted behind an outcropping of the tunnel, then sprang out, shooting twice at the Buzz, and ducked behind one of the metal machines.
Parlax expected the Krawk to order Golan not to shoot- but he heard nothing. When he turned his head to see what the Krawk was doing... she was gone. Only the knife remained, the blade hidden in shadow.
The Buzz fired at the machine, and Gorix kicked it over. Through the smoke billowing from destroyed circuits, the blue Grundo fired again. One shot finally hit the Buzz, and it staggered back, dropping the blaster. Gorix leapt forward, boldly coming to a stop inches before the stumbling creature, and scooped up Parlax’s weapon.
Gorix pointed the two blasters at the Buzz’s chest. He said nothing, simply stood there, his back to Parlax, waiting for the creature’s reaction.
The Buzz snarled, then darted forward, ramming into Gorix before making his escape through the tunnel. Gorix fired a shot from each blaster after him, and for a moment, Parlax thought he would continue the chase.
Instead, the blue Grundo shoved one of the blasters into his holster and hurried to the table. “Sorry I didn’t get here faster,” he said, panting, as he began undoing the straps. “I had to get ropes and a stake from the ship... Fyora’s wings, we’re gonna need a doctor, too.”
“Just get me out’f this thing,” Parlax growled, but his words were barely audible; it sounded more like a grunt of pain. His face was suddenly stinging, and he had an inkling of what must have happened. The pain was terrible, so bad he wanted to slip into unconsciousness so he wouldn’t have to feel it anymore.
Perhaps he actually did; he didn’t remember much about getting off of the table, out of the room, up the rope, and back into the ship. He didn’t remember the doctors, although he did remember one saying, “Yes, that’ll be a scar.”
But by the time he was up to thinking about anything besides his face again, he remembered the Krawk’s words. Employment elsewhere... what on Kreludor had she meant?
The Kougra folded her arms. “See? Far more plausible than your story,” she said, glaring at the Eyrie.
The table fell silent, but the posture of the other pets indicated this wasn’t over yet...
To be continued...