The inner bowels of the ship were eerily quiet, its thick metal walls blocking out the noise of the battle that raged outside. Occasionally a passing guard or security drone would stroll by and break the silence, but nothing else did – nothing, that is, save for three dark-cloaked figures darting through the bright halls.
The three moved swiftly, quietly and with a purpose. Though they wore no armour (the noise would have immediately given them away), their cloaks hid two tunics denoting members of the Brightvale guard and one of a Meridell knight. Their leader, one of the Brightvalians, would occasionally pause, pull out and glance at a crudely-drawn map, and then lead her partners down another of the seemingly endless hallways.
The intruders suddenly halted as the low whirr of an approaching bot reached their ears. They immediately ducked into a dark alcove and held their breaths as the security drone turned the corner and rolled by.
When the noise of the drone began to fade into the distance, the group’s leader glanced out of the alcove to make sure the coast was clear. The blazing cobalt eyes of a mutant Acara stood out in her hooded and otherwise shadowy face, and she was suddenly thankful that the robot hadn’t caught a glimpse of them as it had passed her hiding place.
Behind the Acara, the other Brightvalian let out a relieved sigh.
“I was sure that one was going to catch us,” the shadow Buzz whispered. “Seriously, these Virtupets contraptions give me the creeps.”
“Better to run into them than one of the guards,” the Acara muttered back as she slipped out into the hall, closely followed by the other two. “Those robots aren’t as bright as they look, trust me.”
As the three began again to make their way toward the centre of the ship, an odd thought struck the Acara. How ironic... I’m breaking into this place the same way I broke out.
* * * * *
“You have that look in your eye again.”
The red Acara answered her fellow captive’s statement with an innocent glance. “What look?” she asked casually.
The speaker, a teenage Lupe, raised an eyebrow. “You know, the ‘I’m gonna go torment Sloth and get us all in trouble’ look. Just tell us what you’re up to this time, Sadala.”
The Acara glanced back at the guard stationed at the entryway to the tiny mess hall. Mealtimes were the only occasions for which the test subjects were allowed out of their cells and brought together – and then only because Dr. Sloth wanted them to “retain their sociability” for any strategy-based experiments – but the guards who watched them during this time rarely paid them any attention. No revolt or other major problem had ever gotten past the planning stages, after all.
Sure enough, the sentry was staring blankly at the opposite wall and seemed ready to doze off. Sadala turned back to the others with a mischievous smirk on her face and a noticeable glimmer in her eyes.
“I’m busting out of here, and soon,” she announced in a whisper.
That got their attention. The captives who had been busy eating looked startlingly up at the Acara, and even the Lupe’s ears perked a little.
“Yeah? And what makes you so confident about that?” he questioned.
Sadala folded her arms over the table and leaned forward, ignoring the tray of slop set before her. She was grinning now.
“Ol’ Slothy’s got me scheduled for that stealth project, starting tomorrow. It’ll give me the perfect opportunity to slip away! I’ve already started planning the escape.”
“Really? What’s your plan?”
Sadala turned to the source of the new voice: a green Ogrin girl who, at nine years old, was the youngest of the group. The Acara seemed to recall that the Ogrin had been signed up for the stealth experiment as well. Her grin disappeared and she absently rubbed the back of her neck. She knew why the others were so curious, of course – they wanted to leave behind the life of a test subject as much as she did.
“Well, that’s the thing,” the Acara confessed. “I’ve only got part of it planned so far, and I’ll probably have to make stuff up as I go.” She paused, and then decided to answer the unasked question. “So... I don’t think I’ll be able to take anyone else with me just yet, for safety’s sake. But I swear to you all, I’ll help anyone who needs it with getting out too, first chance I get.”
The younger captives looked up at Sadala hopefully at that remark, while the older ones simply gave her wistful (and in some cases, doubtful) looks.
“Really?” the Ogrin asked.
Sadala’s smile returned as she playfully ruffled the child’s hair. “I promise.”
* * * * *
Sadala shook her head, banishing the memory to the back of her mind and instead concentrating on trying to keep her bony feet from making too much noise as she ran down the corridor.
This is a stealth project, the mutant Acara reminded herself. If you want to keep that promise, you’re going to have to focus!
As it was, the three didn’t have much farther to go. A couple of turns and another near escape from a bot later, they found themselves just around the corner from their destination. The Meridellian, a grey Xweetok, sidled up to the wall and peeked around the corner.
“Just as we’d expected,” the Xweetok whispered as he turned back to the others. “Two well-armed guards, one on either side of an open doorway.”
“Think you two can take them, Reynol?” Sadala asked.
The Xweetok grinned. “They didn’t make me a knight of Meridell for nothing!”
Sadala couldn’t help but smile back at that. “All right then. You and Syri take care of them and I’ll head in, like we planned.”
The Acara’s comrades nodded and disappeared around the corner. She listened closely and heard one or two shots of laser fire, then a clash of metal and a surprised yelp.
That’s my cue.
Sadala darted around the corner and into the next room, just catching a glimpse of her partners standing over the subdued guards as she passed. Her target stood within with a calm look on his face, and as she drew her sword he merely smirked.
“I was starting to wonder when I’d see you again, S42,” Dr. Sloth remarked. “It’s really been too long.”
* * * * *
Sadala took a deep breath as she backed away from her cell door, running her fingers through her now sleek black hair. She could hardly believe it – her plan was working!
The Acara had been painted Shadow and given a stealth suit – which apparently used some kind of camouflage technology to further help the wearer blend into the shadows – for Sloth’s newest experiment. She technically wasn’t supposed to be wearing the suit now, but she had managed to slip it out of the locker the last time she’d been brought back to her holding cell. She had then used it to hide away in a corner, tricked the passing security drone into thinking she had escaped and going in to investigate, run out and locked the drone in the room behind her.
Sadala turned and dashed down the hallway without a second thought. Now was not the time to stop and revel in her success; the bot would be alerting its companions about the escape soon if it hadn’t already, and she had to get away from the area as soon as possible.
As she ran, Sadala pulled up a mental map of the Space Station that Dr. Sloth had made his base. She had been taken down these halls enough times that she had just about memorized the station’s layout – including the location of the hangar.
The runaway suddenly halted as she heard an approaching guard drone. She immediately ducked into a nearby storage room and huddled down in the darkness.
The bot passed by, moving at a speed that indicated that it had received an escape alert. There would doubtless be more of them soon. Sadala didn’t have much time.
After waiting a few moments to ensure that the drone had gone around the corner, Sadala inched up to the door. She was about to open it when she finally realized just what was being stored in the room.
“Trans. Potions!” the Acara whispered to herself. In the brightly lit halls of the Space Station, trying to hide from the searching guards probably wouldn’t work for much longer. A new look just might do the trick, though...
* * * * *
Dr. Sloth loomed over Sadala – an impressive feat, as the Acara was quite tall herself. He chuckled.
“A mere sword? Really, S42, I expected more from you.”
The Acara’s eyes narrowed. “You know very well what my name is, Sloth. And this ‘mere sword’ got me to the heart of your ship! I wouldn’t be doubting a Brightvale guard’s abilities right now if I were you.”
The alien invader waved Sadala’s comment away. “Please, girl, you and your little friends haven’t even used your weapons on my ship!” he replied casually. “The only reason you made it this far is because I wanted you to visit.”
Sadala’s grip on the hilt of her sword tightened as she stepped closer to the villain. “The time for games is over, Sloth,” she hissed. “Now tell me where they are, before my little friends and I tear this ship apart from the inside!”
“Oh, the other subjects? Of course; I knew you’d be coming for them.” The invader seemed to consider his answer for a moment, tapping his chin mockingly. “Now let’s see...
“Oh, this could be a problem. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s far too late for you to help them now.”
* * * * *
Sadala hastily scribbled instructions on a piece of scrap paper she had found. She figured that, while her exact route of escape might only work the one time, she could at least slip the paper to the other captives and give them some direction to make their own getaways.
The Acara paused. Actually, now that she had gone and transformed herself into a Mutant behind the guards’ backs, she might be able to pose as one of Sloth’s cronies and stick around long enough to give them a bit of outside help in escaping. She tapped the pen on the metal table, thinking. Which is the better option?
“And who might you be?”
Sadala whipped around to see a rather large blue Kougra in a commander’s uniform standing before her. Suppressing a shudder, she tried to act natural.
“My name is Dalia, sir,” the Acara lied. “I’ve recently been recruited by Dr. Sloth as a scout.”
The commander raised an eyebrow. “And what are you doing in this wing of the station?”
Sadala plastered a sheepish look on her face and shuffled her feet a bit. “I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, and I’m a bit lost now.”
“Hmm.” The commander waved the comment away, unconcerned.
“Well, Dalia, now that you’re here you may be of some help,” he went on. “One of the test subjects being held down here recently escaped, and needs to be recovered. Female, seventeen years old, shadow...”
The Kougra paused, leaning in to get a closer look at Sadala. “...Acara... What’s that you’re wearing, scout?” His eyes widened with recognition.
The charade was up. Sadala mentally kicked herself for not going for a potion of a different species, and wished that she had at least been able to find another outfit to replace the stealth suit.
The Kougra grabbed for his blaster, but Sadala reacted too quickly for him. Summoning all of her strength, the runaway heaved a nearby table over so that it knocked him to the ground. She then ran out of the room and rushed down the next hall, before realizing too late that she had left the note behind.
As the Acara continued to run, she swallowed back tears of panic and regret. Getting to the hangar as quickly as possible was her only chance now that the commander had seen her, and if she let herself be captured, Sloth and his minions would no doubt do anything they could to prevent her from helping the others at all.
I’ll come back for you, she silently promised the other captives. Whether it takes weeks or years, I’ll come back.
* * * * *
Sadala’s blood ran cold at her enemy’s words. “Too late for me to help? What do you mean?”
Dr. Sloth took a step forward. “You see, the last time I tried to take Neopia as my own, I decided to run a few experiments while waiting for Kreludor to fall. The subjects were moved to my personal ship, which, after I was trapped in that confounded token... Well, I’m sure you know what happened.”
Sadala’s face paled and she took an involuntary step back as the memory of learning about the ship’s explosion flashed through her mind. “No...” she whispered. “It couldn’t be...”
Sloth grinned malevolently. “No matter for me, though... Test subjects are replaceable enough. I was actually hoping to round up a few new ones while I take over your puny kingdoms.”
Sadala’s head snapped up to look at him, her eyes flashing from cold horror to pure hatred. “Monster!” she shrieked, leaping at him with a wide swing of her sword. The blade, however, whistled through only air and a suspended image – Sloth was nothing but a hologram.
The villain barked with laughter. “Did you really think I would leave the safety of my Space Station to come so near to a land battle?” he asked tauntingly.
Sadala merely glared at him, unable to do anything else. The transmission-image of the invader looked back at her, his eyes glittering mockingly.
The Acara’s eyes narrowed. There was something about that glint, something that she had learned to recognize in the years she’d been forced to work for him...
“You’re lying,” Sadala whispered. Then, more clearly, “They never were on your ship, were they? You just want me off their trail, and I’ll bet they’re on that station with you right now!”
The villain’s grin disappeared. “So what?” he asked. “It doesn’t change anything! With your kingdom’s pitiful lack of technology, you won’t be able to get to –”
Sadala cut off the transmission abruptly by stabbing her blade into the hologram projector. With the distracting villain and his watching gaze out of the way, she got to work searching the room’s many computers for information that would help her get to Sloth’s captives. She was eternally thankful that she still had something to search for.
It wasn’t long before the Acara found the map she was looking for. She let out a sigh of relief – the station’s layout hadn’t changed very much since she had escaped those years before, and a quick study of the map to refresh her memory and a couple of notes scribbled on the back of her own map were enough to give her the directions she needed. Now all she had to worry about was getting to the Space Station in the first place and getting past any guards stationed there... And, however smug Dr. Sloth may have been, she wasn’t too concerned about the guards.
Sadala looked up and turned to see that Syri and Reynol were now in the doorway.
“We secured the door guards and made sure they hadn’t had a chance to summon any others,” Syri reported. “Do you have the information we need?”
Sadala couldn’t help but smile a little as she folded the map and put it away. She didn't have to say anything in reply; her comrades could read the hope and determination on her face.
“Time to head out, partners. We have work to do.”