Worth Fighting For: Part Nine
"What's a starship doing in the Haunted Woods?" Terra, oblivious to the tension, continued to stare up at the forest canopy, while Blynn glared at Hyren suspiciously.
He took a breath and leaned forward, hooking an arm around the owner's middle and pulling her back in. "I don't have the time to explain." He sat upright and stared hard into the girls' eyes. "Make a break to the east. Terra, use everything I taught you to defend yourself."
Hyren hated the idea of leaving them alone in the Woods. In spite of their weapons, the past night had taught him well why they did not relish coming here, especially if they were deeper in than usual. But he hated the thought of bringing them with him, straight into the jaws of danger, even more.
"Why?" Terra asked, wide-eyed. "Why can't you come with us?"
He felt a fresh surge of guilt. He didn't know if he would ever be able to bring himself to tell her just how much he'd misused her trust. "I have to go back to where I belong," he explained, letting go of them to get up and stretch the lethargy out of his legs. "I'm sorry. I've gone as far as I can with you." It would be easy to invent an excuse for why he didn't have the promised prisoners. Hopefully his return alone would be enough to please Sloth.
"Well—then—can we come with you?" the girl bargained as she and Blynn shouldered their packs.
Hyren shook his head as he pulled on his armour. "Absolutely not. Out there's no place for you." He swallowed hard as he heard the roar of the engine return and then start to downshift. "Go! Get out of here!" He pulled them out of the hollow just in time to hear the crunch of boots on dry leaves.
Before the two could take off, a pink Aisha stepped out of the trees—no, an Alien Aisha, Hyren realised upon seeing her extra set of ears. "Ah, there you are," she intoned, looking the commander and his companions up and down.
"Sorry I missed your call." Hyren raised a hand in greeting. "Been an interesting time of things planetside."
She tossed her long mane of white hair and chuckled, holstering her blaster at her hip. "I was starting to wonder if I'd ever find you. Dratted foliage, it's like looking for an Orbulon in an asteroid field," she sniffed. "Well, it's nice to finally make your acquaintance, Commander. I'm Sophix II. Currently employed by Sloth as a scout, and whatever other odd jobs he'll pay me for."
Hyren nodded. "You're a mercenary, then? So that's why I haven't heard of you."
"Hah!" Sophix leaned casually against the nearest tree. "All right, so I'm certainly nowhere near as notorious as Ylana Skyfire. But I'm also no wide-eyed conscript." She reached up and preened one of her ears absently. "So, your report said you had prisoners."
"Y—yeah. Yes." Hyren gritted his teeth. Caught red-handed, he had no other choice now but to bluff his way through this. "A Neopet and an owner," he stated coldly. "All right, let's go, you miserable wretches," he grunted, picking Blynn up and grabbing Terra's wrists in his other hand, dragging her forward.
Terra gaped at him in shock. "W-wait, what?!"
Hyren felt like he'd been punched in the stomach. But he'd have to allow for her genuine emotion to carry his façade. "You didn't honestly think I was ever on your side, did you?" he asked with a vicious grin. "I was just using you to escape the caves."
Blynn stared hard at him, her eyes scanning his face. "You're lying," she insisted hotly. Hyren did not let himself so much as twitch. After a few more seconds, the Zafara's expression broke and she shook her head in disbelief. "No! You can't—why are you doing this?!"
"Silence, you little pest!" the commander barked.
"Let's just say, you're going to have a whole new outlook on life once Sloth is done with you," Sophix sneered, tilting her chin and narrowing her eyes at the captives.
Blynn bared her fangs. "Why don't you take a trip outta airlock without a spacesuit, lady?!"
Sophix raised an eyebrow at her and then glanced up at Hyren. "You let them have weapons?"
"There was a cave-in and I needed their cooperation to escape," the commander explained coldly. "From there, it was easy to convince them that I'd gone soft."
"Well played," Sophix replied with a nod, giving the two one last appraisal. "Shall we set off? All of this planetary atmosphere is ruining my hair," she sniffed, inspecting a few locks pitifully before turning back to the woods.
"Heh, I'm glad I don't have to worry about hair," Hyren snickered as he followed the scout.
"And I'm glad I'm not a walking mass of Sloth-green muscle," Sophix retorted. "I'm surprised there's room for any brains in there."
Her ship, a sleek transport made of gleaming black metal with red and silver accents racing down its sides, sat in a nearby clearing. "Really, I'm amazed they heard from you after so long," Sophix mentioned as the gangplank extended to meet them.
"Give me some credit," Hyren replied, taking his prisoners up into the hold. "I didn't become a commander for nothing."
"Not to hear the other commanders tell it." Sophix folded her arms and relaxed against the hull. "Word is, Gormos says you're just another one of Sloth's experiments, to see what would happen if he made a mutant a CO."
"He's jealous," Hyren grumbled. "Do you have a holding cell?"
"Of course, right over there. Want me to take their gear?"
"No, let me do my job," the Grundo snarled. He looked down at Terra and Blynn. "Your weapons and packs. Give them to me." He didn't trust Sophix to not loot them.
The Aisha held the girls at blasterpoint while they handed their things over to Hyren. "I don't understand..." Terra whimpered. "I thought... back there..."
"Plans have changed," Hyren grunted. He shoved his captives unceremoniously into a small alcove and activated the containment field, trapping them behind a translucent orange wall of crackling energy. "Rest while you can," he said with a sneer, turning away and trying to forget the looks of uncertainty on their faces.
The Grundo stowed their equipment in the cargo hold, hiding their weapons in their packs. He then made his way to the front of the ship and flopped down in the co-pilot's chair. Sophix's hands swept deftly over her control panel and the craft eased into motion, rising past the treeline. In a matter of seconds they were above the mist that eternally wreathed the Haunted Woods, and soaring through the blue skies of Neopia. A few moments more, and that blue began to deepen and intensify, fading into the black of space.
The receding curvature of Neopia hovered outside the windows, and Hyren watched it with a swelling sense of elation at being out in the cosmos again. Every time he landed on a planet, he felt bound, restricted. Out here, it felt like he had room to grow.
But this particular world held the memory of an adventure shared with the best and only friends he'd ever had. He couldn't help but feel a pang of loss leaving it.
"Interesting planet, that," Sophix commented, flicking a few switches.
"Huh?" Hyren blinked out of his thoughts and glanced over at her.
"All blue and green and alive." She sniffed. "Must be dreadful to live in a place with so many unknown variables. I mean, they have weather, for Sloth's sake!"
Hyren wondered if he used to sound this obnoxious. He smirked and leaned back in his chair. "It's not so bad, once you get used to it."
"Hmph. Being planetside so long seems to have addled your brain."
"Not as much as it seems to have addled your hair," the commander shot back, making the Aisha roll her eyes. He drummed his fingers on the sides of his seat, trying to establish when would be the optimal timing to sneak away. "Got any rations I could have?" he asked nonchalantly.
"The warp won't take that long," Sophix informed him, resting her feet on the dashboard and pulling her retractable holopad from the pouch at her hip.
"I know, but I'm starving," Hyren complained, hoping he wasn't sounding unrealistically whiny. "Can't a guy have breakfast?"
"Fine, fine. I've got some Protein on the Go bars in the hold." Sophix jerked her thumb back, her eyes trained on her device.
The Grundo swung out of the chair, listening to her grumble about spoilt and bellicose officers as he made his way back through the ship. The art of making himself unlikeable was one he felt he had fine-tuned.
Well, except in the case of two particularly stubborn life forms. Terra and Blynn were clinging to each other behind the wall of energy as Hyren approached, their faces buried in each other's shoulder. Their cell left them little room to do much else.
"I thought he was our friend," Terra sobbed.
"I'll get us outta here," Blynn seethed. "And then I'll string that traitor up by his toes."
The girl squeezed her pet tighter. "But how could he betray us like that?"
Hyren crouched down in front of the cell with a gentle smile. "He didn't."
The two turned and looked at him in surprise. "What?" Terra whispered, her cheeks wet with tears.
He held up his hands in a halting gesture. "Don't touch the energy field," he warned them. "It's designed to detain prisoners and that's just what it does." The Grundo lowered his voice and glanced around to make sure there weren't any surveillance devices nearby. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean for this to happen, but she caught me off guard and I had to think of something on the spot. Are you all right?"
"Yeah," Terra said with a nod.
"Well, this isn't exactly the Royal Neopian, but I guess I can't complain," Blynn chimed in. "And don't ever pull any of that funny stuff again."
The commander shifted his weight. "Don't worry, I'm going to make sure you girls get back to Neopia. Once we reach Sloth's flagship, I'll get you onto an escape pod and set the coordinates for your home planet."
They only looked half as pleased as he expected. "But... what about you?" Blynn asked.
"Me? I still work for Sloth." Hyren's great shoulders sagged. "I'm glad I met you guys. Really. And I'll never, ever forget you." He swallowed hard—why was this so difficult to say? "But this is my home, out here. I'm an independent Neopet." Antennae drooping, he hung his head. "Besides... you wouldn't want me around, anyway. Not after everything I've done."
"Of course we would," Terra spoke up. "You don't have to work for Sloth if you don't want to, right? You're always welcome with us."
Hyren sighed. "It just wouldn't work."
Blynn tilted her head sceptically. "Don't get all mopey on us now!"
"Yeah, I'm the only one allowed to do that," Terra added with a teasing smile, wiping her eyes on her sleeve.
The commander chuckled. "I appreciate your friendship. I'll... I'll try to stop by Neopia whenever I can," he attempted to compromise. "Maybe we can have lunch at Grundos Cafe one of these days."
Terra nodded, although her smile now looked a little more forced. "I would like that."
Hyren let out a breath and clapped his hands on his thighs in preparation for standing. "Okay, I have to go. I told Sophix I was getting something to eat, and if I stay any longer it'll look suspicious. Hold out for another hour, all right?"
"You got it, chief." Blynn gave him a smart salute. "We await further orders."
He snickered as he turned away. "You guys are the best." Inside, the pain and fear of being separated from them was eating at him, and it took everything in his power to convince himself that he was doing the right thing for them both. But hadn't that been his line of thought back when he was trying to keep himself cold and distant from them? That didn't exactly work well.
"Took you long enough," Sophix remarked as Hyren plopped back down in his seat.
The Grundo unwrapped the protein bar and shoved a bite in his mouth. Bland as always, he thought, but he did need the nutriment. "Would've helped if your hold didn't look like a unit of Rotawheels threw a party in there. You're not very good at keeping tidy, are you."
"Well, excuse me if old slime-head doesn't pay me enough to fit a C430 Autobot into the budget. I'm too busy to clean it myself."
A sly grin slid up Hyren's face as he folded his hands behind his head. "Oooorrrr you're blowing most of your pay on hair supplies."
"Can it, meteor-brains," Sophix huffed.
They emerged from warp and the first thing Hyren saw was the Triumph blotting out the stars, a gleaming behemoth of a command ship covered in lights and bristling with armament. Its hull contained wide swaths of windows, many of them lit. The Triumph carried the population of a small city—including countless test subjects locked away in its depths. All in all, the vessel couldn't help but command respect, Hyren thought. He wondered what Blynn's and Terra's reactions would have been to seeing it from the outside.
They were headed for a different view, though.
"This is the Artful Xepru, requesting docking," Sophix relayed through the ship's comm system.
"Artful Xepru, please dock in Hangar B-45," came the robotic reply.
"I've brought Commander Hyren back from Neopia," the Alien Aisha continued smugly.
"Please dock in Hangar B-45. Thank you."
Sophix scowled. "You mispronounced 'You're getting a big bonus for that, Sophix.'" There was silence on the other end and she threw up her hands. "Ugh, stingy. Am I right?"
Hyren folded his arms over his chest. "You're a mercenary, not a commanding officer. There's a large difference in pay rate."
She stuck out her tongue at him. "At least I'm not the one who got lost planetside for eight months."
"Oh, yes, just imagine what that would have done to your hair."
The Aisha clutched her long locks defensively. "You leave my hair out of this, you lout."
Inside the hangar was a bustle of activity Hyren remembered fondly, a mix of robot Petpets milling about and Neopets typing on holopads as they hustled to their next assignments. Large screens on the walls displayed scrolling feeds of timetables and diagnostics of all the craft in the landing bay. Occasionally, commands and information boomed over the loudspeakers.
Sophix brought the Artful Xepru down as Hyren went to fetch his "prisoners" from the hold. "Okay, keep quiet and do as I say," he whispered to them as he deactivated the force field and handed their packs to them. He knelt down and scooped them into his arms for an all-too-brief moment. "I have a plan."
Just as the mercenary emerged from the front of the ship, Hyren picked Blynn up by the scruff of her neck and curled his other hand around the back of Terra's shirt, making it appear as though he was in the act of dragging them out. "Sloth will enjoy experimenting on you pathetic creatures," he snarled, bringing them down the gangplank.
"And I'm going to enjoy my paycheck," Sophix murmured, sashaying past him into the hangar and giving him a curt wave over her shoulder. "I'm off to the cafeteria for a Milkyway Shake."
"Thanks for the lift," Hyren called after her. Then, deciding that that wasn't a snarky enough parting remark, he added, "I hope your hair's all right after that long voyage."
Sophix uttered a "Tch", her pink tail swaying behind her as she made her exit.
Hyren squeezed Terra's shoulder affectionately. "Get an eyeful of this place while you can," he muttered to her. "It's really pretty amazing. Space Station Number Four, the one orbiting Neopia, doesn't hold a glowrod to the Triumph."
"Yeah, I believe it," Terra replied, craning her neck as she looked around in amazement.
The commander snorted loudly, asserting his presence and signaling that he was entering professional mode. "I hope you're ready to meet his Supreme Overlordship," he chuckled cruelly to the girls, a wicked grin cracking his expression.
"I'm ready to give him a good kick in the face," Blynn grumbled, folding her arms.
"Commander, sir!" A vaguely familiar voice caused Hyren to turn around and see a small yellow Grundo wearing a Virtupets uniform scramble toward him, wide-eyed. "It's wonderful to have you back!"
The Mutant Grundo looked the smaller member of his species up and down. "Hello, Reebitz."
"I must say, your survival after the invasion of Neopia is the stuff of legend!" Dothan babbled, his antennae flapping enthusiastically.
"Uh-huh." Hyren steered Terra toward the doorway leading to one of the ship's many corridors.
"I would really like to hear more about it when you get the chance!" the communications officer insisted, trailing after them. "You know, sir, you're a real inspiration to me!"
At this, the commander turned around and stared him down so coldly, Dothan visibly flinched. "Well, I shouldn't be." Lips thin, Hyren continued walking, a Neotrak beeping in apology as it swerved out of his way.
"Is—is there anything I can get for you, sir?" the yellow Grundo asked meekly from behind him.
Hyren sighed and glanced back at the officer. "Why do you work for Sloth?"
"Beg your pardon?"
They reached the lift and the commander leaned against the doorframe as he waited for the car to reach their level. "What's keeping you working for Sloth? Why do you think it's so great?"
Dothan scratched the side of his face. "Because... because Master Sloth is strong," he ventured. "And you're strong."
"Why do you idolise me to such an insane degree?"
"Well, you're simply larger-than-life! I'd love to be out there fighting alongside you, sir, having adventures and following you to glory..." The yellow Grundo trailed off wistfully.
"Even though you'd have to be mutated to do so?" Hyren's eyelids lowered.
"Well... Maybe it wouldn't be so bad..." Dothan sputtered.
The lift door opened and Hyren escorted Terra in. "If there's any reason why you should idolise me," he said coolly to the officer, who remained outside, "it's because I've learned to think for myself." He keyed in the level he wanted and deposited Blynn on the floor as the door slid shut, separating the three of them from Dothan's look of confusion.
To be continued...