I used to work for Sloth. I'm not terribly proud of this, but so it went. I can't say it was the best job I've ever worked, but it was certainly the most exciting. See, I had the misfortune of being highly competent and the ill-placed motivation to ensure everything was done properly once I finally got around to doing it, which meant that I'd been promoted and been promoted (which, by the way, did not necessarily entail a raise), until I reported directly to Sir Chickenhead himself.
I never called him that in person.
In turn, Sloth had taken an unhealthy interest in myself and my situation. I'm human, see. Two pets – a rainbow Pteri and a mutant Lupe that had once been one of Sloth's lab pets. And when I say unhealthy, I don't mean what you typically think of an unhealthy obsession. Don't get me wrong, Sloth certainly had his fixations: global domination, morally abhorrent lab experiments, and wrecking the lives of everyone around him. But mostly, his interest was unhealthy for me, as Sloth had a bad habit of recklessly endangering the lives of those under his control. I think he did it on a whim. Like it was a game.
Let me tell you about one of those times.
I was down in one of the security control rooms, fixing some of the monitors for one of the handful of other humans that worked here. I wasn't certain on her name, but I thought of her as Fangirl. She frightened me. I think it was her eyeshadow. Very intimidating.
I was on my back, halfway inside the wall with a penlight gripped in my teeth, trying to gently untangle the wires. There were voices in the room, muted, and I wasn't paying attention to them. Then, a hand closed around one of my ankles, and I was torn from the hole in the wall and pulled out into the room. I yipped in surprise and dropped the penlight, throwing my arms up over my face.
"Don't hurt me!" I cried on instinct.
"Wow," Fangirl said. "You're right. That is pathetic."
"And hilarious," another voice added.
I gingerly removed my arms. Sloth stood over me.
"Oh, uh," I said carefully, "Hi boss."
"Is your pilot's certification still valid?" he asked.
"No, it expired last year and there's an two-inch thick medical file that effectively bans me-"
"Good enough for me. There's a ship in hangar A35 waiting for you. You'll be transporting Garoo to satellite N-9851. Bring your full repair kit – and maybe those pets of yours. And a weapon."
Then he walked off and left the two of us behind. None of that sounded good. I wasn't supposed to be flying anything. Garoo terrified me. And the thought of bringing my pets as bodyguards meant that this wasn't just some routine repair work. But, the one thing I could always count on with Sloth was his willful disregard for the welfare, both physical and mental, of his subordinates.
"Sooooo," Fangirl drawled, "my console isn't getting fixed?"
"It's not getting fixed," I confirmed morosely, "since Sloth seems determined to get me killed. I don't know why I still work here."
"Tockholm endrome!" she coughed into her hands.
I gathered my pets as Sloth had recommended, dourly telling my Pteri, Miriane, that we should expect trouble. She was painted rainbow and obsessed with Gormball. My Lupe, Davis, didn't talk. Ever.
"I got a blaster," the Pteri said eagerly. "And Davis has got teeth and the ferocity of a cornered meepit with rabies. It's breathtaking to behold."
"Uh huh. And how do you know this and where did you get the blaster?"
"Ignorance is bliss, boss. Ignorance is bliss."
So armed, we set out, myself lugging my toolkit in a backpack. I wasn't as strong as I used to be and so when we arrived at the hangar bay, I was severely winded. It didn't help that Miriane had insisted on riding on my shoulder the entire way there. Davis just loped along at my side, the top of his head almost even with my collarbones. We made a short stop to one of the locker rooms to change into flight gear – if we were going to a satellite, we'd have to be exposed to hard vacuum to get inside. Then, we met back up at the hangar. Garoo was waiting for us at the ship. The Blumaroo was armed and armored and he looked me up and down with a critical red eye as we approached.
"If you were one of mine," he finally said, "I'd have you doing laps for weeks until you no longer had the endurance of a slorg."
"I wouldn't be one of yours, sir. Two-inch thick medical file."
"I'm well aware and am so very pleased to have been given a broken human to work with on this mission."
From the tone of his voice, I could tell he wasn't actually excited by the prospect. I followed him into the ship and settled myself into the pilot's chair, buckling in and waiting until I saw that the rest of my crew had done the same in the back transport area. Then, I keyed in my credentials and the ship hummed to life. The lights flicked off in the bay and then the red warning lights flashed on. A few minutes passed and a slightly mechanical voice informed us the doors were opening. I flipped on the anti-gravity engines. This was why I worked at Virtupets. They had the BEST toys. I suppose Moltara is pretty cool, but really – outer space and anti-gravity?
Our take-off was smooth. I eased the ship out and let it drift a safe distance from the station before gunning the engines. In my peripheral vision, the back display camera showed the entirety of it falling away behind us, diminishing and becoming just another satellite of the planet, the spires like the fronds of a fern. Despite everything, I did love my home, here on the edge of Neopia.
"I don't like flying," Miriane said from behind me in a small voice.
"You're a Pteri!" I called back in exasperation. "How can you not like flying!?"
"Let me rephrase that. I don't like flying when there's no gravity."
"If you get sick, make sure you get sick in Garoo's direction," I growled.
My navigation system had been pre-programmed with our destination and I only had to sit back and steer the ship in the right direction. Eventually, the satellite rolled into view on the console. They weren't terribly large, but they were complicated. I hadn't figured out what Sloth used them for, as he never shared and information on them was under fairly strict security protocols. The only way in was a hatch on the outside that led to an airlock. I'd done enough exterior maintenance on the station to be comfortable using it, although I had a bad feeling that Miriane and Davis would be problematic.
I positioned the ship parallel to the satellite and set it to hold in slow rotation with the airlock. Then I unbuckled myself and floated over to where my two pets were waiting. I checked on Miriane to ensure her helmet was on good and put my own on. Garoo took charge of Davis, for which I was very thankful. The airlock on the ship was at the back and it only fit two people at once, so Garoo went first, and then I followed, Miriane was clinging to my back.
I waited a moment there in the airlock once it opened, gauging the distance. Garoo was already there, waiting at the door to the airlock. I only had to send myself straight across, an easy enough feat for someone that understood logic and mathematics. That's all moving around in space was, I often told myself. Simple laws of physics, without the complications of factoring in 9.8 meters per second squared. I took a breath and pushed off the ship, using both my legs. I floated out into the open space, my stomach twisting into a tight knot and crawling somewhere up near my throat, and then I was coming up on the airlock and Garoo reached out and grabbed my arm. He pulled me inside and then slammed a fist on the panel, closing the lock behind us. There was a woosh, then both gravity and oxygen returned. Granted, the gravity was only about half what I was used to, but it would suffice.
We were also in pitch darkness. I unclasped my helmet and Garoo took out a light. He held that with one hand and his blaster with the other. Miriane was struggling out of her own helmet and she fumbled with her own blaster, getting it situated along one claw. Davis just stood there, shaking his head, until I unlatched his helmet and tossed it aside. Then he whipped about and snarled at the door leading further into the satellite.
"Now I'm freaked out," I whispered. "What's in here?"
"We have no idea," Garoo replied. "Cameras went out and the first team we sent didn't return."
"They were Grundos. The un-mutated kind." He sounded disdainful.
"But – WHAT?!"
"All I'm hearing is 'blah blah I'm a stupid human' when I should be hearing 'yes sir, what are your orders, sir?'" the Blumaroo growled.
"Why does no one seem to realize that I'm not capable of doing dangerous work anymore?"
"You can deal with your personal failings on your own time. Besides, you were never capable to begin with. That's why I'm here. Let's go."
"All right!" Miriane hissed from my shoulder. "I am armed and dangerous! Bring on the monsters!"
At least someone was enjoying herself. I followed Garoo and Davis into the satellite. The massive Lupe was taking point, his hackles raised and his teeth bared. The satellite was quiet save for the swish of filtered air and the hum of mechanicals. The gravity was a bit difficult to get used to, but I was able to adjust fairly quickly. It made climbing the ladder that led between levels much easier.
We went to the control room first. I dropped to my knees and set up my lamp, illuminating the room in a harsh white glare and unzipped my backpack. The first step would be to run diagnostics. There was power, else there'd be no oxygen, so I should be able to find out what systems had been knocked offline and where the break was.
The evil fuzzles attacked just as the diagnostic finished running.
Look, I know that sounds hilarious, but it's really not.
They're not that big, but they're fast. Their massive amounts of fur means it's difficult to actually distinguish where their center of mass is, unless you gauge by their mouth, and if you can see their mouth clearly it's because they're usually in mid-leap to chew your face off. They have lots of teeth. Lots of very sharp teeth. And did I mention that they're fast? They're very fast.
I only knew something was wrong when Garoo's gloved hand closed on the back of my neck. I was shoved face down to the ground and I looked over to see his ankle as he stood over me, braced in a firing stance, one hand on the grip of his blaster, the other hand supporting the base to steady his aim. He was firing and the flashes of light sent my vision spinning and it took a second before I realized what he was firing at.
They moved like a liquid tide, like the ocean coming in, a multicolored wave of fur, red eyes, and glistening teeth. They'd made it past the door before we could react and were now loose in the room. Davis fell in among them, baying like a beast, and I saw him jerk, his muscles rippling as he threw the fuzzles away with sharp snaps of his neck.
"The door!" I cried. "We gotta get the door closed!"
That was enough for Garoo. His hand closed on the back of my suit and he pulled me to my feet, dragging me along with him as he fought his way across the room. It was clear he knew what he was doing and he didn't care one way or another how I was faring. Davis was doing a good job of keeping the fuzzles scattered and Miriane was firing steadily into the hallway, keeping them back. Garoo shoved me against the wall just by the door and I fumbled with the panel, ripping it off to expose the wiring beneath. The Blumaroo stayed close to my back, shielding me with his own body.
"Almost there," I hissed, crossing the wires and attaching them to a portable power source. "There!"
And the door slammed shut. I sank to the floor, my knees weak and my muscles shaking. Garoo saw to clearing out the rest of the room and we were safe again. Trapped, but we were safe. For now. Until they found another way in.
"Are you okay?" the Blumaroo asked tersely. It wasn't out of concern. He needed to know if I was a liability.
"No," I whispered. "But I'll hold together."
I eased myself into a sitting position and wrapped my arms around my stomach, resting my head against the wall and I exhaled hard. Tried to will the trembling out of my muscles. It'd started a year ago. I was still learning to adjust.
"Evil fuzzle infestation," Garoo muttered. "Of course it's evil fuzzles. The auto-purge system must have malfunctioned."
"Sloth realized that this was going to be a reoccurring problem for anything in high orbit above Neopia, so each satellite is equipped with a system designed to expose the entirety of the interior to hard vacuum."
"Evil fuzzles can survive in vacuum."
"Right. That's where the explosive decompression comes in."
"I have no idea what any of that means," Miriane said. She sounded far too cheerful in admitting her ignorance.
"Like popping a balloon," I said. "Everything inside the satellite gets thrown out. Of course, that would include us."
I glared at Garoo.
"Then we get the system up and running, you set it on a delay, and we get out before it goes off."
I resented his calm.
"I've got the location of the break on the schematics," I muttered. "It's through this access tunnel. They aren't that big. We'll be on hands and knees."
"So your Lupe goes first, then you, and I'll cover the rear. The fuzzles can only come at us from two directions. Miriane gets to the airlock and keeps it under our control until we arrive."
"Wouldn't it make more sense to bring Miriane? She's tiny."
"I'm perfectly fine with not being trapped in a narrow tunnel with no room to evade," she said.
"I need to be there to keep you alive and your Lupe has the cognitive abilities of a tigersquash and can't be sent off alone. This is how we're doing it. Let's get ready to move."
We wouldn't take the main passageway. The fuzzles would be waiting on the other side of the door. I opened up a maintenance hatch instead and directed Miriane to head down, while we would climb up two levels to the break. It took some shoving to get Davis moving in the right direction, but the Lupe figured it out and started crawling up the narrow chute, his paws on the rungs. I followed after a moment, and then Garoo eased himself in just behind me. He was in his element, I realized. Perhaps Sloth wasn't as glib with my life as I'd thought. He'd sent along the best protection he could.
We got to the break without trouble. I rolled over onto my back and pulled off the panel above my head. The wiring had been chewed to shreds and I began ripping out pieces and pulling replacements out of a pocket on my suit. Garoo had backed into the tunnel so that he was oriented back down the way we'd come, giving him a clear line of fire. There wasn't enough room to actually turn around inside here.
"We've got incoming," Garoo said when I was halfway done.
I hissed and tried to focus my mind on my work. My heart was pounding and my mouth was dry with fear.
"You know what I call evil fuzzles?" Garoo said grimly. "Target practice."
And he readied his blaster.
"Oh good," I muttered under my breath. "I'm so glad to see that Dr. Sloth's policy of hiring only the best sociopaths is paying off."
It was increasingly hard to focus on my work with a pitched battle happening on either side of me in such close confines. I'm not entirely sure how I did it. I think my mind simply shut down and stopped processing anything other than the task at hand. I could hear Davis snarling and at one point, he yelped in pain and I was startled out of my focus, my heart pounding in terror, until I heard him let out a guttural growl and there was a snap of teeth. He was fine. I continued with my work. I could feel my muscles drawing tight, like a wire under too much tension, and I swallowed hard and fought it down. I wouldn't be a liability. Not here.
"Done!" I finally called to Garoo. "We've got ten minutes to get out."
"Then let's go!" he snapped.
The return trip was excruciatingly difficult. I was not able to turn around, so I had to edge backwards out of the tunnel. Garoo was driving the evil fuzzles back and the ones approaching on Davis's side seemed reluctant to face down my Lupe, who was letting out a steady growl from the back of his throat. It wasn't until we reached the shaft leading down to the other floors that they surged after us.
They fell down on us from above. Davis snapped at them, but he didn't have the mobility to catch them all, and I screamed as one of their soft bodies landed on my shoulder. I felt it bite down, the pressure of its teeth against my bicep, and I flailed at it, letting go of the ladder with both hands.
I fell backwards. There was a sharp tug and the world spun about for a second, and then I was aware of a pressure against my chest, my suit tight from Garoo's hand holding on to the collar. I dangled there, coughing, and then caught hold of the ladder again and Garoo let go. He hung on to the ladder with one hand and fired up with his blaster, the light illuminating the narrow shaft, and I heard him tersely ordering me to continue on down. We only had six minutes left.
It was a running battle. Garoo kept us moving, Davis kept pace, and we quickly reached where Miriane was waiting for us. She squawked with relief and we piled into the airlock, then she slammed the door. I was breathing hard and I heard the impact of soft bodies on the other side of the door, the fuzzles trying to chew their way through the metal, no doubt. With shaking hands, I picked up my helmet.
"My suit!" I cried, twisting to look at my arm. "It bit me-"
"You're fine," Garoo muttered. "It's intact. You think Virtupets can't manufacture a mesh that fuzzles won't be able to bite through?"
I was quiet a moment. I'd thought – then – I hadn't been in as much danger as I'd believed? Granted, my head was still exposed, but...
"Three minutes," Garoo said, snapping me back into motion.
There isn't much more to say. We got out of there in time and watched the satellite decompress from the safety of my ship. The fuzzles were blown out into space and drifted away. One even pinged off the front of the ship and I could see it trying to bite through the glass before its momentum carried it away into open space. Garoo informed me that I'd need to go back into the satellite again, to restore the shielding unit that would keep the fuzzles from getting back in. There wouldn't be oxygen this time, but I'd worked in a vacuum before. Garoo accompanied me, leaving my pets in the ship, and Miriane bothered me to the point of distraction over the intercom until Garoo threatened to go back to the ship and throw her out the airlock, without a helmet. That worked, but only for about fifteen minutes.
I suppose a lack of self-preservation is a commonality to my crew.
Garoo and I were to report back to Sloth as soon as we got back. I told my two pets to return on home and made a mental note to talk to Miriane about where she got that blaster later. I had a feeling I wouldn't like what my pets were getting up to while I was at work, but hey, what can I say? I work for Sloth. My own decision making skills were hardly exemplary.
Sloth was in his office and Fangirl was there as well, bringing him coffee with a disgruntled look on her face. I think she glared at me as well on her way out.
"I think she hates me," I commented once she was gone.
"You're being paranoid," Sloth replied, sipping at his coffee and moving some files around on his desk.
"Considering I almost got eaten by evil fuzzles and I'm still not certain if you're just keeping me around to have a human test subject handy someday, I think my paranoia is justified."
"I'll grant you that," he murmured. Didn't try to deny it and I shifted nervously. Sloth's office didn't have chairs for visitors. The omission was deliberate.
"Any complications, Commander Garoo?" Sloth asked demurely, still not giving either of us his full attention.
"None," Garoo replied stiffly. "I will submit my full report tomorrow."
"Excellent. Girl." His red eyes flickered up to regard me. "Any problems on the mission?"
There was a folder resting near his elbow. It was roughly two inches thick. That was the problem with working for Dr. Sloth. It was more than the blatant disregard for the safety and well-being of his personnel. It was the intrusions, the control – the tyranny. He ruled Virtupets and he had access to everything, including the things that someone might want to rather keep to themselves. My eyes rested on the file a moment.
"None," I whispered.
"I am pleased to hear that." He flipped the file open and made a note. "You two make a good team. I will have to remember this for the future."
"I dislike being paired with a broken specimen of a human."
I stiffened. Before, the insults had been casual. This...
"Now you know how I feel every single day about my own lackeys," Sloth replied, his tone bored. "Deal with it. Dismissed."
And like that, his attention was off of us. Garoo saluted stiffly and then we both walked out of his office, side by side. Garoo rounded on me as soon as we were outside. I could never gauge his expression. The Blumaroo always looked angry to me. Perhaps it was because he was a mutant, or perhaps he simply was always angry and just kept it hidden under that pristine discipline of his.
"If I'm going to get stuck working with you again," Garoo snapped, "and I think I will, for Sloth doesn't say things idly, then I want a bit more competence than huddling in a corner and hoping your pets will save you."
"0500 hours tomorrow. Meet me at range X35 on the eighth floor."
This, I reflected, was a terrible development.