Christmas on the Space Station
It was exactly 11:00 pm when Dr. Frank Sloth became aware that he was not alone. If he had been standing on the observation deck of his magnificent space station, maybe he would not be feeling so ill at ease. Maybe the soft hairs on the back of his neck would not be prickling in response to an unknown danger. Here in his private quarters, however, the sensation meant that he was in for a world of trouble.
Monitors beeped lazily as he marched into the confines of his personal command module. It was a scaled-down version of the main control room – barely serviceable in comparison, but perfect for keeping an eye on his Grundo minions. Consulting the main computer would allow him to discover if there really was an intruder, or if it was just his overtired imagination. Sleep deprivation was an unfortunate side effect of being an evil mastermind, but it was a price that he was willing to pay in exchange for complete domination of Neopia.
"Get me the surveillance tapes for my quarters," he barked at the computer impatiently.
"Error. Cannot retrieve surveillance tapes."
Sloth threw his hands up in frustration. "Then give me raw data! Temperature readings, motion activat–"
"Error. Life form detection systems offline for routine maintenance."
A string of guttural oaths escaped from his clenched jaw. Why, oh why, had he chosen today of all days to update his machinery?
"Well, what can you do?" Sloth grumbled irritably.
There was a brief pause. "Cultural acclimatisation program functioning at 100%. Do you want to run this application?"
"What is that supposed to do?" Sloth scoffed.
As soon as the words left his mouth, a sense of profound horror came over him. Neopian Christmas carols assaulted his eardrums, and he stumbled into the corridor while clutching his head in agony. Being forced to listen to such sickeningly jovial music was beyond the limits of his endurance.
The soft hiss of a hydraulic door provided Sloth with a welcome distraction. He jerked his head around just in time to see the faint outline of a Cybunny passing through.
His nose wrinkled in disgust. He had forgotten about their scheduled holographic conference call, and now the infernal 'pet was gallivanting around his space station as though she owned the place. This would not do.
He stormed after her, fully prepared to deliver a verbal thrashing that would reduce any lesser being to a quivering ball of tears, when she re-entered the corridor and flashed him an exuberant grin.
"There you are!" the annoyingly-optimistic Cybunny gushed. "I was worried you had gone to bed early or something!"
"And miss all this fun?" Sloth muttered sarcastically, his arms folded tightly across his chest. "When did you arrive?"
"Oh, about an hour ago," Cylara waved it off dismissively.
An hour? Sloth's eyes narrowed.
He didn't know what she had been up to, but he intended to find out.
"Do you know what day it is?" Cylara asked, her holographic form perching on an empty crate of Neocola.
"The 24th day of Celebrat–"
"Christmas Eve!" Cylara interrupted, drumming her heels indignantly against the crate. "Don't tell me you've forgotten."
Sloth seethed inwardly and pinched the bridge of his nose. If the earlier choral blast hadn't given him a headache, his interaction with this insufferable Cybunny soon would. He knew it was her job to keep an eye on him and thwart his dastardly schemes before they got out of hand, but her sudden desire to make social calls was grinding on his last nerve. For a fleeting moment, he was tempted to vaporise her. If it weren't for the fact that she was not physically present, he might have followed through.
"I don't celebrate Christmas," he informed her tersely. "What do you want, Cylara?"
The Cybunny's posture seemed to slump at this revelation. "I just wanted to check on you. Nobody deserves to feel alone, especially during the festive season."
"There is no festive season on the space station!" Sloth scowled, slightly disconcerted by the notion that Cylara cared about his wellbeing. "No holidays, no presents, and certainly no Christmas! It's just a continuation of our usual iron discipline and efficiency."
Cylara looked crestfallen as she hopped down from her makeshift seat.
"I feel sorry for you," she told him gently on her way out. "And I do wish you a very merry Christmas all the same."
This sentimental garbage was too much. Sloth discharged his laser blaster at her retreating hologram. The hydraulic door chose that exact moment to slam shut, and the laser beams dissipated harmlessly against the textured steel.
It brought him great satisfaction when the hologram vanished anyway. Now that she was gone, he could investigate her movements aboard the space station.
Bracing himself, Sloth threw open the door to his personal command module. The unbearably cheerful voices were chanting something about Raindorfs.
"Terminate the current program!" Sloth ordered forcefully, and was immediately rewarded with blissful silence from the speakers.
With that taken care of, Sloth turned his attention to the updates currently underway. The progress bar indicated that the process was complete, so he tried once again to bring up the necessary records. The image of a crying, red-feathered Neopet filled his screen. Confused, he attempted to refresh the page. The image did not go away.
Sloth peered more closely at the monitor, wondering if he had accidentally opened a live feed to the planet below, when he realised it was an error message.
The systems were down again, and someone had some serious explaining to do.
He thundered down the corridor, cloak billowing ominously behind him like a storm cloud. The double doors that led to the main observation deck were guarded by a hulking green Grundo. Still simmering, Sloth made a beeline for him. If anyone knew what was going on, it would be Gargarox. He hadn't promoted the oversized Grundo to commander-in-chief for nothing.
"Status report," he growled.
Caught off-guard, Gargarox fumbled to salute. Then, before his master could speak up again, he fell to his knees and started grovelling. Sloth couldn't help but wonder if Gargarox's apology was for the error-riddled updates, or if there was another, more fatal flaw that he had yet to discover.
"Please don't go in there," the Grundo begged. "Give us a few more minutes."
"What's going on?" Sloth repeated, his voice hardening. "Why is the system down? Did you see Cylara anywhere near here?"
He barged through the doors, ignoring Gargarox's request, and immediately noticed what was amiss.
A large tree had been ludicrously dumped in the middle of the atrium. Grundos of all nations and creeds were dancing joyously around the trunk, throwing shiny objects onto the branches for decoration, and... was that tinsel? Sloth's stomach churned in protest; the idea that such frivolous things had been procured on his space station made him feel physically ill.
It was no wonder that the systems were malfunctioning, what with all the Grundos prancing around and getting glitter in the circuits.
"Why is there a tree in my space station?" Sloth gritted his teeth and hissed in Gargarox's direction.
"Did it occur to you that we are on a schedule?"
"Yes sir, but–"
"Are you somehow unaware of the prohibition on dancing in the control room?"
"No sir, but–"
"This lapse in judgement will not be tolerated!"
Gargarox flinched and ducked his head even lower. "I am very sorry, sir. Only... it's the Day of Giving, sir. They wanted to celebrate."
"The only thing I will be giving them is severe punishment," Sloth snapped. "Their jolliness is an embarrassment to this space station and everyone on it. I can't believe they have the nerve to celebrate when we're still short ten-thousand cogs and a rubber chicken for Invasion Plan #127."
"They're ready, sir," Gargarox replied timidly.
The news surprised Sloth. "What about the fake moustaches for Invasion Plan #503?"
"They're ready too, sir."
Even though he was loathe to admit it in light of recent events, his commander-in-chief must have been extremely efficient to complete the required work so quickly. They were now ahead of schedule, and this meant that he could invade Neopia sooner than expected. The thought filled him with fiendish glee.
"Their productivity increases dramatically when they're happy," Gargarox added cautiously, his voice taking on a pleading quality. "Please, sir. Grant them a few hours to celebrate Christmas."
"Increases productivity, you say?" Sloth stroked his chin thoughtfully.
Whatever he had been about to say next was cut off by the sudden cacophony of bells that marked the stroke of midnight. The Grundos cheered in unison, adding their voices to the raucous song.
As the last chime faded, the Grundos walked towards Sloth in single file. Each one clutched a small, gift-wrapped box in their pudgy hands.
"What is this?" Sloth asked suspiciously.
"Gifts for you, sir," Gargarox explained, carefully handing over one of the boxes. "According to Cylara, it's a Christmas tradition."
Sloth took the box uncertainly, turning it over in his hands as if debating whether or not it was safe to open. The ribbon glided off easily when he tugged it, so he let it fall to the floor. After a moment of further hesitation, he lifted the cardboard flaps and looked inside.
He wasn't exactly sure what he had been expecting, but what he found inside the box certainly wasn't it.
"A Virtublaster 5000?"
"Yes, sir," Gargarox replied with a bow. "I made some modifications so that only you can fire it. It's also three times more powerful than your current blaster."
"Excellent work, Gargarox," Sloth was surprised and impressed by the Grundo's ingenuity. "You're really giving me all these presents?"
"We are," Gargarox confirmed. "And after you open them, there will be a banquet in your honour."
A banquet? In his honour? Now that sounded awfully tempting. Sloth leaned over the railing and caught a whiff of roast turkey – real turkey, not that unappetising freeze-dried gunk – and rich cranberry sauce. He wondered where his underlings had found such delectable food, but hunger quickly took precedence over his curiosity. Surely it wouldn't damage his reputation too badly if he were to remain civil for a little while.
"So Gargarox," Sloth began casually as he reached for another present. "Tell me more about this Christmas..."