The Grundo’s Café was known for its eclectic customers, as well as its variety of food, but even within the chaos of the café, one table stood out. Not for noise or having a celebrity or anything of that sort, but for the papers scattered over the table and the fierce discussion taking place. The discussion itself was oddly quiet, and the table seemed to be in its own tiny world, cut off from the rest of the café.
Five Neopets sat at the table, and an orange Kougra was speaking. As the Kougra’s voice faded away, silence reigned for two heartbeats. Then the others began to speak.
With one quick movement, the green Xweetok shook her head. “Tiger has the right idea but the wrong place.” She nodded at the orange Kougra as she glanced around the table, arms folded in front of her. “Yes, Gorix and Parlax were high-level agents. Yes, they took dangerous missions and accomplished them. But when Parlax gained his scar, it was completely intentional, both on his part and on Sloth’s.” She shot a glance at the green Eyrie across the table. “Not a stupid accident involving Neocola.”
“Why do you think he wanted the scar?” A bright pink Alien Aisha leaned across the table, cutting off the indignant green Eyrie. Her tone implied that she doubted the Xweetok’s reason was the right one.
“I never said he wanted it.” The Xweetok smiled. “I just said it was intentional.”
The Alien Aisha narrowed her eyes. “Explain.”
“Gladly.” The Xweetok leaned forward slightly, weight resting on her elbows. “It all began on a routine mission...”
* * *
“Your mission is routine,” the Ixi said, “but it is of vital importance.”
Gorix frowned at the words. In his experience, there was no such thing as a routine mission, especially when Sloth was involved. He couldn’t interrupt Commander Valka’s briefing, though. Glancing at Parlax, Gorix suspected the Split Grundo had about the same thoughts.
Valka continued, hands clasped behind his back. “Your mission is to check on the holding cells and make sure that the prisoners held there match our records. Do not attempt anything else, no matter how tempting it may be. And despite the routine purpose of this mission, stay on your guard. It’s possible that they’ll see through your disguises. Unlikely, but possible.” He smiled slightly, moustache twitching. “You know the rest, I believe. Go quickly. You have until the guards change.” The Commander turned, striding out of the room before either Grundo had a chance to move.
Parlax crossed his arms as he started walking out of the room. Gorix followed the Split Grundo, holding a clipboard under one arm. They were already dressed for their mission, wearing the gray and blue-green uniforms of Sloth’s inspectors, with badges on their left shoulders proclaiming their stolen identities. Identities that they themselves had stolen years ago.
Even with all their practice at acting like inspectors, this mission would take some doing. The lower levels were patrolled heavily due to the sensitive material kept down there, such as the holding cells that they were checking on. Most people didn’t know the holding cells were even on the Space Station, instead thinking that they were on some lonely asteroid.
Of course, most people didn’t go to the lower levels, and for good reason. The lower levels of the Space Station were closer to the artificial gravity generator Sloth had built at the center of the Station, and as such had higher gravity than what people were used to. Sloth’s soldiers, of course, trained in the lower levels. Gorix and Parlax had only been down there often enough to understand what the limitations were.
Parlax led the way to one of the lifts that ran throughout the station. Almost as soon as they entered, Gorix hit the button labeled ‘4’ and the door slid closed. “Here we go,” he said, grinning.
“Yeah.” Parlax leaned back against the wall as the lift began to drop. His purple fingers tapped on the lift’s side, while his orange ones fiddled with the fastenings on his collar.
Gorix’s smile faded. His friend seemed oddly subdued. “What, scared of the guards?”
“Them?” Parlax laughed, shaking his head. “They’re slow.”
Gorix grinned, letting silence return for the short minutes it took for them to reach level 4. When the lift came to a stop, Gorix stepped out with a wince. The gravity wasn’t so bad if you were standing still. Mobile, it was hard not to notice. Parlax moved in front of him, face as expressionless as the steel walls around them. Gorix sighed, falling into step behind his friend.
The first guards they met barely glanced at them before continuing on their way. Gorix watched them go, letting out a breath. Any one of the armored guards could take them down easily if it came to a fight, but so long as the guards assumed that they were merely an inspector and a scribe, nothing would happen.
As they neared the holding cells, Gorix’s nervousness grew. His half-hearted scribbles about how the holding cells were guarded less frequent, and the pen he wrote with slipped through his fingers more and more often, dropping to hang on its chain. Parlax seemed immune to nerves, to Gorix’s eyes. The Split Grundo walked with all the arrogance of a real inspector, off-handedly telling the guards that his scribe was new. The guards accepted the explanation without comment, allowing the pair through to the holding cells, two mutated Grundos escorting them.
Gorix looked around, eyes flicking from door to door as they walked. He recognized a number of the captives as other members of the Resistance. They stayed silent, not paying him any more mind than they would any other scribe. He wasn’t sure if that was reassuring or not. Ahead of him, Parlax stared straight ahead. Gorix saw Parlax’s arm moving, reaching towards his concealed blaster, but Parlax pulled back, clasping his hands behind his back.
Once the guards had marched them past all the cells, they turned around and took them back. Gorix couldn’t see Parlax’s face, but from behind the Split Grundo looked like he was vibrating. Gorix paled slightly, focusing harder on scribbling down information on what the cells looked like (grungy, but in good repair), what the captives looked like (afraid, but in relatively good shape), and generally looking anywhere but at Parlax.
When they reached the end of the cells, Parlax halted for a moment, just long enough for Gorix to catch up to him. His hands, purple and orange, hung fisted by his sides. “Report back,” Parlax said. “I’d like to have a closer look at a few things, but I can tell our superior about them myself.”
Gorix stared at him for a moment, opening his mouth to protest.
“Go!” Parlax snapped, raising a hand as if he was about to hit Gorix.
Gorix flinched. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” he whispered, turning and heading down the corridor. His footsteps echoed, hollow and far too loud. Behind him, Gorix heard Parlax explaining that he’d like a closer look at a few of the prisoners. Gorix tried to ignore it, focusing on the lift and the lift alone.
It was his life-line, the place that would keep him safe from Sloth. Passing through the long hall, Gorix ignored the guards. None of them questioned him, and few even glanced his way. Hope bolstered, Gorix opened the lift door, turning back to look behind him.
At about that point, the ruckus started. Gorix froze in the lift, torn between the desire to get away and make sure that Commander Valka had all the information and his desire to help Parlax. When the guards left their stations, heading back to the holding cells, self-preservation won out. From the sounds echoing down the corridor, nobody in the holding area had any chance of escape.
As the doors closed, Gorix thought he saw a purple and orange figure running towards him. He turned away, trying to convince himself it was just his imagination. It was too late to open the doors again, anyway. The lift rose up, and Gorix tried not to mourn his friend. Nothing was sure yet. There were other lifts. Maybe Parlax had reached one of them.
It was practically impossible, true, but hope of Parlax’s escape kept him going until he reached the Resistance HQ. With quick words, he outlined what he’d seen to Valka, forcing emotion to the sidelines and speaking only the facts, handing his clipboard over as well. The green Ixi took it with a frown, pulling at his moustache. “Rest,” he finally said. “You need that more than anything else.”
Valka cut him off with a sharp motion. “Rest,” he said gently. “We’ll talk afterwards.”
Slowly, Gorix turned and left. Walking through the maze of passages that led to his room, he ran the events of the day though his head over and over again. The result was the same, no matter how much he thought about it. He would need to rescue Parlax. The danger was unimportant. Loyalty to his friend was. They’d promised each other that, no matter what, they’d keep each other safe, rescue the other if there was need, and never, ever, betray each other.
Secure in his belief, Gorix entered his room. Now he just had to convince Valka that they should go ahead with this. He didn’t think it’d be easy, but it’d be worth it if he could get official sanction and backup for his mission. Of course, not getting it simply meant he’d do it alone.
He was right about it not being easy. It took almost an hour to even get Commander Valka to talk about the idea. The following hour was an argument that went back to the same point over and over: It wasn’t safe.
Understanding that was simple. Accepting it was not. When Valka finally sent him away, Gorix stalked out of the room. Without thinking about it, he headed for the equipment lockers. There, the lies came easily to his tongue. “Special mission,” he said curtly to the shadow Lenny standing watch. The Lenny nodded, stepping aside to let him in.
The lockers were one of the few places in the HQ that Gorix rarely went. Weapons and useful items covered the walls, hung or coiled or stored in neatly labeled boxes. With a quick glance around, Gorix found the items he was looking for. Holstering two powerful blasters and clipping a laser-cutter to his belt, he pulled a short length of rope out of their store.
Looping the rope over a shoulder, Gorix headed out. The Lenny didn’t question his odd selection, merely closing and locking the door behind him. Moving quickly, Gorix wound through the corridors, heading straight for the lifts. He entered the first one he came to, pressing the button for level 5.
When he stepped out of the lift, the high gravity weighed on his limbs, making movement harder. Gorix ignored the weight, walking through the corridors as if he owned them, following a map he’d drawn earlier. The sparse lines marked a course that led right above the holding cells. Luck favored him in this mission, it seemed, as he didn’t see anyone else as he walked. Entering a very specific storage closet, Gorix knelt, pulling out the laser-cutter.
The laser-based tool wasn’t exactly a weapon, but it was still dangerous. Gorix slowly traced a circle, the cutter sliced a line through the thick plates with relative ease. When at last he’d cut out a hole large enough to fit through, he paused to make sure the edges slanted inwards. With a nod, he cut the final inches. The plate didn’t move. Gorix smiled. The mission was going just as he’d planned, so far. After burning handholds into the edges, Gorix set the cutter aside. Wedging his fingers into the holes, he slowly lifted the plate.
His muscles burned, and each inch the plate moved took an eternity. Pulling it to the side, Gorix slowly laid it back down. He couldn’t just drop it, though his body wanted to. Trembling, he pushed it the final few inches away from the hole, then collapsed, panting. Doing the same thing on an upper level would be easy. Even in the mid-levels, it wouldn’t be too hard. Down here, Gorix was blessing all the weight training Valka had insisted on.
As his arms slowly returned to a useable state, Gorix peered through the hole he’d cut. He couldn’t see anything but more metal flooring. Considering that a good thing, Gorix clipped the cutter back to his belt, then tied off his rope to the sleeping cleanerbot. When his arms felt strong enough to handle it, he dropped his rope through the hole, following it as quickly as he could. As he hit the floor – hard – he drew his blasters, looking around. The guards were there, just as he remembered them. Before they could react, he shot them.
The blasters he’d chosen were some of the most powerful the Resistance had. Even the mutant Grundos, designed for strength and endurance, dropped after one well-aimed blast. Gorix smiled thinly, turning to the cages. Holstering one blaster, he unclipped the cutter. One by one, he cut through the locks holding the doors shut. One by one, the prisoners came out. Parlax was at the end of the row, and when Gorix got to him, he froze. “What happened to you?” he asked, horrified. He passed the cutter off to a prisoner, trusting that they’d figure out how to use it.
Smiling weakly, Parlax looked up at Gorix. “They tried to break me.”
Gorix’s eyes traced the X-shaped mark that scored his friend’s face, cutting deeply into his flesh. “Did they?”
“They wanted my loyalty,” Parlax murmured, smiling dreamily. “Do you think they got it?”
“No,” Gorix said hoarsely, “I don’t.”
“Good.” Parlax’s eyes fluttered shut.
Gorix stared at him in horror, then shouted for the other prisoners to carry the Split Grundo out. With a deep breath, he drew his blasters. Marching at the front of the horde, Gorix shot down as many guards as he could. The mob he’d freed took care of the rest, sheer numbers bringing down even the best of Sloth’s guards. Gorix and two old Resistance members, one carrying Parlax, took the first lift they came to. The doors closed on the mob, and Gorix hoped that they’d find a way out.
He led the others to the HQ. There, they were met by what started out as an official rebuking party but quickly turned into a shocked group of helpful people. They took Parlax to the infirmary, and Gorix was taken to Valka’s office. Standing there, getting shouted at for a breach of protocol, Gorix smiled. He still had his friend. In that moment, nothing else mattered.
The Xweetok smiled, leaning on the table. “So that’s how he got his scar.”
“That doesn’t explain why it was intentional,” the Alien Aisha pointed out.
“Do you need everything spelled out?” the Xweetok said, exasperation obvious in her voice. “He couldn’t let the Resistance know that he was on Sloth’s side, so he asked them to mark him.” She glanced around the table. “Any other objections, or shall we let the final member of our group share his opinion on Parlax’s scar?”
Surprisingly enough, silence followed her words, and all eyes turned to the plushie Bori.
“The final story it is, then.” The Xweetok smiled, waiting for the Bori to begin.
To be continued...