Enter the Snowflake's lair... Circulation: 176,293,108 Issue: 421 | 4th day of Celebrating, Y11
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Farside Leader: Part One


by freefalldreams

--------

“Look at silk flowers. From a distance, they’re beautiful, perfect, each petal stiff and crisp, each leaf glossy. But then look closer... Not too close! For if you get too close, peering at them from less then a foot away, you start to notice the imperfections... the frayed petal edges, the twisted stems, the threads coming out of the centres, the leaves that are losing their gloss... I think there’s a lesson in this, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet.”

     I sighed. “The lesson, Ciyan, is that you are immensely nearsighted,” I said to the small green Cybunny in pink overalls. “Now if you can figure out a way for us to survive high tea with your sister on a diet...”

     Ciyan shrugged. “She’s the one who decided to go all health-nut,” she remarked. “I only said she should go cold turkey on the sweets, not on everything nice to eat.”

     I sighed. Luxury liners had their downsides, and one of them was high tea. Not that I would have objected to the carts of sweets which tuxedoed waiters were starting to wheel into the lounge, but when you’re travelling with a friend who’s suddenly decided to eat nothing but fruit and veggies... and who hasn’t the sense to stay away from high tea... Still, Geena hadn’t made an appearance yet.

     A loud metallic clacking turned my attention to the robot Koi perched on the edge of the chair across from mine. Much to my concern, my sibling had her typewriter out again, and her shiny metal fins were tapping away. “Karmapa,” I said, “you’re not thinking of bringing Karl Devilaris back to life, are you?”

     A robotic snort greeted that remark. “Never again!” she said. “Why do you think I made sure Mel’s ticket went missing? She can go home on the next ship, but not with us! She wanted to be my assistant still, kept nagging me to bring him back... I couldn’t stand her any longer! If I want to be a reporter again, I’ll take a less foolish name... and I don’t want to be a reporter again. Yet.” She looked up from the page she was typing, and I saw a distorted reflection of myself in her faceplates. A little frazzled, but generally good-looking, that would describe the Island Wocky looking out. Even my magically-created, and overly long, red hair was neatly braided for once, and well contained in its hairnet. “No, Explorer,” Karmapa went on, “I am writing a letter to that annoying Fere Autrei, demanding to know what right he has to sack me.”

     I watched my reflection roll warped tawny-brown eyes. “Karmapa,” I said for what felt like the thousandth time in a day and a half, “Fere only broke the news to you. I read his message too; it was clear the Demon fired you as soon as he heard we were in space and couldn’t come back. Fere’s the acting leader of Farside Patrol with me and Kent gone; it was his job to tell you.”

     “But you said it yourself!” Karmapa shouted. “Right before the battle, when the Demon wanted to fire me for being pretty! You said he couldn’t dismiss me! Only the Commander can do that!”

     I could feel the stares of the other passengers, the glares of the waiters. “Times have changed,” I said through gritted teeth. “I’m not the Commander, ok? I’m Farside Leader, currently about to be on leave. The Demon’s not afraid of me, and he doesn’t respect me... Rainbow dung! I don’t want to talk about this, and you know it!” I could feel the prickle of tears starting. I preferred the distorted reflection in Karmapa’s faceplates to the more truthful one of a mirror... mostly because it blurred out the patch on my chest. Unlike the many “2” patches, for pilots, or myriad “3” patches, for ground crew, only one Farside Patrol “1” patch existed at any one time – it meant administrative staff. That meant Farside Leader... the Commander... and through a series of twists of fate, I now wore that patch on my violet flight suit. It was a long story, how Karmapa’s journalistic ambitions had led us to the research station on the far side of Kreludor... how we had joined its small squadron of fighter pilots, becoming Farside Three and Five, how we had fought in the Battle of Farside, and how the heroic Commander had been lost. It was a story too long to think of now, and still too raw in my heart... and my throat, still aching from the fumes I’d inhaled in my own crash.

     “Where’s Kent?” Ciyan asked suddenly, her eyes narrowed. “Aren’t you supposed to be his bodyguard?”

     I scanned the room, but could find no sign of a blue Lutari in a dark business suit. I couldn’t help but feel a bit resentful of Kent Odnurghovitch, although it wasn’t his fault he’d been promoted. Had he not been headed for the position of Deputy Kreludan Ambassador to Neopia, he would be Farside Leader, and he would be the one having to live up to the Commander’s legacy. And then there was that little matter of the disk...

     “He said,” Karmapa said in the manner of one divulging privileged information, “that he was going to challenge Doctor Hu to a game of Snowmuncher in the game room. I wished him luck, but do not think his chances are very high.” I couldn’t help but smile. Dr Siljani Hu, the Camouflage Kougra of the often misspelled name, had not been pleased at having to leave her post as Farside Base’s doctor, and was taking her annoyance on all the games in the ship’s game room.

     Ciyan grimaced. “Do me a favour,” she said, “don’t tell Geena about that. She asked him to go for a stroll with her on the observation deck last night, and he bowed out. Said it made him dizzy. If she hears he’s with Siljani...”

     “Shush!” I hissed, for Geena was entering the room. The Island Ogrin did not look happy... and it wasn’t I-hate-my-diet unhappiness. It was a desperate sort of confusion that was underlined by the fact that she was wearing a sloppy grey sweater and leggings, not something she would normally wear at this time of day. Also, she normally had a baby Aisha with her at all times, her and Ciyan’s baby sister Rai... and Rai was clearly not with her now. Then I noticed that she was clutching a sock, and I knew something was very wrong. Geena was not the sort of Neopet to walk into a crowded lounge on a luxury spaceliner, clutching a rather grubby grey sock.

     I was sprinting across the room to her when it happened. It wasn’t a big thing, just a slight jar, like what one would feel on a small sea-ship that had bumped into a good-sized wave. A pink Eyrie waiter stumbled and dropped a tray, spilling cakes and Earl Grey into the lap of a red Lupe, who began shouting at him. Other passengers started adding their opinions, but I wasn’t listening. Like the waiters, I had stopped in my tracks. Like them, I knew that that jar should not have happened... and that it had happened meant something was wrong. I knew perfectly well that even the slightest jolt meant something had gone wrong with the dumbbell-shaped ship’s spin... the spin that produced the centrifugal force which took the place of gravity.

     “Rai’s gone!” Geena was next to me, having paid as little attention to the jolt as the other passengers had. “Our cabin’s been ransacked, and this was on the floor!” She waved the sock in front of my face.

     The note safety-pinned to it was very short and badly misspelled, but it made my fur stand on end. A chill ran from the tips of my ears to the end of my tail as I read the words:

     Wee hav te ambsader an babby! Next coms ship. Watchout fo fir.

     Ps ask Doctor Who. If you cen find her!

     Inexplicable as it was, I could tell what it was: a kidnap note! “babby” had to mean “baby”, meaning Rai, but “ambsader”? I looked again and felt my head swim. “Ambassador”, that was clearly it! And the closest thing on this ship to an ambassador was the just-appointed Deputy Kreludan Ambassador... Kent! “Sweet Queen Fyora in a bag of crisps!” I shouted. I’d picked up that expression at Farside Base, and I thought I just might faint if I didn’t shout something. I was Kent’s official bodyguard, and I’d allowed him to be kidnapped by parties unknown... and an innocent and mostly charming baby along with him.

     “We’d better alert the Captain,” Karmapa said, having come up behind me and read the note. “There’s no way for the kidnappers to have gotten off the ship; the lifeboats have to be unlocked from the bridge. It’s meant so passengers can’t launch themselves and waste boats if there’s a panic, but it should keep whoever these snotwads are contained...”

     “Siljani!” Ciyan shouted, having apparently also decided to see what the fuss was. “They got her name wrong, spelt it W-H-O like most everyone does! What did they do to her? Oh, if they hurt any of them...” She did an angry little dance that would have been funny in other circumstances.

     “We need...” Karmapa said, but was cut off by a loud chime over the public address system, followed by a message: “Will Melinda Flame and all her party please go to Section Three immediately? Repeat, Melinda Flame and all her party to Section Three immediately!”

     “That’s odd,” said Ciyan.

     “Uh-oh” said Karmapa.

     “Come on, we need to report this!” said Geena, shaking the sock.

     “I memorized the passenger list, and there’s no Melinda Flame on it!” Ciyan said loudly.

     “A mistake?” I suggested. “Anyway, it’s not...”

     “No mistake,” Karmapa said. “Spaceline code, I found out about it when I was playing reporter. It’s a way to alert crew to an emergency without causing a panic among passengers. Melinda Flame means... fire. That was calling all available crew to cargo section three to deal with a fire there.”

     I stared down at the note. “Watchout fo fir.” That line suddenly made sense. “Watch out for fire.” “Uh-oh,” I said. “What’s in cargo section three?” I was deeply hoping that the situation couldn’t get any worse.

     It was Ciyan who answered me. “Chemical tanks. The cargo manifests are public knowledge, if you know where to look. I’m sorry, but those tanks are full of AW-280. I expect an evacuation to start at any moment.” She started to cry. “They did this to get the boats unlocked. We won’t be able to catch them now.”

     “Not while I have any say!” Karmapa shouted. “To the bridge!” Leaping nimbly on fins and tail, she raced out the door, with us following.

     “What’s AW-280?” Geena demanded as we ran.

     “Experimental rocket fuel, and don’t ask me to pronounce the real name!” Ciyan shouted. “Big catch is that it has to be stored at exactly freezing point. Any lower, it’s ruined; any higher, it spontaneously combusts or explodes. I figure whoever wrote that note busted the thermostat to make it go too high. You get a chain reaction pretty fast with that stuff and heat!”

      ******

     “I need to talk to the Captain now!” Karmapa practically screamed as we barged into the bridge, her mechanical voice reaching its limits in pitch. “The Deputy Kreludan Ambassador has been kidnapped!”

     “So has my baby sister!” Geena hollered.

     “They’re going to get away if you unlock the boats!” Ciyan yelled.

     “What the dung?!?” an angry Starry Eyrie in a fancy uniform shouted. “Lieutenant Bishi, get these kids off my bridge!” An Electric Kougra in a slightly less fancy uniform moved towards us, and I decided it was time to pull some rank, no matter how embarrassing it was.

     “Farside Patrol,” I said, pointing to my hated patch. “Explorer Of Worlds, Farside Leader, currently Deputy Ambassador Odnurghovitch’s bodyguard. I assume you’ve been informed of our presence on your ship?”

     The Eyrie looked horrified. “Commander,” he said, pushing forward. “I’m so sorry. Something must have gotten mixed up... I was under the impression you were a Bori! You are much younger than I thought...”

     “Not a kid, though,” I said, trying to ignore the icicle that his words spiked through my heart. “Nor are the others, and we’re telling the truth. We need...”

     “Captain Tsune!” a very young-looking Poogle in a much-less-fancy uniform and communications headset shouted. Was he... yes, he was. He was clearly Sketch. “Fire crew says they can’t control it! We need to start evacuation before it burns through to the corridor!”

     “We have to find the kidnappers first!” Ciyan shouted.

     “Captain, you know they’ll get away if you unlock the boats!” Karmapa yelled.

     “I’m sorry,” Captain Tsune said. “If the corridor goes, the spin goes, and we won’t be able to evacuate all the passengers in freefall. We need to...”

     “Captain,” Geena shouted, clutching his sleeve, “those dunghills have my baby sister! I’m not letting them get away!”

     “I have to,” Captain Tsune said, pulling away from her. “There are over a hundred passengers on this ship, and their lives depend on me unlocking the boats, now.” With those words, he pulled a keyring from his pocket, and strode toward a computer consol. Geena and Karmapa flung themselves at him, but Lieutenant Bishi and a white Meerca stepped in front of them. I watched, my chest aching with miserable confusion, as Captain Tsune stuck a key into a slot, turned it, and headed across the room toward a microphone. As he spoke into it, I had to admit that he was right... he had no choice but to unlock the lifeboats. Really, this was entirely my fault. I should have stayed closer to Kent...

     Then it hit me. I knew what the Commander would do! “There’s four evacuation points, right?” I demanded.

     “Yeah,” Ciyan said through her tears.

     “Four of us!” I yelled, drawing an odd look from Lieutenant Bishi. “The kidnappers have to get Kent and Rai out on the lifeboats, so they have to go through the evacuation points. One of us will watch at each point. We see Rai or Kent, we jump in the boat with them, if not, we get in the last boat out. Got it?” I shot Captain Tsune a don’t-mess-with-me look and hoped he wouldn’t interfere.

     “They could put Rai in a sack!” Ciyan said, wide-eyed.

     “Nope,” Lieutenant Bishi said. “Passengers can’t take baggage with them during evacuation. I like your plan.” She glanced at Captain Tsune. “Captain?”

     “Go for it,” he said, shrugging both his shoulders and wings. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Commander.” He smiled wryly. “You have five minutes until the evacuation starts. Hop to it!”

      ******

     “Geena, get to main level evac point A. Karmapa, point B,” I shouted. I grabbed Ciyan’s paw and headed for the stairs to the cabin level. “Ciyan,” I said as we ran up the sweeping grand staircase, “you take point B up here. Remember to keep your eyes open, ok?”

     “I’m not an idiot!” Ciyan snapped. “I can see well enough for this, thank you!” She peeled off to the left, leaving me to head for cabin level evacuation point A.

     I had no intention of being pulled into any of the lifeboats until everyone else had boarded, so I lingered beside the line of frightened-looking Neopets. “Please remain calm!” a cross-looking, uniform-clad, Faerie Poogle kept shouting from beside the still-locked hatches. “We are in no immediate danger...”

     A small white Quiggle, clearly terrified, hopped past her and slammed right into one of the hatches. The next moment the hatches all slid open! Looking too startled to cry, the Quiggle hopped through into one of the lifeboats. The Poogle stepped forward in an attempt to enforce order on the exodus, and suddenly, the three largest tea waiters, still wearing their tuxedoes, were there. Looking greatly relived, the Poogle allowed then to organize the line...

     I was stunned at the brazenness of the kidnappers. There was Kent, walking calmly toward the hatches, with only a delicate-looking silver Draik, clad in a fluffy white dress, standing to his right. Then I saw that on Kent’s other side was Siljani Hu, cradling a peacefully sleeping Rai! I stared, open-mouthed, for a second too long, then flung myself after them toward a boat. I collided with the pink Eyrie waiter, realized he outmuscled me ten to one, and knew I couldn’t play fair. “Sorry,” I gasped as I clawed at his beak. One claw up a nostril, a rip of delicate nasal membranes, and the Eyrie was howling and clutching a spurting nosebleed. I took advantage of the distraction to leap into Kent’s boat and slam the hatch.

     “Good idea,” the Draik said. “We don’t want that lot of louts in here, and you make six passengers anyway.” She reached for the launch button, and a giggle emerged from her voluminous sleeve, followed by a baby Nimmo. “Behave, Toad,” she scolded. “Space-girl, you better strap in.”

     I fumbled myself into a seat, and barely had the time to fasten the seat harness before she hit the launch button, casting us into space. As the false gravity left us and I watched the baby Nimmo doing flips in the air, it occurred to me to wonder just why everyone, kidnappers and kidnapped, were so calm. It next occurred to me that I didn’t know who was actually doing the kidnapping. I didn’t get a chance to have anything else occur to me, because at that point, the Kougra I had assumed was Siljani Hu handed Rai to me and said, “Sorry about the confusion. I’m Gerezor Hu, Siljani’s twin sister. I’m sorry, Ambassador, but you’ve just been kidnapped.”

     That was when the Draik laughed for the first time. Her laugh was high and piercing, and instantly annoying. “Really,” she trilled, “how amusing you are. We shall have a jolly time, shan’t we? I’m Maga, by the way, and this is my precious Toad.” The Nimmo did a flip in the air and blew a raspberry at me.

     “Amusing?” Gerezor looked at Maga as though she had a nasty case of NeoPox, and was deranged to boot. “Excuse me, but are you proficient in Standard Neopian? I just informed Ambassador Odnurghovitch that he’s been kidnapped...”

     “I’m sorry, but I’m Deputy Ambassador,” Kent butted in. “You’ve just proved nicely that you’re not Siljani; now where is she?”

     “Oh, you’re an ambassador?” Maga crooned.

     “No, I just said I’m not!” Kent snapped.

     Rai woke up and yelled, “CANDY!”

     “Enough!” snapped Gerezor. “I wasn’t expecting this when I took the job, and I’m not sitting here with a lackwit diva, a washed-up half-ambassador, two crying babies, and a space cadet who can’t talk.”

     “I can too talk!” I retorted.

     “It speaks!” Gerezor said sarcastically. “Wonders never cease, it seems. Unfortunately, the life-support won’t last us till Neopia, so...”

     “Hold it!” Kent, Maga, and I spoke at the same time. Kent went on, “The Coast Guard will pick us up in an hour or less, we’ve plenty of time and air.”

     Gerezor snorted. “Not gonna happen, washed-up. Coast Guard have the same boss as me, they know to leave this boat alone. No...” She fiddled with her shell necklace. “This gas will put us to sleep and slow our metabolisms. That way, we’ll have enough air to get to Neopia, which is where we’re headed on this trajectory. The boat’s autopilot will land us...” She unscrewed the end of the necklace’s pendant shell. As a loud hissing filled the air, she added, “I can’t promise sweet dreams, however...”

      ******

     “Look at the pickle you’ve gotten into now, Farside Three.” The others were gone. The only passengers were me... and Commander C. The Ice Bori lounged at the other end of the lifeboat, favouring me with a sarcastic glance.

     “A bunch of stinky rotten leek pickles is what I’d call it, and I’m a bit disappointed in you,” she went on. “I had high hopes for you... doesn’t look like they’ve come to much! Not that I expected you to take my job, that’s for sure, but I thought you’d do better than this... this... this Snorkle’s ear you’ve made of things! Honestly, you’re even a rotten bodyguard... really rotten. And just what do you think you’re going to find waiting for you when you get home? Loving owner welcoming you back with balloons, soap bubbles, and many cups of tea? Do you even remember what you were running from when you left Neopia? Do you remember... Condi?”

     Suddenly, a Devilpuss was floating beside the Commander. “You remember her,” the Commander went on. “Your beloved petpet... only you got bored. Your dear brother Karmapa went to the Lab, nothing that bad happened to him, so you took Condi to the little Petpet Lab. Oh yes, it was fun, she changed all sorts of lovely colours... so pretty she was, until the day she just disappeared without a trace. You bawled that Kookith out, you sobbed, you begged Fyora to make things right... but your darling Condi was gone. Your lovely owner got you another petpet, but you couldn’t love it as much as you’d loved Condi, so you took it to the Lab too... and on the cycle went. You know what you’re running from, Farside Three. You know, Explorer Of Worlds. Do you want to go back?”

To be continued...

 
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