Huge thanks to torkie10 and my awesome proofreader for their editing help.
Grundo's Café was as busy as ever. The canteen on the recreation deck of the Virtupets Space Station held a myriad of Neopets unwrapping their rehydrated Chicken Dumplings and carefully nibbling their Electric Nachos. Wall-mounted screens showed the latest in news and entertainment from around the galaxy, including an interview with some Alien Aisha musicians and the latest strike on Sloth's forces on some far-flung world.
"Order up!" Gargarox, the chef-proprietor, hollered. A light blinked on the overhang above the kitchen, and the Mutant Grundo slid a tray of food to a waiting Stopngo 400. The squat robot Petpet extended its mechanical arms to receive the tray, stomping off with it to one of the tables in the expansive diner.
Not skipping a beat, Gargarox turned back to the food synthesisers and picked up another dish, lumbering over to the long counter surrounding the kitchen to serve a patron sitting there.
It was at this counter that Dark_breed_Hyren the blue Grundo and his owner Terra were perched, enjoying lunch.
"I can never finish these Milkyway Shakes," Terra said, swinging her legs as they dangled from her stool. The brown-haired human woman set down the cup, still half-full of glittering dark beverage. "They're so good… but so filling. Somehow." She slid the shake over to the Grundo. "Want the rest?"
Hyren looked up from his Beef Rouladen and smiled. "Sure," he said.
It had been a good stay on the Space Station with his family. Relaxing, with the occasional chaotic hijinks, and a healthy dose of snark mixed in. It was what made his family the best in the universe.
Now his sister Blynn had gone to pull the Lever of Doom and their brother Pharazon went to make sure she wouldn't blow all their money in the process, which left Hyren to spend lunch with their owner. The massive Space Station that orbited Neopia sported a number of shops and restaurants, but Grundo's was the largest, and had the best reputation as a tourist destination. Hyren didn't much care for such things, but Terra thought the place had a fun atmosphere, and Hyren couldn't say no to her.
Pulling the Milkyway Shake closer, Hyren rested an arm on the counter and inspected the dessert, tilting it to watch the sparkles catch the light. "Yeah, you wouldn't expect the void to provide many calories," he said.
"You think he uses Voidberries?" Terra asked. "It kind of tastes like Voidberries."
"I'm sort of afraid to ask what Gargarox uses," Hyren said with a laugh. "If it's anything like what we had in the Virtupets mess halls…"
The Mutant Grundo himself appeared before them, eclipsing the fluorescent ceiling lights. "Order up!" he said. With one meaty hand, he set in front of Terra a plate stacked with round, slightly flattened magenta shapes that appeared to be glowing in their centres.
"Thanks!" Terra said as she picked up one of the pastries. "Mmmm, spiced apple pie… I don't know why, but this stuff is just ridiculously good."
Hyren stuck out his tongue and held his stomach. "None for me, thanks," he said.
Terra, already halfway through one of the gooey pies, glanced over at him and raised an eyebrow. "You sure?" she asked. "I don't know what makes them glow like this, but I think it's the same thing that makes them super delicious."
"I had a bad experience with spiced apple—" Hyren stopped and stared past his owner, his antennae perked and quivering.
A few stools away, a lean yellow Grundo hoisted himself onto a seat and pressed a button on the counter to lift the stool to an appropriate height for his diminutive stature. The Grundo glanced over at Gargarox's turned back, and then lifted his red eyes to the menu.
Terra turned to see what Hyren was staring at. "What?" she asked.
Hyren cleared his throat, lowering his voice and slouching to make himself less visible. "I… I think that's Dothan Reebitz," he said.
"That name sounds familiar," Terra said..
"He was the Grundo who helped us out on Sloth's flagship all those years ago," Hyren said. "Back when I first met you and Blynn."
"No way," Terra said. "Small galaxy, huh?" She looked back at the Grundo who was possibly Dothan, who was now flicking through screens on a data tablet. "We should say hi."
Hyren stiffened and said, "Let's not."
"Why?" Terra asked before stuffing another spiced apple pie in her mouth. "I'm sure he remembers us. He kind of defected from Sloth because you told him to start thinking for himself, after all. He really looks up to you." She paused and grinned. "And when you were Mutant, he literally looked up to you."
Hyren rolled his eyes as Terra chortled at her own cleverness, but his expression quickly grew more somber. "I don't think he'd want to talk to me," the blue Grundo said. "He's not—we've never really—we never became friends."
"I get the feeling there's a story behind this," Terra said.
"There always is," Hyren said. He turned so his back faced the yellow Grundo, afraid to betray the emotion that glossed over his eyes as he looked up at his owner. "I'll tell you the story of how I met Dothan."
A week out, and Commander Hyren was already bored of Omicron Station.
Granted, Dr. Sloth had built the interstellar base in a very pretty sector of the void—deep in the heart of the Kadoatie's-Eye Nebula. The view out the windows was to die for. When Hyren had first arrived, every time he passed a viewport he'd paused and stared for a while at clouds of ionised gases bathing in hot starlight, the entire void glowing pinkish-red like a cosmic hearth. Long, clumpy tendrils of sturdier gas stretched like fingers trying to touch a central cluster of newborn stars, brilliant celestial jewels around which whirled soupy discs of protoplanetary material.
It was amazing, Hyren thought, that although he'd been all over this galaxy and in parts of several others, each bit of the universe was just as beautiful as the last.
But Hyren was in charge of planetary invasions and occupations, not void ops, and he'd been stationed on Omicron Station during a rare lull in Sloth's plans. Sometimes, things worked so well for the overlord that his elite commanders had nothing to do but kick back and recuperate for a while. Hyren worked hard to validate his privileged position, and he enjoyed the relaxation—for about two days. Then the itch hit to get out there and start doing things again and it drove him crazy.
He was still trying to figure out if it was because he was a naturally pro-active and intelligent Neopet, or because his mutant Grundo metabolism meant he bounced back from things a lot quicker than most people.
Or maybe it was the lack of a social life. Commander Garoo and his Garoo Elites were as close as siblings, and Commander Gormos could strike up a conversation with anyone in his starfleet. Commander Hyren was a loner.
It came naturally to him, first on his home world of Doran where he'd felt so misunderstood by the other Grundos, and now here in Sloth's army. He had a difficult time forming connections with other Neopets—not that he really tried, as he was perfectly content absorbing himself in his work.
It didn't help that the mutant Grundo troops Hyren commanded were mind-wiped drones who he could literally not have a conversation with if he tried. In fact, when not deployed, they were kept in stasis sleep, leaving Hyren one of the only "active" mutant Grundos on Omicron Station. Which of course made him feel even more out of place.
At least there was food. Food dulled the boredom.
The doors to the base's mess hall slid open for Hyren and he stepped into the enormous cafeteria, filled with all manner of officers. The air was thick with conversation, and Hyren's antennae picked up on some of it as he trundled over to the food line. No one was talking about anything interesting today—just the usual petty drama between officers, or how the kids were doing back home, or that same blasted rumour about Alien Aisha activity the next star cluster over.
Hyren loaded his tray with pizza protein blocks and savoury cratered pastries, stocking up on tasty protein and carbohydrates for his muscle-bound frame. After this, he planned to hit the gym and then maybe run a few training simulations to keep himself sharp.
As he reached the end of the food displays, he glanced over the dessert section with an upturned lack of nose. He'd never had much of a sweet tooth and regarded desserts as empty energy.
The magma Tuskaninny in front of him thought differently. Her fiery eyes lit up and she reached for one plate after another, piling them onto her tray as she said, "Ooh, it's Spiced Apple Pie for dessert today!" With a third plate in her flipper, she breathed in deeply. "Looks like a good batch! Mm, smell that aroma!"
She looked over her shoulder at Hyren and said, "Better get some before—" Upon really seeing him, she did a bit of a double take and her jaw hung for a moment. "Er—I'm sure—there will be plenty left for you, Commander—"
It did smell good, Hyren conceded. He shrugged and the Tuskaninny shuffled away, her gaze lowered.
Due to his rank and his size, Hyren could intimidate practically anyone without even trying. Everyone gave him a wide berth, and few people attempted to speak to him unless they had to. One did not address the person in charge of Sloth's entire invasion forces like he was an equal, after all.
Which was all well and good to Hyren, since other Neopets tended to annoy him. He narrowed his eyes at the rows of Spiced Apple Pies, innocuously glowing with their tantalising smell. Maybe some dessert every once in a while wouldn't hurt.
"Get a move on," the brown Eyrie behind him grumbled.
Hyren shot him a withering glare and slowly turned, drawing himself up higher to show off more of his massive bulk. He was still slightly taller than the Eyrie, but the two were closely matched in build. "Do you know who I am?" Hyren growled.
The Eyrie scoffed, fluffing his wings. "Like I know everyone in the corps," he said.
The Mutant Grundo jabbed a thick finger at the rank insignia on his chest. That and an unimpressed glower were enough to get his point across without words.
The Eyrie flinched and drew back half a step, beak clacking. "C-Commander Hyren—s-sorry, sir!" he said. "T-take your time! Sir!"
Hyren snorted and plucked one of the pies from the counter, shoving it onto his tray and stomping off to the furthest unoccupied table. People here should know good and well who he was.
Everyone should know him, Hyren thought as he ate. He was more important than most of them. Those beneath him were just cogs in Dr. Sloth's grand machine of galactic conquest. They were expendable. But Hyren had qualified from the beginning for everything Sloth had to offer him: strength, control, autonomy. In return the commander worked hard and ensured that he stayed worthy of his rank. He was so much more than these nobodies could ever be. They had their stations and assignments, but in the end, it was Neopets like Hyren, Garoo, and Gormos who actually made the difference.
Except when they were stuck on base with nothing to do. "I'm so bored," Hyren muttered to himself through a bite of pastry. Shoving another pizza block in his mouth, he mentally went over the sword technique he'd been developing. Testing it in the sims would at least keep him occupied.
"Commander Hyren?" a voice asked.
He glanced up. Sitting across from him was an unmutated, yellow Grundo wearing the insignia of an ensign. The other Grundo's red eyes were wide as he stared up at the Mutant from beneath a salute.
Hyren wondered if maybe there was something on his face. "Yeah?" he asked.
"Oh, it is you!" the yellow Grundo said, bouncing in his seat. "This is amazing—I never thought I'd really get to meet you! I heard through the network that you'd been stationed here, and I confess I'd kind of been keeping an eye out—"
Everything after that was a blur as Hyren was overwhelmed with the realisation that he had a fanboy.
He knew he was famous. As a commanding officer who only answered to Sloth, who was responsible for the occupation of countless worlds and systems, Hyren was as much in the spotlight as Garoo and Gormos. But on a practical level, he found it much easier to keep to himself. He had firmly established himself as one of those people best admired from afar.
At times he'd entertained the daydream of meeting one of his fans. The Neopet would be tripping over themselves to meet him and Hyren would feel important.
Now it was actually happening and it was just awkward.
"—eebitz," the yellow Grundo was saying.
Hyren snapped out of his daze and shook his head. "What?" he asked.
"Ensign Dothan Reebitz, sir," the yellow Grundo said. "I'm in communications. I've been here for a couple of years now."
"Oh," Hyren said. "Okay." He peered more closely at the strangely chipper Grundo. Unlike everyone else, Dothan showed no signs of being tense around the commander. Hyren wondered if maybe all that fiddling with computers all day long had messed with the ensign's head.
He looked around the room. All of the other tables had multiple Neopets at them. This was the most solitude he was going to be able to get at this meal. Plus, some of the other Neopets were acting strangely—swaying in their seats and slouching over their trays. Maybe they hadn't gotten enough sleep last night-cycle.
Dothan took a bite of his Intergalactic Spiced Beans. "Amazing job securing the Artru system, by the way!" he said. "I was watching the news feeds the whole time! Those tactics you used to outmanoeuvre the resistance were incredible!"
"Thanks," Hyren said, hoping that short answers would make the guy stop talking. He popped his last pastry in his mouth and picked up his Spiced Apple Pie. Glancing over, he noticed there was no dessert on Dothan's plate. "You're not getting any pie?" he asked, hoping to make Dothan head back to the food line.
"Nope," Dothan said. "I'm allergic to glowspice. That's okay—I caught a message that tomorrow is Chocolate Eclair Paste day!"
Hyren took a bite of his own pie and his antennae perked. It was good—powerfully flavoured, with just the right amount of sweetness to balance out the tart apples and pungent glowspice. The crispy crust made a perfect contrast to the gooey filling. He decided he'd found his new favourite dessert.
"Oh, I keep meaning to ask," Dothan said, "what's the make of your swords? You're—"
"'Scuse me," someone groaned, bumping into Hyren's back.
Hyren turned around to scowl at them, but stopped when he saw it was a very ill-looking red Buzz, holding his stomach with one hand over his mouth. The Buzz looked as if he wanted to say something else, but then his eyes bulged and he took off running toward the washroom.
The two Grundos watched him retreat until the washroom doors slid closed behind him. "That was weird," Hyren said. Glancing around, he noticed several other Neopets staggering toward doors or wastebaskets, while some just collapsed.
He would look into it, he decided, after he finished his Spiced Apple Pie.
Dothan seemed more concerned, drumming his fingers on the table for a moment before looking back to the commander. "A-anyway," he said, "you're mentioned a ton in the Weapons Weekly galaxy-net feed, but it's all just speculation what kind of swords you use, because you never do any interviews! I heard from one gal in the orbital forces that you get them from Shoyrux Enterprises, but there's been speculation they're a custom job here at Virtupets—"
The station jolted and the lights flickered. Now this was something Hyren could not ignore. He swallowed the rest of the pie and jumped to his feet. "What was that," he said. Had the Alien Aisha rumours been true after all?
In the rest of the mess hall, a number of Neopets had the same reaction—the ones that weren't busy getting sick. Soldiers were moaning queasily and passing out, sprawled across tables or on the floor. And more and more people looked ill by the second.
Dothan picked up his tray as though he was determined not to leave his lunch behind. "Well, this isn't good, is it, Commander?" he asked.
The station rattled again. This time the lights died entirely. A split second later, dim backup lighting turned on, casting an eerie twilight over the mess hall.
Hyren took a few deep breaths. Now he and Dothan were the only ones left standing in the room. Something had attacked them, he guessed that much. But what could cause a lurch like that? And why hadn't the defence systems kicked in, or anyone even been alerted?
He and Dothan apparently both had the same idea—to head for the communications console near the door. The two began to wade through the sea of unconscious and sick Neopets.
Halfway there, the nausea hit. It slammed Hyren like a punch in the gut, and it felt like his entire abdomen was cramping. Hyren shuddered and fell to his knees, overcome with the sensation that there was a war going on in his stomach. "Okay then," he grunted, planting one large hand on the cold floor. Now would not be an opportune time to lose his lunch. Not the least because he might step in it in the dark.
"Commander!" Dothan said, rushing to his side. "Are you all right?"
"Nope," Hyren breathed. "Never mind that. Go contact Engineering like you're supposed to—ask them what the heck's going on." He swallowed hard, closed his eyes, and willed his digestive system to work properly.
Eyes still closed, he listened to Dothan make his way to the console and tap on the display. "Mess hall to Engineering," the officer said. "Come in, are you there?" More tapping. "Engineering, do you read?"
"Try Command," Hyren said.
Even more tapping. "Command? Do you copy?"
Hyren opened his eyes to see the ensign scrolling through menus. "What's going on?" the mutant croaked.
Dothan sighed and splayed his fingers across the screen, deftly manipulating several menus at once. "Something's brought down the network, Commander," he said. "This whole station is offline."
"Blast it," Hyren hissed. "What in the galaxy…" A faint pink glow nearby caught his attention. In the paw of an unconscious Kyrii was a half-eaten Spiced Apple Pie.
Hyren's eyes widened and he looked up at Dothan, who was displaying absolutely no symptoms. Here was one mystery solved, at least. He snatched the pie from the limp Kyrii. "Something's poisoned the Spiced Apple Pie!" the commander said.
"What?!" Dothan said. He knelt down beside Hyren and inspected the dubious dessert. "Sabotage?"
"Maybe," Hyren said. He sniffed at it, as much as it turned his stomach to do so. It didn't smell off, just incredibly delicious. More so than usual? Was that why it had been such a hit at lunch?
He took a closer look at it. In the illumination of the glowspice, Hyren inspected the syrupy filling, trying not to gag as he did so. It was the last thing he wanted to deal with right now, but as the station shuddered again he knew he had no other choice.
"What are those pink bits?" Dothan asked. "I've never seen those in a Spiced Apple Pie before."
With one thick finger, Hyren fished around in the warm filling and drew out a veneer of the goop. Sure enough, swimming in the apples and spices were small globs of pink. A few sported long filaments like tentacles, and some had broken open and were oozing green slime.
The commander's eyes widened and he tossed the pie away in disgust. "Space Fungus!" he said. "Space Fungus got into the Spiced Apple Pie!"
"Oh, that's not good at all," Dothan said, inching away from the dastardly pastry. "The nutrition synthesisers are supposed to detect and remove any contaminants far before food reaches the mess hall."
Hyren forced himself to his feet. "Man, that stuff throws you for a loop," he groaned, holding his stomach. He looked around at the other Neopets, still out cold. Apparently ingesting Space Fungus did that to a normal person. He had possibly only stayed conscious because of his body mass and metabolism.
And now he and Dothan were the only ones not debilitated by food poisoning while the base was mysteriously under attack.
Well, at least he wasn't bored any more.