A wriggling pink mass of Space Fungus splayed its tentacles into the control room, bowling over Hyren. He almost got sick right there, but he forced himself to keep his composure and complete the roll, springing back up to punch away a tentacle and wrestle several more.
"This is Engineering!" a female voice fizzed from behind Hyren. "How in blazes are you contacting us?"
"I managed to restore the network!" Dothan said. "We're under Space Fungus infestation!"
"I know that!" the other voice snapped. "I've been trying to activate the repellent systems for half an hour now!"
Hyren tried to wrench the doors closed. It didn't work, both because the dense fungus wouldn't get out of the way, and because Hyren's own stomach was still in upheaval. His strength was failing him as he had to use more and more of his energy to control his digestive system.
"What's taking so long?!" Dothan asked.
"There's too much exterior growth!" the other officer said. "It's gotten into all of the hull systems and we can't do anything about it from the inside!"
"So tell Command to send out a starfighter squadron!" Hyren grunted, shoving back another swell of fungus.
"No one in Command is responding!" she said. "And we here are dealing with a serious case of food poisoning! I'm the only one who's not too sick to move!"
Hyren groaned. "As your commander, I order you to do something about this!" he said.
"We can't!" she said. "You won't get any help from inside this station, I'm sorry!"
The Mutant Grundo's antennae dropped and the sick pit in his stomach grew sicker. His rank was useless in this situation. With a roar of frustration, he yanked at a tentacle.
The connection fizzled. "Look, just—get to—escape pod—"
"We can't!" Dothan said. "We're stuck!"
The communications officer dropped a fist onto the console. "Kiko snot," he said.
The realisation that they might not make it out of this settled on Hyren like a chilling fog. It only lasted a moment before the fire of his determination burned it away. They were going to get out or go down fighting.
"Can you call them back?" he asked, shoving a shoulder into the Space Fungus to keep it at bay.
Dothan scrolled down a hologram. "The connection cut out on their end," he said. "The fungus must have overrun their power."
"So get a hold of someone else," Hyren said. Trying to fend off this pest barehanded was not working. He needed more firepower. Unfortunately, his options were limited.
He looked over his shoulder at the tiny room and spotted a block of servers mounted in a rack on the wall. Punching away the fungus, getting a face full of spores for it, and being grateful for the breather mask, Hyren reached for the servers. "Do you need these right now?" he asked Dothan.
Dothan looked up at him and his eyes widened. "No, but—"
Hyren wrenched them from the rack and chucked them at the fungus. The pink mass squealed and retreated enough for the Mutant Grundo to squeeze the doors shut a little more.
"Commander, those had important files on them!" Dothan said.
"I'm an important file," Hyren said. He leaned against the door, panting. "Call someone else, Reebitz. Before I dismantle more of this place."
"I'm trying, sir," Dothan said, gnawing on his lip, "but no one is responding."
Hyren looked around the room for alternate exits. The sole ventilation duct was far too small to even fit Dothan. And Hyren was not feeling up to attempting to plough through a wall.
He closed his eyes. This was not how he wanted it to end.
"Wait," Dothan said.
Hyren opened his eyes to see Dothan leaning over the keyboard, eyes transfixed on the screen. "What?" the commander asked.
"Earlier this day-cycle," the ensign said, "two starfighter squadrons left on training drills. If I remember their communications correctly, they should still be in the vicinity!" Dothan's fingers flew into action as he typed furiously, and then plunged his hand into a hologram. "Griefer Squadron, Wain Squadron! Do you copy?!"
For a moment there was a horrible silence that seemed to Hyren to stretch forever. Then—
"Omicron Station, this is Griefer Leader, you're fuzzy but I read you."
"Wain Leader to Omicron Station, reporting in."
Both Grundos shared a sigh. "Return to base immediately!" Dothan said. "This is an emergency! Space Fungus has overrun the station and put everything out of commission! You have to blast it away, or we're done for!"
"We're on it," Griefer Leader said.
"Hang tight," added Wain Leader. "We'll be there in a nanosec!"
Dothan looked over his shoulder and gave Hyren a weak smile, and the commander returned it. There was hope.
The doors rattled and then were shoved open again, sending Hyren flying onto the computer console. He impacted the main screen with a grunt, cracking it, and Dothan ducked to avoid being crushed.
As the fungus advanced on them, Dothan said quietly, "Well, at least we may have saved the station."
Hyren knew that tone. It was the sound of someone resigned to their fate. And considering what Dothan had just accomplished, Hyren was not about to let fate have either of them yet. He pushed himself up and grabbed the back of the ensign's shirt. "Can you swim?" he asked.
"What?" Dothan asked.
"Never mind," Hyren said. "Just hold your breath and hold on." Hyren tucked Dothan under one arm like a Zurroball, took a deep breath, and plunged into the fungus.
It was like swimming in Spiced Apple Pie filling – sort of the same colour, too – and it was enough to turn Hyren's stomach several times over. But he forced himself to keep going, to kick and squirm through the warm goop that kept trying to ensnare him. It had to end sometime, he thought as his lungs began to burn. At the same time he realised Dothan had a smaller lung capacity, and Hyren knew he had to hurry.
Finally his head breached the surface, he cleared off the air intakes of the breather mask, and he took an enormous gulp of filtered air. A moment later he pulled Dothan up to do the same, and then kicked them both out of the fungus.
Hyren didn't give Dothan time to sprawl on the floor coughing, but scooped him up again, summoned the last of his strength, and ran out of the infested hallway, back to the corridor with the mess hall. He didn't stop there, but kept going to the lifts.
There, he dropped Dothan beside the open doors, fell to his knees, ripped off his mask, and lost his lunch down the lift shaft.
"Commander…" Dothan said once Hyren was done. "You saved my life. Thank you."
Hyren sat propped weakly against the wall, feeling loads better already, although his strength was spent. He looked over at Dothan from behind half-closed eyelids and smiled weakly. "Well, you're important, Reebitz," he said. "Had to rescue the guy who just saved Omicron Station." Sure, Hyren had helped him, but when it came down to it, if not for Dothan, they'd all be toast. Suddenly Hyren did not feel as all-important as he used to. Dothan had value, too. So did everyone else in this machine called the Grand Spacefleet of Doctor Frank Sloth. It sort of bothered Hyren, now, that Sloth did not feel that way. For the first time, Hyren realised the doctor was wrong about something.
Dothan grinned bashfully and scratched the top of his bald head. "It was nothing," he said. "Just doing what I had the training for."
The station rocked again and they both stiffened. "Is that the fungus?" Dothan asked.
Hyren sat through a few more jolts. "It seems more rhythmic," he said. "Like… laser fire."
The ensign's face lit up, and Hyren managed another smile as well. "They came!" Dothan said. "We did it! We're going to be okay!"
Hyren would never complain about being bored again, he vowed. Not that he wouldn't get bored after this. He just didn't want the universe to hear him and start getting ideas.
Dothan looked up at the commander. "Sir…" He stopped himself and shook his head. "Never mind, it's stupid."
"What?" Hyren asked.
"Does… this make us friends?" Dothan asked.
Hyren's stomach gave an unexpected flop. No one had ever wanted to be friends with him before. To Sloth he was a subordinate. To Commanders Garoo and Gormos, he was a rival. To everyone else, he was a disagreeable monster. And to his troops—well, his troops couldn't think for themselves.
But now someone wanted to consider him a friend.
His first reaction was fear, and he surprised himself at how vulnerable he was. He was afraid of getting hurt through this association, afraid that Dothan would turn on him. Not that he would ever in a million eons admit that, and the idea that he was vulnerable made him angry at himself, at Dothan, at the situation.
Then the stark reality settled in. There was no room for friendship in Hyren's life. He was utterly devoted to Dr. Sloth and galactic conquest. He had never needed friends before—why should things be any different now?
Hyren had a choice. Something new was staring him in the face and it terrified him. He did not feel prepared. He did not know if he would ever be.
He suddenly realised he was taking far too long to answer Dothan, and he cleared his throat, trying to act nonchalant. "Sorry, Reebitz," he said, "I just don't think it would work. I'm a busy Grundo, and you've got plenty to do here."
The look on Dothan's face was almost enough to change Hyren's mind, but the commander steeled himself. "Look," Hyren said, "I appreciate what you've done and all. You were a valuable ally. But I'm not—the kind of person you want as a friend. Trust me. It's better for us both."
The yellow Grundo said nothing for a moment, then nodded. "Yes… I understand, don't worry, Commander," he said. "I told you it was a stupid idea."
Hyren patted Dothan's shoulder crisply, as though they had never shared an adventure together, never saved each other's lives. "Happens to the best of us," the commander said. "Go to the window and check on the starfighters for me."
As the communications officer trudged into the other room, Hyren forced himself not to watch him go. Then he got up and headed for the lift shaft. It was better this way, he thought as he began to climb down the thick cables. It had to be. Now if only he could get himself to truly believe it.
One thing was for sure, though.
He was never eating Spiced Apple Pie again.
"Then what happened?" Terra asked, her eyes wide.
"Griefer Squadron and Wain Squadron drove off the fungus," Hyren said, "they managed to get in and start decontaminating, and Dothan and I were heroes. The next day-cycle, I was transferred to an on-world base. I never heard from him again—until he happened to be the officer on the Triumph in charge of contacting me when I met you and Blynn."
His owner picked up another Spiced Apple Pie and bit into it. "Wow," she said, "I didn't know you guys had that much of a history."
"Terra, how can you still eat those after the story I just told you?" Hyren asked.
"Because they're good!" Terra said. "And look, no Space Fungus this time!" She held up the pastry for him to see.
He leaned away, antennae flat against his head. "I believe you," he said. She continued to eat the pie, and Hyren looked aside. "But… I always regretted that decision. Even though I felt like it was too late to do anything about it."
He propped his face in his hand and played absently with the straw of the empty Milkyway Shake. "That's probably why you and Blynn wrapped me around your little fingers so quickly," he said. "The guilt from Omicron Station stayed with me until the Battle of Sakhmet. I guess subconsciously, I told myself that if anything like that ever happened again, I would seize the opportunity and do things differently."
"But that still wasn't exactly a quick decision on your part," Terra said, mussing his antennae. "How many times did you change your mind, like five?"
"Yeah, well, I'm a stubborn old coot," Hyren said. "Just be grateful I had a change of heart, okay?"
Terra licked pie filling off of her fingers and looked over the top of his head. "So are you going to say hi to him?" she asked.
Hyren glanced over his shoulder to see the yellow Grundo dipping into a bowl of Galactic Chicken Soup, and then back to his owner like she was mad. "What did I just finish telling you?!" he hissed.
"That you have an apology to make," Terra said with a dangerous, Blynn-like grin.
Hyren scrutinised her for a moment. He had learned so much from being part of Terra's Neopian family. Not the least of which was the power of forgiveness and compassion. Now he had to turn that on himself.
"Will you come with me?" he asked.
"Of course," Terra said. She hopped off her stool and Hyren eased himself down from his.
Approaching the yellow Grundo, Hyren cleared his throat. "Uhm—Dothan?" he managed to get out.
The other Grundo's antennae perked and he looked down at the unassuming blue Grundo. "Yes? Can I help you?" he asked.
The former commander drew himself up and said, "It's me. Hyren." Terra smiled and waved.
"Oh—Hyren!" Dothan said. "I'm sorry, I didn't recognise you! And is that your owner with you?"
"Yep!" Terra said. "Long time no see!"
"Listen, Dothan—" Hyren said. "I'm sorry. About Omicron Station… I'm really sorry." He ducked his head. "You've always been an excellent friend."
The communications officer – or whatever he did these days – slid down from his stool to regard the Neopet who had once towered over him, and was now slightly shorter than him. "You're still hung up on that?" Dothan asked with a smile. "You don't have to keep beating yourself up about it. I was just starstruck and thought it would be so cool to be friends with one of Sloth's commanders. It was a pretty stupid thing for me to say."
"No," Hyren said, "it was a brave thing for you to say. And if you hadn't said it, I probably wouldn't have my family. So thanks. And I'm sorry."
To his surprise, Dothan enveloped him in a hug, patting his back. "Hey, stop apologising, already!" the yellow Grundo said. "I told you, it's okay!"
Hyren flinched, then hugged him back. "Thanks, Reebitz," he said. "You're the finest ensign I ever met."
"You're not half bad, yourself, Commander," Dothan said with a laugh as they pulled away from each other.
"Hey, can we finish eating lunch with you, Dothan?" Terra asked. "I'd love to hear about what you've been up to!"
"Oh—sure!" the yellow Grundo said. He climbed back on to the stool and patted the one beside him. "Take a seat! Can I get you anything? Another order of Spiced Apple Pie?"
"Yuck," Hyren said, clutching his stomach. "I'm not eating one of those."
"Well," Terra said, "at least now I know why!"
Hyren took a seat next to Dothan and turned to him. "It was Virtupets, by the way," the former commander said. "I had all of my swords custom-manufactured by Virtupets' weapons division. My blasters were always standard-issue, though. Didn't care so much about those."
"I thought so," Dothan said, and from then on they were friends.