His Name is Kribal: Part Six
Deathly silence filled the barracks. Word had travelled fast of what happened in the shuttle bay, sending a shudder through the once excitable slave populace of the facility. Morale was shattered. The last embers of hope, kindled into a blazing fire by the appearance of Gorix and the Resistance, had been firmly doused by Kribal's efficient eradication of Vallarax and his uprising. Those who had partaken were more subdued than any other, the memory of their effortless defeat at the Kougra's hands burned into every waking thought. Nobody else had been seriously harmed by Kribal's assault, the Kougra seemingly satisfied with disarming and incapacitating, but the pride and dignity they had once held was no more.
It wasn't only Vallarax's uprising that had fallen so easily.
Alone amidst the ashes, Jess tried to come up with a new plan. Events in the shuttle bay had shaken her thoughts, but served only to stiffen her resolve. Unless she could put a stop to things now, everything that happened would have been in vain. She couldn't allow that to happen.
The only problem was: she had no idea how to proceed.
Thessalium. A mineral discovered in Neopia during the days of the third Faerie Queen Thessalia, all reports claimed the very limited reserves had been depleted before the endless winter had settled, and yet somehow it appeared a new vein had been discovered in the bowels of Kreludor. How it had passed undetected before now was almost impossible to guess, so exhaustive had been the search of both Neopia and Kreludor by some of history's most powerful Earth Faeries, but Jess could not believe they were mistaken.
She now had to get to it before Master Hog could take delivery.
Across the hauntingly still room Gorix sat alone in another corner, staring blankly at his hands. He had warned the other agents of the Resistance not to start any trouble, not until he gave the word, but he had been unable to contain his excitement when the opportunity had arisen and Vallarax had begun his uprising. Despite their alliance, his objective remained exactly the same as when he had first arrived: to get these pets out safely. He had anticipated some cost – there was always a price to pay – but watching Kribal's efficient dispatch of Vallarax first-hand had finally made it sink in just how high the cost could be.
It was a lesson Jess had already learned.
A claxon sounded sharply throughout the barracks, signalling the start of the next shift. With a heavy sigh, Jess climbed to her feet and joined the throng trudging out into the waiting corridor, escaping the chilling silence if only for a while. As she passed him, Gorix suddenly looked up and met her eyes, scratching his ear pointedly. She just nodded silently and continued on, lost in her own thoughts.
Their time was almost up.
* * *
Every hour of her shift seemed to last days, her body running aimlessly through the familiar motions at the control of the ailing mining craft. Misfortune had left her on collection duty, following the heavier machinery through the mines in the antiquated little shuttle, trying desperately to avoid damaging it still further against the enclosing walls all the while operating the useless claw to grab the pieces of Kreludite successfully mined. It was a job for at least two people she was certain, but the tiny shuttle barely had space for a lone pet with their spacesuit, let alone two.
She needed time to think, to plan a means of finding the Thessalium before Sloth handed it over to Master Hog, but there was no time for errant thoughts down here. They didn't tend to find those who allowed their minds to wander while on collection duty.
It was with a great sense of relief she finally stepped from the cramped shuttle at the end of the shift, amazed at the innate ability of the craft to hold itself together through yet another trip into the bowels of the mines, and returned to the dreary trudge through the facility back toward the barracks. Every part of her body ached, exhaustion draining her very spirit until even mustering the mental strength to remember the route back was beyond her and she found herself following blindly those in front.
Suddenly something struck her side sharply, jolting her mind from its sleepy state for a moment. It was Gorix, hood thrown up high over his head until even his prominent Grundo ears were covered. His attention was focused forward, red eyes downcast as he joined the throng trudging back to the barracks.
'What have you been doing?' he whispered reproachfully. 'Chorana says you still haven't contacted her?'
Jess blinked stupidly. She seemed to have missed a large part of the conversation in her exhausted state, and his sharp attitude was doing little to assist with her recall. 'What are you talking about?' she whispered back, turning her eyes forward again as they passed another patrol of drones. They had become more frequent since Vallarax had made his stand.
He jerked his head toward her before he could stop himself, treating her to a fleeting glimpse of raw irritability. 'In the barrack this morning I was trying to contract Chorana about what we discovered,' he explained quickly, staring forward again, 'when she suddenly found something. The claxon went off before I could talk to you though, so I tried to tell you to put your communicator in. I thought you understood.'
An image of the Grundo scratching his ear stood out in her hazy memory, staring pointedly at her as she passed. Had she nodded to him as she went by? She had thought it had something to do with what had happened and had been trying to be supportive; she still needed his help after all. It had never crossed her mind to think he was trying to tell her something.
'For crying out loud, what's wrong with you?' he hissed heatedly as she just continued to stare forward blankly, lost in her own addled thoughts.
The heat dropped from his voice in an instant. Even after just a few days in the facility, he knew how draining collection duty could be. 'Of all the days to be on that shift,' he mumbled grimly. 'Still, we don't have a choice. Chorana has found the package: it's in Sloth's office, ready for when he arrives.'
Sloth's office. That was close to where they were now walking. Gorix just smiled secretively when she said as much. 'If you'd contacted Chorana you'd already know that much. We've been diverted down this path for a reason. We aren't going to get another chance to get our hands on that stuff and put a stop to whatever Kribal and his boss want to use it for, so this is our one shot.'
'This?' she replied blankly. The sudden revelation had roused her sleeping mind somewhat, but she still felt several steps behind in the conversation.
Suddenly he leapt out from the hushed throng of workers, throwing himself bodily against a passing drone. The unsuspecting robot was thrown aside under the force, Gorix reaching out and wrenching the blaster from its metallic fingers. Immediately he spun and fired off a blast against the closest drone, reducing it to a broken shell with a single shot before it could try to fight back.
Fully alert at last, Jess frantically searched for the other approaching drones. Already Gorix was looking outgunned by the swarming drones, but as though waiting for their cue more pets leapt from amidst the stunned workers, overpowering the drones as they focused their attention on Gorix alone. Within moments half a dozen pets stood armed in the corridor, blasters in hand.
'Gorix, what the blazes are you doing?' Jess cried in disbelief, gawping senselessly at the shock appearance of the Resistance alongside the rest of the workers. 'Have you forgotten what happened last time?'
'No, I haven't. But have you forgotten what Vallarax did for us last time? He was a distraction, and one that worked better than we could have hoped. I'm doing the exact same thing this time. We'll draw off the drones and pull their attention so you can go secure the package. Once you have that, I'll have fulfilled my end of our deal, and I'll expect you to do the same.'
'What about Kribal? You saw what happened when he caught up with Vallarax.'
A triumphant grin spread across Gorix's face at the thought. Casually he pulled back his hood and motioned toward his ear, where a small black communicator could just be seen. 'I've got a Guardian Angelpuss keeping an eye for him,' he said with a crafty wink. 'Just make sure you secure the package. Got it?'
Somehow Jess found herself returning the grin, his infectious confidence seeping in and destroying all traces of the exhaustion the day had wrought. Insane though his plan was, he was right. They were only going to get one shot at this. It was time to put a stop to whatever Master Hog had planned.
'I'll come find you once I recovered the package,' she said with a nod. 'And Gorix: watch yourself. We don't want to lose anybody else in this fight.'
He just nodded back, still grinning.
Taking that as her cue she hurried away from the scene, listening to the sounds of Gorix taking charge over the huddled mass that was the terrified workers. She couldn't blame them for being scared, not after the stories of what happened to Vallarax; she just hoped Gorix's uprising didn't meet the same fate.
Soon the sounds of escaping pets behind her faded to nothing, leaving just the unsettling still resting over the facility. On the cusp of hearing she thought she could make out the quickened rhythm of metallic feet as the drones set off in pursuit of Gorix, but none crossed her path in their chase. Fortune seemed to be on her side, but as the thought crossed her mind she remembered the Grundo's words from before, and the face of his supposed "Guardian Angelpuss" rose in her thoughts. It seemed Gorix was not the only one with someone looking over them.
At last her feet brought her to Sloth's office. Slowing her pace she carefully sidled up beside the grand archway into the opulent room, peering cautiously within. As expected, a pair of towering guards stood waiting, the eerie Sloth-like drones staring with deceptively blank eyes into the interior of the office. She remembered the stories of the elite robotic drones from Sloth's attempted invasion years ago; stupid though they looked, their fighting prowess was anything but. Engaging them in open combat would be disastrous.
A smile spread across her lips. Fortunately, for all their combative skills it had been a younger Gorix who discovered their crippling weakness: their sensors were sorely lacking. She just had to hope Sloth had never thought to bother with an upgrade, preferring instead to hurry down new avenues of scientific pursuit and leave a trail of unfinished tasks behind.
Breathing deeply, she summoned her strength again, biting back the exhaustion that longed to overpower her again. There was no time for exhaustion now, only strength. She couldn't squander this chance.
Slipping through the door she quickly pressed one paw against the first drone. Instantly she felt the energy rush from her body and into the drone, the unsuspecting machine falling still immediately. She turned to face the other and found it staring straight back at her, its tiny red eyes shining bright. At once its elegant red uniform was reduced to shreds, a broad, heavy blade suddenly locking into place at the end of its arm as it spun into attack. An upgrade!
There was no time to escape. All she could do was throw herself at the drone, free hand reaching out in desperation at the blade already rushing toward her. In her veins she could feel the magic she had summoned rush from her left side to her right, the electrical pulses shuddering through every part of her body. She felt her heart jolt as it surged through, Judge Hog's firm warnings to only ever use it in one paw at a time falling deaf on the ears of desperation.
The blade came down. In vain she threw her arm against it, trying to push against the strength of a mechanical titan. She might as well have tried to stop a rampaging Monoceraptor with a feather.
It stopped. Her fingers sparked painfully as the magic finally reached its destination, the forceful discharge backfiring with a fierce jerk through her body that dropped her to her knees. Breathing hard she looked up at the motionless drone, still staring at her with its now blank eyes, the curved edge of its oversized weapon frozen in place inches from where her throat had been.
The pain in her chest suddenly didn't seem quite so bad.
Carefully she crawled beneath the extended edge before rising to her feet again and hastening across the room. Towering portraits of Doctor Sloth himself watched her from each wall, their conceited smirks and grins twisted into hateful scowls for what she was doing. An odd, giddy sensation rose in her heart at the thought of stealing from quite literally right under the good doctor's overlarge nose, and to her surprise she found a high-pitched giggle escape her throat.
Elated on her success, she at last approached the waiting desk, a nondescript black briefcase perched proudly atop it. Carefully she reached over and pulled it close, her fingers trembling as they pushed back the clasps. A loud clunk rang out through the silence as the heavy clasps opened, the briefcase automatically creaking open a crack, bidding her look inside. Heart beating hard against her chest, she had no choice but to obey.
Scattered fragments of a smooth black stone filled the briefcase, each piece carefully padded and secured. Peculiar lines of a deep ocean blue ran across the blackened stones like the celestial lights of a night sky, dancing with the movement of her shadow against the bright light overhead.
An uncomfortable sensation suddenly washed over her as she stood, and with a cold finality she closed the briefcase again, the clasps snapping shut loudly.
She laughed humourlessly. 'It was all a set-up.'
'From the very beginning,' a firm voice replied emotionlessly. Heaving a defeated sigh, she turned to face the speaker. Kribal stood calmly in the heart of the room, watching her with impassive yellow eyes, not a shred of triumph visible on his face. It was a look she knew only he could ever muster at such a time.
'I should have known it was all too easy,' she replied quietly, feeling her exhaustion rise through again. 'Still, Gorix won't give in easily. You haven't won yet, Kribal.'
'Parlax will deal with him soon enough.'
A last flicker of hope flared in Jess' thoughts, pushing back the encroaching exhaustion. They hadn't caught him yet? While he was still out there, they at least had a chance.
'Don't get so excited,' a new voice declared brightly, the sound echoing ominously from the corridor outside. 'We know exactly where he is.'
Jess' heart sank. Embracing the theatrical opportunity, the speaker slowly stepped into the room. Each heavy footfall of the spacesuit echoed ominously around them as she approached Kribal's side, the triumphant grin present on her face twisted still further by the refraction of her glass bowl helmet. The warped grin of the Devilpuss.
'As I said,' Kribal concluded quietly, 'from the very beginning.'
To be continued...