Treasure Lost: Part One
"How much do you want to pay for a ticket?!?" gasped the old green Grundo, almost dropping the space helmet he was holding. He had been overseeing the refueling of his shuttle when a white Xweetok had approached him. Surviving Dr. Sloth's evil plots, followed by years of flying a weekly shuttle route from Neopia Central to Virtupets space station, had taught the Grundo pilot how to judge a Neopet's character. A look was all he needed to tell that this Xweetok was trouble.
Of course, the conversation had started out innocently enough. The Xweetok knew a lot about space ships, and asked him questions about what fuel he was using and what model the engine was. She was charming and seemed very interested in his opinion on the best way to avoid evil Fuzzles. It wasn't long before he had begun to relax despite his first impression. It was then that the Xweetok had made her offer. She wanted a seat on his shuttle, but she wanted to pay him ten times the usual fare. Now she smiled conspiratorially at him, taking advantage of his shock to elaborate.
"Well, I would ask for some special privileges," she confessed. "Nothing unreasonable, of course. Just a few first class perks." The Grundo raised a suspicious eyebrow.
"Like what?" he asked, shifting his weight to his other foot.
"Two things, really," replied the Xweetok, adopting a more businesslike tone. "I may have some rather unusual baggage with me. I'd appreciate it if you could forget whatever I add to your cargo hold." The Grundo said nothing, so the Xweetok continued. "And I may need a hurried departure. You won't miss the other passengers. Just... be ready to take off as soon as I'm on board." Finished with her request, the Xweetok fell silent, waiting for a reply.
The Grundo rubbed his head, his eyes looking anywhere but at the Xweetok standing in front of him. It was a tempting offer. Business had been slow lately. To buy himself time, he turned back towards his ship. The two young blue Grundos working the refueling station were just pulling the hose out of the gas tank.
"Hey! Be careful with that!" he yelled to them, taking a few steps closer to the ship and away from his unsettling customer. "Don't scratch the paint! Do you have any idea what it costs to paint a space ship?"
A sudden sentence from the Xweetok called him back. "I know how much you need the Neopoints." A simple sentence, not even loudly spoken, but if froze the Grundo to the cold hangar floor. She continued in a low voice. "You have three sons, don't you? A shuttle pilot doesn't make much. How often does your family end up eating omelet? If you're undecided, I'll double my offer. Those Neopoints could help give your sons a much better life than what you had under Sloth."
How? thought the old Grundo. How does she know about my family? He felt suddenly vulnerable. Who was this Xweetok? But what she said was true. He had often wished on his long space flights that he could make a better living for his children. Nothing extravagant, but some proper food, a new plushie now and then... who could blame him for wanting that? He cleared his throat.
"I don't have to do anything else?" he asked. "There's no risk?"
A grin spread across the Xweetok's face.
"None at all. I'll make sure of it." She turned and started to merge into the bustle of the hangar, but before she had taken ten steps the Grundo called out one last question.
"What's your name?"
The Xweetok paused. Without turning around, her voice barely audible over the noise of the space station, she answered.
The afternoon activity had long since faded when the Xweetok who called herself Spirit returned to the hangar. There were only a few Neopets around, scattered among the shadows of the massive space ships that rested in efficient rows. A late shuttle had come in, and a small crowd of Grundos, plus an Ixi or two, clustered around it. Spirit wasn't deterred. Their echoing voices would mask the whisper of her footsteps, and her black outfit made her almost undetectable. Only her pale blue eyes sparkled like two bright stars weaving among the metal structures of the space station.
Weeks ago, Spirit had examined the station's blueprints in secret, thanks to a deal made with a rather jumpy Grundo she had found sleeping behind a test engine against regulation 1342.322.6. It had taken her only minutes to locate all of the possible entry points to the Grundo Warehouse. There were the obvious doors and hatches, but they would be locked and guarded. Besides, the warehouse did business at all hours of the night. Only one path was open for someone who wanted to avoid detection: an air vent just big enough for a slim Neopet to crawl through. Out of all the possible connecting vents, the easiest to access was positioned in an out-of-the-way corner of the hangar. Now she was crouched in that same corner, preparing to enter that same vent.
Removing the grating was easy. A few nimble twists of some small iron tools and the bolts dropped softly, one by one, into Spirit's paw. She pulled a thick cloth out from one of her sleeves, wrapping it around the bottom of the grate to muffle the noise as she set it down. Then she peered into the deep, rectangular opening that stretched away into the metal depths of the space station. Spirit shivered. She hated small spaces.
Spirit could barely move her legs as she inched her way into the darkness. She had to rely mainly on her front paws to drag her way forward. There were no lights in the air duct, so Spirit felt her way along the duct walls. Straight, straight, left... she repeated the directions to herself, nervous that she would take a wrong turn. The worst part came when she had to climb up from the hangar level to the supply deck. She only accomplished it by using some Glowing Battle Claws she had "borrowed" from Space Weaponry a few days before; the powerful claws easily hooked into the thin metal of the air duct. It was with great relief that Spirit finally found herself looking out through thin metal slats into the back of the warehouse.
There was no one visible in her narrow field of view, but Spirit waited long minutes to be sure that the area was completely deserted. Then she dropped softly down onto the warehouse floor. Crates were stacked to the ceiling, arranged on shelves that disappeared into the distance. As she paced down the rows, her eyes rested on a few of the labels. There were enough rare items at her fingertips to buy her own Yooyuball team, with enough left over for a shopping spree at the Hidden Tower. Focus, she told herself. There was only one item which she was here for. Getting carried away would get her caught.
The warehouse was massive, but Grundo efficiency made it easy to find her target. Not a single code number was out of place. Once or twice, a worker passed by, but Spirit was always well concealed amid the maze of shelves and crates before any of them came into sight. Then, finally, she was standing in front of the right shelf, and there, tucked between two dusty wooden boxes, was a round, grubby package that looked like it hadn't been touched since before the fall of Dr. Sloth. It wasn't as large as many of the other items, but still big enough to be awkward to carry, and certainly too big to fit back through the air vent. Spirit would have to take another way out. Her next step would be her most dangerous.
When Spirit tried to lift the object, she discovered that it was much too heavy to carry on her own. A few minutes spent searching the surrounding warehouse, and she returned with a wheeled cart. Once the package was safely onboard, Spirit sat down to rest. It was too risky to leave the warehouse at this time of night. She could never trick a guard into letting her pass, and she would need the safety of a large crowd to cover her escape. Hiding the cart with her precious object, Spirit hauled herself up onto one of the higher shelves where passing workers or guards wouldn't see her. She leaned back, closing her eyes for what she knew would be a very uncomfortable night.
Spirit took a deep breath as she approached the little used side door. She was going to get caught leaving. That was unavoidable. She could, however, give herself a head start before the chase began. She passed a paw through her hair one last time, making sure that her appearance looked normal. Her black clothes left stuffed behind a box, she now looked completely unremarkable in the everyday outfit she had been wearing beneath them. Spirit was always well prepared.
A single guard stood beside the door to the supply deck. Most warehouse customers went in and out through the main entrance; this door was usually only trafficked by workers. The large brown Grundo turned when he heard her footsteps. Spirit was making no attempt to be stealthy. In fact, she made a point to be obvious. When she saw him looking, she grinned and waved, the picture of confidence.
"Hi! The Grundo helping me said that I could get out this way. My item is kind of heavy, so he told me that this would be a shortcut. Can you believe it? I finally redeemed my awesome prize code!" By the time she had finished speaking, she was already at the door. The guard stared at her, a slightly confused look on his face.
"Really? Customers aren't supposed to come out this way... but I guess if management said it was fine, then I can let you through. Do you have a receipt for that?"
By this point, Spirit had already cleared the door. Without stopping, she called over her shoulder.
"Oh, I already showed it up front. You can call them if you want."
This is it, Spirit thought to herself. Static crackled as the guard turned on his wrist communicator. There were people in the corridor that she had entered, but not enough to shield her. She had to make it around the corner before the warehouse workers responded to the guard's call. It was only a few feet ahead of her now. Her heart pounded, but she forced herself to walk slowly. Running would surely tip the guard off, and then she would lose what little advantage she had. She was at the bend now, struggling to turn the heavy cart. Her tail had just whisked out of sight when the guard's voice boomed out.
"Stop that Xweetok!"
Spirit broke into a run, throwing all her strength into accelerating her load. Sirens blared into life behind her as Neopets all along the hallway turned to stare. Ignoring them, she barreled forward, gaining speed. Then she jumped onto the back of the cart and let the momentum carry her forward. She chanced a quick glance back, then ducked as a space blaster beam just missed her left ear. The guard was chasing her, and he was armed. Luckily, he was also slower than the runaway cart.
Desperately trying to steer, Spirit just managed to avoid knocking over a startled Kacheek who flattened himself against the wall as she careened past. The hall curved ahead, and Spirit threw all her weight to one side, forcing the cart into a turn. Two wheels went up in the air, and the cart almost overbalanced, but Spirit shifted to the other side and the wheels came crashing back down with a boom that shook flakes of rust from the ceiling.
Thinking back to her time studying the space station's blueprints, Spirit remembered that this hall would soon lead out onto the main portion of the supply deck. By now, a whole Grundo army would be waiting for her there. But she didn't have to go that way; there was a side tunnel up ahead. Slamming one heel into the ground, Spirit brought the cart to a stop, then made the narrow turn. The cart barely fit. Good, Spirit thought. No one will suspect that I went down this way.
As she pressed deeper into the crag-like passage, the noise of the sirens muffled. Spirit breathed, straightening her appearance once more. Cart riding certainly didn't give a Neopet a good hair day. There was a small door ahead. Spirit crossed her fingers for luck, then walked through it.
She was in the Space Adoption Agency. Young Grundos in seven different colors tumbled around in front of her, fighting over a few robotic toys. A battered looking Shocket waddled a few steps toward her before being seized by a blue Grundo who waved it through the air before it was stolen by his red-painted friend. Amid the chaos, Spirit's arrival went completely unnoticed. She slowly edged her way through the room. An elevator down to the hangar was just beyond the Agency's lobby. If she could just make it there...
"The snacks go in the back room, over there."
Spirit jumped despite herself, whirling around to stare at the motherly looking yellow Grundo who was addressing her.
"Oh, I'm sorry, dear," the Grundo said. "I thought you were here to deliver the day's snacks. These little Grundos go through food so quickly. But if you aren't here with a delivery, perhaps you're looking to adopt?"
"I took a wrong turn, that's all," Spirit replied, regaining her composure. "Sorry to bother you. I'm just on my way out."
At that moment, however, a troop of Grundos with space blasters marched past the door.
"That Xweetok is somewhere in this space station," she heard one of them say. "We'll recover the stolen object before its time for brunch."
A gleam came into the Adoption Agency worker's eyes. "You can't just have wandered in. Oh, no, my dear, there's no such things as wrong turns or coincidences. Fate wants you to take one of these adorable little bundles of love home with you, and how can you refuse fate?" One of the 'bundles of love' chose that moment to stick Spirit's paw into his rather slobbery mouth.
"Err, no thanks," Spirit said. "I'm really not good with kids, I can barely even feed myself. So I'll just be going now."
"Oh my, how disappointing." The Agency worker shook her head sadly. "And you got their hopes up, too. It's so upsetting, in fact, that I may have to tell some of those friendly guards who just passed by."
This is blackmail! thought Spirit. But what choice did she have? Out loud she said, "Now that you mention it, I do have a spare bedroom. I could try and work something out."
"Lovely! Do you prefer a certain color or shall I choose for you?"
Half an hour later, Spirit finally wheeled her cart cautiously out of the Adoption Agency. She went slowly, keeping to crowded areas, although it was hard to be inconspicuous with her newly adopted Grundo perched on the front of the cart. The worker had chosen one of the Agency's older Grundos. She had told Spirit that it was because he was white, just like her, but Spirit had the feeling that she was just trying to get rid of this one. He was currently humming a tune to the ceiling, dangling his feet loosely over the edge of the cart. As she ducked into the elevator beside a grumpy looking Krawk and a pair of gossiping Kacheeks who squeezed aside to make room for the bulky cart, Spirit began to wonder if she couldn't just leave him in the hangar. Certainly someone would take him back to the Adoption Agency. He probably wouldn't even notice anything had happened, Spirit told herself. Then she sighed. She may not be the most reputable Neopet, but she wasn't completely heartless. And she did feel kind of sorry for him.
A loud ding sounded as the elevator doors slid open. Spirit could see her shuttle resting halfway down the hangar. Please be ready for takeoff, she silently pleaded. She ducked her head and started purposefully forward, hoping that everyone who looked her way would see the happy little Grundo she was wheeling and not the package behind him. It was too much to hope for.
"There she is!"
Spirit didn't wait to see where the shout had come from. She ran as fast as she could through the thick crowd, weaving past heavy machinery and puzzled tourists. A few space blaster beams whizzed by but then stopped; Spirit guessed that the guards didn't want to hit any innocent bystanders.
The shuttle was only a dozen yards away now. She could see the pilot's face in the window, watching her approach. She was going to make it, she was almost there...
Out of the swirling mass of people, a troop of guards materialized directly in her path. There was no time to stop; Spirit was going to plow right into their leveled blasters. The Grundo on the cart was squealing with glee, his hands flung in the air as though on a carnival ride. Without thinking, Spirit pulled out the Glowing Battle Claws she had used earlier and hurled them at two of the guards. Startled, one dropped his blaster to catch them, while the other stumbled out of the way, leaving a gap in the defensive wall the Grundos had formed. It was just enough.
"Go, go, go!" Spirit shouted as she made it up the ramp onto the ship. The doors had barely closed when the engines flared into life. The shuttle veered away from the hangar, dodging a last barrage of blasts as it zoomed out of range, making full speed back to the safety of Neopia. It was only then that Spirit noticed the other passengers. A handful of startled Neopets were gaping at her. She smiled apologetically.
"Sorry. My little brother here pulled a lever in the Space Station that was clearly marked 'Do not pull.' Apparently, breaking a mechanical arm that tries to steal your neopoints is considered destruction of public property, and is against several regulations."
Satisfied with the explanation, the passengers settled into their seats. One Zafara in the back even gave a small chuckle. Spirit sighed with relief, pulling her new companion into the seat next to her. She had succeeded. The package was hers, and her quest was now finally underway. As she watched Neopia approaching through the window, her adopted Grundo burst into an out of tune song.
To be continued...