His Name is Kribal: Part One
Putrid fumes filled the grim passages cut into the harsh terrain, the purple tunnels burrowing ever deeper beneath the surface of Neopia's only moon. Weary eyes stared out of haggard faces, lines of enslaved pets staggering with exhaustion through the heavy smog on their way to what little trace of freedom they could grasp in this desolate place. Passing the other way came the next shift, bodies already sluggish after their lacklustre respite full of restless sleep and stale food. Envy radiated palpably from them as they watched their colleagues making for the surface, away from the claustrophobic shuttles and dangerously unstable jetpacks that served to ferry them through the underground caverns of the facility.
Those on the planet said mining had come a long way from the trials and the dangers of ages past. They had never served under the Kreludan Mining Corporation.
Gas masks left behind as they rode the clanking industrial lifts away from the toxic lower levels, the Grundo shuffled wearily through the bland, repetitive passages in search of salvation. The older among them knew there was no hope, the ever present gleam of metallic yellow suits visible at every corner, Sloth's robotic minions patrolling the corridors with their mechanical eyes that saw all. Rumours claimed they could see through walls and jackets, finding those who tried to hid, those who dared salvage a weapon to try and fight back. There was no reasoning with them; how could you hope to reason with an emotionless drone?
Scattered through the Grundo were the other pets who had found their way into the mines, broken and hopeless as they trudged after the local inhabitants of the planet. Their spirits always broke faster; at least the Grundo had the hope of a daring rescue by their brethren on the Kreludan surface. There was no hope for the rest.
A patrol marched by the line of slaves, their polished blasters shining in the artificial light. Nervous eyes followed as though entranced, pets shivering as the yellow Blumaroo shaped drones passed. A sigh could almost be heard ringing out as they vanished from sight, if only the gathered slaves had enough energy to heave one.
Amidst the trudging slaves a figure twitched nervously, quickly glancing back after the patrol. A flicker of hope flared in the yellow Grundo's heart as he stared forward again, his still hopeful eyes seeing what nobody else appeared to have noticed.
There was nobody watching.
'Don't,' a hoarse voice hissed in his ear. A squeak escaped him as he jumped, but nobody else seemed to care. A hooded pet walked behind him, the cowl of her uniform casting a shadow across a drained face until only a pair of eyes could be made out in the darkness, sparkling with a cautious hope. She was not a Grundo, but with darkness obscuring her face only the furry blue tail protruding from her itchy slave uniform gave any hint to her identity. With a cringe the Grundo noticed a bare patch amidst the fur where a scar stood out clear.
'Don't,' the pet repeated quietly.
'We got to take a chance,' the Grundo insisted firmly, nervously staring over his shoulder again. 'I can't stay here.'
'Don't,' the strange pet repeated again, more urgently this time.
He bolted. The once weary line of shuffling slaves suddenly surged into life, the experienced older pets hastily grabbing hold of their younger colleagues and pulling them aside at the first sign of movement. Too slow the hooded pet snatched for her young companion, her paw grasping at air against the striking turn of speed the Grundo displayed. Two others managed to escape the hasty retreat, sprinting for the side passage they had just passed.
Immediately a flash of yellow appeared at the end of the corridor they stood in. The unmistakeable cry of blaster fire shrieked through the echoing passage, no warning chasing after it. Desperately the hooded pet leapt forward, throwing herself in the path of the shot before it could reach the fleeing trio. Pain rushed to her shoulder as it struck, but the sight of three pets vanishing around the corner eased it greatly. What hope she could muster went with them.
The fleeing Grundo heard the shot, but nothing chased him as he slipped around the corner and into the still empty passage. For some reason only two other pets had joined his escape, but he just cursed the stupidity of the rest, wondering what it would take for a pet to fear the freedom escape would give.
Stupidity had not made their choice. Still fuelled by his misguided sense of elation the Grundo rushed blindly toward the corridor's end and suddenly found his path blocked by a towering grey figure. A heavy rifle butt connected hard with the side of his head, and in an instant all his hopes were shattered. Behind, his companions tried to turn back, but already Garoo's drones were waiting for them, similarly hard blows knocking them helplessly to the floor.
'Another idiot thinks he can escape, eh?' a hard voice declared above them, the sound dripping with the thick tones of satisfaction. Commander Garoo himself, the grey Blumaroo who ruled over the mines with a warped delight. It had been a trap, and like a fool the Grundo had rushed blindly into it. It was no wonder the more experienced workers had retreated out of harm's way, pulling back as many as they could.
'Perhaps it's time to make an example of you idiots,' Garoo said cheerfully, a wide, beaming grin spread across his face. The Grundo had no strength left to resist as he was forcibly dragged back down the corridor that had seemed so bright and full of hope just moments before, and dropped in front of trembling pets again. 'You need to remember what happens to those who try to escape. What we do to those who cause problems.'
Slowly he pulled a smaller blaster from its holster by his side, pausing to turn his sneering gaze over the gathered pets, transfixed by the display. It was moments like this the crazed Blumaroo lived for.
Suddenly something grasped his wrist, and with one smooth motion pulled his arm back and up behind him. An anguished scream escaped his lips as his unseen attacker pulled harder, the blaster falling from his twitching fingers to clatter loudly to the floor. The sound rang out through the almost reverential silence.
Only one pet could command this sort of respect.
'If you keep trying to execute the workforce, Garoo, this operation will proceed even slower than it already manages,' a cold voice said calmly in his ear. Sharply a knee connected with the small of the Blumaroo's back, and he was released from the firm grip to fall forward unceremoniously before his prisoners.
'If you keep being soft on them, they'll keep trying to escape,' Garoo retorted hotly as he pushed himself to his feet again. 'You need to make an example of some to keep the rest in line.'
The Kougra who had reprimanded him shot him a sardonic look, the faintest flicker of distaste managing to seep into his stare beneath it. 'You make too many examples, it would appear,' he replied calmly, casting a quick eye over the assembled pets. Somehow they managed to fall quieter under his gaze, but this was not the fearful quiet Garoo was used to; this was almost reverential in its silence. 'We will discuss this later, Garoo. I will handle things for now.'
Garoo treated the Kougra to a last disdainful snarl before turning on his heel and marching away, head held proudly high. The assembled pets watched him go, a sense of gratitude exuding forth and washing over their unlikely saviour.
'Thank you, sir,' the yellow Grundo whispered by the Kougra's feet.
Slowly he turned his chequered head toward the pet grovelling at his boots. One paw shot out and caught the wretch a sharp blow to the cheek, throwing him back to the hard ground. 'Your execution would have served no purpose,' he said coldly. 'Your survival is another matter. A suitable punishment will be arranged for your actions, Grundo. Now all of you, get back to your duties. You are wasting time loitering here.'
Without another glance at those he had saved from Garoo's clutches, the Kougra swept back down the corridor after the Blumaroo and disappeared. As with his colleague, the eyes of every pet watched him go, mesmerised by what they had witnessed. In the midst of the crowd, the hooded blue pet watched him go with a different look in her eyes, still sparkling bright in the darkness of her cowl.
'Kribal,' she whispered softly to herself. So, he really was here. The only question was why.
* * *
With Garoo's twisted game complete, the familiar yellow sheen of the robotic guards returned to haunt the corridors of the mining facility and guide the shuffling pets back toward the barracks that served as what an optimistic pet would call "home". Nobody who had ever stepped foot inside of the cramped rooms would dare describe it as such however, the cold metallic bunks squeezed into almost every piece of floor space imaginable, the tiny beds a free-for-all each time the shift returned. After a while pets grew accustomed to where they slept, hoping the pet on the previous shift with left it in a decent condition.
The yellow Grundo sat as the centre of attention in one room, sharing his story with those on other duties who had not experienced the latest terror of Commander Garoo. The younger pets and fresher slaves hung on his every word, absorbing every exaggerated detail with rapt attention and shining eyes. Each had longed for a chance to escape, but as the story reached its climax the thought sank a bit lower in their hearts. As Garoo had hoped, he had been depicted as grander and more terrifying than even he could have dreamed, but he was not the terror he had once been at moments such as this.
'Then this Kougra turns up,' the Grundo said slowly, his eyes popping as they stared back into his memory. 'He took down Garoo so easily I couldn't believe it. He only used one hand! I got this feeling from the guy, a real scary feeling. But he saved us all. He stood up to Garoo, and that rotten Blumaroo backed down. He was like some hero in a story.'
'That Kougra is no hero,' the hooded pet mumbled to herself, sitting on the edge of the gathered pets.
'You're right about that,' someone replied, a middle-aged silver Grundo nodding sagely. 'Nobody who works in this place is a hero, boy,' he called to the yellow Grundo, interrupting his story, 'or else they'd have freed us a long time ago.'
'If he was like Garoo, he would have just killed us there and then!' the younger pet retorted, earning a cheer from some of the others. 'He may be hard, but he saved my life!'
'He didn't save your life, kid, he just got in Garoo's way,' the hooded pet said softly, the rest of the gathering falling silent at her words. 'This time the two things happened to have the same end result. Next time they won't, and he won't be there to save you. Don't make him into a hero, because he is anything but.'
The young Grundo opened his mouth to fight back again, but a gruff voice cut across him, barking hoarsely, 'Shut up, the lot of you!' Sitting to one side was the speaker, a heavily built grey Grarrl in his later years, his face distinguished by hard years in the deepest bowels of the facility, years that had long since claimed his right eye. It was a testament to his time in these grim halls that everybody treated him with a reverence beyond that shown to Kribal; the Grarrl had become a legend after so long in the mines, a legend that grew with each passing day he continued to survive.
'Right, now I've had enough of this silly bickering,' he said quietly, every word strained through a throat that had endured the gases and stale air of the mines for far too long. 'I ain't going to say Kribal is a hero, 'cause he sure ain't, but you youngsters weren't here before he came. What Garoo did today used to happen a lot more, and there was nobody to stop him. He used to treat us like we was nothing, 'cause frankly we weren't. If Garoo kills a few of us, what does it matter? Kribal does nothing to stop that, he does nothing to help our cause, or to make our lives better. But he does stop Garoo killing us for fun, so he makes sure that even if our lives are rotten we still have them. He makes sure we have no hope of escape, but at least he gives a hope of living in this place. It's more than Garoo gave us.'
A muttering of agreement followed his words, the two Grundo giving up their argument and dissipating with the rest to their bunks. There would be precious little time for sleep before the next shift began and they were back into the bleak depths of the mines again. Only the hooded pet avoided retreating to her bunk, instead picking a path through the pets to where the grey Grarrl sat, visibly pained by his speech.
'You know something,' the Grarrl suddenly whispered before she could say anything, his sole remaining eye subjecting her to a steely stare. 'You've got a new look to you, something I ain't seen in a long time. You have hope. But not a false hope like these other fools, a real hope. I ain't going to ask you what you're doing here, it's none of my business, but I just hope you ain't going to drag the rest of us into it. While Kribal is how he is now, he is the best thing to happen to us. Don't go giving him a reason to turn us back over to Garoo.'
She eased back her hood to reveal a reassuring smile as she replied, 'Don't worry, this is between me and Kribal. Nobody else.'
It had already been a year since the Zafara's first encounter with the enigmatic Kougra in that dank cave, but it was not an experience she would ever forget.
To be continued...