His Name is Kribal: Part Two
Another day. Another struggle.
For the first time since she had found herself enslaved in the bowels of the Kreludan Mining Corporation, the hooded Zafara found her shift assigned to the shuttle bay on the surface, home to the tiny shred of freedom the weary workforce ever saw. After weeks locked in the darkest passages and most dangerous mines, it was a blissful release to finally be able to step foot into that bay and savour the crisp, refreshing taste of fresh air again, even if it was thinner than she was used to.
It was not to last, however, and within moments the workers were ushered into another room where their masks waited for them. Grundo were accustomed to the thinner air of Kreludor, but the reduced quality compared to Neopia was dangerous for the other pets unfortunate enough to find their way here. Garoo may have done little to keep them alive in the deep mines, but in the clean and polished halls of the surface level it was deemed bad taste to let the workers collapse where everybody could see them; the Zafara suspected it would be off-putting to the customers visiting the surface levels.
Polished yellow uniforms covered the shuttle bay like a bad case of NeoPox, Garoo's robotic drones filling every available space to leave barely enough room for the pets to work. After the twisted Blumaroo's game the day before, Kribal was unwilling to allow any scope for a repeat today. The first shuttles of the day were already waiting for loading and unloading, impatient pilots tapping their feet as they waited, eyeing the increased security every time a patrol grew near. Who knew how many of those shuttles were operating legally in a place like this.
Orders barked over the speaker system, and at the last the day began. Cheerless and hopeless, the workers set to their tasks in silence, unloading supply shuttles of their valuable equipment and stores, loading the heavy industrial shuttles with ores and minerals from the depths, interspersed with crude wooden boxes no pet dared look at, let alone check inside.
As her team finished another unload, the shuttle pilot hastily waving them aside so he could take off and escape the confines of this poorly-concealed prison, the Zafara suddenly felt a change in the air throughout the bay. Every pet had fallen still, staring up blankly at the great black doors leading out onto the moon's surface. Even the shuttle pilot had become quiet as he watched, neglecting his own takeoff.
A sleek silver vessel carefully drifted into the bay, its polished hull reflecting their astonished faces back at them. No roar of engines or scream of thrusters accompanied it, only a soft, almost gentle humming from deep within its core, akin to the sounds the Zafara remembered from the countryside around Neopia Central in the evenings. The sound grew fainter as the delicate vessel touched down gingerly, palpable waves of silence radiating forth that made the hushed tones of the stunned onlookers riotous by compare.
Quickly the Zafara closed her jaw, wondering when it had dropped. Late last night the yellow Grundo she had saved came to offer belated thanks for her earlier actions, and had spoken of this moment with the sort of excitement only given to youth, but for all his exuberance and exaggeration, the sight of the legendary vessel had exceeded anything she had imagined in her sparse dreams.
The shuttle of the Alien Aisha. Even the older pets still spoke of it in wonder, despite having seen it come and go many times before.
With a sound like a gentle sigh a hatch opened on the underside of the magnificent vessel, and in perfect silence it descended to ground level, unassisted by unsightly supports unlike any lift the Zafara had ever seen. Atop its smooth surface stood the many heavy crates of cargo that served for the latest shipment, shining with the same silver sheen of the craft itself. It touched down delicately on the polished floor of the shuttle bay, and as one the watching pets breathed a sigh of relief.
Though she had been fortunate enough to see one once before, the sight of the Alien Aisha themselves as they descended soundlessly to join their cargo made the Zafara gasp with the rest. A rarity throughout Neopia, nobody knew where the mysterious green skinned Aishas came from with their quartet of twitching ears protruding from their helmets, foreheads aglow with an unworldly light from the strange symbols emblazoned between their eyes. They turned up on whims, always bedecked in hopelessly conspicuous spacesuits, ready to hand one of their peculiar nerkmids to an unsuspecting pet before disappearing once more. To learn they were frequent visitors to the facility had been a shock when the Zafara had learned, but it had not been the most shocking piece of the tale.
Hastily she joined her team and hurried to where the Alien Aishas waited, a bureaucratic Grundo with thick glasses and a clipboard beating them all to it and checking over the supplies. When all seemed to meet his standards he treated the slaves to a disdainful glance before motioning them to begin unloading. A contemptuous smirk spread across his face as he led away the mysterious Aishas toward the offices, leaving only one behind to supervise the unload.
For all Virtupets' advancements in the field of technology, they had shown little progress in helping their workers. No help was given to the pets as they set about the unload, reliant on their own strength and stamina to lift the heavy crates and load them onto the waiting transports for shipment deeper into the facility. Experience had resulted in the workers falling automatically into their usual roles, forming a sight reminiscent of a factory production line, allowing the pets to minimise their movement and spare all their strength for hauling the heavy crates from one person to another.
The hooded Zafara took up her place at the head of one line, as she had with the other shuttles this morning, climbing onto the waiting lift of the vessel and casting a weary eye over the size of their shipment. Compared to what they had already done it seemed small, but one attempt to move a crate showed just how wrong that assumption was.
'Put your back into it,' a voice called cheerfully. Beneath her hood she shot the speaker a dark look, but the Alien Aisha just laughed at her struggle.
'Perhaps things would go smoother if you gave me a hand,' she retorted irritably.
'Perhaps things would go smoother if you took that silly hood down first so you could see what you were doing, scar-tail.'
The Zafara paused. Instantly she regretted it as the heavy crate slipped through her fingers and landed with a resounding crash on the lift. From across the bay she could feel the eyes of the guards turning to watch her, robotic eyes relaying her failure to the watching security guards. Already she could feel Garoo's punishment on her back.
Begrudgingly she took the Aisha's advice and put her full weight into the lift, using both her legs and back to raise the heavy crate again. Gratefully she passed it on to the waiting Grundo next in line, who looked far from pleased to be receiving it. She gave him a sympathetic look, but if the rest of the crates were anywhere near as heavy as that one it was unlikely to be any solace.
'Hurry it up, will you. I can't be bothered to stand here all day.' The Aisha had turned her attention to one of the other pets unloading the lift, freeing the Zafara from her focus for a moment. Quickly she took in the young Aisha, standing smaller than her companions even with such longer ears, a shining silver letter "C" bound around her neck. Idly the Aisha gave it a playful flick, the silver sheen suddenly appearing black for a fleeting moment before shining clean once again.
Suddenly a cry rose from further down the line. Pausing in her work again the Zafara stared with the rest at the source of the commotion, to where the transport driver had suddenly abandoned his cab and was examining the side of the small craft carefully. Another bespectacled Grundo in the livery of Sloth's bureaucracy had already appeared on the scene, moving so fast it was rumoured they had started to just teleport around the facility to cut down on time wasted when walking. The two were deep in hushed conversation about something, blocking the route of the workers as they sought to deliver the crates.
'Looks like someone messed up,' a bored voice muttered by the Zafara's side. It was the Aisha. She had a look on her face that matched the drawl of her voice perfectly. 'If that transport is damaged, we're going to be sitting here a while. At least we'll get a bit of a bonus as compensation.'
'You might,' Jess said quietly, 'but we don't get a bonus until the job is done.' If their meagre bunks could really be called a bonus, she added inwardly.
She turned away from the smirking Aisha, back toward the transport. The conversation had rapidly deteriorated into an argument that was gravitating security with alarming speed. All eyes were now focused firmly on the heart of the shuttle bay. Feeling at ease at last, the Zafara lowered her hood and allowed the gentle draught from outside to brush against her fur.
A sudden presence pressed into the pocket of her uniform. 'Four days,' the Aisha whispered by her side. 'Four days until a major shipment is heading out from this place. Rumour has it Sloth himself is coming to do the handover.'
'You think it's the one we're waiting on?' the Zafara replied softly, glad for the mask that concealed her mouth.
'Sloth doesn't turn up for just anyone. It has to be Master Hog.'
The Zafara risked a sharp glance at the Aisha before reaffirming her attention on the commotion. It was too dangerous to risk being seen as too close to the traders; Garoo had issues with those who got too "friendly" as he liked to call it.
The Aisha just chuckled to herself, hiding the sound behind her ever-present satisfied smile. 'We may not be of Neopia, but we know a lot about what happens down there,' she offered as explanation. 'I know who Kribal is, just like I know who you are, hero the Smugglers Cove. The great Zafara warrior Jess, who defeated Lord Quai's prized bodyguard.'
A dark scowl spread across Jess' face at the reference. Her encounter with Kakurain was another experience she was finding difficult to forget. 'I'm so glad my reputation precedes me,' she hissed irritably, 'but as you already know so much about me perhaps you'd care to return the favour?'
'Of course: I am Chorana, an Alien Aisha. Judge Hog knows about our dealings with this place, so he recruited me to assist you on this mission and serve as his contact. That map I just slipped into your pocket for instance, happens to be a gift from your leader. It marks out safe passage from the barracks level to where Kribal's office is located. If this shipment we've heard about is moving soon-'
'Then a manifest may have already been drawn up for it,' Jess finished with an unseen smile. 'Master Hog would have no interest in ordinary items he could buy legitimately, so that manifest must contain something irregular. We find out what that is, and we may be able to stop him getting his hands on it.'
'Something like that,' Chorana agreed. 'Just remember, there's only four days until it's due to go. You can't afford to be wasting any time.'
Jess just nodded. There was no time left to reply, as the crowd around the transport finally began to disperse and the production line unload jerked back into life again. Whatever Chorana had done to buy them time had passed, and it was back to work again.
Already the Aisha was back to mocking the efforts of the other workers, as though their conversation had never happened.
To be continued...