His Name is Kribal: Part Three
Silence. The ever present din of machinery; the unceasing heavy footfalls of robotic drones and thick-built guardsman; the oddly rhythmic shuffling of disconsolate workers, the roar of shuttle engines and jetpacks from the depths; all fell into obscurity in the polished halls of administration, replaced by the dusty silence of the bureaucracy. But this was still different to the silence that rested delicately in the dark office. It was the easy stillness of a moonlit night, as natural as the sun rising at dawn and the ocean lapping gently against a beach. Day and night meant little on the dark side of Kreludor, but somehow the tranquil office contained those lost, peaceful nights.
That only made it all the more unsettling.
A susurration broke the silence, distorting the stillness with an almost visible shockwave that rippled through the dark room. Again it sounded, a gentle grunt whispering in its wake, until at last the tranquil air was shattered by the triumphant clunking of metal fixings breaking loose.
Jess gasped and practically leapt from the cramped ventilation shaft to catch the grating before it hit the ground. Her sweating fingers closed about the slick metal bars, stopping its inevitable progress toward the ground, and she felt a sigh of relief escape into the stillness in its place. Carefully she pulled the traitorous cover back to the opening and allowed it to rest atop the tall file cabinets to one side, before finally dropping stealthily into the room herself.
A memory rose unbidden in her mind of another dark passage, bringing with a wry smile to her lips. Only a fool ever failed to learn from their past mistakes, and it was with not a small amount of satisfaction that she flicked a torch from her sleeve, her fingers pressing across the now familiar etching on its surface. A joke from the others after her previous misjudgement, it now stilled her nerves in this unsettling place.
It clicked into life, the small circle of light illuminating the meticulous organisation of the room's owner. After a year in pursuit of the skilled Kougra there could no mistaking the office for someone else's; its utter absence of personalisation its only truly noteworthy feature. Chorana's map had led her directly where she needed.
Swiftly she made her way to the desk and ran a finger across the waiting computer keyboard. Immediately it hummed into life, the whirring of its fan the only sound in the silence. Security camera images flashed onto the dark screen, showcasing the corridor outside. Jess smiled to herself as she watched the oblivious drones patrol on the other side of the door, their operators clueless as to her activities.
There was no point searching the computer further; Kribal would never trust the Virtupets system.
Keeping one wary eye on the screen, she turned her attention instead to the desk, its top adorned with a handful of neatly arranged files. A quick glance was all it took to dismiss them, little more than daily mining and security reports. She suspected her own name, or rather her identity number, would be in there somewhere after the events of the last couple of days, but it would do her no good to change it now. Instead she began to search the desk drawers, trusting in an organised mind to want something so vital close to hand.
More reports waited within, dossiers on Sloth's minions and efficiency analyses of the facility the organised Kribal now found himself imprisoned within. Quickly she flicked through the pages in the hopes of finding the shipment details, but they were too dated to be of any use, at least now. She made a mental note to return if the chance came later; dossiers on Sloth's agents from within Master Hog's organisation could provide valuable information to the Defenders.
With another glance at the unchanging patrols in the corridor outside, Jess delved into the drawers on the other side. There, as though waiting for her to find it, was the draft manifest, its tiny print displaying the complete list of items due to be shipped by Sloth in the coming days. Greedy eyes scanned it as she triumphantly slammed the paper onto the desk, but only the shipping codes stared back up at her, as unintelligible as an issue of the Ugga Ugg Times.
She cursed softly into the stillness.
Producing a notepad from another pocket of her uniform she hastily copied the shipping codes from the manifest, the mindless task allowing her thoughts to race ahead. On their own the codes were useless, but somewhere there would have to be an index for translating them. All she needed do was find it.
Her list complete, she returned the original safely to its place in the waiting drawer. Suddenly she felt something else brush against the back of her paw, and with a rush of hope at the new discovery pulled the second sheet into the light of her torch.
It was not the index she had been hoping for.
It was a photograph. Four pets stood on the familiar wispy clouds of Faerieland, a striking sunset streaked across the distant horizon serving as their backdrop, ignored by the smiling quartet. A bespectacled faerie Uni stood to one side, a vague grin on her face as she stared thoughtfully off into the distance beside a heavily built blue Moehog. Both wore the deep purple uniform of the prestigious Faerieland Academy, although the tall Moehog's seemed too small for him, a fact he seemed little to care about as he waved cheerfully for the camera. Unlike his companions the third pet had abandoned the academy uniform in favour of a dignified silver-trimmed black suit, a wry, knowing smile on his face beneath eyes that somehow managed to sparkle with intelligence despite the still image. Despite standing smaller than the behemoth by his side, the Halloween Moehog possessed a far greater presence than his companion, dominating the picture even while appearing to sink into the background.
Jess gasped as her eyes drifted to the fourth pet. It was Kribal. Years had taken a toll on the checkered Kougra's face, but there was no mistaking the way he held himself, as lithe and alert as any hunter, ready to react at even the most fleeting notice. His yellow eyes were fixed on the camera with a cold intensity, deciding what the photographer was intending and seemingly reaching an unsatisfactory conclusion, even while a small smile danced across his mouth for the sake of appearance.
If that was Kribal, then surely it meant...
Her eyes drifted back to the Halloween Moehog by the Kougra's side, smiling to himself with little care for the photograph. Master Hog. It was difficult to place the handsome Moehog in the same thought as Neopia's devious puppet master, yet somehow it was more difficult to believe she was mistaken in her assumption.
Why did Kribal have a picture with him? One thing the Kougra had never been accused of over the years was sentimentality, and yet evidence to the contrary now sat before her.
A sudden flash of movement on the screen caught her eye. The best of thirty years later and the very same Kougra in the picture was now marching purposefully her way, the scarred split Grundo Parlax hot on his heels. Lost in her reverie she had led him close in, and thrown the entire operation into jeopardy.
With a soft sigh the door slid open. On command the lights blazed into life, illuminating the still office with its shining radiance and banishing the shadows back into the corners. For a fleeting moment the Kougra paused in the doorway before resuming his progress toward the desk, carefully placing another tan file for perusal at a later time.
'We cannot be certain everything will be ready in time,' Parlax was saying as he followed Kribal inside, 'especially in the light of recent difficulties in the mines. Even with the latest influx of additional workers, there is a significant risk of us falling short.'
'A risk that should not have been allowed,' Kribal replied coldly.
'Mining is not an exact science,' Parlax retorted sharply, 'and we cannot guarantee what we'll find when we start digging. We have been lucky up until now, but if we find no further veins we will not be able to avoid coming short. It is an unavoidable risk as you know full well.'
'The risk was not with the operations of this company, but with the organisation of its management. You allowed Garoo to claim you could make the target by a certain date, knowing full well what you have just told me. A risky decision, and one that has backfired on you.'
'In that case I think you were the one who took the risk by not ousting him from the management sooner,' Parlax replied quickly. 'I knew it was stupid to trust in that oaf, but he is Sloth's favourite these days. I had no choice but to go with what he said, just as I have no choice but to be the one who stands here explaining why he has failed now.'
'You always have a choice Parlax, whether you choose to exercise it or not. I have been here for months and yet at no point did you approach me with any concerns about meeting the quota. You trusted in Garoo, and then you trusted in the whims of Fate itself to determine what would happen. As such, falling short will be as much your mistake as Garoo's.'
'And as much yours.'
For the first time since entering the office, Kribal glanced back at his companion, one paw subconsciously hovering near the black hilt of his sword. Firmly the Grundo stood his ground, meeting that icy yellow stare with what he hoped was a matching intensity. The accusation in his tone had been clear. It was a gamble, and with every moment of silence it was seeming less wise than when he had said it.
The ghost of a smile danced across the Kougra's mouth.
'Correct,' Kribal said at length, taking his seat behind the desk. 'It is time you start to realise that we all must take the blame for mistakes if we could have done anything to prevent them. A mistake I will correct going forward. The only thing in this world you can trust is yourself, and the sooner you learn the better. As for the shipment, it is of little consequence: I have already informed Master Hog of developments, and we will simply take the full stock on hand if there is insufficient to meet the agreed amount. The rest of the shipment is already prepared for dispatch.'
Jess listened to the exchange from the haven of the ventilation shaft, barely daring to breathe from fear of alerting Kribal to her presence. Only a miracle had allowed her to slip back into the shaft again before Kribal and Parlax reached the office, the grille thankfully showing no resistance as she forced it back into place behind her, slipping into the shadows out of sight just as the light burst into life.
She dared not move, not while Kribal sat there. All that was left was to listen to the two pets, their voices tainted by the echo of the shaft, and hope for an opportunity to glean some valuable information on what he was doing here. Anything that could help explain the encoded manifest.
'So you already knew about it and had fixed it before I approached you,' Parlax stated in an icy monotone. 'Somewhat defeats the purpose of my being here.'
'Depends on your perspective,' the Kougra replied in matching tone. He looked up at the Grundo, once again fixing him with an icy stare. Waiting.
'I'll go and check the stocks,' Parlax decided, speaking more to himself than anyone else. Kribal just nodded assent and looked back down at the newest report before him. There was always a purpose, if one just knew where to look for it.
Before he could reach it the door slid open again with a soft sigh, the unannounced visitor marching into the room without a word of greeting. Parlax paused as the towering shadow Kougra stood over him, staring down with a vicious gaze that longed for the unfortunate Grundo to say something, to give him an excuse to strike.
'Wait there, Parlax, you and I need to talk,' the proud Kougra said sharply as it became apparent Parlax was not going to give him any opportunity.
'Go back to your duties, Parlax,' Kribal interrupted quietly, not looking up from his report. He paid the newcomer no attention.
Snarling viciously, the shadow Kougra approached the desk. He slammed a fist angrily onto the report as Kribal continued to ignore him. 'You forget your place here,' he hissed, leaning close to the still impassive checkered Kougra.
Suddenly Kribal's paw shot out and pulled his adversary forward, a flash of surprise visible on the other Kougra's face before it connected hard with the firm desk. A cry escaped his lips as he staggered back, paws shooting instinctively for his blasters. Black as his shadowed fur the twin weapons seemed to shine in the bright light of the office, spinning in his grasp to point where Kribal sat.
No matter how fast he could draw, Kribal was faster. Not bothering to waste time drawing his own weapons, the Kougra slipped close to his foe, between the flourished blasters, and with one sharp move disarmed the foolish pet. Smoothly he knocked the other Kougra to his knees before forcing him hard to the ground..
Not even a flicker of emotion had passed across Kribal's face, not even the slightest smirk of triumph as he looked down impassively at his defeated foe.
'This is my place,' he remarked lightly to the defeated shadow Kougra. 'I am in charge of this facility and those who work here, and as such I am not answerable to an outsider such as yourself.'
'Sloth is in charge here,' the shamed Commander Gormos snarled, 'not you. I am here on his orders, so you answer to me!'
'You are nothing more than an errand boy Gormos, a duty you bear without the slightest trace of dignity or grace. Neither I, nor any of my employees, answer to a pitiful excuse for a pet like you, no matter who has sent you.'
Calmly he waved Parlax away before returning to his seat. Grumbling to himself, Gormos watched the Grundo disappear, pausing only to shoot the disgraced Commander a disdainful smirk, and climbed back to his feet. Sloth would learn of his insolence soon enough; he would not be smirking then. If only he could think of something to do to the rotten Kougra sitting so calm before him as well.
'You wanted my attention, Gormos, you have it,' Kribal stated coldly. 'Start talking.'
Back in the day an ingrate like this would never have dared speak so to the right hand of Doctor Sloth himself. Biting back his scathing retort, he instead satisfied himself with a sharp, 'Doctor Sloth wants to know our progress.'
'I have already filed a report.'
'He sent me to hear it from you in person.'
'Then I suggest you read it before returning,' Kribal retorted quickly. 'If that is all Gormos.' He nodded silently toward the door.
Gormos swallowed another biting retort. He had fallen far since his indiscretion in the fiasco with the Space Faerie Charm, and antagonising Kribal was quickly painting itself as a means to fall still further. The hopes he had harboured on the way here of finally seizing some authority had dissipated very fast since he entered the office.
'Doctor Sloth will hear of your attitude,' he said coldly.
A voice called to him as the door slid softly open. 'Take Garoo with you when you leave. Otherwise I'll send him direct to Sloth. In a box.'
Gormos glared in disgust back at the checkered Kougra, but already Kribal was busying himself once more with the report, as though his sudden and unwanted guest were not even there. There had been no hostility in his declaration, just a simple statement of fact. It was the sort of power Gormos himself had once enjoyed wielding.
He abandoned any thought of responding and just slipped quietly from the office, shamed in defeat.
* * *
The commotion caused by Gormos' sudden appearance had given Jess the opportunity she was waiting for. The moment the sound of trouble reached her ears she scurried as stealthily as she could back through the shaft, escaping back toward the isolated storage room she had used to enter the ventilation network. She had wasted too much time sitting there, huddled in the darkness of the shaft just waiting for her chance, and as she made her way back through the barracks to her over-populated room she knew there was no chance of slipping back in unnoticed.
A long shift looked likely.
To her surprise the whole room was awake when she slipped back in, her absence completely disregarded in the face of a new development. Fresh recruits had appeared to fill the steadily increasing number of empty bunks, but that alone was never enough to cause a commotion like this, rousing the tired pets and gathering them eagerly around the newcomers.
To one side she caught the eye of a familiar grey Grarrl, who nodded solemnly. Before she could ask him anything however, a short blue Grundo at the centre of the commotion spoke.
'I'm with the Resistance, name's Gorix. I'm here to get you all home.'
To be continued...