His Name is Kribal: Part Four
Excitement bubbled beneath the surface of the weary workers as they toiled through the next endless shift. Word had spread like an epidemic through the shuffling pets of the existence of Resistance agents in their midst, struggling through the tasks of the day alongside them. So popular had Gorix been that the shift was almost late in setting out, something that would have earned them all a harsh, often permanent, penalty under the iron fist of Garoo. Nobody dared speculate the penalty under the fairer yet harder Kribal.
An unfortunate side effect of the Grundo's popularity had been making it impossible for Jess to approach him before they headed out, and with Gorix assigned to a different team to her there was no opportunity to speak to him on en route.
Nothing good could she imagine coming from leaving Gorix to sow the seeds of his intended revolution through the shift workers while she toiled in the shuttle bay again, loading and unloading the shuttles as they came in and out. At any moment she expected the alarms to sound, agents of the Resistance to suddenly burst from an incoming shuttle and chaos to explode throughout the facility. There was no chance she could stop Kribal from disappearing if it happened; his deft skill at appearing and disappearing was enough to reduce the finest stealth agents of the Thieves' Guild to tears.
As they made their weary way back toward the barracks at the end of the shift, her chance finally came. Silently shuffling through the passages her group were joined by another from the same shift coming from the bowels of the facility, the familiar sight of the short blue Grundo in their midst. Jess quickly made her way toward him as the two groups melded into one, continuing on their dreary path.
Before she could speak he cut her off. 'I know who you are,' he whispered softly, keeping his eyes staring firmly forward. 'Your boss really does have people everywhere, you know? We had barely come up with the framework for this plan before he sent a message to Commander Welkin.'
Taken aback by his directness, Jess hesitated before responding, unable to shake the idea that he was actually nothing more than a trap to lure her out. Deciding it was not Kribal's style, she finally asked, 'How do you know I work for him?'
'A blue Zafara with a scar on her tail was how he described you,' Gorix answered honestly, shooting her a furtive glance. 'Even with that hood you're still clearly a Zafara, and that tail stands out a bit.'
Her tail recoiled at the reference, trying to curl back out of his sight. 'If you know who I am, you'll know what I want.'
'Yes. But it isn't going to happen. We're getting these pets out of here, one way or another. I'm sorry if it interferes with your mission, but we have to put the wellbeing of these pets first.'
'Then I'll put this simply for you Gorix: if you go ahead and rescue these pets now, the deaths of millions down on Neopia will be on your hands.'
He staggered at her sudden revelation; only her paw closed about his arm kept him upright and moving forward, avoiding the ire of the patrolling drones. Quickly he recovered, taking his own weight again and recomposing himself, not daring to check if he had been seen. A simple trip would be easy to explain, a suspicious look was far more troublesome.
'How will saving these pets cause the deaths of millions?' he asked carefully, lowering his voice still further to ensure nobody around them could overhear. It was an unnecessary gesture; after a long shift, nobody had the energy to want to eavesdrop, let alone actually try and do so.
'If you cause a commotion now, my investigation will be destroyed,' Jess explained, 'and with the sort of people I'm investigating that could very easily mean catastrophe.'
'You mean another Citadel crash like what happened last year, don't you?' Gorix questioned. 'Even out in space we hear the stories,' he added with a small, knowing smile at the shock on her face. 'We may not know the full story, but there was no way that crash and explosion was an accident. You think that had something to do with Sloth? I can tell you now he wasn't involved.'
'We don't think it's Sloth,' Jess retorted irritably.
'Then I fail to see how our actions here will cause you a problem. Look, if you want me to hold off and help you, you're going to have to give me something to work with.'
The Zafara bit her lip reflexively, trying to think. She could feel the other pets stirring around her, finally starting to notice the hushed conversation with the latest hero of the barracks. None dared look directly at them or try to listen in, not while the patrols still passed them by on the long walk back to the barracks, but their interest was growing palpable. The Resistance had only been in the facility for a single shift and already their effect was beginning to be felt. It was too dangerous to let them continue as they were.
'Fine,' she conceded reluctantly. 'When we get back to the barracks we'll talk in private, and I'll tell you what I can.'
He just nodded assent.
* * *
The remainder of the trek back to the barracks and the meagre excuse for a meal that awaited them seemed to take an eternity. Every moment dragged for a lifetime as Jess waited for the opportunity to pull Gorix away from the excitable workers, keen to learn what had happened on their journey. Politely Gorix deflected their questions, finally casting one of his colleagues to the metaphorical fires in order to escape and retreat safely into the corner where Jess waited, one impatient foot tapping its unconscious rhythm.
'Well?' he asked without preamble, leaning against the wall beside her chair. 'What's really going on here?'
She shot him a weary look, biting back an irritable response at his overly forthright approach. 'What do you know about Kribal?' she asked at length.
Gorix shrugged. 'Not a whole lot. Some lackey of Sloth's who appeared from nowhere one day to take over the Kreludan Mining Corporation, pushing Garoo down the pecking order in the process. From what we can deduce he was part of some wider operation of Virtupets. He's making us think again about how far Sloth's empire spreads if he still has people we don't know about tucked away.'
'What if I was to tell you Kribal didn't work for Sloth? He is actually something else altogether, part of an organisation that makes Virtupets look like a kids' game. If anything, Sloth answers to him.'
She had expected some form of surprise from the Grundo, but instead a knowing smirk spread across his face at her quick explanation. 'Master Hog,' he whispered more to himself than anything else.
It was once again Jess' turn to be taken aback by the revelation. The Grundo just chuckled to himself at the look on her face. 'It was an old theory the late Commander Valka had,' he explained, 'suggesting that there was someone above Sloth in the pecking order. Naturally nobody believed him, and he didn't have any evidence to back it up, but he was adamant on it sometimes, usually in private. He told me once that the Space Faerie had told him it wasn't Sloth who kidnapped her back when he first appeared, but a young Moehog and his Kougra companion. Said this Moehog called himself "Master Hog", and used her to get some leverage on Sloth. Valka used to say if it wasn't for those two, none of this would have happened and Sloth would have been stopped before he could get going.'
'He was probably right,' Jess replied gravely. 'His theory was spot on: Sloth does serve another pet, who calls himself Master Hog. Kribal is his right-hand, and that means if he's taken over this facility there is something going on here that we need to know about. If we don't find out, we could see disasters like the crash of Faerieland re-enacted on Neopia and beyond.
'Obviously, this is not something we tell people normally,' she added, resisting the urge to glance around suspiciously, an act that would doubtless draw attention to the pair. 'So I hope you can understand what this means Gorix: if you break these pets out and cause trouble, Kribal will disappear and take the truth of what's going on here with him.
'Unless we stop him first.'
Gorix shot her an appraising look, taking in what she had just said. 'An alliance?'
She nodded. 'I've managed to get my hands on some information, but it means nothing to me. You've spent your whole life dealing with Virtupets and Sloth's activities, so with your knowledge we might be able to crack this. The moment we find out what Kribal is doing, and why Master Hog sent him out here, I'll help you get everyone out, and blow this place off the face of Kreludor in the process.'
'No offence, but just how much help can you be?' he asked sceptically. 'My team have years of experience fighting Sloth and his minions, and you haven't. You may be with the Defenders of Neopia, but this is a different world to Neopia Central.'
Jess' face split into a twisted grin. 'I have the one thing you need: experience with Kribal. Without it, you don't stand a chance. You need me to shut this place down, and I need you to keep Kribal around long enough to work out what he's up to. Either we both stand a chance at success, or we are both guaranteed to fail. Which one will it be?'
The Grundo glared at her coldly for a moment, resentful at the truth she presented. Kribal was an unknown factor in their plans, and if the late Commander Valka had been correct, he was the one who defeated the Space Faerie all those years ago. Jess was right: they needed each other.
His face split into a broad grin. 'You have a convincing way of presenting things,' he said cheerfully, proffering a hand. 'You promise to help me get these people out, and I'll help you find what Kribal is up to first. Now, what have you found?'
Casting a furtive eye around the room she placed the transcript of the report in his waiting hand, earning a small look of surprise from the Grundo. He recovered quickly and turned his attention to the codes, trusting in his companions to still keep the other pets occupied.
'These are standard codes used everywhere in this business. Iron, copper, Kreludite; it's standard stuff you'd expect from here. They've even found a couple of rarer things, but nothing major. Looks to me like you've found something useless...' His voice suddenly trailed off, a look of consternation spreading with worrying inevitability across his face.
'Or perhaps not so useless?' Jess prompted delicately, trying to coax him from his sudden reverie.
Gorix shook his head and stared hard at the sheet grasped in his hands again. 'There's one on here that I don't recognise. It's familiar from somewhere, but I can't work it out. Whatever it is, the amount is tiny.'
Jess snapped her fingers impatiently for the sheet back. Sure enough there was one tiny shipment on the list, even her limited knowledge enough to realise it would be never be enough to fill a small crate, let alone the sorts expected to contain the other goods. The seemingly random assortment of letters meant nothing to her, but there was little doubt this was the shipment Kribal was interested in.
'We need to find out where it's stored,' she said firmly. 'Maybe we'll find out just what it is.'
'Storage area zeta, bay thirteen,' Gorix replied with a shrug. Pointedly he reached over and tapped a column on the right hand side of the sheet, flashing her a smug grin. Z-13. She just shook her head irritably and produced the map of the ventilation network Chorana had given her. The smug look dissipated as the Grundo stared at it, replaced instead by incredulity.
'They never bother to check your pockets once you're inside,' she gave by way of explanation, scanning the map for the area mentioned. 'Not like we're going to steal anything; after all, what would we do with it if we did? So far as Sloth's lot are concerned we're never getting out of here.'
'They'll soon see how wrong they are.'
At last Jess' finger settled on storage area zeta, and her heart sank. Peering over, Gorix cursed under his breath. No ventilation shaft went anywhere near the storage areas, leaving long, open corridors between them and the information they needed.
Gorix opened his mouth to speak, but Jess sharply cut him off. 'Those areas are high security, there is not a chance we'll be able to make a break for it or anything similar. Drones handle the finer points of moving the goods around once we get them off the shuttles or out of the mines, so don't think we'll be sneaking in that way either.'
The Grundo shot her a reproachful look, his eyes shining with hope. 'I wasn't going to suggest anything like that,' he said simply. 'I was just going to say: leave it to me.'
To be continued...