His Name is Kribal: Part Five
'End of the line,' Jess remarked lightly, climbing from the open grate and dropping to the chill metallic floor of the small room. Like so many of the larger openings into the ventilation network, it had led them directly into a utility room, the unsightly opening hidden away in an unnecessary room where nobody would think to look for it. Only maintenance would ever bother to come this way, and even then grudgingly.
Grumbling to himself, Gorix dropped down beside her and carefully forced the grating back into place. It snapped back easily, appearing to all the world as if it had never moved. Even hidden away, the thought of an unsightly grate hanging loose had clearly been a nightmare for the designer of the network. Little did they realise it was a dream for any who would sneak through the claustrophobic alleys contained within.
'So what now?' Jess asked, her voice echoing in the dusty emptiness of the abandoned room.
Fumbling in his pockets, Gorix produced a small black item and deftly slotted it into his ear. Jess watched blankly, the empty room providing little by way of distraction, even by the soft glow of her torch. At last he found a second item, as nondescript as the one he had placed in his ear. Proudly he handed it out for inspection.
'It's a short-range communicator,' he explained, indicating the one already in his ear. 'It'll allow us to talk to each other if we get separated, and let my contact get hold of us when she's in position.'
Reluctantly Jess took the sleek black object from him, turning it over experimentally in her paw. 'How did you get in with this thing?' she asked.
'You said it yourself; nobody bothers to check your pockets once you're inside.'
'Yeah, but they check you thoroughly when you first come in,' she insisted. 'How did you get these things inside?'
He shot her a sideways glance, discomfort obvious on his face. 'Considering I'm just about to tell you to put it in your ear, I don't think you want to know. Let's just say they don't check you that thoroughly.'
Looking down at the small item again, she couldn't help but agree. Trying hard not to look too disgusted, she placed the communicator in her ear. To her immense relief it was not as unpleasant as she had expected, resting delicately in place until she could barely even feel its presence.
Now all that remained was to wait for their contact to make her presence known. Jess had been a touch irate to learn the Resistance had managed to infiltrate the facility in preparation for Gorix's arrival, something Judge Hog had been adamantly opposed to. But if Gorix was right, this contact might be able to clear out security and give them at least a fighting chance at getting to the bottom of the mystery. And if the worst came to the worst, Kribal might just suspect it was the Resistance who were working against him and not disappear.
A slim hope at best, but it was all she had.
'So who is this contact?' she asked at length, keen to break the uncomfortable silence.
'A recent group of regular traders left an agent behind to supervise some bigger deal,' Gorix explained. 'Or at least that's the pretext. In reality the Aisha left her behind to serve as my contact if the need arose.'
'The Aisha?' Jess exclaimed. 'You mean Chorana's your contact too?' He just nodded. 'I should have known; it was too easy to get them on board with our operation. Should have guessed they'd have contacts with your lot as well. No idea why they'd want to shut this place down though; the corporation is one of their best clients.'
'Business is complicated.'
The Zafara jumped at Chorana's familiar voice, expecting to suddenly find the Aisha materialising beside her in the dark room. Meeting Gorix's mischievous smirk she understood, already feeling her face go red with embarrassment.
'Chorana, it's Gorix, are you in position?'
'I'm in the control room now,' came Chorana's smooth reply. 'Are you two ready?'
'Ready and waiting.'
'Then listen carefully. I can't buy you much time or they'll notice the cameras are out of position and check the area to see what is happening, but I should be able to give you a few moments in the blind spot. The patrols will be out of the way, but if you make any noise you'll still attract them so be quick, and be quiet. You'll get one chance, that's it.'
'What about you?' Jess asked. 'Won't they notice you changing things up there?'
'I can explain things away without any trouble,' she answered calmly, 'and my communicator works on brainwaves so they won't notice anything. Just wait for my signal and everything should be fine.'
Gorix shook his head quickly to stop Jess from pushing further, the Aisha's words alien in her ears. There was no time for further explanations now. So long as Chorana understood, that was all that mattered; Jess needed to focus on her own branch of the operation.
The memorised journey from the map replayed itself before her eyes. From their room it was left down the first corridor, before turning right at the end down the walkway overlooking the shuttle bay. They would need to keep away from the windows in case one of the guards looked up and spotted them, unlikely though it was. Finally it was another right at the end to find storage area zeta, wherein waited bay thirteen and their elusive target.
Everything was so simple, it was impossible to not wonder what was going to go wrong.
The door slid open silently, Jess already expecting to find the drones waiting for them outside. Nobody waited, just the same dusty stillness that had hung heavy behind them. Trusting in Chorana to have disabled the cameras she hastily set off down the passage, already regretting her heavy boots as they threatened to thunder noisily with every step. Gorix was on her heels, stepping lightly on his toes and practically bouncing in her wake.
Reaching the end of the corridor she quickly glanced left, and her heart sank. Unmistakable in their shining yellow armour, a patrol of drones marched down the corridor before her. For a moment she found her breath caught in her chest, before at last her rational mind took over again and she realised they were marching away, blissfully unaware of her presence.
A pressure on her arm suddenly pulled her the other way. It was Gorix. Pulling her from her thoughts she quickly gave pursuit, the pair instinctively pulling away from the towering windows that ran down the left side of the corridor. No sounds rose from the shuttle bay, but the many towering shuttles stood out clear to indicate the busy nature of the latest shift.
Few dared admit it, but every major company on Neopia was buying from the corporation these days. When they shut this place down, it was going to have widespread effects for some time to come.
Finally the windows ceased and the shuttle bay passed from view. Feeling the end of their journey draw near, the pair quickened their pace still further. On the edge of hearing she could make out the sound of the drones patrolling just out of sight, oblivious to their presence but leaving her all too aware of the gentle echoes of their footfalls. One mistake was all it would take to draw them in.
The doorway into storage area zeta appeared on their right, its imposing metallic portal beckoning them on. As one the pair came to a halt before its towering frame, impatiently glancing around for the approaching patrols. The footsteps were getting louder.
The colour suddenly drained from Gorix's face. Following his gaze Jess' eyes fell upon the silent keypad, a solitary red light shining bright atop it declaring the door sealed.
Frantically she reached up and pushed the communicator further into her ear as she hurriedly whispered, 'Chorana? The door is locked and we need the pass code. Now!'
Ominous echoes drew louder, the sound of approaching failure gathering with each moment. Chorana could talk her way out; they couldn't.
The door smoothly slid open. It was Jess's turn to grasp Gorix's wrist and pull him forcibly into the room, practically hurling him across the cold floor in her haste. Spinning wildly she slammed her paw against the door close, the door sliding closed again with a delicate sigh.
Neither pet dared breathe, waiting anxiously for the sound of drones descending upon them in their droves. In her chest Jess could feel her heat thrashing louder than her boots had been, but somehow nobody seemed to hear. No sirens. No cries of alarm. Nothing. They were safe.
Together they exhaled, relief cascading freely into the chilly air.
'Chorana? It's Gorix. We've made it safely into the storage area. Will contact again once we've confirmed the target. Gorix out.'
Gratefully Jess pulled the communicator from her ear, trying hard not to think about where it had been before, and placed it safely into her pocket. Gorix watched her thoughtfully, the small black object still protruding ever-so slightly from his own ear. Evidently he had just turned his off, but after his previous remark she had no desire to follow suit. If she needed to speak with Chorana again, she could do so through him.
'Come on,' she said quickly, 'let's go find what's in bay thirteen.'
The Grundo made to respond, a devious smirk on his face, but was abruptly silenced by a hauntingly familiar sound. Steady in its rhythm, the sound reverberated over them where they stood, rooted to the floor, their quickly forgotten worries rising back to the surface again with alarming speed.
Footsteps. They were not alone.
As one they dived forward into the crates stacked high down the centre of the storage area, seeking shelter in the shadows between the meticulous structures. The heavy footfalls drew closer, the unshakable rhythm of metal-on-metal indicating a drone approaching. Carefully they shifted out of sight, the shadows useless against the mechanical eyes of the security drones.
The steady beat paused. For a moment they held their breath, waiting, before it started again, the drone having reached the end of the aisle and turned. Silently the pair shifted again, eluding the Blumaroo's lifeless eyes as it passed the door. Again it paused, before setting off down the other aisle, back past the storage bays. A simple circle, but one that left them stranded.
Gorix made to rise, both hands balled into fists, but Jess quickly placed a hand on his arm and held him back. She shook her head quickly; they could not risk alerting the rest of the facility to their activities. They needed to be careful.
Silently motioning her companion to wait, she carefully threaded her path through the stacks, keen ears listening close to the heavy rhythm of the pacing drone. A fleeting glimpse of yellow plating was all she could see of her foe, keeping her movements carefully timed to avoid any risk of entering its sightless vision. All it would take was the most insignificant of flashes across its sensors to trigger the alarms, and render their efforts useless.
If there was no means of attacking head-on, however, that meant only one course was open to them.
Stealthily passing the mechanical Blumaroo amidst the crates, she quickened her pace, sliding comfortably into the shadows at the end of the central storage area. The sound of the now approaching footsteps echoed loudly in her ears, closer with each breath she took, but she had no time to worry about it. There was one chance to make this work; fail, and Kribal would be on to them.
The footsteps paused again. Behind closed eyes she could see the lifeless drone at the corner, its deceptively sluggish body manoeuvring through the complex motion of turning into its new path. Red eyes glowed ominously, sensors prowling the path ahead, almost as though it knew she was waiting for it.
Her paw twitched nervously.
Movement, slow and steady, the sound ringing out clear through the silence. One step, two, three; she counted them off in her head, eyes still closed as she imagined the drone drawing nearer. Trusting her eyes would be pointless; no pet could match the reactions of a machine, not even Kribal. She had to anticipate its movements, visualise the sound of its footsteps, feel the noise as it passed her by.
Her paw twitched again. Not nerves. Anticipation. Poised, a hunter ready to pounce.
She spun from the shadows, paw launching forward at the drone's head. Red eyes flashed as she watched, the impossible reactions already in motion to trigger the alarms. It didn't matter; she could already feel the air shudder about her fingertips before the cold steel of the drone met her paw, blur fur blocking out the red glow.
Her heart stopped. Frozen in tableau they stood, Jess' paw pressed pointlessly against the drone's head with the tenderness of petting a petpet. Had it worked?
Suddenly the head fell forward against her palm. Lifeless arms collapsed by the drone's sides, mechanical fingers still closed tight about its blaster. To all the world it seemed asleep, held upright by the gentle press of her paw against its head. Cautiously she stepped back, removing her paw. Still it remained upright, the head just lolling forward weakly. The glow had vanished from its eyes.
She breathed again.
'What was that?'
Gorix's voice pulled her back into reality, the Grundo stepping out from the crates and staring in disbelief at the sleeping drone. The awe in his voice raised a smug smile to her face before she could stop it.
'A little trick we've developed over the years,' she explained. 'We use a magical charge to disable the drone, and send a sort of ghost of it back to the security systems. Unless somebody looks closely at it they'll think it's still active. Obviously if they see the drone itself they'll know something's wrong, but otherwise it won't trigger any alarms or warnings, like if you'd just smashed it.'
Gorix whistled appreciatively. 'We could use that in our fight against Sloth.'
'No. We developed it as a last defence should Sloth try to attack Neopia in force again, or for moments like this. The odd drone going down will look like a defect, but if your lot start to use it regularly they'll realise what's happening and modify the drones. All our work will be useless, and we'll be back to square one. We need it as our trump card.
'Now come on, let's find what's in bay thirteen before anybody thinks to check on the drone.'
A dark look suddenly spread across his face, dismissing all interest in the disabled machine. Wordlessly he beckoned her after him, setting off back down the aisle the drone had just walked. Unable to shake the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach she quickly gave chase.
It did not take long to find the source of his dark look. The blue Grundo stopped mid-way down the short aisle, staring into the depression that was bay thirteen. It was little more than a small, open space designed to separate towers of identical boxes, yet this one stood out clearer than those of both bays twelve and fourteen to either side, as nondescript as all the rest.
Bay thirteen was empty.
Jess stared blankly into the space, willing something to appear.
'They've already moved it,' Gorix's solemn voice declared. 'Either that or there was so little of it they didn't even bother to store it here in the first place. It was just put on the manifest to create a record.'
'So that's it then? A dead end?'
'Not quite. They clearly planned to store it here at some point. Look.' He nodded toward the sign hanging against the edge of the bay.
Jess felt her jaw drop. The now-familiar code stared back at her above a single word, the last she had expected to find in a place like this. Her thoughts rushed back to Neoschool, to what had seemed such pointless classes about people and places of no importance in her life, now suddenly more important than anything she had ever experienced.
It was impossible.
A shrill cry suddenly rang out through the still room, snapping both pets back to reality in an instant. For now the impossible sign was cast aside, replaced instead with the haunting wail of the alarm. Instinct immediately took over, both pets bolting back across the room toward the waiting doorway, its ominous frame now illuminated by the flashing red alarm.
'Chorana?' Gorix cried urgently, fumbling with the communicator still in his ear; Jess left hers abandoned in her pocket, forgotten. 'Chorana, we're in trouble.'
The voice that sounded in his ear was as smooth as ever, indifferent to the wailing siren as she replied calmly, 'It's not you. There is a commotion in the shuttle bay. If you've found what you came for, the drones are all being drawn to the shuttle bay so the way is clear. I've already dealt with the cameras, but you'll still have to be quick.'
Gorix looked up and met Jess' impatient expression. 'Time to go,' he translated simply.
The door opened at a press of a single button, and the pair were once again hurrying down the deserted hallway beyond. Despite Chorana's assurance the drones were out of the way, they still kept light on their toes, keeping the sound of their footfalls to a minimum as they hastened back toward the waiting utility room.
As they approached the towering windows overlooking the shuttle bay they could hear the sounds of the promised commotion echoing up from below. Silently Jess gave thanks to whatever had caused it and hurried on, unconsciously pulling away from the windows again as she passed. If they were spotted now any distraction would be wasted.
Reaching the junction leading back to the utility room she came to a halt. Gorix was no longer with her. The Grundo instead stood staring out over the busy shuttle bay, an excited grin on his face.
'Vallarax,' he breathed as she approached, oblivious to her efforts to call him onward again. Slowly he turned to face her, grin growing broader. 'The commotion. It's Vallarax.'
Even amidst the chaos of the shuttle bay, the electric Grundo stood out. Towering above his fellows he carried a heavy blaster rifle almost lazily, resting it against his shoulder as he surveyed the devastation strewn around him; broken shards of yellow plating all that remained of the security drones that had been prowling before he began. Around him the other pets were scavenging what weapons they could from the fallen drones, trembling with excitement from the sudden uprising.
Casually the fearsome Grundo lowered his weapon again, the air reverberating with the cry of its heavy salvo as he dispatched another straggler, the drone no match for the powerful rifle. 'Give yourselves up!' he called out cheerfully to the handful of pets still trying to resist. If nothing more he had to commend their courage; most would have given in the moment he had rendered their captain unconscious and taken his rifle, but while their drones still held the guards seemed to cling desperately to that last hope. Without it, they were quickly finding the appeal of a hasty surrender.
Silence rippled out across the shuttle bay from behind the triumphant Grundo. He could feel it wash over him, a bitter chill running down his spine and shattering the aura of confidence he had draped about his shoulders as victorious mantle. He did not need to see the hope restored to the faces of the beleaguered guards to understand what had happened.
Slowly the Grundo turned, Gorix's warning ringing in his ears.
Kribal stood before him.
Without thinking Vallarax raised his rifle. The blast echoed around the silent hangar, a sharp intake of a collective breath chasing in its wake. The shot passed by to the Kougra's left, striking harmlessly against the hangar entranceway. He didn't so much as flinch.
Hefting the rifle to his shoulder, the Grundo sighted a second blast, daring his foe to move. Still Kribal just stood, waiting patiently for the second shot, staring back down the barrel of the blaster rifle with steely yellow eyes.
The rifle shot back into the Grundo's shoulder, the second blast ringing out clear and crisp.
Suddenly the Kougra reacted. The blast seared past his cheek, the thick stench of burning fur rising from contact, but already he had left it behind. Within moments he was on Vallarax, pushing aside the clumsily swinging barrel of the blaster and spinning into a forceful kick. Knee. Stomach. Chin. Three blows in rapid succession, and the Grundo was thrown back spread-eagled across the floor, rifle discarded uselessly at the Kougra's feet.
'What are you doing?' Vallarax yelled, staring around at the dumbstruck workers for aid. 'Shoot him!'
It was unlike anything Jess had ever seen. Even the graceful actions of Kakurain in the Smuggler's Cove were nothing compared to the smooth motion with which Kribal avoided the clumsy blasts of the untrained would-be revolutionaries, trying in vain to replace experience and expertise with blind enthusiasm. Searing energy fired in all directions, crafting a deadly web across the shuttle bay, but the Kougra always positioned himself safely out of reach. Every step was careful, deliberate, like a dancer shifting through the motions of the rhythm, the Grim Mynci itself his partner. Together they danced across the hangar floor, evading every erratic blast with ease, Kribal dispatching each of the bewildered pets with a cold efficiency.
Watching his comrades brushed aside so casually, Vallarax summoned what remained of his own courage at last. Gorix's warnings of Kribal rang deaf in his ears, and proudly he rolled back to his feet, reaching out for the discarded rifle as he did so. With a triumphant roar he spun back around, chasing Kribal by the sound of his comrades' terrified cries, hefting the powerful rifle to his shoulder again.
The barrel met steel. The dance was over, Kribal now upon the towering Grundo again, sword forcing aside the heavy rifle, yellow eyes staring deep into Vallarax's own.
The uprising was over.
To be continued...