His Name is Kribal: Part Eight
Heavy banging woke Jess from an uneasy slumber. Bleary eyes stared out into the all-encompassing darkness, her mind racing to catch up again as the events of the past day slotted into place. How long had she been asleep? She remembered someone appearing to give her some food and water, but only once. After that, the uncomfortable bed had beckoned her, and with no other course of action she had fallen into a very restless slumber, tormented by the memory of Kribal's words.
The knocking rang out clear again, jerking her sleepy mind from its reverie. Someone was outside, hammering against the door to her cell.
At last the door opened, its soft whisper a sharp contrast with the discordant banging of moments before. A familiar shape stood silhouetted against the light, its form short yet heightened by a pair of prominent ears reaching toward the ceiling.
'Good morning, Parlax,' Jess mumbled to herself, rolling over on the bed and trying to capture the elusive dream of comfort again.
'Sorry to disappoint you,' the apparition replied cheerfully, 'but Parlax can't make it today.'
She jolted upright at the sound of the familiar voice, unable to stop the shock from showing clearly on her face. The pet just laughed at the gormless look, shouldering his blaster rifle and leaning against the doorway. Quickly she snapped her jaw shut again, trying to look indignant at his ill-gotten amusement, but failing spectacularly.
'Gorix?' she breathed at last, jumping from the bed and hurrying out into the corridor. The blue Grundo looked worn from his time on the run, but an infectious enthusiasm radiated freely forth from his beaming grin. 'What's going on?'
'Revolution has come again,' Gorix replied brightly. 'After what happened before nobody was too keen on following us yesterday, but when word get out we'd survived for over half a day without Kribal bringing us down, people started to get excited. And when people get excited, they want a piece of the action. The mines are already under our control, and the drones are doing very little to hold us back. Since Parlax was sent scurrying off with his tail between his legs there's been very little serious resistance.'
'What about Kribal? Or Chorana? How did you escape from her in the first place?'
A new smirk crept across Gorix's face at Chorana's name, twisting into an unpleasant smug grin. 'Just after we separated she went quiet for a bit, and when she came over the communicator again she started herding us into areas of this place that seemed a bit shifty. I'd studied the layout of this place almost non-stop since we came up with the idea for this operation, so I knew what to expect down there. Since I hadn't heard back from you, I thought it best to be a bit more cautious, and we took a little detour. Turned out she was leading right into an ambush set by Parlax. Instead, we were the ones ambushing him, something he didn't take too kindly to. Since then, we've gone dark, using different frequencies and not giving out any clues to our locations.
'As for Kribal,' he added quickly before she could interrupt, 'he's not been seen. Although we've just found out why, and I thought it might be a good idea to come rescue you for this.
'Master Hog is here.'
The Thessalium! In the aftermath of Kribal's visit, she had forgotten the handover between Sloth and Master Hog was still ahead of them. If Master Hog had come in person, it could mean only one thing: he had not planned ahead for Gorix to still be running loose at this point. They had deviated from his script, and that meant at last they had a chance to rewrite the end the devious Moehog had planned for them.
'Where is he?' she asked, the glimmer of hope she had spent the darkness clinging to suddenly exploded into a blazing fireball in her heart.
'Sloth's office,' Gorix replied. From a pocket he suddenly produced a blaster, smaller than the rifle resting against his shoulder but no less effective. With a wink he said, 'You might be wanting one of these.'
As though waiting for its cue, the sound of heavy footfalls echoed through the corridor around them. Jess met Gorix's eye and nodded resolutely, taking the blaster from his waiting hand. It was time.
Together they turned and bolted from the cell block, away from the sound of the approaching drones and back toward Sloth's office. In the distance the facility resonated with the sounds of revolution, the wails of blasters trading shots racing through the wide central corridors and chasing each other through the narrow side paths. Signs of battle were everywhere, the scorched remnants of blaster fire staining the walls wherever the two forces had met, the thick residual stench hanging in the air in the wake of combat. Beneath her boots Jess felt the crunch of broken casings strewn wildly across the corridors, the remnants of Sloth's drones prominent; there was no sign of the Resistance.
Suddenly the air shrieked with blaster fire, close on their heels. A hand closed about Jess' arm and wrenched her forcefully to the ground, the rush of searing heat brushing past her lagging tail as the surprise attack passed them harmlessly by. Quickly she spun, kicking back to her feet with blaster raised, but already Gorix was returning fire, rolling onto his back and bracing himself against the slick floor. Their pursuers exploded in a haze of electronics and yellow casings, a solitary red eye bouncing along the floor toward them. Its flickering light gave one last gasp before falling still.
Already they could hear more drones coming.
'Get going!' Gorix cried, pushing himself quickly back onto his feet. 'I'll slow these things down, you just stop Master Hog!'
She did not waste time arguing, instead just giving Gorix one last nod of support before turning and hurrying further toward Sloth's office. The sound of blaster fire was soon in pursuit once again, this time mixed with the battle cries of a Grundo making his stand.
Spurred on by the sound of Gorix's battle, she quickened her pace into the familiar corridors leading to Sloth's office. The legacy of the so-called revolution did not yet stretch this far, the immaculate hallways and corridors as pristine as ever they were. An unsettling silence hung heavy over everything, a forced denial of what was happening below screaming out for attention. Through it echoed the sound of her running footsteps, heralding her arrival. Nothing stirred at the sound, even the ever-present patrols of the drones leaving a vacuous silence in their absence.
Closing her fingers tighter about the blaster Gorix had given her, she finally came to Sloth's office, her mind automatically leaping back to her last visit. She quickly dismissed the memory; even Master Hog would not have instigated a revolt inside of the facility, not while the Thessalium was still here. Especially not whilst he was here with it.
Confident in that one belief, she stepped into the office with blaster raised. A single pet waited inside, back toward the doorway, examining the contents of a familiar briefcase open on the desk before him. Jess felt her breath catch in her throat as she tried to speak, little more than a strangled gasp escaping into the stillness. Alerted by the sound, the figure looked up, closing the briefcase carefully. Two heavy snaps echoed through the office as the clasps closed again.
At last he turned to face her, the Halloween Moehog fixing her immediately with a calculating stare that rooted her firmly to the spot. Decades had passed, but the extra lines carved into his face served only to accentuate the features of a handsome youth into striking maturity, flecks of silver in his long black hair catching the light and shining like stars in the night sky. Upon his face sat a wry, knowing smile, identical to that in the picture, while behind his dark eyes sparkled the same fiery intellect of his youth, tempered by experience into a refined and cunning mind.
He seemed to not even notice the blaster pointed squarely at his chest.
'If you are looking for Sloth, I am afraid you have just missed him,' he remarked casually, his deep baritone tinged with a light cheer, as if he was trying to avoid chuckling at the situation. 'Eventually even he has to notice when a revolt is happening under his very nose. Granted, by the time he realises it is typically a different revolt, but he still notices.'
Jess could think of no way to reply to such a statement, swallowing uncomfortably under those dark eyes. They seemed to be staring clean through her, as though she were but a shape in the swirling mists, and just as inconsequential.
Finally he spoke again. 'Zafara, blue, not exactly what one might consider a youth any longer, but also still some distance from middle years. Has the eyes of one who has seen battle and worse, but thinks she has seen more than she truly has. A scar on the tail confirms action, a trophy of the battlefield. Kribal would be jealous: he has never earned a scar despite his many years of fighting on my front lines. Perhaps I should have sent him to the Smugglers' Cove a year ago, he might have been able to earn one with you. What do you think, Jessica?'
The sound of her name broke whatever snare had ensorcelled her wits, and at last she was able to step back from the strangely affable Moehog, her grip tightening still further on the blaster. He raised his eyebrows at the sight, a hint of surprise shining in his eyes.
'Do you really intend to use that on me?' he asked reasonably.
'Drop the briefcase and I won't have to,' Jess retorted stiffly.
His smile broadened. 'Ah, but what would Judge Hog say when you told him what you had done?'
'That I had apprehended one of Neopia's worst criminals of recent times? Something tells me he wouldn't have too much of a problem with it.'
Master Hog just shook his head sadly, his wry smile fading away. 'Truly, I am disappointed in you, Jess. I had hoped for so much more, but it would appear you actually believe what you have just said. I thought perhaps you would have figured it out while you sat in that cell, but clearly not. It is sad to think that after all this time devoted to opposing my operations, you remain as ignorant as ever about the reality of our situation.'
A new sound suddenly burst through the room, shattering the stillness as it interrupted their conversation. Jess jumped at the siren's piercing cry washed over her, but Master Hog merely tilted his head thoughtfully to one side, once again unconcerned with the pet standing before him.
'The poison gas alarm,' he mused aloud, a look of disdain adorning his handsome features. 'Such an inelegant solution, Frank.' His eyes met Jess' again, and an expectant look replaced his disdain. 'Should you not be busy putting an end to this vulgar problem and saving everyone? Unless you intend to wait here for the gas to claim the both of us as well as everyone else? Which is it: do you stop me, or do you save them?'
She hesitated, glaring at Master Hog over the barrel of her blaster. This was too important an opportunity to miss, but his words rang true in her ears. Could she really allow Sloth to release the gas, just to stop one pet? Was he worth so many lives?
'You can't have it both ways,' the Moehog declared quietly.
He was right. Reluctantly she turned her back on the pet she had spent the last year of her life pursuing so devoutly and bolted back into the polished corridors of the facility. Memorised maps flashed before her eyes, relaying a path to where the gas pumps were waiting. If she could disable them, the gas would have no means of extending through the facility, giving everyone a chance to evacuate.
Reaching the main pathway to the lower levels, she suddenly heard a voice cry out her name from somewhere behind. Awkwardly she skidded to a halt, waiting as the breathless blue Grundo caught up with her. Aside from being out of breath, he looked to have escaped his stand against the drones unscathed.
'What's going on?' he panted. 'Where's Master Hog?'
'Sloth's trying to drown this place with some poison gas,' Jess explained hurriedly, 'but I'm heading down there now to try and stop him. I need you to get everybody out of here now in case I can't stop it in time.'
'What about Master Hog?'
'Some things are more important. Now go!'
Without waiting for a response she set off again at a mad sprint, Gorix's protests just dull echoes in the back of her mind. She had already wasted too much time hesitating with Master Hog, she could not afford to lag behind again now. Every moment wasted was another moment closer to the gas being released.
She had not gone far before the sound of chasing footsteps were upon her, drawing ever closer. Above the steady rhythm came the familiar gasping of laboured breathing, and soon the blue Grundo was by her side again, panting heavily as he struggled to keep up.
'I gave you a job to do!' she barked irritably, not daring slow her pace for him.
'And I did it!' he snapped back. 'My people are already organising a full evacuation from the shuttle bay. They'll do a far better job without me there anyway, something I can't say for you, not unless you've learned to hack a Virtupets system while in your cell?'
Grudgingly she swallowed her retort, seeing the truth in his words. She hadn't thought about shutting down the gas; just getting to it had been her first priority. With Gorix by her side, their chances of success looked far better than before. Assuming he didn't collapse with exhaustion first.
The siren grew louder as they reached the pumping station, both pets sliding to a halt on the threshold. Already the mighty pumps were activating, steadily gaining momentum as they prepared to begin spreading the gas throughout the facility. Lining the walls stood dozens of tall glass tanks, their contents clouded by a haunting mist-like gas. Jess felt an uncomfortable shudder run through her spine as she realised that was the contents, the colourless fumes the poison gas ready to be unleashed upon them. They were running dangerously low on time.
'Why would Sloth build something like this?' she breathed. 'Just gassing his workers sounds a bit much, even for him.'
'The poison gas is a new addition,' Gorix explained, 'originally it was used to supply a neutralising agent in case the miners disturbed anything toxic down below. If the toxin alarm sounded it would automatically disperse into the air and protect the upper levels. He just decided to have the gas added later as a last resort in case we should try and rise against him.
'Keep an eye out for any drones,' he warned as he hurried forward to the control panel in front of the noisome pumps. Jess just nodded and approached slowly behind him, eyes scanning the room for any sign of hostiles. Now he had mentioned it, the lack of resistance thus far made her uneasy. After everything that had already happened, she could already feel the snare beginning to tighten about the two of them. Dreading what she would find, her eyes drifted up to the catwalk running above their heads, but still there were no drones watching them, waiting for a chance to strike.
A sharp curse from the Grundo drew her attention. 'This isn't working,' he mumbled through gritted teeth, his fingers speeding across the keys with a wild desperation. Peering over his shoulder, Jess glanced at the small display and frowned in bemusement at the mess of characters staring back at her. He had been right: on her own she wouldn't have had a hope of stopping this.
Something moved beneath the cry of the pumps. Urgently Jess spun, blaster raised. A flash of grey shifted on the catwalk overhead, the soft echo of careful footsteps almost entirely drowned in the heavy rush of sound filling the room. Without thinking Jess reached out and closed her free hand about the back of Gorix's uniform before throwing herself to the ground, dragging the unsuspecting Grundo with her.
Blaster fire roared above the pumping pistons. The rush of heat washed over both pets as they hit hard against the unforgiving floor, the powerful blasts connecting with the pumping station itself. Immediately it responded with a barrage of violent hisses, spitting electrical explosions back at the catwalk shooter. Again and again the blaster fired, each shot delivering another crippling blow to the beleaguered machine, its steady pumping rhythm shattered. At last it fell silent, the blaster fire coming to a halt in perfect tandem.
Jess looked up and met the shooter's impassive stare. It was Kribal.
'You should get out of here,' the Kougra called down calmly. 'The damage will soon cause an overload and ignite the gas, and the chain reaction will destabilise the mines. This facility will be swallowed by the ground it stands on.'
'Wait!' Jess called after him as he turned to leave. 'Why are you doing this? Why have you stopped it?'
No answer came.
Another gasp of energy exploded from the ailing pumping station as a hand closed about Jess' wrist, tearing her attention from the disappearing form of Kribal.
'He's right, we need to get out of here before this overloads,' Gorix said urgently, looking over the broken pumps. 'The gas in the systems is flammable enough, but I dread to think what'll happen when it hits the storage and production areas. There's nothing more we can do down here.'
She sighed at the thought, grudgingly agreeing. Just when she thought they had slipped out of the pages of Master Hog's script, it seemed they had found their way back into his game, moving of their own accord just where he wanted them.
With one last glance at the catwalk where Kribal had been, she turned on her heel and swept from the pumping station, a still panting Gorix close on her tail.
* * *
The shuttle bay was all but deserted as they arrived, the last shuttle commandeered by the Resistance waiting for them. A familiar grey Grarrl stood in the hatchway, his lone eye watching the entrance closely for their arrival. His hardened face broke into a smile as the pair made their uneasy way across the hangar, Jess supporting the exhausted Gorix, ominous rumblings from below in hot pursuit.
Gratefully the Grundo collapsed into a makeshift seat in the shuttle's cargo bay, waving at the cheering ex-workers of the Kreludan Mining Corporation. Around them the shuttle jerked, and with one rapturous cheer from the assembled pets they launched into the open air of Kreludor, leaving the precarious facility behind.
He looked up at Jess, the Zafara starring pensively at the floor without a care for what was happening around them. So far she had ignored the pets wanting to celebrate the arrival of their heroes, the ex-workers quickly realising they were fighting a losing battle and giving her the space she silently craved.
'Hey, it wasn't all bad,' he said encouragingly, giving a nod toward the assembled pets. 'They might have gotten away in the end, but at least we managed to save all these people, not to mention shutting down that facility once and for all. Without the Kreludan Mining Corporation working to choke the smaller companies, Kreludor might finally start to thrive as a part of the Neopian economy.'
For a moment she remained silent. 'This isn't over,' she said at length, meeting his faltering smile with an icy glare. 'Something Kribal showed me. Something He said to me. There was something else going on here, underneath the front of the corporation and the Thessalium. Why would Kribal have tried to stop the gas? Why would they go to all the trouble of setting us up in the first place? Surely if they just wanted the Thessalium they could have done so without alerting anyone, but instead they purposefully made sure we were aware, drew us in, and risked letting us ruin everything. What was the point?'
'So what, are you going to go after them now?' Gorix asked.
She just shook her head. 'No. They aren't the ones with the answer to this question. There's someone else I need to ask this time.'
It was time for someone to finally explain everything.
To be continued...